Sunday, August 24, 2003


Two very cool book-things arrived in the mailbox-thing yesterday--Child Assassin by Alan DeNiro and The Frank Book by Jim Woodring.

Child Assassin by DeNiro is a Small Alice thing--part of a series called One Story; literally, a small-sized chapbook containing one story, with a simple yet beautiful design. One Story puts out 18 of these chapbooks a year. DeNiro's story is an unclassifiable surreal thing with lines like "No one knew what to call him, which suited him perfectly well, because he liked to kill babies, and it was better not to have a name attached to such acts." and "The sale of security products to orphanages spiked dramatically whenever he drifted through a town. He knew this, and himself dreamed about being caught and eaten by high-level bureaucrats." I like the story a lot--despite a hiccup of banality in the middle involving turn-about on the assassin, because it ends in the same strange place it begins. You can subscribe to One Story via the Internet--I know I'm planning to.

The Frank Book by Jim Woodring is a Large Alice thing--it collects all of Woodring's Frank cartoons in an oversized omnibus hardcover of almost 400 pages, with several series of full-color plates. At first, I thought the most surreal thing about Frank might be the introduction by Francis Ford Coppola, possibly the last person I'd think of to do the honors. Frank has no captions and no dialogue, forcing you to concentrate on the truly surreal, insane panels and storylines. Frank is a cat-thing who wanders through a constantly metamorphosizing landscape that includes twirling fleshy flying things (you can pull open their marsupial pouches and take a ride), a manhog thing whose adventures are pitiable and disturbing, a faithful sidekick thing with a Chershire Cat tail who otherwise looks a little like a flesh-toaster, and a spindly Devil-creature thing named Whim who operates to the tune of his own perverse logic. I've never read anything like this, and recommend it highly. Thanks to Eric Schaller for recommending it to me.

Now, I just need to find an Alice Medium-Sized thing (which might just be the new Caustic Resin CD).


Music Check--Listening to:
Songs Ohia
Julian Cope
Dandy Warhols

Wednesday, August 20, 2003


I've been working steadily on the rewrite of my new novel, SHRIEK: AN AFTERWORD for the past week, and marveling at how the imagination and the subconscious can work together to revitalize material I'd looked over maybe 20 times and been unable, in the past, to see fault in. You get a sense of snow blindness, and even a sense of disgust at your work over time. You become so familiar with it that it's like something dead--inert stone or dirt. Luckily, a little bit of time away from the manuscript seems to have helped quite a bit. Also, finishing the first draft (although parts of it are about seventh draft now) helped immeasurably. Now that I know how the story ends, I know how the light strikes the words in the earlier parts, if that makes any sense. There's a sudden fleshing out, a three-dimensional quality that I can infuse the words with due to the foreknowledge of the ending.

Anyway, I may be somewhat intermittent on this already intermittent blog for at least eight weeks as I get deeper and deeper into this thing.


Saturday, August 16, 2003


After compiling responses over the course of the last two years, in my "spare time," the entire five-question book survey is now going live on Fantastic Metropolis. Over 70 writers and editors responded, including Michael Chabon, Milorad Pavic, Gene Wolfe, Shelley Jackson, etc., etc.--just too many to mention. Please check it out--it's vastly entertaining. Meanwhile, my own responses to the five questions can be found below.


What do you most like about the book as a physical object?
I love how each part of a book, from exterior to interior, can become a work of art. I love how a well-made book is both like a well-made cabinet and like a stunning painting: it simultaneously provides some of the satisfaction of physical exertion and the aesthetics of art. The craft that goes into a well-made book is fascinating to me.

Do you have any rituals or procedures you go through after acquiring a new (or used) book? (Some writers indicate they bite or smell books.)
I read all of the front and end matter first. I'll perhaps read a page or two here or there to get a sense for the prose style. If it's a hardcover, I'll put a plastic protective cover on it immediately. I'll take the dust jacket off and see if there's a foil stamp on the cover. If it's one of my books, I will carry it with me everywhere like a talisman for a week or two, marveling all over again at the fact that I have a book in print--something I never thought of as a given. I like to thoroughly enjoy each new book when first published…I usually don't smell my books--smell is not a big deal for me when it comes to books, but I do hate the smell of cigarettes emanating from a used book, or an antiseptic smell. Mustiness is just fine, however.

Is it necessary for books to exist as physical objects in our increasingly electronic world? If so, why?
For me, it's necessary. I am so invested in not only the text of a book but the way a book is put together that I would find a world without hardcopy books much poorer and less interesting. It's instinctual.

What recent examples stand out for you as exemplar of well-designed, well-made books?
Savoy Books continues to put out amazing books, including their recent A Voyage to Arcturus edition, which is one of the best designed books I've ever seen. I almost very much liked House of Leaves when it came out in 2000. I'm a sucker for anything published by Tartarus or Dedalus, although Dedalus books are not collectable per se. I also very much like the first volume of collected Hodgson from Night Shade Books. Anything from McSweeney's tends to be interesting--sometimes "clever" wins out over "substance," but it's always interesting. When PS Publishing does something crazy like publish a book with no text on the cover, just art, I always smile and applaud their daring. Usually, they know just when to do that, the art deserving to be center stage.

Do you have any memory connected to books that you would like to share?
Several books are dear to me because they triggered an emotional response I wasn't expecting, because they revealed some truth to me in a very profound way. The World According to Garp by Irving and The Chess Garden by Brooks Hansen are two books that gave me a reading experience I'll never forget. As a writer, I'll never forget reading Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. Her use of language was so amazing that I felt like my eyes were burning from the "touch" of the words against my vision. I actually cried out in amazement at times while reading it because the use of language was so brilliant. Much earlier, the last book of The Lord of the Rings had a profound effect on me because Tolkien, despite faults that are apparent when I re-read the books now, never let his characters off the hook--they suffer terribly to attain their desires, and even afterwards they are not safe, as when Saruman takes over the Shire. This idea that characters, like real people, cannot "get off the hook" easily resonated with me to the point that Tolkien, like Stephen R. Donaldson, with his Thomas Covenant series, was a huge influence on my early fiction. A story like "The Bone-Carver's Tale," for example, could not have existed without that lesson.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003


I generally won't post links to reviews of my work on this blog--this blog really is for little mini-essays. But in this case, I can't resist. Allen Ruch at the Modern Word has just posted what I think is the most comprehensive and indepth review of City of Saints & Madmen yet written:



I think I may have begun to disappear up my own arse with that last posting. I plan to return to the topic, but only when I have time to address it in more depth and with more coherence.

In the meantime, I've been reading Jose Saramago's All the Names and enjoying it immensely. It is a chronicle of a clerk in the Central Registry, charged with keeping track of files on the living and the dead. One particular quote stood out for me in the early pages:

"The state of neglect grew, dereliction prospered, uncertainty multiplied, so much so that one day...a researcher became lost in the labyrinthine catacombs of the archive of the dead, having come to the Central Registry in order to carry out some genealogical research he had been commissioned to undertake. He was discovered, almost miraculously, after a week, starving, thirsty, exhausted, delirious, having survived thanks to the desperate measures of ingesting enormous quantities of old documents which neither lingered in the stomach nor nourished, since they melted in the mouth without requiring any chewing."

I don't know if the book becomes fantastical later in the sense of events occurring that could not occur in the real world, but if not, I'd still consider the book fantasy on the level of metaphor for descriptions like that.


Tuesday, August 12, 2003


I've already established in a prior blog post that I believe all fiction is fantasy in a sense. As a result, all fiction is "escapist" in a sense--there are simply varying degrees of escapism. The importance of this distinction, to me, is not to buy into the untruth ("lie" is perhaps too harsh a word in this context) that any writer of fiction is not being "escapist" in some way. For one thing, it allows us to see the worth of truly escapist fiction by allowing it to exist in the same continuum, within the same spectrum. "Escapist" should not be a pejorative, in other words. Fiction can fail in so many ways that to focus on "too much escapism" strikes me as a convenient way to overlook defects in "non-escapist" fantasy, for example.

But what I really want to discuss in this post is how postmodern techniques in fantasy fiction often actually supports the "fantasy" element, if we, for purposes of this discussion, define "fantasy" as "containing non-real-world elements"--a non-Earth Prime setting, for example. I'll use my own "fantastical" setting of Ambergris for purposes of illustration. My "mosaic novel" or short story collection City of Saints contains quite a bit of postmodern technique, applied with varying degrees of depth. Most of it serves to support the reality of the fantasy setting--"King Squid" and "The Early History of Ambergris," for example, use the structure of nonfiction forms for fictional purposes. In "Early History" the "fictional purpose" is to present a history of Ambergris without the need for the traditional methods of plot and character development. This device strengthens the conceit of Ambergris being real, rather than in any way disabusing the reader of his or her suspension of disbelief.

In "King Squid," the structure used is that of the scientific monograph. "King Squid" sets out the delusions of a supposed resident of Ambergris--in other words, most everything set out in the monograph is false to the supposed "truth" (or Reality2) of Ambergris ("our world" being Reality1). In a sense, the structure of "King Squid" allows the narrator his delusions but denies him the escape one might expect is inherent in a "fantasy" setting. Its effect on the reader is to uphold the reality of Ambergris because the reader is forced to conclude that the "facts" about Ambergris set out in the piece are either distorted or untrue--in a sense, it forces the reader to consider Ambergris as real and the "King Squid" story as false.

Other postmodern techniques I use do, in fact, breach the wall between author and reader, and expose the "lie" of suspension of disbelief. More on them later. My main point here, I suppose, in what has become a somewhat rambling yet truncated post that will probably require revision, is that a postmodern technique used in a "fantastical setting" often supports the milieu, even if those same techniques used with a modern-day setting can seem artificial or distracting from the reality of place.


Monday, August 11, 2003


This weekend, I went up to Jacksonville, Florida, with some friends (Pete Peterson and Scott Stratton--fully incorporated into Ambergris as some of you may recognize) to visit the used bookstores. Jacksonville is pretty amazing when it comes to bookstores. If you just counted Chambline's Bookmine (for my money, the best used bookstore I've ever visited) and Tappin's Bookmine, it'd be worth the trip, but when you throw in the other four or five excellent used bookstores--and the proximity of St. Augustine, with another four or five excellent bookstores--it's something of a book lover's paradise.

The books I picked up this time, in the jumbled order in which I discovered them, included:

Barrow's Boys by Fergus Fleming (hc 1st ed; history of British exploration through those sent out to map the unknown in the late 1800s; many never came back)

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by Lawrence James (hc 1st ed; history)

Nature Writing edited by Robert Finch and John Elder (hc; nature writing samples from the 1800s to the present)

A Taste for Travel by John Julius Norwich (hc 1st ed; travel writing samples with notes and additional text from Norwich; I now lack only one Norwich book for my collection--his book on sex in the ancient world, which is probably required reading before I start the novel after the one I'm currently working on)

Vermillion Sea by John Janovy Jr. (hc; nature writing about the coast of California)

Stars of the Unborn by Franz Werfel (mmpb; a novel from early in the 20th century by a resident of Prague, published in the Ballantine adult fantasy line, with an admiring quote on the cover by Henry Miller!)

Modern Classics of Fantasy edited by Gardner Dozois (hc 1st ed; this St. Martin's collection has several long stories that my eyes have somehow managed to be innocent of to this point...)

Little Big by John Crowley (hc; the trade paperback has been difficult for me to read--this version is slightly more readable in terms of the typeface)

The Great Wheel by Ian R. McLeod (hc 1st ed; this novel by the author of the Light Ages looks, in some ways, even better than Light Ages)

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago (tp; Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese novelist; I've been meaning to check him out for some time)

All the Lines by Jose Saramago (tp; this book was recommended to me by the owner (?) of Anastasia Books in St. Augustine, a very knowledgeable person who had had Marquez as an instructor at the University of Massachusetts while an undergraduate...but she also claimed to have taken the Scientologist test on a lark...)

The Sooterkin by Tom Gilling (tp; a changeling fantasy published in the mainstream that looks interesting)

One Step Behind by Henning Mankell (tp; a friend recommended Mankell to me as exemplar of excellent modern European mystery/detective novels)

Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell (tp)

The White Lionness by Henning Mankell (tp)

Daemonology by John Crowley (tp; again, the tp's of his work are okay re the typeface, but not really that reader-friendly; he really needs Everyman Library-type hardcover editions with better leading, better selection of font, and a more soothing number of words per line; this is not throw-away fiction, and the reader must really concentrate to get the full value out of that; eyestrain is not conducive to concentration)

Cathedral of the World by Myron Aims (tp; a meditation and dialogue on the sea; could be New Age crap; might be excellent; time will tell...)

Platypus by Ann Moyal (hc 1st ed; sumptuously illustrated and satisfying eccentric; in fact, it's entirely possible that the platypus will, as Mike Moorcock puts it, become my next "totem animal")

Travelers and Travel Liars, 1660-1800 by Percy G. Adams (tp; another of the rather miraculous finds made years by the Dover Books people)

Bad Trips edited by Keith Fraser (tp; I'm a sucker for tales of trips gone wrong)

The Inland Sea by Donald Richie (mmpb; looks like an interesting account of Japanese culture)

Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue by Paul Bowles (tp; about Morocco and North African culture; looks fascinating)

Great French Short Novels edited by F.W. Dupel (hc; I haven't read a single novel in this omnibus; very much looking forward to it)

Great Russian Short Novels edited by Philip Rahv (hc; more familiar territory, but still a few I haven't read; I also can really identify with the term "short novels" ;) )

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (hc, Easton Press edition; I've wanted a thick, virtually indestructible version of this for quite some time; now, if only the horrible illustrations inside would self-destruct...)

Light Metres illustrated by Edward Gorey (hc limited, signed copy #50 of 300 copies; I just couldn't resist this one, pricey but worth it.

Time Buried by Howard Wandrei (hc; Fegoman & Bremer; Lovecraft contemporary; most of the stories look cheesey, but the edition itself is gorgeous with cover art that somehow evokes Arthur Rackham)

The Eerie Mr. Murphy by Howard Wandrei (hc; volume 2 of his fantasy stories)

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer by Chaucer (oversized hc facsimile of the William Morris original, just too beautiful to pass up; I got this at the Tappin Bookmine, and they also had a single page from the Morris original, selling for $1,200; the page was unbelievably gorgeous; the facsimile book is stunning, too)

Venice Art & Architecture (oversized hc two-vol. set in slipcase; this completes my acquisition of books about Venice, which began with John Julius Norwich's history of the city; my main focus is on the influence of Constantinople on Venice)

On Friday, Pete and I headed over to St. Augustine first, met by Scott in Jacksonville later that night. In St. Augustine, Jackelyn at the Anastasia Bookstore recommended Saramago to me and gently teased me for asking for travel essays: "you mean, so you don't have to go there yourself?" The graybeards at Wolf's Head and Avenue Books kept their own counsel, distinguished grayhaired women answering our questions. In all three places, one felt oneself in the presence of repositories of great knowledge and of the kind of eccentricity that really deserves further exploration. A journey to another place, even one as close as Jacksonville is to Tallahassee, leaves you with a tantalizing glimpse of what it might be like to live in a town with more than one good used bookstore.

In Jacksonville the next day, after a pleasant night of drinking, talking, and smoking a very nice cigar, Chamblin's Bookmine awaited us early in the morning. Chamblin's is a massive bookstore--truly a book mine in every sense of the word. Aisles and aisles and aisles bristling with books, hundreds of boxes partially blocking your way, and completely filled with customers on a Saturday morning. People come from as far away as North Carolina to visit Chamblin's, and it's easy to see why, even just in terms of what they bought from me. I brought in three big boxes of books, and they took almost everything. This sounds like a lack of taste on their part. What it really is is a completist approach to establishing a bookstore inventory. Anyone who likes any kind of book can come to Chamblin's and find a wide selection of that type--again, no matter what type it is. Their SF/Fantasy paperback selection is amazing. Their travel book selection is amazing. Their history section is amazing. Their mysteries, their cookbooks, their biographies--each section is huge, and you will find at least one rare thing you wanted or one thing you didn't know existed that is perfect for you. When you then throw in their rare and collectible's truly an experience. The staff is also always courteous and knowledgeable.

Tappin's Bookmine is also impressive, although more selective. A much smaller store, it nonetheless contained as many treasures as Chamblin's, including the Chaucer/Morris facsimile I bought and one of the Wandrei's. There, the proprietor also brought out a $12,000 first American edition of The Hobbit with color plates by Tolkien. It had originally be bought when the novel first came out as a present for a daughter. The daughter, now grown up (by many years!), had decided to sell it.

But perhaps the most amazing find at Tappin's were books that the owner was still pricing--old hardcover pulp SF novels in the Lensmen series, Jack Williamson, etc. Most of them were signed and some were numbered. Some had very long inscriptions. A wino had brought them in--he'd found them in a dumpster and indicated there were more. As they now admit, they made the mistake of paying the man for all of the books he'd brought in rather than half then, half upon getting more info about where he'd found them--he promptly disappeared and no one ever located the dumpster where some uninformed person had tossed all of these invaluable books.

Then it was on to Jerry's, a bookstore that now looks like the kind of place Kurtz from Heart of Darkness would run if he ran a bookstore. Pete, Scott, and I could have sworn the unopened boxes of books right smack in the middle of the carpet were the same boxes from a year earlier. Only, another 12 to 20 boxes had joined them. You couldn't even reach over them to get to the bookcases with the limited edition and first edition SF and Fantasy. It appeared that the whole store had, in a sense, "gone native." Jerry was his old feisty self, however, ready to engage in any discussion involving SF and Fantasy.

And, interestingly enough, a book Pete found--The Castle of the Otter--shed perhaps a little light on the Gene Wolfe Odyssey workshop fiasco. The book is nonfiction Wolfe wrote about his Shadow of the Torturer series, the title taken from a misprint Locus magazine made when reporting the New Sun books Wolfe was working on (i.e., "Castle of the Otter" instead of "Citadel of the Autarch"). In the book, Wolfe interviews himself, and has this to say about workshops:

A: In 1975, I taught a week at the Clarion Writer's Conference at Michigan State.
Q: Was it fun?
A: Not really, although I met three people who have become more or less permanent friends. On the whole, the students were mainly interested in smoking dope and meeting celebrities. I don't smoke and I'm not a celebrity.
Q: Weren't you ever asked to come back?
A: Yes, but only after six years, when there was a new faculty advisor.
Q: Did you go?
A: No.
Q: Are you ever going to try teaching again?
A: Perhaps, if I find somebody who wants to learn. Writers tend to think that everybody wants to learn to write. The truth is, very few do, and that most of those who do succeed. Most people don't take the time and trouble...
Q: Teaching doesn't seem to have been very much fun for you.

As it was, so it shall be, apparently...

There is not much else left to tell. Pete, Scott, and I all came back loaded down with books, with leads about other books, with glimpses of books we could not afford to buy, or could not rationalize the decision to buy, and the glimmer of the next bookstore trip already a pleasant if distant thought in the back of our minds.


Saturday, August 02, 2003


There has been a certain amount of debate about escapist versus non-escapist fantasy that I think would be better discussed in the context of escapist versus non-escapist fiction.

First, though, I think it's important to reaffirm a very basic concept: All fiction is fantasy, on one level. No matter how "realistic" the fiction, it contains some element either in a different context than it occurs in the real world or an element of the imagination brought in by the writer that has only a loose association with reality. To me, this seems like a rather safe and in some ways banal assumption.

In addition, however, I believe all fiction is fantasy because in one way or another fiction disappoints reality. No fiction can adequately describe even the interior of, say, a bookstore in such a way as to render it as real, on the level of specific detail, as you do when you visit said bookstore.

To some extent, then, all fiction is escapist, regardless of how grimly real. And in this sense, "escapist" means "untrue." Thus, fiction can either be more or less escapist--it cannot be other than escapist, because it is, on the face of it, false to reality in some way, no matter how minor or major that way might be...(My own fiction often deals with the failure or the success of the imagination to transcend reality, or to transform reality, which fits into this discussion in a way that requires its own mini-essay in future.)

If you accept my argument above, then postmodern technique, by insisting that the reader face the reality that all fiction is fantasy (suspension of disbelief overruled), is in a sense less escapist than purely modernist fiction. By the same measure, postmodern fiction containing a "fantasy" element (for fantasy element, read: an event or person that could not exist in the "real" world in any sense) or fantasy containing a postmodern element, is thus the least escapist of all types of Fantasy (here I use the term fantasy as a publisher would label-wise, just for the sake of the hypothetical).

How does this impact the current debates in the fantasy field. First, a China Mieville novel with a milieu in which Marxist or Socialist society may be the norm is no more or less escapist than J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy of pastoral bliss threatened by industrialization. Ian R. MacLeod's The Light Ages, in which a socialist revolution fails, is also not any more or less escapist in the sense that, no postmodern technique being employed, the reader is still allowed to escape into the fiction of "suspending disbelief." And M. John Harrison's "forgiveness" of fantasy in his last short story collection by changing "A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium" to "A Young Man's Journey to London" does not in any sense change the escapist element or lack thereof, no matter how important that title change (and thus emphasis change) is to Harrison himself. (Whether he is describing London or an entry-point to the fantastic Viriconium, Harrison is still describing a place that exists only in his head.)

All of which is by way of actually saying--I don't know how useful it is to talk about escapist versus non-escapist fantasy. I am not claiming that postmodern fantasy is superior--just that the existence of postmodern fantasy allows for arguments like the above. Perhaps "escapist fantasy", or a degree of it, should not be dismissed so readily, considering that most everyone writing today is engaging in it. ;)

(This is a musing in progress, so no brickbats.)