Pleasurable Reading, Shaded Giants

The best thing I did as a reader in 2018 was intentionally refocus on reading what I like. For too many years, I’d been reading a blend of things that I thought I should be reading as a writer, trying to expand my horizons and do right on multiple counts. In the process I purchased books to support various authors, causes, etc… and developed a 100+ title TBR pile. Some I was more eager to read, some less, and I’d find myself “sneaking” books from the public library. Also, thinking longingly of re-reading old faves (I’m an inveterate book-revisitor).

Reader, something really had to give. This was more than vaguely clear in 2017, but by the end of 2018, it was no longer vague. Last year I finished reading 69 books and 37 graphic novels/trade collections, and I set aside unfinished maybe 10 books. Some months I was tearing through books, others limping. The slower months were overwhelmingly those when I was reading “shoulds.” Part of the slowness was lack of interest, part frustration at seeing weak writers praised or succeed, part simply a lack of desire to read.

That last part should have been a big clue. Many writers read quite a lot, outrageous quantities compared to the average American, and for a very long time I was one of them.  For a whole bunch of reasons, however, I reached a point in this decade where I was barely reading 2 books per month. Last year, giving myself license both to chuck books I wasn’t enjoying and to seek out authors and books likely to square with my interests, I read more like 6 books per month, 9  if you include comics.

Social media, the blessing/curse (blursing?) of our time, has been a blend of good and terrible in all of this. On the one hand, I’ve heard of books and authors that I wouldn’t otherwise have, some wonderful! One example of this is Matthew Bartlett, author of a host of genuinely strange neo-Decadent fictions. He can write, is a mensch, and is justifiably something of  a darling in contemporary weird fiction… but much of his work is self-published, or from small presses. And so, like many authors these days, he’s almost entirely absent from libraries. Without social media, and Facebook in particular, I would likely never have heard of him (check out Gateways to Abomination).

On the other hand, the literary market is beyond saturated, leading to endless PR and social media touting of “brilliant,” “important,” “essential,” “vital,” “outstanding,” etc. authors, and while I realize people want to help their friends and sell their own work, too often this is false advertising. (Ditto blurbs, in which I no longer place any stock whatsoever, as guides to whether I’ll like a book.) Whether it’s the literary fiction community, the weird fiction community, the YA community, or whatever, people ride high horses all the livelong day about this shit, and as someone wisely pointed out to me in 2018, literary communities are endlessly incestuous and precious. Paying too much attention to them can be fatal to taste and joy.

I thought about this much more this past year as I read and re-read various popular authors. These are folks with well-developed chops for carrying a narrative along: Stephen King, Karin Slaughter, John Sandford, J. K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, etc., and of course I’m continually dipping back into Lovecraft, James, Machen, etc. Newer authors like Paul Tremblay or John Langan, or newcomers like Christine Mangan, have plenty of firepower in this regard, too. These are folks who have honed their craft and developed stories that work in the contemporary market.

marcus aurelius statueThere are so many different kinds of “good book,” or course, and the lists of authors you find in quality writing books like Delany’s About Writing include a host of different modes and styles. That’s a good thing! That said, as I focused in on heavier hitters, in terms of sales, reviews, etc., I likewise have been more apt to notice the green-eyed monster lurking under the faces of friends and writers I follow online, some bigger and some smaller.

Gaiman, King, Rowling, etc. are common targets for these complaints, and I get the frustration about the stiff competition to publish, but many people publicly and privately say boneheaded shit about authors who are titans in the field, as if the ability to win over readers is a bad thing. Part of that’s art-community nonsense, and building of various kinds of social capital, but to state the obvious, popular authors are successful in publishing. Luck, connections, family money, and so on do play into many literary careers, no question… and a lot’s been justifiably written about racism and sexism in publishing… but beloved authors are beloved. That you, Struggling Author, are not beloved does not mean that your favorite target is a literary shyster.

Reader, this blog post has grown unwieldy, and I’ve excised the 20% of it that would bring the wolves howling, in so far as anyone reads this blog. That, as a fellow writer I know who’s rarely online says, is part of the problem of talking about reading when you’re a writer. Anything other than glowing praise is at best going to result in silence. I offer no slings or arrows for anyone in particular here, but take it as you will that I no longer see “hidden,” “overlooked,” “obscure,” or “little-known” as signifiers of anything other than historical or market success.

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Giallo Fantastique

book coverGiallo Fantastique [Amazon|B&N|Copperfield’s] is a high-concept anthology from Word Horde that’s built on the premise that two great tastes are going to taste great together. The authors whose stories Ross Lockhart assembled for this volume took that idea in very different directions, resulting in an anthology that’s truly varied in type. Some are fantasias with nods in the direction of giallo, some are giallos with a hint of the fantastic, and some few strike a middle path that seems to incorporate both influences equally. Anthologies that play it too safe in terms of topical adherence usually end up mediocre, and this  is one case where that happily didn’t occur. This book has delights and surprises throughout, which led this usually slow reader to finish the book in a couple days.

“The Red Church,” by Orrin Grey, is a story that I was predisposed to like, because it’s Orrin, but it turned out to be even better than I would have hoped. As with a number of his stories elsewhere, the narrative focuses around an artist, and in this case the journalist investigating him. The details of giallo are deftly woven into an uneasy narrative that partakes equally of the unknown and the unknowable. I’m now looking forward even more to his second short story collection, Painted Monsters.

Anya Martin‘s “Sensoria” is a piece that I had the pleasure of hearing in part in person at World Fantasy last year. Because I’m more visual than auditory, I took in the plot better this go-round (the imagery is intense), and it was an interesting story, built around an intriguing concept. On the “fantastique” end of things more than giallo, it builds through hallucinatory prose that would make it stand out in any company.

John Langan‘s “The Communion of Saints” is a very John Langan story. Rich in character development and atmosphere, playing with genre as it carefully builds terror, this is a master class in writing. None of that was a surprise, but as happens occasionally when you encounter something you expect to be good, it exceeds even your own high expectations of it. As Orrin has said, this story alone would have been worth the price of admission.

I’d only planned to talk about three pieces from this book, but I have to mention Ennis Drake‘s “We Can Only Become Monsters.” This story shouldn’t work, and I actually groaned aloud when the penny dropped and I understood what was going on. From footnotes in a story that doesn’t clearly replicate a footnote-bearing genre, to the excruciating closeness to the facts of Manson, Polanski, Tate, Gailey, etc., this story’s premise is a recipe for disaster. In a less capable author’s hands, it would have fallen apart, but it’s actually excellent—among the strongest in the book. I found myself carried along by the tale and its prose, to the extent that I’ll be on the lookout for more from this author in future.

Having seen almost zero gialli, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, though Ross’ introduction nicely set the stage. As it turned out, Giallo Fantastique is a fine anthology that features stories taking the imagery and plots of the genre(s) and looking at them from new and strange directions. Everything in here fits together to make a pleasing whole, and I recommend it to those who love horror, but who are looking for something off the beaten path. If you want to know more about the authors in this volume, check out the associated interviews over at My Bookish Ways.

For Your Listening Enjoyment: The Outer Dark

Do you like weird fiction? The odds are reasonable if you are reading this that you do, and the odds seem conversely small that, if you do, you haven’t heard about Scott Nicolay‘s new radio show, The Outer Dark, [Project iRadio][iTunes] where he interviews leading lights in the Weird. If you haven’t, however, check it out!

Thus far I’ve only listened to his interview of Livia Llewellyn, but it was a corker. Livia says miscellaneous interesting and horrifying things, and Scott interviews her from a position of real knowledge about the Weird, which not every interviewer has. This week’s interviewee is Mr. Gaunt himself, John Langan, and previous interviewees have included S.P. Mikowski and  Jayaprakash Satyamurthy. I have a lengthy patch of home improvement looming in just a couple days and expect to catch up with the rest of the interviews then.

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