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.

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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.

A Friday Miscellany

library of congress photo

  • This will be my last rambling, bloggy post about “writing activity.” Two years ago I wrote a lengthy piece about stagnation in my writing, and since then I’ve thoroughly unstagnated. From regular productivity to setting goals to having projects lined up for at least the next six months, it would appear that writerly ennui is a luxury I can happily no longer afford, at least at such length.
  • I have fiction forthcoming in multiple venues, one of which is the reborn Weirdbook. When I first got serious about writing many years ago, I would blog, or later Facebook, every bit of writing news (“I got a rejection with feedback!” “My story is being held for consideration!” etc.). This seems like a reasonable time to stop doing so much of that, not least to improve the signal:noise ratio.
  • I have essays and critical non-fiction about horror or the Weird either forthcoming or with proposals accepted in multiple venues. One will be in a new non-fiction journal, Thinking Horror, and others will, all things going as planned, appear in 2017 publications. I also have various conference papers lined up  for 2016, so we’ll see how that goes.
  • The tide of readers and critics of the Weird, literary/cosmic horror, etc. is rising. I’ll  have more to say about that elsewhere at some point, I expect, but I come across roughly one interesting new (to me or otherwise) blogger, essay, review, etc. in this vein per week. This week I’ve encountered two: Celluloid Wicker Man and ClaireQuip Books.
  • The short story collection manuscript is one, or perhaps two, stories away from complete in rough. It’s lengthened and shortened a couple times now, but at this point it really does feel something like closing in on “done.” Various bits of polishing and editing remain, but my goal of finishing and submitting the ms before year’s end seems reasonable, if the rest of life cooperates.
  • One of the unanticipated side-effects of creating the list of weird fiction publishers is that not a few publishers have been offering or sending me free fiction, journals, etc. As a slow reader, I’ve been eyeing my TBR pile, thinking about ethics in reviewing, etc. The answer will probably be a generic disclaimer somewhere on this site to the effect that I’m a bastion of unbiased something or other.
  • Last weekend was Necronomicon 2015 in Providence, and not attending was one of the dark spots of the year, but I’ve been fortunate enough to attend  various literary conferences and conventions of late, learning a great deal in the process. I’ve come to realize that the people who attend the event make the event, but that most of us live in a world that doesn’t allow for infinite travel, and that many things make a literary community.
  • Finally, I’ve been enjoying horror shorts lately. As with shorts generally, they vary in quality, but the length allows for a broad range of tasting. He Took His Skin Off For Me is a grotesque that I enjoyed very much, describing it elsewhere as maybe, kind of, what you’d get if Raymond Carver and Kelly Link had collaborated to write Hellraiser:

Further Insight into Basic Mysteries

cover of pulp fiction essay collectionThis weekend I read an essay by Andrew J. Wilson in Pulp Fiction of the ’20s and ’30s, a volume in the Critical Insights series: “The Last Musketeer: Clark Ashton Smith and the Weird Marriage of Poetry and Pulp.” I read it partly as potential grist for something I’m working on, but also simply because I was curious to read more criticism of Smith, an author of weird fiction and poetry who continues to be read, but who has received little critical attention when compared with the likes of Chandler or Lovecraft. Wilson inserts a quotation from Smith’s “notebook of ideas” that resonates with the thinking of any number of  people in the pulp era, weird fiction writers or otherwise:

The weird tale is an adumbration or foreshadowing of man’s relationship—past, present, and future—to the unknown and infinite, and also an implication of his mental and sensory evolution. Further insight into basic mysteries is only possible through future development of higher faculties than the known senses. Interest in the weird, unknown, and supernormal is a signpost of such development and not merely a psychic residuum from the age of superstition.

About that List of Weird Fiction Publishers

A little over a month ago, I assembled and posted a list of weird fiction publishers. I shared it widely at the time, and in turn it’s been shared and reposted in a number of places, including Reddit. It’s gotten traffic most every day since then, and the overall number of visits here has risen to (for now) a steadily higher level than in past:

 

recent blog stats

 

My process for assembling the list was fairly straightforward. I reeled off a list by memory, took a quick-but-not-exhaustive look at my bookshelves, looked at websites of high-profile writers of weird fiction and link lists from high-profile publishers of weird fiction, and trawled social media. As such things inevitably do, all of that took longer than I’d planned. Originally I’d intended simply to do a list of names & links, but the speed with which the list grew, along with comments from a bunch of people, led me to organize it a little bit. Maybe not surprising for a librarian.

The list serves my original, stated purpose: a list for me and the world to use in order to find publishers of weird fiction. That said, lately I’ve been reading about the history of publishing, as well as literary sociology, and because I tend to overthink things, and because I’m having an especially ruminative year, I started pondering where this fits into the list of literary activities that are not creative writing: readings, social media, agenting, editing, reviewing, criticism, publishing, awards, conventions, conferences, affinity groups, etc. I don’t have any grand conclusions to articulate here, other than that I feel like the list is an attempt on my part to engage a little more fully with and contribute to the Weird-o-sphere.

And on the off chance you’re reading this and don’t know what weird fiction is? Here’s Stephen Graham Jones‘ Flowchart of the Weird [BoingBoing; Weird Fiction Review; flickr]:

weird fiction flowchart

Stephen Graham Jones’ Flowchart of the Weird

Ramsey Campbell and the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award

If you haven’t already heard, Ramsey Campbell will this year receive a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award, along with Sheri S. Tepper. Phrases like “this award is long overdue” are overused, but I’m very glad to see an author often regarded variously as the greatest living writer of weird fiction or the greatest living writer of horror fiction receive this honor. For my money, his Midnight Sun is among the great novel-length achievements in the tradition of the Weird, and I’ve re-read both it and The Hungry Moon many times.

ramsey campbell booksWhere I first encountered Campbell’s work, I don’t know, but the first of his books I remember reading was The Hungry Moon, either in ’86 or ’87. Strange to think, but I read Campbell before Lovecraft, Machen, Blackwood, etc. The first weird fiction I encountered was Stephen King’s “The Mist,” and it opened the door, but Hungry Moon was a longer, slower meditation on darkness, mobs, religion, and the horrors of the English village, and the author’s ability to maintain a mood of subtle, strange dread over the length of a novel was a revelation. Midnight Sun came out in the U.S. in 1991, and it was another revelation for me, drawing as heavily as it did on atmospheric effects and nature to tell the story. It’s a novel-length exploration of the kind of terror of nature that previous authors like Algernon Blackwood had deployed in “The Willows,” “The Wendigo,” etc., or Ralph Adams Cram in “The Dead Valley.”

While I don’t generally like litmus tests, Ramsey Campbell’s work is one such for me when talking with fellow readers. His work looms large in and is essential to discussion of the field of weird fiction, but I do think his novels serve as a useful A|B test. Must atmospheric work be short story-length, or can a reader appreciate it at novel length? I feel that Campbell carefully builds a mood of the brooding and numinous, sustaining every story I’ve read by him at whatever length he chose to write. The term “master” is as overused for authors as “overdue” is when applied to awards, but in this case I feel both terms are apt.

Congratulations, Ramsey Campbell, and thanks for the terrors.

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.