My friend Selena Chambers‘ collection is out today! Calls for Submission is long-awaited for some of us, and I hope you’ll take a look and see if it’s something you might like. You may have seen her work in a bunch of places, including most recently at LitHub: “The Women Surrealists Helping Me Through Our New Political Reality.” If you want to find more on this book today, the hashtag #CFSBOOK should be popping up around the internets. Check it out, y’all:
Later this month, my short story “Be Still, My Dear, and Listen” will be podcast over at Pseudopod. The story originally appeared in a 2015 issue of Richmond lit mag Makeout Creek, published in conjunction with The Great Southern, a Twin Peaks festival here in the RVA. If you like Twin Peaks, horror, and/or audio fiction, it may just be your jam!
As you might guess, the timing is not accidental, coinciding as it does with the launch of the Twin Peaks reboot. I’ll post when the story’s up, but I’m pretty darn—no, pretty damn—excited.
Middle of last week I got the word that the VCU Communication Arts students’ Senior Expo was coming up on Friday. I’ve occasionally been to shows featuring work by Comm Arts students, but the description of the setup was great, and—By The Bats Of Mike Mignola!—the art was freaking great. The students brought their A game, and frankly the quality of what I saw was on par with what I’ve seen at conventions and fairs. Some of the highlights for me included…
Illustrations of a cluster of figs and a Japanese flying squid, by Lohitha Kethu, the latter of which currently graces the front page of my library’s website as part of an exhibit at our medical library. Scientific illustration’s been on my brain lately, as the digital arts and humanities initiative I’ve led for some years had a panel + workshop this spring that was on the topic. Kethu’s illustrations grabbed me because one was quite familiar, but the other—well, I like figs, and the clarity and detail of her work brought them immediately to life.
Corey Hannah Summers‘ work caught my eye as I was on the way out, off in a nook that I hadn’t seen walking into the expo. She had a few more original paintings on display than some of the students, which I appreciated, as well as a crop of stickers, a few of which I had to have (those teeth!).
Summers’ paintings can be seen on her website, but here’s an antler study that grabbed me from across the room. The warm accents really made it stand out, given how many bones-and-antlers paintings I’ve seen that go entirely warm or cool.
There were many, many other cool things on display, from Elly Call‘s tarot deck, to Norine King‘s stickers of heroic women, to Mike Collier‘s fangs and gaming-related swag, to Will Sullivan‘s atmospheric concept art. Near the start of the show, my eyes were caught by Emma Welch‘s Parasite. Parasitic & symbiotic imagery always gets me, but I’ve been consuming even more art than usual that plays with these themes, from a re-watch of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, to Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel, Borne.
Really, the overall quality of the show was outstanding. I went in not knowing what I’d see, and I was repeatedly struck by the work our students are doing. It should also be said that the “artists alley”-type setup in The Depot really worked well, and the turnout was great, with folks turning out from all over the university and surrounding community.
Sunday we went to Arts in the Park in Byrd Park, a first for us, despite having lived here for years. The arts and crafts on display were high quality, and the weather was great for walking around. With 450+ vendors, there was more than enough to see, even passing over the stuff that wasn’t our thing.
The first booth we stopped at was that of Mary Ann Vessey, a painter from the Shenandoah Valley. She uses her paintings to tell stories and show off the land she loves, often through the lens of changing seasons, and there were a number of holiday-themed paintings on display, prints of two of which we picked up. Halloween is having a moment right now, but it’s also our thing, for all the reason you’d imagine.
We wandered the show and had a great time, admiring Debi Dwyer‘s 3D stained glass creations and Molly Sims‘ vivid, beautiful animals, among other things. Stephen Brehm‘s oil paintings were among my favorite in the show, as he has both a way with light on water, and a deft hand at bringing background light and color into the shadows. There were plenty of paintings to be found at the show, from abstract to whimsical to landscape, but his stayed with me.
Toward the end, we found our way into what was the most exciting and surprising booth in the show, that of Allison Funk, an artist specializing in prints, from woodblock to linocut to monotype. I wasn’t sure when we went to the show what, if anything, I’d be buying, but that immediately switched over from an “if” to “which one” when I saw her prints.
It’s hard not to think of Expressionist woodcuts looking at Funk’s work, but you can see shades of more contemporary styles, as well. Handling of flesh that echoes the honesty of Freud, compositions with the feel of Albright or Munch: these and many more things struck me, but—to be clear—they struck me because of her deft use and strong style. From the way she works with shadows to her use of reflective surfaces, Funk clearly has a style of her own.
I considered but did not buy a print of a version Funk did of an iconic scene from The Walking Dead. I’ve seen various art derived from the show, but none that have been as good. Funk’s take on it was as clear and iconic as the many subsequent versions we’ve seen of Night of the Living Dead, and I think it will appeal to many. For me, it encapsulates the pathos of Kirkman’s vision as clearly as anything else I’ve seen.
Ultimately I walked away with a quieter print, a linocut with watercolor that spoke to me the moment I walked into the booth. Funk’s work is “pensive” in the best possible sense of the word, and it’s no surprise she discusses “self-reflection” in her artist’s statement. The prints she pulls are all fundamentally moments taken out of time, with tension rising from things have come and gone, or are yet to be.
Her vision feels distinctly more urban than I would expect from any given artist out of Staunton. And it’s happily not full of the contemporary clichés that connote “urban,” but istead is part of the patchwork of city life that has captured the interest of creators as diverse as George Bellows and Kathe Koja. Her scenes are tight, with a world pressing in that is kept at bay by walls and curtains, where her subjects consider things that are just out of sight, be they people or ideas. I look forward to seeing her work grow and change over time.
There exist many, many ways to spread the word about books and authors you love. The world is full of things that demand our time, and authors generally are grateful for the time you spend doing these things. And, at the end of the day, what’s more important: that Goodreads review, or posting a photo of your current reading on Facebook? Hard to say, but one time-tested way for authors to find audiences is for their books to enter library collections.
Have you recommended a favorite book to your local library, if they don’t own it? Libraries buy books based on many factors, from past circulation success to reviews to awards (and different libraries care about different review venues, awards, etc.). Recommendations are also a big factor. I’m an academic librarian, and we make purchasing decisions based on a slightly different formula than public libraries, but whatever the library, a patron request must be considered, even if the book-buying librarian in question chooses not to purchase the title (because they don’t believe it fulfills community needs, doesn’t fit within library guidelines, etc.).
Are the authors listed below doing well or poorly? Depends on your perspective, though my experience as an author to date is that, while I celebrate successes, I’m always looking to the next frontier. My short story collection is sitting with a publisher right now, and I’m waiting not all that patiently for a response, but so it goes. When the day comes that my books are out there on the shelves, I’m sure I’ll be irritated that they aren’t selling more.
Now, to some examples. I used WorldCat, a sort of super-catalog of library catalogs, to find these numbers. Devils lurk in the details, as you might guess. WorldCat has flaws, and it’s never fully in sync with every library’s holdings because of how libraries add and subtract books. Still, the numbers below are in the ballpark for holdings in North America, with some content from further afield. (It’s also worth saying that the below don’t really include YA; that would be another post.)
Author A, a renowned writer of weird fiction whose career has enjoyed tremendous success in recent years, including awards, Hollywood’s attention, book tour action, etc., is an example of an author whose star has risen… and is still rising. The phrase “transcending genre” has a long and not wholly savory lineage, but it’s unmistakably the case that this author has entered new arenas, even while holding to the same literary values and contacts as they always have. Their very recently released novel is already held or on order at over 300 libraries. The first volume of their recent trilogy is held in various formats and translations by over 2000 libraries.
Author B, a mostly-indie writer and notable online personality is doing well, library-wise; their novel from last year is in over 300 libraries. I’d say that’s a fine showing. It’s about 10% the holdings of Stephen King’s most widely held books, but still: doing well. Their early-2000s novel is also doing well over a decade on for what could fairly be described as a niche novel, held by over 100 libraries.
Author C, who writes and publishes in SFF, horror, and related areas, worked hard to break in with a 2015 novel. They have some connections and have been active for years, and even so, the book just didn’t get quite the attention it could have… but it still made its way into over 250 libraries. Their 2016 novel is doing a-OK, having found its way into over 550.
Author D, a horror writer who’s justly recognized as a significant stylist and has published a number of books, is not held as widely as some of the above examples. Their much-praised 2016 novel is held by about 100 libraries. Their award-winning late-00s collection is held by over 200.
Author E, who writes contemporary and genre fiction, often with a magical realist stripe, is the first author I’m mentioning here who gets some attention as an author, giving readings and speaking to classes, getting nominated for awards, and all the good reputation-building things… and just doesn’t have that much library shelf space. Their 2013 novel is held by about 25 libraries. Their late-00s short story collection has had some staying power, with over 40 copies in libraries. Still, this author could definitely stand to be read more widely.
Author F, who writes horror and related work, gets a ton of praise in many circles but is not getting much love from libraries. They publish relatively slowly and don’t have the long track record of some authors. Their early-10s first collection is held by under 20 libraries, and their recent second collection is held by about 20.
Author G, a writer of horror and weird fiction who likewise gets a lot of praise in many circles, also doesn’t get all that much love from libraries. Their recent short story collection is held by just over 30 libraries. Their relatively recent award-winning anthology is held by less than 15 libraries. That maybe isn’t surprising, given its niche topic, but 15 libraries? That’s unfortunate (and undeservedly low, in my opinion).
A few observations that will surprise almost none of you:
- Coverage in review venues like Booklist, Library Journal, etc. helps sales.
- Coverage in major newspapers and literary review venues helps more.
- Authors high on the list have extensive networks derived from a combination of teaching, non-fiction writing, journalism, and/or working in publishing.
- Authors high on the list have written multiple novels that, to one extent or another, look like the market. Each have their own stamp, and they don’t write poppy fiction, but they are writing books that fall into recognizable, living types of books (call them genres, modes, or whatever you wish).
- Authors high on the list work not just hard but consistently at getting the word out about their books. Not on release day, and not in the first six weeks: until they have a new book to promote.
- Major presses do better at getting books out into libraries than most small presses. You may love Disco Lemur Press, but do they actually sell books?
- Gatekeepers and important voices in a field can highlight a given author, but that may not translate to library sales.
- Short story collections generally don’t sell as well to libraries as novels.
- Self-published books are not a significant part of any of these authors’ library presences. Many, many libraries don’t buy self-pubbed books, and that’s unlikely to change until such time as the literary economy changes.
- The above list skews male toward the top, but I make no claims about any bias here, as I used a convenience sample that is representative of nothing other than authors who came to mind. Naturally, though, projects like the VIDA Count and the recent report by the Fireside Fiction Company tell compelling stories that are relevant here.
How can you help authors you like get into libraries? Look for the option to “Recommend a Purchase” or “Suggest a Title” on your library’s website. If you can’t find it or don’t want to do it that way, ask at the checkout, information, or reference desk at your library. They’ll be happy to tell you how to recommend the book.
All of the above goes double for that author whose books you love, but who is with a small press or series of small presses. Short of huge demand, most of them won’t make it into libraries, and who uses libraries most? It’s more complicated than you think, but here are some stats. They may surprise you.
Are you in Richmond or Richmond-adjacent? This weekend will see the inaugural edition of the RVA Lit Crawl, two days of literary readings around the town at many different venues. Each is a group reading, with authors focused around a theme or project, and they look great (schedule)!
I’ll be in the “Sci-Fi and Fantasy” reading, along with authors Bill Blume, Meriah Crawford, Dennis Danvers, Phillip Hilliker, and Eric Smith. Come hear us at 6:30 p.m. this Saturday at the Urban Farmhouse down in Shockoe Slip. We hope to see you there!
What’s new, pussycat? A couple of largely news-free writing months for me. As I expected a while back, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple months raising my voice, doing my best to help hold power accountable, etc., etc. No glory in it, but when your elected representatives don’t just disagree with you or ignore you, but actually lie to the media regularly about your existence… you have to speak up.
Alas for missing AWP, given it was just a couple hours away, but I have other things on the go, and hours and dollars are finite. This year I plan to attend ICFA and NecronomiCon, both with my scholarly hat on (though I’m participating in a group reading at ICFA, and TBD about NecronomiCon). If things go as planned, I’ll also be participating in some group readings around Richmond this year. Details forthcoming.
Are you a writer? Do you aspire to make any money from your writing, but aren’t quite there yet? Read Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin. It’s new out this year, and it’s got some really good stuff in it about aspects of the writing life that often go publicly unaddressed, and about which many people are not well informed. All sorts of good essays and interviews in it, and worth its weight in gold for the blend of windows it offers into the life of the “full time writer.” In some regards it’s of a piece with Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better, which I’ve previously mentioned, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife.
The Moldova of Nic Mathieu’s 2016 directorial debut, Spectral, is a blasted, destroyed landscape, full of war and refugees without end. Everyone in this film is displaced to one extent or another by ongoing political instability, from the civilians hunkered down in bunkers to protagonist Mark Clyne, a DARPA researcher played by James Badge Dale who is sent from Virginia to Eastern Europe to troubleshoot a possible technology malfunction on-site. Whether it’s set in the present day or the near future is unclear, although the technology on gleaming, fetishistic display is far enough advanced to suggest the latter, even if it springs from some projects currently in development, like quadrupedal robots. If you decide to take the 107 minutes to watch this (on Netflix, where it was released), you’re going to be spending a lot of time looking at machines, as well as the people who operate them.
The film’s beats are familiar to any viewer who has seen Aliens (1986), Starship Troopers (1997), or similar military science fiction stories, from the orphaned waif with secret knowledge to effects-heavy firefight sequences that only resolve after a targeted strike. Added supernatural frisson comes from the film’s titular antagonists: hyperspectrals, murderous entities of unknown origin that are visible only via the use of advanced optical devices fielded by Delta Force teams. The pacing and shots, however, tell a clear genre story, as it lacks almost entirely the jump scares of many contemporary horror films, or the slow-building dread of classics like The Haunting (1963) or Alien (1975).
If you’re looking for a decent action flick to watch over the holidays, you could do a lot worse than Spectral. Lacking the R rating of bug-hunts like Aliens, this PG-13 film is low on gore, and the many deaths on screen are largely bloodless. The fatigue and street battle action all feel plausible, with none of the hyper-masculine banter and action the genre often features. There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, few female characters with audience rooting interest. Emily Mortimer gets plenty of screen time in her co-lead role as CIA officer Fran Madison, and she has a significant role in the narrative’s unfolding, but for most of the film she serves as a foil and aid to Clyne, moving in and out of her role as CIA “mission control” as the plot demands. The actors who played the various Delta Force soldiers all do serviceable jobs, though their mortality rate and a largely undistinguished script caused them to blur together for me. Bruce Greenwood gives a decent, if slightly reserved, performance as General Orland, leader of the U.S. troops deployed to the area. Elsewhere I’ve said Spectral ranks “three specters out of five,” and that’s where I land, review-wise. From this point on we enter spoiler territory.
As Netflix has shrunk their catalogue in order to focus on producing original shows, increasingly their streaming options have included one-star stinkers that lack the charm of VHS-era direct-to-video. Spectral, originally slated for a theater release by Legendary Pictures, is more engaging than said one-star snoozes, as well as many other good military SF films, and certainly more so than big budget disasters like 2013’s inexplicably and unforgivably boring Ender’s Game. This stems from many things, but none more than its nuanced treatment of environments subjected to human reshaping and degradation. That the characters are aware of these processes is clear, though they rarely interrogate them, and instead seem to take it for granted as the price that is necessary for states to operate, whether controlling internal conflict, or projecting global force.
Spectral shows off landscapes ruined by humans from the outset, and for the most part doesn’t show anything like pristine spaces. The opening sequence follows a Delta Force veteran, cut off from his comrades and in need of evac. En route to his fatal encounter, where we get our first glimpse of a hyperspectral, he crosses shattered, rubble-choked spaces and rooms, a built landscape undone by some unknown conflict, the precise nature of which is ultimately irrelevant to the film.
This theme of damaged landscape carries through into the next scene, where we meet Clyne, hunting through a Virginia junkyard for a difficult-to-obtain toxic chemical. Current government regulations, including those which surround the DARPA lab where he works, render legitimate access problematic, but as a cynical and knowledgable scientist, Clyne is aware that regulatory loopholes have allowed 1990s-era cartridges containing said material to go unnoticed in the middle of a space designated for ruination.
Even the “clean” spaces of the movie, labs and modular command posts, are shown in aging, time-worn contexts, not the gleaming, technophilic aura that surrounds Tony Stark’s primary bases of operation in Iron Man (2008), The Avengers (2012), etc. Toward the conclusion, during a retreat from a (human) attack on Orland’s base to a civilian refugee bunker, Osprey helicopters bring giant crates of useful, still-intact supplies and land these gleaming, metallic arks on piles of mounds of dirt and rubble. Anything safe, hygienic, or useful exists in a protected space, subject to pollution once the seals are broken, whether that pollution is noxious gas or decays of protocol.
While an early red herring suggests that the hyperspectrals may be “aratare,” ghosts of war raised by the suffering of war’s victims, the enemies on screen are all human or man-made. They are, it develops, 3D-printed ghosts that were formed out of Bose-Einstein condensate in the heart of a power plant that is the setting for the climax. Here Clyne and Madison make their way through a corpse-laden research facility to discover the origin of and destroy the enemy. They find, however, that these weaponized specters are on the loose due to a disaster, that freed many of their number from the holding cells where half of their number still rage. Along with these cells, our protagonists find that these manufactured ghosts are controlled by intact human nervous systems extracted from bodies and imprisoned in coffin-like structures where they are kept in a constant state of pain. Ending the menace involves a struggle to decouple various tubes and clamps giant, with no clear understanding of what side-effects may arise from the systems’ destruction, and no possible salvation for the population of imprisoned and tormented undead cyborgs.
Meanwhile, Delta Force is busy waging an all-out assault on the hyperspectrals outside of the plant. The creation of the guns they use is a MacGyver-like feat of engineering by Clyne, and in keeping with his junkyard opening, these weapons are unclean. What exactly goes into them, we don’t know, but each gun uses a large cartridge (battery? chemical?), and each shot releases a roiling cloud of dark, opaque smoke. The gunners all wear not merely heavy gear, but masks clearly designed to protect them from the weapons’ effluent. They are fighting hard-to-see monsters that rise like noxious gas from the earth, an environmental danger that they cannot combat with conventional armaments, the merely human soldiers powerless against their foes, like doughboys unequipped to face chemical weapons. Ultimately the U.S. forces beat the hyperspectrals with toxic pulse rifles that leave behind gases of unknown danger and duration, presumably somewhere on the spectrum between land mines in Cambodia and depleted uranium in Iraq.
Spectral is an imperfect film, with science, engineering, and physics that even Baron von Frankenstein would look askance at, but the running motif of interaction of technology and environment is thoughtfully embedded throughout, in ways large and small. The camera’s fetishistic languor when it comes to gear—weapons tests, modifying cameras, assembling guns, destroying laboratories—goes beyond signature cinematic parallels from Aliens or Commando (1985), and instead recalls the constant study, selection, and upgrading of technology embedded in shooter and other video games. Given Spectral‘s heavy use of CGI, as well as floating camera shots of battle scenes, this is perhaps not a surprise. Clyne boards a plane out of Moldova at the end, having navigated ruined environments that could have been lifted right out of either the Call of Duty franchise or the civilian-centered This War of Mine (2014). The war of Spectral is ongoing, and not won by film’s end, so Clyne’s departure doesn’t signal victory for the “good guys,” so much as it indicates that a dangerous obstacle has been removed, an environmental conflict ingeniously managed, and conflict can now proceed as usual. The film ends with Clyne swallowed up in the belly of an Osprey, ready to be transported from the field of combat back to Virginia, where he will presumably return to the lab, and resume development of new technologies.