It’s long been my intention to write more fiction, and the first fruits of that plan are finally available. As of yesterday, the Stone Skin Press webstore is open for business.
If you haven’t heard of Stone Skin Press, you should check them out. The themes for their anthologies are never less than intriguing, and their people know what they are doing. Right now, four anthologies are available in electronic form, and preorders are open for the dead-tree versions. I have stories in two of their volumes: one features lemmings and the other involves a zeppelin.
The New Hero is a two-volume collection based around the idea of the iconic hero. Distinct from the dramatic hero whose story is a journey, the iconic hero stands firm in what he (or she) is, bringing order to an imperfect world. Think Conan rather than Frodo, or Batman rather than Luke Skywalker. My story “Against the Air Pirates” is a tribute to the airpulp sub-genre: I pitched it as “Disney’s Tale Spin written by Robert E. Howard.” I am, and have always been, a vintage plane geek.
The Lion and the Aardvark is inspired by Aesop’s Fables, and consists of 70 short-short tales with a modern twist. My tale “The Lemmings and the Sea” is about leaders and their visions, and how staying the course might not always be the best idea.
Shotguns v. Cthulhu does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a collection of action-adventure tales set within H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. If you like Howard’s muscular take on horror – whether or not you also like Lovecraft’s more cerebral approach – you will like this book.
I’m hoping for great things from – and for – Stone Skin Press. In a world full of Major Fantasy Trilogies and sparkly vampires they are taking the road less traveled and returning to the roots of fantasy and horror fiction, the short story. They are people who know what they’re at, and I found them very pleasant to do business with. I would recommend them to anyone who is interested in writing short fiction for themed collections.
But I have to go now. They have just announced a new book titled The New Gothic and issued a call for submissions. A storm is rising, and it’s a long walk across the lonely moor to the dark old house….
Today is International Short Story Day. Why today? Because it’s the shortest night of the year. Kind of cunning, don’t you think?
One of many events to mark the day will be taking place at The Book Club in London, starting at 7:00 pm. That’s where Stone Skin Press will be launching a preview edition of The New Hero, their inaugural story collection. Renowned game and fiction author Robin D. Laws has put together an impressive roster of writers (and a great cover artist) for this volume of iconic hero tales – and he also asked me to pitch in a story.
My airpulp yarn “Against the Air Pirates” features a rogue German zeppelin in the inter-war Pacific: I pitched it as “Disney’s Tale Spin written by Robert E. Howard.” More on my obsession with vintage aviation can be found here.
The story was a lot of fun to write, and I hope that some day I’ll be able to revisit Louie’s Place and see what Mike Finnegan and the other regulars are up to. Meanwhile, though, I can’t wait to hold the book in my hands and see what wonders the other writers have come up with.
Here is a piece I wrote a little while ago for a book on female aviation pioneers. It saw print in 2004 in a newspaper called Women’s Independent Press, but second rights are available if anyone likes it.
Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)
She was the first African American to earn an international pilot’s license. Bessie Coleman was born close to where the borders of Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana meet, one of thirteen children. Her father moved around, and when her mother went to work as a cook/housekeeper for a prosperous white family, 9-year-old Bessie was left to raise her younger sisters. Bessie didn’t attend school regularly, but loved to read and dreamed of going to college. She worked as a laundress to raise money, and by 1910 she had enough money for one year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal College in Langston, Oklahoma. She couldn’t afford more than the one year, but by 1915 she was on her way to a new life in Chicago, where two of her brothers lived. In Chicago’s African American section, she found opportunities and support that weren’t available in the South.
She trained as a manicurist, and within a year she won a contest as the best and fastest manicurist in black Chicago. Her name was linked with several men, but it came as a surprise to her family when she married Claude Glenn, 14 years her senior. Stranger still, they never lived together, and never formally announced their marriage.
Bessie’s life changed when the United States entered World War I. Her brothers went to serve in France, and came back talking of the lack of racial prejudice there. Some French women had high-powered careers, and even flew airplanes. Despite the pioneering efforts of Harriet Quimby, Ruth Law and others, there was still a lot of resistance in America to women learning to fly; for an African American woman to do so was unthinkable.
Bessie quit her job as a manicurist and got a better paying job as manager of a chili parlor. By November 1920, she was on her way to France. She enrolled in the Caudron Brothers flying school, and finished the course three months early. On June 15th, 1921, she received a pilot’s license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. After further training in Paris, she returned to Chicago in October. However, the air show circuit of the day demanded aerobatic skills, and even with her International Pilot’s License, Bessie couldn’t find anyone to teach her. The following February she returned to France. She trained there for the next six months, meeting legendary aircraft designer Anthony Fokker and flying in Germany and elsewhere. Some of her flights were filmed, and suddenly she was news. Reporters met her ship when she returned to New York, and she played to the press with a prepared biography that gave her a more interesting life and cut a few years from her age. She knew that the goodwill of the press would be vital in accomplishing her new ambition – to found a flight school for African Americans.
Bessie hit the air show circuit. Refusing to appear in any air show that did not allow blacks to attend – “No Uncle Tom stuff for me,” she said – she fought both racial and sexual prejudice. She also dropped advertising leaflets. While preparing for an air show in Los Angeles in early 1923, she suffered a bad crash and was hospitalized for three months. It would be September before she was fit to fly again, and she filled in time by giving a series of lectures on aviation. She was scheduled to appear in two air shows in September 1923, but neither took place, and she started to get a reputation for being temperamental and unreliable. Air shows became reluctant to book her, and it was May 1925 before she succeeded in lining up an air show and lecture series in Texas. By September she had added parachute jumping to her repertoire. In early 1926 she lectured in Georgia and Florida, raising money to pay for a plane of her own to replace the one she had crashed.
Edwin Beeman, the wealthy owner of a chewing gum company who was fascinated with aviation, gave Bessie the money for her final payment, and the plane, a Curtiss Jenny, was to be delivered to Jacksonville, Florida, in time for an air show scheduled for May 1st, 1926. It barely made it, as its 90 horsepower engine was so worn and badly maintained that it was developing less than two-thirds of full power. The morning before the air show, Bessie took off to check out landing places for a parachute jump. With her mechanic at the controls, Bessie unfastened her seat belt so that she could look over the side of the plane. Ten minutes into the flight, the plane suddenly went into a tailspin and flipped over, throwing Bessie out; she fell to her death. An examination of the charred wreckage revealed that a wrench had slid into the control gears and jammed them.
In 1995, the US Post Office issued a Black Heritage postage stamp in Bessie’s honor. Every year on the anniversary of her death, African American pilots fly over her grave in Chicago to drop flowers.
Artist Gene Ha has taken the hero theme to heart and given the world a twist on ancient Greek pottery (Attic Red-Figure Ware, to be precise) for the cover of Stone Skin Press’ anthology The New Hero. As I said in an earlier post, I’m very happy to have had a story accepted for the collection.
I learned as an archaeology student that this style of pottery often bore mythic and heroic images, and Gene has included an element for every piece in the book. It’s a very impressive piece of work.
And if you’re interested, my story Against the Air Pirates is reflected in the second row, right hand side.
Anyone who has known me for any length of time will be able to tell you that I’m a plane geek. Specifically, a vintage plane geek. More specifically still, a 30s and 40s plane geek. I can bore the pants off anyone with trivia about obscure WWII fighters like the Commonwealth Boomerang and lost designs like the Grumman Skyrocket. If the Westland Whirlwind had been fitted with Merlin engines instead of those wimpy Peregrines, would the Mosquito have even flown? After all, the Whirlwind would have been exactly what de Havilland did with the Hornet a few years later. All right, I’m stopping. I can hear your eyes glazing over even at this distance.
I suppose it was inevitable. For one thing I grew up in 60s Britain, where films and comics bombarded a whole generation of boys with heroic images of WWII. Commando Comics, 633 Squadron, The Battle of Britain, The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, The Longest Day, the list goes on and on. Add to that the seemingly endless Saturday-morning TV reruns of The Dam Busters and the wartime exploits of John Wayne, and it’s no surprise that I spent much of my youth running around the playground shouting things like “achtung, Spitfeuer!” and “squadron scramble!” I knew with an absolute certainty that if I couldn’t grow up to be the pilot of Thunderbird 1, I wanted to fly Spitfires.
Added to that, I was an airline brat. My parents met at a BOAC staff dance in the 50s, and my dad continued to work at Heathrow (or “on the airport” as we in the know liked to say) until the 70s merger that created British Airways. By the age of seven I had been around the world twice, with a surprising number of legs flown on planes with actual propellors. I knew a Boeing 707 from a de Havilland Comet from a Lockheed Constellation from a Bristol Britannia from a Vickers Viscount, and thought the clean-winged, high-tailed Vickers VC-10 was quite the most beautiful plane ever built.
At school, my art teacher needed the patience of a saint, and not just because I couldn’t draw to save my life. I taught myself to draw the planes from my extensive collection of Airfix models – but only from the side, by copying the outlines in the painting guides. I worked them into every assignment, no matter how much I had to twist and turn. “Home from Abroad” – probably intended to get us to draw happy holidaymakers coming back from the Costa del Package Tour or the far corners of the Commonwealth – ended up as a night-time shot of a Lancaster coming in with one engine on fire, from a rigid side view.
One of the most treasured comments from my English teacher was “you follow very closely the style of professional writers of this kind of story,” affixed to a – though I do say so myself – fairly tense and atmospheric few pages about an RAF fighter squadron in the Blitz waiting for the order to scramble. “The Storm” became about an Australian bush pilot fighting to land his elderly DC-3 on a tiny Pacific island in the teeth of a cyclone. And on and on and on.
I tell people I cried when I learned that the RAF no longer flew Spitfires. I don’t remember if that’s literally true, but my obsession abated a little as I entered my teens. The Farnborough Air Show was still a regular birthday outing, but I found the world was full of other intriguing things like archaeology, progressive rock, beer, girls, amateur dramatics – with girls – and later, roleplaying games. But I still couldn’t be kept out of an aircraft museum and to this day the sight of a World War II plane in the air brings a tear to my eye. Even watching the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight go over Buck House for the Royal Wedding did it. A couple of my classmates went into the RAF – one even flew for my boyhood heroes the Red Arrows – but in my heart I knew I was far too attached to my own opinions to last long in a military environment. I spent three soul-crushing years as a bank clerk and went to college to study archaeology before my urge to write reasserted itself and I ended up in the games industry.
As a game designer and writer, I still gravitate toward vintage aviation in general and World War II in particular. At MicroProse UK I hung models of a Mustang and a Thunderbolt over my desk as part of a hearts-and-minds campaign to support my endless stream of proposals for a WWII title. It didn’t work. I spent hours – in the name of research, honest – playing Aces of the Pacific and Aces Over Europe, and wrote plaintive letters to Dynamix, the developers, begging for a job. That didn’t work either. Although I wasn’t an official member of the development team for the game that became Microsoft Fighter Ace, I bombarded the modelers with source material and minor corrections. I even came up with the title, something of which I remain absurdly proud.
Along the way, I watched Disney’s Tale Spin and countless old air movies like Only Angels Have Wings. I enjoyed Crimson Skies immensely, although I thought it would have been better if the planes had been a little less fanciful. There are plenty of cool designs that never made it into production and service, after all. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow remains a guilty pleasure, though again I would have preferred to see Cap in something like a Grumman Skyrocket instead of his standard P-40. It was good enough for the Blackhawk Squadron.
Then a few months ago, something marvelous happened. I received an email from tabletop gaming luminary Robin Laws telling me that his company Pelgrane Press was launching a fiction arm called Stone Skin Press and inviting me to contribute a story to their inaugural compilation, The New Hero. The theme was iconic heroes, and that was all I needed to know. Within minutes my mind was off in the South Pacific of the inter-war years, battling megalomaniacs in rogue zeppelins and winding up at Louie’s (it has to be called Louie’s) for drinks as the sun set behind the palm trees. The New Hero has turned into two volumes, but my story Against the Air Pirates made it into the first. To say I’m happy about it is an understatement – indeed, to call it an understatement is an understatement – and I can’t wait to find out the release date. Make no mistake, you’ll see plenty of gloating here when I finally hold it in my hands.
Air pulps died out in the 50s, and the brief pulp resurgence of the 80s focused on the two main subgenres: adventures and detective stories. Nowadays we have steampunk and dieselpunk, and a lot of people have assumed from its title that Against the Air Pirates is a steampunk yarn. In my wildest dreams, airpulp will come back some day, just like a two-fisted pilot flying out of the fireball that engulfs the villain’s lair. Hey, I can dream.