Courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, via The Commons at flickr
Happy October, monsters!
Has there been a more common post since the long, strange years of blogging’s heyday than “it’s been a long time since my last post?” Certainly not on this blog, dear readers. What are the haps, you ask? In quasi-brief…
My short story “Questionable Things” appeared in Synth #2 (as alluded to previously). It’s a SF story intimately tied to Blade Runner that I wrote some years ago. I shopped it around for quite some time, but it was a “bridesmaid” story, terminally getting “I loved it, but” rejections. I trunked it after playing Shadowrun Returns, on account of that game also involving SF, Seattle, and a serial killer (no spoilers, I hope, as all that’s clear from the first paragraph of my story). Ultimately, I decided I liked it too much to let it go, polished it up, and C.M. Muller accepted it for his year-long project of publishing dark SF. (Vol. V of his excellent Nightscript series is available now.)
The novel I was working on last year collapsed under its own weight. I’d tried three different versions of it, two with substantially different plot points and an epistolary version of one of those, but no dice. I got a short story out of it that I’m shopping around, but other than that, I’ve trunked it and moved on.
Other things outside of The Writing rose up and took over frequently this year. I’d like to say that I powered through and wrote every day during that time, but it ain’t so. Many’s the writer who talks about setting up your life around writing, and sticking to your guns despite all manner of personal difficulty, but I haven’t managed it. I am, however, working on a novel, a couple essays, etc., and I’m reading any number of good things — most recently Peter Clines’ The Fold. It’s old-school SF with enough contemporary goodness to feel fresh, and a few elements that I think might appeal to readers of this particular blog, heh-heh-heh…
Looking for something to curl up with over the holidays? This was a long, strange year, and what I needed most of all was engrossing narratives neither too enamored of their own cleverness, nor stylistically too filigreed. I enjoyed all of the below and recommend them to those of you seeking transportation to another world.
For those of you who don’t publish or aspire to publish your writing, part of the process often involves familiarizing yourself with magazines. Back in the print-only days, that meant ordering sample copies from a publisher, or subscribing, or (increasingly rarely as newsstands waned) going somewhere to purchase a copy in person. These days even print-only magazines often have samples of their fiction online, partly to lure would-be readers, partly to give writers an idea of what (not) to submit. This summer I was doing some cleaning and was reminded that over the years, I’ve amassed a small horde of sample copies. What you see here is a tiny fraction of it, as I have piles elsewhere of magazines I subscribed to or bought an issue or two of, including Cemetery Dance, F&SF, Grue, Deathrealm, Weird Tales, etc..
A pleasant surprise was seeing names that are familiar to me today from tables of contents, social media, conventions, and other parts of the publishing world: Allen, Cisco, Kilpatrick, Pugmire, Schwader, Schweitzer, Thomas, and many more. Some of those authors are still publishing in magazines, big and small. Some write full time, some part time. Some have had a lasting impact on readers and writers who came after them and, in some cases, followed their models.
A squamous menagerie…
I’d like to think the continued presence of these authors in the field says something about continuity, and about what makes a writer a writer (writing, yes, but publication, too). Once upon a time I bought into the idea of a standard template for authors’ literary lives, and up until a few years ago I was still thinking in those terms. The disruptions caused by publisher consolidation, e-books, etc., has changed that for me, but also taking a long, hard look at the market, and realizing that the Big 5 currently have only a sliver of a sliver of a niche for dark fiction, and it’s parceled out across the bookstores. (I’m skipping over YA and graphic novels, which are different kettles of fish, and neither of which I really write.) Instead, there are—as there were hundreds of years ago—various means for making your work public. The familiar names that I see belong to people who learned that lesson and published consistently wherever there was room, or who found a way to make room for themselves.
Less happily, the names I didn’t recognize in these magazines are as disproportionately female as those I do recognize are male. What happened to them? Hard to say, given how many writers publish a story or two and then vanish, and I don’t know every corner of the field, but many of the TOCs I saw do clearly uphold the idea of horror as a boys’ club (awareness of which has led to variousattempts at correction), and there is a host of reasons why women historically have published less often than men. Personally I love the broadening of the field in recent years. Long ago I was reading Brite, Jackson, Rice, etc., and in the last decade authors like Carter, Kiernan, Link, Llewellyn, etc. The writer just starting out today who looks back in twenty years will have a new group of authors to consider foundational, and I think it probably goes without saying, but that group will look different in more ways than one.
Aickman’s Heirs [Amazon|B&N|Publisher] is a new anthology from Undertow Publications, edited by Simon Strantzas, composed of stories written in the shadow of Robert Aickman (1914-1981). Aickman was an award-winning author of supernatural fiction, referring to his tales as “strange stories,” a moniker which has stuck due to his work’s singular character. He hasn’t been as high-flying as many other authors in terms of public citation of his influence, though that’s changed in recent years with the current wave of weird fiction, much of which quite directly engages with the tradition. In the case of Aickman, that means subtle and sometimes inscrutable tales of people’s experiences with perhaps-supernatural forces. As multiple people commented in one way or another at last year’s World Fantasy Convention, celebrating Aickman’s centennial, it’s sometimes difficult to know precisely what has happened in a strange story.
This anthology is a fine window through which to view an Aickman-ish world, and I can honestly say I enjoyed every story in the book. Some gave me more chills than others, some tugged at my heart more than others, but not a clunker in the bunch. Some of the stories I expected to enjoy based on past experience of the authors’ work: Cisco, Gavin, Langan, Marshall, Mills. Others I enjoyed and look forward to rereading a few years down the road.
One of the remarkable strengths of this anthology is that it held no less than four excellent stories by authors I hadn’t previously read much or at all. This is theoretically one of the virtues of anthologies, but it often isn’t so. If the focus on the theme is too strong, the book features well-themed stories that may be poorly written. If the focus is resolutely commercial, too many “safe” author choices. Finding one really good story in an anthology by a to-me-unknown author I take as a gift… which is why Aickman’s Heirs is surprising. Some of the authors below I’ve met at conventions or seen around online, but their work was new to me.
David Nickle‘s “Camp” is short, lean, and packed with meaning. The climax arrives with a visible cause nodded at, but workings left thoroughly unexplained. This is a story I might point to in future if asked to describe a story with a “mysterious” aspect. I currently own no David Nickle books, which this story suggests is a grave error, to be remedied as soon as is feasible.
Lynda E. Rucker‘s “The Dying Season” delivers tiny shocks all the way along its twisting, suggestive length. Striking, lyrical, and brooding. Shades of Shirley Jackson as well as Aickman, I think, or perhaps Joyce Carol Oates. I cannot imagine not buying her collection after reading this story.
Michael Wehunt‘s “A Discreet Music” shares a certain similarity to “Camp,” which I’ll leave the reader to discover. It was a strange story, but it also smacked of magical realism as much as anything specifically in-genre. Whether it’s more Kelly Link or more Gabriel García Márquez, I cannot quite say, but it’s damn good, and I’ll be on the lookout for more stories from him in the future.
Finally, Nina Allan‘s “A Change of Scene” is something of a slow burn that goes in a different direction from many others in this book. The tale of two old friends reconnecting after a many-years-long gap in their relationship is a sleeper. We follow the two women through conversation and a train ride off to what turns out to be The Strange Little Town. Allan weaves in many elements that typically have a share in the supernatural, but she leaves questions hanging as to the precise nature of the darkness the women find. I’m a sucker for ekphrasis, and this story uses it to killer effect.
A Bouquet of Undertow
Apart from the fiction, the cover is truly evocative. The artist, Yaroslav Gerzhedovich, appears to work in thin layers with various kinds of supports and media, and the sentiment he conjures fits the book perfectly. It also seems to me to fit in with the overall design of Undertow’s books, which makes the lot a pleasure to consider. His work is of a piece with that of many other artists (Santiago Caruso, Galen Dara, Kris Kuksi, Daniele Serra, etc.) who have amped up their landscape elements or decorative motifs vs. more conventionally character-heavy illustration. A welcome companion to the new golden age of weird fiction.
Aickman’s Heirs was a genuine pleasure, and I’ll happily read more Strantzas-edited anthologies down the road. Fortunately Simon is editing Volume 3 of the Year’s Best Weird Fiction, so there’s something just over the horizon.
Typically I write about horror, weird fiction, etc. Not today. Currently I’m excited by the upcoming series The Shannara Chronicles. Have you seen the trailer? No? Then check it out:
I will watch and likely enjoy the heck out of some portion of this series. I’m just not as invested in it as I am in certain other Notoriously Mangled Fantastic Intellectual Properties, and this trailer looks pretty. Once upon a time I read and enjoyed the heck out of Terry Brooks‘ fiction, although I stopped at a certain point, so all of this science-fantasy-Space-Needle-in-Shannara business is new to me, but whatever. I like science fantasy, the post-apocalypse, etc., so it’s off to the races.
Terry Book comes in for an awful lot of criticism in certain F/SF circles; if you have no idea what I’m talking about, take a look at a recent MetaFilter discussion for a summary, including links to and snippets of both vitriol and paeans. For my part, I’ll share these three things that mean I’ll be watching the series.
Shannara, as envisioned by the Brothers Hildebrandt
Thing the first. The currently predominant flavor in fantasy fiction—not talking Vampires in the Lemon Grove or “The Library of Babel,” but the stuff you find in the F/SF section in the bookstore—is dark. “Grimdark” in particular, a reaction against the pleasant, if occasionally somewhat vague, unrealities that sprang up in the wake of Tolkien. I’ve read plenty of the dark stuff, because I enjoy it and the psychological realism that often comes with it, but it has its own problems.
As one writer friend said during the latest Game of Thrones debacle, maybe—just maybe—if you regularly consume stories rich with graphic violence and brutality, you shouldn’t complain so much when graphically violent and brutal things happen. Like rape. And, lo, there were hordes of people that week on the internet running around hollering about how you don’t have to have rape in your fantasy universe if you don’t want to and isn’t George R. R. Martin horrible because his work is just chock full of rape and misogyny and how dare HBO let Sansa be raped in the show… and at a certain point I had to laugh. Not because the genuine upset people felt was funny, not because the situation in the story is funny, but because my friend was right. There are other things out there to read, watch, listen to, etc., that aren’t about horrible things like rape, torture, genocide, and hatred. And, hey, when something horrible shows up in the thing you like? You have the power to ignore the thing or stop giving your time to the work.
We are at a cultural moment where the status (legal and otherwise) of women is waxing and waning in all sorts of ways, some of which many people did not really expect, and so we look for opportunities to talk about it, because it should be talked about. Likewise questions of race and ethnicity, which I am very glad are part of the ongoing conversation about what F/SF should be. We don’t live in a vacuum, and neither do our stories, but damn, people—if you don’t want to be brutalized while trying to enjoy escapism, maybe avoid the Fantasy Novels Featuring Guaranteed Minimum Quantities of Maiming, Murder, Rape, Abuse, Torture, Nihilism, Genocide, Colonialism, and Shit That’s Guaranteed to Brutalize You. As Terry Books said in an interview:
“Don’t mention Game of Thrones to me. We were saying, “We don’t want to go that route.” That’s not what the Shannara books are. They’re a family-oriented fantasy and always have been.”
I don’t consider what I write to be family-oriented, nor do I explicitly go in search of that most of the time, but sometimes I want pleasurable, relaxing fantasy.
Thing the second. The Shannara books are often held up as examples of whatever the given critic is looking to criticize, whether it’s Extruded Fantasy Product, Tolkien clones, bad writing, whatever. Note, however, that there are writers who see merit in Brooks’ work. (Aside: if you haven’t read Brooks’ memoir Sometimes the Magic Works, and if you care in the slightest about the formation of the F/SF market as it exists today, you should.)
Everyone always has a reason to hate X book or Y kind of writing, but I recently picked up and thumbed through the little horde of F/SF I’ve amassed over approximately a quarter-century reading it, and I was pleased by the quality of Brooks’ prose. Especially in comparison to the rest of the field of books read by F/SF readers. There are so many, many clunkers in the field of movie tie-in books, licensed IP books, and original F/SF novels, some of them written by authors you love or have loved, and certainly much of the sea of unedited self-published fiction that floats around the internet is worse by far.
Am I going to go out and read up on the Shannara I missed? Probably not. I’m reading Giallo Fantastique, Aickman’s Heirs, Frank O’Hara poems, and a bunch of non-fiction and stuff for research right now. If I read any straight-up F/SF this summer, it’s likely to be some of the Joe Abercrombie I haven’t read, or perhaps Malazan, which is now complete and which I’ve been meaning to read for years. But would I read more by Brooks? Sure. I enjoyed Shannara and the Landover books back in the day, and he is a competent, large-hearted writer who deserves respect. He didn’t have an MFA when he started writing, nor was there a plethora of contemporary models to choose from when he was writing. He wrote a story he loved, as well as he possibly could, and I’m grateful for it.
Thing the third. A long time ago, Terry Brooks was the first author I ever met. I was a shy and lonely kid, like so many others, but surprisingly I wasn’t tongue-tied in the moment. I remember that he was sitting by himself at a table in a Waldenbooks. He was a successful author at that point, but he was just sitting there, reading, with most people just walking past.
It was a cramped location, and his table was… small, but he wasn’t complaining, nor did he appear discommoded. He smiled, thanked me for reading, asked me who else I liked to read, did I like to write, and all of those sorts of things. I didn’t have money to buy anything new from him at the time, but I did have a small stack of his paperbacks. He signed each one, legibly, and I have them to this day. In an age where many authors (and readers, unfortunately) default to snarky, dismissive, attention-seeking, or simply asinine behavior online and in person, Terry Brooks stands clear in my memory for his graciousness. I think the world would be a better place if more people had the wherewithal to behave in such a fashion.
And all of those are some of the reasons why, thirty years after reading The Sword of Shannara, probably twenty-five years after last reading anything Shannara, I’m looking forward to The Shannara Chronicles.
Happy weekend, be good to each other, and be magic.