Movie Reviews Far Too Late: House. Or, The Worst Horror Movie In The World.

Not the hit TV series starring Hugh Laurie. The 80s horror-schlock film starring George Wendt and some guy who was utterly forgettable as the protagonist.

So, every now and then, I get the urge to do something completely silly. Make random recipes off the internet, see how well I remember the lyrics to whole musicals, vote Libertarian, etc. And one of the things I do is watch old movies on Netflix or Amazon that I thought looked intriguing once upon a time. This is how I came to watch House.

I remember previews for House from the 1980s. It was billed as a comedy-horror or a horror-comedy. I also really like the haunted-house conceit. So I decided to give it a try and see if it was material for a cult classic.

What I found was, in fact, material that I shall use if I ever want to teach a class entitled, “Writing: How Not To Do It.” A brief catalogue of its sins will be listed below, because a comprehensive one would be longer than the film. For the hard-of-thinking, this will contain what would otherwise be called spoilers, but this film is so far gone it really can’t be spoiled.

The Junkpiled Protagonist: Our protagonist is a writer (gosh, wonder where that came from?) who is traumatized by, in no particular order, the fact that he is suffering from writers’ block, possibly brought on by his son who has disappeared from his front yard, his wife who has divorced him because of the missing son, and his Vietnam-induced PTSD. The effect is that this guy has so much shit to deal with that it’s impossible for us to care about any one issue.

The Incoherent Backstory: Apparently, the son disappeared while playing in the yard of the titular House, while I guess visiting there, because the House belongs to protagonist’s crazy aunt, but the whole family was to all appearances living there when the kid vanished. It’s implied that he either or both was kidnapped by people in a car streaking away or vanished from the House’s swimming pool before his father’s eyes.

The Endless Red Herrings: The car streaking away turns out to be only the first of myriad fake clues strewn all over the plot. Also included are Bosch/Daliesque paintings done by the aunt, endless scenes involving a medicine cabinet, a love interest that never materializes, strong hints that protagonist is completely delusional and hallucinating literally everything in the movie, and to top it all off, LITERALLY EVERY MONSTER IN THE FILM BUT ONE.

The Wandering Plot Monster: So we see the protagonist move into his aunt’s House (the same one his son vanished from and that he seemed to have been living in before) right after she has hanged herself, and despite getting fairly convincing evidence that the House is haunted — like, the ghost of his aunt appearing and saying, pretty much, “The House killed me.” — does nothing about it. Just sits and tries to plow on through his memoir of the Vietnam War despite the fact that his publisher has told him it won’t sell, and despite increasing but halfhearted attempts by the House to kill him. The fact that the protagonist looks very much like Ted from Airplane! with a perm does not add to the gravitas of these scenes. Closely related to this is…

The Idiot Plot: This is pretty much the whole film. Our protagonist kills humanoid monsters and buries them in broad daylight in six-inch shallow graves in his backyard. He completely ignores apparitions of his son begging for help. Despite the fact that the House’s clock loudly rings midnight right before monsters appear in the closets, it takes him two or three times to get it. Despite the fact that he’s a soldier, it takes him most of the movie to figure out that he might want to use guns. Despite the fact that his own son vanished in the House, he allows his sexy neighbor to use him as impromptu unpaid babysitting so she can go out clubbing and leaves the kid alone in a room of the House, from which he is promptly kidnapped by shapeshifting spirits, which he already knows the House contains. Through all of this, he continues to behave as though the most important thing is plowing on with his story of how he lost his pretty-much-an-asshole buddy in Vietnam.

The Horrible Climax: In the end, it is revealed that the cause of his son’s disappearance, the mastermind behind the House, is the ghost of his old war buddy, who has never forgiven protagonist for — get this — NOT killing him on Vietnam when he was wounded. Because protagonist went to get help instead, leaving his buddy to be carried away by the VC, who tortured him to death. So his spirit apparently decided to get revenge by invading protagonist’s aunt’s house, and kidnapping the kid to the jungles of Vietnam in another dimension, which can only be reached from inside the House.
So, EVERYTHING else in the House — the creepy distorted woman he killed, the baby kidnappers, the Lovecraftian closet-monster, the animated tools — all of this was just incidental. We never find out how long the kid was kidnapped for. Enough time for a divorce, for great-aunt to put him in a spooky painting, and for her to commit suicide. Of course, she blames the kid’s disappearance on the House from the beginning, so apparently it was haunted before Evil War Buddy Ghost got there? And I guess it was just a great place for him to take over? He’s actually a pretty knowledgeable and subtle strategist, this guy.

The only way this movie ever got made is that it was during the Great Eighties Horror Boom, when studios were desperate to mimic things like Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday the 13th Part Billion. And the production values are so low that I kept expecting to see Made In China stamped on the rubber suits. I’ve literally seen these mistakes made and avoided by high-schoolers. Take these lessons to heart: this film is not “so bad it’s good.” But it is bad enough to learn some lessons from.

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General Update And Writing News: Cons And Publications And Jobs, Oh, My!

Okay, so the blog has been on a sort of soft hiatus for about a month now, for various reasons, and I have high hopes that is coming to an end. I’d really like to thank everyone who’s stuck with reading it. The hiatus happened for various reasons, exciting and mundane, including…

The End Of The School Year: Yes, with three children in elementary school, this process requires a bit of readjustment to the way the house functions, so I’ve been transitioning back into the role of Full-Time Dad.

Next School Year: Just to complicate matters, I once again have a Real Day Job. I accepted a position with a local private school teaching World History, a job I truly love. So while that’s a lot of fun, transitioning to that new job takes a LOT of time.

DragonCon: In the interim, I have learned that I will be an Official Guest of DragonCon, appearing on at least two panels and probably more. In addition, I will be hanging out at Bard’s Tower signing copies of my forthcoming book All Things Huge And Hideous, from Superversive Press! Stop by and say hi!

More Professional Sales: Also, I have been polishing up my short story “Whoever Is Not For Us” to appear next month on Kristin Janz’s and Donald Crankshaw’s Mysterion website,and just sold (of all things) a 76-word short story to Jaleta Clegg’s anthology Beer-Battered Shrimp for $5, which works out to 6.5 cents a word!

More Unprofessional Sales: While it’s not a pro sale, I also received news a couple of weeks ago that StarShipSofa, one of the most prestigious semi-pro markets out there, and one I have never cracked, has bought one of my original stories, “Wheels-Up Time.” So that’s awesome news, and I’m honored to be working with Jeremy Szal.

So a lot to be grateful to God for, and hopefully, we’ll have some more Dear Stabby and things coming up later.

The Query I Learned To Write

It occurred to me that it might be helpful to provide this query to the general writing public.

Last month, I won Runner-Up honors at #RevPit, a contest in which 15 editors each review 100 queries and pick about 10-20 of them to request pages. Of those 10-20, one winner and one runner up are selected. This means that my query was in about the top 15% and my query, synopsis and pages were in the top 2%.

I’m starting to get a handle on what querying a manuscript looks like, but for a long time, I did not know what the heck I was doing. And I wished I could see what queries had received positive attention. So I’m going to pay it forward and publish my query below, for those of you who would like to see it:

Responsibility doesn’t know why she has wings instead of arms. Responsibility doesn’t know why she was abandoned, nor why her dragon mother left her among humans. Nor why, on the endless ocean that the Century Ship Ekkaia trades across, she is the only halfdragon anyone has ever seen. Disgusted by her freakishness, but in dread of her mother’s return and retaliation, Ekkaia’s crew keep their hated Responsibility in safe, but despised, isolation.
But when Ekkaia captures a shipwrecked man whose face resembles her own, Responsibility seizes the chance to learn more about her past. That night, she frees him from his cell, and discovers that he is her half-brother, Avnai, and that her mother foretold their meeting before she disappeared. Together, they escape and return to their father’s kingdom.
Among a family she has never met, Responsibility experiences love and belonging for the first time. She also finds herself cast into a world larger and more complex than she has ever known. She learns true flight, and the use of magic. And she discovers danger: the shadowy sea empire called the Consortium, which holds her father’s kingdom in an uneasy vassalage, is watching her: because twenty years ago it was their attack that drove her mother away.
But when Responsibility’s part in a diplomatic ceremony reveals a plot to destroy her new home entirely, she will have to seek help from an unthinkable source: the crew of the Century Ship Ekkaia. Assuming they don’t kill her on sight.
ACROSS THE ENDLESS OCEAN is an adult fantasy complete at 119,000 words. It is the story of Responsibility’s transformation from prisoner to warrior-princess. It is an adventure in the vein of the Miles Vorkosigan novels, set on a stage the size of the Ringworld. With dragons.
Scott Huggins trains teenagers both in the inevitability of death (history) and in overcoming a fate worse than it (public speaking). He has sold a dozen F/SF stories to professional markets, and is a Very Nearly Award-Winning Author, who won Runner-up in the Writers Of The Future (1999), The First Baen Adventure Fantasy Award (2014).

 

Critiques And Stories!

I don’t want to make this blog into a marketing machine, but I haven’t written about my Patreon account for about a year, and I just made some changes to it, so today I’m going to let you know what all of you could get if you choose to patronize me.

Um, maybe I should rephrase that.

Okay, so starting at the $2 reward level, I will start writing you your own personalized story at the low, semi-pro rate of $0.03 a word. The longer you support me, the longer your story goes.

At $10 of support, I will provide a detailed critique of a single work of fiction/poetry of 6k words or less. I’m a runner-up with about 20 short stories published: it’s a good deal.

At $25 or more per month, I’ll offer a second critique, only this one will be good for up to 10k words. Yes, you can get 2 critiques per month.

Finally, $40 of support gets you a single piece of flash fiction that I will write just for you, on whatever subject you wish.

Try out some of these rewards and watch your writing improve. Or just enjoy some great fiction. Thanks for your support!

Short Blog: Grammar PSA

Going to be a very short blog post this week, because it was Easter weekend, which meant that obligations to God and family were at the forefront, and it’s Spring Break for the kids this week, which means that they still kind of are. But it also means that writing projects have backlogged, so don’t expect too much blogging this week.

So, I’ve been doing a bit more researching than writing recently, mostly so I can kick marketing my novels into high gear. For anyone who’s interested, QueryShark is a gold mine for this.

And I’m kind of in shock at the number of people who want to be professional writers and really have no clue about grammar.

Look, I know we all like to joke about the Grammar Nazis, but in all seriousness, good grammar (and spelling) is important. It’s important because it’s there for a reason: to make your writing clear. Bad grammar is like static in a broadcast. A little of it can be tuned out and ignored. More than a little bit, and it gets annoying. No one wants to read what’s annoying. So here’s a few things I keep seeing that you really need to know to sell your work.

You must know what a full sentence is. A full sentence consists of at least one noun and one verb. “I ran.” That’s a sentence. That doesn’t create a sentence by itself. You can screw it up even if you have both those things. But that’s where to start.
You need to know this, not because you must always use them. Sometimes you may avoid them for rhetorical purposes. Like this. But if you don’t know when you’re using them. You’ll sound weird. Like I just did two “sentences ago.

You have to know the difference between those little annoying words. Yes, I mean its and it’s. Their, they’re and there. To, too, and two. You’re and your. And also then and than. Not knowing the difference doesn’t say you’re stupid. It says you’re careless.It says you need a copy editor. but you don’t know you need one. And that, right there, is the difference between “inexperienced” or “grammar-challenged” and “clueless.” The first two can be worked with. The third, no one wants to.

You must be able to use quotations, dialogue tags, and paragraphs correctly.

“Well, how do I do that?” you may ask.
“Firstly,” I say, “You must remember that punctuation always goes INSIDE, and never OUTSIDE, the quotation marks.”
“But what punctuation?” you ask.
“Well, that depends on a few things,” I answer. “For example, that last sentence ends in a comma, because we followed it up with the dialogue tag ‘I answer.’ It should be a period, but the dialogue tag makes it into a comma. On the other hand, because the first sentence of this whole exchange was a question, we left the question mark there. That’s really the only rule. Before a dialogue tag, periods become commas. Everything else stays the same.”
“Pretty easy. But what about paragraphs?”
“Every time a new speaker takes part in a dialogue, that’s a new paragraph. When you’re NOT writing dialogue, every major beat in the action should have its own paragraph. Paragraphs are a way to group related events together, and to separate major changes.”
“Should I indent paragraphs?”
“Always.”
“Then why aren’t we doing that?”
“Because WordPress really sucks that way.”

Very Nearly Award-Winning Author Very Nearly Wins Another Award!!

I very nearly won an award today, which puts my lifetime of very nearly won awards at 3.

The award I very nearly won was the annual Revise & Resub contest (#RevPit on Twitter), which allows you to win a full five-week editing session with an editor you choose from a list. I came in 2nd of 100 for my manuscript ACROSS THE ENDLESS OCEAN. So that’s not too shabby. I will get my query, first page, and synopsis formally edited. That’s not nearly as cool as getting the whole manuscript done, but it’s probably worth at least $100 if I was paying for it, so I’m not complaining. I learned a lot through the process, and recommend it to anyone who’s querying novels.

Random Stupid Ideas: Rejectomancy Magazine!

Okay, I completely missed yesterday’s blog, because the muse still had not let go of my hair and I was trying to slam out the last 3000 words of an 8000 word story. I finished it this morning, and am now in recovery mode. So here’s Monday’s blog. On Tuesday.

So, have you ever eaten at Ed Debevics? Yeah, it’s that restaurant chain that looks and feels like a fifties diner, only the waitstaff is paid to abuse you by making commentary on your clothes, your face, and your non-participation in singing “YMCA” by the Village People?*

So, I was thinking of this amazing concept, that people would actually pay to be insulted, and how writers are used to being ignored and also see rejection letters — especially personal rejection letters — as good things, and suddenly, an idea was conceived. You ready?

REJECTOMANCY MAGAZINE! The only online magazine in the world where you will submit absolutely knowing that you will be rejected! Takes the guesswork out of it entirely! You send us a story and we GUARANTEE that you will not only GET a rejection, but that it will be a personal and entertaining rejection that WE WILL PUBLISH, telling EVERYONE why we rejected your story!

So not only do we guarantee you a personal response, but WE PUBLISH YOU AS WELL! NOW how does it sound?

All right, so now it’s time for us to answer some questions form our hypothetical audience:

Hypothetical Questioner #1: What, you’re going to reject us, AND publish our story?

A: Hah-hah. No. What are you, stupid? But we will publish the response, maybe with a sentence or two of excerpts designed to highlight your atrocious grammar and impenetrable “style” for the express purposes of a) telling you why we’re not the only people rejecting you and b) making fun of youTechnically, that means that you will have “been published. Sort of.

HQ#2: And you think people will pay for this?

A: Of course not. That would be even harder than getting people to pay money to enter writing contests, which is already stupid and unethical.

HQ#3: But you think people will participate?

A: I don’t know. Possibly. It amounts to offering an honest, albeit tongue-in-cheek and insulting, microcritique. And that’s something a lot of people really do need and want. And the ones who need it most are the least likely to get it. They get form letters.

HQ#4: Well, how do we know you won’t just read the first page and reject us based on that?

A: Um, we absolutely will do that. Do you think pro magazines do differently? The difference is that instead of publishing stories we like, we’ll shred the whole manuscript of those.

HQ#5: What if I send you a story that is so good you just HAVE to publish it?

A: You are EXACTLY the kind of person who needs to submit here, you poor sap.

HQ#6: This is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.

A: Maybe. Who wants in?

*Okay, maybe that one was just me.

 

Science-Fiction Rant: Why I Hate Robots

Robots. I have never really understood why there is an obsession with stories about robots. As with fae, I understand the attraction of having robots exist in a story. What I don’t really get is stories about robots. Robots as the reason for the story. Yet many, many people love stories about robots. Isaac Asimov, arguably, built his career on an obsession with robots. I can’t think of any other piece of future technology — with the possible exception of spaceships — that has inspired such a wealth of stories about them. Can you imagine a whole subgenre of SF devoted to, say, laser guns? Or teleporters (apologies to Larry Niven)? Time machines, perhaps, are the most comparable. But the reason I can’t get into them is this: robots are either tools, or they are tools that imitate beings, they are designed to be beings, or they are accidental beings. And in all but one of these cases, stories about them seem to be unnecessary.

Robots Are Tools: These are the robots I have the least objection to in stories, because they’re the most obviously useful. We deal with this type of robot every day, whether we realize it or not. They’re not required to be shaped like humans, and in most cases, they shouldn’t be. But stories about this sort of robot are about as interesting as stories about screwdrivers or reciprocating saws.

Robots Are Tools That Imitate Beings: Now, on a certain level, I can see stories about this working, because it goes to a pretty profound question: is it important that emotions and souls “really” exist? If I create a robot that imitates a being well enough to fool human beings, does it matter that it is just a machine? On the physical level, of course, the answer is no. If I program a robot to feel rage, and then taunt it until it kills me, then I’m just as dead whether it “really” felt the rage or not. And the impact of these questions on humans can be very compelling: how much “love” can you give or receive from a machine?
But on what level can I possibly care about the machine, once it’s established that such a thing is merely an imitation? If that’s all it is, then you might as well try to get me to care about a reciprocating saw that you stuck a smiley face on.

Robots Are Designed To Be Beings: Again, on a certain level, stories like this make sense, especially if they’re focused on the ethics of creating life, and how the created being reacts to its own creation. Some of those are amazing. But ye gods, how many stories in this realm seem to postulate complete idiocy on the part of the creators. You get things like The Matrix Reanimated where humans seem to take joy in creating super-strong, humanoid robots specifically to be abused, complete with pain sensors and the ability to resent being controlled — and then are surprised when the robots revolt. Or more subtly, A.I., where the robot creator creates a human soul in a body that can’t eat, drink or grow. And then we’re supposed to be surprised that he’s created misery? Or Star Wars, where robots apparently have pain sensors for no definable reason. It’s hard to sympathize with the plight of creators who get slaughtered by robots that have been given every reason to slaughter them.

Robots Are Accidental Beings: Now, this is the one type of robot story that I can get behind: the idea that a machine might, given the right self-programming ability, “wake up” to true consciousness, to the surprise of its creators. In this case, it can’t be accused of being an idiot plot, because the humans are, in a sense, exploring the unknown, and they find something unexpected. That’s a reasonable risk. The humans might reasonably not even suspect that the risk exists. Excellent examples of this are William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Dan Simmons’s Hyperion cycle. But I notice that these stories rarely involve — because they do not need to — actual android-like robots. And why should they? By definition, no one was expecting this robot to take on attributes of human beings. With the exception of a few stories like Terminator 2, where the need for an android-like, accidental intelligence is fairly well justified, most stories of this sort smack of implausibility: “No, we never expected the computer we put in this humanoid body to develop humanoid attributes (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).”  Either that, or the story smacks more of fantasy than sci-fi, with computer + humanoid body being a voodoo-like spell that magically creates a consciousness because of it looks like a human and talks like a human, it will become a human.

Honestly, one of the best “robot” stories I’ve ever read falls in the cracks of about three of these, which is the excellent “Today I Am Paul” by Martin Shoemaker, where it’s made pretty deliberately ambiguous whether the titular caregiver-robot is a tool or an accidental being. This was an amazing story that gave a wonderful sense of the alienness of a robot consciousness, while still allowing us to care about it. And, most importantly for this story, a reason that it was a robot and nothing else.

 

Babylon: Law And Empire

In the past ten days, I’ve increased my following on Twitter by a factor of eight, thanks mostly to a couple of awesome fellow writers who have made it their mission to boost other writers’ networking, which is one of my main foci this year. It occurred to me that as a history teacher, MANY people have said to me, “I wish I could take history again; I hated it as a kid, but love it as an adult,” or alternatively, “History was so boring; my teacher was a coach who sat around all day and handed out worksheets.”
So, in recognition of this need, I offered to blog on requested history topics. The first request I got was “Babylon or the Chinese Empire.”
Sigh. To this I can only say, “serves me right for asking,” because these two topics span, conservatively, about 5,000 years of history, concurrently, and trying to cover one, let alone BOTH, in their entirety would reduce the project to a joke. So, thanks very much to the requester: I’m going to talk about ONE aspect of Babylonian history that we all remember from school: Hammurabi’s Code.

I generally taught Hammurabi’s Code in my Honors World History classes for a couple of reasons. It’s pretty much our most influential surviving, readable code of laws. There’s little to compare it to in scope until you get to the laws laid out in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. And as we will see, the contrast between the two is interesting to explore.

Hammurabi himself is an interesting historical figure: he inherited a Babylon that had only just begun to expand power over the weaker city-states of the Tigris-Euphrates. These huge twin rivers are, of course, the reason that the Middle East was considered for so long to be the center of the world. The rivers meant regular irrigation for crops, easy travel for people and goods, and a useful sewer system to get rid of waste. As a young king, Hammurabi fought off an invasion by a more powerful kingdom to the east, and then, after fighting it off, turned on his allies who had been unwilling and unable to provide more aid. The upshot of this was that Hammurabi ended his days (1750 B.C.) in command of a sizable empire running most of the length of the rivers.

What would it have been like to live in Hammurabi’s Empire? One of the hardest things I had to impress upon my students was the utter difference between our own lives and people who lived almost 4,000 years ago. To us, even nobles would have seemed ridiculously poor. Oh, they would have owned much more than we do in terms of farmland, animals, personal weapons and precious metals. But consider how little that wealth could buy them. There were no medicines worth the name: if you got sick, you got better or you didn’t. Meat was an expensive luxury. Fruit existed only in season. Beer and wine were incredibly weak, with an alcohol content of something like 5% for strong wine. And beer was a necessity, because drinking water was a good way to die of diarrhea. And disease was endemic. You could expect to lose at least half of your children to disease before they reached adulthood. There was no real concept of hygiene aside from, “don’t handle poop,” which was not always avoidable. Humans had parasites: fleas, lice and worms all the time. Itching was a fact of life.
Entertainment would have meant religious feasts and celebrations where there was dancing, music and plays. Or it would have meant singing, playing instruments and storytelling with friends at home. Nothing else existed.
The primary difference in the lifestyle of the nobles, besides better food, was the ability to command slaves to do their menial work, and to remain clean. But they had no plumbing, and no machines, just prettier tools.
Literacy was a study for nobles, and took years to achieve, because the writing system consisted of symbols that had as many as eighty meanings, dependent upon context.

However, Hammurabi’s Code was unique in that it was written in the language of the common people, so they could have heard and understood it when it was proclaimed, rather than it being a secret code among nobles. Hammurabi’s Code introduced the concept of at least a moderate presumption of innocence (not a complete one — it was quite possible to be accused and have to “prove” your innocence by surviving, e.g. being thrown in the river). It was based on compensation to the victim and retribution to the offender. Imprisonment as a punishment was unknown, because no one had the time or money to lock a man up in idleness. Fines, maiming and death were the most common punishments.

Hammurabi’s Code bears many similarities to the code of the Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, not because the latter directly copied it, but because of shared culture and tradition in that part of the world. Notably, while both codes recognize the differences between a slave and a free man, only Hammurabi’s code recognize a state of nobility. The Israelites who wrote the Law doubtless were not wealthy enough to allow a noble class to exist. In addition, Hammurbi’s code is a bit freer with the death penalty, which again likely reflects a wealthier culture’s ability to kill off a greater number of its subjects without endangering itself.

So there you have a quick look at life in ancient Babylon. If you want to see a really excellent novel in which a slightly later Babylon is portrayed in fiction, I recommend S.M. Stirling’s brutally and beautifully vivid Island In The Sea Of Time trilogy. This portrays the Babylon of the Kassites, which is about 600 years later than Hammurabi. And it doesn’t show up until Book 2, but it’s worth the read.

So these are details you can use in historical fiction, but if you’re writing fantasy, these conditions may be useful to bear in mind too, unless you choose to give your characters anachronistic knowledge or magical remedies for them. Hope you find it useful.

Why Superweapons Don’t Work: Or Why The Rebels Should Have Had the Death Star.

One of the most popular tropes, especially in science-fiction, is that of the superweapon: the huge, iconic invention that will turn the tide of battle and ensure the ultimate victory of the side that wields it. The most easily-recognized of these weapons is, of course, the Death Star, the planet-killer with the Achilles’ heel exploitable by the scrappy fighters the Rebels had. But why is it that historically, superweapons tend to work, not just as badly as the Death Star, but even worse? After all, the Death Star vaporized a planet.  Historically, experimental supposed-to-be war-winning weapons don’t usually get even that close to success. Why not?

Because The Wrong Side Has Them

Historically, superweapons are not developed by the equivalents of the Empire. Superweapons are developed by the Rebel Alliance. In other words, they are developed by the side that has the smaller army, the smaller economy, and that is in the most desperate straits. And the reason for this is easy to see: because the stronger side is already winning with the weapons they have! It was the Confederates that produced ironclads and submarines, not the Union with its overwhelming Navy. It was Nazi Germany that produced jet fighters and V-2 rockets in the late days of the war, not the Allies with their overwhelming air superiority. It’s only when you’re losing that you need a game-changing weapon to turn the tide of battle. The only exception to this rule is the atomic bomb, which is not actually an exception (see below).

Because They Tend to Come With A Whole Lot Of Suck

Superweapons are pretty much by definition untested systems, for reasons discussed  above: the side that needs them needs them right away, and they don’t have time for refining the technology. Just to give a few examples, the first submarine ever to sink an enemy ship in wartime, the CSS Hunley, went down with its target. This was predictable, as she had already killed two crews in training. Hunley was very good at the “submerging” part of “submarine,” and not so good at the “surfacing” part. The Nazi jet fighters performed excellently, but had ridiculously short ranges because of fuel inefficiency. Similarly, their V-2 rockets were a triumph of cutting-edge technology, and the Germans desperately needed artillery that could strike hundreds of miles away, but since they had no guidance systems beyond Doing Trig Very Well, this meant that they couldn’t hit anything smaller and more mobile than say, a city.

Because They Attract Attention

On the rare occasions when superweapons do work the way they are supposed to, they do tend to get dogpiled on by the stronger side that they are almost inevitably facing (see above). The Bismarck is an excellent example of this. Built with all the latest technology, the Germans decided to use her as a superweapon that would be tough enough to destroy entire convoys and fast enough to run from the British Navy.

She lasted nine days.

They were a very impressive nine days, and began with the utter annihilation of the battlecruiser Hood and the damaging of the battleship Prince Of Wales, but the result of the effort was that Bismarck attracted the attention of about five battleships and two aircraft carriers, along with many heavy cruisers. After air attacks damaged Bismarck’s rudder, this force pounded Bismarck to scrap. Lest we think this was mere coincidence, the Bismarck’s sister ship, Tirpitz met a similar fate, being used in only one offensive operation over her entire career, and subject to something like 26 Allied operations mounted specifically to get rid of her, which they eventually did.

Because They Are Easily Reproducible

Generally, the better the superweapon is, the more it has been tested. And the more it has been tested, the better it is understood. And the better it is understood, the more easily it can be copied. This is what happened with the Confederate ironclads. With the bulk of the Navy remaining loyal to the Union, the Confederates needed to break the Union blockade of their ports. And since ironclads were being built in Europe, first by France (significantly, the weaker naval power) and soon afterward by Britain (the stronger), their incentive to build ironclads was high, and the technology was becoming known.
Of course, the Union also knew this, and having discovered that the Confederates were building ironclads, quickly did the same. The first battle between ironclads saw the Union rushing its own ironclad to the battlefield only a day after the Confederate fielded the CSS Virginia. Despite the fact that the Virginia had faced three Union warships the previous day and had destroyed two while taking only minor damage to itself (a successful superweapon if anything was), the Monitor proved a match for it.
And that was the beginning of the end. Because the Confederacy was the poorer and less-industrialized of the combatants, they managed to produce only 30 ironclad vessels during the war in total, while the Union turned out about 50 ships of the Monitor class alone. If a superweapon really works, it won’t work fast enough to stop the stronger side from building more of them faster.

If Matching Them Doesn’t Work, Countermeasures Often Do

One of the most successful “superweapons,” pioneered by Germany, has been the torpedo-armed submarine. It was created to destroy the British Navy, and had many advantages that scared the pants off naval planners at the time: The submarine could travel invisibly. The submarine’s torpedoes attacked below the waterline, potentially killing a battleship in one shot. The submarine could scatter and hunt merchant ships in the ocean, killing them at will. The submarine could pass underneath blockades, rendering them ineffective.

In some ways, this appeared to be the perfect superweapon, especially because it didn’t matter whether the British matched it! What would it do with its subs? Guard the convoys? Submarines in the World Wars couldn’t hit each other with dumb-fire torpedoes except by sheer luck. Kill German merchant ships or naval vessels? The British Navy could already do that!

Well, it turned out that the British (and Americans) could do a number of things that weren’t terribly complicated. They could develop long-range patrol aircraft that could hunt and track the subs when they inevitably had to surface for air. They could create armored belts below the waterline for their ships, and anti-torpedo screens that could make the torpedoes detonate prematurely. Faster and stronger destroyers could guard the convoys and use cannon and depth-charges to sink the subs. As it turned out, subs could only effectively threaten surface warships (which were all bigger and more heavily armed and armored) when they managed to line up a shot unseen, and the torpedoes themselves tended to suffer from copious amounts of the aforementioned suck.

But Wait! What About The Atomic Bomb? Doesn’t That Disprove All Your Points?

Not at all. In fact, it reinforces them. First of all, the United States and the Allies were not yet fighting the war when Albert Einstein sent his famous letter to FDR, recommending its development. They were losing it when the Manhattan Project began. Most importantly, it was triggered by the belief that Germany, the weaker side in the wider war, was already researching them. By the time the bombs were actually built, of course, things had changed, and they were no longer necessary to win the war. To shorten it, yes, but that’s a different thing. And it attracted enough attention for the Soviets to place spies in the Manhattan Project, which they reproduced in only four years. Finally, the atomic bombs, contrary to appearances, really did contain a lot of suck. They poisoned the battlespace with fallout, and the bombers then necessary to carry them were vulnerable to interception. As a deterrent to large-scale war, the atomic bomb is a wonderful weapon. As an actually usable weapon system, it is not.

And that’s why, although superweapons are an awesome ingredient in fiction, they really don’t show up in history very often.