Upcoming Events

The next couple of weeks promise to be somewhat busy.  This coming Thursday, October 23, from 7:30-9:30pm, I’ll be taking part in the 27th annual H.P. Lovecraft Forum at SUNY New Paltz.  This is an informal, annual event organized by the redoubtable Robert Waugh (whose two books on Lovecraft, The Monster in the Mirror and A Monster of Voices are required reading for anyone interested in serious scholarship of old HPL [in fact, I plan to do a post on them before too much longer, because they're brilliant and great and more people should read them]).  I’m probably going to be talking about an upcoming essay I’m working on concerning Lovecraft’s relationship to Poe, and literary influence in general.  It’s on the campus of SUNY New Paltz, in room 1010 in the Jacobson Faculty Tower.  If you’re interested, stop by for some good discussion.

The following Monday, October 27, from 7:00-8:00pm, at the Strand Bookstore in NYC, I’ll be taking part in the “Everything is Terrifying” discussion/event.  A raft of today’s leading horror practitioners, from writers Laird Barron and Sarah Langan, to editor Ellen Datlow, to director J.T. Petty, will be addressing the evening’s Halloween-themed title in a series of short talks.  All of this has been put together by Grady Hendrix, whose new novel, Horrorstor, is about an evil IKEA (I kid you not).  You can find more information about it here.  If you can make it, please say hello.

Finally, on Tuesday, November 4, from 7:00-9:00pm, at the SoHo Gallery for Digital Art in NYC, I’ll be reading with Nick Kaufmann for November’s New York Review of Science Fiction reading series.  This reading is part of the ongoing festivities for the release of Nick’s new novel, Die and Stay Dead.  There’s more information here.  If you’re around, stop in and say hi.

After all this socializing, it’ll be back to Castle Dracula for a long lie in the coffin and some spider cookies.

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings: On Graham Joyce’s Passing

Today, Graham Joyce died at the age of 59.  He’d been battling cancer for some time, and had signed up for a trial of a new anti-cancer drug.  It’s my understanding that he had some type of reaction to the drug, as a consequence of which, he died.  I don’t know anything more than that.

He was a brilliant writer.  When I finished his recent novel, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, I was so moved by it, so out and out dazzled, that I immediately sat down at the computer and sent him an e-mail burning with admiration.  I’d had that reaction to most of his novels, his stories.  It’s been a while since I’ve read some of them, and there are still a couple I have to get to, but Dark Sister, House of Lost Dreams, The Tooth Fairy, Smoking Poppy, and Some Kind of Fairy Tale all glow in my memory, as does his novella, “Leningrad Nights.”  His novels were deftly-constructed, built around characters whose encounters with the supernatural occurred within the contexts of lives full of conflict.  There was a sense of the numinous in his fiction that reminds me of the work of writers as diverse as Arthur Machen, M.John Harrison, and sometimes Jonathan Carroll.  At the same time, his characters inhabited a contemporary Britain that calls to mind other writers, Ian McEwan and Graham Swift.  He was a particularly English fantasist.

We didn’t know each other particularly well.  I met him at the 2003 World Fantasy Convention, where Bill Sheehan very kindly introduced us in the dealers’ room.  Somewhat to my surprise, Graham  recognized my name, as it turned out, because I’d written an appreciative e-mail to Gordon Van Gelder about a story of Graham’s he’d published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Gordon had forwarded the e-mail to Graham, and he connected it to the newly-published writer babbling away at him.  I remember telling him how impressed I was that each of his novels was so singular, so much its own thing, and his (obviously-pleased) response that he hadn’t planned it that way, he’d just let each book find its shape.  It occurs to me that he must have been about the same age then that I am, now; younger, even.  That seems impossible to me.

We met again in 2009, at the 2009 World Fantasy Convention in San Jose.  I had a very memorable dinner with him, Sarah Pinborough, Laird Barron, Chris Roberson, Jeremy Lassen, and Jason Williams.  Graham attempted to tell the story of his visit to the local Rosicrucian Temple, but when he reached the point at which he attempted to speak in an American accent, we teased him mercilessly, to the point of telling him that Sarah’s American accent was much more convincing.  He played the part of the aggrieved, interrupted storyteller quite well, allowing himself to be gradually cajoled into resuming his story, until he attempted another accent and the teasing resumed.  Later, we had a more serious conversation at the hotel bar, about trying to bring together literary techniques and genre material, and the resistance such enterprises could and did meet.  I guess the last time I saw him was at the banquet for the World Fantasy Awards, for which he was nominated and for which he dressed up in a cream colored three-piece suit with a lime green shirt and a cream tie.  He didn’t win, but if he was disappointed, he hid it well.

At the end of his novel, The Silent Land, a horse-drawn sleigh drives up and takes one of the characters off, into the land of the dead, the silent destination of the book’s title.  It’s hard not to feel that’s what’s happened today.

Ten Books

Over in the world of Facebook, the “Ten Books” meme is making the rounds.  As you know, Bob, this is the prompt where you’re asked to name ten books that have had a lasting impact on you.  And as pretty much everyone who’s responded to the meme has noted, it’s the kind of list-making that is subject to change almost the moment it’s done.  I’ve been tagged to do it by both Paul Tremblay and Jack Haringa.  So here you go:

1. Stephen King Christine:  This was the book that made me want to be a writer.  I read it in paperback during the fall of my freshman year in high school, and experienced something like a conversion experience.  It wasn’t just that I wanted to write fiction–previously, I’d wanted to work in comics, preferably as a writer-artist–I wanted to write horror fiction.  It had something to do, I think, with his ability to bring together something that looked like the world of my daily experience with the material of the fantastic.  All of King’s work has been tremendously important to me, from his stories and novellas to novels such as The Shining, Pet Sematary, and Misery, but this was the one that started it all.

2 & 3. Peter Straub Ghost Story & Shadowland:  I first read Straub at King’s suggestion (in Danse Macabre).  Then I reread him.  Then I read him a third time.  And so on.  I loved his work from the get-go, but for as much as I got from it, I was aware that there was a great deal I wasn’t getting.  I found that incredibly cool.  If, as Nabokov says, the literary is that which we are always re-reading, then Straub’s work is literature of the highest order.  These may be my desert-island books:  they work as narratives in their own right; they engage the history of the genre in which they participate; they do all kinds of other remarkable things.  These are the books I would most like to have written, myself.

4. T.E.D. Klein Dark Gods:  I knew T.E.D. Klein as the editor of Twilight Zone magazine, and it may have been in the pages of that publication that I read a review of Dark Gods, his collection of novellas, which made it sound like the kind of book I had to read.  To my delight, the local library had it, in hardcover.  It’s a virtuoso performance, one in which Klein, with seeming effortlessness, inhabits four distinct modes of supernatural horror.  At a sentence level, he’s one of the finest writers to have attempted the horror story, which helps to give his stories the richness and depth of much longer works.

5. Charlotte Bronte Jane Eyre:  I read Jane Eyre during my junior year in high school, for my Honors English class.  I don’t know what I was expecting–something dry and tedious, I suppose–but I was completely swept up by Jane’s voice, by the passionate intensity of her response to her life’s changing (and challenging) circumstances.  It didn’t hurt that there was a humdinger of a Gothic plot at the heart of the book, either.  I think there was something, too, about the way that Bronte explored her character’s moral processes that really struck a chord with me.  Jane is highly conscious of not only what she wants to do, but why she wants to do it–and why she should or shouldn’t do it–and this resonated with my adolescent self.

6. Charles Dickens Great Expectations:  The first time around, I hated this book.  My response may been influenced by the fact that I was reading it two days before I was due to take a test on it for the same Honors English class in which I read Jane Eyre, and I was having a hard time with it.  In comparison to Bronte’s prose, Dickens’ struck me as tedious, meandering.  Needless to say, I didn’t do particularly well on the test.  I gave the novel another try during my undergraduate years, in a course on the Nineteenth Century English novel, but I didn’t like it much better, then.  It wasn’t until the summer of my twenty-fifth birthday, when I was house sitting for a week, that I though it might be time to take yet another crack at the book.  This time around, I was entranced.  Dickens’ writing now seemed to me a kind of proto-stream-of-consciousness, his often baroque figures indexes of Pip–his narrator’s consciousness.  Pip’s mind is a fairly Gothic place to begin with, and, like Jane Eyre, to which this novel increasingly strikes me as a kind of twin, there’s a heck of a Gothic subplot within his story.  What struck me most about the book the last time I read it, a few years ago, is the utter ruthlessness Pip displays towards himself and the great expectations that shape his life.  It’s a fierce, sad story, one of the greats.

7. Flannery O’Connor The Collected Stories:  Another writer I hated the first time I read her.  This was in my senior year of high school, in my College English class.  We had to read the stories in Everything that Rises Must Converge, along with O’Connor’s second novel, The Violent Bear It Away.  I had no problem navigating O’Connor’s prose, which was lucid, compelling, but the characters she portrayed, the situations in which she placed them, were unlike anything I had encountered before, the very definition, I suppose, of that trite term, Southern Grotesque.  My initial impression was of unpleasant people in unpleasant circumstances that seemed humorous in a sinister kind of way.  What helped me out of my adolescent priggishness was a remark about O’Connor I encountered in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, in which King called her possibly the finest writer of short stories in postwar America (or words to that effect).  Well, if Stephen King thought O’Connor was good…I went back to her stories, and now, I saw their deep similarities to the horror narratives with which I was more familiar (and comfortable).  These were narratives about women and men whose lives were upended by catastrophes whose metaphysical dimensions were full of terror and awe.  As for the eccentricities of their characters:  what does it say about me that, the older I’ve gotten, the less extreme they seem to me?

8. William Faulkner The Sound and the Fury:  I read The Sound and the Fury during the my first semester of college, in my Honors English 1 class.  We had to read the first two of its three stream-of-consciousness sections with no forewarning, and the result was disorienting, confusing.  (For those who haven’t read the book, the first section inhabits the mind of a severely-mentally-handicapped man; while the second places the reader inside the consciousness of a college student on the day he’s going to drown himself.)  During the next class, however, in one of the great teaching performances I’ve been present for, the professor took us back into those mazes of prose and pointed out the threads that would guide us through them.  What had seemed formless, chaotic, slowly resolved into a kind of glorious Gothic coherence.  I went back re-read the first half of the book, and raced to the end.  At a certain point, I seemed to fall through Faulkner’s winding syntax, into the narrative, whose small cast of characters seemed like players in some kind of strange, mythic drama.  This started me off on a Faulkner kick that extended over the next several years, from As I Lay Dying through Absalom, Absalom, Light in August, and Go Down, Moses.  I agree with those who call Faulkner the American Shakespeare, and while I think Absalom, Absalom may be his single greatest accomplishment, The Sound and the Fury remains closest to my heart.

9. Henry James The Collected Stories:  The last writer on this list I hated the first time through.  (Funny how that works, though, isn’t it?)  I read The Turn of the Screw during my senior year College English class.  I was primed to do so by my old friend, Stephen King, who had had very complimentary things to say about the novella in Danse Macabre.  This time, though, King’s praise was not enough.  I experienced the same problem reading James I’d had the previous year with Dickens, namely, the language was so dense, so labyrinthine, that I became lost in it, rereading the same sentences over and over again and still not fully comprehending them.  Interestingly–well, to me, anyway–what turned me onto James was reading one of his very last stories, “The Jolly Corner,” a few years later, in college.  It’s a story whose prose if even denser than that of The Turn of the Screw, which you would think would have put me off it, immediately.  Yet at some point not very far into it, I realized what the story was about:  a man who was being haunted by the ghost of the man he might have been.  That conceit electrified me, and while I wouldn’t say I raced through the end of the story, I finished it in a state of intense attentiveness.  With that one story, my attitude towards James underwent a sea change, and since then, I’ve been slowly making my way through his work, sometimes at the rate of one or two new things a year, sometimes revisiting texts I’ve read before.  I think his stories are my favorite of his work–and I’m stretching the definition of story to include things like The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers, and In the Cage, which are at least substantial novellas.  What I love most about James is the way he traces the responses of his characters to their situations, which quite often, when you boil it down, are fairly melodramatic.  He is the great cartographer of perception, and I learn something from him every time I (re)read him.

10. Samuel Delany The Einstein Intersection:  I must have known Delany’s name during my teens, when I was reading a lot of science fiction of the Asimov/Clarke/Heinlein/Niven stamp, but I didn’t actually read him until I was in college, at the recommendation of a friend who had discovered his shorter early novels.  Of those, the one that thrilled me was The Einstein Intersection, in which Delany mixed together the stuff of classical myth with legends of the American west and contemporary pop culture, bracketing his chapters with excerpts from his notebooks.  It was a bravura performance that had as much in common with things I’d been reading for my classes (i.e. Faulkner, The Waste Land) as it did science fiction tradition.  I’m not sure I realized this at the time, but years later, I would see the book as similar to what Straub had been up to in Ghost Story and Shadowland, a breaking down and re-combination of the elements of its genre.  When I returned to the horror field in my late twenties, Delany’s work, along with Straub’s, was a kind of guiding star to me, an example of how much you could accomplish in fantastic fiction if you possessed sufficient ambition. It was a kind of license to try weird things, to approach narrative from new and different angles.

There you have it.  In the process of working on this entry, though, I’ve come up with a list of what I guess you might call honorable mentions, so I thought I’d end with them:

Clive Barker  The Books of Blood

Edward Albee  The Zoo Story and The American Dream

Samuel Beckett  Endgame

John Barth  “Lost in the Funhouse” (story)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Love in the Time of Cholera

Rainer Maria Rilke The Duino Elegies

Willa Cather My Antonia

William Kennedy Ironweed

Virginia Woolf  To the Lighthouse

Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber

 

Writing Process Blog Tour

The fabulous Irene McGarrity has nominated me to be part of the Writing Process Blog Tour (an honor which was, in turn, bestowed upon her by the talented William Boyle). As I understand it, the idea of this is as a kind of chain-letter of interviews, with each writer answering the same four questions as s/he sees fit, then tagging another couple of writers to keep the ball rolling.

1) What are you working on?

Tonight, I’m about halfway through a story for an anthology of stories inspired by the Italian giallo tradition of movies. It’s one of about eight or nine I have to complete over the next few months, all of them for various anthology projects. I’m also working on what I hope will be my third novel, whose working title is The Tunnel and which concerns a group of workers trapped in a tunnel with a monster. At some point in the midst of all this, I’ll try to finish a very long interview, and write an afterword to a collection of essays on Poe’s influence on Lovecraft.

2) How is your work different from others’ work in the same genre?

I tend to work within the horror tradition (writ large) in a fairly self-conscious way. While I wouldn’t say I abandon narrative conventions as thoroughly as some of the more radical postmodernists, I’m often found in that part of the pool. In this, I’m guided by the examples of writers such as Peter Straub and Samuel Delany, whose narratives often function both as stories and as commentaries on/critiques of the kinds of stories they are. To be honest, I think of my writing as having more in common with that of such contemporaries as Nathan Ballingrud, Laird Barron, Michael Cisco, Gemma Files, Richard Gavin, Glen Hirshberg, Sarah Langan, Victor Lavalle, Livia Llewellyn, Ian Rogers, Simon Strantzas, Paul Tremblay—at least in the sense of what I perceive as our shared commitment to bringing the best of our abilities to the darker corners of the human experience.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Because I love it. Because it speaks to me more than any other kind of writing. Because I’m good at it.

4) How does your writing process work?

It’s changed. When I first tried to write seriously, I would rise early in the morning, seat myself at the kitchen table, and not get up from it until I had written at least a page. In order to get myself started each day, I would rewrite the page I had written the day before, revising as I went. It was a lengthier process, but it resulted in a completed story that had already been considerably revised. In the last few years, I’ve become more comfortable with moving ahead on whatever story I’m working on, taking occasional breaks in my writing to look it over and make any changes I think are necessary. Overall, I’ve become more confident in my ability to write a good story (though there are moments…). I’ve also found that now, I write better at night.

So there you have it. For my part, I’m nominating Molly Tanzer and Paul Tremblay to let whoever’s interested in on their writing processes. They’re both what I would call horror writers—though either might dispute the term—with Molly writing these weird, historical pieces that (may) connect to other things she’s written, creating a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts; while Paul combines an eye for dirty-realism with a concern for the breakdown of perception and reality. Fun stuff. I look forward to what each has to say, one week from today.

Debussy’s “La Mer”

As any of my more hip(ster) friends will tell you, my musical tastes, like so many of my other tastes, are eclectic (to put it mildly [and kindly]).  I’ve never considered myself particularly well-acquainted with classical music writ large, but there are a couple of composers whose work I know and enjoy.  Claude Debussy is one.  Here’s a link to a nice performance of “La Mer,” which suggests the ocean to me as do few other pieces of music.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOCucJw7iT8

 

Readercon–The Aftermath

This past weekend, I attended Readercon for the first time in a couple of years.  I had a blast.

I have to admit, I’m tempted to leave things there.  So much happens over the course of a convention that it’s difficult to know how much of it to describe in what amount of detail.  I suppose the principle reason for me to attend an event such as Readercon is to meet readers, and to connect with writing friends old and new.  I had a chance to do the former a number of times, signing more books than I have before and talking to a number of younger writers who told me they had read and even analyzed my stories (this last produced in me the disquieting revelation that I am no longer the new writer I still think of myself as).  As for the latter:  the weekend was an embarrassment of riches, from rooming with my old pal, Paul Tremblay, to hanging out with Paul and the other board members of the Shirley Jackson Awards, to spending time with the charming Glen Hirshberg, whom I’d met before but never had the chance to talk so much with.  And this isn’t even mentioning brief discussions with folks like Michael Rowe, Jeffrey Thomas, Mike Griffin, Justin Steele, Shawn Bagley, and Sean Moreland.

In the midst of all of this informal talking, there were panels, one on ghosts I attended and one on zombies I took part in, both of which sparked so many ideas I had to scribble them down on the nearest available surface.  There were also some spectacular readings:  Gemma Files’s dazzling reading/performance of her story in the new Fearful Symmetries anthology; Michael Cisco walking an intellectual tightrope with ease and grace as he read an excerpt from his novel-in-a-workbook about unlanguage; Glen Hirshberg giving a magisterial reading of a late chapter from his new novel, Good Girls.  There were good meals sprinkled throughout, perhaps none better than the Friday night dinner at the local Thai restaurant that’s become something of a Readercon tradition–at one point, I looked at the long table of eighteen people associated with horror and dark fantasy, and thought, If this were the con, with maybe a couple of additions, I’d be quite pleased.  Sunday morning brought the annual Shirley Jackson Awards, whose winners reacted with joy and grace.

Then it was back home, but even there, Michael Cisco joined me for a drive/conversation that took in Robert Aickman’s stories, Thomas Ligotti’s anti-natalism, Roberto Bolano’s fiction, and the pros and cons of owning a house in the  mid-Hudson Valley.

There were folks who weren’t at the con that I wish had been, especially the Three Musketeers of Toronto, Richard Gavin, Ian Rogers, and Simon Strantzas.  I also wish I’d found a way to spend more time with Peter Straub, and Livia Llewellyn and Robert Levy.  Overall, though, I can’t complain.

So that’s Readercon 2014.  Did I mention I had a blast?