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Artist Highlight: Matt Hughes

sf, writing, speculative fiction, fantasy author, Canadian writer, matthew hughes

Matt Hughes is one of the rare breed of writers who’s made his living off of many forms of writing.

Matthew Hughes is a Canadian author who writes impeccable science fiction and fantasy. His very nicely laid out website is called Archonate, a universe he’s created in which many of his tales take place. Matt’s first book came out in 1994 and he’s been going great guns ever since.

He has numerous novels and short stories, which are listed on his site. I reviewed The Damned Busters and found the tale masterful and entertaining. Matt’s characters Luff Imbry and Henghis Hapthorn I’ve met once each, in short stories. He does characterization deftly and sets his scenes well.

If you love a good tale, and intriguing mystery and a witty character, you’ll find these in many of Matt’s stories. With his long and varied career of writing everything from speeches to novels, he has many a good piece of advice to give. Matt wrote the following as a good way to set your character in a concrete world. Perhaps it was no accident that concrete plays a part. Read on if you’d like to learn more about writing.

WRITING FROM WITHIN THE POV CHARACTER’S SENSORIUM

I’ve mentioned before that you can get a stronger identification between the reader and the point-of-view character if you describe setting and events from within the character’s sensorium – i.e., how things feel to the character’s sense of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.

A lot of beginners write from outside the character, standing back and describing everything as if they were seeing it on a screen, relying almost exclusively on how things look, with occasional sound cues.  It’s an easy way to get lots of words down.  It can also be a hard habit to break.

So here’s an exercise:  have your point-of-view character awaken in complete darkness, with no idea of where he/she is.  Then have him/her explore that environment with the other senses.  Don’t put down any descriptor that involves sight or that the character does not experience directly.

Something like this:

At first, I wasn’t sure I was awake.  Blackness was absolute.  I could see nothing but splashes and dots of color thrown up by my own optic nerves.

I was lying face down on something cold and hard.  I levered myself up, felt grit rub against my knees.  I groped around me with both hands, my fingertips finding a rough level surface.  Concrete, I thought.  I reached as far as I could in all directions without moving, found nothing but more floor.

I rested on my heels and listened.  Nothing but the high-pitched whine of silence.  But I felt a cold stir on the back of my neck, a

Archonate, Matt Hughes, SF, science fiction, books, novels, space stories

One of Matt’s newest titles.

whisper of air moving the fine hairs.  I shivered.  I wet a finger and held it above my head, felt a chill on one side.  The movement of air was from my left.  I listened for a fan, but heard nothing.

While my hand was elevated, I felt for a ceiling.  For all I knew, I might be in some low crawl space, with more concrete to bruise my head if I stood up.  Hands aloft, I slowly rose from my knees, but there was nothing above me but more cold air.

I faced the direction that the air current was coming from.  Could be a vent, could be an ill-fitting door, a cracked window.  Slowly, arms out in front of me, I took a step, then another, and a third.  I stopped and listened again, heard nothing.  But I could feel the current of air cooling my face.

I took three more steps, putting the ball of my foot down first, then the heel – less chance of slipping that way.  Then a fourth step and my foot came down on something small and hard.  I stooped and felt for it, my fingers encountering an irregular shape, though flat on one side.  I rolled it between my fingers, lifted it to my nose but smelled only dust.

I took another step, the moving air a little stronger now.  There was an odor I associated with dank, dark places.  I was deciding that the object I’d picked up was a piece of broken concrete.  Useful, I thought.  I could throw it ahead of me and listen for it to hit something, even if it was only the floor.

I cocked my arm and threw the chunk of concrete as hard as I could.  I heard it strike something a fair distance ahead, then more small sounds as it rolled and bumped.  Big floor, I thought.  I walked more quickly now, hands still out in front of me, moving from side to side.  Just because the pebble hadn’t hit a wall didn’t mean I couldn’t walk right into a post or a pillar.

A few more steps, and my foot landed on something else.  It turned out to be a bigger piece of concrete, the size of my palm.  I threw it forward, too, and heard it strike the floor and skitter like the pebble, before it struck something with a hard click.

Wall, I thought.  And the air flow was stronger now, along with the odor I associated with tombs and root cellars.  A wall with a gap in it, letting in the smell of damp earth.

I groped forward, eager now, walking heel and toe.  My feet encountered more debris.  I kicked it aside.  I wanted the wall.  I took two more steps then a third.  But on the last one, my heel came down on nothing.  As I pitched forward, it came to me in a sudden useless insight:  the moving air, the dank smell, the pieces of concrete scattered around;  they all added up to a hole in the floor.  And I was falling into it.

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Book Review: The Damned Busters

Being released this month  from Angry Robot books (a UK division of Harper Collins) is Matthew Hughes‘ new book The Damned Busters, first in the “To Hell and Back” series. I know Matt as a fellow writer in SF Canada, the Canadian professional writers’ association, and have had the chance to read a couple of his stories on Henghis Hapthorn and Luff Imbry. The stories struck me as not just competently written but having a fluid mastery of language and style that leaves me thinking magic is involved. Of course, Henghis is a detective, and I find the best mystery novels are like magic in how the author worked out plot and solutions to dire murders, mysterious disappearances or misleading heists. Matt has already proven himself a master at this.

I didn’t know what to expect from the review copy I received but knew that I’d at least read a masterful story. Whenever I read any book I also look at the quality of the book and publisher. This includes the package as well as the editing. The cover is what I’d call delightful and tells me right away there is going to be humor in this story. It’s done in a cartoony or comic book style that would not work for several titles but I know this is going to include a demon and a superhero. The book is a 5×7 (or close to) trade format, not too large and bulky, and comfortable to hold in the hand.

The editing/proofreading itself is fairly clean with very few errors that my copy editor’s eye picked up. The worst though is misspelling the main character’s name on the back cover. Ouch. There are a few odd word usages such as “sneaked” instead of snuck (one is more British and one more American and since Canadian English is a bastard cross you can just read about it here), and “comix.” We use comics this side of the pond so I can only presume these are UK preferences. Yet the punctuation is distinctly the N. American style so I must presume this is the edition meant for distribution here.

Now, the story. There have been takes on making deals with the devil, with ingenuous twists and some spectacular losses. We start with Chesney Arnstruther and his accidental summoning of a demon. Accidental is new but not outstanding. Where will this go? Sure enough, Chesney, a nerdish actuary who seems to be a person with Asperger syndrome has caused a big fuss in Hell because he refuses to sign the contract or accept the deal. This causes Hell to go on strike. The first three chapters sum up nicely with Chesney, although nerdy and in love with number crunching, managing to work a deal that doesn’t render his soul to Satan. I thought this could have been a short story, or  novelette, and when you read Matt’s afterword the idea did indeed start this way.

This isn’t a bad thing at all and sums up one act within the story arc.  I should mention that Hughes’ characters have fairly Dickensian names, or those that inspire images and feelings about the characters as Dickens’ best work did. Arnstruther evokes someone who might stutter or be ardent but who is not a Trump or a Rothschild of the world. There is the televangelist Reverend Billy Lee Hardacre who is what we would expect but then much more. W.T. Paxton and his beautiful blond daughter Poppy Paxton are Chesney’s foils and possible helpers. Polly (as well as Melda McCann), true to the time-honored tradition of comic book love interests of old like Superman, joins the ranks of the names that repeat the first letter (Lois Lane, Peter Parker, Clark Kent, Lana Lang) and I believe Matt is paying homage to this, but only slightly. I must also believe that with the intelligence and insight that Hughes has given in his other stories that there’s no accident with the Dickensian touch to the names.

Hell and Satan are not that unique in their domain but some of the demon descriptions are, and there is always that touch of the Hughes’ trademark wry humor.  What happens when a mostly anti-social, highly intelligent, pretty good in the good-vs-evil fight  number cruncher makes a deal with the devil? Some would go for fame, riches, power or lust but Chesney chooses to do good as a superhero likened after his favorite comic book, about a UPS courier called The Driver.  And like most heroes, Chesney has a sidekick, a reluctant Jimmy Cagney acting, rum swilling demon named, Xaphan.

But being a superhero isn’t so easy, as Peter Parker well knows, and Chesney must face other demons than Hell’s; a possible manipulation of forces seen but not known, a disgruntled detective and two women who seem to be attracted to the hero uniform.  Chesney thinks it’s all simple and that he’s thought everything out but it gets convoluted, and one deal with the Devil can lead to tricks and traps.

Hughes’ bow to comic books is carried off well. There are also not many writers that can use the word “darkling” where it fits so perfectly, or “wuthering.” Wuthering…I  don’t think anyone has dared to use it since Wuthering Heights.  If there were any faults with this book I would say I don’t really get the title and it seems awkward. Damned, sure that refers to all the goings on with Hell. But Damned Busters? It’s a little vague. I’d also hope where this book has a strong-willed righteous mother and two rather feisty femme fatales who veer some from stereotypes that we might see more variance in  the second book but those are minor quips.

Since I”ve been “sinning” and eating cheese, which I shouldn’t I’ll compare this story to a cheddar cheese (which I do love). It’s not like Velveeta which casts aspersions on the good name of cheese. Nor is it some cheap plasticky, slightly bouncy orange-colored thing. It’s not a Kraft cheese nor one you would find in most chain grocery stores. It is a cheese of respectable lineage from a specialty shop; a tongue tingling, well-aged, firm cheddar where the cows were sung to every morning while they were being milked.  I’d give Damned Busters a solid eight cheese wheels worth of fun and entertainment. A Hell of a good read.

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