My First Lovecraft

BeyondTheGrave17CoverRecently I gave a talk about my engagement with H.P. Lovecraft, as reader, writer, and librarian/scholar. In it, I stated that I’d first read Lovecraft around 1988. While true, this elides an encounter I’d had with the Old Gent four years previously, when I stumbled on a remixed/pop version of HPL in Charlton ComicsBeyond the Grave, issue 17.

In the first story of the issue, “No Way Out,” the reader is treated to the tale of Jabez Monchek. The art and writing are of a piece with Bronze Age horror comics, but in rereading the story earlier this year, I was more than a little surprised to see the layers of metafiction laid on top. The character is a Lovecraft stand-in who enjoys reading Lovecraft and is trapped in an ancient house, where he lives his life as writer, painter, and sculptor.

MonchekReader, in the language of Meme, “it me.” Just as I experienced a shock of deep familiarity a couple of years ago when I re-encountered Mercer Mayer’s One Monster After Another, so this year I was stunned to read a comic book story that apparently had something like a fundamental effect on me. I remember picking it from the rack in a tiny beachside grocery store and a vague sort of pleasure when reading it, but nothing like the impact it apparently had on me.

Included in this post are scans of the issue cover and a few panels. I’m unsure who own Beyond the Grave at this point, but apparently the bulk of Charlton IP went to DC Comics and AP Comics. I’d love to see a collected version appear at some point, whoever the owner is. My thanks to Matthew Carpenter, who posted elsewhere about Lovecraft and comics, and inspired me to write this post.

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Story Selected for Best New Horror #28

My “En Plein Air,” a short story that first appeared in Nightscript 2, will appear in Best New Horror #28. I’m gratified that Stephen Jones liked the story enough to include it in his anthology, and I look forward to it finding new readers. My thanks to C.M. Muller for first publishing it in his fine and darksome anthology, and to the readers who’ve been pleased to encounter it, both in print and when I read it last year at ICFA.

This is probably my favorite story I’ve written about Richmond, with scenes set on Cherokee Road, at the VMFA, etc. While I won’t say too much more about that, I will say that this forthcoming appearance is a validation, not least that the approach I took to the story was fruitful, from the background work to the way I went about the writing. It has resulted in the first instance of any work of mine making it to an annual anthologies, let alone one of such long standing as the Best New Horror series. I couldn’t be happier.

Bound for NecronomiCon

Next month I’ll be headed Providence-ward for NecronomiCon. This will be my first time attending, and I look forward to seeing familiar faces and making new friends. I expect that I’ll be attending a fair number of panels in the Armitage Symposium, given my academic interests, but I’ll also be attending some of the more writer-centric events, and maybe take in a flick or two.

If you see me at NecronomiCon, please say “hi!” I’m pretty terrible at names. You’d think social media would help with this, and it does to some extent, but there are (e.g.) an awful lot of 30-60-year-old white men with beards in weird fiction-land.

It’ll be my pleasure to speak on a great-looking panel on Sunday, at 9:00 a.m.:

FABULISM IN CONTEMPORARY WEIRD FICTION

Garden Room
Biltmore 2nd Floor

Before the short story, the novel, or even the play- there was the fable and fabulism has been a constant thread throughout the history of horror and weird fiction and, in recent years, many writers have been more openly showcasing fabulism in their work. This panel seeks to explore the phenomenon, it’s history, and it’s current use with several contemporary writers who have, themselves, embraced fabulism as a driving factor in their own work.

Panelists: Craig Gidney, J.T. Glover, Kij Johnson, Nnedi Okorafor, Simon Strantzas (Moderator), Peter Straub

Finally, if you’re going, look for me in the Necronomicon Providence 2017 memento book. My gonzo adventure story “The Coming of the Black Pseudopod” will appear therein, and I can’t wait to see  the book, which is by all reports a thing of beauty.

poster for NecronomiCon Providence 2017

 

Libraried and Under-Libraried Authors

There exist many, many ways to spread the word about books and authors you love. The world is full of things that demand our time, and authors generally are grateful for the time you spend doing these things. And, at the end of the day, what’s more important: that Goodreads review, or posting a photo of your current reading on Facebook? Hard to say, but one time-tested way for authors to find audiences is for their books to enter library collections.

Have you recommended a favorite book to your local library, if they don’t own it? Libraries buy books based on many factors, from past circulation success to reviews to awards (and different libraries care about different review venues, awards, etc.).  Recommendations are also a big factor. I’m an academic librarian, and we make purchasing decisions based on a slightly different formula than public libraries, but whatever the library, a patron request must be considered, even if the book-buying librarian in question chooses not to purchase the title (because they don’t believe it fulfills community needs, doesn’t fit within library guidelines, etc.).

Are the authors listed below doing well or poorly? Depends on your perspective, though my experience as an author to date is that, while I celebrate successes, I’m always looking to the next frontier. My short story collection is sitting with a publisher right now, and I’m waiting not all that patiently for a response, but so it goes. When the day comes that my books are out there on the shelves, I’m sure I’ll be irritated that they aren’t selling more.

Now, to some examples. I used WorldCat, a sort of super-catalog of library catalogs, to find these numbers. Devils lurk in the details, as you might guess. WorldCat has flaws, and it’s never fully in sync with every library’s holdings because of how libraries add and subtract books. Still, the numbers below are in the ballpark for holdings in North America, with some content from further afield. (It’s also worth saying that the below don’t really include YA; that would be another post.)

Author A, a renowned writer of weird fiction whose career has enjoyed tremendous success in recent years, including awards, Hollywood’s attention, book tour action, etc., is an example of an author whose star has risen… and is still rising. The phrase “transcending genre” has a long and not wholly savory lineage, but it’s unmistakably the case that this author has entered new arenas, even while holding to the same literary values and contacts as they always have. Their very recently released  novel is already held or on order at over 300 libraries. The first volume of their recent trilogy is held in various formats and translations by over 2000 libraries.

Author B, a mostly-indie writer and notable online personality is doing well, library-wise; their novel from last year is in over 300 libraries.  I’d say that’s a fine showing. It’s about 10% the holdings of Stephen King’s most widely held books, but still: doing well. Their early-2000s novel is also doing well over a decade on for what could fairly be described as a niche novel, held by over 100 libraries.

Author C, who writes and publishes in SFF, horror, and related areas, worked hard to break in with a 2015 novel. They have some connections and have been active for years, and even so, the book just didn’t get quite the attention it could have… but it still made its way into over 250 libraries. Their 2016 novel is doing a-OK, having found its way into over 550.

Author D, a horror writer who’s justly recognized as a significant stylist and has published a number of books, is not held as widely as some of the above examples. Their much-praised 2016 novel is held by about 100 libraries. Their award-winning late-00s collection is held by over 200.

Author E, who writes contemporary and genre fiction, often with a magical realist stripe, is the first author I’m mentioning here who gets some attention as an author, giving readings and speaking to classes, getting nominated for awards, and all the good reputation-building things… and just doesn’t have that much library shelf space. Their 2013 novel is held by about 25 libraries. Their late-00s short story collection has had some staying power, with over 40 copies in libraries. Still, this author could definitely stand to be read more widely.

Author F, who writes horror and related work, gets a ton of praise in many circles but is not getting much love from libraries. They publish relatively slowly and don’t have the long track record of some authors. Their early-10s first collection is held by under 20 libraries, and their recent second collection is held by about 20.

Author G, a writer of horror and weird fiction who likewise gets a lot of praise in many circles, also doesn’t get all that much love from libraries. Their recent short story collection is held by just over 30 libraries. Their relatively recent award-winning anthology is held by less than 15 libraries. That maybe isn’t surprising, given its niche topic, but 15 libraries? That’s unfortunate (and undeservedly low, in my opinion).

A few observations that will surprise almost none of you:

  • Coverage in review venues like Booklist, Library Journal, etc. helps sales.
  • Coverage in major newspapers and literary review venues helps more.
  • Authors high on the list have extensive networks derived from a combination of teaching, non-fiction writing, journalism, and/or working in publishing.
  • Authors high on the list have written multiple novels that, to one extent or another, look like the market. Each have their own stamp, and they don’t write poppy fiction, but they are writing books that fall into recognizable, living types of books (call them genres, modes, or whatever you wish).
  • Authors high on the list work not just hard but consistently at getting the word out about their books. Not on release day, and not in the first six weeks: until they have a new book to promote.
  • Major presses do better at getting books out into libraries than most small presses. You may love Disco Lemur Press, but do they actually sell books?
  • Gatekeepers and important voices in a field can highlight a given author, but that may not translate to library sales.
  • Short story collections generally don’t sell as well to libraries as novels.
  • Self-published books are not a significant part of any of these authors’ library presences. Many, many libraries don’t buy self-pubbed books, and that’s unlikely to change until such time as the literary economy changes.
  • The above list skews male toward the top, but I make no claims about any bias here, as I used a convenience sample that is representative of nothing other than authors who came to mind. Naturally, though, projects like the VIDA Count and the recent report by the Fireside Fiction Company tell compelling stories that are relevant here.

How can you help authors you like get into libraries? Look for the option to “Recommend a Purchase” or “Suggest a Title” on your library’s website. If you can’t find it or don’t want to do it that way, ask at the checkout, information, or reference desk at your library. They’ll be happy to tell you how to recommend the book.

All of the above goes double for that author whose books you love, but who is with a small press or series of small presses. Short of huge demand, most of them won’t make it into libraries, and who uses libraries most? It’s more complicated than you think, but here are some stats. They may surprise you.

The Horror of the Past, the Horror of the Present

In an essay recently published at LitHub, Rebecca Solnit  shared some thoughts on what it takes to be a writer, and I found myself nodding along with a lot of it. I almost suffered a spinal injury while nodding at this:

Read good writing, and don’t live in the present. Live in the deep past, with the language of the Koran or the Mabinogion or Mother Goose or Dickens or Dickinson or Baldwin or whatever speaks to you deeply. Literature is not high school and it’s not actually necessary to know what everyone around you is wearing, in terms of style, and being influenced by people who are being published in this very moment is going to make you look just like them, which is probably not a good long-term goal for being yourself or making a meaningful contribution. At any point in history there is a great tide of writers of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches.

“Co-signed,” I say. My reading has included plenty of horror and weird fiction and fantasy and such, but also: a ton of history, folklore, literary criticism, foreign (German, Greek, Latin, more) literature in the original and in translation, poetry, and a large, non-representative thwack of 20th century U.S. fiction. And for as long as I have even flirted with the idea of writing seriously, I’ve encountered poets and writers the same age as me who shrugged at the idea of reading books older than they were, or outside their area of specialization. Unfortunately for a lot of them, it showed in their writing. Almost to a one, nobody wanted to hear “you should read some Henry James,” or “have you tried Seneca,” or “dude, Christina Rosetti.”

valancourt book of horror stories coverAll of which brings me to the first volume of The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, [B&N | Amazon | publisher] edited by the publishers of that esteemed house, James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle. If you have any interest in horror fiction, I urge you to give this book a try. Two-thirds of the names in the Table of Contents were either unfamiliar to me, or very nearly so, and the stories in this volume come from across the last two centuries of the tradition of Anglo-American horror. Some are early 18th century, some less than ten years old. You’re not going to find Blackwood, Brite, Stoker, King, Langan, Rice, or the like in this book, which is kind of the point. Tread these waters, and you’ll encounter new voices and new stories, told in forms and rhythms that may just change you.

One of the supposed joys of reading anthologies is that you encounter a range of authors, a kind of heady stew that takes you in new directions. In practice, many’s the anthology I go to read where 50-90% of the authors are familiar to me, and sometimes that’s exactly what I want. This anthology, however, not only introduced me to new authors, but to authors whose work I intend to seek out (some of which can be found in Valancourt’s catalogue): Michael McDowell, Stephen Gregory, John Trevena, M.G. Lewis, and Charles Birkin.

This book contains many gems, from Christopher Priest’s transgressive “The Head and the Hand,” to Mary Cholmondeley’s “Let Loose,” a proto-vampire tale that plays with various conventions of the vampire tale seven years before the publication of Dracula. Michael McDowell’s “Miss Mack” is a tale of dread and female friendship, with a strong Southern flavor in keeping with the author’s background.

If I had to point to one story I liked best, I’d say Stephen Gregory’s “The Progress of John Arthur Crabbe.” The story is excellent and elliptical, and I’ve already read it several times. This is a case where I had not only not read the author, but hadn’t even heard of him, as best I can recall. He’s a Welsh author of horror fiction, with a number of books out there and is still publishing. I’m grateful to Valancourt Books for this collection in general, but in particular for opening  such promising new rooms to me in the mansion of horror fiction.

Fifteen Fabulous, Frightful Novels

The other day a friend asked what my top ten-fifteen horror/suspense novels were, and I said I’d give a try to listing them. Time is passing, and I’d better do it before Halloween’s gone, so here they are in unranked format. I’ve limited myself to one book per author, so keep your salt shaker handy, but if you haven’t read these books, well, you know the drill…

scott smith the ruinsThe Ruins, by Scott Smith. You know that one about how things go bad sometimes? But you know that, somehow, one way or another, they’re eventually bound to turn out all right? Scott Smith never heard it. This is one of the novels that comes to mind for me when people talk about “unrelenting” books. A holiday in Mexico takes a disastrous wrong turn and exposes young people in the prime of their lives to multiple terrors. Spoiler: they don’t come back! Part of Smith’s amazing accomplishment with this book is that you know pretty early on that it’s over for them, and that their only escape is going to be death, and yet you still care, still want them to survive.

cover of the dark halfThe Dark Half, by Stephen King. This novel is one of many I could have picked by King, and it’s less cited as an influence than a dozen (Hell, two dozen) other things he’s written, but it’s tight, grim, well plotted, and the characters are real. If someone asks me which King book I recommend, but they don’t like reading long books, I usually say either this one or Salem’s Lot, and the latter gets enough love.

the red tree coverThe Red Tree, by Caitlín R. Kiernan. Among the best novels I’ve read that deal with haunting, in every sense of that word. It’s clear by novel’s end that something has gone deeply wrong for the protagonist, but the reader may never fully know the nature of that wrongness. I got goosebumps writing that sentence. Ignore the cover, which was a mind-bendingly terrible choice for this book, and doomed it to a lower profile in the market than it might otherwise have attained. In another timeline, this was the book that scooted Kiernan out of genre and into a Shirley Jackson-like mainstream position. Speaking of which…

cover for we have always lived in the castleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. Shirley Jackson’s influence looms over this list in a dozen ways. People like to point to “The Lottery” or The Haunting of Hill House as her masterpieces, and I’d say each is respectively her most well known short story and novel, but this novel is the one that rocked my world. I am an inveterate re-reader of books I love, stretching to dozens of reads for some titles, but I have never been able to finish this book again in its entirety. Amazing.

cover of the howlingThe Howling, by Gary Brandner. This werewolf novel was part of what turned me on to horror. It spawned a series of movies that range from good to regrettable, but if that’s the only thing you know, check out the book. It’s a zero-fucks-given kind of novel, with no visible pretensions to greatness, nor aspirations to literature, part of the secret to its excellence. Brandner omitted needless words in writing it, and it’s a taut, frightening book. Also, it’s the first book I remember reading that might reasonably be called “erotic,” though I don’t think it’s the most commonly used label for the book. Despite the, uh, very large fang on the cover.

cover of midnight sunMidnight Sun, by Ramsey Campbell. Campbell is the horror writer’s horror writer, a living master whose novels and short stories will be teaching lessons long after he himself has left this vale of tears. It wasn’t the first Campbell novel that I read, but it was the first where I felt everything click together into an awe-inducing whole. I’d read some Algernon Blackwood by that point, to which this book owes a debt, but here I found a blend of mysticism, ancient rituals, and fearsome nature all wrapped up into a novel. The prose is the typically wry, seemingly light stuff that the author regularly uses to build dread with each word.

sheltering sky coverThe Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles. Okay, this arguably falls into the “trying too hard” category, in terms of putting books in the “horror” box, but insofar as horror is not a genre, rather an emotion that certain novels arouse? This counts. Bowles’ fiction is a grand mash-up of exoticism, orientalism, and postwar nihilo-primitivism (is that a thing? I’m saying it’s a thing) that blends worlds. I’ve always thought of the characters in this novel as the wounded, latter-day equivalents of the group in The Sun Also Rises, searching in vain for meaning away from Europe, indulging in cheap vices and increasingly hollow acts of civilization en route to brutalization and death.

cover of silence of the lambsThe Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris. Is there a more well known contemporary suspense novel? Well, yes, because this novel’s just shy of thirty years old, so presumably something by Gillian Flynn or Stieg Larsson would fit the bill and be contemporary, but Thomas Harris’ masterpiece hangs over its successors like the shadows of giant moth wings. This novel sits at the outer rim of suspense, as it’s the last time Hannibal Lecter is left to bloom in the darkness, unrationalized and terrifying for what the reader doesn’t know about him. I loved the television show Hannibal, but it was a very different kind of story than this book, and the Lecter novels that Harris wrote following this one were not, to put it midly, on the same level.

the house next door coverThe House Next Door, by Anne Rivers Siddons. Ranks among the best haunted house novels out there. My appreciation for this book has only grown over time. It was creepy and terrifying when I read it as a teenager, but as time passed and I understood how Siddons mapped the terrors onto class slippage, I started to think this novel as actually great. Beyond which, having now lived in the South for almost a decade, I feel like I know the people she’s writing about, and that I have on occasion been to or seen their houses. The exact location is never quite articulated, but that works here. Siddons pays obligatory attention to the mechanics of the haunting, but they aren’t the focus of the book, not really. The terror, and the horror, are the focus.

cover of rebeccaRebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

And that’s really all there is to say. If that doesn’t remind you of your regard for this excellent novel, or drive you to learn who or what Manderley is, you’re probably reading the wrong list.

cover for the killing kindThe Killing Kind, by John Connolly. Third in the author’s Charlie Parker series of books, I read this one first, and it’s my favorite. Mass graves, spiders, terror in the Canadian wilderness. It’s a lot to handle. It also pulls off the trick of being readable in its own right outside of the series, which I always appreciate. The terrors and suspense here are ratcheted up by prose that moves smoothly, gliding shark-like through a narrative that could have gotten bogged down by many things. It doesn’t.

dracula coverDracula, by Bram Stoker. What am I going to say that thousands of readers, reviewers, critics, and yahoos haven’t already said? Not a lot, friends, not a lot. It’s a book that keeps on giving, year after year. 120 years after its publication, this novel keeps going and going, finding new audiences and new adaptations, literary and cinematic. The driving anxieties of the book—immigration, class anxiety, disease, women’s roles, insanity—are no less in play now than they were in Stoker’s time, although the stage on which they play out has shifted.

rosemary's baby coverRosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin. The best novel ever written about witches. Yes, The Witch of Blackbird Pond is great, likewise The Witches and The Witching Hour, but none are as good. Also, the basis for the best horror movie ever made. Need I say more?

 

something wicked coverSomething Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. This novel captures childhood, the Midwest, carnivals, and nostalgia in a way that no book before or since has managed to do, and its magic is as alive today as it was when it was new. I expect Cooger and Dark will be entertaining people for years to come.

Another year, any of the following might have made the list: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Interview with the Vampire, It, Frankenstein, Threshold, etc. The list is notably lacking writers of color, as well as (mostly) authors outside of North America or the U.K., and I expect I’d be writing a different list if I’d been born twenty years later, or indeed twenty years from now. Let’s do this again in 2036, hmm?

What’s that? Oh, right! Fifteen.

cover the hellbound heartI’m going to cheat here and say The Hellbound Heart, by Clive Barker. It’s not a novel, but a novella, by almost any definition. Barker’s written other novels, but I feel like The Hellbound Heart has gone on to a novel-like life of its own far exceeding that of most of his other books. Part of that’s the transmedia Hellraiser franchise, but honestly the book itself is simply that good. Strange, elliptical, and balancing very well Barker’s narrative urges and his descriptive urges, it’s a story that deserves to be read in its own right, and appreciated for the terror that it delivers.

Finding Critical Reviews of Horror and Weird Fiction

man on motorcycle

Turn left at Amazon, stop at Goodreads, go three sites north…

Early in October I asked friends to weigh in with recommendations for the sites they liked to visit to find critical reviews of horror or weird fiction. This question was inspired partly by having read too many “reviews” that consist of plot summary or praise, and partly by having read a really thoughtful critical review that, while imperfect, was judicious, engaged at length with the text, and seemed to me to fulfill the basic requirements of a critical reviews.

When asking people I mentioned my habits, which include…

People replied with a number of sites, blogs, etc., some of which I visit occasionally, some of which were new to me, some of which don’t publish regularly.

Please feel free to suggest other sites in comments. Please don’t suggest sites that are there primarily to publicize self-published fiction, sites that don’t review books at length, sites that have never given a book less than a glowing review, etc.

Note: I welcome suggestions of resources that review underrepresented writers and writing: women, racial or ethnic minority, translated horror/weird, LGBTQIA, non-English language, etc.