Thursday, March 09, 2017

WHY I WROTE ASSASSIN OF ACHERON AND OTHER STORIES

by Alfred D. Byrd


I'm by nature a novelist, but I like every once in a while to try my hand at short stories, mainly because I can finish one of these as quickly as I can finish a chapter of a novel, and then send the short story off to a market that might accept it. Two of my short stories have appeared in paying markets: "The Earth-Shaker's Answer" in Quest for Atlantis: Legends of a Lost Continent and "Natural Law" in Warrior Wisewoman 3. Alas, neither of these anthologies is any longer in print. I've also had two other short stories and a novella (how rare are paying markets for novellas!) accepted by planned anthologies, but, as "planned" never became "published," the accepted stories had to find other homes. One of the short stories, "Dead Man Stalking," appears in Past Future Present: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction, which Helen E. Davis edited and Catherine Mintz published as a showcase for sixteen writers of sf, fantasy, and horror. I'm sf in this anthology, by the way. I've self-published my accepted, but orphaned novella, The Seventh Proficiency, as an e book.

My intro leads in the first of the thirteen short stories that compose this collection. "Assassin of Acheron" was accepted for publication in Warrior Wisewoman 4, but was orphaned when this anthology was sadly left unpublished. Not seeing my short story in print in what was promising to be a landmark series of anthologies was the greatest disappointment of my writing career, as the story was an experimental piece that turned out to be in my view possibly the best thing I'd written. It was my effort to write a Twilight Zone story for the present day. The story deals with questions of identity, of expectations that others have of us, of what we're willing to do to be free, of what the word I really means…

I've written most of the stories in this collection since 2008. "Double Vision," however, goes back to the 1980's. It was originally part of a novel that I still hope to get into print. In the novel, "Double Vision" was a dreamie, a full-sensory-immersion movie that a Basic character in the novel experienced to learn more about Volants. You'll learn more about Basics and Volants in this short story, which is set on a terraformed Mars in the Twenty-Fifth Century. Oddly enough, this time and place still has drug addiction, human maintenance workers, and lawyers. I did say that I wrote the story in the 1980's, didn't I? Oh, wait! Do we still have those things today? How much the present is like the past! The story also has, however, humans with wings. I think that you'll enjoy those — both the humans and the wings. After all, what's a little genetic engineering among friends?

Even writers of speculative fiction are urged to write what they know. In respect of that, let me say that I have a master of science in microbiology, work as a research analyst in plant pathology, and live in Lexington, Kentucky. In the lab, I work with endophytic ("inside a plant") fungi of grasses. The fungi and the grasses form a symbiosis ("living together"); some symbioses are mutualistic (benefiting both partners). Being a writer of speculative fiction, I wondered whether there could be a mutualistic symbiosis between humans and an endanthropic ("inside a human") fungus. I set the short story that grew from my wondering in Lexington, though I don't call it by name. Residents of the city may recognize the mall where the story's action takes place, though I vanished some stores that were inconvenient to the story. A writer of speculative fiction can vanish things, don't you know? Maybe, it was my recollections of the ordeal of being a graduate student that caused the viewpoint character of "Endanthropic" to learn that mutualisism isn't always what it's cracked up to be. She wrestles with questions of identity—

Sometimes, a short story can give birth to a novel, especially if the short story's writer is by nature a novelist. Certainly, "Glyph Sixty-Two" gave birth to Madness of the Glyphs, in which the short story's action is viewed from a far world by a different viewpoint character from the novel's. Still, I think that you'll find the short story engaging in its own right. Lost languages and the legends that grow up around them can be deadly. You're not afraid of the Dark, are you? If you like the short story, you may also like the novel.

Four times, I've submitted short stories to the long-running Sword & Sorceress anthology. Four times, they've been rejected. There's always next year. Of "The Grondaric Grimoire," the third short story that I submitted to Elisabeth Waters, she wrote in her rejection e mail to me, "This is a perfectly good story, but it doesn't quite have the feel I want for Sword & Sorceress." In this story, a poor scribe named Shirreth must answer the question, "How far will you go to help a nameless stranger — and yourself?" I liked the grimoire in its role as a McGuffin.

I'm a sucker for tales of "aliens among us." Also, I've spent more time on visiting persons in nursing homes than I can clearly recall. Thus, it may not surprise you that I've written a short story of aliens among us in nursing homes. If you're familiar with the Book of Psalms, you can also tell from their story's title that they've lost what matters most to them. I'll add only that "If I Forget Thee…" is the story that I'm proudest of having written in this collection.

The first story that I sent to Sword & Sorcery was, like the third, about a scribe. Unlike Shirreth, however, who's a free woman of common birth, Karramin of "Karramin the Glorious is a noblewoman who's become a slave. In her new life, all that Karramin has going from her is her ability to copy in a fine hand and a bizarre psychic gift that she regards as a curse. Can she use it to save the life of a perfect stranger — and herself? Tell me that the story's opening paragraph doesn't make you want to read on. Sadly, it didn't make Elisabeth Waters buy the story…

Every once in a while, a writer writes a story that never quite works for him, yet he can't dismiss. Such a story for me is "The Last Spell," which I wrote for a contest back in the 1980's. The story didn't win the contest, sad to say. Neither did the story, despite endless rounds of revision and submission to paying markets, win a home anywhere else. Now, the story has a home here and is off my mind. Thank the heavens for self-pubished short story collections! I hope that you enjoy the story. Amid whatever makes it professionally unpublishable, it has some imaginative touches and prose poetry. I'm also proud of the story's names and incantations in Irish Gaelic, which I was studying when I wrote the story's first draft. The poem in an ancient bardic meter is original with me.

Every once in a while, a writer gets an idea for a whole series of short stories, yet only one or two of those stories gets written. Such is the case with me of a series of short stories about the epic quest of a character named Beryl. "Mashaan's Sacrifice might've been the penultimate story in his series if all of it had gotten written. This story also hails from the 1980's and has been through many rounds of revision and submission. Any touch of the Gilgamesh epic that there is about this story is due to my having been studying Sumer when I wrote it. Mayby, in the story, you'll also see a touch of William Butler Yeats's "Song of Wandering Aengus," which has been a major influence on my writing. I've also written Beryl's origin story (you can't be a superhero without an origin story), but its publication will have to await a second collection of my short stories.

The trope of a stranger who shows up to try to save a doomed place is as old as fiction itself. That trope plays out again in "The Oracle's Conquest." After I'd written this story, I saw that it may've been influenced by the many episodes of Doctor Who that I'd watched. That Gallifreyan does get around. Still, there's no TARDIS in this story, and Our Hero does encounter a surprise. Sometimes, you learn that you're not the only stranger in town. As for the trope of a doomed city, it's one about which I've written many times and will likely write many times more.

Next up is the fourth short story that I submitted to Sword & Sorceress. "Stealing the Book of Dreams," like "The Grondaric Grimoire," was called "a perfectly good story" by Elisabeth Waters. It's certainly the most techically accomplished in this collection. When I was starting out seriously as a writer back in the 1980's, I was taken with multiple viewpoint characters. I've largely gotten away from using them, but they make a reappearance in my tale of a thief, a guard, a book, and a trickster. In this story, I was going for Jorge Luis Borges meets Jack Vance. I love the chessboard by moonlight setting, even if I do say so myself. The names of the main characters are anagrams of chessboard colors in Spanish. It's so much work to come up with names — especially names that obey Ursula K. LeGuin's rule that fictional women's names shouldn't end in -a.

In "To Doubt the Falling Sky," the second short story that I submitted to Sword & Sorceress, the name of the viewpoint character, Pennekhen, is a play on "Henny Penny." How few readers of this blog will be old enough to recall that character from folk tales! This story also got the "perfectly good story" seal of approbation. I wonder what was wrong with "Karramin the Glorious" to make it miss out on that seal? In any case, "To Doubt the Falling Sky" was much improved by Helen E. Mercier-Davis's criticism that Pennekhen did far too much whining while she sat around day and night and watched a pond for signs of cosmic evil's return. Of course, when a spawn of Cthulhu shows up…

Watchers show up in many of my stories. I fell in love with the concept of a watcher when I came across the term "watchers" in the Book of Daniel (the book in the Bible, not the book by E. L. Doctorow). In "The Watcher Dances," the watcher is an alien among us — no, he's sentient nanotechnology — no, he's as human as you are or I am. As you might guess, he has to deal with the ever-present question of identity. Don't you hate it when that happens? Still, he really will get to dance. Long-time residents of Lexington, Kentucky, may recognize where he dances.

You can read all of "Assassin of Acheron" and part of "Double Vision" free in Assassin of Acheron.

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