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.

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.

Kazuo Ishiguro Eats Live Babies, Twirls Moustache

boxers in ringI will never forget when I first learned about hostility between public and academic librarians: the first week or so of library school, when a number of public-librarians-to-be complained loud and long about how horrible and snobby academic librarians were. I was then (and remain now) appalled by it. I grew up loving libraries of all kinds, and having respect for all of them. Library school didn’t change that, but it did teach me some some sad lessons about myopia and prejudice.

The genre-v.-literary debate is fraught in different ways, but fundamentally I see little difference between it and the situation I describe above. The war has been fought for so long that its origins are forgotten, or at least meaningless. There point of the war is the war. It will only end if we stop looking for insult, stop counting our scars, stop picking scabs.

Blowing the Doors Off Those Crypts

vintage halloween costumes~

The better to see you with…

Lately horror and the Weird have each been going great guns, entering an efflorescence unlike anything we’ve seen for decades. Tobias Carroll put up a fine essay at Electric Literature the other day about the state of literary horror—”‘Then, a Hellbeast Ate Them’: Notes on Horror Fiction and Expectations.” It captures the breadth of the authors who are making free with all things horrific these days, often in places where the word “horror” previously was unwelcome. Whenever I encounter a meaningful and unapologetic treatment of literary horror (or literary fantasy, for that matter) I feel a kind of excitement that goes bone deep.

Genre and literary snobs look down their noses at each other, particularly around formations like “literary [GENRE],” and phrases like “slipstream” or “magical realism” have both lost and gained precision over time, but at least that latter is finally a little less likely to be used as a term of contempt in genre. That said, literary genre work is a strange beast, and, pace Carroll, I think not actually all that common, to judge by the shelves at B&N. Little of it appears in the F/SF section, or to stay for long if it does, and so it’s off to sift through literary fiction to find eloquent novels about disaffected werewolves.

The Weird has had similar success of late, with a high-water mark being Jeff VanderMeer’s outstanding Southern Reach novels. He has a piece over at The Atlantic, “The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction,” that is about as clear as sign as you’re ever going to see that this strange little niche is seeing more daylight than I ever could have hoped. Jeff’s piece is very well written and introduced me to, as every time I see something from him, writers of whom I’ve never heard.

The VanderMeers should bear, of course, a huge part of our gratitude for the recent surge. Jeff’s fiction was a part of the New Weird when that came along, of course, but it’s grown since then, strengthened by his omnivorous consumption of fiction in all forms and his well-documented efforts to focus intently on his writing. Ann VanderMeer’s stint as Fiction Editor at Weird Tales put the cat so much among the canaries that a veritable legion of living fossils rose up and cried “to R’lyeh shalt thou go, and no further.” Though flags have repeatedly been planted in the sand about the end of the avant-garde, such flags are ever meant to be torn down. Jeff and Ann blew the doors off with The Weird and everything that followed, debunking some of the Old Weird/New Weird/That’s Not Weird stupidity in the process. I do so love the Weird of the early 20th century, but people too often think of those guys as a terminus, when they were actually a phase.

Yesterday Laird Barron posted “New Blood,” calling out some of the current leading lights of horror, springboarding off of an introduction Stephen Jones wrote at the start of his 2011 A Book of Horrors that led with “What the hell happened to the horror genre?” I won’t repeat Laird’s excellent roll call, but I will point out that the average age of the contributors to A Book of Horrors (2011) was 55. A similar book with the same lineup could, with the right twists of fate, have shown up in Horror at B. Dalton Bookseller around 1989. Laird’s list is a little harder to suss, age-wise, in so far as the people he names haven’t all cast such long shadows yet that their biographical data is easy to find, but the “new blood” moniker is pretty apt.

This is no complaint about Olds: many writers come into their prime a lot later than people do in other fields of artistic endeavor. Some of the names on the roster of Jones’ anthology are ones that I respect and have loved to see work from for decades. And while some of what Jones has to say is distinctly get-off-my-lawn-y, there’s a certain truth in what he says that’s clear from the work of many of the authors on the list: many of them share a certain idea of horror, one that’s faded away. I expect that’s hard to deal with. When literary horror goes fallow a couple decades down the road, I’m going to be irritable.

Some months back I had a lengthy conversation with a friend about horror now vs. horror in the 1980s. As my friend said, while I was busy lamenting that Young Me never got to read Barron or Llewellyn, “you know, it was just a very different scene.” And that, folks, is truth you can take to the bank. Jack Williamson, Dennis Wheatley, Robert Bloch, Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice, Charles Grant, Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, Justin Cronin, and Lauren Beukes all have something to do with horror, but they are not all doing the same thing. Not by a long shot. (To which I personally say “thank God,” but I digress.) While one writer may be more skilled than another, what we are writing now is… what we’re writing now. It’s generally more self-consciously literate, and much of it profits, one way and another, from the overall greater attention to good prose that prevails in U.S. fiction these days, thanks primarily to the development of BFA & MFA pedagogy, and the ripple effect it caused throughout literature.

Today, on this best, scariest, and most ooga-booga of days, I’ll say that I’m grateful for masks of all kind. A mask-maker who uses burlap and twine is trying to do something different from the injection molded and painted horrors of Party City. One’s no better than the other, and we’re the happier for having both. It’s a shit game, trash-talking your elders, and it’s likewise a shit game to trash-talk the young turks. You’d be smart to avoid doing either, not least because you either were once the New Blood, or will, with luck, wind up part of the Old Guard.

Happy Halloween.

Lovecraft in Space

Illustration by Peter Szmer

What waits between the stars? Story illustration by Peter Szmer

Many people claim that Alien is the best Lovecraftian movie ever made, and while I have mixed feelings about that, there is something inherently disquieting about the gulf between the stars, and the question of what might wait there. Building on that disquiet, and thinking about both Gliese 581g and the challenges of colonizing space, I came up with a story called “How Rare Are Light and Life.” It’s now live for you to read over at The Lovecraft eZine. If you prefer reading the issue on Kindle or Nook, just click here. I’m grateful to Mike Davis for publishing this story, to Jesse Bullington for providing comments on the draft version, and to Peter Szmer for his striking, wonderful illustrations. Enjoy!