Vaya con Dios

You may be aware that a few years ago, I began writing 19th-century alternate histories as a literary vacation after Smedley. The series soon morphed into a stream of weird Westerns, ghost stories, and even a little steampunk; while simultaneously their creation transformed into a kind of palliative during the Years of Real-Estate Madness. Distracted by garages, painting, buying, selling, and restorations (not to mention paying employment), my attention was too fragmented to think about more books or even short nonfiction with its relevancy demands and expiration dates. The great thing about short fiction is I can write something, walk away for weeks, and then come back to pick up where I left it.

In keeping with a theme of endings and new beginnings, it’s time for Strange Wests to ride off into the sunset as I readjust my focus toward longer projects and nonfiction. Nobody has been more astonished than me by Wests’s reception from editors and readers. A bunch are in various stages of the pipeline, which means there’s more to appear, and never say never: I’m happy to write fresh material as the inspiration or invitation strikes. Plus I’ve come to depend on fiction writing as an analgesic too much to quit it altogether. I will still be writing historical shorts as time allows, only these, for the immediate future, will be set in New England.

My goal is to bundle Strange Wests into an e-book collection to be published in 2015.

Down on the Rio Grande

Altered AmericaMy story “Rio Grande” appears in the new alternate-history anthology, Altered America. Gambling gunfighter Lorenzo seeks vengeance against a card sharp in the Republic of the Rio Grande, an independent country based on the economic principles of Frederic Bastiat:

“When the Republicans defeated the Mexican army at Morales, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Mexico tried again. They realized our little breakaway estado could only be held by force. Force means men. So they encouraged homesteading to grow the population. They tried various policies for a few years but nothing worked. Everyone wanted to go to California instead. Finally President Jordan discovered the writings of a French philosopher named Bastiat. This philosopher advocated free exchange. No taxes. No tariffs. No customs. A strictly confined government. ‘Law is organized justice,’ said the philosopher — anything beyond that is perversion. So they scrapped everything and started over with a new constitution based on his writings and principles. They advertised it in all the eastern newspapers. Cheap land. Live tariff free. Women can vote. And where there are women, there are men and soon enough children who grow up to defend against Mexico. Then there weren’t enough branches in the trees to beat back the settlers.”

“But how do you pay for the judges and the marshals? Who builds the courthouses?”

“The philosopher wasn’t against taxes so much as their unfair and arbitrary application,” said Valasquez. “So to keep everyone honest, there are none to begin with. Citizens can make donations. But that’s exactly how Jordan managed to convince his caudillo supporters to agree to the constitution. It meant only self-sufficient people could afford to be judges and marshals.”

“Only the wealthy, you mean.”

“How is that worse than America?”

Alien Space Bats maybe, but I’ve often wondered why banana-republic rebellions usually take such a distinctly left-hand turn. The answer, I suppose, is Marxism’s empty pledge to eliminate the elite classes, a mistake based on the assumption that class derives from economic systems rather than being a natural by-product of state-level civilization.

In any event, “Rio Grande” isn’t for or against libertarianism so much as it is a stab at that most pernicious of modern ideologies, utopianism. Earlier this week at Reason.com, author Anne Fortier noted the power of historical fiction:

To the freedom-friendly novelist, one further advantage of historical fiction is that the entire history of mankind is jam-packed with tragic examples of what Hayek called “the fatal conceit” and the corrupting effects of power — especially state power.

It’s worth reading her whole essay, though I’m not sure what business Fortier has throwing speculative fiction under the bus after writing a whole book about a mythological matriarchy (for all of her self-satisfaction, it seems Fortier hasn’t learned that genre — the difference of where you’re shelved in the bookstore — is simply packaging). But she’s right: history shows that power disparities are inevitable once a certain complexity of social organization is reached, and the key is not a false promise of eradicating those disparities but rather blunting power so that it does the least harm.

You can purchase the whole anthology here — I’m happy to report the Kindle edition has seen a steady burn of sales since its release — or read my complete story for free here. And if you enjoyed the antho, please leave a review at Amazon or Goodreads!

 

The Gao of Bill

Heartless Gao Walks Number Nine Hell.Never heard of Bill Ward? It’s your loss, though understandable. Despite having appeared in such pubs as Howard Andrew Jones’s Flashing Swords, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Kaleidotrope, and enough anthologies to burst an equort’s saddlebags, Ward remains shamefully underrated and unknown in the genre community.

Part of the handicap lies in the fact that as a short-story writer much of his work has appeared on paper rather than Paperwhite, which in modern times cockblocks discovery. Recently though, Bill collected and re-published his fiction as five e-books, each affordably priced at $3.99. Such value!

Interestingly my short story backlist sort of naturally fell into 30k-ish sized chunks of themed stories. There are two collections that are mostly heroic fantasy, sword & sorcery, or dark fantasy, those being ‘The Last of His Kind and Other Stories’ and ‘Mightier Than the Sword and Other Stories.’ ‘Heartless Gao Walks Number Nine Hell and Other Stories’ collects mostly ‘mythic’ type pieces, stories that are written in a style more akin to fables or legends. I also had enough for two science fiction collections, divided roughly into ‘naughty’ and ‘nice.’ On the naughty side we have ‘Named in Blood and Other Stories’ which is darker, grimmer stuff; ’20,000 Light Years to Lilliput and Other Stories’ is a funnier collection, less serious, and a bit more all over the place genre-wise.

Having previously purchased a copy of Heartless Gao (which at that point only contained the titular story), Bill sent me a copy of the expanded Heartless Gao Walks Number Nine Hell and Other Stories. Included are nine fantasies set in days of yore. Lust for wealth and the daughters of oracles drowns whole Hyperborean landscapes in “The Wroeth’s Grinding Bowl” and “The Old Man and the Mountain of Fire,” while Irish legends echo in “The Midnight Maiden” and “When They Come to Murder Me.” The Aesopic “How Antkind Lost Its Soul” satirizes corporate cubicle-copia; likewise, the repentant soldier-turned-monk Heartless Gao takes on the bureaucracy of a Chinese afterlife in the very clever and very worthwhile namesake tale. My favorites are the collection’s two bookends, “Gandolo of the Watchful Eye” and “Crow: A Triptych,” the first a rich sardonicism combining the best of Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, the other an arc reaching from classical Greece to post-apocalypticism.

I wish Bill would write more, especially in the “Gandolo” style. His dry humor is rare among fantasists (you can hear the laugh track when most writers combine labyrinths and levity) and his stories are almost always whole narratives — you know, those things with beginnings and middles and conclusions — rather than the pretty scenes strung together in literary ostentation seen so commonly in the pro markets. Please consider this humble recommendation when spending your Christmas Kindle gift cards.

Barbary Etymology

Whilst combing the internets, I happened upon this kind review of my story, “Barbary:”

Despite some odd word choices (geezer), Kuhl vividly evokes a dissipated waterfront atmosphere… And, as a pipe-smoker myself, I raise my Peterson to the author who has written an authentic horror story which works through artifacts rather than artifice, and which delights and surprises throughout. This is the first Jackson Kuhl story I’ve had the pleasure to read and, I hope, not the last. Well worth investing in a copy of this issue of Black Static to read Barbary alone.

Much of the language used in “Barbary” was researched to prevent anachronism but apparently I didn’t dig deep enough. While “geezer” does hail from the early 1880s — the same decade in which the story is set — it derives from the word “guiser,” slang for someone who dressed eccentrically. Only later did it become a pejorative for senior citizen, which is how it’s used in the story. Mr. McEvoy is correct to bean me for it. Now somebody get me rewrite!

Barbary

The current issue of Black Static opens with my historical fantasy, “Barbary.”

I began to smoke mummies on the advice of a pharmacist off Pacific Avenue. His was an almost derelict alley-way shop, the sign faded, the bills in the window brown and curling. Several times I had to step like a Lipizzaner in the lane over inebriates or dragon-chasers, and I couldn’t imagine how such a frail old geezer passed daily to and from his business unmolested. For all I knew he never left and slept under the floor, subsisting on unguent and rose water. And for me — well, the risk of a blackjack or a knife between the ribs was a lesser injury than my chronic disorder.

One reviewer at Tangent said the story is “very well-done, spooky and disturbing … The prose is realistically archaic without being awkward or stiff,” while another wrote that it “twists to a perfect ending.” Author and fellow cider-swiller Matthew Dent noted, “it was the peculiar and slightly archaic way in which it was written — fitting the plot like a glove — which fascinated me … An excellent piece of fiction.”

Thank you for your kind praise! I’m very pleased — it’s one of my better efforts. Artist Ben Baldwin created an amazing accompaniment to the story, seen above. Thanks to him as well.

Alas, while Black Static is available at the Waterstones in every burgh’s High Street, I have no idea how you buy it outside of the UK. You can wait for the Kindle version — though I don’t know when that will be available — or purchase a hard copy off the publisher’s Back Issues page once the next issue is out.

Update: You can read the whole thing for free on Smashwords.