Meddling Kids and Reimagining Classics

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Scooby-Doo, that classic mystery cartoon involving a dog and his sleuthing pals, makes for a tempting adaption target. There’s a genre, mystery, baked into the premise, a cast of interesting characters, and even an animal with a personality – there’s a reason the animated series has been around in some form or another since 1969. The shows generally draw from the crime-a-week mold, which makes them great fodder for a novelization or serialization into written work – pick a set of episodes you like and just write them into prose. Easy!

Two problems with that, of course:

  1. Scooby-Doo and anything using those characters is going to be copyrighted for the foreseeable future, so if you want the talking great dane to feature in your masterwork, you’re going to have to secure the rights to do that. Which, well, let’s just say there’s easier ways of achieving your writing dreams than barging into corporate offices and demanding they lease you their property so you can put together that long-awaited Scooby/James Bond crossover, where the dog and spy prevent world annihilation at the hands of a cult of people all wearing lobster costumes.
  2. Even if you do get the direct rights, or just pray the lawyers won’t find you, every single one of those characters is going to carry immense baggage with your audience. The people picking up the book, reading the story, are going to have their own opinions about Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby. You try to do something twisty and original with those characters, and you’re going to get discontent from everyone who can’t believe that Fred is really a 45 year-old man on the run from the law masquerading as a teenager to throw off pursuit while steadily racking up criminals in order to bargain for a suspended sentence from his original crime: running an illegal ascot import business.

So how do you avoid that?

As seen in the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies series, you can go for obvious parody. Your audience is going to know right off that this is not the story they’re familiar with, and these characters shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. The rightsholders and die-hard fans won’t care because the scenario you’ve created is so far from the story they love that nobody’s going to be offended. Scooby-Doo Meets the Mob, in which the dog and the gang team up with Tony Soprano to run drugs through New Jersey? It’s so far from the show and so patently ridiculous that you’re probably not going to get complaints (you also won’t get the rights, but it’s fun to imagine).

The other way, and what Meddling Kids does well, is to play off of a familiar cultural icon just enough to make the references clear and then swing it your own way. Edgar Cantero’s supernatural mystery uses an older cast whose characters have some relation to their cartoon alter-egos, but are more fully-realized. They’re older, they’ve seen some things, and they’re not scared of a man in a mask. The dog doesn’t really talk (and isn’t a great dane either). Yet there are enough similarities – the story picks up on a gang of teenage sleuths years after they’ve split apart – that it’s easy to fall in with the characters. Like friends that you’ve not seen for a while, there’s plenty to recognize.

Cantero also uses the setup to drive a more complex, more wild story than most of the cartoons ever did. These characters are deeper, have more complex motivations and histories – which is, partly, a function of a novel over a 23-minute cartoon for kids, which this book definitely is not – and come across, mostly, as actual people. As such, we’re able to use our familiarity with Scooby-Doo to get us in the door, but the place we’ve walked into is very different from what we know, which makes it fun to explore. If you’re a fan of mysteries, especially supernatural and somewhat comedic ones, this is a rollicking journey from start to finish. You’re not getting hard-boiled detectives or gritty realism, but characters that you’ll both recognize and be excited to ride along with as the story burns towards a nuts conclusion.

A couple things:

  1. One thing Cantero does that I wasn’t fond of, which is definitely a matter of personal reader taste, is use descriptions and narrative asides that are very over-the-top or that seem interjected by the author’s hand. These might be funny to some, and most were clever, or at least produced amusing images, but they often jerked me out of the story. Made me notice the writing, say, rather than the scene, and getting pulled out of the story is not what I want to do. I’m going to keep an eye out for this in my own work too.
  2. Carpet cleaning – it basically makes your entire house damp for a day. I kept forgetting this, soaking my socks. So my advice to those considering cleaning their carpets: get some sandals or slippers, lest your interior become a strange version of the lava game you may have played when you were a kid, except instead of “dying”, what you get instead is minor annoyance. Terrible, I know. On the other hand, the cats seemed to love it, and as everything I do these days is in service to my feline overlords, their happiness made the whole thing worth it.

The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro

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What if you forgot most of your life? If your past only came to you in flickers, rather than memories?

In The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro explores the many ways we interact with our pasts, but does so in an Arthurian fantasy landscape. There are knights, dragons, ogres and malevolent magic, but there is also love – though less of the ardent variety and more of the deeper, softer stuff that, while less flashy, makes up the great benefit of finding a partner in the first place. In fact, in this world, the love that the two main protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, share for each other is one of the few things that transcends the strange mist that seems to be ridding the people of their memories.

A premise like this seems like there’s only one way it could go – find the cause of the memory-erasing mist and get rid of it, post-haste!

But nobody seems to be in such a hurry to do so. In fact, there seem to be plenty of good things that come from a slippery mind – namely, grudges aren’t held. Ancient enemies forget their causes for war. Daily consternations are ignored because, unlike our commutes, our ever present tasks, for the denizens of this world things tend to refresh themselves. Not everything is whisked away, but enough goes to leave the present pleasantly ethereal.

Ishiguro tells the story in myth-making prose – a stately assemblage of imagery, character, and dialogue that reflects a more refined age than likely ever existed. Occasionally, the conversations contain so many introspective twists and turns as to stretch credulity, but then, we are in a world where Gawain the Green Knight features, so perhaps it’s fair game to give casual back-and-forths the same heavy sentences as would befit a speech.

What unravels, though, is an enjoyable tale with an unusual cast of characters. There’s a warrior, yes, and a knight, sure. But they are a far cry from your usual stereotypes. Axl and Beatrice, meanwhile, have a loving rapport that, through deft use of dialogue, keeps us curious as to how they really feel towards one another. There are all the hints, the subtle tones, the questions left unanswered as in a real relationship, and as a result, they both feel real. They feel like two people whose only crutch left in the world is each other.

The Buried Giant is a novel not meant to be devoured. It’s slow, it’s steady, and its characters grow on you over time. There aren’t overwhelming personalities, and the plot itself is not the stuff of heroic battles or larger-than-life episodes. Instead, it’s an exploration of what might happen to society, and to ourselves, if who we are faded away with the end of the day.

All in all, The Buried Giant is a journey worth taking if you want a break from your standard fantasy fare. Don’t expect frenetic action and ferocious battle. Go hunting for characters and questions, and you’ll like what you find.

Rakers is Launching

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Yep – the title pretty much says it all on this one. Rakers, my next novel, is launching. It’ll be available in all the places in ebook and some of the places in print. I’ll have a link up for it shortly and all that jazz.

Rakers is about a pair of ex-special forces members who have turned to using their special set of skills in rough ways to make ends meet. We’re talking kidnappings, beatdowns-with-a-message, and various other illicit deeds. They command a good price.

However, Fade (that’s our hero) is interrupted during a routine kidnapping by a pair of odd-looking people who insist that he’s the biggest risk humanity’s got. As in, Fade is a direct arrow to the apocalypse, according to them. When Fade objects to this interpretation, things get messy and people get hurt.

Now Fade has to figure out how he became the target, and, more importantly, how to get these people, who have weapons and ways he’s never seen before, off his back. If he doesn’t, he won’t have long to live.

Rakers plays the action-adventure card to the fullest, while introducing a new universe and characters that will continue through more stories to come. If you’re interested in a fast-paced thrill with characters who are more than talking plot points, Rakers ought to be fun.

Plus, it contains tacos.

That’s One Way to Write A God – Neil Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology”

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Putting a god of any kind into fiction, written or otherwise, is a difficult proposition – after all, these are supposedly beings with such incredible gifts that they are above anything humans could ever approach. Despite this, stories involving gods often write them with human concerns and motivations. As though the issues we face are the same worries an immortal being cares about.

Gaiman takes another path, and it makes Norse Mythology truly read like a myth. By that I mean the old style – the sort of tales wandering prophets would render alive around campfires in dusky twilights in the wilderness. Where the gods are the traits they represent, where they are beings of strange thoughts, reckless ambition, and creators of mischievous chaos. Thor is the brash hammer – and he brashly hammers away. Loki is the sublime trickster who, more often, runs afoul of his own cleverness. Odin may be wise and nigh invulnerable, but, as is the way of “old” gods, often fails to live up to his own greatness.

I said above that we often present gods as caring about what we humans do. Gaiman, along with the tales he’s recording in this tight volume, instead takes a greater interest in the failings of these gods. Thor may care about slaughtering frost giants, something most of us can’t relate to, but he often fails, in these stories, to perceive the full situation or think beyond the surface details – which is a very human fault. Loki creates schemes and plans that, at their outset, seem immaculate, but, thanks to an unnoticed variable, fall apart around him. Any one of us whose even attempted a project of any size can relate to that one.

My point for all this being – you characters, if they’re not human, do not need (or should not) have the same set of needs and desires as you and I. They should be different, because their frame of reference for the universe comes from a perspective far different from our own. However, they can still make our mistakes. I think it’s more fun when they do, as the consequences are often more entertaining. You trip and fall, you skin your knee. Thor trips and falls, suddenly you have a new mountain range.

In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed this set of tales and their odd assortment of fumbling gods and goddesses.

If you read it aloud, preferably at night, in front of a fire with a flagon of spiced mead close at hand, you’ll take a walk with gods and giants, and perhaps see some of yourself in both.