Review: After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones

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I’ve been meaning to read Jones for a while now and I’m glad I finally did. Short stories collections are a great way to dip your toes into an author’s pool and see if you like the water and, to belabor the metaphor, I found myself splashing about and doing cannonballs pretty much instantly with this collection.

Jones delivers fifteen weird horror stories that stick to your skull like a peanut butter pop song. The hooks are big, irresistible and obvious but only after the fact. Not that I’d call this bubblegum horror, each story despite the supernatural and bizarre trappings, revolves around real human emotion and the private fears and joys that make people what they are.

And according to Jones here, sometimes what people really are is monstrous.

Not that there is a hard lined nihilist edge running through this work, more like what makes us great as a species; our limitless imagination, is also why we’re so often doomed to tragedy. Basically, the shit we come up with. As a species and as individuals. Many of the characters in this collection can’t help themselves. They pick at scabs, they poke at sleeping dogs, and they obsess about things which are beyond their control. Because the realization that they have no control is the scariest conclusion of all.

One of my favorite yarns in here is called “The Spider Box” and it’s all about losing something important and finding something else that you think can give you back what you lost. Only it’s wild and you only got it to work once on accident but you know, just know, that if you can figure it out you can get back everything you’ve lost. Even what this new obsession has stolen from you…

Little vague for you? Well, I don’t want to spoil the fun. And there is fun throughout this book. Morbid humor, plain silliness, clever turns of phrases, all there to relieve you from the shadows and maybe to let you enjoy how big and spooky the echo of your laughter sounds bouncing back off the walls of the abyss.

A lot of the ideas infecting these stories are something like that last, unexpected, uninvited and unsettling thought that grips you just as you’ve gotten cozy in your bed, fluffed your pillow to the preferred position and prepared to drift off to a comfortable sleep. Those eerie, taffy stretched thoughts when you’re too tired to rationalize them away. This is book is full of them, only you have a writer like Stephen Graham Jones to articulate them into steely sharp focus. It’s like having him transcribe your nightmare back to you only he’s punched up the dialogue and fixed all those nagging plot holes.

What I really enjoyed here was watching Jones masterfully know when to give us explanations and when to leave it weird. Sometimes when authors are fashioning surreal or dreamlike stories they can rely too heavily on, it doesn’t have to make sense because it’s all so fucking crazy. Sometimes that’s great, but often it just seems like, again, someone telling you their really whackadoo dream which is cool I suppose but not a compelling story. In this collection there is plenty of mystery and unnatural events but none of them seem like they’re at all carelessly presented. When the scene calls for high weirdness, Jones delivers.  Likewise, when it calls for an inkling of a reason behind the madness or even a full on explanation Jones comes through again.  “Doc’s Story”a gutpunch in the middle of the book and another favorite of mine – tells you right from the first sentence that it’s about werewolves. And half the charm of it is it explains various part of werewolf lore in really inventive and convincing ways.

I’m also a sucker for working class horror because it’s just easier for me to relate to. Many of the characters here either didn’t go to college or didn’t get far after and I enjoy seeing their stories handled in varied, nuanced ways. Well-written fiction, what people think of as literary- more often than not centers on people who can afford to go on vacations to other countries to take their minds off of their existential woes. Which is great, do it if you can, read about if you like it (sometimes I do too) but I also like seeing stories about people who work in warehouses or at Circle K’s who are living paycheck to paycheck while also worrying about life itself and their place in it.

Which comes back to the notion of control and what After the People Lights Have Gone Off seems to obsess about itself. Take my favorite story here, “The Black Sleeve of Destiny,” it’s about a teenage kid working a shit job who gets a black hoodie at a thrift store. I know, already scary right, but it’s no ordinary hoodie, one of the sleeves is longer than the other. Complete terror, how I did muster the courage to finish it? It’s as if the story started out a refugee from Goosebumps, then it graduated to Fear Street and now it’s a resident of Pissed Myself with Abject Horror-Ville. But, trust me, stories aren’t just the setups, they’re the follow-throughs. See, the sleeve grants the main character a little bit of power – something crazy you’d never think of so stop trying to guess – but of course with these types of stories it’s power but at a price. But this main character, he can see where this is headed, can tell he’s out of his league, that he actually has no real control, but he likes the feeling of power the sleeve grants him. The illusion of control is that comforting even when it’s a known quantity. Maybe that’s the “Destiny” in the title? If we know we can’t have control is the best runner up the agreed upon lie that we do?

The title of the book, after all is After the People Light Have Gone Off.  A lyrical, brilliantly childlike or even inhuman sort of title; and above all,  a title which hints at the apocalyptic. A post human world to be inherited by things that need no illusion of control.

You can purchase the book here.

 

 

 

What is Lumen? Fake Video Game Manuals and The Dorks Who Love Them

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What if it was always night?

What if the sun never came up again? How could the world continue without sunlight? Life needs it to survive but what if there was an alternative?

More importantly: How could I make Green Lantern actually cool? Because Green Lantern sucks.

Not sorry.

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I’ve never liked the guy or his mythos. And out of all these questions that’s the one that really started all this.

Lumen began as a creative challenge to myself, if I was given the job of retooling Green Lantern and making that character interesting to me how would I do it? What would I keep, what would I throw out?

Turns out I’d throw out everything but the lantern.

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Because a hero or an explorer with a lantern, for me, that works. That’s primal. Hell, that’s the tarot.

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But before this story and its hero started coming together in my mind there was one other idea that I’ve had percolating for a long time: I’ve always thought that illustrated video game instructional manuals were an undervalued art form.

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I remember being a kid and pawing through my cousin Ben’s Zelda manual and be totally taken in by the artwork and storytelling therein. I was 7 or 8 and had never heard of The Hobbit so to me Zelda was my first big introduction to fantasy storytelling; at least beyond the Greek Myths I’d read and heard about in school. The format of the manual stuck to me. I have a love for it like I love my album artwork and liner notes for my favorite albums. And as a kid some of the first stories I’d create were video games in my mind. I’d draw out the levels and the characters and keep all the pictures together in big stacks. Those were my manuals.

Well, I got a little better at drawing since then and I have written a couple novels, so maybe it was time to try creating another make believe video game?

Which brings me to Lumen. This project is still far out but I’m really excited to start the conversation about it. I don’t wanna reveal too much of the story as I think it’s better to learn that from the manual itself but here’s the basics:

Lumen is the story of Esteban Vela. A young man living in a world of perpetual and unnatural darkness. The world has been this way for a millennium, the sun is now a myth. All after a falling star called “The Burning Beast” collided with the planet, destroying the empires of man and changing the atmosphere with a mysterious new layer known as “The Shroud.” The Shroud is what keeps the world permanently in the dark. But in addition to throwing the world into shadows the  Burning Beast also provided the new source of light and life for those lost in the dark. Lumen, a sort of land algae that emits a powerful glow begins to grow from the deeply imbedded core of the Burning Beast and into the rest of the world. This “Heart of Lumen” becomes the source of all light and life in the Shroud covered world which comes to be known as the “Nocterra.” Lumen is a living, harvestable substance with many uses and many of its characteristics and workings still not fully understood. Under its new light the world changes, new things grow. Some of them dangerous to the remaining humans…

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Under The Shroud with the light of Lumen evolution becomes rapid and humanity finds itself rivals with new races better suited to live in the Nocterra. Anglermen, feral and carnivorous beasts who use the spindly glowing lures growing from their backs to entice foolish humans hunting for Lumen in the wild,  wait in the shadows. And while they are fearsome the anglers are only the most well known of the dangers as so much of the Nocterra remains unexplored by what remains of humanity.

And what remains has changed… To better survive the Nocterra people have evolved to possess night eyes which shine in the night like the eyes of other nocturnal mammals.

Civilization has changed as well, survival has become key and most of the human world lives under the protection of the Nocterra Kingdom and its Lumen lit walls. But there are others who live outside the safety of castle walls. Hermits and madmen, ravagers and rebels. And of course the poor. Esteban Vela is sixteen years old and living outside the wall of the castle when he hears whispers that the Lumen is dying. Everywhere the glow is leaving. Panic hits and humanity rushes out into the dark to gather all the Lumen they can carry while it still lasts and the anglers lick their lips and wait to devour them all.

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One night Esteban sees a falling star, a small burning star of Lumen and he runs after it. Whether to use it for himself, to keep him alive in his cave or maybe to barter with to get him access inside the kingdom walls? He doesn’t have much time to think, he simply runs after the star. And when he finds it he also finds a strange suit of armor and a lantern. And that’s when the game begins…

Lumen is going to be illustrated instructional manual for an 8-Bit video game on the Alucinari Game System released in 1987. It’s going to be full color, have tons of awesome character designs, action scenes, item catalogs, maps, lists of bosses, allies, levels, dungeons (calling ‘em calabozos in this game) and tons of other stuff. They’ll be tons of crazy weird art and two stories: The first, the story of Lumen that unfolds as you play the game. The second, the story of Lumen the game and its console The Alucinari Game System and its sordid, controversial and possibly occult history.

That’s the idea at least.

Here’s some more rough sketches and idea fuel:

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Here’s some inspiration behind Esteban’s armor:

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Oh, and:

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And back to some more weird stuff of mine:

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better-5

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