CSFF Blog Tour: Attercop, Shelob, and Ungoliant

Human beings seem, by nature, to find something loathsome about spiders. Jonathan Edwards compared sinners in the hands of an angry God to spiders. Others have found spiders even more creepy than repulsive, and to many they’re the stuff of nightmares and phobias.

Speculative fiction has responded to this old human fear with giant spiders. Tom Pawlik, when he made them the ravening menace of Beckon, was walking in a tradition with deep roots. Spiders were employed by both Lord Dunsany, a forefather of fantasy, and H. G. Wells, a father of science fiction. J. R. R. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy, made signature use of them. Each of his major works bears the mark.

In The Hobbit, the victims are Bilbo and, even more, the dwarves: “Suddenly he saw, too, that there were spiders huge and horrible sitting in the branches above him, and ring or no ring he trembled with fear lest they should discover him. Standing behind a tree he watched a group of them for some time, and then in the silence and stillness of the wood he realised that these loathsome creatures were speaking one to another. Their voices were a sort of thin creaking and hissing, but he could make out many of the words that they said. They were talking about the dwarves!”

The meat of the conversation was about how to prepare the dwarves for supper – much like the Trolls’ discussion, only far more intelligent. Thus Tolkien made his spiders sentient, capable of talking, of differing opinions – and of taking offense.

As Bilbo sang after hurling a few stones: “Old Tomnoddy, all big body, Old Tomnoddy can’t spy me! Attercop! Attercop! Down you drop! You’ll never catch me up your tree!”

And the spiders “were frightfully angry. Quite apart from the stones no spider has ever liked being called Attercop, and Tomnoddy of course is insulting to anybody.”

In Lord of the Rings, the giant spiders return, and this element of fun is gone. “Even as Frodo spoke he felt a great malice bent upon him, and a deadly regard considering him. Not far down the tunnel, between them and the opening where they had reeled and stumbled, he was aware of eyes growing visible, two great clusters of many-windowed eyes – the coming menace was unmasked at last. The radiance of the star-glass was broken and thrown back from their thousand facets, but behind the glitter a pale deadly fire began steadily to glow within, a flame kindled in some deep pit of evil thought. Monstrous and abominable eyes they were, bestial and yet filled with purpose and with hideous delight, gloating over their prey trapped beyond all hope of escape.”

And later: “There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form … Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her.”

Here Tolkien goes beyond giving his spiders minds. Shelob is “an evil thing in spider-form” – not really an animal at all. Yet the bestial instinct rules her. She doesn’t know or care for “anything devised by mind or hand”; her only purpose is to devour.

Finally, in The Silmarillion we meet, literally, the mother of them all – Ungoliant. “In a ravine she lived, and took shape as a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains. There she sucked up all light she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished.”

Ungoliant sucked the sap from the Trees of Valinor, which had been the sun and moon of that paradise; she drank the Wells of Varda dry and ate the jewels Morgoth had stolen from Formenos. And she would have gotten Morgoth himself, if the Balrogs hadn’t come when he cried out. So, in The Silmarillion, Tolkien goes farthest of all. Even Morgoth was overpowered by a spider.

J. R. R. Tolkien is far from the only one to use giant spiders as enemies, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who made them such enemies as he did.

CSFF Blog Tour: Red Shirts and Snapped Threads

In my last post, I criticized Beckon for its high casualty rate. I thought it would be good, today, to consider why characters are killed, and why they ought to be.

One common reason for killing characters is to (in the words of one author) “create peril”. Many poor red shirts* have lost their lives for this. And much of the time it doesn’t even work. Audiences are wise to the tactic; they are not going to feel peril when a character dies if they know the character died so that they would feel peril.

What’s more, they understand that the fate of minor characters says little about the fate of major characters. The fact that an author kills an unimportant character doesn’t mean that he’s willing to kill an important character. Indeed, some authors kill the supporting cast because they aren’t willing to kill the stars.

This is, as I said, commonly done – but I can’t help but think there are better ways of creating peril, and certainly better uses of characters.

Some characters are killed because, simply, the author wants to get rid of them. Although, in the short term, they had their purpose, they have no long-term place in the story. This can be understandable, at times it may even be necessary – but it is always an artistic weakness. It is an artistic weakness to snap a thread because you can’t work its color into the design.

A character may no longer be useful, but rarely is the fault inherently in the character. Even if it is – well, we know who created him. To relate the discussion back to Beckon – and if you don’t want spoilers, go no further – both of Jack’s companions died in the spelunking expedition. His position would have been much different if they had lived; it would have been much stronger, which would probably have been a bad thing.

But it was not necessary for those characters to die even for Jack to emerge from the caves alone. If, say, Rudy had fallen into the hands of the N’watu, Jack could still have gone into Beckon alone and we might have had the opportunity to understand the N’watu. If you take the trouble, you can find tremendous opportunities in unlikely characters.

Yet there are times when death is the proper consummation of a character’s story. Then it can be done with artistic strength – when a character dies not to make the audience nervous or to relieve the author of having to handle him, but to fulfill his own story.

* Red shirts are minor characters who are soon killed, usually as a sort of demonstration of the dangers our heroes face. The name comes from the original Star Trek series, where random crewmen – generally wearing red – would tag along with Kirk and Spock only to die just when things really started to get interesting.

CSFF Blog Tour: Beckon

Just on the side of the road, as you enter the little town in the mountains, there is a sign: Beckon: You’re here for a reason. And I can see why they chose that. It certainly beats out: Beckon: There is something seriously wrong with these people.

It’s a pity, you know, that the sign doesn’t say that. It would have been fair play. All the same, it never took too long for visitors to figure out that there was something wrong with those people. And still it was usually too late.

Beckon, written by Tom Pawlik, is billed a supernatural suspense. It certainly had suspense – I would even call it a thriller – but the supernatural element was thin. At least it was thin by the sometimes bizarre lights of the genre. The main peril, creepy and even chilling as it was, broke the supernatural suspense archetype of being, well, supernatural.

And this leads to the novel’s greatest merits. The premise of the book is one of the most intriguing and innovative I have ever read. It kept me engaged to the very end. Tom Pawlik draws readers deeper in with skill – never too much revelation at a time, never too little.

The book is divided into four parts. The first three are devoted, in turn, to Jack, Elina, and George, detailing each one’s path into Beckon and its mysteries. At the fourth part, their storylines merge. This was Pawlik’s way of pulling up the curtain, as each character stumbled onto a different secret hidden within Beckon.

Pawlik also used it to concentrate attention on his heroes, to give a sense not only of where they had arrived but where they had come from. So the story, with all its revelations and dangers springing at them, doesn’t just happen to them. It seems instead to be part of a journey they were already on.

I have two complaints against this book. One, the violence level was too high, and some instances were, frankly, disgusting. The casualty rate of the cast was astounding. I got the feeling sometimes that the author killed characters simply because he didn’t want them in the next chapter. When he was through with them, they were through.

My second complaint – perhaps related to the first – is that the book does not fully explore the mysteries it presents. The N’watu and Beckon are both, in their way, fascinating, but their depths are left unmined. What their lives made them, what it all meant to them, is never really told.

I still don’t know what made the N’watu tick. Yes, they hated and feared outsiders – but why? You cannot be afraid without feeling that you are vulnerable. What vulnerability did they see in themselves? I would ask what vulnerability they saw in their god, but I am not sure that they had one. It was never clear to whom, in their own understanding, they made their sacrifices.

I can’t say that I will pick up Beckon again, but I expect it to be popular. Its premise was genuinely compelling, and it excelled in suspense and mystery. Those who enjoy thrills and chills will probably enjoy this.

We have an unusual number of links this tour, so here we go:

Beckon‘s Amazon page;

Tom Pawlik’s website,

his blog,

his Facebook page,

and his Twitter account.

And now, the blog tour:

Noah Arsenault
Julie Bihn

Thomas Clayton Booher

Thomas Fletcher Booher
Beckie Burnham
Brenda Castro
Theresa Dunlap
Nikole Hahn
Ryan Heart

Bruce Hennigan

Janeen Ippolito
Becky Jesse
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen

Rebekah Loper
Katie McCurdy
Karen McSpadden
Rebecca LuElla Miller

Joan Nienhuis

Faye Oygard
Crista Richey
Kathleen Smith
Jessica Thomas

Steve Trower
Fred Warren

Shane Werlinger

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Character Profiles: The Expository Sidekick

“Oh,” he said, with emphasis. “Oh – you don’t think it necessary; then,” and he added the words with great clearness and deliberation, “then, Mr. Ellis Shorter, I can only say that I would like to see you without your whiskers.”

And at these words I also rose to my feet, for the great tragedy of my life had come. Splendid and exciting as life was in continued contact with an intellect like Basil’s, I had always the feeling that that splendour and excitement were on the borderland of sanity. He lived perpetually near the vision of the reason of things which makes men lose their reason. And I felt of his insanity as men feel of the death of friends with heart disease. It might come anywhere, in a field, in a hansom cab, looking at a sunset, smoking a cigarette. At the very moment of delivering a judgment for the salvation of a fellow creature, Basil Grant had gone mad.

Your whiskers,” he cried, advancing with blazing eyes. “Give me your whiskers. And your bald head.”

The Club of Queer Trades, by G. K. Chesterton

His name was Swinburne, but his friends called him the Cherub. This, he said, was due to the “roseate and youthful appearance I presented in my declining years. I only hope the spirits in the better world have as good dinners as I have.”

And yet he was a man who had odd adventures, and had them regularly. He went to strange places in London, and to strange places outside it. One dark evening he climbed halfway up a tree in a deserted heath, for reasons he never did know. He followed strangers, and chased strangers, and occasionally pinned them to the ground.

There are many complex explanations for these actions, and a single simple one. Swinburne did all these things because he was around Basil Grant. Basil lived under the suspicion of being mad, and the world seemed to go mad around him. So his friend Swinburne passed through tale after tale of The Club of Queer Trades, a puzzled narrator of puzzling events.

He was an Expository Sidekick. Although the whole story is told through his “I”, he is not the subject – an unusual thing. Expository Sidekicks are a rare specimen. Generally they come paired with an Incomprehensible Genius, the real star. Let the sad truth be told: An Expository Sidekick is a character created as a literary device; he is a way to tell the story.

The most famous Expository Sidekick is undoubtedly Dr. Watson. He is, unlike Sherlock Holmes, a fairly normal person. As such, he performs two vital services for the story.

In the first place, he – like Swinburne – walks through the story going, What? This is what the reader feels and is meant to feel. It is helpful to have a character who feels the same. It makes the reader’s confusion about what is happening less a reaction to the story and more a participation in it. And then, on the reader’s behalf, Watson (and Swinburne) will demand – and get – an explanation.

In the second place, Dr. Watson is like every Expository Sidekick in that he can narrate and do it well. The Incomprehensible Genius – Holmes or Basil Grant – is not really fit to be a viewpoint character. His thought processes are in essence foreign. Sherlock Holmes and Basil Grant solve mysteries, but they are mysteries themselves. It would be hard, if the story related their thoughts directly, to preserve how incredible their minds are – let alone how mysterious. The Expository Sidekick is created to be the filter, witness to the geniuses and chronicler of them.

The Expository Sidekick is not usually complete without the Incomprehensible Genius – but far, far less is the Incomprehensible Genius complete without the Expository Sidekick. In this, too, the last shall be first, that though the Expository Sidekicks are more forgettable, they are utterly indispensable.

The Story of the Leaning Tower

I decided to do this week’s post on the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and not only because I was late getting to work on it. I’ve long been fascinated at how failing became such a tremendous success.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa leans. This, a tower is not supposed to do. For one thing, it’s terribly inconvenient when you’re trying to eat and the plate keeps sliding off the table. More urgently, there is a danger that the tower will tilt more and more until, finally, it falls over. That a tower is most definitely not supposed to do.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is the campanile – the freestanding bell tower – of the Cathedral of Pisa. In the twelfth century, when construction began, Pisa was a city-state, one of Italy’s maritime republics. For a time it dominated trade on the Mediterranean. The city elders decided to build a cathedral square – erecting first the cathedral and the baptistry, and then the bell tower.

Now, the town of Pisa was named from a Greek word meaning “marshy land”. And they were only being accurate. The city “lies on a thin layer of soft alluvial silt, above a thick layer of even softer marine clay. It’s practically a bog.” (The Telegraph) So the earth was weak, and the foundation they laid was also weak. In 1173, building began; in 1178, after they had progressed to the second floor, the tower began to sink. It’s been tilting ever since.

War caused a halt to the building of the tower – and, many believe, prevented its collapse. During the long interim, the land stabilized as the tower’s weight slowly compacted the dirt beneath it. In 1272 work began again, under the architect Giovanni di Simone. He tried to correct the tower’s tilt (see, it wasn’t supposed to do that!), but he failed.

In the early fifteenth century, Pisa lost its independence. Eventually the Leaning Tower of Pisa became one of the monuments of Italy, enjoying international fame. The inhabitants of Pisa liked to say that only God was holding their tower up – in His love.

But there was a dissenting opinion; there always is. Mussolini didn’t like to have a lopsided tower as a national symbol. He took a course of action that was, for the class he belonged to*, very temperate: He had 80 tons of concrete poured into the foundations. The Tower of Pisa, in admirable defiance, continued to lean.

During World War II, as the Allies battled the Nazis for Italy, the German army used the tower as an observation post. When the U.S. military discovered this, the fate of the Leaning Tower was placed in the hands of an American sergeant. He decided not to call in an artillery strike, and the tower survived yet another war.

Of course, the existential danger of the Tower of Pisa is that it leans, and does so at an ever-increasing angle. As the twentieth century wore on, it became alarmingly clear that even a thunderstorm had the potential to knock down the tower. So, in 1990, the Tower of Pisa was shut down. After eleven years of structural strengthening, it was declared ready to go on standing – and leaning – for two or three centuries more.

G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “God only knows, man failing in his choice, how far apparent failure may succeed.” And that, in essence, is the story of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

* The Crazy Dictator class. He could have just blown it up, you know.

Review: Enemies of the Cross

Things were not going well for Jeff Weldon. His brother had been taken from him, his church was losing its good name and, with it, all sorts of congregants. Being the pastor, he was also losing all sorts of income. And he was pretty sure the powers of darkness were, if not stalking the town, hanging around it somewhere. He wanted to fix it. Where to start?

With garage sales. Baby showers. Helping people move. If such a litany of good deeds seems that it would hardly help – it didn’t. Jeff moved on to other deeds, many of them not so good.

Enemies of the Cross is the second act of The Coming Evil Trilogy, written by Greg Mitchell. In The Strange Man, the first book, we saw evil invade Greensboro; in the second book, we see the range of its conquest. And if you think the question, when the Strange Man arrives, is whether you’ll be able to hang on to your town, you’ll find that the vital issue is whether you’ll be able to hang on to your soul.

Enemies of the Cross has a mystery feel to it that the first book did not. The writing is also tighter and more disciplined. Unfortunately, the book has less considerably less humor than its precursor. This is due partly to its more somber mood, but largely, I think, to the removal of Dras.

Dras was my favorite character in the first book, and I missed him in the second. I found him a more charming protagonist than Jeff, and he brought a lot more humor. Still, for the type of story Enemies of the Cross was supposed to be, I think Dras’ absence was a good thing. Greg Mitchell used it effectively.

Though Dras is gone, most of the old cast is still present. Mitchell added new dimension to nearly all of them. Jeff’s slippery slope was well-done, particularly because it wasn’t straight down. There is moral truth in how he slipped down, struggled up a few feet, and then slipped down farther. Some new characters emerge – one of whom became the novel’s unexpected triumph. His way to redemption felt fresh and real, and it moved me.

The religious element is strong in this book. It defines the conflict and directs the characters’ journeys. It’s to the author’s credit that the Christianity is neither obligatory nor extraneous – as it is to his credit that he was not too self-conscious to include it.

Enemies of the Cross is an intense book – perhaps, in a few moments, too intense. The story takes unexpected turns and the characters are vividly realized. And, in the intensity, there are yet touching moments, and light breaks the darkness.