Thursday, November 30, 2023

Animal Facial Expressions

A study at the University of Kansas Medical Center "discovered that cats use nearly 300 distinct facial expressions to communicate with one another":

Cats' Facial Expressions

In contrast, humans have 44 different facial expressions, and I was surprised to read that dogs have only 27. Feline expressions of emotion often involve ear movements and whiskers, however, so it's not so strange that they have more "distinct" expressions than we do. I was also surprised that cats' "facial signals" play such a large part in their communications with each other. As this article points out, cats are more social than people usually assume.

Chimpanzees convey a lot of information to each other by subtle facial movements:

How Chimps Communicate with a Look

Lisa Parr, director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, discusses how small changes in expression can communicate different emotions. Chimps were tested on how well they could distinguish and identify the significance of other chimps' facial expressions. Studying these behaviors in chimpanzees may contribute to better understanding of human nonverbal communication.

Dogs may have developed some types of facial expressions specifically to communicate with us:

How Dog Expressions Evolved

Of course, as this article mentions, a lot of canine communication occurs through body language. Maybe that's why they haven't evolved as many variations on facial expressions as we have. Also, scent plays a vital role in dogs' experiences of the world, a sensory dimension we almost entirely lack compared to canines.

Quora features questions about why animals of the same species tend to look so much "alike," while human beings have distinct individual appearances. Some answers explain, in addition to the human-centered bias that causes us to make finer distinctions among members of our own species, that many animals have less variation in facial appearance than we do because they rely on other senses such as smell to recognize each other.

If intelligent Martians existed, we might think they all look alike, as the narrator of Heinlein's DOUBLE STAR does at the beginning of the novel. On the other hand, the Martians would probably have trouble telling Earth people apart.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Per Ardua

Now this is interesting if you happen to want to be legally correct while writing about a naughty astronaut.

Per ardua ad astra is the motto of the British Royal Air Force, and means (roughly) "Through Hard Work To The Stars." I prefer, "Adversity", but it is not up to me.

What do astronauts have to do with copyright? You might well ask. All is revealed by the Claims IP blog which can be read in full here:

In brief:

"Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who works on the International Space Station (ISS), recently repeated a scene from Kubrick's film "2001: A Space Odyssey" and shared it on her Twitter" 

Does one infringe a movie copyright by duplicating the costumes, sound track, and distinctive activities and publishing it? Is it homage? Is it parody? Is it news? Is it educational?

But the question that the European lawyers of the Claims IP blog ask is – "How do intellectual property rights apply to astronauts who have left the Earth?"

Their answer is that one's legal status does not change when one is in space, or even on another planet. One remains a citizen of the state, and under the legal juristdiction of the state from which one came. [Aside, Vivek might have a point about this, too.] So, if an American citizen were to commit a space crime or infringe copyright while in outer space, he or she or they might be subject to American civil or criminal law.

The blog has specific details. It does not seem that an infringement case has been brought, so this is all speculative.

Talking of dancing on the ceiling...or up the walls (with or without a nod to Lionel Ritchie,) legal blogger Karen Gover of the McDermott Will and Emery lawfirm's legal blog writes "A Step Forward For Choreography and Copyright." 

In football terms, this is about a bad call that was reversed upon further review. When Los Angeles based choreographer had some of his distinctive and brilliant dance moves copied and monetized by an animated video game, he sued, alleging direct and contributory infringement, and was most unfairly (IMHO) waved off. 

Hanagami appealed. The Appeals Court ruled that, just because a short dance sequence is short does not mean that it cannot deserve and receive copyright protection.

I would say, that seems right to me. There are pop songs that have very few lyrics, but they are copyright-protected... unless they were popular before 1972 -- which is also terribly unfair, IMHO.

Practice Note from Kaaren Gover: 

"Choreography has been protected by the copyright statute since 1976 but is rarely litigated. Hence, application of the substantial similarity test to dance works is not a robustly developed area of copyright law. Courts may look to the Copyright Office’s guidance documents on the subject as well as analogous cases involving musical works when applying the substantial similarity test to choreography."

By the way, I was looking up whether repetition of naught (as in naughty) and naut at the end of astronaut was a named figure of speech, such as assonance, when I came upon a great source for proper use of synecdoche or metonymy

"Too good not to share," I thought. Is that too word-nerdy? If one does not have the vocabulary, the precise vocabulary, it is hard to have clarity of thought.

All the best,

Rowena Cherry

Friday, November 24, 2023

Karen S Wiesner: {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

by Karen S. Wiesner


In my past review of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I talked about how the author Susanna Clarke signed up for a writing workshop in which students attending were expected to come with a short story they'd written. All Clarke had were "bundles" of materials for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. She extracted a piece of it about three women secretly practicing magic who are discovered by Jonathan Strange. That story is the title one in this collection of eight short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, set in the same world as the larger novel, a fictionalized 18th/19th century England in which magic is becoming popular again, thanks to the efforts of Mr Norrell and his pupil (and later rival) Jonathan Strange. In that very in-depth novel, the duo themes are 1) that magic is given or bargained for from powerful and not necessarily moral beings that exist in another realm (faerie) and 2) that magic sometimes manifests in ways the wielder isn't intending.

In all the stories in this "off-shoot" anthology, the overwhelming themes are 1) the commonalities of magic in different time periods, 2) the undeniable (and, at times, even more diabolical) power of "women's magic", something that was taboo in this world, and 3) the ways in which faerie folk infringe on the real world--as if their own isn't exciting enough (and that may well be the case, considering their mischievous deeds).

In the title story, Jonathan Strange visits his brother-in-law, a country parson, where he's challenged by three female magicians. The author has said of this story that she wanted to find a place for these characters within the larger novel but, having read it now, I'm convinced it simply didn't and couldn't fit there. As a short story on its own, it has a compelling connection to the novel that made the author famous.

The second story, "On Lickerish Hill", is an interesting retelling of Rumplestiltskin. The unfortunate, young bride is placed in the demeaning role of wife to a monetary-seeking groom and has to find a clever solution to save herself. While the "archaic spellings" of the plucky heroine's speech were hard to read and decipher, the twist on one of my favorite fairy tales was particularly satisfying.

In "Mrs. Mabb" (the Queen Mab),  an abandoned woman is determined to get her fiancĂ© free of black magic while everyone around her assumes she's hysterical (after being jilted) or insane, which was very common to presume about women of the day.

Interestingly, "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" is actually set within the village of Wall, which has its origin in Neil Gaiman's Stardust novel. (For those who didn't read my review of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the workshop co-host that read the extraction of Susanna Clarke's work from her novel was so impressed by her work, he sent an excerpt to his good friend, fantasy author Neil Gaiman who was astounded by her "assurance" as a writer: "It was like watching someone sit down to play the piano for the first time and she plays a sonata."). In this particular story, I was fascinated by what was considered common women's work being utilized by a pompous duke to bring about a fantastical conclusion.

"Mr. Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower" was a favorite of mine in this anthology, as an amoral faerie aristocrat has to be put down (by his own bastard son!) in order to save five sisters that strongly resemble the distinctive Bennetts from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Three other tales cover fairy culture, including a fictionalized account of Mary, Queen of Scots, learning how to use magic to undertake her political machinations, along with featuring a central character in Jonathan Strange (John Uskglass, aka the Raven King) as Christian peasants revolt against pagan faerie.

While Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was both compelling and unforgettable, this anthology of parallel stories that were published (separately) while the novel was being edited and prepared for publication and later (after the novel became a hit) collected in one place are much lighter and certainly more subtle--nevertheless, they're undeniably enchanting in their own right.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

Visit her website here:


Find out more about her books and see her art here: 

Visit her publisher here:

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Thanksgiving and Traditions

Happy American Thanksgiving! Ordinarily we spend the weekend after Turkey Day at ChessieCon, formerly Darkover Grand Council, which has traditionally occurred every Thanksgiving weekend for several decades. Last November they held their first in-person con since 2019. At that time it moved from the hotel where it's been held for many years to a different one in the same general area, north of Baltimore. Attendance turned out to be dismayingly low. Doubtless in part for that reason, the committee decided to cancel this year's event and take time off to regroup and rethink the con's future. On top of that, the hotel it had moved to abruptly closed a few months ago. Where will ChessieCon go next, if anywhere? Will we lose this venerable local SF/F tradition?

Thanksgiving traditions typically include the familiar turkey and its required accessories, e.g., stuffing, potatoes, and gravy. Some households, however, depart from the conventional menu for more adventurous fare. For instance, our second son and his family eschew turkey in favor of entrees such as homemade sushi. Many Americans also consider TV football essential on that day.

In mainline Christian churches, the first Sunday of Advent, the build-up to Christmas, falls on or near the first weekend of December. Most of us now accept as inevitable and proper that the winter holiday shopping and decorating season begins on the day after Thanksgiving. However, when Christmas and other winter-themed displays in stores overlap with Halloween merchandise, and internet merchants advertise "Black Friday" sales starting over a week early, many of us think the extension of the season is going too far. Commercialization of Christmas gifting, though, started almost simultaneously with the invention of the family-centered Christmas as we know it in the nineteenth century. Moreover, people have been complaining about it almost as long.

The popular film A CHRISTMAS STORY, aka the BB gun movie, set around 1940, based on Jean Shepherd's fictionalized memoir IN GOD WE TRUST: ALL OTHERS PAY CASH, illustrates how even before the middle of the twentieth century intensive holiday gift advertising and department store Santas already pervaded the Christmas-season consciousness of American children. Our parents and grandparents didn't experience some newer Christmas traditions that existed in our childhoods and those of our children, because those customs depend on new technology, mainly television. Many people watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, culminating in the arrival of Santa Claus. They also enjoy favorite Christmas specials over and over. Nowadays we don't have to wait for those treasured memories to show up in reruns; we can view them on home video media or streaming services at will. I always watch at least two versions of A CHRISTMAS CAROL every year, usually more. We can also look forward to original programs reliably appearing every December, such as one of my favorites, the annual new CALL THE MIDWIFE Christmas episode.

If our grandparents had been able to peer into the future and note these novel customs, they might have disdained them as soulless products of technology, violating the true spirit of the season. For us and our children, recurring winter holiday movies and TV shows simply became an expected part of the celebration, cherished traditions as much as the tree, the feast, and the presents.

When some earthlings live in artificial habitats on the Moon or Mars or in generation-spanning starships, what holiday traditions will they bring along, and what fresh customs will life in extraterrestrial environments demand? It seems likely that even in locations vastly distant from Earth's solstice cycles, human beings will cling to the core elements of their seasonal celebrations.

Margaret L Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Your Shot?

Whether the photo is of your wedding or is taken as you arrive at a glamorous event or awards ceremony (not that the latter two are mutually exclusive) or even if it the one-in-a-million passport photos that turns out to be flattering, is it yours?

Probably, it is not yours to do with as you please. As technology advances, the things that one could do with a great shot are multiple, if not myriad. One can upload it to a website and have it returned in a frame. One can edit it with an application to remove unwanted elements in the background. One can give it to ones webmistress or editor to adorn ones website or the back matter of ones novel.

A photograph belongs to the photographer, not to the poser (or subject of the photograph). The shot may not belong to you, even if you pay for it unless you obtain a written assignment granting you all rights in the image.

Ned T. Himmelrich, attorney and legal blogger for Gordon Feinblatt LLC, explains succinctly here: 

He also offers excellent practical advice to photographers, including amateurs, and also a warning about the subject's possible right of publicity.

All the best,

Rowena Cherry 


Friday, November 17, 2023

Karen S Wiesner: {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: The Harrowing by Alexandra Sokoloff

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: The Harrowing by Alexandra Sokoloff

by Karen S. Wiesner

Just in time for Turkey Day! If you want to bypass the "gravy and gratitude" aspect of this holiday and instead want to be scared out of your ill-fitting pants (after the big meal), The Harrowing by Alexandra Sokoloff may be just what you're looking for. Published in 2006, this was the first novel by a now award-winning author (it was nominated for both The Bram Stoker and Anthony awards). It was also the first book I read by her.

Set on the Baird College's Mendenhall, five college students are left alone on the isolated campus for the long Thanksgiving break. For better or for worse, the group seeks out company, such as it is, at the approach of what's promising to be a killer storm front. Naturally, all the students stayed behind instead of going home for their own reasons and all have secrets. And naturally they're bound to do something stupid that sets off an avalanche of ominous events that make them fear they may not actually be alone in the hundred-year-old creepy residence hall.

This ghost story is filled with all the ingredients needed to make a chilling thriller appetizing--a creepy setting cut off from others, suspicious characters, bad weather, and three long and dark days and nights before their fellow students and staff return to find out the aftermath of what happened in their absence. I was on tenterhooks throughout the reading of this aptly named tale.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

Visit her website here:


Find out more about her books and see her art here:

Visit her publisher here:

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Bad People Versus Bad Institutions

In his latest LOCUS essay, Cory Doctorow discusses whether "all the internet services we enjoyed and came to rely upon became suddenly and irreversibly terrible – as the result of moral decay." Setting aside the question of whether "irreversibly terrible" is a bit exaggerated, he reasonably states that "it’s tempting to think that the people who gave us the old, good internet did so because they were good people," and the internet was ruined, if it was, by bad people:

Don't Be Evil

The problem isn't that simple, however, since institutions, not individuals, created the internet. On the other hand, institutions comprise many individuals, some with honorable motives and some driven solely by the quest for profit. In short, "institutional action is the result of its individuals resolving their conflicts." Can corporations as such be evil? Doctorow doesn't seem to be saying that's the case. Every institution, private or public, includes multitudes of people, with conflicting goals, some good and some bad -- both the individuals and their goals. Moreover, as he doesn't explicitly mention, some people's characters and motivations are neither all good nor all bad. Many drift along with the corporate culture from fear of the consequences of resistance or maybe just from failure to think through the full implications of what's going on. He does seem to be suggesting, however, that vast, impersonal forces can shape negative outcomes regardless of the contrary wishes of some people involved in the process. "Tech didn’t get worse because techies [workers in the field] got worse. Tech got worse because the condition of the external world made it easier for the worst techies to win arguments."

What solutions for this quandary could be tried, other than "burn them [the allegedly villainous "giants of the internet" such as Amazon and Google] to the ground," in my opinion a bit too drastic? Doctorow insists, "A new, good internet is possible and worth fighting for," and lists some aspects he believes must change. Potential avenues for improvement can be summarized by the need to empower the people who mean well -- the ones Doctorow describes as "people within those institutions who pine for a new, good internet, an internet that is a force for human liberation" -- over those who disregard the concerns of their customers in single-minded greed for profit.

On the wider topic of individual responsibility for the villainous acts of institutions over which one doesn't have any personal control, one might be reminded of the contemporary issue of reparations to historically oppressed groups. Of course, one can quit a job and seek a more ethical employer, but renouncing one's nationality or ethnic ancestry would be severely problematic. However, since that subject veers into "modpol" (modern politics, as strictly banned on an e-mail list I subscribe to), I'll simply point out C. S. Lewis's essay, in a different context, about repenting of other people's sins:

Dangers of National Repentance

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Sunday, November 12, 2023


Today's earworm is not a song about Tattoos, but the lyrics include "I'm in tatters".

Since the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided that Andy Warhol's use of the Goldsmith photo portrait of the artist sometimes known as Prince was not transformative, and was therefore not "Fair Use" of the photographer's work, some suppositions about tatooing someone else's photograph onto a body is in tatters.

There are a lot of romance novels about tattooed protagonists. Here is one blogger's list:

And another here: 
And on Goodreads:  

None of the cover art that I saw when scrolling through these three sites had a celebrity's face tattooed on a model, but any author considering cover art should be aware of the evolution in the law. 

Faces are not the only potential problem. There are some designs that look like copyrighted or trademarked works. I assume that, if hiring a tattooed cover model, it would be prudent to check that he (or she) has all the necessary rights from the tattoo artist to display the tattoo for commercial gain. Moreover, if the cover art of the tattoo is going to be used for advertising purposes and posted widely on social media, there may be other licenses and publicity rights that have to be covered.

Oh what a tangled web! (Sir Walter Scott, Marmion).

In "Think About The Ink", Bess Morgan, a legal blogger for the law firm Loeb & Loeb LLC, writes about the changing legal status of tattoos since the US Supreme Court decision in the Prince photo case. One Court has had to revise its analysis in the case Sedlik v Von Drachenberg et al. which was about a tattoo that was inspired by a photograph of the musician Miles Davis.

The law firm Loeb & Loeb often deals with tattoo-art-related issues in the context of fashion, licensing, collaborations and body art in general.

To be "transformative" (and therefore a fair use) a copy of a copyrighted work must have a “further purpose or different character” vs. the meaning or aesthetic of the defendant’s work. It is not enough for the photograph or design to merely be a different color, or displayed on a different surface.

The Loeb & Loeb very valuable and comprehensive advice for cover artists and cover models (ie "Talent") is:

"Talent should procure a written consent and release from the tattoo artist that, among other terms, allows the talent to freely display and exploit the tattoo in any manner without further obligation, and secures representations surrounding the design."

 For authors and publishers (or "Brands"):

"Brands engaging inked talent should specifically receive a grant of rights to use talent’s tattoos and body art as an element of the persona license and seek indemnification from an IP and publicity rights perspective."
Bess Morgan also offers very wise and practical advice for Brands who hire a tattooed model for his or her physical charms, but the ink is not an essential element of the Look.

All the best,

Rowena Cherry 
EPIC Award winner, Friend of ePublishing for Crazy Tuesday   

Friday, November 10, 2023

Karen S Wiesner: {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: Dune by Frank Herbert

 {Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Dune by Frank Herbert

by Karen S. Wiesner

In previous books I’ve reviewed for my “Put This One on Your TBR List” series, I included a summary and background details for the book I spotlighted. However, Dune (or the Dune Chronicles) is touted as the bestselling science fiction novel in history, has become a franchise in its own right, and a book description and premise is probably unnecessary here, given the sheer amount that’s been written about this saga already. So this is strictly a review (as much as I’m capable of making it anyway) of the first book.

I first heard about Dune in association with the 1984 movie that starred Sting, the rock star, and all the movie posters I’d seen looked about as hokey, cheesy, and downright silly as it got. I assumed this was some overblown space opera not to be taken seriously. However, when I saw the preview of the 2021 remake starring Timothee Chalamet and Oscar Isaac (among other worthy actors), I started to get curious about this series. Anything that’s been around as long as this has (first published in 1965—nearly 60 years) and has this huge of a following seems like it might actually have endured as something beloved for good reason.

I found a beautiful, like-new trade paperback copy for only $6 at a used bookstore. I won’t lie, the size of it was intimidating. 689 pages! I looked through it before I started reading the story. The first thing I noticed was that there were no chapters, per se. Each section was prefaced by epigraphic excerpts offered up from a fictional character within the series universe (which is called, hilariously, the Duniverse by diehard fans). I love the idea of making a series and a setting so insular, it becomes like something real that has historical and cultural significance. These types of commentaries, biographies, quotations or philosophies serve to ground the story in almost archival weight.

Inside this trade paperback, I found three “books” which made up the first Dune. There were also four appendices—the stuff lore lovers devour. I was amazed at the author’s thoroughness. This is the kind of world building you can only stand and marvel at the scope covered. The first appendix was like a fictionalized account of the ecology of Dune as told by Pardot Kynes, the first (fictional) planetologist of the main setting in the story. Next, the religion of the series was covered along with space travel. Most science fiction avoids the idea of religion as if science will eventually become the religion of the future. Although a lot of the religion in Dune does come off as superstitions or ways to manipulate the masses, I appreciated that it was included at all. Like it or not, humans are spiritual creatures, even if that doesn’t always imply morality. The third appendix was presented from the point of view of the fictional character Jessica, a member of the Bene Gesserit, a kind of religious organization that could be a cross between witchcraft and the stealthiest spies that employ voice control as one of their weapons. The next appendix gave information about the noble houses featured in the series. There were also sections with a dictionary of terms and cartographic notes along with a detailed map (I love this!!!). Finally, there’s an afterword provided by the author’s son Brian, which was very enlightening.

I was duly impressed by all this, so I started reading. It’s a slow-moving story, but I was instantly confronted with the inaccuracies of my presumptions about the story. This was no mere space opera, and there was nothing hokey about it. It’s a science fiction saga, yes, set far, far, far in the future (smart!), but the tone of the story (when it eventually settles into the main setting Arrakis, a barren desert planet with a merciless climate) conveyed a classical fantasy feel to me. The society of Arrakis is populated with scattered bands of native Fremen who are the only ones who really know how to survive in such a desolate, harsh place. They live like nomads without much by way of technology. Their religion and unique philosophy rule their lives. Water, as you might expect, is their most precious resource and it’s their currency. However, the irony is that the place they call home is the only place where melange spice can be mined—but only at great peril…for multiple reasons (ranging from giant sandworms to weather instability to the ban on “thinking machines” to intergalactic feudalism that fuels the political in-fighting that overshadows the universe). Melange holds dominion over everyone and everything. This drug extends life and expands the consciousness. Additionally, it allows for the folding of space, which has made interstellar travel possible. I admit, as a major plot in this series, I was bothered that something that could be considered a hallucinogenic drug could hold such sway over the entire universe. But I suppose that isn’t unrealistic, considering how popular drugs are these days.

As for “overblown drama”, I found no suggestion of it. I was compelled to keep reading all through the three books of the first Dune story. I was so impressed, in fact, that before I was half done reading it, I bought the entire boxed set of the first six novels written by Frank Herbert. After his father’s death in 1986, his son Brian teamed up with sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson (I’ve read some his Star Wars books) to co-author other Dune installments which include prequels that fill in the gaps of what happened previous to the events of the first Dune book, as well as those that fit into the middle and end of things and finish the entire series.

Dune is extremely well written and authentic in every aspect. The worldbuilding is impeccable. The author left nothing out. That said, I think the drawback of this saga is the same that tends to plague many larger-than-life sagas. The world is so big, there’s no way an author could possibly give every character in it, even the main characters, the space needed for true, deep development. One of the signs that depth is lacking, in my opinion, is the over-the-top head-hopping that takes place in this novel. I’ve never witnessed any author do it with such unabashed boldness. Usually, an author will yank the reader out of one character’s head, into another’s, but that’s as far as it goes. Herbert knew no boundaries in this story. Every scene contains head-hopping all around the room. Every character included in a scene is given “head space” within that same scene.

Those who have read my writing reference titles know that this is my foremost pet peeve. In Dune, it’s true that some of the main characters are given more “head space” than others, and you get to know them slightly better as a result, but I didn’t feel I came to know any of the characters in Dune even remotely as well as I would have liked. As I said, I’m not sure it’s possible to get in-depth in a saga this vast. What happens when the scope of a story is too large is that readers are only selectively shown what the author wants them to know about the main characters. We don’t know what they really feel and think about so many things, nor do we get more than a skewed taste of their past, present, and future dimensions (those who’ve read Dune will truly understand the irony of that statement, given what the spice drug does to the minds it enslaves). We only get one-dimensional characters, including the main ones. This makes it very hard to root for or even like most of the people populating this world. I think the only character I truly liked in this book was Duke Leto Atreides. The rest filled the roles the author gave them—no more, no less. Even Paul, the duke’s son, and what most would consider the main character of Dune, wasn’t someone I continued to be compelled and sympathetic toward. By the middle and at the end of the first book, he became little more than a monster, driven (contradictorily) calmly and ruthlessly insane by the drug spice.

I was also bothered by the strange character growth in Dune. They changed so much in this first book. It’s divided into three parts, I think, so the writer could skip over the character growth that changed characters from one thing to another. In this way, a lot of the development felt convenient to the plot. The author needed them to do something in a certain way. Yes, Herbert built in strong religions and philosophies, training rigors, etc., but in part because none of the characters are developed deeply, the alterations in their personalities are stretched almost beyond belief, are logical but mildly distorted, and ultimately brush against the dreaded deus ex machina as close as it gets without actually entering it.

All these things said, I enjoyed the story enough to be intrigued and interested in continuing to learn more. I’m glad I decided to read it, despite my earlier presumptions. I’ve also watched about a third of the 2021 remake movie, and I’m finding it follows the novel very closely (as closely as it can and still make sense of the scope). I also intend to watch the sequel when it comes out in 2024. Both of these encompass the first and second parts of the first novel. There are a lot of other media associated with this franchise. I’m not sure how far I’ll delve into this universe (the sheer breadth of it feels intimidating to me), but for now I’m determined to at least read the author’s original stories and watch these two film adaptations.

In the afterword provided by the author’s son, Brian Herbert talks about having asked his father if his magnum opus would endure and hearing the modest assessment that only time would tell. Given its popularity for nearly 60 years, I’d have to say endure it has—endured and flourished! If you haven’t already wandered into the Duniverse and been captured by its distinctive spice, Dune is definitely worth a try.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

Visit her website here:


Find out more about her books and see her art here:

Visit her publisher here:

Thursday, November 09, 2023

Considering Adaptations

That is, one adaptation in particular: CONJURE WIFE, by Fritz Leiber. It was first published as a magazine serial by UNKNOWN WORLDS in 1943, later revised and expanded for reprint in book form (in a trio of novels bound together in 1952, then as a stand-alone paperback in 1953). The 1943 version is the one Amazon sells in Kindle format. Wikipedia lists three movies inspired by CONJURE WIFE, the best-known (and the only one that seems to be available) being BURN, WITCH, BURN, with a script by classic horror writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Spoilers ahead, although surely the statute of limitations on spoilers has run out for an 80-year-old novel.

The protagonist, Norman, a sociology professor at a small, private college, discovers his wife, Tansy, has been secretly practicing witchcraft to advance his career and guard both of them against the malicious magic of certain older faculty wives. He persuades her to let him burn her protective charms. With those defenses gone, they're assailed by the full force of hostile spells. Norman repeatedly tries to convince himself they're facing only coincidental accidents and the mundane hostility of his professional rivals' wives, as evidence to the contrary piles up. Finally, to save Tansy's life and soul, he has to work a complicated spell himself under her direction. Although the story feels dated at points because of the Freudian approach to psychology Norman and his colleagues take for granted, the quiet horror remains unforgettably chilling.

Aside from the deletion of a few references to World War II, the main thrust of the rewrite tends toward adding ambiguity. The original starts with a discussion among three older witches on whether Tansy knows about them. The book includes several other brief scenes from their viewpoint. As a result, the reader knows from the beginning that witchcraft is real and evil forces are plotting against the protagonist and his wife. The expanded novel, on the other hand, is narrated entirely in the tight third person viewpoint of Norman. He constantly questions and second-guesses apparently magical incidents, regardless of his contrary feelings in the moment and the fact that, by the end, the reality of the supernatural within the text is perfectly clear to the reader.

Even after Norman experiences supernatural evil firsthand in the final confrontation with the older witches, in the revision doubt resurfaces in his mind afterward. In the original version, he concludes by accepting the fact of witchcraft and assuming they're not done with it: “There’s more behind this matter of the Balance than we may realize. There’s a lot we’ll do with this, but we’ll want to go slowly and test every step of the way.” At the end of the rewritten edition, Tansy asks whether he seriously believes in everything that has happened or finds himself reverting to the idea that the whole prolonged ordeal arose from coincidence and delusions. His reply, which constitutes the final sentence of the novel: "I don't really know."

The film BURN, WITCH, BURN deviates from the book at several points. For the most part, I realize why Matheson and Beaumont chose to make the changes they did. On the basic narrative level, naturally much of the background we get from Norman's stream of consciousness in the novel has to be revealed through dialogue in the movie, mainly the competitive tension underneath the smoothly polite conversations in the early scenes with his colleagues and their wives. The script omits most of the small mishaps Norman suffers, to highlight larger potential disasters. Most significantly, the entire climactic episode of Tansy's soul being captured by the senior witch is omitted, no doubt to streamline the plot to fit into the length of a feature film. Also, the writers might have thought that situation too complex to convey effectively through action and dialogue. Probably they figured a magical arson attack was more visually dramatic. Still, I was sorry to lose the deeply horrifying moment at the end of chapter fourteen (ten in the original) when Tansy, as a soulless automaton, answers Norman's magical summons. And, above all, we lose the novel's core premise, that all women are witches even if many of us don't fully understand or wholeheartedly believe in our own powers.

I'd love to see the book fully and faithfully adapted as a miniseries, but that seems like a farfetched daydream. BURN, WITCH, BURN, however, does come pretty close. Any fans of vintage horror would find it well worth their time.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Friday, November 03, 2023

Karen S. Wiesner {Put This One on Your TBR List}: The Ruins by Scott Smith

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: The Ruins by Scott Smith

by Karen S. Wiesner

Imagine a 523 page paperback novel without chapters. Literally, that mass of pages filled with just words, no blank spaces, other than single line scene breaks. Does the mere idea of such a thing make you want to run screaming in the opposite direction? I suppose if I'd glanced through the book before I started reading it the first time, I might have had a reaction just like that. Instead, I just jumped into The Ruins by Scott Smith, a horror, published in 2006. I spent 15-20 hours of that same day absolutely enthralled. I didn't put the book down for any reason, not to eat (I can do that with one hand), not to be sociable, not to sleep, until I finished reading it. In the years since that first reading, I've done the same in re-reading it. I just can't help it.

This story has a pretty simple setup. Two American college couples are on holiday in Cancun. They meet some other foreigners on vacation. Tourist Mathias came with his brother, who'd been persuaded by a cute girl he met at the hotel to go to some archaeological dig site not too far away. Mathias is desperate to find him, since he's been missing for a while now.

Of the Americans, Jeff (who's studying to be a doctor) is the smart one in the group, the Boy Scout, the one who wants to be everyone's hero. His girlfriend Amy goes along with things, doesn't trust herself to make a decision, and ultimately doesn't really know who she is. She's almost pathetically obedient to Jeff's every command. She desperately doesn't want to accompany Jeff to help Mathias find his brother, but she doesn't know how to refuse. Eric is trying to live up to everyone's expectations and therefore fails to meet his own. He follows the prescribed path that's been laid out before him because it's easier than having to figure out something new for himself. Stacy is the oft-troped "lovable slut" who's blown about by every direction of the wind. The group follows Jeff without question.

As couples, these two are the worst. I can't even imagine how they got together. As friends, maybe Amy and Stacy make a little bit of sense but Jeff and Eric really are just thrust together as friends by the girls they're dating. I don't think they even like each other, though the thought never occurs to either of them. Jeff seems to hate Amy most of the time, to despise her wishy-washiness yet he can't seem to stop bossing her around long enough to really decide why he's with her (because she buckles to his demands?). She seems to idolize him. She's Edith Bunker to her Archie, running around rather stupidly to please him. Quite honestly, I didn't like any of the characters and there was nothing admirable about them. Jeff had the veneer of an extraordinary human, but he was no better than any of the others once the surface was scratched. That said, they were engaging, well-drawn, albeit mildly clichéd.

What happens next after Jeff forces the group to set off to find Mathias's brother is a combination of bad luck and pure stupidity on the part of three sheep followers, one anguished brother, and a would-be savior who ultimately doesn't live up to the hype. Believe it or not, none of this made the book any less enjoyable. Like Stephen King, I found The Ruins evocative and one long, screaming close-up of horror.

Beyond the foundational basis of horror in this story, you'll discover a scathing commentary on the dark side of societal conventions when Nature in all its pitiless indifference forces unsuspecting human prey into a very unique cage. From there, all semblance of control slips slowly, slowly away, never again to be recovered.

The only true failure in this literal breath-stealing novel is its end. As one reviewer says, The Ruins "just misses perfection because something's wrong with the final spin". Oh, how polite. In my opinion, the end stinks. Having read the author's other novel, A Simple Plan, I have to say that he seems to love to hate his own characters. He creates beings that you can't really like because bad qualities far outweigh the good and the decisions made by these villainous heroes are always questionable, making you as the reader feel ashamed if you make any attempt to root for them. I can't help imagining the author as a cruel entity setting up his characters for failure, toying with them and tormenting them only to destroy them in the end--all with a robustly maleficent parting laugh. Part of the genius in the author's method of madness is equally what I think might be his downfall: He refuses to look away from anything. Everything that happens is like a train wreck that chops off heads and limbs, burns babies alive, and crushes a pregnant woman flat between cars. In the case of a horror novel, that's kind of what you expect and want, but anyone with an ounce of decency would stop at the end, at least, and dole out some well-earned and respectful mercy. Not Smith. His ruthlessness carries over, unrelenting, into the very last words of the novel.

While I tend to be the type who enjoys the book more than any film adaptation of it and that's definitely the case of the 2008 movie version of The Ruins (an absolute gore-fest from start to finish, though basically watchable) produced by Ben Stiller's production company, Red Hour Films, there is one area that the film triumphs. The end of the movie is what should have been at the end of the book.

Despite the flaws in this nonstop, ruthless horror novel, I heartily recommend it to other lovers of the genre. Just be sure to watch the end of the movie version afterward to see the story's ideal end.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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Thursday, November 02, 2023

Scary Solstice

I recently read a lavishly illustrated book about midwinter folklore, THE FRIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, by Jeff Belanger, featuring Krampus, the Yule Cat, Belsnickel, and many other Christmas-season monsters; however, it also covers some benevolent creatures such as La Befana, Saint Nicholas, and of course Santa Claus. Terrors lurk in the longest, darkest night at the coldest time of year. In the past, telling frightful tales at Christmas was a British tradition. Even now, a popular Christmas song mentions "scary ghost stories" along with caroling in the snow. Dickens's A CHRISTMAS CAROL is just the best known. Our preindustrial ancestors recognized the frightening aspect of midwinter; that's why the lights, fires, bells, feasting, and evergreens exist in the first place. They ward off the darkness and keep the demons at bay. Some of the Yuletide boogeymen used to serve as shadow counterparts of Saint Nicholas, punishing naughty children while he rewarded nice ones, in a sort of bad cop / good cop partnership.

Nowadays we joke about getting coal in stockings from Santa if we haven't been "good" (sometimes with the contemporary angle that coal might be a reward instead of a punishment when energy costs rise). Saint Nick's old-style sidekicks or substitutes, though, would beat naughty children with sticks, haul them away in sacks to an unspecified fate, or eat them. On the other hand, if you're lucky you might get a visit from the Italian witch Befana, who may sweep your house in addition to leaving gifts for children. The animated film THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS beautifully highlights the traditional solstice ambiguity of the festive combined with the monstrous. Likewise, in Terry Pratchett's HOGFATHER Death himself fills in for the Hogfather (Discworld's Santa) when the latter is temporarily unavailable.

A long time ago in an online writing group, I read a story about an alternate world in which Santa is a frightening figure who comes down the chimney at midwinter to perpetrate terrible acts. From a certain point of view, a mysteriously omniscient man who constantly watches you from afar and sneaks into your house in the middle of the night regardless of locked doors DOES sound sinister.

Ellen Datlow's new anthology CHRISTMAS AND OTHER HORRORS explores the dark side of the winter solstice in a variety of stories featuring Christmas and other seasonal celebrations and customs. Some of the horrors are based on actual folklore, others created by the individual authors.

Speaking of HOGFATHER, here's a link to my favorite quote from the entire Discworld series, Death's explanation of why human beings need myths and fantasies:

We Need Fantasy to Be Human

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.