The Ransacking of Expectations

cover tanzer pleasure merchantI went into Molly Tanzer‘s most recent outing, The Pleasure Merchant [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads], with delighted anticipation. Molly (disclosure: my friend) is the kind of author who is interviewed in Locus, noted by NPR for her steampunk genderswappery, and publishes whatever she wants. You liked that werewolf short story? Have some incestuous Lovecraftian twins. You liked incestuous Lovecraftian twins? Have a wigmaker’s apprentice. It’s kind of like that with her: if you like her writing, you have to follow where she goes, without too many expectations in terms of precisely what she’ll be writing. Because she writes well, it’s an unmitigated joy, but—baby—if you like More of the Same?—if more of the same makes you feel comfortable?—Molly Tanzer don’t care. (Although I’m perhaps a bit of a liar on this, as word on the street is that she does have a Vermilion sequel forthcoming, so British/Chinese  psychopomp Lou Merriwether will ride again.)

The Pleasure Merchant is hard to classify, as reflected by the fairly tentative level of genre-tagging over at Goodreads, and Amazon’s robots are reasonably sure that it’s “genre fiction,” but aren’t quite clear what kind of genre it is. Whatever! It’s an amazing mashup of history, fantasy, horror, and… well, “bawdy” is actually a great way to describe it. Is there sex? Reader, it’s one of those amazing books where there’s copulation, libidinal exultation, and naughty language around every corner, and yet it’s not particularly pornographic: everything on the page serves a purpose beyond titillation, whether advancing plot or revealing character.

This novel takes the Pygmalion story and embeds it in 18th century England, exploring class and gender and medicine along the way. I read it with the kind of eye that one has with historical fiction, curious to learn more of historical norms, practices, events, and culture, along with a well-told story. The Pleasure Merchant does not disappoint, following the aforementioned wigmaker’s apprentice through the turns and reversals of fortune, weaving in and around picaresque set pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in Fielding.

I recommend this book wholeheartedly to people who like novels. A particular genre of novel? Not really, although it might not suit prudes very well. To enjoy this book you have to have a taste for living characters inhabiting a pleasing narrative that occurs in well-depicted settings. It has the scope and sprawl that we seek in novels, and the interweaving plots and themes. In a literary world that is overcrowded, featuring so many books that feel virtually write-by-the-numbers,  The Pleasure Merchant is a strange and wondrous journey that should delight all readers.

adam nevill the ritual coverIn a rather different thematic vein lies Adam Nevill‘s The Ritual [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads]. I knew that I was in for something other than a monster-and-rituals-in-the-wilderness sort of narrative, but—augh, reader!—the opening half of the book is so compelling I sank into it and found myself developing unwarranted expectations. The parts of this novel set in the up-near-the-Arctic-Circle Scandinavian wilds are gut-wrenchingly tense portrayals of people degenerating in harrowing circumstances. It was like Scott Smith rewrote “The Wendigo” as a novel and gave it to Mary Oliver for a line-edit. Strange and beautiful.

And then, halfway through, the type and pitch of the narrative changes utterly. It goes from one kind of harrowing to another, and this was the point where the pace at which I read slowed considerably, and it never picked up again. I think this is in part because the arc of the narrative follows a more or less standard set of peaks and valleys, and then it hits Norwegian black metal cultists and the needle starts flying all over the place. I knew from the book description that this turn was coming, but when it did, it became (for me) a much different book. My investment waned along with the tension and dread that Nevill so carefully built in the powerful first act. Comments on Goodreads, Amazon, etc. suggest that some readers have a similar experience, though many others didn’t have any problem with this.

I recommend The Ritual to people who are versed in literary horror of the weird stripe looking for a flip-the-script sort of experience. It features notes that will appeal to readers of Algernon Blackwood, James Dickey, William Golding, and perhaps Joseph Payne Brennan. It’s not a book I would offer to someone new to the genre, as I expect that many readers will wind up thrown for a loop without awareness of the themes that it varies, and some knowledge of the subgenres it’s mashing up. That said, I enjoyed it enough to recommend it here, and I urge you to give it a try and come to your own conclusions.

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Strange Love

Presumably most true Aickman-o-philes have seen this documentary already, but if you are one of his readers who have not, then enjoy.

I watched this tonight and enjoyed it, though I feel the film is probably most intelligible to those who are already deeply enough engaged with the dark and fantastic that Robert Aickman is not an unknown quantity. He is, in the U.S., at least, somewhere between an influential mid-century author of horror fiction and a cult author with a beyond-cult following. His work is refined and unusual, not well imitated, though some have walked in his footsteps. If you wind up in a conversation where people are talking about “strange stories,” Aickman is watching from a corner of the room.

Much about the documentary struck me, particularly the section discussing his personality: the “grit in the oyster” comment. So often excellent authors (or artists generally) are at heart awkward, rude, mean, or actually monsters. That tends to be less visible today, or perhaps such authors don’t have as easy a time of it, but it still astonishes me how much hue and cry a writer’s misstep engenders in “the writing community,” despite the vast, well-documented literature of creative people being sometimes outrageously disruptive and unpleasant. Aickman seems to have been on the benign end of that scale, but I don’t think he would fare well if he were around and trying to get started these days. His politics wouldn’t suit a lot of readers, and his manner suggests that he would be a disaster on, say, Facebook.

This film is a nice look at an author who lived in the days before Google, BookScan, the Wayback Machine, and constant surveillance and sousveillance. He was probably the happier for it, and perhaps a more interesting—and more enigmatic—figure than he would otherwise be today. Fortunately for his readers.

The Sample Copies of Yesteryear

sample copies

Let me tell you of the days of print magazines!

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.

tales of lovecraftian horror toc

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 various attempts 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.

Terry Brooks & the Lighter Side

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 art from the brothers hildebrandt

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.

signature on title page of book

Treasure.

This Is My Tor Face

self-portrait with books

Self-Portrait with Tor Books

Today is the day some of the folks involved in the Hugos shenanigans have declared as the start date for a Tor Books boycott if the company doesn’t cave to various and sundry demands. By and large I think this is a toothless threat, given the size of the audience for genre fiction these days, and also given the broader landscape to which some of the high-visibility targets belong, but you never know.

Do I read Tor books? Hmm. I did a quick grab from my shelves and got these books, a small sample of the hundreds of Tor books I’ve read over the years. Look at that stack of books! Admire the range of political opinions held by the authors who wrote them! Wait… what’s that you say? You don’t know anything about most authors’ politics and just want to read their books? Amen, sister!

Tor, please keep on publishing Republican, Democratic, atheist, conservative, liberal, pagan, Libertarian, polyamorous, queer, straight, Christian, Buddhist, female, male, intersex, American, international, organic, living, dead, and all other types of authors. Even the ones with questionable character and with whose politics I disagree.

And if you’re going to say anything to anyone, say something supportive to Irene Gallo, who does fine work. It’s 2015, for God’s sake, not goddamn 1984, and if we can’t use a worldwide communications network accessible via pocket computers, wristwatches, and video game consoles to voice our opinions, why the HELL do we even have science fiction?

Buy Tor books. And buy other books: corporate, indie, self-published, radical, and otherwise.

Whatever the fuck you do, don’t let someone else tell you what to buy.

RavenCon 2015: Into the Breach

Yesterday RavenCon opened for its 10th year. I wandered around, talked to friends, and spoke on a panel entitled “Urban Fantasy: Using Real-World Settings and People in Your Fiction,” along with Gail Z. Martin, R.S. Belcher, and moderator Jean Marie Ward. We had a good time, the audience also seemed to do so, and my deep, dark confession about being a librarian who uses Wikipedia was met with an appropriate volume of laughter. Picture below by Katharine Herndon, my friend and JRW-co-conspirator.

j.t. glover, gail z. martin, and jean marie ward

RavenCon 2015

ravencon2015This year I’m delighted to attend RavenCon as a writer guest. I’ll be here and there throughout the con, probably wandering around the dealer’s room, art show, seeing panels and readings, chatting with friends old and new, etc. One place I probably won’t be is at any late night revelries: I start transforming into a pumpkin long before the stroke of midnight. My schedule looks like this:

Friday
5:00 p.m., Ballroom G, Urban Fantasy: Using Real-World Settings and People in Your Fiction
7:00 p.m., Ballroom E, Opening Ceremonies

Saturday
10:00 a.m., Ballroom E, How to (Not) Ruin Your Writing Career
1:00 p.m., York, Ignite Your Worldbuilding (workshop; 1 hr, 50 min)5:00 p.m., Board Room, Reading

Sunday
1:00 p.m., Anna, The Best Critique Group for You

ravencon 10thMost of those are panels. The reading on Saturday will be my first all-Glover reading setup. 50 minutes! Whatever shall I read? I’ve got a few ideas, and things are starting to come together.

The workshop on Saturday is an attempt to weld together my research expertise with my love of well-portrayed worlds. Should be fun. Description: “How do you create memorable worlds? Come learn techniques that combine research, inspiration, and your personal experience. Participants will leave with a list of resources to inspire their creativity, whether they want to create engrossing stories or paintings with lived-in worlds. We’ll discuss the limits of worldbuilding, and signs that it’s time to join Worldbuilders Anonymous. Be prepared to talk with your fellow creators, and bring a notebook, computer, or other writing device.”