Category Archives: Writing

Fantastically Evil

Damaris_thumbWhat if the villain in the story values the same things as the hero? Here’s my post for the September Fantasy Roundtable—Evil and the Fantastic.

I started out with the idea of spinning this topic away from the Saurons of the genre—the supremely bad players with vast armies of hideous soldiers and architecturally magnificent but poorly-lit fortresses, players who want to take over extensive amounts of someone else’s territory, an entire world, or some valuable plane of existence. I wanted to spin this topic toward the blended moralities in Glenn Cook, Joe Abercrombie, Brent Weeks, and others, where the main characters are not always good, and some are clearly great fans of seeing others in pain—proudly wearing their “Go Sauron” jackets when off screen.

On the other hand I know the “evil protagonist” thing is all the rage. Every fantasy and SF discussion group on Goodreads and the Amazon forums has a dozen threads on “books where there main character is evil”, or something like that.

What about the good villain—or apparently good villain?  I don’t mean where the villain thinks he’s doing the right thing, because that’s pretty much what drives every complexly-written scoundrel.  Power-hungry, ladder-climbing, step over the bodies of your superiors to get what you want types of characters are the mainstay.  Power, money, control—these are the things that motivate so many baddies, along with a generous portion of justification for whatever they are after.

Another common theme is the bad guy or girl who must do something evil in order to survive —kill, drink blood, go all Mr. Hyde on us, or do bad things as the result of some curse.  Come on, doesn’t everyone deserve to survive?  Every reader can understand that kind of drive, and in many cases it’s the thoughtful appreciation (and sometimes sympathy) that shapes the reader’s reaction to the villain’s actions, usually based on the physical and emotional price paid by the afflicted character in order to fight or throw off the curse.

Still, that’s still not quite the evil I’m thinking about—or the “good” when I say “good villain.”  Like many writers I spend a lot of time thinking about evil—evil people, as well as their actions and motives. First, someone tell the NSA I was just doing research.  Second, here’s where I’m going:

What if the character or characters who represent evil in a story want to help develop the world instead of destroy it?  What if they benefit as much as the heroes, the shopkeepers, as much as the simple but courageous village gardeners from the worldwide advancement of magic, technology, living conditions, clean water, and green pastures? What if they are as turned off by a giant volcano spewing reeking sulfurous clouds as any hero? What if they are against war of any kind?

I started down this path in Teller, with the principal evil character making it clear that she wants all of humanity to progress. She’s even willing to help in an underground, organized-movement sort of way—you know, duffle-bags full of cash, “removing obstacles”, and other varieties of influence in the right places.  Teller is contemporary fantasy, and so the characters are living in a world with runes, rockets, and Reddit. Think of hundreds of “evil” characters around the world, nominally working together, with the common goal of getting rid of humans. Not by wiping them out—that would be messy, but by making sure that civilization either advances to the point where humans can travel to other planets—getting the majority of them offworld, or to the point where humans develop the technology to “digitize human consciousness” and go virtual—with two paths from there: withdrawal into some localized computational substrate with a small realworld footprint (e.g., “still here, but quiet and out of the way”), or by extending the range of exploration by sending “digitized human freight” to planets lightyears away and decanting the data into physical forms on the other side (e.g., “grass is always greener colonization strategy”).  The baddies want our world after all—and although they really don’t get along, there is one clear and shared requirement for the take-over: they want the world in move-in condition. Furnished would also be a nice perk.

I continued plotting and writing using this flavor of evil with my latest book, Salvage, where the principal evil character, Damaris, is completely open to discussions with one of the protagonists, and even hints that he’s going to invest in the character’s company, Knowledgenix, which develops advanced autonomous robots.  Damaris genuinely likes Jon Andreden, and wants to help him succeed.

Evil in the fantasy genre doesn’t have to mean miles of wasteland, ever-present storm clouds, minions with sharp weapons and low morale, or any mode of transportation that involves chiropteran wings—although I am a fan of some of these, especially the wings. To me, a villain who shares values with the protagonist frightens me more than any straightforward grab for land, money or power.  It totally freaks out the heroes, too.



Chris Howard is just a creative guy with a pen and a paint brush, author of Seaborn (Juno Books, 2008), Salvage (Masque/Prime Books, 2013), Nanowhere (Lykeion, 2005), and a shelf-full of other books. His short stories have appeared in a bunch of zines, latest is “Lost Dogs and Fireplace Archeology” in Fantasy Magazine.  His story “Hammers and Snails” was a Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Fiction Contest winner. He writes and illustrates the comic Saltwater Witch.  His art has appeared in Shimmer, BuzzyMag, various RPGs, and on the pages of books, blogs, and other interesting places. Find out everything here:

Evil and the Fantastic

The September edition of the Great Fantasy Traveling Roundtable Blog is live with this month’s topic: “Evil and the Fantastic”. A bunch of great posts by Warren Rochelle, Deborah Ross, Carole McDonnell, Valjeanne Jeffers, Chris Howard, and Andrea K Höst.
Read it all here:
Category: Fantasy, Writing

Write Now!

I have a writing piece called “How to Build Worlds without Becoming the Minister for Tourism” in the next Now Write! anthology (Penguin, Feb. 2014). Pre-order now:

Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror:
Speculative Genre Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers

Featuring speculative fiction-writing exercises from Harlan Ellison, Piers Anthony, Ramsey Campbell, Jack Ketchum, and many more.

The fifth volume in the acclaimed Now Write! writing-guide series offers a full toolbox of advice and exercises for speculative fiction writers hoping to craft an engaging alternate reality, flesh out an enthralling fantasy quest, or dream up a bloodcurdling plot twist.

Category: Books, Writing

Don’t have a release date yet, but…

I do have something close to a final cover. (It may change radically, but this is what it looks like today).  You’ll know more when I do!

July Rountable Fantasy – Intrusive Fantasy

Intrusive Fantasy
Sylvia Kelso

The term was coined by Farah Mendlesohn in her book The Rhetoric of Fantasy, and she classifies intrusive as one of four types in a fantasy taxonomy:

“In the portal-quest we are invited through into the fantastic, in the intrusion fantasy the fantastic enters the fictional world.”

I immediately thought of Jadis the Witch loose in London in C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. In my terms, this is fantasy where Elsewhere comes Here.

But then, if that’s intrusive, why call going to Elsewhere a portal-quest? Surely that’s when Here goes Elsewhere? So by analogy, that wd. be Extrusive Fantasy?

And the obvious example here is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the children first go to Narnia.

But enough frivolity. Both sorts of fantasy have been around a long time, though the current turn of the market has intrusive fantasy wayhay up the visibility scale, with werewolves, vampires, paranormal romance, etc. etc. etc. But as The Magician’s Nephew indicates, such fantasy was well-known in C. S. Lewis’ day. You might even say that “intrusive fantasy” covers the entire range of horror and the ghost story as well, because what are they but stories of intrusion into this world by the unreal?

And in these cases, the horror frisson or the fantasy sensawunda, the air of Faery, to misquote Tolkien, comes from the sudden anomaly of the impossible being Right Here in Your  Front Yard. Or Front  Door, in the Magician’s Nephew’s case. When I read the Lewis I didn’t really get the full flavor of this jolt, since Lewis’s London was already Elsewhere for me. Hansom cabs? This is Here?

Contemporary intrusive fantasy probably got its first actual market impetus from the Elves in the Supermarket sub-genre pioneered by Mercedes Lackey. For some reason, Lackey has never clicked with me, but the earliest  example I thought of for intrusive fantasy came from this sub-genre. It was the first in eluki bes shahar, aka Rosemary Edghill’s unfinished Twelve Treasures series, The Sword of Maiden’s Tears.

In this book, an Elven prince ends up mugged on a New York street, whence he is rescued by a mild-mannered Columbia librarian student. Def-initely a good aberrant jolt as she tries to parse his pointed ears and anachronistic clothes in terms of a Renaissance Faire costume etc. The story wears to a dark and not-very-happy end, which for the first of twelve projected volumes is fair enough, and there’s enough sword-clashing and tripping through weird old subway tunnels and monsters, elven or otherwise, to satisfy any dark fantasy reader. The section I remember best, though, is when Ruth takes her prince to get kitted out in modern clobber at Macy’s, where he ends up in

“artistically frayed and very tight jeans that molded the entire swell and sweep of calves and thighs and anchored Melior  firmly in the twentieth century world.” But “his hair had come loose of its tie… He looked like a particularly delectable rock star, silvery and shining and insulated from mortal touch” (p. 66)

Later, a teenager in a restaurant does ask for his autograph: “’I saw you in concert last year. Got all your albums.’” Which returns us to the anomalous comedy of errors. But at that one line, “silvery and shining and  insulated from mortal touch,” the first time I read the text, I felt the frisson that, like the presence of dragons for Tolkien, signaled the true presence of Elsewhere.

It’s rare for me to find that in the now hackneyed presence of werewolves, vampires, etc. etc,  and elves are no longer a fashionable form of intrusion.  It’s a form I’ve never written myself as fantasy, though a couple of my short stories have featured intrusions into Here. But these intrusion forms are plainly SF. For “The Cretaceous Border,” which is set in my backyard, to accustomed SF wip readers the title instantly signaled the content, and they took for granted that it was SF.

Intrusion then, imho, is not merely a feature of fantasy, but occurs across the unrealist genres, including all of horror, and some SF. It’s a useful term, though. Even though I’d love to keep its opposite as well. Extrusive Fantasy. Covers Stephen Donaldson’s Covenant books as well as countless other Go-to-Elsewhere stories, works just as well on the later Twelve Treasure books, where Ruth goes to Elfland, can be applied to some of Diana Wynne Jones’s books like Deep Secret. And given the sausage-machine production line of a lot of current fantasy, it has a handy second inflection. Maybe I’ll try to introduce it into Academia, she said, keeping a very straight face.

* * * * *

Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia, and writes fantasy and SF set mostly in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some stories in Australian and US anthologies. Her latest short story,  “The Honor of the Ferrocarril” appeared in Gears and Levers 3 from Skywarrior Books, and “Spring in Geneva,” a novella riff on Frankenstein, is projected to appear from Aqueduct Press in October  2013. (

(Illustration from The Magician’s Nephew by Pauline Baynes)



Intrusive Fantasy

Intrusion in fantasy often occurs in two ways. Either this is the intrusion of something alien, something entirely other, something not normally seen or active in the character’s world, something that disturbs the status quo by its arrival.  Or, intrusion is not truly intrusion at all but unveiling, an “apocalypse” where something hidden and secret now makes itself known to the character.

For instance, in the NBC program Grimm, Juliet discovers that monsters walk among us. This is not merely a realization of evil because evil has always been on earth, but a realization that the rules of life are more complicated than she had formerly thought and that certain species of people (hitherto unknown to her) are living lives she had not dreamed about. The fantastical intrusion might be a good thing. Or not. It might give glimpses of the numinous, the awesome, the otherworldly, the kind-heartedness at the center of the universe — thus creating saints (which often happens to folks who have seen angels or God. It might give the one intruded upon a glimpse of evil. . .the result of which is paranoia, conspiracy theories, isolation, prophets, or freedom fighters (spiritual or otherwise.)

In the Christian view, the Revelation of St John is the ultimate intrusion of fantasy. As one of the Old Testament prophets stated, “Tear the heavens and come down!” In the same way, John sees a day when the heavens will roll away like a scroll and the truth about the world — its true ruler, its basic battles, its true moorings— will be revealed.

In Christianity, John saw the revelation of the unveiling when a door opened up in heaven and he was invited into it to “Come and See.” He was trusted with knowledge of how the real world works and told how to declare it. In fantasy novels, the unveiling comes about either through sudden accidental discovery, by a character’s gradual insight and realization, or by trust…that is, another character (good or evil) decides to share the “secret” of the intrusion with the main character. Examples of this kind of encounter with fantasy intrusion in contemporary life are cases of alien abduction, haunted houses, and bumping into bigfoot.

Once the character’s eyes are opened, choices have to be made. The character can choose to close her eyes to the truth, as some do in The Matrix. The character can choose to align herself with other “adepts,” “visionaries,” or wizened souls. . . after all fantastical truth is hard to follow alone. There is the danger of forgetting. Therefore, some kind of fellowship is needed. The fellowship’s duty is to grow in knowledge about this revealed truth, strengthen the will of those who might be tempted to fall back into unknowing. Thus churches, fellowships, partners, support groups are needed, especially if the intruder into the real world is dangerous, the character may choose to fight.

In the end, the character is changed by this sudden intrusion. Something must be done. Or the character must change. Intrusion fantasy shows the main character that the world is not what she had thought it was. Whether this unveiling blesses the main character or curses her is unimportant. What matters is that the character is changed and will never see herself, the world, or her place in the world in the same way again. Thus, those who have seen the God behind the veil will suddenly “bring forth fruits worthy of repentance”  or go about preaching to neighbors with the zeal of an ex-alcoholic or an ex-smoker. Intruded-upon characters generally change. And who would not? They must in order to accommodate the secret that had formerly been hidden behind that closed door in heaven.

* * * * *

Carole McDonnell is a writer of ethnic fiction, speculative fiction, and Christian fiction. Her works have appeared in many anthologies and at various online sites. Her novel, Wind Follower, was published by Wildside Books. Her forthcoming novel is called The Constant Tower.



Intrusive Fantasy
Andrea Höst

Going from an ‘ordinary’ world to a magical world is a very common progression in fantasy.  Even in secondary world fantasy, we often see the protagonist living a relatively adventure- and magic-free existence until magic arrives (in the form of a wise old man who knows what to do) and triggers a journey to vastly more interesting locales and experiences.

This type of journey can happen even within our world, where we meet magic which has been there all along – settled in and operating in parallel, so to speak, and merely hidden until now.  This is the kind of magic of many urban fantasies, and of books such as Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  The story still follows a path of exploration of an established second world, however.  The status quo of separate worlds is rarely altered.

Intrusive fantasy offers a different kind of narrative, one of threat and change.  The protagonist is in a settled and usually safe world into which something comes.  Although certain varieties of urban fantasy and contemporary fantasy take this form, it is a trope which is found most often in horror.

Ordinary people living ordinary lives, into which something Other comes.  A sourceless voice, strange noises, furniture moving, or even something or someone valuable disappearing.  The stories then tend to follow to either a “defence of the home”, “recovery of the lost”, “escape”, or “inevitable death” resolution.  Ghost and poltergeists and vampires – even robots from the future – they arrive in the safe world and make it worse.

Far rarer is intrusive magic which is benevolent, positive, bringing joy instead of threat.

I spent some time thinking over examples of “benevolent intrusive magic” and feel it most often appears in children’s literature.  The Psammead is not a threat to the protagonists of the Five Children and It, but instead an opportunity for delight and adventure.  Magic forms a treat, and usually provides a lesson – very much as the ‘chemistry’ kits in Diana Wynne Jones’ The Ogre Downstairs create excitement and problems, but lead to the family’s emotional resolution.  Even with all the drama benevolent intrusive magic brings, it’s very common for the protagonists to wish to seek it out again if they lose contact:

“After his pencils died, Malcolm began to suggest going back to the old man’s shop to see what else he had to sell.  So, in the end, Caspar went there with him.  He was very much afraid they would get sold something worse than pink footballs or the chemistry sets.  But the shop was gone.  Where the dark court had been, they found a wide hole full of mechanical excavators.  Next time they saw it, the space was filled with an office-block even taller than the Ogre’s.  That seemed to be the last of Magicraft.” – Diana Wynne Jones, The Ogre Downstairs

In both cases – malevolent or benevolent, adult or child-oriented – these stories most often conclude with a withdrawal of the intrusion.  The ghost becomes less active (presumably after driving a few victims insane, out the door or to their graves), the vampire is put to rest (or dust), the alien spaceship explodes, the magic ring breaks or is lost, and the sand fairy becomes irritated and flounces off in a huff.

Whether the protagonist is left to regret or celebrate the departure, intrusive magic only very rarely indeed puts down roots and stays.

* * * * *

Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia.  She writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue. 



The Fantastic as the Bringer of Chaos
Chris Howard

This month’s roundtable topic is “Intrusion Fantasy”, a term from Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, one of four categories along with Portal-Quest Fantasy, Immersive Fantasy, and Liminal Fantasy that make up the ways we read, participate in, and interpret most of the stories in the genre.  In intrusion fantasy the fantastic enters the real world–our world–in a shocking manner: “the fantastic is the bringer of chaos” that requires an “awestruck or skeptical tone” from the protagonist or most of the cast, and in the end the intrusion must be defeated.  One of the defining points from Mendlesohn is “intrusion fantasies maintain stylistic realism and rely heavily on explanation.”

Mendlesohn also points out the strong ties between immersive and intrusive fantasy, which is where I found the steadiest foothold on this topic. The mix of the two is what you’re most likely to run into. It just seemed to me that pure intrusion fantasies are rarer in the modern world, where millions have read the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, any number of other fantasy books, and know in some sense what an elf is.  In today’s world if an elf, fairy, or troll showed up in the middle of London, we (and the story’s characters) would probably be interested in how this might affect our lives or the modern world, but we wouldn’t doubt the existence of trolls or fairies.  They’re part of popular culture. On the other hand Shakespeare had to dig into fairy-lore and feed it to the Midsummer Night’s Dream audience in order to get them to go along.

I went looking for examples of fantasy books with complete plots that I could squarely fit into “intrusive”, and the list wasn’t long. That may be something missing on my part–correct me if I’m way off here. Most of the books were published many years ago, before fantasy made its way into mainstream bookshelves and nightstands and big screens. This got me thinking that Farah Mendlesohn’s category of intrusive fantasy may always be pushed out to the genre edge, where readers may still be shocked and amazed when an elf snaps into existence in the middle of Manhattan. Anyone who has read moderately deep into any list of high and contemporary fantasy might be intrigued by an event like this, but serious doubt or shock just wouldn’t be part of the response. I’m also wondering if there are–in this strict sense of intrusive–more examples in movies and television, where the audience may not be general readers of fantasy or SF who are accustomed to stories about people and creatures coming into our world from other worlds, where an “awestruck or skeptical tone” makes more sense?  (This may be a silly example, but the first thing to pop into my head was Splash with Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks–she’s a mermaid, he can’t believe it, he falls in love with her, she takes a bath and grows a tail, craziness ensues.  Another example along these lines is Ondine with Alicja Bachleda and Colin Farrell–similar set up but with serious doubt and questions to the very end–there’s just no way she can be a selkie, right? But…)

I think to most modern readers and writers of contemporary fantasy, magical realism, low fantasy, the intrusive will simply end up being one part of a larger immersive fantasy. Intrusion in this manner is part of half the stories I’ve written.  It’s a crucial part of Salvage, which comes out in August from Masque/Prime Books. One storyline is about an engineer who teams up with one of the seaborn to help her find her sister. He’s seen her stop bullets with her bare hands. He knows she can disappear under the waves with no diving gear–and never surface. And still he stumbles through the skepticism and awe. “…you have to see the position I’m in. I run this company. I—we, Martin and I—work in a very secure engineering world, with multi-million dollar R&D projects, intellectual property assessments, slow incremental progress with the occasional technology jump forward. We don’t live in a world where ocean-dwelling toymakers with missing sisters show up to offer super-advanced tech in exchange for government research and private investigation…”  This same pattern runs through the first three Seaborn books, where you have “people from the sea” doing some shocking things in our world, everything from partially damaging a US Navy destroyer in the middle of the Atlantic to Nikasia (in Sea Throne) walking out of the surf, coughing up all the seawater from her lungs, and continuing past gawking surfers, bathers and joggers as if nothing out of the ordinary is going on.  And she’s there primarily for one reason. To bring some chaos.

* * * * *

Chris Howard is a creative guy with a pen and a paint brush, author of Seaborn (Juno Books), Salvage (Masque, 2013), Nanowhere, and a shelf-full of other books. His short stories have appeared in a bunch of magazines and anthologies, including “Lost Dogs and Fireplace Archeology” in Fantasy Magazine, and ‘Tear Apart Worlds” in Pen-Ultimate. His story “Hammers and Snails” was a Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Fiction Contest winner. He writes and illustrates the comic, Saltwater Witch. His ink work and digital illos have appeared in Shimmer, BuzzyMag, various RPGs, and on the pages and covers of books, blogs, and other interesting places. Last year he painted a 9 x 12 foot Steampunk Map of New York for a cafe in Brooklyn. Find out everything at

Category: Books, Fantasy, reading, Writing

Plotting out the sequel to Salvage

Over lunch I worked on the plot for Salvage’s sequel, which I’m calling Wreckage for now.  Salvage will be out next month from Masque–more links and pics and more info when I have them.  Here are a couple pages from my notebook with my (fuzzy) notes and doodles about Wreckage.



Mermaid sketching

More sketching for the current book, Mermaid.  More here:


Category: art, mermaid, Ocean, Writing

SALVAGE is done!

The end! Finished another book, fifty-two chapters, a little under a hundred thousand words, working title is SalvageThis is another Seaborn book–the first in a new series, sort of a tech-thriller/fantasy cross-over, if you can imagine that. The plan is to let it sit, steep like bad tea for a month, do one more edit pass, and get the manuscript to my agent mid-January.  We'll see where it goes from there.

In the meantime–although I'm tired, I am clearly not too tired to cook up some fun cover art for this one.  Hope you like!


The Great Traveling Round Table Fantasy Guest Blog

October's fantasy round table post was on fantasy/horror crossover, or how horror has influenced the genre of fantasy.  Good stuff from Deborah J. Ross, Warren Rochelle, Valjeanne Jeffers, Theresa Crater, Andrea K Höst, Carole McDonnell, Sylvia Kelso, and me. Check it out here:




If this looks like I'm creating a new post to point to the last one, well, you're right. GoodReads pulls my posts and puts them on my profile–which I love, but there's a bunch of css at the top of the round table post and it's showing up as text on GoodReads. This one won't!



Category: Books, Fantasy, horror, Writing

Writer Tools

WritingIf you’re writing short stories or books—and let’s face it,
who’s not?—I have a few tools for you, character name generators (contemporary
and Seaborn names) and a word pair list generator, all of which I use for my
own work.   One of the greatest things
about fantasy and science fiction as a genre is that so many F&SF readers
are also writers.  I don't think you'll find that in
thrillers, murder mysteries, romance, or anywhere else.

The contemporary name generator lets you create a list of male or
female names.  Same goes for the Seaborn Name generators, except that they're all ancient Greek names, male and female.

The word pair list is a way to spark ideas. Sometimes when
I'm stuck in a plot I will pull random words out of the dictionary–usually
nouns–and play with the ideas, see how the story would change if I introduced
poison, or make one of the characters a really good cook, or take a word like
"chronograph" and it makes me wonder what would happen to the plot if
there was a "ticking clock"–a count-down timer on a bomb, or the bad
guys are going to kill someone at a particular time and the protagonist has to
do something extraordinary in order to prevent it. The words are there to feed
the story with new and unexpected ideas. 
It's not quite the same, but think of it as something like Brian Eno's
Oblique Strategies, except for writing instead of music. (
There was a cool "Oblique Strategies for Authors" panel at the last Readercon
led by Glenn Grant with panelists Gavin Grant, Eric Van, Jo Walton, and others).


Check it all out here:

Writer Tools