The Nameless Dark

20150811_152523_2

Some time ago, Ted Grau asked me if I’d take a look at his forthcoming collection of stories, The Nameless Dark, and, if I liked what I read, maybe write a blurb for it.  I said sure.  I read it, and kept reading it, and liked it very much, indeed.  This is what I sent him:

T.E. Grau’s stories range across time and space, from Victorian-era London to contemporary Los Angeles, from America’s western frontier to the bohemian gatherings of Beat-inflected San Francisco.  In prose elegant and engaging, he details the lives of men and women, children and adults, who have arrived at places where the world they know peels away to reveal another, darker place.  It is a place where childhood fairy tales converge with stories of things older still, where the history we know is a mask for things better left concealed.  Grau’s attention to character makes their discovery of this other place resonate long after each story is done.  There are echoes of Bradbury in here, Lovecraft and Chandler, among others.  But it is Grau’s success to evoke these writers without lapsing into pastiche.  Instead, he has produced an impressive, gripping collection of fiction.  I recommend it highly.

–John Langan, author of The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies

For reasons having nothing to do with Ted, the blurb never made it to the printed book.  That’s fine:  I still got to read his stories, so as far as I’m concerned, I came out on the winning end of things.  Ted sent me a copy of the finished book, which was very generous, but he included with it something even more generous, a piece of Ray Bradbury’s stupidly-demolished home (a few fragments of which Ted managed to save before they were carted away).

Talk about being bowled over.  I’ve written a little bit about Bradbury’s importance to me as a writer, but there’s much more to say on the subject.  For the moment, suffice it to say, one of the nicest compliments my fiction has received came from a reader who compared it to Bradbury’s and T.C. Boyle’s, by which he meant that he never knew what he was going to get when he sat down with one of my stories.  For this little piece of his house to arrive felt positively uncanny.  It was like something out of a Ray Bradbury story.  Of course, some of those end…less than ideally for their protagonists.

Before I open my front door and find myself in the southern California of fifty years ago, however, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank Ted for his gift publicly, and to share what I wrote for his book with a wider audience.  If you don’t have a copy of Ted’s collection, do yourself a favor, and pick it up.

Bob Waugh

When I attend Necronomicon Providence in a couple of weeks, I’ll be driving up with Bob Waugh.  Bob is at this point one of my oldest and dearest friends.  He and his wonderful wife, Kappa, are godparents to my younger son.  My wife and I have spent time with them on Cape Cod, in Provence, and here in the Hudson Valley, where we’ve shared birthday dinners and holiday celebrations.

During the second semester of my freshman year in college, Bob was my Honors English 2 professor; subsequently I took a host of classes with him, from surveys of English literature to intensive studies of the work of James Joyce.  Also during my first year of college, Bob founded the H.P. Lovecraft Forum, which he’s kept going for the last twenty-eight years pretty much on his own.  Every October, around Halloween (of course), he’s invited leading scholars of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction to the SUNY New Paltz campus to share their current work.  S.T. Joshi, Steve Mariconda, Peter Cannon, Judy Johnson, Norm Gayford, and a host of others (including more than a few students at the college, presenting their work in an academic forum for the first time) have shared their essays with a mix of students, faculty, and interested members of the public.  It’s usually a modest affair, which allows the audience the opportunity to speak with the participants afterwards.

For me, a consistent highlight of the Lovecraft Forums (Fora?) has been the chance to hear Bob read from his latest critical project.  Over the years, many of the essays he’s read have gone on to publication, first in Lovecraft Studies, more recently in the Lovecraft Annual, and occasionally in critical anthologies such as An Epicure in the Terrible.  In the last decade, he’s collected those essays and synthesized them into two books:  The Monster in the Mirror:  Looking for H.P. Lovecraft and A Monster of Voices:  Speaking for H.P. Lovecraft.  If the books have a common theme, it’s an effort to situate Lovecraft within a larger cultural frame.  In some essays, this means Bob considers Lovecraft in relation to Pope, or Keats, or Lawrence.  In others, it means he considers the role race and racism play in Lovecraft’s stories.  Indeed, throughout the ongoing discussions and debates about Lovecraft’s racial prejudices, I’ve frequently wished that the participants on both sides had read Bob’s “The Subway and the Shuggoth” (found in The Monster in the Mirror), which uses the climatic confrontation with the shuggoth in At the Mountains of Madness as a prompt to a wide-ranging discussion of how racial prejudice and anxiety inform not just the short novel, but the body of Lovecraft’s work.  It’s a moving, masterful piece of critical writing, one that exemplifies the best in literary study.  Sympathetic to its subject, it nonetheless refuses to let him off the hook.  The result is actual insight into how Lovecraft’s fiction functions.  The essay–and Bob’s critical work in general–has served as a model for my own critical efforts.

In the last few years, Bob, already an accomplished poet, has turned his hand to writing short fiction.  The stories he’s produced have ranged from bizarre anecdotes to longer, even weirder pieces.  At Necronomicon, he’ll be debuting a collection of them, The Bloody Tugboat and Other Witcheries.  They make a strangely-appropriate companion to his criticism.

So if you have the chance to hear Bob participate in a panel, or read from his fiction, I highly recommend you do so.  If you don’t have copies of his work, I highly recommend you purchase them.  He’s a fine scholar, a great guy, and I love him to pieces.

Allies

A couple of things I’ve run across on the Interweb lately have me thinking about influences.  If you know, me, then you know that this is one of my abiding interests.  I’ve published a couple of scholarly articles on it, and should I ever get around to finishing my long-on-hold dissertation, this will be its subject.

When I was younger, I was a bit more obsessional in my interest.  I think this was because I was more (self-) aware of my own influences, and felt pretty anxious about them.  (Yeah, when I ran into Harold Bloom’s earlier, less-crazy work, it really struck a chord with me.)  My concerns were probably affected by one of my favorite undergraduate professors, a Hemingway and Faulkner scholar who pretty much claimed that they were as good as American literature had gotten, and everyone to come since had been a lesser or greater imitation of one or the other.  (He claimed to have hung out with the late James Jones when they were both in Paris, and said that a drunken Jones had asked him what was left for him to do after those two.)

Anyway, during this time, I went to a reading by the late John McGahern.  For those of you who don’t know his work, he was an Irish fiction writer.  I had just read and been very impressed by his novel, Amongst Women, which concerns a family dominated by a tyrannical patriarch, Moran.  After the reading, I had McGahern sign my copy of Amongst Women.  As he was writing in my book, I couldn’t help myself.  I asked him how he, as an Irish writer, felt having to write in the shadows of Joyce and Beckett.  Wasn’t it intimidating for him as a fiction writer to have to follow in the footsteps of such giants?  How did he do it?

I’m guessing this wasn’t the first time McGahern had heard this question, or some version of it.  Well, he said, he didn’t think of Joyce and Beckett as competitors.  He thought of them as allies, great allies for a writer to have.

I thanked him and took my book, but I’m sure my lack of satisfaction with his answer was plain on my face.  We were talking about James Joyce and Samuel Beckett here.  How was it possible to see them as anything other than fearsome predecessors who had already occupied much of the aesthetic territory a fiction writer might wish to explore?  The same was true of Hemingway and Faulkner.  How could McGahern claim them as fellow-travelers, as friends, even?

From the vantage point of the two-plus decades that have elapsed since then, my own anxiety seems glaringly, painfully apparent.  Some writers never get past it:  late in his life, you find Hemingway writing to Faulkner about their great predecessors, evaluating them as if they were boxers, declaring himself and Faulkner able to take everyone but Tolstoy.  If that’s part of your artistic psyche, then I guess there isn’t much you can do about it.  And certainly, every writer, no matter how secure, experiences those moments of uncertainty, of anxiety, of jealousy.  Especially, when you’re working in what seems like a smaller field, like horror (or weird)(or strange)(or whatever) fiction, the presence of other significant writers, whether those who’ve gone before and continue to be revered (i.e. Lovecraft), or those whose body of work helped to bring the field greater popularity (i.e. Stephen King), or those who are doing dynamic work that’s gained a lot of attention (i.e. Laird Barron) can feel like a threat to what you’re doing, can feel as if it’s going to distract attention from your fiction.  Which in turn leads to all kinds of Oedipally-inflected behavior, trying to minimize those figures whose presence seems most overwhelming.

I think, though, that McGahern had it right.  Those writers, the Lovecrafts and the Kings and the Barrons, are in fact allies.  Their work is a testament of faith to the field in which I work.  The range of their stories, of their styles, helps to demonstrate the variety of plot and style I strive for in my fiction.  To be fair, it took me years of developing confidence in my own fiction, in the stories I wanted to tell and my ability to tell them, to arrive at such a view, for what once sounded absurd to sound reasonable.  I have to say, though, that it’s a nice feeling, to see yourself surrounded by allies, instead of enemies.

Necronomicon Providence 2015

In just under two weeks, I’ll be headed to Rhode Island for the 2015 Necronomicon Providence.  I had an absolute blast at the previous Necronomicon, back in 2013; I was particularly impressed by the variety of programming the convention organizers arranged, as well as the way the con incorporated Providence, itself, into its events.  This year’s convention looks to surpass the last, with tons of interesting panel topics and author readings scheduled.  I believe there are still tickets available.  If you’re there, please say hello.

For anyone who’s interested, here’s my schedule:

Friday, August 21
10:30-11:45am ROOTS OF HORROR IN H. P. LOVECRAFT – Grand Ballroom, Biltmore 17th Floor
Poe was not the only writer who influenced Lovecraft. There were many others who cast their shadows upon the gentleman from Providence and a few who were even his contemporaries. Join us as we talk about Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Robert Chambers, and many others.
Panelists: Joe Pulver, Robert M. Price, Scott Conners, Leslie Klinger, John Langan
Moderator: Darrell Schweitzer

1-2:15pm AUTHOR READINGS – L’Apogee, Biltmore 17th Floor
Jason V. Brock, John Langan, Robert M. Price, Darrell Schweitzer

Friday – 5:30-6:45pm OCCULT DETECTIVES – Waterplace Ballroom, Omni Hotel 2nd Floor
Murder! Mystery! Cthulhu? For decades writers have created that most unlikely of characters: the occult detective. These intrepid souls investigate cases of hauntings, curses, and murders to expose the frauds, and be amazed at the supernatural. From Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence to William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, to Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow, these characters have stunned and amazed readers for over a hundred years. Join our talented panelists as they talk about some of the best examples of this odd genre mash-up, and why some work but others don’t.
Panelists: Sam Gafford, Darrell Schweitzer, Dwayne Olson, John Langan, Robert M. Price
Moderator: Cody Goodfellow

Saturday, August 22
9-10:15am ONLY IN DREAMS – Garden Room, Biltmore 2nd Floor
An examination of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and the characters, creations, and places therein.
Panelists: Jason Thompson, Richard Gavin, Dan Mills, Cody Goodfellow, John Langan
Moderator: Simon Strantzas

BOOK LAUNCH and AUTHOR READINGS – L’Apogee, Biltmore 17th floor (NOTE: this program runs until 11am)
Innsmouth Nightmares & Cult of the Dead, two book author readings and discussions
Innsmouth Nightmares features original stories by leading writers of weird fiction, including John Shirley, Lavie Tidhar, Laird Barron, Paul Kane, Tim Lebbon, Richard Gavin, Steve Rasnic Tem, Wilum H. Pugmire, John Langan, Joe Pulver, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Bill Nolan, Jim Moore, S.T. Joshi, and many more. This is an all-star lineup of The Weird edited by Lois H. Gresh. Cult of the Dead is a special collection of Lois’ weird stories with an Introduction by S.T. Joshi, who writes, “Over the last decade or so, Lois H. Gresh has done some of the most scintillating work of any contemporary writer of imaginative fiction.”
Copies of both books will be available for sale and signing at this session, Snacks provided! Readings and discussion with Lois H. Gresh, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Laird Barron, William F. Nolan, Richard Gavin, S.T. Joshi, Joe Pulver, Jim Moore, Jason V. Brock, Jonathan Thomas, and more
(NOTE: Obviously, I’ll be slipping into this event towards the end.)

1-2:15pm LOVECRAFT’S NARRATORS – Garden Room, Biltmore 2nd Floor
Much of Lovecraft’s fiction is written in the first person, but how reliable are these narrators? What kind of world do they reflect? This panel examines Lovecraft’s use of this literary aspect and whether it helps or hurts the themes of his stories.
Panelists: Steve Mariconda, Robert Waugh, Ramsey Campbell, John Langan, Jonathan Thomas
Moderator: Alex Houstoun

4:00-5:15pm BOOK LAUNCH and AUTHOR READINGS – L’Apogee, Biltmore 17th Floor
Aickman’s Heirs author readings and discussion
Aickman’s Heirs is an anthology of strange, weird tales by modern visionaries of weird fiction in the milieu of Robert Aickman, the master of strange and weird tales. Join editor Simon Strantzas and contributors Michael Cisco, Richard Gavin, John Langan, David Nickle, Daniel Mills, and Michael Wehunt for short readings, snacks, and a book signing.

Sunday, August 23
2:30-3:45pm
NEW ENGLAND GOTHIC – Grand Ballroom, Biltmore 17th Floor
New England has a long tradition in Gothic literature. From Hawthorne to Poe to Lovecraft, the haunted streets of New England have been home to many a spook and specter. Influenced strongly by Poe, Lovecraft nurtured a love for the Gothic and New England. In this panel, we discuss the Gothic influence on Lovecraft and his place in that literary tradition.
Panelists: Kenneth Hite, Faye Ringel, Thomas Broadbent, John Langan
Moderator: Rory Raven

E.L. Doctorow (1931-2015)

E.L. Doctorow was one of the first writers I met.  This was at the Egg, Albany’s performing arts center, in the spring of 1990.  He was surprisingly soft-spoken.  He’d recently been named New York State’s state writer, an honor he treated with due irony, asking the audience who came to see him if we could name the state bird, and the state muffin.  He read an excerpt from the beginning of Billy Bathgate, his most recent novel, answered questions from the audience, then dutifully signed books.

I’d been aware of Doctorow for at least a couple of years–mostly as the author of Ragtime, which had been adapted for the big screen, but also of World’s Fair, which had been excerpted in one of those Scholastic magazines we got in English class.  I’m not sure how I learned that he was going to be reading in Albany; mostly likely from a poster for it in the English department at SUNY New Paltz, where I was a senior.  I got the idea that I would go see him, and convinced a number of my friends to accompany me.  Billy Bathgate was newly out in paperback.  I’d wanted to read it since reading its reviews, which were not just positive, but glowing; the upcoming reading gave me the excuse to buy and read it.

I was dazzled.  The combination of Doctorow’s prose–Billy Bathgate, who narrates the book, is, as Doctorow put it, “a rhapsodist”–and the subject matter–Billy becomes part of Dutch Schultz’s gang–held me spellbound.  It’s a potent blend, the lyric and the violent.  Plus, the novel was set in New York State, ranging from New York City to Saratoga.  Under the sway of Faulkner, I had been trying to make more use of local material in my own fiction; Doctorow offered a compelling example of it.  I neglected most of everything else I was supposed to be doing for school, preferring to linger over the novel’s pages.

When I handed Doctorow my copy of Billy Bathgate for him to sign, I told him this.  Actually, it spilled out of me in a rush.  I had been extremely nervous, standing in line to have my book autographed.  Reading the novel, I had formed a mental picture of Doctorow as this towering genius, well-above the concerns of a twenty-one year old college student.  Yet as I told him how impressed I was by the book, how I might fail all my classes because I’d been reading it, instead of what I was supposed to (a bit of exaggeration), but that was okay, because it was such a great book, his features softened, and I realized that he was moved by my babbling.  “Thank you,” he said, “thank you for telling me this.”

It was a moment of revelation:  he’s like me, after all.  And (by extension) if he can do this, so might I (some day).  It was as obvious as such revelations often are, but the effect was such it lingers, still.

In the years to come, I read more of Doctorow’s work:  Ragtime, and World’s Fair, and Welcome to Hard Times, and the astonishing Book of Daniel.  In recent years, I fell behind on his fiction; I kept meaning to get to City of God, but other things cropped up.  I’ve read enough, though, to know his accomplishment was considerable, and his works will endure.  I’m grateful for his fiction, and I’m grateful for his moment of kindness to a kid who was overwhelmed to meet him.

Billy Bathgate Cover

The Outer Dark Podcast

A few weeks ago, the very smart and talented Scott Nicolay e-mailed me to say he had a new project in the works, a weekly podcast featuring interviews with writers of weird fiction.  His lineup included people like Livia Llewellyn, Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, S.P. Miskowski, and Chesya Burke.  Scott wanted to know if I’d be interested in participating; I lost no time in saying I would.  The other night, we had a very pleasant phone conversation.  Scott assured me he would edit my rambling remarks into something resembling coherence.  So if you’d like to hear us discuss the Shirley Jackson Awards, and Jackson herself, and Jeffrey and Scott Thomas, and Peter Straub, and Laird Barron, and Laird Barron some more, here’s the link.

After Readercon

This past weekend I spent in Burlington, MA, at the 26th annual Readercon.  It’s probably the convention I most look forward to each year, because it’s the one the largest percentage of my writing friends attend.  This year was no exception:  I roomed with Paul Tremblay, and spent time with a raft of people including S.J. Bagley, Michael Cisco, Brett Cox, Joann Cox, Ellen Datlow, Gemma Files, John Foster, Mike Griffin, Liz Hand, Jack Haringa, Stephen Graham Jones, Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory, Nick Kaufmann and Alexa Antopol, Mike and Caroline Kelly, Sarah Langan, Rob Shearman, Justin Steele, Simon Strantzas, Peter Straub, Jeffrey Thomas, and plenty more whose names I apologize for forgetting.  Highlights of the convention included fiction readings by Mike Cisco, Gemma Files, Rob Shearman, and Paul, as well as this year’s Shirley Jackson Awards, which I mc’d for the first time without embarrassing myself or the awards too badly.  I read from my own work twice, first as part of a group reading for The Monstrous, Ellen Datlow’s newest anthology, in which my new story, “Corpsemouth,” appears, and then on my own on Sunday afternoon, after the Jackson Awards, to a surprisingly large audience, to whom I managed to read all of my story, “The Savage Angela in:  The Beast in the Tunnels” (forthcoming in Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer’s Swords v. Cthulhu).  In the midst of the convention came the awful news that Tom Piccirilli had lost his brave fight with brain cancer, and we raised a glass in his honor and memory that night.  There was flatbread pizza, and there was Korean barbecue.  Then the weekend was over, so fast I still can’t believe it, and it was time for the annual drive back west accompanied by Michael Cisco.  As ever, thanks to the Readercon crew for putting on such a great convention.  The Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll see you next year.