A Few of My Favorite (Pandemic) Things: Literary Edition

Here are a few books that really floated my boat over the last 16+ months…

Cover of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book
Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Finally read this in April 2020, and it was as delightful as you might expect, given its author and its awards.
Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age. An outstanding 2020 first novel that I still find myself thinking about, for its politics, humor, and most of all its characters.
Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians has been nominated for and won a bunch of awards. And well it should! This book did new things. Scary things.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is an award-winning novel that I couldn’t put down. It draws from all sorts of topics she’s researched at length. This book felt to me like the definition of a book that springs from an author’s interests & perspective in such a way that no other author could have done the same book justice.
A couple years ago, I picked up a psychological thriller called The Kind Worth Killing, by a guy I’d never heard of: Peter Swanson. It was compelling! I’ve since gone on to read most of his books and enjoyed every one. Eight Perfect Murders was no different: a mystery about mysteries, and thoroughly Hitchcock.
Though I’ve probably read more by Stephen King than any other living author, I never got around to Doctor Sleep until recently. I’m glad I did! While it’s billed as a sequel of sorts to The Shining, it’s simply a different book, and very good.
I tore through Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood. Ware specializes in modern turns on Golden-Age tropes and techniques, revitalizing them for the 21st century. If you liked Knives Out, but you just can’t plug in to Christie, Sayers, March, and kin, try this. I’m making my way through the rest of her books, and The Death of Mrs. Westaway is also prime reading.

Whenworldscollide: Special Edition

One of the categories on this here blog that consistently gets attention, even after individual posts have fallen off most people’s radars, is “whenworldscollide.” That’s where I stick the stuff that lives in the Venn diagram of creative writing, scholarship, librarianship, and academic stuff. 2021’s been busy with that kind of stuff.

Early next year, my essay “Olympia, Wilderness, and Consumption in Laird Barron’s Old Leech Cycle” will be published in Fantastic Cities: American Urban Spaces in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. Likely not the rubric most people use for thinking about Old Leech, but it worked for me because I kept thinking about how very well Laird Barron does both Olympia and Washington, and also how little academics have yet written about either Barron or fiction set in Olympia. I probably wouldn’t have tried to write this piece back when I was first a librarian, trying to wall off different parts of my life and never really thinking about literary scholarship, but here we are.

Last week I moderated a lively discussion about the future of speculative fiction for James River Writers, the Central Virginia writing org on whose Board of Directors I served some years ago. Our conversation roamed over many topics, but I wound up juggling my writing hat and my library hat a bit, in particular on the question of genre labels and taxonomies. A tough issue that continues to get tougher as readers’ tastes solidify and specify. Many U.S. readers have no nearby bookstore they can happily browse, and many factors (not least the pandemic) have continued to drive book buyers to online sellers. In that environment, what a book is classified as can at times matter far more than it used to… to the reader, writer, publisher, OR library.

Finally, back in May I had the distinct (and new for me!) pleasure of serving as a keynote speaker at a symposium hosted by the University of Calgary, “Integrating Library, Archives and Special Collections into Creative Writing Pedagogy: An Experiential Symposium.” It was an honor and super-invigorating to present and help plan with the organizers and my fellow keynoter, David Pavelich. This event was some years in the making and had to be shifted online due to the pandemic, which put a damper on some facets and allowed for new ones, including broader attendance. None of it could have happened without the indefatigable efforts of my Canadian colleagues, Melanie Boyd, Aritha van Herk, and Jason Nisenson. Lots of great “whenworldscollide” moments here, but I have to say that it was a particular delight to talk about the research practices of various folks in horror and weird fiction.

Down and Down — Who Killed Orrin Grey?

[I’m sharing this post from the blog of my friend Orrin Grey. He’s a cool cat I’ve talked about before on this here blog, and this post is a nice example of his horror-meets-gaming writing. Many of us have this same hybrid genealogy, from humble scribblers to titan scribes, and maybe some of you will see something of yourself in this post. Check it out.]

For various reasons, I’ve had dungeons (and possibly also, to a lesser extent, dragons) on my mind of late, which I’ve already posted a bit about on here. While I’m known today as a horror writer, to those who know of me at all, I grew up with sword and sorcery every bit as much […]

Down and Down — Who Killed Orrin Grey?

Reading the Pandemic

Cover of Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay

The most prescient novel I read over the last year was Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song. Written a few years back, as writing and publishing schedules go, it was released last summer when #PandemicLife was 100% a thing, even for many people who don’t believe in EUAs or booster shots. I’d heard about the book, of course, as I always keep an ear out for Paul’s books, but it didn’t really click that it was a pandemic book.

Reader, I read one review and promptly slid that title (apologies, Paul) to the bottom of my virtual TBR pile. That happens sometimes when subject matter doesn’t work for me, and I hope that it will work down the road. In any case, I couldn’t bring myself to read a current-day book about a pandemic.

This May I finally picked up Survivor Song, and I give it two dangerously infected thumbs up. It brings together in one book many lasting or new themes in horror: rationalized monsters, pregnancy fears, high-style influence, and more. The interest in language tied to disturbed behavior that showed up in The Cabin at the End of the World and elsewhere in his work appears here, too. If you haven’t seen it, watch Pontypool shortly after reading Survivor Song for a different take on the role of language tied to mob behavior & are-they-or-aren’t-they zombies.

The most challenging part of reading the book was, in fact, reality. Like so much speculative fiction, the plot springs from trends that were clearly visible or discernible to anyone with the will to research. And yet, it was frankly disturbing to read about quarantine, mobs, street violence, troops, and crazed militiamen in the wake (?) of COVID-19 and the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. There will always be plagues and political violence, but reading this account of a fictional plague, nutters going on about the U.N., and street battles between would-be saviors and the forces of law and order felt like re-experiencing our recent struggles in an only slightly alternate timeline.

If you haven’t read Survivor Song [Amazon | B&N | Bookshop.org | Waterstones | Goodreads], check it out. Then check out the rest of Paul’s work.

P.S. I didn’t read much else pandemic-related in the last year that I’d recommend… except for one book. It wasn’t precisely about zombies, nor did it rise to the level of this book, but enjoyable and not unrelated is Thomas E. Sniegoski’s Lobster Johnson: The Satan Factory. It’s throwback pulp and overall probably of greatest interest to readers of Mike Mignola’s comics series for which it’s a tie-in, or those of us who like the occasional throwback pulp. It does offer a picture of the use of infectious, lowered-mental-capacity goons for criminal ends. If that doesn’t evoke the politics of our seditious, social-media-infected times…

The Future of Speculative Fiction

Promo logo for July 28, 2021 event about the future of Speculative Fiction, moderated by J. T. Glover and run by James River Writers

Do you read fantasy, science fiction, horror, or related genres? Do you know where you’ll be on the evening of July 28, 2021? Come check out an online panel discussion put on by James River Writers about The Future of Speculative Fiction. Hear from speakers M.K. England, Stephanie Toliver, and Nghi Vo about what’s in store for fiction that shows us alternate worlds. I’ll be moderating this exploration of what’s new, what’s back, and what’s next.

For more information and registration:
https://jamesriverwriters.org/event/july-2021-online-writing-show-the-future-of-speculative-fiction/