Tag Archives: monsters

Ways Real Life Is Not Like Video Games

  • Random strangers you meet are not, however tangentially, related to your Destiny
  • You are not athletic
  • You are not flexible
  • Physics has pretty solid limitations
  • You are probably not highly skilled with a bow, handgun, or rocket launcher, and definitely not all three
  • You do not manage to carry a nearly unlimited number of items in only an outfit that has no obvious place for pockets
  • You will not be in a situation where you need to craft a gun from spare parts you “found” in an ancient temple
  • You are not encouraged to break pots in other people’s houses
  • You should not disturb artifacts. They belong in a museum
  • Your grandfather does not come back as a ghost to judge you on your farm quality
  • You are unlikely to be The Chosen One
  • You are not likely to survive an apocalyptic event
  • You will not be asked by said strangers to go on a fetch quest
  • You cannot fast travel
  • Cut scenes are unskippable
  • Resource boxes are not located conveniently just before the Big Boss location
  • Respawn is highly unlikely and unpredictable
  • Save points are possibly nonexistent
  • You do not get to choose your baseline appearance or personality
  • Leveling up does not come with any obvious sound effects and only rarely with badges
  • Additionally, most achievements cannot be shared with friends
  • You will not be known and respected across the land
  • If you slaughter a village of peasants, you cannot load a saved game to restore your honorable reputation
  • Not all merchants will trade with you
  • You are unlikely to make a living by selling natural resources you found by the road
  • Your companions do not have to listen to you or follow your leadership
  • You need to eat just because you burn energy, not just because you got punched in the face or otherwise injured
  • Do not light fires unless you know what you are doing
  • You do not have an awesome, inspiring soundtrack at key moments
  • If you tire of your storyline, you cannot put it aside or switch to a different game
  • Getting a date and getting married are somehow both more and less complicated
  • You are not required to give people gifts in order to make them become your friend
  • You have to take bathroom breaks
  • You are unlikely to encounter werewolves, zombies, or mechasoldiers
  • Weather lasts more than five minutes
  • Climbing a mountain is not the fastest way from A to B. Just stick to the road
  • The controls can be tricky to learn and operate, and the rules seem to be continually changing
  • You cannot draft players onto your sports team. You do not own a sports team, and even if you do, it doesn’t work quite like that
  • Drinking “potions” with unknown ingredients is a good way to get sick
  • Healing takes more than a mouthful of herbs
  • Call for help if you jump in a pipe and end up in a dungeon
  • No one is giving swords to 10-year-olds, and people in caves who try to should be reported to the authorities
  • Important objects do not highlight when you look at them
  • Plants are a poor defense against the undead
  • If you think you are fighting the Greek pantheon, a horde of demons, dragons, or aliens, please consult a mental health specialist

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Review: Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite

Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of MonstersMedusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had really looked forward to this book. Mythical monsters plus informative history, what’s not to love? I bought it for my husband as a gift and was delighted when I found it idling on his nightstand. But now I see why. It’s interesting in places, sure (hey, wanna read some kooky accounts about real zombies? I know I do!) but it’s a struggle to hold your interest. The story is artificially paced (why start an explanation with the wrong answer only to correct it a page later?), leans heavily on modern movies, and cherry picks when it will refer to social sciences.

If you love mythical beasts and know much about Greco-Roman literature, you’re going to come away from this book bored and/or annoyed.

The problem seems to stem from author Matt Kaplan’s unyielding insistence on two things: 1) all mythical beasts must be directly related to something observed in the natural world, and 2) once science has a logical explanation for something, it ceases to be frightening. I disagree with him on both counts.

While I agree that the original storytellers probably did see something that sparked a story in their minds, I disagree that there has to be some kind of one-to-one relationship. For example, Kaplan explains in length that massive boar mentioned in Greek mythology probably never existed, that there is no evidence of an actual super-boar who was impervious to weapons. I believe I speak for all the readers when I say: “no shit.” But why would there even have to be? Is it such a stretch to believe and accept that a creative thinker might have concocted the story entirely?

The boar and the Nemean lion, are, of course, just the most basic examples. I don’t need to believe anything remotely chimeric actually existed for me to believe that a storyteller could come up with the idea. Why the concept that a person found a pile of mismatched fossils in a stream bed and came to believe it was a terrible monster, is it not just as plausible that a storyteller looked around and invented the creature from the characteristics of other natural beasts? That perhaps this explanation came not from literal physical creatures but from symbolism? (Medusa is a great example as a symbol: a woman so beautiful she attracts a god’s unwanted assault is reborn–hence snakes–into a monster who drives all men away and can destroy them with but a look. We don’t need actual snake-haired people!)

I guess I’m offended that Kaplan has left so little room for human ingenuity. Particularly when there is so much evidence of it all around.

My second issue is that he believes people aren’t afraid of monsters that no longer seem realistic thanks to scientific discoveries. Perhaps they aren’t as prominent as monsters as we discover new things to be afraid of, but that discounts the many people who ARE afraid of those things and context. What do I mean by context? I mean, yes, if you ask me in the middle of the day what I’m afraid of, a big scary animal is not going to be the top of my list. But you bet when I’m in the dark in the woods I suddenly begin imagining I’m being stalked by a huge and terrifying predator (despite knowing full-well in my human brain how unlikely it is that a tiger is stalking me in the parking lot). Most irksome is that Kaplan’s evidence for the lack of fear-factor is overwhelmingly modern TV and movies. … Except he’s not watching the same stuff I am, apparently. I mean, Supernatural has many frightening episodes and chilling stories, for example, and I know it’s fiction. Just because Twilight told a different, non-scary story about vampires does not mean that the vampires in True Blood aren’t decidedly scary (ok, in moments. That show is all over the place). And Interview with a Vampire, which he cites in the book, was quite scary to me!

So I don’t know. I think this book might be a good lazy read for a TV and movie buff who has a light interest in Classics, or maybe for the Classics nerd who wants something different. But I don’t recommend seeking a deep understanding or passion from this monster montage.

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Undead Rising coverWant better monsters? Go buy Undead Rising: Decide Your Destiny, available in print and on Kindle. Your choices shape the story! When you die in the book, sometimes you rise again as a zombie, unlocking new adventures.

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Review: Skeleton Crew

Skeleton CrewSkeleton Crew by Stephen King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For a collection of short stories, this book took me forever to read. It’s an interesting peek behind the curtain of the famous writer while also being chock-full of scary, interesting, and mysterious tales. It’s a lot of fun, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to read it on your relaxing vacation (see: took me 3.5 months to read it all).

If you’ve read King’s famous “On Writing,” you may find this book extra interesting. He can’t help but reveal himself in these short stories, and when they are all collected together, it’s easy to see commonalities. For one, I feel like I have a real roadmap to Bangor, Maine (King’s beloved hometown). The laundry where he worked before he found a teaching job (and then became a writer) makes several appearances, and country roads in the vicinity twist and tangle until some of the more unruly characters appear. I have to wonder if King’s drug addiction lies behind some of the more nauseating and skin-crawling horrors: the rat-person in “Mona” in particular, and certainly the methodology in “Survivor Type.”

It’s interesting to read “The Mist” and King’s thoughts on it in the decades before it became a movie (his son Joe Hill even being “cast” as the precocious little kid in the story). The story, which opens the book, is one of the best, but is not the most frightening, by far. “The Jaunt” is a cheerful attempt at science-fiction, with the ending practically obvious from the get-go. The final story, “The Reach,” wasn’t horror in the slightest; it’s more of a quiet contemplation.

I found it intriguing that the horror factor in several of the stories (“The Mist,” “The Raft,” “The Monkey,” “Morning Deliveries (Milkman #2)”) is never clearly defined, explained, or even resolved. Particularly in “The Mist” and “The Raft,” bad things just sort of happen, and there isn’t a lot anyone–reader, character, perhaps writer?–can do about it.

While I enjoyed reading these stories because it allowed me to study King while he was at work (or, as he says, “my muse shat on my head–this happened as it always does, suddenly, with no warning.”), it reads like the grab-bag off his desk: a little of this, a little of that, some worth more, some not worth writing on the back of a napkin. It’s a ragtag bunch of stories, and shows the breadth of King’s talent and interests, but may not be for every reader.

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Review: The Song of Achilles

The Song of AchillesThe Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I nearly double-majored in Classics, and the most enjoyable class I took in college was a Classics/Archaeology crossover class where we read classical texts then watched movies based on them to pick them apart for historical accuracy.

But that kind of knowledge is fairly niche now, and I don’t get a lot of opportunities to think about Homer and the Greek gods anymore.

Going back, though, is extremely satisfying. Anyone with more than a passing interest in The Iliad needs to immediately pick up this book — even if your only exposure to the tale is what you gleaned from “Xena: Warrior Princess” and the movie “Troy,” you’ll enjoy this book.

Achilles, the hero of the Iliad, is “the best of the Greeks,” and yet the Trojan War lasted 10 years as men fought for land, power, and the rights to the most beautiful woman in the world. But the original text provides very little insight into the life and character of this man.

That’s where The Song of Achilles comes in, telling Achilles’ story through the eyes of his most beloved, the footnoted and glossed-over Patroclus (laughably called Achilles’ “cousin” in the modern interpretation; sure, we believe he went to his death on behalf of his “cousin,” Hollywood. Suuuure.)

Tackling Greek myths for a modern audience is pretty tricky work: how do you remain faithful to a story format conceived thousands of years ago?

But Madeline Miller more than manages: her writing is deft, loving, and honors both human skill and god-gifted powers. You’ll believe the gods–tricky, unreachable, unassailable in their pretty deceptions–really do intercede into a human war, and you’ll also see how a change in the wind could be interpreted as a blessing from the gods.

The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is nuanced, taking them from their time as children together up through and beyond Patroclus’ death. Their love as a couple is potent and poignant, and I sometimes had to stop reading to clutch the book to myself, hoping that, maybe, this time, Patroclus wouldn’t have to die.

Despite the homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, I wouldn’t call this a necessarily LGBT work. This is a Classics piece, and will be best loved by those who love the Classics. The text itself is vague on whether or not they would, by modern terms, be considered gay: do they love men–any men?–, or do they merely love each other? I’ll not spoil it, but Patroclus and Achilles both have moments where the rigidity of a sexual category are questioned.

The perhaps most incredible part of this story is how a demi-god manages to live when he knows, with complete certainty, that his early death is assured. How can you live a full life knowing you will not be able to grow old? What kind of person would chose the allure of glory and fame over life? The portrait of Achilles here painted is a believable structure of such a man.

I can’t wait for Miller to tackle The Odyssey next! (I hope she does!)

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Community: Hope Against a Crisis

I’ve written before about how, despite my interest in dystopian subjects and new ways to destroy the world, I am not anything remotely like a “prepper” because I don’t want to live my life motivated by fear.

And I still feel that way. But we just had a wicked ice storm that paralyzed north Texas, and it made me think.
I was fairly well-prepared for the storm. My mom’s a worrier, and had alerted me to it well in advance. I’d followed the weather, made lots of hearty foods and ran out to buy extra wood and supplies the night before it hit. I have an ice scraper that looks sort of like a wizard’s staff and two cans of de-icer, blankets and a nice winter coat.
But things did not go according to plan. At all.
First, when I got home, my water had been turned off. There went my plan to fill a few pitchers before the storm really hit, and it was too late to try to get any from the store, which was overrun by panic-stricken shoppers. A miserable-looking work crew was on it, though, and it was restored by 9 p.m., just in time for me to enjoy a hot shower (and fill my tea kettle).
Then, overnight, my power went out. About 100,000 people lost power, all together, and the power company had no timeline on when it would be up. My plan to work from home was out the window, so I had to trek in to work. By the time I got home, it still wasn’t back, so I had to go stay with family for the weekend. Alternative sources for heat and light just hadn’t been part of my preparations.
TL;DR: Ice storms are unpredictable.
But it made me realize the most important part: I had somewhere to go. Even if my parents hadn’t lived in town, I would have been able to call a number of folks who would have let me stay with them while I waited for the power to come back.
And that’s why I’m not afraid.
When faced with a crisis, we (humans) tend to help one another. In addition to the people I knew would let me stay with them, I saw folks working together to clear downed trees, carve cars out of the ice or pull them back into the road, share resources. (I gave some neighbor kids a few board games to keep them entertained while they waited out the power problems.)
People help. Sure, sometimes people cause harm or damage, but by and large, people help.
A coworker who has a “prepper” bent and is new in town was surprised that there wasn’t any looting. The thought literally never occurred to me. How sad that fear of others was his first concern. (I guess he would say how sad it is that I wasn’t worried about my stuff…)
I think I’m not the only one thinking more about community lately. Our self-imposed technological isolation from other people is starting to have ramifications, and we’re starting to talk about it. More and more, it’s becoming clear that people NEED people. It’s considered socially acceptable to be very close to your spouse, but what happens when your spouse dies?  We need more than one person, or two people, or three people in our lives. We need a community, and that takes time and effort to build.
I need to do it better. This week, I started by being nice to a neighbor who has lived nearby for six months. I shook her hand and said hello.
It’s a start.

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Smooth Sailing Ahead

Thanks to all those who participated in my NaNoWriMo poll!

I got a range of votes, including the excellent write-in for “goblins” (really great idea!), but one thing really surprised me: The option “Don’t write a sequel to the book you haven’t sold yet.” got 0% of the votes.

I have a confession: That was really the question I was struggling to answer. My first book, Undead Rising, is still out with an agent. It’s been six months; I’m sending her an email next week to let her know I’m going to start sending it to other people. Everyone who has read that book has LOVED it, but the non-responses I’ve gotten from agents were deeply dispiriting, and I felt like maybe it wasn’t a good enough idea.

But everybody thought it was a good idea to keep writing gamebooks/interactive novels/monster stories. I’m floored, and uplifted (is that a contradiction? I don’t care.).

I’m grateful so many folks weighed in.

The winner: Pirates!
Which is super, because that’s a really ripe genre I can rob, and let’s be honest, I need a lot of material from which to plunder.

(Plunder. See what I did there? Brace for a whole passel of puns in this book, my friends!)

Yo-ho-ho, away we go!



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Monster of the Week

Last year, completely without planning to, I spent NaNoWriMo writing a book about zombies. A gamebook about zombies, written for adults actually, called Undead Rising, where the reader has the option to choose her path along the way, changing the story for every reader. (You might have heard of a certain series of gamebooks for kids that carry a very catchy but copyrighted name…)

It was a ton of fun to write and I truly believe it stands a chance of getting published–and I even had two agents ask for full manuscripts six months ago (but I’m still waiting to hear back…)–and everyone I’ve allowed to read it has loved it. Even the two people who are friends-of-friends but are obsessed with zombies. Even they liked it, and that’s exactly who I’d want to like it, forget everyone else.

But now it is time for another National Novel Writing Month and… I’m not sure what to do. Help me pick?

If I’m going to try to keep to the same tongue-in-cheek style as Undead Rising, the monster/bad guys need to have a lot of pop culture that I can draw from (mock endlessly). I’m just not sure which one is best.


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Killer Craft: Build Your Own Zombie

Gorgeously Gruesome ZombiesMy grandmother is the perennial thrift store shopper, and periodically she finds something wonderful and weird. This time, I was the recipient of her bounty: my very own Gorgeously Gruesome Zombies kit!

Basically it’s a little craft booklet with instructions and templates on how to make 8 plushy “zombies” (they’re kinda liberal with what constitutes a zombie, though, thus the quotation marks. Personally I don’t think a construction cone should qualify. Nor a caterpillar, though I guess that’s scary-ish?)

But it combined two awesome things! Crafting + zombies = fun, right?

So, for your viewing pleasure, my very own DIY zombie, in step-by-step process.

First, prepare your supplies.

Assemble Supplies

Second, read the section on the “zombie kid” and discover it doesn’t include all the supplies you’ll need. Be annoyed but grateful you have a ridiculous assortment of scrap/craft supplies.

Read Instructions

Third, trace templates from back of the book and then pin to felt.

Zombie Templates

Fourth: Cut out clothing and body parts. Feel ghoulish.

Body Parts

Fifth: Build your little Frankenstein’s monster body with the help of craft glue. He’s a spiffy chap.

Construct Body

Sixth: Sew monster’s front to his back. Be annoyed that he’s apparently wearing body paint clothes as his back is flesh-colored (grey). Add some blood to his stumpy arm.

Sew Em Up

7: Tell your zombie to stuff it.

Stuff It

8: Make a face. Ignore weird instructions to apply gross eyeball after head is complete and do it now because it makes way more sense. Be squicked out by the dangly eyeball. Love your zombie even more. Make a Face9: Sew him up.

Sew Him Up

10: Make sure he has a fat head.

Fat Head

11: Make a hat! Wish you also had a dashing red top hat of your very own. Be jealous of your zombie creation. A Hat!

12: Attach head to body. No Neck

13: Make him fancy.

Fancy Zombie Creation

14: Electrify.

Just kidding. Don’t add electricity to your zombie. It won’t work, anyway. They’re undead by nature.

Do store your zombie in a safe place to keep your cotton-stuffed creation away from your BRAIIIINS….

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You’re Equal to Me in Every Way…For A Lady

The full cast o’characters.

In fighting the late-summer heat, I recently picked up a new-t0-me video game: Dragon Age: Origins. It’s pretty cool; you are on a hero’s journey to become a Grey Warden and travel from town to town fighting monsters and trying to save the kingdom. There’s a lot of customization, and the choices you make throughout will affect the outcome of the game.

And you have to make a lot of choices. (It’s almost the Starbucks of video games: and would you like whip with that? (I’m easily overwhelmed by Starbucks….can you tell?))

The very very first choice, though, is building your character: Will you play as a male or a female?

In some ways, the fact that it’s even an option to play as female is a great thing; in some games, forget it. You’re just a white-ish athletic dude no matter what. So I always enjoy games that give you more versatility in that way.

The prompt as you choose your playable gender says Fereldon, the world, is a pretty equal place, with opportunities for both men and women in the three playable careers–warrior, mage, and rogue. That’s important, because I like to know when I’m cutting myself off from parts of the game with my choices.

So I built my female human mage with red hair and dark eyes and went happily on my way.

Except I was constantly reminded by other characters (non-playable characters, or NPCs, for you non-gamers out there) that woah, hey! You’re a lady!

In some cases, it made sense and fit with the story: when Morrigan the wild witch met me, she was more friendly because she carries a general dislike for men, having grown up in isolation.

But most of the time, it doesn’t. It’s more like “wow, you’re a fighter and a lady? Whodathunkit?!” In a world that is supposedly equal. And where I periodically see other female warrior/mage/rogues running around.

It just got tiresome. So this happened:

dragonage Twitter

Think about this in your writing. If your character is something different, that’s fantastic! We need more minority characters–not just female, but also non-white nationalities. And that should affect the story where appropriate–as in the case with Morrigan in Dragon Age.

But when all the “NPCs” in your book take time to comment on the difference, you aren’t showing that there’s equality. You may be telling the reader that there is, but what you’re showing is exceptionalism. And it’s pretty tiresome, both in our stories and just to read. (See: Repetition)

(There may be stories of exceptionalism where it is still relevant–“wow, she’s the only one who can do that!”–but I personally think the gender-based exceptions are played out. Do something different.)

Don’t tell me how equal I am: just let me get on with the monster-fighting and world-exploring. That’s how I KNOW I’m equal–because I can definitely kick some undead monster butt if you’ll just let me get on with it.



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Zombie Bug-Out Bag

In my last post, I talked about the real-life preppers who kinda sorta maybe believe the zombie thing is real.

This guy probably doesn’t, but he provides a cute look at why the zombie apocalypse works as a good trope.

Also, he’s just sorta silly. And I approve of that.

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August 3, 2013 · 10:00 am