Friday, November 15, 2013

96. Sub-editions } & other mysterious appearances.

From the cult of Ex Occidente, Transactions of the Flesh, an anthology after the writings of Joris-Karl Huysmans edited by D.P. Watt and Peter Holman: the book is made, in two incarnations, a “lettered deluxe subedition” and the “numbered regular edition.” The cost is irrelevant. Copies can be obtained from Zagava Books.

I’ll write a word more about the book once my copy arrives. My story, “Smoke (Ash Sun, Raspberry Sky)” is another episode in the life of Theophile, who I first wrote about in the story “Her Magnetic Field,” published in Cinnabar’s Gnosis. “Smoke” is set ahead of Theophile’s confrontation with the “Stone That Thinks,” features an alternate Milla Jovovich, and Siduri, the barkeep who urges Gilgamesh to enjoy life, rather than punish himself with grief for Enkidu.

Dan Ghetu, publisher of Ex Occidente books, recently announced that he’s liquidating his (small) remaining stock; it is possible to purchase one of two remaining copies of Cinnabar’s Gnosis for $80. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait till I complete and then find a publisher for the complete Theophile tales, an event I anticipate occurring never.

# # #

My mixed feelings swell for 1913 Press and their efforts to raise funds for a print run of 1913: A Journal of Forms 6. A while back, they half-heartedly ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds—unsurprisingly, they failed to meet their goal. A similar fundraising campaign is now running through Indiegogo; as of today, they’ve raised $2,171 of the $25,000 they asked for. At least with Indiegogo they get whatever they raise.

When “editrice” Sandra Doller asked me for a poem for the journal I was delighted, and I am delighted—look at the t.o.c. for issue 6 (published, at last, as a PDF): there’s Rae Armantrout, Rachel May, Deborah Poe, Thalia Field, etc. But I’m disappointed too, that the press couldn’t fund a print incarnation: 1913’s great charm is in print, their books and their journal loves the page. I’d be less disappointed if there seemed to be more enthusiasm from the press themselves—infrequent email notices notwithstanding, there’s not enough brouhaha to hope that a financial goal as big as $25,000 will ever be met.

Do visit the issue. The PDF is satisfying—and suggests that if the funds are raised, issue 6 would be every bit as pleasing as its predecessors. My poem—one part of a triptych (I hope one day will be published whole)—is on page 52.

# # #

This Sunday, at 3pm, at Ada Books in Providence, R.I., the chapbook Compound Eye will be released. It’s a selection of poems written during the R.I.S.D. Museum “Locally Made” show in September. A number of area poets were invited to sit behind typewriters and write poems on demand. To explain: folks would approach a poet, supply the poet with inspiration—a word, a theme, a picture—and the poet would write a poem.

With carbons, copies were made, then collected by Kate Shapria, who, with the help of Maria Anderson, Janaya Kizzie, and Kat Murphy, assembled them into Compound Eye. I know little about the end-result, and only vaguely recall the poems I wrote. Fellow poets are Mary-Kim Arnold, Lindsday Beebe, Indigo Bethea, Cherry Pickman, and Amish Trivedi.

Some of us will read our poems. I read at 3:20. Kate says, “it'll be pretty easy-breezy—some milling around, some exclaiming over the books, punctuated by reading out loud.” Chapbooks cost $5, except for “everyone who participated, or who managed to hang onto their event program”—then it’s free.

# # #

[Photo: a Valentine Portable Typewriter by Olivetti, in the R.I.S.D. Museum collection]

Monday, November 11, 2013

95. Elisa Gabbert writes } “What I miss about childhood is…”

Friday, my eldest and I will visit Boston to look at colored glass and ice and to listen to Elisa Gabbert read from The Self Unstable. Prose poems; of them, Black Ocean sez, “combines elements of memoir, philosophy, and aphorism.” Which doesn’t make them sound at all different from billions of poems. The difference is Elisa—from what I’ve read, the pieces in The Self Unstable are like lines of her poems and thoughts from her blog, with some interesting deviations in-between. (An in-between, for instance: “I saw a figure from a distance and thought it was me. I drink from the opposite side of a glass.” Make that the opening line of your horror story.)

The book’s design is as eye-catching as all Black Ocean titles are. You can read quite a lot from the book online—do a simple search Gabbert+The+Self+Unstable.

Will I seem to mock Elisa, by bringing my six year-old daughter to hear poems about ageing? My daughter, staring up at an end-result? Perhaps my own great age will dull the edge of my daughter's smile.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

94. Horror fiction notes (7/7) } the unsatisfactory conclusion.

…however, the best story in the fifth annual edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror is Elizabeth Massie’s “Stephen.”

(I first read Jack Womack’s “Out of Sight, Out ofMind” before “hoarding” behavior was widely known, so the setting, a hoarder’s house, fascinated. That the hoarder’s obsession was triggered by Fibber McGee’s closet (the fact that no one seemed to remember Fibber’s closet) also interested me—I grew up listening to recordings of old radio broadcasts, including Fibber McGee & Molly, and had a sense of how bizarre it is for a culture to leave behind something that was once a great common ground. “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” isn’t just about the fear of losing one’s own past; it’s also about preservation, and the point at which preservation becomes obsessive and destructive.

Rereading it now, I’m less bowled over, and the discovery at the end—what makes “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” horror—seems simply inevitable.)

Would someone send me a list of stories about (or that feature) decapitated heads kept alive (magic or science. Also, skulls)? Off the top of my capitated head is The Arabian Nights (Sage Duban’s head kept alive on a platter coated with a magic powder), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, F.Marion Crawford’s “The Screaming Skull,” Ramsey Campbell’s “Heading Home,” and (maybe) “The Skull of Charlotte Corday.” No films, T.V., or radio broadcasts, please. Donovan’s Brain? Sure, I’m willing to open the door to brains kept alive in jars.

“Stephen” is the only story by Elizabeth Massie I remember, though I’m sure I’ve read others—I had a story in Exotic Gothic 2 and so did she, with “Los Penitentes,” so I read that, “Pinkie” was reprinted in Best New Horror 17 so I probably read that, and maybe “What Happened When Mosby Paulson Had Her Painting Reproduced on the Cover of the Phone Book,” too. Anyway.

I don’t want to say much about  “Stephen.” It is a decapitated head story, but it treats that trope seriously, and uses it as an illustration of the other horror that truly runs the story. Though at sixteen I didn’t understand the sexual issues in Massie’s story—I understood enough to be troubled by them.

Coincidentally, I wrote a decapitated head story called “Stephen Plec.” Plec is a Polish word for sex; I associate the name Stephen with repression and guilt. Plec is a garbage collector who, out on his route, finds a head in a box, becomes intimate with it, gets rid of it in a frenzy of self-loathing, but ends up desperately searching for it in the municipal dump where he works.  I wondered if my Stephen was in any way inspired by Massie’s, but I  dug up the original drafts of “Stephen Plec,” and all were carefully dated “1989.”

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

93. Horror fiction notes (6/7) } a call & Mark Samuels.

Earlier this summer, before I reread David B. Silva’s “The Calling,” I dreamed I was at a roundtable with Silva and a group of other horror authors. In my waking life, I never met him, nor had any interest in his work. His The Horror Show ended its run before I was really aware of the horror small press—I never read an issue. We sat at the table—this dream Silva and me—and enjoyed a pleasant conversation.

Today, in preparation for writing this post, I learned that Silva died earlier this year, in March.

According to Locus magazine’s obituary for David B. Silva, he won a Bram Stoker Award in 1990 for “The Calling.” The Stoker is hardly a reliable measure of greatness, but “The Calling” is undeniably powerful. The horror is cancer and Silva’s portrayal of a son caring for his mother as she dies is harrowing. The end is silly—a risk Silva took—and obviously many readers felt otherwise.

In 1991, Ellen Datlow wrote, “Until a couple years ago, David B. Silva… was primarily known for his editorship of The Horror Show. This prestigious magazine’s last issue came out this past spring, giving Silva more time to write.” The Locus obituary begins, “Silva is best known for editing influential magazine The Horror Show, which ran from 1982-1991 .”

# # #

My summer reading was not devoted exclusively to the 1991 edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror. I at last read the Chomu Press re-print of Mark Samuels’ The Man Who Collected Machen and, from Tartarus, The White Hands. I preferred The White Hands, which cohered a little better, but both are well-constructed collections.

The horror across all the stories is hopelessness. Story after story revealed any hope to be false. This is perhaps most obviously epitomized by “The Black Mould,” a story about a terrified life form that destroys what it encounters—and it encounters all.

A recurring “black mould” in these collections is infection. It sometimes acts as a doppelganger—ultimately replacing its victim with a sort-of copy—read “Vrolyk” but also “THYXXOLQU” and even “Glickman the Bibliophile,” in which a book lover is transformed into a reverse image of himself through the mechanisms of Nemesis Press. These stories are also about the decay of language and the power of that decay. Another black mould is the corporation—an easy target, but brilliantly portrayed in “The Impasse,” a story that perfectly describes the easy way a person can surrender themselves to something idiotic and monstrous: “Despite being utterly confused by the sheer waste of effort and time his work seemed to involve, he resolved that, as his employers were paying him so well, he should think to fulfill his obligations.” And for that pay, he is damned. 

The horror of hopelessness is the horror of Dante’s Hell. Everyone Dante meets in Hell thinks there’s a chance they can somehow improve their situation—even Satan keeps flapping his wings in order to fly away free, but all he accomplishes with his wings is to harden the ice that keeps him where he is. No one in Hell really understands the inscription on the gate: abandon all hope ye who enter here. So it is for the inhabitants of Samuels’ fictions.

In spite of the coda—which isn’t exactly disappointing, and, if I consider it in the right light, is a better end than the ellipsis that precedes it—“The Search for Kruptos” may be the best story of the lot. In it, all of Samuels’ fascinations are on display. A narrator who believes that books are important, but who is wrong, a text that infects, and hopelessness, with a European, World War II backdrop. Samuels seems to concur; in an interview conducted by Matt Cardin, he is asked where a new reader of his fiction might begin and replied:
I expect that “The White Hands” (in the restored version contained in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #15) or “The Search for Kruptos” would prove good starting points. If a reader enjoys those two tales I’d suggest that they try The Face of Twilight, which is my short novel published this year by PS Publishing. I think this is probably the most interesting work that I have thus far produced.
I did enjoy both, so I'll try The Face of Twilight, and let the infection progress.

Monday, July 1, 2013

92. Horror fiction notes (5/7) } the monster is the male gaze.

Talk of gender equality in horror fiction publishing, especially when conducted online, is too often reactionary rather than productive, anecdotal, and prone to inspire disgusting behavior. One author, male, whose work I thrice rejected from New Genre, threatened to expose me as a sexist editor in an email he sent me. Obviously unfamiliar with my editorial work as a whole, he said that if he pointed out to his online community how few women I publish, “I guarantee you there'd be an online reaction.” He then added, “Doesn't feel good to be accused of sexism, does it?”

What didn’t feel good was his use of a discussion about gender equality,  intended to improve circumstances for women, as a weapon. I have no idea if he did or didn’t attempt to blacklist me, but I did confront him about his email in person at a convention, and he simply withered. All the vitriolic rhetoric gone once face-to-face. He’s not looked me in the eye since.

# # #

Nikki Kiriki Hoffman’s “A Touch of the Old Lilith” is the second excellent Hoffman story to appear in the fourth Year’s Best—more on the story itself in a moment. Ellen Datlow selected it from Women of Darkness II, an anthology of new horror stories by women. Datlow wrote in her survey of horror fiction published in 1990 that Women of Darkness II is a “Pretty undistinguished reprise of #1….”

Of the first Women of Darkness, Datlow wrote,
The idea of an all-women horror anthology developed from the (correct) perception that the horror field in general and anthologies in particular were dominated by male writers. Kathryn Ptacek’s Women of Darkness (1988) was conceived to remedy this. Its publication in itself brought needed attention to the perceived “problem” [to be clear, the quotes are Datlow’s], and in that, the book was successful.
Datlow then wrote more generally about anthologizing women horror writers:
I object to the single-gender anthology as a remedy. If more women edit horror anthologies, more women might be included. Of course, quality should always come first. I personally prefer to blur lines of gender and genre rather than bringing more attention to them and labeling them. There is an excellent essay by Jeanette M. Hopper in The Blood Review on women writing about stereotypically women’s subjects. The argument, with which I agree, is that if women want to be read by the other half of the population, they need to write male characters who aren’t stereotypical and two-dimensional, and they need to appeal to concerns of both men and women. These same truths hold for men and women; I’m dead sick of stories about battered women and children, just as I’m sick of stories by men that brutalize women for the eroticism of it.
A single-gender (or single-race, or single-sexual orientation, etc.) anthology isn’t only an argument; it is that, but it’s also an artistic opportunity, like any themed anthology, be it erotic horror, or Poe-inspired stories, or mummy stories, etc. The theme sets limits. Those limits exclude some authors and call to others.

Ideally, the authors invited to contribute to an all-women authored anthology would consider what it means that they are the theme, and work from there, rather than work from the premise that “woman” or “women’s subjects “ is somehow the theme.

# # #

“A Touch of the Old Lilith” falls soundly into the category of stories high-school Adam did not appreciate. That the antagonist is the polite young male photographer who has taken a fancy to Clea, and not Clea herself, or any of the Meander women whose fingers are snake-like, and whose boyfriends and husbands frequently end up dead under mysterious circumstances, was lost on me. The monsters in Clea’s life are men who carelessly or deliberately remake women to suit their desires. Toward the end of the story, Clea very nearly understands this:
I felt a flick of anger, like a little bruise inside. Did he think because he liked the way I looked that he had created me?
 Hadn’t he? Didn’t we choose this steel gray coat—“the color of your eyes”—together? Hadn’t he bought me this green velvet dress at a second-hand shop, and didn’t I drag these tights out of an old suitcase because he asked me to?
Too late for Clea—she loses herself. (Though, thanks to the efforts of her grandmother—the only honest woman in her life—there is hope she is not totally lost.)

That the monster—Jeffry is his name—is a photographer, suggests Hoffman is writing about the male gaze. How the male gaze deforms women. Hoffman’s tale is so subtle, it’s easy to miss that horror. Or perhaps I’m so inured to what makes Jeffry a monster it’s easy for me to miss. After all, how easy is it for the monster to recognize himself as such?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

91. Horror fiction notes (4/7) } ”A work of art must breathe life.”

When Carl Taske, the narrator in David J. Schow’s “Not From Around Here,” finds a monster curled up in bed beside his young daughter Jilly, and is then unable to stop the monster from slowly eating her, I realized Jilly was a totally undeveloped character, so in spite of my own fatherhood, and the worry I daily experience for my own daughters, I wasn’t horrified at all.

To a lesser extent, a similar problem occurs when Taske’s wife Suzanne is eaten. Though Schow provides Suzanne a little backstory, she is mainly a middle-aged wet-dream:
After bearing Jilly and dropping the surplus weight of pregnancy, her ass and pelvis had resolved into a lascivious fullness that I could not keep my hands away from for long….
Furthermore, she “Recently shed all self-consciousness about sex…” and is nearly always naked or throwing on a robe as she rushes around her new house.

The inability to write realized characters is an oft-cited weakness of horror fiction authors. Schow, however, is able. Carl Taske is likeable in spite of a host of flaws because he is fully self-aware. He knows he’s a yuppy and he feels the attendant class guilt, he’s desperate to please his wife and child, his temper gets the best of him, he’s afraid but willing to do for his family, he accepts blame, he’s insecure, and he’s unsure what to do with his success—it’s this uncertainty, he determines, that imperiled his family. Taske’s neighbor, Dunwoody, who serves as a glimpse of what Taske might become, is another sympathetic character. Maybe Schow just doesn’t write women well.

When Dunwoody first meets Taske, Dunwoody asks a series of very specific questions. Dunwoody wants to tell Taske something, but is prevented—we understand later what prevents him. The second time they meet, however, Dunwoody is free to speak, but rather than clearly explain to Taske that he and his family is in danger, he’s cryptic and rude.

And that’s a cliché. The old man, addled by the horrors he’s experienced, offers warnings no one would ever take seriously. What if the old man simply told Taske everything, the instant the two had a moment free? An interesting way to start a story—a real challenge to the protagonist. Sir, I know you just bought this house, but there is a monster here that mutilated my son and keeps me enslaved with its addictive venom. Here’s proof.

The addictive venom is the reason Dunwoody doesn’t warn Taske: Dunwoody is an addict. Addiction is the real horror in this story. It explains—justifies—everything. Even the cliché.

“Not From Around Here” starts strong, then drags to the end. Too much resolution for my taste.  Schow’s macho persona interferes, too—Taske’s page-long anecdote about losing it in middle school and beating up a bully is completely unnecessary.

While reading for my Video Lies series, I came across a 1993 review of X, Y that begins, “Michael Blumlein is best known in the horror community for The Brains of Rats, widely acclaimed as one of the most disturbing short story collections of the last few years “(Fangoria #130, Don Kaye). Who is Michael Blumlein?

“Bestseller,” ultimately collected in The Brains of Rats, is in the 1991 Year’s Best, and I admit I couldn’t finish it in one sitting because it disturbed me so. Specifically, the narrator is an author struggling to write in the face of his family’s growing economic desperation. His wife is losing confidence in his work and so is he. Then—and this is when I took my break—his son Nick is diagnosed with cancer and the doctors want to amputate his leg. This is not maudlin—Blumlein is better than that. The suffering of his characters is felt.

The weird of the tale is the arrangement the narrator makes with a private organ farm, a deal he enters into wide-eyed, and benefits from. The horror does not stem from forced harvesting, as it could, but rather from how the narrator responds to the progressively aggressive procedures. What the narrator becomes.

Briefly, “Bestseller” falls into a pattern that slows the tale down, but I’m not sure this should be considered a problem. A little lull is to be appreciated.

Susan Cooper’s essay “Fantasy in the Real World”—one of Terri Windling’s selections for the Year’s Best—proposes that the United States lacks the ritual that myth provides, and that this is the reason the United States “falls into destructive violence” (Cooper is paraphrasing Joseph Campbell, by way of Bill Moyers). Fantasy literature, she suggests, could provide the myth the States lack, presumably creating order in our society and putting an end to gun violence.

Cooper writes,
Great Britain is a fortunate country; there is a great deal to be said for constitutional monarchy. The actual governing is all done by a democratically elected Parliament; the monarch has no power at all, but leads a benevolent and very public life as a figurehead, a focus for ritual and emotion—a hero. Popularity is less important for a British prime minister than for an American president, since in Britain the public can focus all its adoration, all its hero-worship, upon the Queen—not to mention Prince Charles, Princess Di, and the rest.
She explains that, “We are short of such figures in the United States.” I don’t consider being without a preposterously entitled figurehead a lack, but a virtue. “Who are our heroes?” she asks, and then dismisses our heroes as either mere celebrities, or dead (she names John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.), or possessed only of great talent, intelligence, and great beauty—none of royalty.

The United States is not without myths—look to the wild west—nor without heroes—legendary and otherwise. The great benefit of heroes who are entrepreneurs, actors, athletes, musicians, politicians, etc., rather than royalty,  is that it is possible to not only emulate such heroes, but to become one yourself by achievement.

Cooper abandons her central claim (fantasy is really important) to conclude that “parents, teachers, librarians, authors, publishers” must bring together “the right child and the right book.” She explains: 
The biggest truism of our professional lives is that hugely important fact too many civilians still forget: every child should be encouraged to read books, words on a page, for his or her own pleasure, in his own time, dreaming his own—and the author’s—dream.
Originally a speech delivered at the New York Library, I’m sure she delighted her audience, as I’m sure the essay gave certain readers a sense of importance. It is, however, a mess. Condescending, too.

Too bad, because I like very much that a couple of non-fiction pieces made their way into The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror series (the other is Douglas Winter’s flawed essay “The Pathos of Genre” from the thirteenth volume, which I criticized in New Genre #4); it suggests that critical writing about fantasy and horror fiction, written by its practitioners, is of value.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

90. Horror fiction notes (3/7) } "...his protective suit."

Ellen Datlow chose two stories by Jonathan Carroll for inclusion in the 1991 edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror—“The Panic Hand” and “The Sadness of Detail” (the latter, also chosen by Terri Windling, the fantasy half of the series). (Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell took Carroll’s “The Dead Love You” for their Best New Horror 2.)

I see a parallel between Carroll’s “The Sadness of Detail” and T.E.D. Klein’s “Ladder”: both present an image of God, and while Klein’s God is childishly cruel, Carroll’s is heartbreaking. There’s a whisper of  W. W. Jacob’s “The Monkey’s Paw”—but it’s not anything like that story. I see a parallel between “The Sadness of Detail” and Jack Womack’s “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”: the horror of Alzheimer’s. Datlow and Windling placed “The Sadness of Detail” last in the book, absolutely the right choice.

A reviewer for Kirkus compared Carroll to John Collier and Saki. I’ll add Paul Bowels to that list. The same Kirkus review (of the 1996 collection The Panic Hand) states, “Carroll's weaker stories are slight and uninvolving, but his best are among the finest fantasies being written today.” I’m suspicious of this kind of comment—it may be accurate—I just made a similar remark about T.E.D. Klein—but it might also be a sign that the reviewer failed to appreciate the more subtle stories in the collection. I really don’t know—I haven’t read The Panic Hand.

I have, however, read “The Panic Hand.” Aside from loving the title, high school Adam didn’t think much of this story. Maybe I failed to understand that it’s about more than just a manipulative child (manipulative on the scale of The Twilight Zone), but is also about a pedophile. Or at least a pedophile in the making. Strip out that reading, and we’re left with a fairly satisfying fantasy story; but as Carroll has it, the story becomes horror. A fine illustration of the thin wall between genre.

Why collaborate to write a short story? This is not a rhetorical question. I can’t think of many fiction collaborations that generated work better than the work the authors write individually. Titus Andronicus is not better than Othello. Maybe it’s better than The Battle of Alcazar? I don’t know, though. Do chime in. I am currently collaborating with Anna Eyre on a series of cantos called On Land, so I know how a poetic collaboration of a certain type might work, that is, by treating the lines we each produce as found text we can rearrange, erase, add too, etc. When I work with Anna, authorship ceases to matter: it is we. And I love that.

I suppose with a fiction collaboration, as with a collaboration in verse, you set up a system. In the case of Lucius Shepard and Robert Frazier, I imagine Shepard was assigned to rough out the South American setting, the sex scenes with the barely legal prostitute, and the descriptions of psychotropic drug use. So what does that leave Frazier? The best scene in “The All-Consuming”: the main character rests in a clearing deep in a toxic future-jungle, surrounded by deadly flora and fauna, entranced by “a cloud pool” and his surroundings:
Through gaps in the foliage, Arce could see the slender trunks of other gargantuas rising above the canopy, vanishing into a bank of low clouds. And in the middle distance, its translucent flesh barely visible against the overcast, a rainbird flapped up from a stinger palm and beat its way south against the prevailing wind. Acre watched it out of sight, captivated by the almost impalpable vibration of its wings, by the entirety of the scene, with its gaudy array of colors and exotic vitality. At times like this, he was able to shrug off the bitter weight of his past for a few moments and delight in the mystery he inhabited.
Nothing else in the story interests as much as that description of replenishing solitude—a solitude so rich and satisfying as to make the main character’s escape from this jungle at the end of the story much less redemptive than it’s supposed to be. Oh and Arce? Arce is a terrible name for a main character—is it meant to be read as “arch” or “are-say”? I read it as “arse,” as in kiss my….

I’m a little surprised Datlow chose “The All-Consuming”; the elements of horror are awfully mild. However, I appreciate Datlow’s expansive take on horror—more than appreciate it: Datlow’s openness to work that skirts the genre is a part of what made The Year’s Bests so important to me in the early 1990s, when I was just beginning to read contemporary horror fiction.

Has anyone read The Talisman?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

89. Horror fiction notes (2/7) } the broken span.

During a panel at a fantasy convention Peter Straub turned to me and said, “I know you! You’re New Genre.” I moderated the panel. The subject was… oh I don’t remember. We were in the largest ballroom and it was packed with other weirdoes. Straub sparkles at these conventions.

Typically, the “pros” who end up on panels never prepare, but rely on wit they lack. Retread jokes. When I used to attend conventions, whenever I was asked to participate on a panel, I prepared, often well in advance. People pay sometimes hundreds of dollars for travel and admission. It’s rude not to prepare. It’s arrogant.

In 2001, at a convention held in Manhattan, I attended a panel about vampire lit. The assholes on stage knew nothing. Straub, who was in the audience, raised his hand, ostensibly to make a small point, but actually to rescue the idiot panelists. He shared insights he’d had while rereading Bram Stoker’s Dracula in preparation for writing an introduction to a new Modern Library edition. His talk was lively and enlightening.

Afterward, I asked him if he’d write a blurb for New Genre. He did. When I mentioned this to someone else attending the conference, they snickered about Straub tossing out blurbs left and right, but I remained pleased; not just to have a blurb from Straub, but by the content of the blurb:
In speaking to the need for new forums and a greater seriousness, New Genre is extremely welcome. I support the journal whole-heartedly.
“Greater seriousness” is exactly New Genre. For that matter, if you haven’t already sussed, greater seriousness is a mandate I bring to horror fiction generally, not just via New Genre. That’s what makes me such humorless fun.

I haven’t read all of Straub’s short fiction, but all I’ve read is good. “A Short Guide to the City” is good, without much in terms of plot or resolution. I’ve only read pieces of the book the story’s from—Houses Without Doors. I read “Blue Rose” in Dennis Etchison’s Cutting Edge anthology, possibly when that anthology was published in 1987, and “The Juniper Tree” in Douglas Winter’s Prime Evil anthology. Truthfully, I’ve read very little of Straub’s work—I look forward to it.

Ellen Datlow introduces K.W. Jeter’s “The First Time” as “brutal,” which is a mistake, because intended or no, that’s a dare, and inevitably my first reaction was, Well it wasn’t that brutal. I’m not saying Datlow is wrong, mind you, but best to find out for yourself.

“The First Time” is good, a story about a young man brought by his father, his uncle, and their friends to a brothel that provides a very unique service. Jeter is interested in the way men are taught to use women. Especially effective is the image of a diagram charting the parts of a woman’s body a Christian man is allowed to touch before marriage:
One time, when they’d been alone, she’d given him a piece of paper that she’d had folded up in the back pocket of her jeans. The paper had gotten shaped round, the same shape as he butt, and he’d felt funny taking it an unfolding it…. You had to be engaged, with a ring and everything, before you could unhook her bra. He’d kept the piece of paper, tucked in one of his books at home. In a way, it’d been kind of a relief, just to know what was expected of him.
This diagram becomes a talisman of sorts, though in the end it’s only a bitter reminder of something lost.

Jeter’s story reminded me of Robert Aickman’s “The Swords,” which actually takes a violent sexual awakening a lot further than “The First Time,” in spite of Aickman’s choice to eschew gore.

Friday, June 7, 2013

88. Horror fiction notes (1/7) } "...a joke about Fibber McGee’s closet...”

I’m rereading fiction from The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror: Fourth Annual Collection (1991), edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. The spine is broken at Jack Womack’s “Out of Sight, Out of Mind.” I photocopied this story for a college professor who was willing to consider my earnest insistence that contemporary horror fiction has literary worth. I’m no longer sure Womack’s story is compelling evidence, I need to reread it, nor am I so keen as I was to defend the genre.

T.E.D. Klein’s “Ladder” is included in the same volume—I was surprised to come across a Klein story I didn’t remember. Klein is the author of “The Events at Poroth Farm,” a story I love and frequently reread. His collection of novellas, Dark Gods, is very good. I lost interest in his novel The Ceremonies, an expansion of The Events at Poroth Farm, after just a few chapters.

I didn’t remember “Ladder” because it isn’t very good. Datlow wrote, in her brief introduction to the piece,  “Usually more comfortable in the novella length, Klein proves with ‘Ladder’ that he can produce equally powerful work in a shorter length.” In fact, “Ladder” is an undeveloped conceit, tediously explained in the last section.

Much is made of Klein’s small body of work; which is why coming across a bad Klein story is especially disappointing. I can’t help wonder what story wasn’t included in the ’91 Year’s Best to make room for “Ladder.”

Typically in a year’s best—any year’s best, genre or otherwise—I find only a few stories that are excellent. The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror averaged about five per volume. That’s out of about fifty stories. Half that if we consider just horror. In the Fourth Annual, I only remember a couple. Elizabeth Massie’s “Stephen” and the Womack. As I reread, I’ll remember more, and maybe discover work high school Adam wasn’t ready to appreciate.

Adrian Cole telegraphs too much in “Face to Face.” Throughout, the protagonist notes his disappearing features in a mirror, so when we’re told why and sort-of-how, there’s no surprise—for that matter, the why is unsurprising as well. The weakest moment comes when the protagonist discovers the whorls on his fingers gone, “There was nothing there, as though every line, every crease, had been wiped off.” His reaction? “I need a good sleep, he thought. It came easily.” Come on.

The story is not without its strengths. Cole moves from one character’s point of view to another, in third person, effectively (though ultimately to little purpose; this is a story that would be immediately improved by changing p.o.v. to the first). The last scene, during which the protagonist observes a surgery performed by a robot, is tense and successfully ghastly. Not enough of a payoff, however. “Face to Face” is a story with no real resonance, regardless of the anxieties—computers and robots reducing humankind to parts, corporate evil, loss of identity—that are its subjects.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Coming Home” takes a very simple premise—an adult returns to the house haunted by a childhood horror—and makes it complex with two generations of children in foster care, all in the midst of their difficult childhoods, a carefully drawn and unique house, and numerous ghosts. Time gets lost. Atmosphere is all.

Both The Year’s Best and its English counterpart, Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell’s Best New Horror, reprinted Thomas Ligotti’s “The Last Feast of Harlequin” for their 1991 editions (K.W. Jeter’s “The First Time,” Peter Straub’s “A Short Guide to the City,” and Massie’s “Stephen” the others that overlap). “The Last Feast of Harlequin” is reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," but takes direct inspiration from Lovecraft's "The Festival" (thanks to John Magwitch--see comments), while also making reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Conqueror Worm” (and more subtly references Poe when the narrator of Ligotti’s story describes Mirocaw, the city in which the events of the story take place. The description is fairly long and very detailed, a la Poe’s description of the Usher family manse).
“The Last Feast of Harlequin” is about a seasonal affective disorder that encapsulates all the grief of humanity, a subject of particular interest to Ligotti, who believes humankind would be best off extinct, as he explains in an interview with Michael Gottert:
My interest in the discontinuance of our race is extinction for humanity’s sake, a putting an end to human suffering as soon as possible. This can be accomplished only be putting an end to our species as soon as possible.
His philosophy strikes me as silly, but nonetheless I may need to revisit Ligotti. I read his first collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, and found it alternately brilliant and exhausting. That may be the intended affect.

Generally, in stories about freaks, the freaks are not the monsters.* Even in Tod Browning’s Freaks, shocking to us now because actual circus freaks were cast, the freaks are not the monsters—the moral lesson too obvious to be worth repeating. In spite of this nod to compassion, these stories are always themselves freak shows, indulging in a morbid fascination with mental and physical aberration. This is certainly true of Nancy A. Collins “Freaktent,” which contributes little (maybe nothing?) new to the circus sideshow sub-genre. The implications of the twist—predictable except in its details—are undoubtedly horrific, as is the notion that people with extreme birth-defects or extreme illnesses might become a commodity, but the balance is off, emphasizing the gross-out over corruption.

*Can anyone name stories or films in which the circus freaks are the monsters?

This quote, from an interview with Ellen Datlow conducted in 1997 by Dave Truesdale, caught my attention:
Newer writers seduced into writing in the Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. universes get stuck in the cycle of easy money for little work and this stunts their literary growth by discouraging them from creating their own worlds. I know this sounds harsh but I feel this short-sighted trend is destroying the future of sf and fantasy, creatively and also in the marketplace. By encouraging it, book publishers are flooding the market with movie/tv/game spinoffs, debasing the coin of the realm in readers' eyes.
What “newer writers” did Datlow have in mind? Nancy A. Collins made me think of Datlow’s criticism, but Collins didn’t do any tie-in work till the mid-nineties, and those were comic books—a different beast. Most of the authors I know who do tie-in work—Elizabeth Hand and Brian Evenson, for instance—made reputations for themselves before taking on such work. I guess I wouldn’t know the names of authors who mainly write tie-in work.

(I declined an invitation to write a story for a tie-in anthology. I was at first pleased to be asked, but I grew quickly uneasy with the job.)

Datlow’s quote is uncharacteristically idealistic for a professional earning a living by publishing horror and science fiction. She urges young writers to pass up “easy money” for the sake of their “literary growth.” So often at the conventions such professionals attend, and in their writing about writing, there is a disdain for such idealism. That one might write for intangible reasons, and choose to publish in markets one respects regardless of pay, is characterized as foolish.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

87. Signals from } between the folds.

Signals is my favorite Rush album. Vanessa Gould is directly responsible for this. We worked together for a summer at the Boston Museum of Science, and I asked her what bands she liked. When she said Rush, I asked what album was good. a sensible Rush fan, she said Permanent Waves, or maybe Moving Pictures. I guess Signals was cheapest, or all Mystery Train had in stock when I went.

Vanessa Gould directed Between the Folds, a short documentary film about origami, specifically origami as an intersection between art and science. Gould’s narrative structure is elegant, beginning with a man who makes the paper he folds and with eccentrics who fold “damp,” a technique that lends paper the expressiveness of clay, to abstract origami artists, to mathematicians who use origami to teach geometry, and ultimately to mathematicians who map advanced maths to origami and think about the practical applications origami suggests.

Gould said, in Nature, that she worried about the science in the film: would the science, that so appealed to her, be off-putting to a general audience? She said, “The aim was to show science in a poetic and romantic way, but with depth so it could appeal to existing scientists and maybe titillate non-scientists.” The mathematics is where the documentary takes off; the last subject of the film is Dr. Eric Demaine, the youngest MIT professor in the Institute’s history, a homeschooled lad who sees folding as a characteristic of everything; he thinks we might force a virus—such as HIV—to take a shape that would make it benign. His ideas impress more than the hyper-detailed origami sculpture seen at the beginning of the film.

Between the Folds is Gould’s directorial debut. Inspired by The New York Times obituary of origami artist Eric Joisel (an artist featured in the film), her next project is a documentary about the obituary writers at the Times.

One afternoon after work, she gave me a ride, to somewhere I don’t remember. We didn’t listen to Rush; we were mostly quiet. She told me she once searched the floor of her Jeep for enough change to buy some gas—50¢ to get home to Concord. Her eyeglasses were thick. Her blond hair, too. I was intimidated by her evident intelligence.

We didn’t forge a friendship—I imagine, if she were to read this, she’d be hard-pressed to remember me at all. I might’ve liked to be friends, but I was so weird I probably prevented myself from doing anything to lead to a friendship. Until now, I only ever thought of her when I got in the mood to listen to Signals and then lo, a week ago, I stumbled across a documentary directed by Vanessa Gould. It’s possible the Vanessa Gould who directed Between the Folds isn’t the same Vanessa Gould who introduced me to Rush.

It’s likely.

[The image above is a portrait by Alma Haser. To see more of here work, visit her site.]

Thursday, April 25, 2013

86. Shane Carruth } encrypts buckle-pan with data.

The machine they build is a ramshackle box, kind of like the movie Crammed.

Months passed, then years, then the lanky guy who’d left film-found odd voice recordings says, “And if you look, you won’t find me.”

The trees open up to reveal a slight deviation in his parents. Flashes of data, barely seen at all. “So, that’s work, Dad?”

Rooting around dirt forts, he’s hard-pressed to recall the name of a single co-worker from his engineering days. What he really wanted was a belief that they could find new truths in the account. People fill up message boards and YouTube videos and multi-part, critical exegeses with their thoughts. “But some of that stuff, I just get spun up.”

To see it, a lot of people stopped paying attention to him altogether. Enthused confusion about data bracketing.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

85. 1913 } is not really sure.

Today, mass-emailed, the announcement that 1913: A Journal of Forms, will print only if funds are successfully raised via Kickstarter. My stake in the project is “When You Speak Your Desire for Another,” actually one panel of a triptych, hacked from my submission that 1913 solicited. I was pleased to be asked and included, if mildly frustrated by the selective communication by the editor.

I like the idea of being in an issue of 1913—my first experience with the journal was #2, which impressed me very much with its actual heft, a striking, Tiffany-blue cover, and with the inclusion of poems by John Taggart and Fanny Howe.

The Kickstarter pitch is peculiar. To summarize: help fund a print edition of #6, unless you think 1913 should go digital. Of course it shouldn’t go digital; read the editor’s faltering query and you'll understand why not:
…since 2003 we at 1913 have been devoted to printing (yes, actually printing!) a paper journal chock full of the baddest in contemporary writing and art of all forms, alongside galleries of predecessors. …Print journals come with attendant joys, as well as their inherent costs. Is it time to move 1913 a journal of forms online, to new conversations of form? Or is there something about a print magazine that still necessitates, converses, engages?
Is it time to go digital because printing costs money?—that’s the crux of the matter, not, Is it time to go digital because digital can offer something to the form?

1913 makes fine books. Their journal is a desirable object, crammed with the poetry of many innovative poets, not least of all me. My wish to be in a print issue of 1913 is sincere. I hope that, in spite of their unfortunately hesitant pitch, money will be contributed.

$25 gets a copy of the issue (if the funds are raised to print it). If issue 6 is anything like its predecessors, $25 is a very reasonable price for a copy. My payment for the poem-fragment they’ve taken is a contributor’s copy of the print issue—that is to say, my contribution is already made.

Monday, April 22, 2013

84. Rose and Valerie } screaming from the gallery.

Maxwell Edison is a serial killer, his trademark a silver hammer-blow to the head. He convinces Joan, a student of “pataphysical science” to go with him to see a film, but when she answers his knock at the door, he murders her. “Bang bang!” he shouts. Before he murders his teacher, who keeps him after school for acting up in class, he writes, over and over, “I must not be so.” What he must not be is a blank—what is he? He is thorough. He “made sure that she was dead.”

He’s arrested by police constable #31, who, stunned by Maxwell’s foul flat utters, coughing— “We’ve caught a dirty one.”

On trial, Maxwell hardly pays attention, but parodies the courtroom sketch artist by sketching testimonials. Two women, known only as Rose and Valerie, must be removed from the court for shouting, “Max must go free!” As Maxwell is sentenced, he hears the judge bowdlerize the phrase Maxwell wrote on the classroom chalkboard—the judge, “tells them so”—, and Maxwell fantasizes killing the judge with his silver hammer, the head of it shattering the judge’s glass face “as the words are leaving his lips”—“Bang bang.”

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

83. More video lies } from the Unfinished House.

The following is an excerpt from the column Video Lies, a regular feature in the 1990s ‘zine Kraken Farmer, edited by the mighty Lucy Kurtz, available at Tower Records and Flyrabbit.

Body Melt. Dir. Philip Brophy. Perf. Gerard Kennedy, Andrew Daddo, and Regina Gaigalas. Prism Entertainment Corporation, 1993. Videocassette.

Blue-lit nude witch with mechanical witch tits sez, “I fixed Ryan.” Ryan’s computer cigarette, Pebble Court graphics, writes an address. Fade to suburban cul-de-sac, red-orange mailbox, “regula Vegula” vitamins. Vit-ah-mins. Phil C-c-collins. “I’m serious, mate.” Ryan uses detergent to keep himself together. 1. hallucinogenic, 2. glandular microcassette recorder.

Int. Airport. Day: hallucinate. Offer a dying man a fag, “it’s a killing machine it got everything.” Horizon cigarettes, smoked by a bruise. Int. Paul’s at Pebble Court. Day. The bruise appears healed and opens Paul’s chest for another pack of cigarettes, Smoke a fresh breath.

Cannibal families choose Chesterfield cigarettes. Truck circles, “Keep it inbred the family.” Watch pornography. The hallway wall a KISS mask museum. Pud eats kangaroo adrenal gland and Pud can can. Detective Phillips detects fitness: “We’re only just shifted here.” Helium voiced he-men. Cheryl’s pregnancy dust picked up by leftover stethoscope. Instead of a baby, steam. She names the baby Steam. Foaming father butterfly swallows his wings and family evacuates.

What is important about Body Melt? Bodies.