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.

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ICFA 36

iafa logoThis year I’m attending and presenting at ICFA 36. My paper will be in Oak on Friday, March 20, 2015, 2:30-4 p.m. It’s entitled “Node, Edge, or Tentacle: Data and the Lovecraftian Literary Network,” and it’s part of a panel entitled “All Hail the King: Lovecraft and Nothing But,” chaired by Rhonda Brock-Servais. My fellow panelists look to be talking on interested subjects, including monster deities, and how we understand the Other in Lovecraft and Ligotti.

This is one of those events where the whenworldscollide tag is especially appropriate. I’ve been reading HPL for something like a quarter century, write fiction that often falls somewhere on the spectrum between Lovecraftian and the Weird, and will be presenting on a topic that I wouldn’t really ever have approached without exposure to the digital humanities through my work as a librarian. Here’s to life’s pleasant and useful confluences.

If you’re going to ICFA, I look forward to meeting you there!

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.

Weird Roots: Ralph Adams Cram

Lately I’ve been reading Black Spirits & White: a Book of Ghost Stories, by Ralph Adams Cram. I don’t recall having heard of Cram until Scott Nicolay named Cram’s “The Dead Valley” among his “Five Favorite Weird Tales” last month over at The Lovecraft eZine. I have been jumping around in the book (no mean feat, given how short it is), and I read “The Dead Valley” this morning. The others have indeed been some-guys-stay-overnight-in-a-haunted-mansion-sing-tally-ho kind of stories, but “The Dead Valley” is different. It’s a Weird story, for sure, and I would say that it has a distinctly Algernon Blackwood feel to it, but a quick look at some bibliographies wound indicate that Cram is more likely to have influenced Blackwood than the other way ’round, to go by publication dates. “The Dead Valley” is also an elegant turn of sorts on what’s become a familiar trope, which I’ll leave you to discover on your own.

Given my interest in how writers incorporate detail and research into their work, I was struck by the fact that the twelve-year-old protagonist set off into the wild in possession of a rifle. This isn’t at all unusual for the period or its literature, of course, and it’s a truism that people tend to have to grow up more quickly in the country, coming into their responsibilities in their teens, instead of at the quarter-century mark or later. Yet, how many writers today would insert that detail without special explanation or excessive detail? Plenty, I’m sure, but it does require some awareness of setting to do so.

I’ll note in closing that Cram was aware of his roots, as reflected in the book’s postscript. I know nothing of the man’s character, and his sentiments may have been more obligatory than heartfelt, but we could probably all do worse than to be a little more humble about our work…

Postscript to Cram's Black Spirits & White

Postscript to Cram’s Black Spirits & White

 

 

TCOOL-Related Statistics

Cover for Children of Old LeechReviews of The Children of Old Leech are starting to appear in the wild, which is happy-making on many accounts, not least of which is that I read and thoroughly enjoyed the book. Though I’m hardly impartial, I’ll probably jot down a few words about it before long. As an author, I feel enough kinship with what I saw in the pages in TCOOL that I thought I would look more closely at the contributors. What I found was interesting in various ways (at least to me), so I’m sharing what I found. This is, essentially, a bit of personal market research that grew in scope.

Methodology & disclaimers

  • I looked at the writing activities of my fellow TCOOL contributors for the last three years, focusing on short stories published or reprinted in anthologies and magazines. I did not tally single-volume collections or novels, nor self-published. For forthcoming anthologies, I gathered data in so far as was possible.
  • I collected data primarily from authors’ websites and/or blogs, cross-referencing with the ISFDB. If you look at this data and see mistakes, please feel free to drop me a line or comment, but please note: I searched harder for this information than I would expect most readers to search, and I am an information professional.
  • There are typos and idiosyncrasies in this because I collected this purely for my own purposes and changed some naming conventions as I went. I am sharing this because I thought it might be of interest to sundry folks. It also took a lot longer than I expected to gather this information and format it so that it would be useful.
  • Like a lot of research, it doesn’t come up with that much startling information, but it does confirm various things I expected. If you are deep into the Weird, contemporary HPL, etc., you probably already know much of this, particularly if you have personal relationships with the authors and editors involved.

Data

tcool contribs.

Some observations

  • Mike Davis and Silvia Moreno-Garcia have published a lot of us over the last few years, between anthologies and The Lovecraft eZine, both number of stories and number of authors. Roughly twice as many on both counts as anyone else.
  • If you want to read more fiction written by contributors to The Children of Old Leech, you’ll find those stories more easily in some cases than others. I say this to you, fellow authors: if you care about people reading your work, they must be able to find it. If you view short stories as a “fire and forget” exercise until they’re collected, perhaps you may not care. Look at Joe Pulver’s publication timeline, Orrin Grey’s bibliography, or Daniel Mills’ bibliography for examples of clear, easy-to-read lists.
  • Speaking of Joe Pulver, he’s everywhere. People talk about God being everywhere, but they apparently haven’t met Joe Pulver.
  • A lot of ink is spilled about the overlap between cosmic horror, the Weird, Lovecraftian fiction, and horror generally, but the Old Gent continues to have an overwhelming founder-type effect on these stripes of fiction, at least as practiced by TCOOL contributors.

“Future studies”

The academically oriented may have already drawn some conclusions about this post and have a related question, and my brief answer is that, yes, I am interested in the sociology and publication practices of writers of Weird fiction. This particular data set is a little too dirty, wonky, and skewed on various accounts, to use for a real article, but it might form the seed of part of one. Were I to use this data for reals, I’d cross-check anthology & magazine TOCs with ISFDB and author websites.

I welcome your thoughts, either via e-mail or in the comments. The above is what jumped out at me, but there may be more to be gleaned from this than I am seeing.

You’ve seen the data… now read the book!

The Children of Old Leech is now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and directly from Word Horde, if you haven’t already heard. I’m hardly an impartial commentator, but if you like the Weird, cosmic horror, and/or Laird Barron’s fiction, I recommend it wholeheartedly.