Some Comments about the 1944 Retro Hugo Awards Winners

So the 1944 Retro Hugos were awarded during the opening ceremonies of WorldCon 77 in Dublin last night. I didn’t go to the opening ceremonies, but was having dinner at The Drunken Fish, a Korean restaurant in Dublin.

But of course, the 1944 Retro Hugo winners were also announced online almost as soon as the ceremony was over. The hardworking Hugo administrator Nicholas Whyte also shares some voting and nomination stats.

So let’s take a look at the winners: Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber jr. takes Best Novel and the Leiber family can add another Hugo to Fritz Leiber’s already big collection. It’s a highly worthy winner, though personally I preferred Gather, Darkness, the other Fritz Leiber novel in this category, to Conjure Wife. But I guess the religious satire cum dystopia of Gather, Darkness found less fans than the proto-urban fantasy of the surprisingly timeless Conjure Wife. Besides, Conjure Wife is still in print and has been continuously in print for seventy-six years. As far as I know, Gather, Darkness is no longer in print. I’m surprised that the pretty bad The Weapon Makers came in third, but then A.E. van Vogt simply isn’t the author for me and The Weapon Makers has a distasteful message, too.

Finally, I’m really glad that Perelandra by C.S. Lewis didn’t win, especially since Lewis was (Northern) Irish and WorldCon is in Ireland this year, so he is the hometown champion. Now I freely admit that I just cannot connect to C.S. Lewis’ fiction (I like his non-fiction just fine), probably because I never read the Narnia books as a kid and never bothered to read them as an adult, because whatever magic they possess wouldn’t work on me anymore. Also, I don’t like religion in the speculative fiction and C.S. Lewis was very religious. But however you feel about the Narnia books, Perelandra is just bad. It’s dull and preachy and I was actually rooting for the bad guy. After plodding through the terrible, terrible Perelandra, Fritz Leiber’s religion satire Gather, Darkness was even more enjoyable.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wins Best Novella, which was probably inevitable, because it is such a greatly beloved classic that is quoted at every second wedding or funeral it seems at times. I don’t mind The Little Prince winning either, though my personal favourite was the excellent, but underrated “We Print the Truth” by Anthony Boucher, another proto urban fantasy story about fake news and the dangers of getting what you wish for that’s surprisingly timely for something that’s seventy-six years old. Alas, Anthony Boucher seems to have fallen somewhat into obscurity, whereas every single bookshop in the world carries The Little Prince.

Best Novelette goes to “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. It’s a highly deserved win, because the story is a classic and a cracking good one, too. But then, the novelette category at the 1944 Retro Hugos was extremely strong this year, as discussed here. For me, “Mimsy”, “Thieves’ House” by Fritz Leiber and “The Citadel of Lost Ships” and “The Halfling” by Leigh Brackett were pretty much equal in quality. And Fritz Leiber did get a Retro Hugo this year (plus I think six in his lifetime) and everybody’s favourite duo of rogues Fafhrd and Gray Mouser won a Hugo in 1970 for the superlative “Ill Met in Lankhmar”. Though I’m sad that Leigh Brackett still hasn’t got a Hugo or Retro Hugo yet. Maybe when we get to 1949 or 1951 and the Eric John Stark stories I just reviewed for Galactic Journey.

“R is for Rocket” by Ray Bradbury takes home a highly deserved Retro Hugo, because it is a great story that still holds up in spite of dated tech, though I’m a bit sad that “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch, which is not just a great story, but also the start of the modern fascination of serial killers in general and Jack the Ripper in particular, only finished in fourth place behind two lesser works by big names. I also wonder why “Death Sentence” by Isaac Asimov finished in second place, because – and I’m saying this as an Asimov fan – it is a weak story, which hasn’t even been reprinted in ages. Did anybody except for me actually read the Retro Hugo finalists or do they just vote by name recognition?

Wonder Woman wins Best Graphic Story, which is frankly puzzling. Now I like Wonder Woman, the character, as much as everybody else, but early Wonder Woman from the 1940s is frankly not very good and more of historical interest than anything else. And this particular story is WWII propaganda as well, complete with racist stereotypes. Of course, it’s difficult to avoid WWII propaganda in 1943, but we don’t necessarily have to recognise with the highest honour our genre has to offer. Especially since we did have two very good finalists in this category, Flash Gordon (pretty much the last chance to recognise Alex Raymond’s work, too) and Tintin, which is only very tangentially SFF. I would have been fine with either one of those winning, but Wonder Woman? Honestly, did anybody actually read the finalists or did they just vote for Wonder Woman, because they like the recent movie?

Heaven Can Wait wins Best Dramatic Presentation Long in what must be another name recognition vote, because it’s an Ernst Lubitsch movie, albeit a very minor one. Plus, Heaven Can Wait has the same basic plot as two other finalists in this category and IMO Cabin in the Sky was better, if only because it had better music. I obviously feel that Münchhausen should have won, because it was the best finalist in this category by the huge margin. But it seems that many Retro Hugo voters still cannot bring themselves to vote for a German movie from the 1940s that’s not propaganda and was made by many people who didn’t get along too well with the Nazis, but have absolutely no problem voting for a WWII propaganda comic that’s not even good.

Best Dramatic Presentation Short was the weakest category on the Retro Hugo ballot with the finalists being flawed at best and unwatchable trash at worst. Even the two cartoons, which are normally at least fun and well made, were bad and both were WWII propaganda, too. One of them, Der Führer’s Face, was an outright piece of xenophobic trash. IMO, the two Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur collaborations were the best of a weak bunch, even if the colonialist undertones of I Walked With a Zombie are uncomfortable today and The Seventh Victim is a suspense movie that’s not actually SFF and only shoehorned Satanists into the plot, because Satanists were considered less horrifying in 1943 than lesbians. Alas, of this sorry bunch of finalists, the Hugo voters picked Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman.

John W. Campbell wins Best Editor again, but then he really was the most influential editor of this area of SFF. Though Donald Wollheim coming in in second place must be due to name recognition again, because Wollheim – while a great editor in later decades – only edited a single anthology in 1943.

Virgil Finlay wins Best Professional Artist once again. Now I love Finlay’s art as much as everybody else, but voters might pick somebody else in this category for a change. I’m also sad that Margaret Brundage was overlooked once again, especially since we are rapidly running out of time to recognise her unique artwork. But then, I really think that Margaret Brundage’s work is both too sexy and not male gazy enough for many people.

Le Zombie wins Best Fanzine and Forrest J. Ackerman wins Best Fan Writer once agin. Now Ackerman is a hugely important figure in the history of fandom, but could we maybe acknowledge one of the other fine fan writers from the 1940s for a change?

And that’s it for the 1944 Retro Hugos. It may take a day or two for me to get the 2019 Hugo Award post up, because I will be at the ceremony and at the Hugo Losers’ Party after and then I’ll leave Dublin for Belfast on the next day.


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The Dublin Travel Travails Saga

Those who follow me on Twitter may already have seen that I had the hardest time travelling to Dublin. I got up at 4 AM and my plane left Bremen at 6:20 AM. I was supposed to reach Dublin at 11 am local time with a stopover in Amsterdam. But when I finally reached my hotel in Dublin, it was 10:20 PM, i.e. sixteen hours after I left Bremen.

By the time the plane from Bremen landed in Amsterdam, everything was okay. My Mom, who was supposed to travel to Dublin with me, and I disembarked. We had two hours of transfer time and headed to our next flight.

Now anybody who’s ever been to Amsterdam Schiphol airport will know that it’s a huge and sprawling airport and that depending at which terminal your plane arrives and leaves, it can be a lot of walking. Normally, this isn’t much of a problem, because the terminals at Schiphol airport are equipped with moving walkways, which are very reminiscent of the ones often found in golden age science fiction (think Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll”). Yesterday morning, however, three of the moving walkways in the terminal building were out of order. And our flight had arrived at a gate at the far end of the terminal. So that meant a lot of walking.

Again, this wouldn’t have been much of a problem, at least for me. But my Mom is 77 years old and cannot walk very well. She also has a known problem with a heart valve not functioning properly, though her doctor cleared her for travelling last month. I asked my Mom whether I should request assistance services for her, but she said, “Oh no, I’m not sick. I can walk and besides, it’s mostly moving walkways anyway.”

However, as mentioned above, three walkways weren’t working yesterday morning. Two of the broken walkways came after a stretch with no walkways at all, so that was a pretty long stretch without any walkways and also nowhere to sit down. And as it turned out, that stretch was too long for my Mom. Because at the beginning of the third non-functioning walkway, she became dizzy and held on to the handrail. I tried to coax her forward with “We’re almost at the main building, then you can sit down.” My Mom slumped forward and I said to hear, “Now please don’t fall down here.” But of course, she did and collapsed right there on the non-functioning walkway.

The next minutes were something of a blur. I asked a male passenger if he could help me pick my Mom up, but she had passed out. A cluster of people arrived, passengers and airport personnel. Two nice people, a man and a woman whom I took for medics at first, asked me questions about my Mom’s medical history which I answered. I wondered why medics at Schiphol airport were wearing armoured vests and it was only when I noticed that the “medics” also had handcuffs and guns that I realised they were airport police. Someone fetched a wheelchair and – when my Mom threw up – a pitcher from a nearby smoothie shop. The real medics arrived and I answered all questions again in a mix of English, German and Dutch, the latter usually to explain that I do speak Dutch, but don’t know the medical terms. My Mom was responsive again by now and said she was tired. She also had a bruise on her forehead from the rough surface of the walkway.

The medics hooked my Mom up to a mobile monitor and took her to an ambulance and then to the first aid station at the airport that the doctors there could check her out. The doctors at the first aid station were very nice and checked her out. My Mom was feeling a bit better by now, but still very tired. Meanwhile, I explained her whole medical history again. Now my Mom is taking anti-coagulant medication and so she bruises easily and the small bruise on her head looked more lurid than it normally would. This worried the doctors at the airport and so they wanted to do a CT scan of my Mom’s head to make sure that she didn’t have any intercranial bleeding or other damage. Alas, the airport first aid station doesn’t have a CT machine, so they had to send my Mom to a regular hospital. This was around the time the gate for our flight was about to close.

So we were both loaded into an ambulance and taken to VUmc, the Amsterdam University Medical Center. It’s supposedly the best hospital in the Netherlands and also happens to be only about ten minutes from Schiphol airport. Coincidentally, this was the first time I’d been outside Schiphol in twenty-five years or so, though I’ve been inside many times, because Schiphol is the most convenient hub for me. After a short ride past some very science fictional architecture (but then most big Dutch cities are a curious mix of very old and very futuristic architecture) we arrived at the emergency department of VUmc.

A very nice young doctor from the neurology department arrived to do some tests. Actually, all of the doctors we saw at VUmc were on the young side, probably because it is a university and teaching hospital. I explained my Mom’s medical history again. The nice young doctor was satisfied with the tests and didn’t think there was any intercranial bleeding, but we still needed to wait for the CT scan. Meanwhile, the medical monitors to which my Mom had been hooked up showed the heart valve problem, which drew another nice young doctor from the cardiology department. I explained again that yes, it’s a known problem and yes, it’s under supervision. The young cardiology doctor wanted to know which hospital had diagnosed my Mom and the name of her cardiologist. I told them which hospital it was, but I couldn’t remember the name of the cardiologist and didn’t have her number either, so I told the nice Dutch doctor that she should call my Mom’s regular doctor, because he has all the info.

By now it was almost noon. The plane would have just touched down in Dublin, if we had made the flight. I was also really hungry, because I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything in hours. I ate a joghurt at 4 AM at home and later I had a stroopwafel and water on the plane from Bremen to Amsterdam. Eventually, a nice orderly (who was about twice the age of most of the doctors) brought me a Cup-a-Soup, tomato-flavoured, and pointed me to the coffee machine in the hall. My Mom was allowed to eat anything until the doctor had cleared it.

Finally, they did the CT scan. Then the first young neurologist showed up with another nice and slightly older neurologist in tow. They ran some more tests and said everything was fine and that we could travel onwards. “What about the cardiologist?” “We’ll talk to her”, the two young doctors said and left. A few minutes later a nurse showed up to unhook my Mom from the monitors. One of the nice young doctors brought a letter for my Mom’s doctor at home and reception called a taxi to take us back to the airport. By now, it was maybe twenty past two. A lot later than we thought we’d fly, but it should still be possible to rebook and fly to Dublin on Tuesday.

While we were in the taxi and almost at the airport, my phone rang. I thought it was my Dad, whom I hadn’t been able to reach, and answered. It was the nice young cardiologist from the hospital. “We wanted to do a heart ultrasound on your mother”, she said, “But you were already gone.” I explained that the neurologist had cleared my Mom for travel and that I assumed she’d talked to the cardiologist as well. And then I asked, “How important is this heart ultrasound?” I asked, “Do we need to do it now or can we do it at home or – if need be – in Ireland?” The cardiologist insisted that we needed to do it now, just in case my Mom’s collapse had been caused by the bad heart valve. My Mom’s German doctor agreed. And if it was caused by the heart valve, travelling onwards could be dangerous.

So we told the taxi driver to turn around and return to the hospital. We already were at the exit to the airport by now. At the hospital, I got another bad surprise, when the taxi driver told me the prize, because it turned out that this ten minute (and back) taxi drive cost 64 Euros plus tip.

Then we were back at the hospital. The neurologist apologised for the mix-up and then we waited. And waited. My Mom dozed on the gurney and I dozed a little in the visitor’s chair. And it got later and later and no sign of any cardiologist or heart ultrasound. My Mom and I decided that even if she couldn’t go to Dublin, I should travel onwards, because the hotel, the flights, etc… had already been paid for anyway and two days in advance was very late to cancel all my WorldCon commitments, etc…

And we still waited. It was getting later and later and it looked increasingly doubtful that anybody would go to Dublin that day. I had no luggage beyond a handbag with spare underpants. Worse, cellphone reception at the hospital was terrible and you had to go outside to even use your phone. And since there was no WiFi, there was no internet. I still hadn’t reached my father and I also needed to call the hotel to inform them that I’ll be late, but that I’m coming and that they shall hold my room. And if I couldn’t fly on Tuesday, I also needed someone to inform WorldCon, because I had promised to help with move in on Wednesday. Alas, I couldn’t reach anybody. In the end, I called a colleague of my Dad’s, because I knew they had gone together to Koblenz for work-related reasons. Some other person from the same company answered, because the cellphone had been reassigned to someone else. I told the other person that I really, really need to talk to my father and whether he could contact him and tell him to call me. “That’s difficult”, he said, “Cause I’m on a ship in the middle of the North Sea. But I’ll see what I can do.” Apparently, he did manage, because my father finally called me back, though I still couldn’t reach the hotel.

Meanwhile, an ultrasound technician was scanning my Mom’s heart for what seemed like a very long time. And after the first technician had gone, another technician appeared to do another scan. And then we waited again, while they evaluated the results. Finally, the cradiologist appeared and said that my Mom couldn’t go on to Dublin. She could either stay at the hospital in Amsterdam or return home. My Mom of course wanted to go home, because if you have to be in hospital, it’s better to be in a hospital half an hour from home than four hours away in another country. However, my Mom couldn’t go on a regular flight, but would need to be taken home under medical supervision in an ambulance. I asked the doctors to arrange everything and dumped two weeks worth of medication for my Mom, already prepared in day to day boxes, into the hands of the nice young cardiologist. Then I said good-bye to my Mom and asked reception to call a taxi.

Mind you, the hospital stay in Amsterdam and the many tests they did are all covered by my Mom’s German health insurance. The ambulance trip home might be a problem, but we’ll try to reclaim that from her German health insurance, because there is no other way for her to go home. Try to imagine the financial disaster, if something like this had happened to someone from the US.

The taxi back to the airport cost me another 35 Euros plus tip, so I paid an extra 100 Euros only in taxi fees (which I will try to reclaim from my Mom’s health insurance as well). By now it was 5 PM. At the airport I went to the KLM travel services desk and explained the situation. Turned out that there still was a flight out to Dublin that night. However, I needed to pay 202 Euros, because my ticket didn’t include schedule changes. I said, “Well, it’s not my fault that my Mom collapsed on your non-functioning walkways. Should I just have left her lying there and gone on to my flight?” The lady at the KLM desk apologised, but policy is policy. So I grudgingly whipped out my credit card and paid. I can probably reclaim those 202 Euros from our travel cancellation insurance.

I also asked what happened to our luggage and learned that it was still in Schiphol, because someone had informed KLM that we weren’t flying. “I still need both suitcases”, I told the lady, “Because my Mom’s and my stuff is all mingled up and whichever suitcase I get means I don’t have half the stuff I need.” So now our luggage and I were once more on the way to Dublin.

In the terminal at Schiphol, I bought a grossly overpriced phone charger, because mine had broken down the day before. I ate a ramen noodle soup – also grossly overpriced and no longer nearly as good as before the renovation of the international terminal. Alas, I still couldn’t reach the hotel and sent a text to my father and a cry for help via Twitter that someone really needed to contact the hotel for me. My father finally managed to reach the hotel and I went to my gate. I also called the hospital to ask after my Mom and ask them to tell her that I still got a flight tonight

And guess what? My already late flight to Dublin was delayed by half an hour. On the plane, I sat next to a very nice Dutch lady. I had a coronation chicken sandwich and a small bottle of red wine (which KLM gives you at no extra charge), because after everything that had happened, I really needed a drink.

The sun had just risen, when I left Bremen. It was about to set, when I left Amsterdam. By the time I finally got to Dublin, it was dark. At the airport, I had a new problem, because I had two pretty heavy suitcases. I could put them onto a baggage trolley at the airport, but getting them onto the airport bus was already a problem, though a kindly gentleman helped me.

On the Dublin airport bus, I also met the first WorldCon people, two nice Swedish fans who’d flown in on the same plane. The bus driver told us that he’d announce the stations so we’d know when to get off. Alas, because we were all attending WorldCon, he only announced the Convention Centre. However, I needed to get off at The Point, one stop earlier and approximately 800 metres away. Which isn’t that much of a walk under normal conditions, but I was bone tired and had two heavy suitcases.

So I thought, “Okay, I’ll just go into a Convention Centre and ask them to call me a taxi. I already paid 100 Euros in taxi fees, so what’s a few more?” Alas, the Convention Centre was already closed, because it was almost ten PM. I knew there was supposed to be a tram, but I could see neither a station nor tram tracks. So I did the only thing I could do. I took my two heavy suitcases and started to walk in what should be the right direction. I thought, “If I find anything that’s open – a pub, a bar, a restaurant – I’ll go in and ask them to call a taxi.” However, the Dublin Convention Centre is in a newish neighbourhood – reclaimed harbour land – which is full of offices and banks and a lot of buildings still under construction, but had neither pubs nor anything else that was open at 10 PM. There were hardly any pedestrians either and the first one I asked had never heard of either the Gibson Hotel or The Point. So there was nothing left to do but walk. And then, on top of everything, it started to rain.

By this point, I was pretty much close to crying. But just sitting down on the sidewalk in the rain or jumping into the river Liffey wasn’t an option, so I just kept on walking. I found another pedestrian, who at least pointed me in the right direction. I found tram tracks, too, so I knew I was on the right track.

Then I met a third pedestrian and asked him for the way. And this time I got really lucky, because the third pedestrian was Phil Dyson who’s on the Dublin con com and who was actually on his way to the Gibson Hotel himself. He helped me with my suitcase and I also got to meet his wife, whom he was meeting at the Gibson. Phil also showed me where the reception of the Gibson Hotel actually was (on the third floor, which was… unexpected). I thanked him and checked in. And I actually still had a room, because my Dad had managed to reach the hotel.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to be inside a hotel room before. And I was even happier, when I found a kettle and a tea tray. I unpacked some of my luggage – if only because many of the things I needed like my pyjama, new underwear, my toothbrush and other cosmetics stuff – was at the bottom of one of the suitcases. Then I hopped into the shower, unpacked some more and also separated my own stuff from my Mom’s. Then I finally went to bed, bone tired, but still couldn’t sleep.

Mind you, in spite of the truly hellish day I had, every single person I met – whether fan or mundane – was nice. Otherwise, it would have been even more awful.

I did eventually fall asleep. On Wednesday morning, I headed to the Convention Centre (and walked into the Central Bank of Ireland by mistake first, because both are buildings with jutting glass facades on the banks of the River Liffey populated by people with badges on lanyards, though I did wonder why do many folks were male and wearing suits) to get my badge and my programme participant and Hugo acceptor package. Then I spent the rest of the day helping with set up in the Point Square venue, assembling shelves, taping down tablecloths, carrying boxes and the like. I also talked to my Mom on the phone, who was doing much better, though still in Amsterdam. In the evening, I had a burrito with Shaun Duke of The Skiffy and Fanty Show who’d just flown in from Minnesota and had no luggage, because KLM lost an entire plane’s luggage. He’s far from the only one – almost everybody had problems getting to Dublin for WorldCon.

On Thursday, I had a the “International television” panel, which went well, as well as the speedcrafting workshop, which went pretty well, too, I think. I met lots of great people, though I was hastening from one location to the other and trying to find where everything was at the Convention Centre (I did know where everything was at Point Square, because I had helped to set up). I didn’t even get to see the dealers’ room yet. But I did meet a lot of great people.

And that was my WorldCon so far.

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Cora goes to WorldCon 77 in Dublin, Ireland, and TitanCon in Berfast, Northern Ireland

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This week, I’m off to Ireland for WorldCon 77 in Dublin and TitanCon, the 2019 EuroCon in Belfast the weekend after. I’ll be leaving early on Tuesday morning and am really looking forward to the experience. I’m particularly excited to the be attending the Hugo ceremony as the designated accepter for best fanzine finalist Galactic Journey.

So there will be light to no blogging for the next two weeks and plenty of photos and con reports, Retro Hugo and Hugo discussion (come on, you know there’ll be Hugo discussion) once I get back. You can also get live updates of what I’m up to on Twitter.

In the meantime, the Speculative Fiction Showcase and the Indie Crime Scene will still be chugging along, including (somewhat truncated) link round-ups.

But should you find yourself in Dublin for WorldCon 77 or Belfast for TitanCon, say hello to me.

You can also find me and several other fine folks on the following panels:

Non-English language SFF television

Format: Panel

15 Aug 2019, Thursday 13:00 – 13:50, Wicklow Room-2 (CCD)

Interest in TV from different countries is increasing. There are many good SFF TV shows produced in non-English speaking countries, and they are getting easier to find. The panel discusses their favourites and what makes them worthwhile to watch.

Harun Šiljak (Trinity College Dublin, CONNECT SFI Centre for Future Networks and Communications), Cora Buhlert, Lionel Davoust, J. Sharpe (Zilverspoor), Claudia Fusco (M)


Example of shows: Ad Vitam (France), (Ijon Tichy, Raumpilot (Germany), Dark (Germany), The Rain (Denmark), Äkta människor (Sweden), Goblin (Korea), but there are a lot more.

Speed crafting – session 1

Format: Workshop

15 Aug 2019, Thursday 15:30 – 17:20, Warehouse Art Demo Area (Point Square Dublin)

It’s like speed dating for handicrafts. Have you ever wanted to try your hand at something new, but haven’t managed to take the ‘plunge’? We will provide the materials and instructors. Each session will have different handicrafts, and you will try each one. You won’t end up with something you can take away, but maybe you’ll be inspired. Sign-ups in advance will be required for this workshop (limited to 15 people).

Session 1: knitting, crochet, lucet.

Rebecca Hewett (M), David Demchuk, Nina Niskanen, Cora Buhlert

Introduction to SFF romance

Format: Panel

16 Aug 2019, Friday 15:00 – 15:50, Wicklow Hall 2B (CCD)

SFF romance is as varied and creative as the speculative genre as a whole but, along with other romantic sub-genres, has often been dismissed and undervalued. From shapeshifting billionaires to far future secret agents, vampire brides to Highland flings, this panel will provide a broad introduction to SFF romance in all its glory as well as providing a range of reading recommendations.

Darlene Marshall, Cora Buhlert (M), D.A Lascelles (Zig Zag Education), Jeffe Kennedy (SFWA)

The global multiverse: the comics scene worldwide

Format: Panel

17 Aug 2019, Saturday 13:30 – 14:20, Odeon 3 (Point Square Dublin)

Darna! Storm Riders! The Metabarons! These are just some of the comic book titles found outside the dominant US comics or manga industries. Whether it’s bande dessinée from France, manhua from China, or self-published ’zines from the Philippines, come and discover not just one new world, but a multitude!

Christopher Hwang (Dublin 2019) (M), Cora Buhlert, Fulvio Gatti, Geoff Ryman (African Speculative Fiction Society)

The full programme is available here.

TitanCon presents EuroCon 2019

At TitanCon, you can find me on the following panel:

Food. glorious food

24 Aug 2019, Saturday 11:00 – 12:00, Lagan A (Hilton Belfast)

A look at the nature and significance of Food in SFF

Cora Buhlert , Dr Gillian Polack

You can find the full TitanCon programme here.

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Eric John Stark – Social Justice Warrior of Mars

Today, I’m over at Galactic Journey again, reviewing The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman by Leigh Brackett, the 1964 expansions of the novellas “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” and “Black Amazon of Mars” from 1949 and 1951 respectively. These are two of the three novellas about Eric John Stark that Leigh Brackett wrote for Planet Stories in the late 1940s/early 1950s. The third, “Enchantress of Venus” from 1949, was not reprinted in the 1964 edition and has never been expanded to novel length either.

With the 1944 Retro Hugos and this review for Galactic Journey, I have been reading a lot of vintage Leigh Brackett. And one thing that struck me was that even though Leigh Brackett has never been considered a left-leaning writer in any way, her space opera adventures from the 1940s and 1950s show a lot of sympathy for marginalised people, particular for downtrodden and exploited indigenous people. Furthermore, Leigh Brackett’s stories featured quite a few protagonists of colour, including Eric John Stark himself, and women with agency (even if that agency all too often manifested as typical 1940s femme fatale villainy) at a time when that was far from common in science fiction.

I’ve already written at length about the 1944 Retro Hugo finalist “Citadel of the Lost Ships” and its protagonist Roy Campbell here. Now Roy Campbell very much struck me as a prototype for Eric John Stark, who showed up a few years later to the point that both characters are men of colour, even if the cover artists inevitably ignored that fact until well into the 21st century. Campbell and Stark are very similar characters with similar outlooks, though Stark is much better developed and indeed one of the most interesting characters of the Golden Age, which usually was not particularly strong on characterisation.

But as I reread the three stories about him (cause I reread “Enchantress of Venus, too, while I was at it) it struck me that Eric John Stark is a literal social justice warrior. Nominally, Stark is a mercenary, though he himself admits that “mercenary” is just a kinder word for “outlaw” in his case (and it’s striking how many outlaw protagonists there are in Golden Age SFF, e.g. Conan, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, Northwest Smith, Roy Campbell and of course Eric John Stark). However, unlike most mercenaries, Stark doesn’t go where the money is, but inevitably sides with various oppressed native people throughout the solar system who have the misfortune to get in the way of the expansion of the Terran empire. And so Stark is involved in an endless series of uprisings and guerilla wars, usually against the twin forces of colonialism and capitalism. We only get brief flashbacks of these uprisings and hints that most of them failed.

The fact that Stark inevitably sides with the underdog is due to his unusual upbringing as an oprhaned human child adopted by a native tribe on Mercury and then orphaned a second time, when greedy miners exterminated his tribe and put young Stark in a cage. He was rescued by Simon Ashton, a Terran police officer who took Stark in and raised him to adulthood. Given Stark’s history, it’s not surprising that he fights to protect other indigenous people when he could not protect his own tribe. And Simon Ashton, though theoretically a representative of a system that sides with the oppressors instead of the oppressed, nonetheless has a lot of sympathy for Stark’s less than legal activities, as becomes clear in the opening pages of Queen of the Martian Catacombs/The Secret of Sinharat. Coincidentally – and this is something I had forgotten – Simon Ashton is described as dark-skinned as well.

In the first of his three adventures chronicled in Planet Stories between 1949 and 1951, Eric John Stark tries to keep a charismatic con man and his retinue of interplanetary gangsters from trying to incite a holy war on Mars, because the indigenous people would be the ones who suffer the most. Later, he starts a slave revolt on Venus and takes down a decadent aristocratic family and finally, he helps to defend the Martian city of Kushat, a city he has no connection to beyond the fact that a dead friend hailed from there, against yet another warlord who wants to conquer them as well as against sinister aliens from the polar regions of Mars. Stark always fights for justice and freedom for the oppressed, both in his chronicled adventures as well as in the ones we don’t see. So yes, he’s definitely a social justice warrior and he’s far from the only one in Leigh Brackett’s Golden Age stories.

Of course, there’s also the Skaith trilogy from the mid 1970s, where Eric John Stark travels to the dying planet of Skaith to rescue his mentor and surrogate father Simon Ashton from the planet’s evil rulers, who have installed a socialist nightmare regime right out of central casting which taxes the hardworking population half to death, keeps them subjugated with superstition and tries to prevent them from emigrating to greener pastures (that is why they kidnapped Ashton) and also floods the planet with hordes of evil space hippies who form a sort of instant army deployable wherever needed. So how does the anti-leftwing slant of this trilogy square with the social justice slant of the earlier stories?

Well, for starters political views often change over a lifetime and many people become more conservative as they age. Leigh Brackett was in her thirties when she wrote the earlier Stark stories and around sixty when she wrote the Skaith trilogy, so she probably moved further to the right as she aged. Heinlein from the 1940s also reads very differently from Heinlein in the 1970s. And besides, Stark only comes to Skaith to rescue Simon Ashton and initially has little interest in the local conflict, though the local conflict won’t leave him alone. Stark does eventually side with the locals, as he comes to know them (and falls in love with one of them). And besides, the inhabitants of Skaith genuinely are oppressed, even if their oppressors are evil space Socialists rather than evil space capitalists.

As for the evil space hippies, who very much puzzled my younger self, because I couldn’t imagine less likely villains than hippies of all people. My theory at the time was, “Well, Leigh Brackett is from California and The Ginger Star was published in 1974 and California was hippie central in the 1960s and 1970s. Who knows, maybe she found drugged out hippies asleep in her garden, the needle still in their arm, every morning. If I had to step over drugged out hippies every time I get out to fetch the newspaper, I’d be pissed off, too.” Now drug addicts sleeping and sometimes dying in other people’s gardens and doorways was big problem in the Steintor neighbourhood of Bremen around the time I first read the Skaith trilogy, so I simply projected an issue I was familiar with elsewhere.

However, thanks to Quentin Tarantino and an endless number of articles and essays commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson murders, we know that much of Hollywood really was deadly afraid of hippies – not just Charles Manson and his followers, but anybody who even remotely looked like a hippie – in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Now I was certainly aware of the Manson murders at the time I first read the Skaith trilogy – if only because I remember watching The Fearless Vampire Killers at the movie night at my school with a bunch of friends and whispering, “That’s her. That’s the one who got murdered”, followed by lurid and probably incorrect details about what had happened to Sharon Tate – but to me those murders were only something terrible that had happened a long time ago in a place far away. It wasn’t until the deluge of articles about the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson murders and that bloody Tarantino film that I realised that those long ago murders apparently had a much bigger psychological impact on the American psyche, particular those of people living in Los Angeles at the time, than I thought. Though I still roll my eyes at the narrative about how the Manson murders marked the end of the peaceful flower power sixties, because from my point of view, the various countercultural movements of the 1960s have always been intertwined with violence from all sides. The brutal attacks on peaceful protesters during the state visit of the Shah of Persia in 1967, the murder of Benno Ohnesorg during said protests (yes, I’m calling it murder), the attempt on the life of student activist Rudi Dutschke in 1968, the riots in Paris and the violent suppression of the Prague spring, both in 1968, and let’s not forget the 1967 L’Innovation department store fire in Brussels, which left 251 people dead and has long been suspected to have been caused by arson attack by a group protesting the “American weeks” at the department store. And while it has never been proven whether the L’Innovation fire was arson, the leftwing German Kommune 1 were gloating in this disgusting leaflet and members of what would eventually become the Red Army Fraction started their terrorist careers by committing arson attacks on German department stores inspired by the Brussels fire, which thankfully did not cause any deaths or injuries. So in Europe, the peace and love sixties were never peaceful. Nor were they in the US, as the violent attacks on and murders of civil rights activists, the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968 (and the murder of John F. Kennedy earlier in the decade) and the bloody war in Vietnam show. In fact, given all this carnage in what was a very violent decade, I’m surprised that the admittedly horrible murders of a young actress and her friends and a couple of supermarket owners had such an outsized impact.

But to get back to the point (sorry, but I wanted to write the above ever since that bloody Tarantino movie came out), much of Hollywood and much of America in general was terrified of hippies after the Manson murders. Leigh Brackett worked as a screenwriter and wrote the screenplay for Rio Lobo, which came out in 1970, i.e. she may well have been in Hollywood at the time of the murders and would certainly have been aware of the general atmosphere of fear. The Ginger Star came out in 1974, so it’s well possible that it was influenced by the mood of the time.

However, the Skaith trilogy is late period Brackett. And her works from the 1940s and 1950s show a lot of sympathy for anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist causes. Which in turn makes me wonder why Leigh Brackett has been embraced by the Sad and Rabid Puppies, particularly the Pulp Revolution offshot movement. Now on the surface, Leigh Brackett’s Golden Age stories are very much what the Puppies claim to want, chockfull of adventure and action (and Brackett is listed in Appendix N in the original Dungeons & Dragons handbook from the 1970s, which is a sort of literary Bible to the Pulp Revolution movement). The protagonists, including Eric John Stark, are generally macho types who just grab a woman they like and plant a “kiss brutal as a blow” (actual quote from “Black Amazon of Mars”) on her lips. On the other hand, Leigh Brackett had a lot more characters of colour than was common in the Golden Age and Brackett’s women are usually strong women with agency, even if a lot of them are villainesses or at least antiheroines. Ciaran, the antiheroine of People of the Talisman even delivers a very feminist statement (quoted over at Galactic Journey), when Stark asks her how such a nice girl came to be a battle axe wielding Martian warlord. But I suspect that the puppies are willing to overlook those bits, especially since Brackett delivers thrills and action aplenty. Though I do wonder how they managed to miss the anti-colonial and anti-capitalist bits in many of Brackett’s Golden Age stories.

Comments are closed. Not interested in arguing with puppies or Tarantino fans.

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The 2019 Dragon Award Finalists: Mainstream Respectability at Last?

The best thing about the Dragon Awards, an SFF prize given out by DragonCon, a big convention in Atlanta, is that the finalist announcement enlivens the dead period between the close of the Hugo nominations and the start of WorldCon. And even though this year’s announcement is a day and a half late, the Dragons did not disappoint once again. The full list of finalists is here or, in less eye-searing design, here at File 770. Camestros Felapton also has some commentary here.

For those who’ve been following the Dragon Awards saga these past four years (my previous posts about this may be found here), the most notable thing about this year’s ballot is how much like the ballot of a regular mainstream award it looks. There are very few “Who the hell is this?” finalists – indeed, even the Nebula ballot looked odder this year than the Dragon ballot. So it seems as if the Dragon Awards are finally maturing, so sadly we still have no info about the number of ballots cast, let along any voting breakdowns, longlists or the like. We also still don’t know how the finalists and winners are determined, because the rules still state that the administrators can decide finalists and winners, if they want. Not saying that they do – those clauses are an artifact of the Dragon Awards cribbing boilerplate rules from internet sweepstakes.

The growing respectability of the Dragon Awards is at least partly due to the efforts of the Red Panda Fraction, a group of Atlanta area fans and Dragon Con attendees, who want to see the Dragon Awards become what they were intended to be, Dragon Con’s award for broadly popular SFF works. The Red Panda Fraction have created an open eligibility spreadsheet for the Dragon Awards, modelled after Renay’s Hugo Spreadsheet of Doom. Given the odd eligiblity period for the Dragon Awards, this spreadsheet was enormously helpful.

So let’s take a look at the finalists:

The best science fiction novel category is entirely full of finalists by mainstream publishers (though not big five, because Solaris and Baen are not big five), most of them broadly popular. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine is one of most discussed space opera novels of the year (in a year that has an embarrassment of riches in the space opera genre). Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers is a Hugo finalist by a popular author. Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey is the latest installment in the hyper-popular The Expanse series. Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson is another novel by an author with a big fanbase and one I wouldn’t be surprised to see on the Hugo longlist. Europe at Dawn by Dave Hutchinson is a bit of the odd finalist out here, because while Dave Hutchinson’s Europe series is popular in the UK, it’s much less known in the US, whence most Dragon Award attendees hail. Europe at Dawn is also more of a Clarke Award or BSFA Award book than a Dragon Award book. It’s also near future dystopian fiction, whereas everything else in this category are various flavours of space opera, hard science fiction or military science fiction. Finally, we have A Star-Wheeled Sky by Brad Torgersen. This might be considered the requisite puppy finalist, except that I’m not sure if it is. Because A Star-Wheeled Sky was published by Baen who traditionally have a big presence at Dragon Con. Not to mention that Brad Torgersen still seems to be popular with the Analog and Baen crowd. Finally, some Amazon reviewers are grumbling that there are too many female characters in this book, which is interesting, given the author.

Diversity count: 5 men, 2 women (James S.A. Corey is two people), 1 writer of colour, at least 1 LGBTQ writer

Best fantasy novel is another category entirely full of broadly popular books by mainstream publishers. We have the highly popular Hugo and Nebula finalist Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik and Ann Leckie’s highly anticipated foray into epic fantasy The Raven Tower, which was also my pick in this category. Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett is another popular fantasy novel that got a lot of buzz last year and will probably pop up on the Hugo longlist. Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovich is the latest installment in the highly popular Peter Grent urban fantasy series. House of Assassins is the second or third book in Larry Correia’s sword and sorcery series. Again, I wouldn’t call it a pure puppy finalist, because Larry Correia does have a big fanbase, though his books aren’t to my taste at all. Also, I’ve heard that his sword and sorcery books are more palatable to readers outside his gunlover fanbase than the Monster Hunter books. So again, it’s not exactly a surprising finalist. Though according to this comment at File 770, Larry Correia explicitly asked his fans not to nominate him. I’m sure he’ll be devastated. Meanwhile, the most surprising finalist in this category is Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys, her spin on the Lovecraft mythos, which is more horror than straight fantasy.

Diversity count: 3 women, 3 men, 1 writer of colour, 1 international writer

In past years, Best Young Adult/Middle Grade book was the Dragon Award category with the most mainstream books and winners. This year, it looks less mainstream than the science fiction and fantasy category, which is certainly interesting. That said, Archenemies by Marissa Meyer, Bloodwitch by Susan Dennard and Imposters by Scott Westerfeld are all broadly popular YA novels. The YA horror novel Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand got a lot of buzz as well, though in horror and thriller circles rather than in the broader SFF community, and is a Bram Stoker Award and Lambda Literary finalist. None of these are in any way surprising finalists. The Pioneer by Bridget Tyler is a book I’d never heard of. It’s a YA science fiction novel published by HarperTeen, a mainstream publisher. Judging by its Amazon ranking and review count as well as the number of Goodreads rankings and reviews (which offer only a snapshot), it doesn’t seem to be hugely popular, but maybe Bridget Tyler has a small, but engaged fanbase or is otherwise well known among the DragonCon crowd. This brings us to the two offbeat finalists. Armageddon Girls by Aaron Michael Ritchey is post-apocalyptic YA and was published by an outfit called Shadow Alley Press, which appears to be an indie author collective. I know nothing else about them and have never heard of any of their authors, though they do mention that one of their authors (not Ritchey) will be appearing at DragonCon. Meanwhile, one of Aaron Michael Ritchey’s previous books was published by Kevin J. Anderson’s WirdFire Press and Anderson is of course popular with the Dragon crowd. Finally, we have The King’s Regret, a YA Steampunk novel by one Philip Ligon. The King’s Regret was published by Russell Newquist’s Silver Empire Press, who are affiliated with the Superversive SF movement and also publish premier Dragon Award champion Declan Finn, who included Ligon’s novel in his Dragon Award recommendations. I haven’t been able to find out much about Philip Ligon beyond a bare bones website and this interview from 2017. That’s a nice cover BTW. And kind of familiar.

Diversity count: 3 women, 3 men, 1 international writer, 2 indie writers

So let’s take a look at best military science fiction/fantasy. As Camestros Felapton said, this is the most Dragon Award looking category on this ballot. The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley, which was also my pick for this category, got a lot of buzz earlier this year, though it is not your typical military SF novel and indeed has made puppies cry. Uncompromising Honor by David Weber is the latest novel in his hugely popular Honor Harrington series, plus Weber is very popular with the DragonCon crowd. Joshua Dazelle is a very popular indie author of military science fiction and if I’m not mistaken, I featured his Dragon nominated novel Marine in one of my new release round-ups. Order of the Centurion is the first book in a subseries of Nick Cole and Jason Anspach’s Galaxy’s Edge series. Nick Cole is the one puppy-affiliated author whose indie novels with Jason Anspach have broken out of the puppy bubble into the broader Kindle Unlimited readership, probably because Cole and Anspach write the sort of crash boom bang military SF that KU readers like. Finally, A Pale Dawn by Chris Kennedy and Mark Wandrey and Sons of the Lion by Jason Cordova were both published by Chris Kennedy’s publishing outfit and are both part of Kennedy’s Omega War series and linked to his Four Horsemen universe. We’ve seen Kennedy and friends at the Dragon Awards before. So in short, we have two broadly popular and wildly different mainstream novels and four popular indie books in this category. And considering that military science fiction is extremely dominated by indie authors these days (and traditionally published military science fiction like Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade or Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy or Elizabeth Bonesteel’s Central Corps series, while excellent, doesn’t deliver the sort of white dude wish fulfilment fantasy that habitual readers of the genre want), that is not exactly surprising.

Diversity count: 1 woman, 7 men, 1 writer of colour, 4 indie writers

On to Best alternate history. In many ways, this has always been the oddest Dragon Award category, because alternate history is such a tiny subgenre. Which makes this year’s very mainstream finalists in this category even more surprising. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is extremely popular, a Hugo finalist and Nebula and Locus Award winner. Lavie Tidhar is a highly regarded author and Unholy Land is alternate history set in a Jewish state in East Africa. Though Lavie Tidhar strikes me more as a Clarke Award and World Fantasy Award author than a dragon Award finalist. The Black Chamber is a WWI alternate history novel by S.M. Stirling, a popular author of alternate history. The Iron Codex by David Mack is WWII alternate history by an author best known for his Star Trek tie-ins. Holding up the indie flag is The World Asunder by Kacey Ezell, a cold war alternate history novel with psychic powers set in Berlin. Kacey Ezell was also nominated in this category last year and is published by Chris Kennedy’s outfit. Finally, we come to what has to be oddest Dragon Award finalist of all time and given the history of this award, that’s saying a lot. I’m talking about Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan – yes, the Booker Prize stalwart who vehemently insisted that his book isn’t science fiction, even though it absolutely is (and also definitely alternate history, set in a 1980s Britain with advanced AI due to Alan Turing not taking his own life because of general homophobia). The highly touted Machines Like Me did not make the Booker Prize longlist this year, though four other literary SFF novels did, so now Ian McEwan gets a Dragon Award nomination as a consolation prize, which is sort of a tradition with this award. Though I suspect Mr. McEwan will be very puzzled by his Dragon Award nomination and even more puzzled, if he wins. I’m almost tempted to vote for him, just because.

By the way, one thing I noticed is that all of these alternate history novels are set in the 20th century or beyond. We have WWI, the ever popular WWII, the Cold War and the Space Race, the 1980s and Unholy War, whose setting seems to be contemporary/near contemporary. I’m not sure what to make of this. Are writers and readers simply less interested in alternate history with pre-20th century settings? Is this the result of the extreme 20th century focus in history classes in many countries?

Diversity count: 2 women, 4 men, 2 international writers, 1 indie writer

Best media tie-in is exactly the sort of thing the Dragon Awards were supposedly created to honour, books that are very popular, but often overlooked by other awards. And so we have several big and popular franchises such as Big Damn Hero, a Firefly tie-in by James Lovegrove and Nancy Holder, The Darkness on the Edge of Town, a Stranger Things tie-in by Adam Christopher, The Way to the Stars by Una McCormack, a Star Trek Discovery tie-in, two Star Wars tie-ins, Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray and Thrawn: Alliance by Timothy Zahn (I continue to be baffled by the popularity of Grand Admiral Thrawn, since I didn’t even care for him all that much when Heir to the Empire came out 28 years ago). The sixth finalist is rather baffling, since it’s our friend Chris Kennedy again with The Replicant War, which appears to be a LitRPG novel, though it’s difficult to tell what media it ties into. Okay, so it is listed in the media tie-in category at Amazon, but that can happen also to non-tie-in books when you use keywords like “TV”, “cartoon”, “toy”, etc… Blasters of Forever, Cartoony Justice and The Faulty Television Receiver have all been listed in the media tie-in category at Amazon, even though none of them are tie-ins to any existing media. Looking up Anticipation Press, the publisher of The Replicant War, doesn’t help either, because it leads you to two other books sold in Baen’s e-book store. According to Doris V. Sutherland commenting at Camestros’ blog, The Replicant War ties in to a videogame called Turbolance, which I’ve never heard of either. Still very odd.

Diversity count: 3 women, 4 men, 3 international writers, 1 indie writer

On to Best Horror: We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix is a rock horror novel that got a lot of buzz and awards love. Robert McCammon is a popular horror author and Cardinal Black is the latest novel in his popular Matthew Corbett series. Little Darlings by Melanie Golding is an extremely popular book that got a huge amount of buzz – however, it’s usually classified as a psychological thriller rather than horror. Riddance by Shelley Jackson is a literary ghost horror novel that got a lot of critical acclaim. Shelley Jackson is also the ex-wife of Jonathan Lethem. 100 Fathoms Below by Steven L. Kent and Nicholas Kaufman is submarine horror by a popular horror author and an author better known for his military science fiction. Zombie Airman by David Guenther is a self-published zombie novel. To my knowledge, Guenther is not affiliated with any of the groups of indie authors we have encountered at the Dragon Awards before.

Diversity count: 2 women, 5 men, 1 international author, 1 indie author

Best comic book is dominated by popular and well regarded comics. We have two Batman books, a Spider-Man book, Mister Miracle, perennial awards favourite Saga and the Eisner Award winning Black Hammer.

Best graphic novel is more of a mix with Hugo finalists Monstress by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda and On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden (which is lovely BTW, and which I nominated), an X-Men book by ed Piskor, I Am Young by M. Dean, a graphic novel about the relationship between two Beatles fans, one of them a second generation Iranian immigrant (Do I hear puppies crying?), in Scotland, Hey, Kiddo by Jarret J. Krosoczka, a graphic novel memoir about a boy growing up in a family of addicts (more puppy crying), and Berlin by Jason Lutes, a historical graphic novel set in Berlin during the dying days of the Weimar Republic. Interestingly, the last three of those don’t seem to be SFFnal at all.

Best TV series is a ballot full of highly popular series with Game of Thrones, Lucifer, The Orville, Star Trek Discovery, Good Omens and The Umbrella Academy. Absolutely no surprises here.

Best movie is not surprising either with a bounty of comic book adaptations. We have a Marvel trifecta with Avengers Endgame (well, it only is the highest grossing movie of all time), Captain Marvel and Spider-Man: Far From Home, another Spider-Man film with the delightful Hugo finalist Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and Aquaman. The biggest surprise in this category is Alita: Battle Angel, which was generally not well received and got middling to bad reviews. But then, even badly reviewed movies can do well, as the huge grosses of those completely superfluous Disney live action remakes of animated classics show.

I can’t say much about the game categories, because I’m not a gamer. But I see a lot o big names like Assassin’s Creed, World of Warcraft, Red Dead Redemption (Is this weird western? Cause I thought it was plain western), Elder Scrolls, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Fallout, Magic: the Gathering, Call of the Cthulhu and Warhammer 40000.

So the Dragon Awards finally seem to be moving towards what they were supposed to do, namely reward broadly popular works in a variety of genres. Indies and eager self-promoters can still grab slots in the less popular down ballot categories, but except for military science fiction they no longer dominate any one category. Chris Kennedy still managed to grab a few slots for his publishing outfit, but then maybe he is one of the few who still care. Meanwhile, the 20Booksto50K/LMBPN Publishing folks are notable by their complete absence. There are a few puppy/puppy adjacent authors, but most of them have fanbases beyond the puppy bubble. And indeed, Camestros Felapton dug up Brad Torgersen’s reaction to the ballot and a list of which finalists he considers the relevant ones. It’s about the names you’d expect except for Philip Ligon, who’s notable by his absence.

Sadly, the Dragon Awards are still lacking on the diversity front, but then popular vote awards often default to the straight, white and male, because books by straight white men still get more promotion. Of 48 finalists in the fiction categories 17 are women, that’s 35 percent. Not too bad, but still much lower than what we see in other awards, especially considering that some of the most popular and highly acclaimed SFF authors of today are women. Only three writers of colour, all of them Latino, managed to get nominated, that’s a pitiful 6.25 percent. There are also eight international authors nominated for the Dragon Awards. Six of them are British, one Australian and one Israeli respectively. The comparatively many British Dragon finalists are surprising, since DragonCon is a very American dominated convention.

There is also more than one decent finalist to vote for in every category – in several categories there are five or six good finalists. This is a huge improvement. Whether this is organic or carefully curated by the Dragon Award administratos we will never know.

So that’s it for the 2019 Dragon Award finalists. Who will win? We’ll see in September.

ETA: File 770 lists the number of Goodreads ratings for the Dragon Award finalists, which offers some clues regarding their wider popularity.

ETA 2: Camestros Felapton has made a gender breakdown of the Dragon Awards in the fiction and comic categories and notes that the gender balance is much better this year, though far from even.

ETA 3: Camestros Felapton has also done a breakdown of publishers to see how the big five publishers, medium publishers like Baen or Kensington, small presses, author collectives and indie authors are doing in the Dragon Awards.

ETA 4: Camestros Felapton offers some speculations based on some vague stats in a press release about the Dragon Awards.

ETA 5: Richard Paolinelli, Dragon Award finalist in 2017 (I think) is still pissed off that I linked to his post about the Dragon finalists last year, because that apparently means that I want to silence him, as he keeps tweeting at me every week or so. No, I have no idea why linking to someone’s post is silencing them either. However, in his periodic reminders that I haven’t silenced him yet, Paolinelli also pointed me to his post about the 2019 Dragon Awards, where he lists his nominees and what he will be voting for. The link goes to, just in case poor Richard thinks I’m trying to silence him again.

ETA 6: Larry Correia is happy to be nominated for a Dragon Award and still can’t help to get in a dig at File 770, because he believes that the posters there are angry about his nomination. Of course, absolutely no one at File 770 has any issues with Larry Correia being nominated for a Dragon Award, because he has a big fanbase. But then I suspect Larry Correia is only happy when he can feel persecuted.

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First Monday Free Fiction: Albrecht, the Nightmare

Welcome to the August edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.

Albrecht, the NightmareThis month’s free story Albrecht, the Nightmare is a humorous contemporary fantasy tale about a nightmare demon named Albrecht, his human girlfriend Lina and the unexpected difficulties caused by an ancient warding spell.

This is one of the comparatively few stories I’ve ever written that is not just set in Germany, namely in Altenmarhorst near Twistringen some twenty-five kilometres from where I live, but that also draws on local folklore. Cause the farmhouses with the crossed horsehead gable are real and nigh ubiquitous. Albrecht’s friend Lambert Sprengepiel, hero of the Thirty Years War turned hellhound, was a real person as well, though most likely he did not really turn into a hellhound. The city of Vechta has a statue dedicated to him, in hellhound form. Though Councillor Müller-Wölenkamp is entirely fictional.

So enjoy the misadventures of

Albrecht, the Nightmare

All in all, the great supernatural coming out of 2020 was a much bigger success than anybody could have anticipated.

After the initial announcement in Germany’s biggest tabloid, there were extensive debates everywhere. For maybe two months every single political talk show in the country discussed a variation of the subject “Do supernatural beings have a place in our society?” Though the TV producers had stopped inviting actual supernatural beings to these talk shows after a massive debacle when Günther Jauch was seen interviewing empty air for ten minutes, because vampires couldn’t be caught on camera. Jauch himself later insisted that it was the best interview he’d ever done, but since no one had seen or heard anything, there was unfortunately no way of proving that assertion.

The Federal German Parliament got into the act as well and came to the conclusion that as long as they had a German passport, supernatural beings were indeed German citizens, a decision later confirmed by the Supreme Court. Of course, it wasn’t as if parliament had any choice in the matter, considering that several members of parliament were revealed to be supernatural beings themselves, including a former secretary of finance, who — it turned out — had been a werewolf all along.

Once the official status of supernaturals had been confirmed by the Federal German Parliament, supernaturals began outing themselves in countries all over the world, much to the embarrassment of those pundits and politicians who had insisted that “that sort of thing” was unthinkable in their own countries.

Of course, there also was opposition, as might have been expected. In Dresden, a group calling themselves PEADO — Patriotic Europeans Against the Demonisation of the Occident — held a few marches and candlelight vigils. They eventually stopped, when the patriotic Europeans got bored of standing around in the cold every Monday night. Not to mention that several of the brave and patriotic Europeans became rather nervous when vampires and werewolves started hanging out at the edges of their marches, staring hungrily at the protesters.

A few hate crimes against supernaturals were registered as well. There was a wave of stake attacks against vampires, all unsuccessful, because regular humans are simply to slow to do much harm to a vampire. And in Hoyerswerda — where else? — a skinhead tried to stab a werewolf with a silver fork and was promptly eaten for his trouble. The resulting trial was a media sensation, but eventually the judge came to the conclusion that eating skinheads was indeed self-defence, provided the skinheads attacked first.

But in general, the country quickly adjusted to the presence of its new supernatural citizens. Within weeks of the announcement, humans and supernaturals alike were partying in the secret underground vampire clubs of Berlin and only a handful of people got bitten, all voluntarily. Restaurants began offering fresh blood and raw meat on their menus and added warning labels for garlic. Grocery stores soon followed suit. Someone started a petition to remove roadside crosses, since they were upsetting vampires.

In March 2021, a vampire family moved into the soap opera Lindenstraße, played by human actors alas, because technology still hadn’t found a way around the problem of capturing vampires on any kind of recording media. In 2023, a zombified ex-celebrity accidentally infected all the contestants of I’m a celebrity — Get me out of here!, causing a zombie hunt in the jungle and promptly giving the fading show its highest ratings ever. At the 2024 Olympics, a selkie won an unprecedented number of gold medals in the swimming competitions.

All in all, it was a good time to be a supernatural. Unless you were Albrecht.


Albrecht was a nightmare. No, not a bad dream or a disaster waiting to happen. Albrecht was a literal nightmare, a shapeshifting demon who visited ladies by night and sat on their chest, while they slept. Usually, he also had sex with them. Sometimes, he braided their hair as well, because he just loved long luscious hair, and — when available — he drank their breast milk, because Albrecht was simply mad about breast milk.

Albrecht had been visiting ladies — as well as the occasional man or horse, when there were no ladies available — for over three centuries, when the great coming out happened. And like all other supernaturals, Albrecht promptly promised to reform. Henceforth, he would only visit willing ladies and all of his nocturnal escapades would be one hundred percent consensual.

There was never any lack of willing takers either. Because once supernaturals had revealed themselves to the country at large, young ladies were pretty much queuing up to spend a night with one of them. Of course, vampires were the most popular supernatural lovers, the bastards. Though those who liked it a bit wild and furry tended to go for the werewolves instead. Centaurs proved unexpectedly popular, because not only did they have two sets of genitalia, but they were also literally hung like a horse. Only zombies still couldn’t get any — the smell was simply too revolting.

Initially, Albrecht’s success with the ladies was somewhat hampered by the fact that in his natural form he looked like a short grey demonic imp. But luckily, he was a shapeshifter and could shift into any form he pleased. So he took to modelling himself after popular film stars. He alternately turned himself George Clooney and Brad Pitt and all those blokes named Chris who played superheroes, but his most successful glamour was the chicken-chested dude who played the lead in all those bad German comedies, which just went to show that humans were weird.

Case in point: Even breast milk became more abundant after the supernaturals had come out of the closet. Turned out that humans had some very strange fetishes and that even new moms were not immune. And with so many single moms around, it wasn’t even as if he were cheating on some poor cuckolded husband.

All in all, those were the best days in Albrecht’s three century long life. He was living in Berlin, which was supernatural central in those days, partied in the secret underground clubs all night long and went home to sit on the chest of a different lady every day. Plus, he got all the breast milk he could ever want. Yes, it was truly a wonderful time.

Until the inevitable happened. Albrecht fell in love, head over cloven hoofs.

Her name was Lina and she was a student at Humboldt University. She was smart and funny and actually liked Albrecht in his true impish form. She had rosy cheeks and a pleasantly curvy body and a healthy appetite for sex. Her hair was like spun gold and she did not mind at all, when Albrecht braided it by night. And since she was the mom of Finn, a five-month-old bundle of joy, she even had breast milk.

Life was good. No, it was better than good. It was absolutely perfect.

But then one night, while Albrecht was braiding her long golden hair after a bout of vigorous sex, Lina told him out of the blue that at the end of the semester she’d be transferring to a small rural university and that she’d move back in with her parents. She needed help with Finn, she said, and her mother would be only too happy to take care of him, while Lina was at uni.

Albrecht couldn’t even argue with that. Because the truth was that he was useless as a babysitter. Not that he hadn’t tried, cause he had, for Lina’s sake. He’d even taken to changing Finn’s diapers and messed up only once in a while. But apart from that, Albrecht just didn’t know what to do with babies. To him, they were merely a slightly annoying by-product of breast milk and he had problems seeing them as anything else.

“But what about us?” Albrecht asked, once Lina had dropped the bombshell on him, “I love you and I don’t want to lose you.”

“Then come with me,” Lina said, “My parents have a big farmhouse with more than enough room for the three of us.”

“And they won’t mind?” Albrecht asked carefully, because in his experience meeting the parents of one of the subject of his nocturnal visits usually ended with torches and pitchforks. “They won’t mind that I’m supernatural and a nightmare at that?”

“Well…” Lina began in a way that made Albrecht lose all hope, “…maybe we should keep the fact that you’re not exactly human under wraps at first. I mean, my folks are open-minded — for farmers from rural North Germany, that is. But not that open-minded.”

In other words, it would be torches and pitchforks again.

“But maybe you could wear your glamour at first,” Lina suggested, “And then, once my parents have gotten to know you, I’m sure they won’t mind that you’re a nightmare.”

Albrecht had his sincere doubts about that.


Nonetheless, Albrecht followed Lina, when she and baby Finn moved back home, back to rural North Germany. And so he left behind the lights and the glitter and the parties of Berlin for the Wildeshauser Geest and a tiny village named Altenmarhorst.

Now Albrecht hadn’t actually been in rural North Germany since the Thirty Years War. And once he’d been back for barely half an hour, he remembered why.

The trouble started when Albrecht, Lina and Finn pulled into the yard of her parents’ farm in Lina’s old Volkswagen. Lina took Finn out of his car seat and carried him into the house while Albrecht — wearing his chicken-chested filmstar glamour — busied himself with the luggage and watched from a wary distance as Lina hugged and kissed her parents.

Once the parents had gone back inside, to make coffee or some such thing, Albrecht finally cautious stepped forward… only to come to an abrupt, crashing halt barely a step before the threshold of the farmhouse.

“Albrecht?” Lina asked, Finn peeping sleepily over her shoulder, “What’s wrong? — Oh, I forgot. I herewith formally and officially invite you into our house.”

She crooked her head. “Odd. I always thought that was just vampires.”

“It is,” Albrecht said through gritted teeth. He was still transfixed, unable to move even a single centimetre forward.

“Then what is it?” Lina wanted to know, “Why won’t you come in?”

“I can’t,” Albrecht replied, every word an effort.

“Why not? You don’t have to be afraid of my parents. They might bark, but they don’t bite.”

“I can’t,” Albrecht repeated.

“But why not?” Lina demanded, while Finn stuck his tongue out at Albrecht, “Look, if you didn’t want to come here, you just should’ve said something, cause I…”

“I am physically unable to enter the house.” Albrecht forced the words out of his mouth or rather that of the chicken-chested filmstar, while beads of sweat formed on his forehead or rather on that of the chicken-chested filmstar.

“But why? What’s the problem?”

Albrecht pointed upwards, unable to even look at the horrible thing that lurked up there.

“The roof?” Lina said. Finn popped his thumb into his mouth and started to suck. “You have a phobia of thatched roofs?”

“No.” Albrecht squeezed his eyes shut and pointed at the horrible thing on the roof, the thing that was taunting him. “I mean that… that thing.”

“You have issues with timbered houses?” Lina exclaimed, “Oh, if it’s about the lintel motto, ‘Dear Lord, beware us of demons and devils’ is not meant literally.”

Oh sure, anti-demon rhetoric was never meant literally for some reason. Just as all those “Foreigners, go home” graffiti were never meant literally either.

“No, it’s that.” Now Albrecht did open his eyes just long enough to point at the horrible, horrible thing on the roof.

“You have a problem with gables? But almost all houses have gables.”

“The horses,” Albrecht cried, forcing the hateful word over his forked tongue.

“You have a phobia of horses?” Lina exclaimed, “But when we took Finn to the petting zoo, you had zero problems with the ponies.”

“Horse heads,” Albrecht corrected, “The horse heads on your gable are an ancient magic spell to ward off nightmares like me. So I can’t enter your house. Not while those horse heads are there.”

“Oh,” Lina said. She looked up at the gable of her parents’ house and the two wooden boards carved into stylised horse heads, as if seeing them for the first time. “This is going to be a problem.”


And a problem it was. Because those damned crossed horse heads and the old warding spell they represented were everywhere. Not just on Lina’s house, but on those of her neighbours as well. Every damned farmhouse in the village bore the horse heads on its gable, as did the village shop, the school, the post office and the only inn. Even the bus shelters were adorned with those bloody horse heads.

But it got worse. Because not only did the old traditional houses bear the crossed horse heads — no, new houses that were barely ten years old did so as well. And even if there were no gables and no places to actually put the horse heads, the horse heads were still there, as logos on banks, gas stations and grain silos and in the coats of arms of villages and towns everywhere.

Albrecht was miserable. He couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t sleep anywhere, because everywhere he went, there were those crossed horse heads, mocking him and telling him, “Thou shalt not pass, demon.”

He was reduced to sleeping in an old caravan that belonged to Lina’s parents, because it was the only accommodation in the whole bloody village that was not adorned with crossed horse heads. Lina occasionally snuck out at night to visit Albrecht, but all in all, he got a lot less nookie and breast milk than he had back in Berlin.

“And you’re sure that the old spells still work?” Lina wanted to know during their daily meetings at the McDonald’s in the nearest town. McDonald’s was the only place apart from the caravan where Albrecht could spend a bit of time, since even here in the heart of the North German lowlands, McDonald’s did not adopt crossed horse heads, since they clashed with the desired corporate identity.

“Cause nobody I talked to ever heard anything about the horse heads being intended to ward off nightmares and other demons,” she continued, “It’s just the way we build houses here, the way we’ve always built them.”

“And why do you think you build houses that way?” Albrecht countered, taking a hearty bite out of a Big Mac that was only a little stale, “Why do you think you carve horses into your gables rather than dragons or birds or crucifixes or any of the other things you could carve?”

Lina was taken aback. “I don’t know,” she said, “It’s just the way things are. Our tradition, so to say. I never really thought about it.”

“No,” Albrecht said miserably. To cheer himself up, he took a heart sip from his monster-sized cola. “No one ever thinks about it. But your ancestors, trust me, they knew exactly what they were doing.”

He popped a French fry into his mouth.

“Initially, they used real horse heads and put them on stakes outside their houses…”


“The smell was quite appalling, so they eventually switched to wooden horse heads carved into the gables of their houses,” Albrecht explained, “The effect is still the same, though. No nightmare can enter any house that is protected by a horse head ornament.”

“That’s awful,” Lina said. She reached out across the table to take his hand. “I had no idea.”

“No,” Albrecht said, still miserable, “Most people don’t.”

“Hmm, I wonder if this is behind that weird scene in The Godfather with the horse head in the bed of that guy. Cause I never really got that bit. But if he was a nightmare, then it would make sense.”

Albrecht nodded, if only because he didn’t want Lina to know that in all his more than three hundred years of life, he had never managed to watch The Godfather all the way through, because the movie just bored him silly. Albrecht preferred comedies.

“Still…” Lina said, sounding a lot more cheery than she had any right to be, “…I think I’ve got a solution. You see, I talked to my parents. And they said that if the gable horses are such a problem, they’ll take them down.”

Albrecht’s face and mood brightened, for the first time since coming here.

“Really? They would do that?”

“They’re my parents,” Lina said, “Of course they would. There’s just one problem…”

Of course. Albrecht should have known that it wouldn’t be that easy.

“…our house is a listed and registered landmark, so we’ll have to go to town and ask the council for permission.”

She smiled, her usual cheery self again. “But I doubt that’s going to be a problem. After all, the council will surely see that gable horses are unacceptable these days, once we explain the issue to them.”


But of course, the town council or rather the councillor in charge of buildings, landmarks, city development and the environment, one Mr. Müller-Wölkenkamp, did not understand the issue at all or recognised that there even was one. Even though Albrecht was only able to enter the townhall through the side entrance, because the main entrance was emblazoned with the town’s coat-of-arms featuring — wouldn’t you know it? — a horse head.

“I don’t see…” Müller-Wölkenkamp said, looking down his nose at Albrecht, as if he were a particularly persistent bit of dogshit stuck to the councillor’s shoe, “…why we should change our established way of life just to accommodate a few supernaturals who have been living among us for less than five years?”

Albrecht was about to point out that he alone had been living amongst humans for over three hundred years and that he knew plenty of supernaturals who were even older. But he held his peace, because he didn’t want to alienate Mr. Müller-Wölkenkamp. After all, they still needed him or rather his signature.

“It is not our intention to change anybody’s way of life,” Lina said, sitting straight-backed in the uncomfortable visitors’ chair, “My boyfriend and I simply want to live together in my parents’ house. But in order to be able to do that, we need to take down the gable horses.”

“Your house is a registered landmark and part of the historical heritage of our town,” Müller-Wölkenkamp countered, “You cannot alter a historical landmark just to satisfy your own selfish desires.”

“My grandparents installed an indoor bathroom instead of the old outhouse. They also installed central heating instead of the old coal oven. And somehow such ‘selfish desires’ as being warm and having a place to pee did not harm the historical value of our house at all.”

“Irrelevant,” Müller-Wölkenkamp said with a dismissive wave of his hand, “Those alterations were likely made before the house achieved landmark status.”

“What about our neighbours then?” Lina wanted to know, “Their house is also a registered landmark and yet they got permission to build a garage right next to said landmark. Or what about the Huskamps down the road? Their house is another registered landmark and they still got permission to install solar panels on their roof. So why are solar panels and garages acceptable, but removing those bloody horse heads is not?”

“Because garages and solar panels improve the lives of the inhabitants of the houses in questions, so certain trade-offs must be made,” Müller-Wölkenkamp said, “However, removing the traditional horse head gable, just because your ‘boyfriend’ here…”

Müller-Wölkenkamp uttered the word with so much disgust, as if he couldn’t imagine how any self-respecting person could sleep with a nightmare. Albrecht seriously considered introducing the man to some succubi who might make him reconsider that opinion. And if he was very lucky, they’d eat Müller-Wölkenkamp afterwards.

“..has an irrational aversion against horses does not improve anybody’s quality of life.”

“Albrecht doesn’t just have an aversion to horses, he’s literally unable to enter the house,” Lina said, “And there’s absolutely nothing irrational about that.”

“We’ve got all sorts of groups demanding special treatment of late,” Müller-Wölkenkamp said, “First, the Muslims said that they didn’t want to eat our sausages because they believe pork is unclean or some such thing. Next we get people complaining about our bread, because it supposedly contains gluten, a substance no one had even heard of twenty years ago. Yet all of a sudden lots of people decide they are allergic to it…”

Müller-Wölkenkamp took a deep breath, obviously overwhelmed by his own outrage.

“And next you know, all those supernaturals show up and suddenly we need warning labels on foods containing garlic and vampires start complaining about roadside crucifixes.”

“Because those crucifixes are a traffic hazard and may cause accidents, when vampires crash their cars,” Albrecht pointed out, as calmly as possible.

“So we have to abandon our traditions and change our whole way of life just because some vampires can’t drive? We have to deface our historical buildings just because some goblins…”

“Ahem, actually I’m a nightmare,” Albrecht pointed out, “Goblins are completely different beings.”

“…have an irrational aversion against horse heads.”

“It’s not an irrational aversion, it’s a reaction to an ancient warding spell,” Lina said.

“That’s irrelevant,” Müller-Wölkenkamp snapped, “The point is that we shouldn’t have to adapt our customs to immigrants and other new arrivals. They will have to adapt to us, if they want to live here.”

Oh, fuck all that!

“Actually…” Albrecht began with a grin that was purely demonic, “…I have been living in this country for more than three hundred years, which makes you the new arrival.”

His grin grew even broader and more devilish.

“Oh yes, and I’ve probably been sleeping with your great-great-grandmother, while I was at it.”

In response, Müller-Wölkenkamp turned a very interesting shade of crimson.

“Out! Out!” he yelled and even made an impromptu sign of the cross fashioned from two ball pens. Albrecht didn’t have the heart to tell him that crosses only worked on vampires. Besides, Müller-Wölkenkamp looked delightfully ridiculous while waving two ball pens about.

“Out or I’ll call security.”


“What a fucking bigot!” Lina exclaimed while she and Albrecht walked back to her car, “He didn’t even want to help us.”

“Humans are often bigots,” Albrecht said wryly, “Particularly the men. They’re all terrified that one of us will show their wives a better time than they do.” And often with good reason, too.

“We cannot let him get away with that,” Lina said, still stewing, “If he’d said something like that about Muslims or Jews or gays or disabled people, he’d get fired on the spot.”

“He did say something nasty about Muslims,” Albrecht pointed out, “And about people with gluten allergy.”

“So it’s okay, just because he’s an equal opportunity bigot?”

“Most bigots are equal opportunity,” Albrecht said, “They hate everybody equally.”

Lina unlocked the car doors and got into the driver’s seat. “We should still do something about this guy,” she said.

Albrecht buckled himself into the passenger seat. “And what?”

Lina gunned the engine. “I don’t suppose you have a friend who’d be willing to eat him and make it look like an accident.”

“Tempting but no,” Albrecht said, “Besides, I’m pretty sure a bigot like that would give even the hardiest werewolf indigestion.”

Lina pulled out of the parking lot. “Maybe we should write to the mayor and inform him that one of his councillors is a bigot who harbours prejudices against supernaturals, Muslims and people with gluten allergy,” she suggested.

“Your mayor probably agrees with him,” Albrecht pointed out, “About us supernaturals at least. He probably doesn’t hate Muslims and people with gluten allergy.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about the Muslims,” Lina said darkly, “In case you hadn’t noticed, people around here are very Catholic.”

“I had noticed,” Albrecht said dryly.

“Plus, we’re a farming region, so people are very peculiar about wheat and bread.”

“I had noticed as well,” Albrecht said.

Lina was still stewing. “There still has to be something we can do,” she said, “Maybe we could start a petition for the removal of horse head gables.”

“Yeah, cause that will work,” Albrecht said.

“Oh, trust me, it will,” Lina said and the gleam in her eye was positively devilish.


Over the next few days and weeks, Albrecht saw even less of Lina, because she was always busy with her campaign against the bigotted councillor Müller-Wölkenkamp. She really did start a petition and went from house to house to get her neighbours to sign it, while Albrecht sat in his caravan, babysitting Finn and sharing a bottle of breast milk with him.

Amazingly, most of the neighbours really did sign the petition. Turned out that no one knew that the horse head gables were not just a traditional decoration — well, no one except for old Mrs. Holthusen who was ninety-seven — and most people were quite shocked to hear that they’d had a bit of ancient magic on their houses all those years. After all, they were good church going Catholics and didn’t hold much with superstition and magic. And they certainly didn’t want any of that in or on their houses.

It also turned out that absolutely no one liked Councillor Müller-Wölkenkamp. Not because he was a bigot, though that played a role as well. No, the true reason no one liked the man was because the good people of Altenmarhorst held him responsible for endless road construction work, ill-advised housing developments and a newly built kindergarten that had grossly exceeded its budget.

Nonetheless, everybody was only too eager to get rid of the man and if accusing him of bigotry against supernaturals (and Muslims and celiacs) was what it took, then so be it. And so there was soon a second petition circulating, one demanding the removal of Councillor Müller-Wölkenkamp.

“And I had next to nothing to do with that,” Lina told Albrecht during their daily meetings at the local McDonald’s, while Finn was amusing himself with a Happy Meal toy, “The people, the real people, are on our side.”

“Or maybe they are just really keen to be rid of Müller-Wölkenkamp,” Albrecht pointed out.

The local paper, always on the look-out for a good story with a local link and a human angle, got into the act next and printed a full page article about Albrecht’s dilemma. The headline of the article was “Lack of bureaucratic flexibility tears little family apart” and it was illustrated with a full colour photo of Lina and Albrecht (in his chicken-chested filmstar glamour) sitting on the bed in Albrecht’s caravan with Baby Finn on Albrecht’s lap.

The newspaper photographer actually asked Albrecht if there were any problems getting him to show up on film.

“Nope, that’s just vampires,” Albrecht replied, though he was still relieved when he saw himself in the newspaper with his glamour intact, for he didn’t want to know how the good and supportive people of Altenmarhorst would react to his true appearance just yet.


Next, a local supernatural named Lambert Sprengepiel contacted Albrecht and Lina. He’d read about their dilemma in the paper he said and he wanted to help. Turned out that when he was still human, Sprengepiel had been a cavalry captain during the Thirty Years War, fighting the “godless Swedes”. Somewhere along the way, he’d made a deal with the Devil — “You know how it is,” he told Albrecht and Lina — and was now doomed to wander the moors by night in the form of a demonic hellhound.

Sprengepiel was understandably upset at the lack of appreciation for supernaturals, considering he’d bargained away his immortal soul to defend the area against the godless Swedes. He also offered to eat Müller-Wölkenkamp or at least tear him limb from limb for his offences against Albrecht and Lina. Besides, so he said, the man was probably a Protestant anyway.

Albrecht and Lina politely declined Sprengepiel’s offer, because Müller-Wölkenkamp getting eaten or ripped limb from limb would only undo all their hard work in dismantling prejudices against supernaturals. Sprengepiel eventually agreed, though he still gave an interview to the local paper, which eventually turned into a five part series about Sprengepiel’s long and varied life.

The public was quite fascinated by Sprengepiel and devoured the series about his life. And so Sprengepiel, who’d once been a local nobleman and lord of all he surveyed after all, eventually decided to run for office against the current mayor. One of his core demands was the removal of both Müller-Wölkenkamp as well as any crosses or horse heads that significantly impacted the lives of supernaturals in the region. All right, so he also planned to defend the town against those godless Swedes and Protestants, until it was pointed out to him that the Thirty Years War had been over for almost four hundred years. Sprengepiel was even gaining some approval, though that might be more due to the fact that the current mayor was so unpopular that even a demonic hellhound seemed like an improvement.

Through it all, Albrecht and Lambert Sprengepiel became fast friends and were often seen reminiscing together about the Thirty Years War. Though Albrecht neglected to mention that back in the day, he’d been fighting on both the Swedish and Imperial side, because he knew his new friend wouldn’t understand.

Baby Finn was also a big fan of Lambert Sprengepiel, but only because he liked riding on Sprengepiel’s back, when he was in his demonic hellhound form.

“Once I’m elected…” Sprengepiel told Albrecht and Lina during a meeting at the local McDonald’s which had by now become the unofficial Lambert Sprengepiel campaign headquarters, “…all this chicanery will cease.”

Lina and Albrecht both nodded and tried to forget the fact that the election was still a year away. But in the end, they didn’t have to wait that long.


Because one day, an elderly neighbour stopped Lina, when she and Finn came out of the local bakery. Albrecht, as usual, couldn’t go because the bakery roof just happened to be adorned with the ubiquitous crossed horse heads, wouldn’t you know it?

“I saw you in the newspaper,” the elderly neighbour, one Mr. Lohmann, said, “You and your young man.”

Lina smiled and nodded and urgently wished she were somewhere else, because Mr. Lohmann tended to go on a bit.

“That’s a very nice young man,” Mr. Lohmann continued, “My wife says he looks a bit like that actor — what’s his name? — you know, the one who was in that movie where the ferret ate his balls.”

Lina nodded politely. “Albrecht gets that a lot.” She smiled. “Though his balls are exactly where they should be.”

Finn made a squealing noise, so Lina stuffed a soft, crumbly cookie into his mouth.

“Anyway, I also read about your problem and I think I may have a solution,” Mr. Lohmann said.

Now Lina’s ears pricked up. “Probably nothing,” she thought, “He’s probably going to tell me to dump the demon and date his son instead. His son who’s completely, utterly and totally gay, by the way.”

“You know the little house on the edge of our property, don’t you?”

Lina nodded. She knew the little old house. It had apparently started life as a hen house and had eventually been turned into a proper human house, albeit a small one. Last she heard, the Lohmanns’ totally not gay son lived there.

Lina sighed. She knew it. He was going to try to fix her up with his son, wasn’t he?

“The house has been empty since Udo moved in with his boyfriend,” Mr. Lohmann said, “We put it on the market and we’ve been looking for renters, but so far no luck.” He shook his head. “The young people are all moving to the big city these days. No respect for tradition and no connection to their home…”

Lina nodded absentmindedly, still boggled by the fact that the Lohmanns knew about Udo being gay.

“But then, I guess you know all about running away to the big city, Lina,” Mr. Lohmann said. He shrugged. “Still, you came back and with a baby and a young man, too.”

He ruffled Finn’s blonde curls. Finn squealed happily and continued crumbling his cookie onto his sweater, his jeans and the pavement.

“And since your young man can’t stay at your parents’, I was wondering if you wanted the little house,” Mr. Lohmann said, “Don’t worry, it doesn’t have a horse head gable.” He shook his head. “Ancient witchcraft adorning our houses, who’d have thought?”

Lina was so overjoyed that she spontaneously hugged old Mr. Lohmann. “Yes, we want the house. Okay, we’ll first have to take a look at it, but… Thank you, Mr. Lohmann! Thank you for everything.”


And so Lina and Albrecht found a place to stay after all. All right, so the house was small with only three rooms plus one tiny kitchen and bathroom, but it was still bigger than the old caravan, not to mention more comfortable. Lina and Albrecht even had a bedroom of their own without constantly having to worry about Finn.

Lambert Sprengepiel really did get himself elected mayor the following year, because it turned out that the current mayor was so unpopular that the people would have voted for almost anyone. He did quite well, too, but then he did have almost four hundred years of experience in politics. Lina even managed to persuade him to tone down the anti-Protestant and anti-Swedish rhetoric by pointing out that those battles had been fought and won long ago.

Eventually, Lambert Sprengepiel and his new councillor in charge of buildings, landmarks, city development and the environment (not Mr. Müller-Wölkenkamp) even managed to find a solution for the dilemma of the crossed horse head gables that satisfied the needs of both supernaturals and the preservation of registered landmarks. And so the crossed horse heads on most of the gables around the village were gradually replaced by crossed unicorn heads, which looked almost the same, but did not trouble Albrecht and other supernaturals in the slightest. Initially, there was some concern that the unicorn gables would attract unicorns, but those concerns turned out to be unfounded, since the unicorns preferred to stay away due to a general shortage of virgins.

Lina and Albrecht eventually got married, once marriages between supernaturals and plain old humans were legalised. And then, a little over two years after Finn was born, Lina had a little girl by artificial insemination (because nightmares happened to be infertile, which was probably for the better), which secured a steady supply of breast milk for Albrecht. They also finally bought a house of their own, because Mr. Lohmann’s little house had gotten too small for a family of four.

And everybody lived happily ever after, secure in the knowledge that supernaturals were not that different from humans after all.

The End

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new story will be posted.

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The 2019 July Short Story Challenge Post-Mortem – 31 Stories in 31 Days

You may have noticed that blogging was light this past month, because I was doing the July Short Story Challenge again for the fifth consecutive year.

What is the July Short Story Challenge, you ask? Well, in July 2015, Dean Wesley Smith announced that he was planning to write a brand new short story every day during the month of July. The original post seems to be gone now, but the Wayback Machine has a copy here. At the time, several people announced that they would play along, so I decided to give it a try as well. And then I did it again the following year. And the next. And the next. If you want to read my post-mortems of the previous July short story challenges, here are the posts for 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

One thing I did differently in 2019 was that I also kept a running tally of stories written with title, wordcount, genre and a brief synopsis right here on this blog. You can find it here.

So let’s take a look at the genre/subgenre breakdown:

  • Mystery and crime fiction: 7 stories
  • Sword and sorcery: 5 stories
  • Space opera: 3 stories
  • General science fiction: 3 stories
  • Post-apocalyptic fiction: 3 stories
  • Epic fantasy: 3 stories
  • Alien invasion/First contact: 2 stories
  • Urban fantasy: 2 stories
  • Horror: 2 stories
  • Science fantasy: 1 story

Compared to previous years, there is a lot more mystery and crime fiction this year. There is a reason for this, which will explained later. The remaining 24 stories are all some flavour of speculative fiction. There is no explicit romance story this year – I had an idea for a historical romance story, but shelved it, because the story would have been too long. However, at least nine stories prominently feature romantic relationships. A lot of stories also mix genre, e.g. two space operas, one sword and sorcery story and both urban fantasies also have crime and mystery subplots. The sword and sorcery stories have strong horror elements. One of the horror stories is also a historical story set in the Spanish occupied Netherlands in the 16th century.

A brief aside about the day by day tally: None of these stories will appear in print as is. Almost all of them will probably gain a couple of hundred words during the second draft. Several titles will likely change and some stories might not see the light of day for a long time – because they are too short to stand alone and I don’t have anything similar enough to bundle them with or because they don’t work. Cause not every story to come out of the July Short Story Challenge can be a winner. Some stories are great and need only very little work, others need extensive rewrites to be brought into publishable form. Finally, some stories aren’t really publishable at all. But with 31 stories even the occasional story that’s not publishable isn’t a great loss.

So let’s take a look at the length breakdown. The shortest story was 705 words long, the longest 6260 words. This matches my experience from previous years that the stories resulting from this challenge range in length from flash fiction to the lower end of the novelette spectrum with the majority falling in the 2000 to 4000 word range. This year, I wrote two flash fiction pieces of less than 1000 words. Seventeen stories were more than 2000 words long, nine more than 3000 words, five more than 4000 words. All in all, I wrote approximately 78000 words of new fiction last months, which is less than last year, but higher than 2015, 2016 and 2017.

When Dean Wesley Smith did his July short story challenge back in 2015, he found that most of the stories he wrote were part of established worlds or series. Interestingly, my experience at the time was the opposite and I wrote only standalones. Though in subsequent July short story challenges, the number of stories in established or new series slowly went up. So I wrote five series stories in 2016, seven in 2017 (though two of those only became series subsequently) and fifteen series stories in 2018. This year, I got fourteen and a half series stories.

And so I wrote five Thurvok stories, two In Love and War stories and a Helen Shepherd Mysteries story featuring DC Kevin Walker and scene of the crime officer Charlotte Wong (not sure whether I’ll publish this and two other Helen-less Helen Shepherd stories as a spin-off are part of the main series).

I also wrote six Culinary Assassin stories, which are intended for an upcoming collection of very short (under 2000 words) stories featuring an assassin who kills people in restaurants, after sampling the food. I wrote the first Culinary Assassin story in my notebook in a restaurant and it started out as a descriptive piece about the restaurant and the food. When I got home, I looked at the piece I’d written and thought, “Hey, this is good. But it doesn’t have a plot. So what if the narrator was there to kill someone after dinner?” Then this spring, I found myself alone with my notebook in a restaurant again and started describing the place. Then I remembered the little story I’d written a couple of months before about the assassin who kills someone in a restaurant and thought, “What if that assassin does it again? And what other restaurants can they visit?”

The half series story is intended for Raygun Romances, a new anthology series of Planet Stories/Startling Stories type pulpy science fiction. I’ll probably pass them off as the work of Richard Blakemore, hardworking pulp writer by day and the masked vigilante known only as the Silencer by night, because using Richard’s byline is a good way to separate my retro pulp stories from my other stories. The initial plan was for the Raygun Romances to be largely self-contained adventures, but the one I wrote was clearly the sequal to an adventure that had started elsewhere, so I (and Richard) will have to write that story, too. And so it’s half a series story in two different. First of all, there actually isn’t a series yet and secondly, the story in question is part of a sub-series in itself.

Both series and standalone stories offer different advantages and challenges. The good thing about series stories is that that worldbuilding is already done. Furthermore, I know the characters and how they will react to a given situation, so it’s easy to plug them into a new story and just let them do their thing. On the downside, series characters also bring all sorts of baggage and backstory with them. As a result, the series stories are usually longer. Standalone stories, on the other hand, require developing the world, the characters, the plot, everything from scratch. On the plus side, the characters don’t have any baggage or backstory except what is required for the story.

And indeed, the series for which I wrote stories during the July Short Story Challenge are all the sort of series which lend themselves to shorter standalone adventures. The Helen Shepherd Mysteries are all standalone cases with the characters and their changing relationships the only connecting thread. They also follow a certain formula, so it’s easy to insert the characters into a new story. Though the case in this July’s stor was rather low-key, so I gave it to DC Kevin Walker and Charlotte Wong to solve during their weekend off. The In Love and War series does have quite a bit of action, but also lends itself to quieter character pieces. The two In Love and War stories I wrote for this year’s July Short Story Challenge fall into the latter category, i.e. they’re closer to The Taste of Home (which also was a July Short Story Challenge story) than to e.g. Hunter and Hunted.

The Culinary Assassin stories are a special case, because the Culinary Assassin is a character with neither baggage nor backstory. We neither know the protagonist’s name nor gender, all we know is their profession and that they are something of a foodie. And indeed, they started out as experiments in writing description (which is not exactly my strong point) and follow a certain formula (though two of the stories I wrote during the challenge twist the formula a little). The assassin arrives, describes the restaurant, describes the food, describes the target (all thoroughly unpleasant people), does the job and leaves. That also makes them short and quick to write. And indeed I found that on days when I was tired and stressed out and low on ideas (and there were quite a few of those thanks to the heatwave and pre-WorldCon stress) and still had to write my story for the day, I often thought, “Okay, why not write another Culinary Assassin? Where can we eat today?”

As for Thurvok, which is after all a series that was born during the July Short Story Challenge, for some reason this series lends itself extremely well to stories which are written very quickly. I have my quartet of adventurers, so all I need is a treasure for them to seek, a monster to fight or a mystery to solve, then I turn them lose and let them do their thing. In general, it seems as if there is something about the sword and sorcery genre, which is after all a child of the pulps, which lends itself to stories written quickly and in rapid succession. Robert E. Howard reportedly felt possessed by Conan and spent several weeks writing nothing but Conan stories in rapid succession. During the more difficult times of his career, Fritz Leiber still kept on writing Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, dozens of them over the course of almost fifty years. Michael Moorcock’s infamous weekend novels were often Elric or Corum stories, i.e. sword and sorcery.

So let’s take a look at ideas and inspiration. After four July Short Story Challenges, I know which methods of idea generation work for me and can plan accordingly. Using images as writing prompts usually works well for me and by now I have a whole folder on my harddrive which contains inspirational images – basically my own catalogue of concept art writing prompts. Random stuff found on Twitter – a joke, a meme, an editor’s “I’d like to see more stories about X” comment – were another unexpected source of inspiration. Other source include food I’ve eaten/cooked, crocheting hyperbolic shrubs for the Raksura Colony Tree project and the backcover blurb of a Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child (this one) which I picked up at a bookstore, but did not buy. As always, the best thing about the July Short Story Challenge is that for thirty-one days, every idea, no matter how offbeat or obscure is viable.

Every year, certain tropes and themes appear during the July Short Story Challenge that occur in several of the stories, especially since the stories also build upon each other on occasion. Food is a big one and not only the six Culinary Assassin stories feature extensive descriptions of food, but also several other stories as well. But then I like writing about food. Such old standbys as “stories told in bars and taverns” also show up again, though there are fewer post-apocalyptic stories this year. There are three stories which feature robots, written on three consecutive days as well as three stories featuring dinosaurs (written in the space of four days), which I suspect were inspired by Camestros Felapton’s Dinography project. There are also two dragon stories and a whole lot of monsters in general. As a matter of fact, monsters of some kind (dinosaurs, dragons, zombies, Lovecraftian horrors) feature in twelve stories. Another mini theme that show up in three stories is the subversion of epic fantasy clichés. Finally, I also wrote two very different prison break stories, but then I have something of a weakness for prison and particularly prison break stories (but I don’t care for Orange Is the New Black – go figure), so it’s not unusual that these tropes show up during the July Short Story Challenge.

Once again, I’ve found that the July Short Story Challenge offers a wide range of settings and characters. Settings range from various fantasy lands and the Spanish occupied Netherlands in the 16th century via suburban and rural America, a cave in contemporary Belgium, a sausage stand in Berlin, a pancake shop in Rotterdam and Paris Charles de Gaulle airport to various dystopian and post-apocalyptic future and far off planets. POV characters include men and women, gay and straight characters, characters of varying ages, races, ethnicities and backgrounds and even one alien. Which proves that creating under pressure doesn’t meant that you have to default to straight white protagonists.

One thing that the July short story challenge proves time and again (apart from that it’s possible to write a short story in a day and that those stories can sometimes be damned good) is that everything that we read, watch or otherwise consume goes into the great stewpot of our subconscious, where it’s mixed and blended, until it arises in the form of story ideas. The July Short Story Challenge functions like a pressure cooker for your creativity and speeds up the stewing process. And sometimes, the result is magic.

So will I do another July Short Story Challenge next year? Well, time and health permitting, why not? After all, the past five challenges have resulted in a lot of wonderful stories and even series that might otherwise have never been written.

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