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?

Readercon!

Starting tomorrow afternoon, I’ll be at this year’s Readercon.  Readercon was one of the first conventions I went to as a newly-published writer, all the way back on 2003, and it has remained among the most consistently rewarding professional gathering I attend.  Here’s my schedule, for anyone who happens to be at the con:

 

Friday July 11

2:00 PM    EM    Fearful Symmetries Group Reading. Gemma Files, John Langan. Fearful Symmetries is a new all-original anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, published by Chizine Publications.
7:00 PM    E    Autographs. Glen Hirshberg, John Langan.
8:00 PM    F    Creating and Embodying Genres. John Clute (leader), Samuel Delany, Chris Gerwel, John Langan, Yves Meynard. In discussions of literature there is a tendency to identify books that establish a genre as separate from books that embody that genre, as if the former creates the conditions which the latter successfully fulfills. Consider for instance Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire vs. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Guilty Pleasures, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle vs. Harry Turtledove’s Southern Victory Series, and Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air vs. K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices. What is the relationship between such books? Is it only historical distance that makes us look at a book one way instead of another? And what about works contemporary to but eclipsed by the genre-creators and/or embodiers—where do they fit in?

Saturday July 12

11:00 AM    ENL    Absent Friends. Michael Cisco, John Langan (leader), Sonya Taaffe, Gordon Van Gelder. In the past year, the field has lost many beloved writers, editors, artists, and fans. Come join us as we celebrate their lives and work.
1:00 PM    CO    The Shiny, Candy-like Zombie: Commoditizing the Undead. Scott Edelman, Max Gladstone, Catt Kingsgrave, John Langan, Sarah Langan (leader). On Twitter, M. John Harrison wrote about the appeal of zombies: “You can hate them without feeling wrong. You can kill them like eating sweets. Then you’re hungry again & you can kill more. They’re fully dehumanised. There’s no off-season, no moral limitation. They’re the *enemy*. What’s not to love? They’re what we really want.” So do we like zombies because they’re the consumer-friendly, ambiguity-free face of implacable evil? Are they, in fact, the most perfectly commoditised monsters?
7:00 PM    CO    Reading: John Langan. John Langan. John Langan reads an excerpt from the novel-in-progress, The Tunnel.

Sunday July 13

11:00 AM    F    The Shirley Jackson Awards. Chesya Burke, F. Brett Cox, Jack Haringa, John Langan, Sarah Langan, Kit Reed, Paul Tremblay. In recognition of the legacy of Shirley Jackson’s writing, and with permission of the author’s estate, the Shirley Jackson Awards have been established for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic. Jackson (1916–1965) wrote classic novels such as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, as well as one of the most famous short stories in the English language, “The Lottery.” Her work continues to be a major influence on writers of every kind of fiction, from the most traditional genre offerings to the most innovative literary work. The awards given in her name have been voted upon by a jury of professional writers, editors, critics, and academics, with input from a Board of Advisors, for the best work published in the calendar year of 2013 in the following categories: Novel, Novella, Novelette, Short Story, Single-Author Collection, and Edited Anthology.
12:00 PM    G    Horror for Diverse Audiences. Gemma Files, Nicholas Kaufmann, John Langan (leader), Shira Lipkin, Jennifer Pelland, Shveta Thakrar. Stereotypes and -isms often come from the id, from a place of deep fear. Horror writers have made use of this for ages, particularly describing monsters and monstrousness in ways that evoke racial anxiety, sexual anxieties, and fears of bodily change. However, that only works if your audience is in the racial majority, sexual majority, and able-bodied. What is the place of horror based on normalized fears for someone who doesn’t or can’t identify with the norm? How can writers effectively write horror for diverse audiences with diverse fears and anxieties? Can horror be a tool for expanding social empathy and social justice?
If you see me, please feel free to come up and introduce yourself.  At my autograph session on Friday, I’ll have a special gift for the first few people who show up, so if you want something signed, please bring it.

Beautiful Stranger

I don’t usually do these kinds of things, but I was tagged for one of those Facebook things where you’re supposed to link to a song starting with a letter the tagger gives you.  I was given b, and when I did a quick google of songs starting with b, I came across Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger.”  I’ve liked a number of Madonna’s songs over the years, but this one has a personal resonance for me.  When my wife, Fiona, and I started seeing one another, she was finishing her dissertation at Penn State and I was living in Gardiner, NY.  I used to drive down to see her on the weekend, taking my little, three-cylinder Geo Metro onto interstates where single and double tractor-trailers roared along beside me.  The car had no air-conditioning, so I kept the windows rolled down and blasted the radio.  That was the summer the second Austin Powers movie, The Spy Who Shagged Me, debuted, and this song was all over the airwaves.  I’d hear it on my the down, when my heart was trip-hammering with anticipation, and I’d hear it on the way back, when I was already counting the days till I returned.  To this day, whenever it comes on the radio, I recall those early days of the relationship that would lead to our marriage, the incredible good fortune that befell me.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I read a lot of comic books when I was a kid, most of them put out by Marvel.  (This was from the mid-to-late seventies to the early-to-mid eighties.)  The Amazing Spider-Man was my favorite, both the new issues being written by the great Marv Wolfman, and the original issues being reprinted six at a time in paperback collections.  My brother liked The Fantastic Four–also being written at that time by Wolfman–so I read those, too.  Conan the Barbarian was a favorite, as was his superhero cousin, The Mighty Thor–both written by Roy Thomas.  I read a lot of other titles, too, sometimes because they crossed over with one of the Spider-Man comics (there were, as I recall, three regular Spidey series:  Amazing, Spectacular, and Marvel Team-Up, where Spidey paired with a different hero every issue, as well as at least one reprint series) and sometimes because they simply looked cool.  (And this isn’t going into the series I read because they brought to life this or that toy [Rom, Spaceknight or The Micronauts or The Shogun Warriors] or film monster [Godzilla].)

As I grew into my early teens, I started picking up the X-Men, as well–then being written by Chris Claremont, who wrote every issue of the comic I read for years.  I’m sure Claremont’s run on the X-Men has been discussed and dissected in all manner of venues, from academic popular culture studies to online forums.  I remember being struck by the intensity of his stories:  even by the melodramatic standards of comic book plots, his narratives went for broke.  It wasn’t just that things were darkest before the dawn–they were pitch black.  It’s the kind of technique someone like Joss Whedon would deploy in each season of his Buffy the Vampire Slayer series.  I was impressed, too, by his portrayal of strong, complex female characters–Storm, Rogue, Kitty–something that was in particularly short supply when I was growing up.  The character of Wolverine as he was being written at that time also struck me:  this was a violent character whose violence had an edge that felt real and even frightening.  I liked, too, the moves Claremont was already making towards transforming Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest enemy, into more of an anti-hero than an out and out villain.

All of which serves as a prelude to this afternoon, when the Honey Badger and I went to the local theater for a matinee of the latest entry in the X-Men film series, Days of Future Past.  I have to admit, I wasn’t anticipating this one as eagerly as I was some of this summer’s other offerings (i.e. Godzilla), but I wound up being pleasantly surprised.  For one thing, talk about a story where there’s a lot at stake:  if Logan (Wolverine) doesn’t succeed in his time-travel mission, then it’s curtains for him and what few of his friends are left alive.  What’s more, there’s a chance for some of the deeper divisions that have occurred among figures like Professor X, Raven/Mystique, and Erik Lensher/Magneto to be, if not healed then at least ameliorated.  And indeed, this is where the movie really worked for me.  There are CG effects a-plenty, especially in the scenes set in the future, but while they’re undoubtedly impressive, I found them far less compelling than the human drama that plays out amongst the younger Xavier, Raven, and Lensher.  A lot of superhero movies appeal to the significance of choice, but this one does a better job than most of actually dramatizing that choice so it means something.  There are a couple of plot hiccups (i.e. the failure by Xavier et. al. to include Quicksilver in their plans for the  final showdown) but they’re forgivable.  If there’s one thing I can say about this X-Men movie, it’s that it makes me excited to see the next X-Men movie, which, this far into the series, is no small feat.            

Night Film

I had run across several, generally-positive references to Marisha Pessl’s second novel online, but it wasn’t until Night Film made the shortlist for this year’s Shirley Jackson Awards that I decided to pick up a copy of it.  I’m glad I did; it’s a highly-entertaining book whose narrative gathers momentum as it goes, until it’s roaring along like a mile-long freight train careening downhill, its screaming wheels barely holding on to the rails, throwing off showers of sparks.  The plot is relatively straightforward:  an investigative reporter is drawn into an exploration of the suicide of the daughter of a famous, reclusive director.  Complicating matters is the fact that the reporter already investigated the director once, five years before, essentially ruining his journalistic career in the process.  Yet he can’t resist taking a second run at Stanislas Cordova, and the rest of the novel relates his effort to uncover the circumstances surrounding the death of Cordova’s daughter, Ashley.  This leads in ever-darker directions.  Pessl skillfully manages what her protagonist–and by extension, we, the readers–learn about Cordova, his films, and those associated with them.  I was reminded of Stoker’s handling of Dracula, especially, the amount of tension he generates by keeping the Count offstage.  Gradually, Stanislas Cordova emerges as a kind of cross between Roman Polanski and David Lynch, with a bit of Aleister Crowley thrown in for good measure.  It seems increasingly possible, even probable, that Cordova was involved in some type of black magic, and that it affected his daughter, and that it may be affecting our protagonist.  There’s a long, nightmarish scene at Cordova’s upstate New York estate that’s worth the price of admission, alone.  Throughout the novel, Pessl incorporates a variety of fictional documents into her narrative–newspaper clippings, webpages–in a way that calls to mind Danielewski’s House of Leaves, bringing us that much closer to her protagonist’s quest.

So:  a book that’s definitely worth checking out.  Kudos to Marisha Pessl.      

Godzilla!

If there’s any way for me to kickstart this blog back to life, it’s with a post about the new Godzilla movie!  The Big G was one of the constants of my young life, both via the badly-dubbed and -edited films shown on the local TV stations, and the 24 issue comic that Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe did for Marvel.  Godzilla toys were harder to find at that time; although I did manage to find both the Shogun Warriors Godzilla toy and much smaller versions which were built around a flexible wire skeleton.  (In fact, I’ll have a story in Ellen Datlow’s anthology, The Doll Collection, which takes its inspiration from my childhood desire for a Godzilla figure.)  As both my older son and his much younger brother have grown up, I’ve done my best to introduce them to the wonder that is the gigantic radioactive monster.

Which brings me to Gareth Edwards’s new film.  As spectacle, I enjoyed the heck out of it:  the giant monsters look about as good, as massive, as menacing, as I could have hoped for.  Godzilla’s roar is so loud, so enormous, that it actually frightened me, a little, despite the fact that I knew it was a special effect.  The final battle among Godzilla and the other monsters in San Francisco is wonderful, what I always imagined I was seeing when I watched one of the older Godzilla films.  After this, it will be hard to return to men in rubber suits.  For this reason alone, it’s a film that demands to be watched on the big screen.

Where the movie stumbles a bit is in its human characters and their actions.  Without wanting to give too much away, I think the filmmakers err in their decision to employ Bryan Cranston in a supporting role.  For the time he’s on screen, he gives the film an emotional heft that really helps it; I would have made him the film’s central character, and arranged the others around him.  Without such a character, a lot of the human action becomes little more than a series of Maguffins, designed to allow scenes that look great, but don’t always make the most sense.  Similarly, Ken Watanabe’s character seems onscreen purely to deliver aphorisms about nature and balance, which I think could have been put to better use, i.e. rather than portraying nature as a mildly benign force that’s looking out for us, he could have framed it as something that is terrifyingly indifferent to us (which is an idea the film hints at, but never fully embraces).  I suppose this may sound like a lot to ask of a summer blockbuster, but the film clearly wants us to feel that it’s trying to be something more substantial.  

Given the success of this Godzilla film, more are clearly on the way.  For the spectacle alone, I’m looking forward to them.  And who knows? maybe the next one will build on the character successes of this one.

Agents

Every so often, I think to myself, “I’m glad to have my agent,” who is the fabulous Ginger Clark, of Curtis Brown, Ltd.  And every so often, a young writer asks me, “Do I need an agent?”  So:

1. If you’re writing and selling short stories, you’re most likely okay without an agent.  Just make sure you read whatever contract the publisher sends you carefully.  I don’t think you want to give them the right to do anything other than publish your story in their venue (unless they’re willing to pony up some serious cash for whatever extra they’re asking for).

2. Once you move into publishing books, though, an agent is pretty much indispensable.  For one thing, they’ll get your book onto the desk of the editors most likely to be interested in it.  It may and most likely will take some time for those editors to get to the book; all the same, the process takes considerably longer without an agent.  Once an editor makes an offer on your book, your agent can tell you whether it’s a decent offer, and advise you how best to proceed, which may include negotiating with that editor for a better deal.  Your agent’s also the one who’ll review whatever contract the publisher is offering, and work to make sure its terms favor you.

Here are a few things my agent has done for me:

1.  She got the publisher of one of my books to double the advance they were offering, and then held them to their agreement when they tried to back out of it.

2.  She held a publisher’s feet to the fire when they tried continually to delay the publication of one of my books.

3.  She got one of my books in front of editors at publishers such as Harper Collins and Simon & Schuster.

4.  During a recent publishing debacle in which one of my books became involved, she remained calm and helped me chart the best course through it.

(I realize all of this is a bit light on specifics, but I’m not interested in starting any unnecessary trouble, right now.  Should you catch me at a convention, however, a shot of a good single malt might loosen my tongue.)

The relationship between writers and agents is kind of a strange one.  You’ll see writers and agents talking about firing one another when they’re unhappy with each other, but I’m not sure that description gets at the heart of the relationship.  Without the writer, the agent has nothing to sell.  Without the agent, the writer’s at a considerable disadvantage.  Ideally, I guess it’s a kind of symbiosis.

I do think there’s a tendency for a lot of writers, who are an insecure breed, to start with, to invest their relationships with their agents with emotions that aren’t helpful to either.  Above all else, it’s a professional relationship; remember that, and act accordingly, and you’ll be fine.

Oh, and one more thing:  when you meet a publisher who says they don’t like to work with agents, run in the opposite direction, as quickly as possible.  Agents are part of the business of publishing.  I guarantee you, anyone who’s complaining about having to work with agents is someone who owes people money, is not responsive to their writers, and is generally not following the best business practices.

My agent, however, does swear a lot.  I mean, seriously.