Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Age of Tranquility and Peace, Heian Japan #9: Enlightenment for the masses, Amidism

I present the ninth in my series on Heian-era Japan. If you have no clue what I'm talking about, just click here for an overview of the Heian era.

This is part three of a mini-series on Buddhism during the Heian era. For a general overview of Buddhism, see this entry. For a discussion of the two major sects popular during the period, see this entry.


Last week, I discussed Shingon and Tendai Buddhism, both major sects that received aristocratic and even some imperial patronage. The Heian era was no different than any age in history--most people in Heian society were on the bottom of the socio-economic period. The pomp and circumstance of some aspects of the Shingon and Tendai sects was directed more toward aristocrats than the poor, ignorant masses. While the old ways of Shinto influenced all levels of society, the Heian era also saw the spread of a type of Buddhism that would in later centuries gain mass appeal in all levels of society: Amidism,  Pure Land Buddhism.

Pure Land beliefs descended from the various Pure Land traditions that originated in the second century in India and were later transmitted to Japan via China. In a broad sense, the Pure Land traditions focus on the the bodhisattva Amida Buddha. Amida is the Buddha of Everlasting Light and Comprehensive Love. While the perception of the exact nature and historicity of Amida Buddha vary by sect, he's often suggested to be a previous incarnation of  Siddharta. In this original incarnation, Amida refused to accept enlightenment unless he could ensure eternal happiness in the Pure Land, a sort of heavenly celestial realm and, ultimately, enlightenment for all sentient beings. This concept is usually referred to as the "Original Vow". Depending on the interpretation of the sect or individual tradition, there are multiple Pure Lands.

The intercession of Amida provided a sort of general hope of enlightenment for everyone. Calling upon him by name repeatedly (the nembutsu) with sincere faith using "Namu Amida Butsu" would allow the a person to be reborn into the Pure Land after death. What's notable is though meditation and other Buddhist practices were part of the Pure Land tradition, and later more formalized Pure Land sects, in a sense the Pure Land tradition was, on some level, offering believers a bypass for the more complicated rituals, methods, and paths to enlightenment present in the more aristocratic traditions.

The Pure Land, it should be noted, is not the same thing as achieving enlightenment. True enlightenment would be the ultimate release for the soul, an escape from the cycle of rebirth. Once in the Pure Land (in the Heian era it was often thought of as the Western Paradise), the perfection of the realm was supposed to help facilitate true enlightenment. Many Amidists, however, effectively ended up more interested in being reborn into a heavenly realm than the ostensible Buddhist goal of release.

While there wasn't a true formal Pure Land sect in the Heian period, the ideas gained currency, particularly with the help of Genshin (942-1017), originally a Tendai scholar. In 985, he wrote  Ōjōyōshū (The Essentials of Salvation or the The Essentials of Birth in the Pure Land), a three-volume treatise on Amidist ideas. Interesting enough, Genshin emphasized visual meditation rather than the nembutsu but the latter would gain more general popularity, perhaps because of the relative ease of chanting.

Ōjōyōshū, besides spending a large amount of time describing the glories of the Pure Land, also put a lot of emphasis on Hell realms. The descriptions were even potent enough to influence conceptions of horror throughout the centuries and, arguably, still do. Genshin would pen many other works promoting Amidist ideas. Key to his conception underlying Pure Land ideas was that Heian society had fallen into corruption. He argued that not only had society become corrupt, but in fact the world had entered a fundamental age of decline.

With its promise of universal salvation and implicit critique of the structure of society (and thus implicit critique of the wealthy and powerful), the Amidist ideals gained considerable currency among the masses, though more than a few aristocrats fell under the sway of the Pure Land.

Although formal Pure Land sects woudn't really be crystallize until after the Heian era, Amidist ideas had firmly penetrated the consciousness of Heian society as can be seen in period diaries and period fiction such as references in The Tale of Genji.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Magical Mondays #9: No lions, no wardrobes, but some witches: A brief discussion of European witch hunts

Welcome to my ninth Magical Monday. In these segments, I'll be briefly examining various magical traditions, creatures, and elements that people have been believed in (or continue to believed in) throughout history. Eventually, I may also move onto depictions that appear only in novels, but there's plenty of historical material to keep me busy for a while.


Ah, the European witch trial--few concepts have seeped into our collective imagination or metaphorical concepts as thoroughly. The rise of Neo-pagan movements has cast a different light on the whole matter. Many modern day self-identified witches strongly insist that witch trials in the past were about oppressing pagan substrate influence, and their spiritual ancestors didn't even believe in the dark forces they were believed to be in league with. While there actually isn't a huge direct connection between modern neo-Pagan groups and medieval paganism, might they be onto something? Were witch trials about smoking out stubborn people clinging to the old ways? Were they the ultimate example of an out-of-control monolithic church?

Of course, the pre-modern age in Europe was one marked by piety, massive mixture ofChurch and State, and general superstition. In such a mix, one would suspect that the Church had been seriously pushing around witches and sorcerers ever since the twilight years of the Roman Empire. You know, running around with priests, accusing any pagans they found of witchcraft. Well, not quite.

It's important to note that anti-witchcraft/anti-sorcery laws in a more general sense go back well before the existence of Christianity. The Code of Hammurabi (approximately 1800 BC) says:

"If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him."

So, the general idea of punishing someone for using "evil magic" is a cross-cultural and present in most every religion. Though interesting enough, the Code seems to object less to sorcery or witchcraft per se rather than inappropriate sorcery and/or witchcraft. This makes perfect sense given that "magic" in the form of things like divination were part and parcel of many ancient societies. Of course, when things got bad, a lot of people suddenly ended up accused of evil sorcery. The rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire actually helped cut down on witch hunts, and despite a somewhat common meme of overzealous  Christians running around afraid of pagans and equating them with infernal forces, the early Christians were far less likely to grab a random woman or man, pagan or otherwise, and accuse them of being a witch and kill them than many pagans were around the same time. Of course, in the beginning, the Christians were the ones often accused of undermining societies with their unusual rituals and what not. Still, though when they got the post-Constantine upper-hand, the early Church was striking in its general lack of concern about witches. Arguably, though, they were still working out such basic stuff like fundamental organization, what they wanted to include in their holy book, et cetera. Worrying about hunting down witches may have been putting the cart before the horse in those early years even once they become the dominant religious force rather than the persecuted minority.

Now, this isn't to say there wasn't political and military oppression of pagans or the occasional charge of sorcery and what have you. Indeed, the last few centuries of the Roman Empire, despite the efforts of Julian the Apostate (333-361 AD; he was the last Roman emperor who had a serious shot at reversing the rise of Christianity in the empire) was marked by a curious and chaotic mix of Christian internecine fighting between the Arian and Nicene factions (a fascinating historical topic, but I'm trying to avoid turning these entries too deeply into theological minutiae) and vacillation toward the pagans in the empire. Anyway, we all know how that went down in the end. 

Back to the late Roman Empire, even though the pagans were vilified as heretics, there wasn't as much concern or association with them being actively league with infernal forces working to undermine the empire. Sure, there was a lot of concern about them undermining the empire for political reasons, but that's a slightly different angle. There also was the occasional spasm of anti-pagan violence, but given the tenor of the times, it's hard to sort through how much of that was religious versus political. Heck, the Arians and the Nicenes also scrapped on occasion. For the most part though, a combination of sustained political and economic repression rather than inquisitorial judicial power was the hammer used against those pagans. The people actually accused of evil sorcery might get in trouble, but the religious background didn't seem to matter as much as the just the use of evil magic.

So, we jump forward a thousand years or so. By the late-15th century, we have people rushing around various European countries now concerned about various witches calling forth the power of Satan who may or may not have been associated with pagan substrate beliefs systems in the eyes of authorities or not at all. Some have argued that success of the medieval Church at purging (often violently) heretical Christian sects, left various heretic-hunters in search of a job and that got directed toward "creating an enemy" within as it were. While that's certainly at least one aspect of what likely influenced the rise of the witch hunts, there's a more technological explanation I'll touch on here soon.

It would take weeks to sort through all the misinformation from the period and a lot of the misinformation from well-meaning and not-so-well meaning moderns concerning witchcraft. Suffice to say, though, the perception of the people at the time was what was important, even if it wasn't actually justified by reality. The threat, as they perceived it, was different than say some pagans sitting around not thoroughly converted. Instead, there was a deep fear that instead of heretics worshiping the wrong gods hiding out in some country or rural area, there were secret and organized Satanic worshipers  undermining society with infernal magic. This all reached a fever pitch around the tale end of the 15th century and would not fade, in some European countries, until the 19th century. For example, the Holy Roman Empire (which as the joke long ago went was neither holy nor Roman) executed their last "witch" as late as 1775! 

So, why did it take so darn long for the real witch hunts to get going? Why weren't the witch patrols strolling about looking for witches more seriously before the 15th century whether they be pagans, infernals, or just maybe some poor Zoroastrian who got on the wrong boat or something (Note to self: write that story)? Well, whatever one may think about the medieval religious institutions of Europe, they actually didn't, for many centuries actually believe in formalized witchcraft for the most part. None other than the rather Christian King of the Franks himself, Charlemagne (742-814), actually banned the execution of accused witches ten years after a Church council basically voted witchcraft officially out of existence as far as the religious authorities were concerned. In fact, this council, The Council of Paderborn, actually ascribed the death penalty for witch hunters. 

So, ironically, despite the modern association in the common mind with the Christianity and witch hunts, the early Church actually broke with the tendency, present in laws in many pre-Christian pagan societies, to have harsh penalties for witchcraft and sorcery. One can spend weeks discussing why they did that (or why we think they may have done it), but it's just important to note that the organization later most directly associated with later witch hunts were basically, early on, saying it was not only not a serious problem, it was technically a problem that didn't even exist. 

In a way, that's easy for many modern people in many places to understand. Sure, I'm sure there's some old law still on the book in some township somewhere that still says something about witch craft, but, for the most part, if your congressman or MP introduced an anti-magic piece of legislation, he or she would be roundly mocked. They are supposed to concentrate on real problems and similarly, the early Church wanted to concentrate on "real" problems (e.g., the Crusades, heretical Christian sects, et cetera,, conversion of pagan areas).

This doesn't mean your typical "Francois the peasant" didn't fear witchcraft and sorcery. A little mob violence against someone thought to be hexing a neighbor or something might erupt in a village on occasion, but you didn't really see the organized Church-lead efforts against it. In addition, there were various secular laws against it, but penalties were often minor. Execution was rare for centuries.

Around the 14th century, there began a more organized effort against witchcraft, particularly by religious authorities. Despite the involvement of the Inquisition as early as 1320, people who had zero moral problems with torturing heretics, there was a curious lack of concern about witchcraft. There are various reasons likely contributing to that, but the long tradition of the early Church and later Catholic Church of not even really officially believing in witchcraft contributed to it. There were even a few documented cases in the end of the 14th century where the Inquisition initially only gave a slap on the wrist to accused witches.

A lot can happen in a century. There were those in the Church who made a lot of noise not just about witches but, more importantly, about witch conspiracies to undermine society. That's the key element needed for a lot of the true out-of-control persecution, the idea that these people weren't just the occasional harmless magical wannabe, but they were organized cells of dangerous Satanic lackeys with actual magic they were going to use to undermine society. 

Still though, a review of several early 14th and 15th-century witch trial cases involves the religious authorities basically denying the existence of true witchcraft and the secular authorities, in contrast, insisting it was a real threat.

By the mid-15th century Gutenberg had introduced the printing press to Europe. Besides aiding the burgeoning Protestant movement, it allowed the wide-spread dissemination of books like Formicarius (1437) and Malleus Malificarum (The Hammer of Witches, 1487). These books codified and spread widely several ideas about witchcraft such as the strong and clear association with the Devil, the idea of organized Satanic groups, and a very clear and strong association between witchcraft and women (even if they didn't deny the existence of evil sorcerous males).  There's a lot of back and forth on how much of witch hunting was motivated by misogyny (and it's important to note men could and were accused of witchcraft), but it's still striking to note that Malleus Malificarum is focused on and obsessed with witchcraft as a heavily female endeavor.

Iit's hard to see passages like this and not see misogyny:

"Concerning Witches who copulate with Devils. Why is it that Women are chiefly addicted to Evil superstitions?"


". . . that they [women] have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from the fellow-women those things which by evil arts they know; and, since they are weak, they find an easy and secret manner of vindicating themselves by witchcraft. See Ecclesiasticus as quoted above: I had rather dwell with a lion and a dragon than to keep house with a wicked woman. All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman. And to this may be added that, as they are very impressionable, they act accordingly."

Sure, I guess not that more misogynistic than many other texts at the times, but this was something where you could easily see how a woman who didn't "know her place" suddenly could end up accused of an executable offense.

More than anything else these books helped promote the idea that witchcraft, with its accompanying infernal magic, was real and a clear and present danger to European society. Malleus Malificarum even laid out procedures for how to run a proper witch trial along with such tidbits as noting a proper non-witch knows to sob in front of the judge:

"If he wishes to find out whether she is endowed with a witch’s power of preserving silence, let him take note whether she is able to shed tears when standing in his presence, or when being tortured. For we are taught both by the words of worthy men of old and by our own experience that this is a most certain sign, and it has been found that even if she be urged and exhorted by solemn conjurations to shed tears, if she be a witch she will not be able to weep: although she will assume a tearful aspect and smear her cheeks and eyes with spittle to make it appear that she is weeping; wherefore she must be closely watched by the attendants."

Malleus Malificarum, Part III, Question XV

I'm guessing crying while being tortured was less of an issue. 

The fires of the witch hunts (note: most witches were hung, not burned at the stake) would eventually burn themselves out for many reasons. In a reversal of the original situation where the secular authorities insisted witchcraft was real, a lot of it was arguably the rise of the Enlightenment. People were still religious, but the secular authorities stopped placing as much stock in the idea that an individual could summon actual supernatural powers. 

The distrust lingered on, though and in some places in Europe, anti-witchcraft laws would linger until even the middle of the twentieth century though more in a context of fraud-related laws than actual anti-magic laws. While this discussion was focused mostly on European witchcraft, there are still countries in the world today that people can and are executed for witchcraft or sorcery.

If you're interested in getting your inner witch hunter on or just shaking your head at the paranoia of the past, you can actually read Malleus  in translation at:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gobble Gobble

I'll be doing the grand extended family plan for the Thanksgiving holiday, so no Heian or Regency entries this week. For those you who celebrate, Happy Thanksgiving. For the rest of you, have a fine next few days anyway. :)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Live hard, love hard: An interview with contemporary romance author Michelle Betham

Today I'm talking with contemporary romance author Michelle Betham about her books No Matter What and See you At The Show. Both explore life and love in a show business context.


1) Tell us about your books.

No Matter What is an epic contemporary romantic drama, the story of India Steven, who's an ordinary twenty-two year old girl from Northern England, with an ordinary job, and an ordinary life, until a chance meeting with Hollywood movie star Reece Brogan catapults her into a new and extraordinary life in Los Angeles – from legal secretary to movie star almost overnight, she can hardly believe how fast it all happens. But things are never quite what they seem, because one thing Reece hasn’t been is completely honest. He hadn’t intentionally gone looking for the perfect leading lady for his new movie, but he had intentionally been looking for India.

It's a love story, but one full of twists and turns, spanning almost twenty years in the life of India, and the people around her; her best friend, Charley Miles, who harbours feelings of resentment towards a life she feels she deserves just as much as India, and whose attempts to get that life for herself result in circumstances nobody dared believe were possible; young and incredibly handsome movie star Kenny Ross, a man whose relationship with India becomes far more complicated than he could ever imagine; Hollywood hot-shot Michael Walsh, a well respected actor-turned-producer-and-director with a dangerous obsession that ultimately leads to a series of shocking events; and Reece Brogan, the man who gives India her wonderful new life, but a man who has a very good reason for doing so.

A story of love and betrayal, jealousy and obsession, hidden secrets and second chances, No Matter What is a rollercoaster of a ride through two decades, telling the stories of people who, due to circumstances thrown upon them, or just fuelled with a desperate need, will do anything – anything – it takes to get what, or who, they really want. No matter what…

See You At The Show is the story of Stevie Stone - a sexy, sassy real-life rock chick, Mark Cassidy - a handsome, sexy-as-hell but arrogant rock star who thrives on his status as a true Rock God, and Daniel Madison - an ambitious, well-respected, successful politician with the perfect marriage, and the perfect life.

Very different people from two very different worlds. But when those two worlds collide head on, when one chance meeting sees wild and beautiful meet the perfect English gentleman, it sets off a chain of events that sees one man take a journey into a world he’s never experienced before, whilst another has to face up to things he never thought he’d have to face at all. And Stevie herself has to come to terms with a secret past she’s tried hard to keep under wraps as her life becomes increasingly complicated…but the past has a habit of catching up with you.

A sexy, edgy romance, it mixes the worlds of rock 'n' roll and politics, and tells the story of what happens when you really can't help who you fall in love with.

2) Both of these books have a strong show business component as part of the plot and setting. What drew you those aspects when writing this book?

I've always had an interest in show business - I studied Performing Arts, worked as a Media Technician, always harboured a secret desire to be an actress, and I suppose I've always had a fascination with the world of "celebrity"; the glamour, the people, the pure escapism it can provide. I'll admit to, on many an occasion, day dreaming about walking the red carpet at a movie premiere, or hanging around backstage at rock gigs, and, being sensible enough to know that was never going to happen in real life, I thought the next best thing was to create characters that did all of that for me! Hence India in No Matter What and Stevie in See You At The Show. I wanted to write books that take people away from their ordinary lives for a little while and transport them into somebody elses world, a world far removed from their own, and I hope I've managed to do that in my books. Because if anything can take you away from everyday life for a little while, it has to be the world of show business!

3) So, both rock stars and movie stars are representative in these books. So, really, which do you prefer?

Oh, now that's a hard one! I love my movie stars, and I love my rock stars... if I had to choose? I think I'd have to go with the movie stars. Although I couldn't actually tell you why!

4) What kind of process do you use when designing your characters?

I start off with a brief outline - their name, a description of how they'd look, personality traits, their relationship with other characters, that kind of thing. I try to picture what they'd look like in my head, how they'd act, what they'd be like as a person if they were real. But it isn't until I actually start writing the story that the characters really grow into themselves. They always develop as the story goes on, things always change, even if it's only slightly. And I love the fact that happens, that the story itself drives the characters forward, determining how they finally turn out. I always find it quite exciting, seeing how they develop and progress. I think creating the characters is one of my favourite parts of the whole writing process.

5) What does the word "romance" mean to you?

To me, the word "romance" doesn't necessarily mean all that hearts and flowers stuff, and all the other stereotypical things people sometimes associate with romance. To me it means just having someone there who cares, who listens, who puts you first. Simple things, really. When someone squeezes your hand and smiles at you for no reason, or just says 'I love you' out of the blue, that's romance. But, then again, romance comes in all kinds of different forms, as you'll see if you read my books!

6) Do you have any works in-progress you could give us a hint about?

Yes, I do! I'm actually working on the follow up to No Matter What right now. I just loved writing about the characters in that book, and I found it really hard to say goodbye to them once I'd finished that story. They became almost like friends to me. So the obvious thing, it seemed, was to write a follow up! This new book continues just a few months on from where No Matter What left off, and I hope people out there want to read more about those characters and their glamorous - and sometimes not-so-glamorous - lives. It's more romance, more movie stars, more escapism, all set against the backdrop of Las Vegas.


Thanks, Michelle.

You can visit Michelle at her blog.

Book links:

No Matter What
See You At The Show

Monday, November 21, 2011

Magical Mondays #8: The Cards Don't Quite Tell All: The History of the Tarot

Welcome to my eighth Magical Monday. In these segments, I'll be briefly examining various magical traditions, creatures, and elements that people have been believed in (or continue to believed in) throughout history. Eventually, I may also move onto depictions that appear only in novels, but there's plenty of historical material to keep me busy for a while.


Ah, the ancient mystical arts. Proud magical traditions refined over the ages and kept preserved until the present day. Well, not always. Such is the case with Tarot cards.

How old do you think they are? I asked a few people this question recently and they thought Tarot cards had been around and used for fortune telling for around a thousand years.

If you said 500 or so years, you're right. The thing is, 500 or so years ago, they weren't use for anything approaching magic. I'll discuss the general mechanics of the Tarot itself in more detail in a future entry, but for now it's enough to know that Tarot cards are still commonly used as a method of divination and self-analysis. 

Playing cards first appeared in Europe around the 14th century for rather mundane use in games. These original cards were the descendants of cards from the Mamluk Sultanate (which covered parts of Turkey, North Africa, and the Middle East). Those cards, in turn, likely were descendants of Chinese playing cards. 

As early as the beginning of the 14th century, the cards that were in Europe weren't all that radically different from the modern card decks. They were 52-card decks of four suits and ten "pip" cards along with three "court cards". There were variations of both courts and suits depending on location. A modern person dropped back in time, though, could very quickly familiarize themselves with the deck even if some of the symbol were different. How that's for historical continuity?

Moving into the 15th century, Tarot decks arose. These were defined by the additional of allegorical and symbolic  imagery in addition to the standard suits and court cards. Though some of the symbolism may seem a bit obscure today, at the time they were all very well-known images and ideas often expressed in Medieval art. These Tarot cards were used to play games throughout Europe. There was no hint of them being associated with magic. In some areas they were banned, but that was more out of their association with gambling--the fine mystical art of taking money from suckers.

There have been 16th-century documents found discussing the use of cards as part of a divination process, but these records do not seem to suggest that Tarot cards in particular were involved. Even in these non-Tarot cases, the cards seemed to be used as a randomizing device for certain aspects of  ritual, but they were not ascribed power in and of themselves. Extant anti-Tarot statements by religious authorities in this period again focused on Tarot cards as a gambling tool.

The 17th century brought additional game variants. Though there was some expansion of normal cards with basic fortune telling (so your 52-card deck might be as good as the Tarot),  it isn't until the end of the 18th century that French occultists laid the ground work for the use of Tarot as an independent symbolic divination method. The world's first professional cartomancer, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, published material associating the Tarot with  astrology. He also produced a dedicated occult divination deck. Many of the specific elements still associated with the occult Tarot in some form were mostly defined by Alliette. He, along with several other writers, also further clouded the true history of the Tarot. They proposed various ideas with no historical basis, such as a link between the Tarot and various forms of ancient Egyptian, Jewish, and Gypsy magic.

The expansion of the idea of the Tarot as a deep, mystical occult tool was heavily promoted in the 19th century. The 20th century saw a bit of a push-back against the various "ancient mystical" aspects of the Tarot. Instead, various mystics, including Arthur Edward Waite, would try to correlate Tarot with a more universal symbols and correspondences. Note this isn't really a rejection of Tarot as a mystical tool, but rather just a rejection of an explicit link between Tarot and specific ancient mystical traditions.

Later 20th-century and early 21st-century interpretations of the Tarot are often influenced by Waite's ideas. The infiltration of Jungian ideas into the mainstream of thought somewhat mirror Waite's thoughts and have allowed many modern practioners a way to distance themselves from the more purely mystical, though relatively recent, Tarot tradition.

So, despite their heavy association with the occult in many cultures today, if you went back in time even during some of the periods of religious persecution, you'd be more likely to get a lecture about gambling then accused of sinister magic. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Being called disturbing is a compliment: An interview with horror author Todd Russell

Today, I'm talking with Todd Russell about his horror novel Fresh Flesh.

1) Tell us about your book.

Thank you for the interview, much appreciated. Fresh Flesh is about a rich woman who is shipwrecked on a mysterious island and rescued by a man who is not what he seems. It's very fast-paced with numerous twists and turns and contains characters that the reader will be interested in and care about.

2) What was the inspiration for this story?

On inspiration was being fascinated by the island and thinking of someone who could have anything that money can buy being thrust into a place where money is meaningless.

3) This novel was twenty-two years in the making. That's a rather long time. It makes even Jonathan Franzen look speedy. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of creation of the work?

Fresh Flesh is my third completed novel and it's only taken up about two years of actual work time. Yes, it has been 22+ calendar years since the project was first started until it was first published. I started the first draft on November 2, 1988 and finished it in January 1989. It sat for a month and then I reworked it and started sending off query letters to literary agents. I had interest from an agent right away and was very excited.

I signed on with a literary agent and that version of the book made the rounds with the major publishers in 1989. Pretty much after that until 2011, we didn't do anything with the novel. Got a lot of good, helpful feedback from editors and I soldiered on to complete four more novels from 1989-1994.

I kept thinking about the island and characters over the years and in 2011 sat down and wrote a third draft and sent it off to a group of beta readers. After receiving positive feedback I went through it one last time incorporating some of their suggested minor changes and then mailed it to proofreaders. It was also 2011 that I realized the book provided a framework for a series of adventures. Fresh Flesh was originally a standalone novel, like my other six novels, but I saw several other stories and began to make notes for future stories in the series.

For NaNoWriMo 2011 I started working on the first draft of Fresh #2 exactly 23 years later (November 2, 2011) from when I started the first draft of Fresh Flesh. I'm about a third through the first draft as of this interview. Readers shouldn't worry about Fresh #2 taking as long to be published as Fresh Flesh. My plan is to establish a routine publishing books in the Fresh series. What that routine will be isn't clearly defined yet, but I don't want it to be as spread as far apart as one Fresh series book every 22 years. At that rate, I'd be lucky to make the Fresh series a trilogy before death claimed me!

4) Why did you choose to have a female lead?

Because Fresh Flesh would not work with a male as the lead. I don't mean that in any kind of sexist way, but characters fill my stories based on what fits each story best. I want this series to be surprising and unpredictable with many creative twists and turns with characters, settings and plots.

5) In the past, some people have called your work "disturbing". Arguably, that's not such a terrible thing for a horror author. What motivates you to explore the dark corners of the human mind and fear?

I consider "disturbing" a compliment. I'm often trying to invoke strong emotions with my stories. The world is a dark place, but at the same time, I do believe that good triumphs more often over evil. What I don't want to be is an author who always produces predictably happy (or unhappy) endings. That's not very creative, entertaining or, let's face it, realistic. I want readers to get to the end and be surprised and hopefully enlightened by the tale feel like it was well worth their time reading. I want the stories to stay with them and be something they might want to reread another day. And, of course, be eager to read my next story.

6) What frightens you the most?

A lot scares me and these fears work their way into my stories.

From a career standpoint, I am frightened that I won't have enough readers to support writing full time. My dream has always been to sell enough books that I can write full time without financial concerns. I don't need to be the next Stephen King, heck, I just want to do well enough to make a living writing. I realize this is a dream many, many writers have and few are fortunate to achieve. If I don't have enough readers buying my work, I'll have to continue doing other work that takes time away from writing and that is a shame because so many stories I want--need--to tell will never happen.

I do a series on my blog called What Scares Authors and have reserved #666 in the series for myself to delve into my fears in greater detail.

7) A lot of people may live in area with tornado sirens, but most people don't live in areas that have volcanic pyroclastic flow warning sirens. Has Mount Rainer ever entered your mind as a possible story element?

Yes, the mountain is in mind for a future novel I've been noodling for the last six months or so. I'd like to begin writing this book soon. Maybe next after I finish the first draft of Fresh #2, although another novel I started is also calling to me.


Thanks for stopping by, Todd.

Fresh Flesh can be found at Amazon (ebook and print), Smashwords (ebook only), and Barnes and Noble (ebook and print.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 9: Lord Byron--Luddite lover and Greek Insurgent

Welcome to my ninth post on late Georgian/Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.

This is the last part of a three part series on Lord Bryon. I've already discussed Lord Byron's scandalous personal life along with his contributions to English literature and poetry in preceding posts.


Poet. Lover. Baron. That last one in particular had implications back in the Regency. In a future post I'll delve a bit deeper into what it fully meant to be a hereditary peer, but I think most people have at least a general handle on the concept of titled nobility.

For Lord Byron, one artifact of his birthright was a seat on the House of Lords--a fortunate convenience for a man very critical of the status quo. Byron's poetry was often full of scathing critique and satire of both domestic and international political issues, and he made many impassioned speeches in Parliament to champion the causes he felt just. His first period in Parliament (March to June 1809) was brought to an end by a trip to Europe. He would later return to Parliament in 1812 though his permanent departure from England in 1816 that I discussed in part one of this series would take with him any further chance of direct political work.

During his time in Parliament, Lord Byron would champion many causes that would set him firmly in a reform, or by some people's reckoning,  a  revolutionary camp. For example, he supported Irish independence both in poetry and political speeches:

"Thus has Great Britain swallowed up the Parliament—the constitution—the independence of Ireland, and refuses to disgorge even a single privilege, although for the relief of her swollen and distempered body politic."

He later would even pen poetry suggesting some support for the independence of India. 

He also supported the Luddites. Though I'll be discussing them in a full entry in the future, they were mostly an anti-industrialization movement centered around textile workers whose jobs were being eliminated by new technologies. Protests turned to a campaign against mills in the north of England.  The destruction of mills combined with attacks on magistrates lead to the deployment of thousands of troops against the Luddites. 

As one can surmise, they was not some genteel opposition movement. They were a near revolutionary force that conservative aristocrats viewed with disgust and trepidation. In contrast, Lord Byron, who viewed the Luddite cause as arising from social justice concerns by people being harmed and destroyed by dubious automation that benefited others more than the workers, supported the movement both in Parliament and in his poetry. Whether one thinks him a fool or praises him for that, it is important to realize this was a very radical position for him to take at the time.

Even after leaving England, he would continue to contribute to political newspapers and discussions, generally supporting causes that placed him firmly in opposition to many landed, aristocratic interests. A lot of this was heavily influenced by his Romantic worldview.

Now, skipping ahead a bit, Byron became involved with the Greek independence movement. At the time, the Greeks were under the heel of the Ottoman Empire. He'd spoken and written of his belief in Greek independence for some time, but the start of open insurgency in 1821 further crystallized his support. While some of this support was just part of his natural tendency to support many independence movements, it's important to realize that Greece held a special place in the hearts of many Western intellectuals of the period due to its ancient contributions to Western thought.

Generous financial and literary support gave way to more direct military aid in 1823 including his formation, using his own wealth, of the Byron Brigade (including refitting warships). Besides his equipment, he ended up in command of Greek rebel soldiers.

 I should note that whatever his literary talents, he had no military experience at all, but I'm doubtful the Greeks were going to risk offending a man who was giving them a considerable amount of money and for whom they had a great deal of respect anyway. He was to take part in a major assault on a Turkish fortress, Lepanto, but before the force could depart toward the objective, he fell ill. Over the next few months he fought disease, incompetent period doctors, and infection until finally succumbing to his aliments at Missolonghi, Greece on April 19, 1824 at the age of 36.

Despite his very minimal involvement in the actual fighting, years of financial, political, and literary support garnered him a large amount of Greek respect where many still consider him, despite his non-Greek background, a hero of the Greek War of Independence. There was a three day period of mourning following his death. There is even a city northeast of Athens still named after him, Vyronas (Βύρωνας). His death in Greece helped focus even more international attention on the conflict and arguably helped to contribute to the entry of other Western powers on the Greek side. 

Thank you for joining me these last three weeks as I discussed the life of Lord Byron. Whatever one thinks of him or whatever strange rumors one choose to believe, it's hard to deny he's a fascinating historical character. I've only barely scratched the surface of the details defining his life, but I don't want this to become Mr. Beard's Byron Tour instead of Mr. Beard's Regency Tour. Due to Thanksgiving and my trip to visit family, there will be no Regency entry next Friday, but I will return the following week with a more in-depth discussion of the Luddites.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Age of Tranquility and Peace: Heian Japan #8: Secret Teachings and Art as Enlightenment: Shingon and Tendai Buddhism

Sorry for the delay. My internet went down last night (been a continuing problem in recent months).

I present the eighth in my series on Heian-era Japan. If you have no clue what I'm talking about, just click here for an overview of the Heian era.


This is the second of a three-part series on Buddhism during the Heian period. You may want to start with the first post here if you don't know anything at all about Buddhism. Today, I'm going to tackle the two major sects of the Heian era, Tendai and Shingon, and next week I'll finish up this initial exploration of Buddhism during the Heian era by discussing the beginnings of Amidist Buddhism, which wasn't necessarily a fully realized sect at the time but still had important implications for the changing nature of Buddhism in Japan. Although these three were not the only forms of Buddhism around during the period, they were forms with the most significant contemporary influence.

As discussed last week, Buddhism is tremendously diverse in the local observation of the religion. The Buddha taught an arguably difficult, but fundamentally simple path. As Buddhism spread from India to China and then from China to Japan over the centuries, that simplicity was often left in the past.

Both Heian-era Tendai and Shingon contained strong elements of Esoteric Buddhism. It'd take a whole other article to probe the intricacies of Esoteric Buddhism, but briefly speaking, Esoteric Buddhism involves secret teachings passed from masters to students and reliance on formalized ritual as opposed to more direct meditation and thought.

Heian Tendai descended from of an earlier form of Chinese Buddhism, Tiantai. Incidentally, though forms of Shingon and Tendai still exist in Japan, this article will be confined only to the state of the sects during the Heian era.

The Tendai sect was started by a monk, Saichō, after his return from China on a Buddhist-study mission in 805. He had previously established a temple on Mount Hiei, a mountain to the northeast of Heian-kyo in 788. Right away, one can see the advantage granted by proximity to the capital in terms of influence. With the move of the capital at the start of the Heian era and the accompanying distance to established Buddhist temples, the influence of these other Buddhist institutions suffered.

Indeed, it quickly became associated with the patronage of the imperial court. They also earned patronage from the Fujiwara clan. Although Tendai did not have an exclusive lock on aristocratic or Fujiwara support, their heavy influence made them almost the de facto form of state Buddhism.

The sect gained wealth and power that many felt corrupted them, leading to later attempts at reform both internally and via breakaway sects. Besides spiritual and political power, they even had military power in the form of the sōhei, warrior monks that would, particularly in later centuries, be considered a serious enough military threat that they attracted the negative attention of Japanese warlords.

Heian Tendai directed worship toward various individual Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Indeed, many times when someone is referring in English to various Japanese Buddhist "deities", they often are referring to a Buddha/Bodhisattva rather than something that is a god controlling an actual sphere of existence. That being said, the rather open and syncretic nature of Tendai allowed the sect to accommodate Shinto kami by identifying these native spirits and deities with Buddhas or Bodhisattvas.

On a more practical level, the Tendai proponents formulated doctrines that taught that detachment from the world did not mean avoiding things prized by the Heian aristocracy such as poetry and art. They were just considered part of the world and meditation upon artistic works could aid in enlightenment.

Heian Tendai placed a lot of emphasis on mantras (chants and phrases) and mudras (symbolic gestures) as a way of placing an adherent closer to enlightenment. Some of these elements were particularly associated with the more esoteric aspects of the sect, and the idea of a Tendai initiate having to work his way up toward enlightenment and ritual tools is well-attested in historical literature. I should note, however, that Tendai wasn't a completely esoteric sect. That is to say, they did not limit transmission only to "secret" paths. This aided in accessibility to lay people, such as influential aristocrats, but it wasn't as open as Amidist Pure Land Buddhism, which I'll discuss next week.

The sect, overall, was tolerant of different sects and even internal disputes. Obviously, if a religion can find a way to absorb entire native pantheons into its metaphysics, a couple of minor doctrinal disputes isn't necessary going to lead to schism. That being said, it's not that Tendai was without conflict in the Heian era (and certainly not later), but this conflict tended to focus more on questions of fundamental sect organization or challenges that appeared to potential put the entire sect's position at risk. So, basically, more political challenges rather than theological challenges.

Shingon Buddhism was as syncretic as Tendai and also managed to neatly absorb a lot of Shinto kami. Shingon descended from Esoteric Buddhist sects that arose centuries earlier in India and then firmly established themselves in China. Interestingly, a monk, Kūkai, founded Shingon in 806 following an 804 trip to China to study Buddhism. So, we have the two major sects of Heian Buddhism being founded within a year of each other.

Though Shingon was transmitted from China, just as with Tendai, it had a much more Indian character than the other sect. It placed emphasis on such elements as mandalas (ritual paintings) that contained ritual writing that often referenced assimilated forms of Hindu deities. The mudras used in Shingon had a much clearer relationship to certain elements from various Hindu sects. A popular Shingon ritual, Goma, a spiritual cleansing ritual involving feeding a fire, chanting, and drumming was influenced by Hindu tradition.

Shingon placed a slightly stronger emphasis on secret teaching from teacher to student, particularly for its most important doctrines. Although Tendai was not without secrecy, Shingon was often so secretive that it wasn't until the 20th century that many pieces of Shingon material began to circulate.

Tendai may have had no issues with art and literature, but Shingon took broad acceptance to a much higher level. They put a particular emphasis on art music and literature. The Shingon argued that, in some cases, the true nature of their teachings was so esoteric that it could only truly conveyed through pure artistic expression. The Shingon were so associated with the arts that many credited Kūkai with developing the Japanese syllabic kana systems that freed from the Japanese from pure Chinese characters (even if the aristocracy, particularly the males, still held Chinese writing in high regard). Unfortunately for the Shingon and their founder, the present historic linguistic evidence point away from that.

This love of art was paired with a heavy emphasis on impressive ceremonies and rituals. These often dramatic and impressive religious events did a lot to endear them to the spectacle-loving Heian aristocracy. Though they never did achieve the power and influence of the Tendai during the Heian period, they still earned patronage from powerful aristocrats including the Fujiwara clan.

Though one could spend weeks (if not years) talking about these two sects, the above overview should be enough to at least understand their general place in the context of the Heian era. As noted above, both of these sects were particularly popular with the aristocrats. Next week, I'll spend some time discussing a more populist, as it were, form of Buddhism, Amidism.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The connection between one horror author, Martin Landau, and Haruki Murakami: An interview with horror author Peter Balaskas

Today I'm talking with horror Peter Balaskas about his new horror anthology, In Our House.

1) Tell us about your collection.

In Our House is a literary mosaic composed of eight plot and dialogue driven stories which reflect my influences, including Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, and Edgar Allen Poe. Each story portrays common people placed in extraordinary circumstances: a lawyer must use his wits to escape a booby-trapped library suite, a dying gangster blackmails a Native American guide in order to locate a special fountain of health, a funeral director encounters the angry spirit of his predecessor, and a survivor of an apocalypse struggles to escape his prison: a boarding house that is not only surrounded by a sand tempest, but is also infested with mutated abominations that might hold the key to his lost memories. All these stories are connected to each other, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. What is that connection?  Only the reader can decide.

In Our House was featured on the New Short Fiction Series in October 2010: . It was accepted for publication by Bards and Sages soon after.

2) What are the advantages of the short story form for horror versus the novel?

I feel that the short story form for all genres helps the writer grow in terms of establishing and solidifying the character by tightening the prose as much as possible, which strengthens your narrative voice as well. In the past, I have always felt comfortable writing longer works, mainly novellas. Most of them have been published, like “The Chameleon’s Addiction” (which is in Bardic Tales and Sage Advice Volume 2--- and The Grandmaster (, which is slightly longer than a novella and fits the short novel format like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Mann’s Death in Venice. And for my second book project, I was contemplating writing my first full length supernatural thriller that serves as a prequel for The Grandmaster. But after much thought, I realized I wasn’t ready in terms of the scope of the book, the complexity, as well as my writing style. I was within my comfort zone when it came to the first person narrative voice, and I could have written the novel in first person and get away with it. But I knew for a fact if this was going to be part of a series, it would have to be third person/omniscient narrator. And I have always been weak in third person. So, I decided to work out my narrative voice and diversify my themes by writing short stories and maybe build a collection out of it.

This is what happened with In Our House. I made it a mission to write the shortest pieces possible and focus on not only the brevity of the narrative voice, but also harnessing that focus on character. I took a few pieces that I wrote many years ago---both from my graduate and undergraduate years---and revised them where my 3rd person narrative voice was strengthened with each passing draft. I created newer works that utilized what I learned from those revisions, resulting in In Our House. By learning the power of brevity for some of those stories, I can utilize that for longer works where it won’t drag or go off tangent. I feel more confident when I start my full length novel now because writing short stories helps strengthen your sense of character and utilization of poetics with your narrative voice.

3) There are many different types of horror from the visceral terror of facing the great unknown Things That Should Not Be to the more subtle psychological tension that unnerves a person pursued by someone all-too-mortal. What type of horror do these stories tend to focus on or do you have a mix?

With regard to In Our House, it’s a combination of both sides of the horror spectrum, with a slight variance here and there. Although “Duet” is more of a fantasy/love story, the horror aspect is the manifestation of Mike’s writer’s block, especially through some of the metaphorical “beasts” that he expresses through his poetry (an example of this would be Qeb, the ugly survivor of the apocalypse who creates something beautiful at the end of the poem). But in “Let Auld Acquaintances,” we go into psychological tension regarding an arrogant lawyer being trapped in a game of wits against a psychopath. With “Wash Cycle,” it’s a little bit of both where the reader faces the mortal demon of Don Iovino, and then witnesses the supernatural terror of the Fountain of the Snake. “Id”? The question is whether Greg Gordon is an actual spiritual apparition or is Tom losing his mind?

 “Blessed are Those” is interesting because the terror comes in the form of the Nazis, who make their presence known through the destruction of Sedan. Although it’s a poignant story between two new friends, the terror of the Nazis is always present from the bombed out village to the appearance of the soldiers at the end of the story. In “Crossing the Styx,” it’s pure terror of the supernatural, whether it’s benign or malevolent; simple as that. And then we come to the title piece of the collection, “In His House.” The abominations are hellish to the Nth degree. But when the reader discovers who they are, along with the unnamed narrator, we go into a different level of terror. And as far as “Touched” goes, in the lead character’s eyes---God’s eyes---we, the human race, are the source of the horrors that goes on in the world, and it’s up to Him whether we deserve another chance.

The differentiation of horror---the visceral of the supernatural or paranormal to the more psychological of the natural---is something that I explore many times in my stories. And what happened with In Our House can happen with future works as well.

4) Which of your tales do you find the most frightening?

The title piece, “In His House.” That was the hardest piece I have ever written and its source came from one of the most frightening dreams I have ever had. In the dream, I saw ALL of the monstrosities, as well as the house itself. Translating the monsters onto the text was easy and hard at the same time. It was easy because, visually, I could picture them. But it was also difficult; they were so damned repulsive and evil, especially Mr. Lyons, the landlord. From a creative standpoint, it was the most challenging because I wanted to do what Haruki Murakami did in his novel A Wild Sheep Chase: an unmade protagonist. By keeping that consistent without appearing awkward was incredibly difficult, but it helped me grow as a writer. And the fact I wrote the first draft 23 hours straight through proved the story was just begging to come out.

5) There is a common stereotype that horror authors must be tortured souls because of their subject matter. That's rather insulting to their creative potential. So, where do you get your ideas? Or am I wrong, and you are a tortured soul?

Actually, it’s not so much an insult as it’s a humorous stereotype or cliché that writers like to laugh at. Two of those people include the Coen Brothers, where they broached this topic in BARTON FINK. In that scene, Barton (John Turturro, whose character is similar to Clifford Odetts) is talking to fellow writer William Mayhew (John Mahoney, who is patterned after William Faulkner) about writing. Mayhew, in an alcoholic daze, asks quite languidly, “Ain’t writing peace?” Well, Fink responds quite seriously, “I've always found that writing comes from a great inner pain. Maybe it’s a pain that comes from a realization that one must do something for one’s fellow man, to help somehow ease the suffering. Maybe it’s personal pain. At any rate, I don’t believe good work is possible without it.”  Well, Mayhew patiently listens in silence, grins and then responds, “Well, me? I just enjoy making things up.”

Everybody has emotional scars, including authors of ALL genres. As far as horror is concerned, I have heard from a number of best-selling horror writers how they channel certain painful moments in their lives into their work, most notably Dean Koontz (because of his alcoholic father) and James Herbert (because of the poverty his experienced growing up in the poor areas of London). Edgar Allen Poe is another fine example of this, too. And then you have fantasy authors like Ray Bradbury who write horror stories because of the joy of it. Richard Matheson does this as well, especially when writing episodes of The Twilight Zone. Stephen King, from what I have read so far, writes for both the simple of joy scaring the hell out of his readers, as well as channeling his fears and painful moments of his life into his work. William Peter Blatty wrote The Exorcist to explore the concepts of faith through a real life exorcism that occurred many years before, but utilized a bit of his own creativity by adding additional creepy moments to build the tension of the plot until it explodes when Regan is completely possessed and Father Karras has to rediscover his own faith if he has any hope in saving the poor girl.

As far as I’m concerned, I’m a little bit of both Barton Fink and William Mayhew. Some stories I write in order to confront certain personal demons that I have, and there are some stories that I just simply enjoy writing. With relation to In Our House, it’s up to the reader to decide which is which. Or maybe not. Maybe just sitting back and enjoying the ride while reading the collection might be the best thing. J

6) What is the most mundane and innocent-seeming thing you've ever made seem frightening in a story?

Music plays an important role in many of my stories. I think the most mundane concept that was transformed into pure horror was what I did in a story that is not part of In Our House but occurs in the same “story universe.” With the gothic horror story, “Chamber Music”, I took the beautiful music of a flute and turned it into a weapon of evil for a serial killer, as well as a key to the salvation of the protagonist (who is a good friend of Mike Cicero, the lead character from “Duet,” which is the first story in In Our House). If people want to know more about this story and how a flute can create such terror, they should go to this link: ( This story was just named as a finalist in the 2012 EPIC Awards, so it’s one of my favorite stories.

7) It seems counter-intuitive to purposefully seek out terror. Why are people so interested in, as it were, getting their fright on?

Martin Landau explained it so humorously while portraying Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, especially when it comes to women. He explains, “The pure horror, it both repels, and attracts them (women), because in their collective unconsciousness, they have the agony of childbirth. The blood. The blood is horror. Take my word for it. If you want to make out with a young lady, take her to see Dracula.” I can imagine that could be the case; I had some interesting dates where I took a woman to see a classic horror film and….well, I digress. J

But I think people are attracted to GOOD horror (and I’m not talking about torture porn like the Saw series, or other slasher films) for two reasons. The first is on a basic level, people love the adrenaline rush of a good tense-filled scene that creeps long until it climaxes. This goes for thrillers as well, and Hitchcock was the master when it came to building the fright slowly within the audience’s souls. Talented horror writers like Poe, Lovecraft, Matheson, King and many others knows that the best terror is the patient, dynamic force that keeps the reader glued to the page until they discover what happens.

The second reason lies in the journey of self-discovery.  When people watch a good horror movie or read an incredible horror story, and they witness evil in either very obvious ways or with delicate subtlety, they begin to discover what it is that frightens them the most. Would they feel more connected to the protagonist? Or, more disturbingly, connect with the antagonist? Would the reader/viewer have the same courage to overcome the extraordinary circumstances that the protagonist faces? Or, would their darker natures result in them relating more to the antagonist. And if the writing is good, the writers have accomplished their mission in not only entertaining the audience and readership, but also make them think about themselves. And that is what I try to do with my own writing, especially In Our House: Tales of Terror.  


Thanks, Peter.

In Our House is available at Amazon and Smashwords.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Revenge is sweet, unless it's against you: An interview with Christian romantic suspsense author Ashley Dawn

Today, I'm talking with Ashley Dawn about her new romantic suspense book, Shadows of the Pain.

1) Tell us about your book

Revenge is sweet….unless you are on the receiving end of it.

“Do you know of anyone who would want…you dead?”

Officer Daniel Jenkins was no stranger to the dangers his job posed but usually he knew who was trying to kill him. Being stalked was a completely different ball game, and he wasn’t sure there were any rules…

“…I need you.”

Terrified didn’t even begin to describe how Kami felt with the stalker targeting her. As an FBI agent you were trained to handle stressful situations, but being the victim put the whole process in a different light.

As the killer gets closer, so do Kami and Daniel, but will they live long enough to see their love bloom?

Only God can save them from this unknown killer.

2) What inspired this series?

I started Shadows from the Past (Book 1 in this series) from a dream I'd had. The story just seemed to unfold and the more I wrote, the more real the characters became to me. I fell in love with all of them. That story focuses on Aurora and Jordan but the more I got to know the other characters, the more I knew they were going to have stories that needed told as well. The families just fit so well together and yet are such distinct characters that the stories sort of told themselves. Aurora and Jordan may have started it but Kerry and Luke, Daniel and Kami...they have all kept me entertained for years and I love sharing their stories.

3) Romantic suspense is a popular but also rather crowded genre. What distinguishes your book from some of the others out there?

My book has a couple of elements that separate it from a lot of the main stream romantic suspense. The first is, the faith element, that is why it is a Christian romantic suspense. Each of my books has the faith element in it and I believe it is a very important part of the story! My faith is important to me and so it is important for me to share. The second element is the family closeness. I have two different 'families' in my books. There is the Reiley family which is an actual family related by blood. The other family is not related by blood at all but by a bond built from years of closeness and relying on each other. These two families are woven together and that is where the best stories come out!

4) What sort of process went into the creation of your hero and heroine?

The majority of my characters came from that first book. Each of them was in my dream and so real! I chose to introduce all of them and have the character interaction and relationships be strong through the series. When it is time for a new story to be told, I choose the characters--though sometimes I am sure they choose me--that best fit and adapt them into a new storyline. They 'hero and heroine' are always surrounded by supportive family and I think that makes them more original. :)

5) This is the 3rd in your Shadows Series. It can sometimes be difficult to step into a series in later books. Can readers step into this book directly or should they start with the first?
I believe you can read Shadows of Pain as a stand alone book. Anything you need to know for 'back story', is told to you in the book. Daniel and Kami's story is their own and while the other characters are throughout the book, it is a story all about them. I do think to get the full effect of the relationships and the intricate interactions it is best to read the whole series.

6) Do you have any other books planned for the Shadows Series?

I do :) I'm currently working on the 4th book, Shadows of Deception, and it is about Tiffany Reiley and Colorado Wiley. Colorado hires Tiffany, through her PI firm, and she has to discover who is sabotaging his ranch and why. I also has several other ideas for the other characters. At the moment, I have planned an additional four books after Shadows of Deception. I am excited and a bit overwhelmed with all of it. The characters are wonderful at telling me what I need to write!


Thanks for stopping by, Ashley.

You can visit her blog,  Ashley's Bookshelf.

You can check out her book at Amazon  and Barnes and Noble.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Not So Magical Monday

No Magical Monday this week. Various deadlines in other realms are catching up to me this week, and so it's limited my time to do non-job-related research and type up nifty blog entries. I do intend to, however, still have my Heian and Regency post up this week, so it won't be a total bust.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 8: Bad Boy, Super Poet, and Greek Patriot, Lord Byron: Part II: Brooding Poetic Heroes and Dissing Your Contemporaries

Welcome to my eighth  post on late Georgian/Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.

This is the second part of a three part series on Lord Bryon. If you want an overview of his life, please see this post.


There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar;
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Stanza 178, Lord Byron.

Last week, I discussed Lord Byron's scandalous life and his many confirmed and rumored affairs. Though his behavior undoubtedly fueled some of his early scandalous allure for his contemporaries, we primarily remember him today not for his attempt to the Wilt Chamberlain of the Regency but instead for his literary accomplishments.

It is important to remember that Bryon worked and created in the backdrop of the Romantic movement, a movement that started roughly in the mid-18th century. In order to avoid spiraling off to another length sub-series, I'll just summarize the Romantic movement by noting it was a general reaction to unease over a number of cultural factors that had gained strength during the Enlightenment, in particular the ideas the scientists/natural philosophers had advanced that were starting to demystify nature and placed a premium on intellectual engagement with the world over emotional engagement. It was also linked in with the spread of the Industrial Revolution and related sociological factors. Distilled to its essence, the Romantic movement was about appreciating nature and existence in an allegedly more natural, and therefore, to their line of thinking, more authentic way. Although this philosophy influenced many spheres of existence in Europe and England, it was particularly pronounced in the arts. Also embodied in Romanticism was a sort of staunch idealism.

So how does Lord Byron fit into all of this? Well, he was a Romantic poet (he did try his hand at writing plays, but his success was firmly in the real of poetry) He showed talent from a young age and published his book of poetry, Hours of Idleness, in 1807 at the age of 19. He would follow that up with the critically acclaimed Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. This four-part narrative poem basically recounts the travels of an intelligent young man inflicted with ennui through the exotic lands. Considering that Lord Byron spent several years traveling abroad prior to publishing Pilgrimage, it is likely at least partially autobiographical. After his success with Pilgrimage, he published a number of other works, many of which focused on aristocratic Bryonic Heroes who traveled the world.

Though Pilgrimage is full of pathos, explorations of the meaning of freedom and existence, plus assorted other thematic meat that is nutritious to various English majors, it also helped to strengthen and fully define a literary archetype: what we now refer to as the Byronic Hero. Now, to be fair, it isn't as if Lord Byron was the first writer to ever use the archetype in English literature or poetry, but he did a considerable amount to popularize it.

Typically, a Bryonic Hero is fiercely intelligent, handsome, passionate, and idealistic, yet also flawed in some fundamental way such as given to intense brooding, being overly self-involved, cynical, arrogant, self-destructive, or a number of other such similar traits--much like Byron himself. 

The influence of the Bryonic Hero extends throughout literature from poetry to modern horror fiction. Besides hosting the literary circle that led to the creation of the first modern vampire story, the influence of the Bryonic Hero helped ensure that the vampire in that story lead to an aristocratic, but obviously very flawed being, even though to be clear, the vampire in that story is not the protagonist. Though, amusingly enough, the name of the vampire was used in another work by one of Byron's ex-lover as a thinly veiled, and rather negatively portrayed, version of Byron himself (now that's getting even with your ex). Skip forward to the 20th-century, and you also start getting the aristocratic, intelligent brooding vampires of authors like Anne Rice. So, arguably, a early 19th-century poet helped set the stage for Interview with the Vampire.

This is not to say that all his works necessarily included a Byronic Hero (or Bryonic-influenced antagonists). The short poem, She Walks In Beauty, published in 1815 and very well received, focuses on the beauty of a woman and does little to explore or define the poem's narrator:

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

Just to link this back to some of the things I discussed last week, though Byron claimed his inspiration was a beautiful cousin he saw at a party, some tried to claim the poem was about half-sister, Augusta, whom some had tried to suggest he had a sexual relationship with (just to reiterate, I find the evidence unpersuasive on the particular point).

Though many of his works were well received, his arguable magnum opus would be the lengthy epic poem, Don Juan published over the period of 1819 to 1824 (he would die before finishing the last section). Now, just to be clear. Byron was adapting from an existing story that preceded him by at least two centuries. He did invert the expectations a bit though by portraying Don Juan as a man who more easily ensnared by women than the inverse and Byron himself described it as satire. Though many found the poetry worthy of praise, there was some concern over some of the content, which, by the standards of the time was somewhat controversial both for the behavior of the poem's main character and the mutli-layered critiques of many aspect of then current life offered by Byron. Indeed, despite the respect many people paid to Lord Bryon's work, in his native England, his tendency toward challenging certain aspects of conventional mores, views, and the inclusion of sexually charged themes in some of his work left many disturbed by his work.

In Don Juan, he even has the 19th-century equivalent of a modern Rap "diss" song, in which an entire subsection (a canto) is basically devoted to him trashing other poets such as in the following example stanza:

All are not moralists, like Southey, when
He prated to the world of "Pantisocracy;"
Or Wordsworth unexcised, unhired, who then
Season'd his pedlar poems with democracy;
Or Coleridge, long before his flighty pen
Let to the Morning Post its aristocracy;
When he and Southey, following the same path,
Espoused two partners (milliners of Bath).
Stanza 93, Third Canto, Don Juan

Unlike the modern rappers, to the best of my knowledge Lord Byron didn't start any West Coast/East Coast conflicts with his insults (though some satirical responses to critics for earlier work did score him a few dueling challenges).

Though I've only highlighted these three works, he wrote large numbers of long- and short-form poetry. His "superstar" status at the time both from the acceptance of his work and his own self-promotion would lead to his work having a tremendous influence on other poets, other authors, and artists across Europe (including even Russia). Ironically, despite his obvious influence in England on many on contemporaries and later English authors both positive and negative (positive, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre; negative, Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights; and, yes, I'm making a subjective literary judgment), his greater legacy may have arguably have been outside of Europe. This may partially have been because his scandalous life in England that I talked about last week ended up damaging some of his influence in England (though it was still quite extensive) and, arguably, also the more culturally reserved English just were always going to be somewhat more scandalized by the boldness (at least at the time) of some of themes he explored in his poetry.