Tuesday, August 31, 2004


And here it comes--the rush, the glorious danger, erupting into the present-day:

The hairs on his arms rose. He reached for the door, was arrested by the crackle of flame and something that blurred his vision: a bright arabesque coiling and uncoiling in the air before him. He cringed, watched in horror as the shining arabesque became a rainbow-finned tail. The pressure on his mouth exploded into the taste of burned fish and honey. He felt a jolting sensation, as of a train jerking to a halt, and flailed at the air for safety.

"See or shut your eyes," commanded Juda.

He saw.

And yet we find that this sudden intercession of the other on page 145 of Mortal Love isn't so sudden after all. It's been presaged by sensuality, by excess of detail, by a hyper-reality of precision that we always knew meant another world, as if there were so many other worlds overlapping that the red of that embroidered cushion over there on the couch was so vibrant because so repeated, the sensation of scent, touch, taste emboldened and echoed a thousandfold...

...small things burst and belched beneath his shoes, tiny conical caps of mushrooms, fleshy green earth tongues, red-tipped fungi that exploded with a scent of apples and kelp. There were heaps of old brick, marbled with a soft bloom of turquoise mold. The air was sweet with a strange pervasive smell of apples, as though they stood inside an orchard within sight of the sea. (page 13)

...ferociously fragmented, almost purely geometric images, like the endlessly replicating honeycombs traced across your eyelids during an acid trip...extravagantly detailed canvases filled with trees whose trunks sprouted nests of bees with men's faces, armies of insects, women who rode dogs big as horses... (page 22)

But all Daniel could really fix on were her eyes. An astonishing deep pure green, like a marble held up to the sun, they seemed oddly unfocused, her gaze abstracted, like that of a nocturnal creature unaccustomed to the sun, or some marine animal dragged onto dry ground. (page 50)

Her eyes and hair and skin pressed themselves upon him as though he were washed paper absorbing the touch of sable and ink. (page 99)

Hand has done a superb job of preparing the reader for the uncovering of further mysteries, either in this world or another. But she has also shown us that our own world is impossibly complex and beautiful.

I'm feeling this novel now, living inside of it, and for that reason it will become more and more difficult to comment on it.


It has become increasingly apparent to me that I might want to keep a copy of this book

close at hand while reading John Crowley's collection. Parts of "Her Bounty to the Dead," in the interweaving of memory and the present, reminded me of Nabokovian approaches. The third story in Novelties & Souvenirs, "The Reason for the Visit," also reminds me of Nabokov--the ethereal, cerebral Nabokov. This is the Nabokov of abstractions, manifested in some of his early work and in his last novels.

In "The Reason for the Visit," the body or spirit or ghost or idea of Virginia Woolf visits a nameless narrator, who may or may not be some manifestation of John Crowley. The narrator tells the reader that in the past he has conjured up Dr. Johnson and Max Beerbohm, but that this visit is different.

A silence fell and she [Woolf] rolled a cigarette. The difference between imaginary visitors and real ones is that with imaginary visitors you can immediately start in on whatever it was that occasioned the visit, without preamble or confusion; the elevator occasioned Johnson, and when it had been explained to him, and he had rejected the explanation in favor of his own, then the visit was over. But she and I must face each other now in an uncomfortable silence, with a whole world around us to be explained, or ignored; we must choose.

There is an outside possibility that Crowley means this literally--that some sort of time travel is involved--but I certainly hope this is not his meaning. It's more likely a device to imagine a visit by Virginia Woolf to a person in her future. Woolfe's name is never mentioned, but hints loom large everywhere, including "I can't remember if I ever got the lighthouse."

The abstract quality of the story, as in Nabokov's more successful fictions of this sort, is masked by an attention to detail--with regard to Woolf's appearance and the setting--but it's not really enough to draw our attention away from the artificial nature of the story.

After some meditations on the nature of time, the reader is treated to a kind of reverie that puts me in mind of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (although it's been a long time since I read it):

And yet when she was gone, her scent lingered a long time in the room, a scent chosen nearly at random in a shop in Jermyn Street; a scent chosen for its lovely name, not its odor, which she didn't like to trouble the clerk to demonstrate for her on the inside of her wrist where the blue vein beat. Besides, she must reach before it closed a shop nearby, if she could remember the street and how exactly it intersected with this one, where pens were sold, and where she would be able to make her demands more specific--where, that is, she would have demands. Standing in Oxford Street, oddly exhilarated by the first breath of ancient autumn which cut through the London air like a new nib across coarse-grained paper, she thought suddenly to telegraph Leonard to say that after all she had decided to stay up in town and attend Lady Colefax's party...

I imagine that readers closely familiar with Woolf's work will find much in "The Reason for the Visit" to delight them. For me, the only delight to be had was at the paragraph level, in sentences like the ones above, which provide a groundedness that the story as a whole does not possess. There is a lovely sense of longing and regret--and, on Crowley's part, an admiration--that hangs over the story like a fog, trying to obscure the artificiality of the entire effort. I did not really enjoy reading "The Reason for the Visit," but I admired its parts.


SCOPE CREEP: Lucius Shepard's Trujillo and Liz Williams' The Banquet of the Lords of Night

Oh dear. It appears more scope creep will soon be occurring, because I need to add Lucius Shepard's Trujillo collection

and Liz Williams' The Banquet of the Lords of Night collection

to my reading list. And, of course, if I do that then I probably need to add the Gene Wolfe collection from earlier this year and Ian MacLeod's Breathmoss, and before you know it, all I'll be doing is reading a blogging. Right. Well, there will have to be a cut-off point somewhere, but for now, I'm going to attempt to add these two...


Monday, August 30, 2004

NOVELTIES & SOUVENIRS by John Crowley: Day 1

I thought it would be interesting to throw John Crowley's "definitive" collection of short stories into the mix along with Flights and The Circus in Winter. Any comparisons and contrasts will be, in a sense, completely arbitrary, but in another sense may be of interest.

I have to confess something--I've read enough of Little, Big to include it on some of my lists of important fantasy of the last century, but I've also skimmed long parts of it that did not interest me. It seems to be the kind of book that, like Gravity's Rainbow, requires you to have "loaded" other books into your system first. I don't think I've loaded the requisite books.

So I was interested to sample Crowley's work on a smaller stage--that of the short story and novella (I will be reading Crowley's novella from Conjunctions and commenting on it here as part of my discussion of his collection because it feels like a major, major omission--one that I don't have to accept.)

Crowley has decided to present his stories in rough chronological order--from first written to last written. I'm glad he's chosen to do this. For a retrospective, I think it's an exceedingly valuable approach. The best example of this approach would be Vladimir Nabokov's collected short stories, a book which is not just brilliant but also instructive. We see the general steady progression of talent tied to a greater understanding of craft--the development of a young writer into a mature writer. We also see the occasional stutter-step sideways and the inevitable fall off in skill toward the end of his career. I don't think Crowley has written enough short fiction for the effect to be as dramatic in his collection, but it should still be instructive to read the stories in the order in which he created them.

"Antiquities," the first story in Novelties & Souvenirs, first appeared in the anthology Whispers and is a pastiche of the traditional old-British-veterans-of-Empire harrumphing and tall-tale-ing it in some smoky men's-only club with rosewood furniture and old leather chairs. It's a generic story, in that anyone could have written it, and it certainly suggests Crowley could have remained a generic writer, one who only trawled the surface of his stories. Cat mummies and Cheshire infidelities highlight this tale, with its "crepuscular haze of the smoking room" and its mesmerism.

The second story, "Her Bounty to the Dead," provides the first hint of Crowley's special talent. Phillippa Derwent contacts a long-lost nephew, John Knowe, to tell him her mother has died and left him some property. Together, they drive out to inspect it. These three paragraphs on the third page of the story, describing her first meeting with John, brought me up short, made me appreciate Crowley's work as both a stylist and as someone who sees in the world a sense of underlying mystery:

He was astonished as she was not. She felt embarrassed; she must appear a ghastly crone in comparison to his mental image [from 20 years before]. Yet he took her hand warmly, and after a moment's hesitation, kissed her cheek, tenderly almost. His large eyes were as she remembered them. For a moment a hard thickness started in her throat, and she looked at the sky as an excuse to turn away.

"I should warn you," she said. "I'm a weather jinx. I can go anywhere and a blue sky will turn black." And in fact, in the west, hard, white clouds were moving over, preceded by wind-twisted pale mare's tails--stormbringers, her mother always called them.

Parkways north: already along these most civilized of turnpikes the ivy had turned, burdening the still-green trees with garments of many colors. Since the twenties, when her father had bought the farm for their summers, she had made this journey many times, at first on dirt roads, through then-rural Connecticut, later traveling under these arching bridges each one different, and now skating along superhighways that reached--as had once seemed impossible to her that they ever would--deeply into Vermont itself. At this season, she and Amy and their parents would have been traveling the other way, not toward but away from the farm, where they lived from May to October, going home, they always said, but to Phillippa at least it had always seemed the reverse: leaving the true home for the other, the workaday place, the exile.

I can't tell you exactly why I find this passage in some way conveying the mysteriousness of the world, but that's the sense I get from it. There's a certain mystery in the interaction between John and Phillippa. There's a certain mystery to the world described by the drive.

There are a few specific things I really like in the style of that passage. Firstly, the simple but effective inversion of "almost tenderly" as "tenderly almost," the "almost" surprising the reader, but also effectively conveying the distance between two people who have not seen each other in decades. I also like "the ivy had turned, burdening the still-green trees" because "turned" anticipates and supports "burdening," the long "u" sound doubling, separated by a comma that also slows and burdens the sentence--only to open up into the shorter sounds of "still-green trees" which is more lithe and conveys, to me at least, a bit of the height of the trees, the "still" poking up out of the sentence above the "turned" and "burdening." Did Crowley intend this effect? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Sometimes these things just happen naturally. But it is certainly the kind of thing a stylist thinks of during the revision phase. (The sentence also has a nice convoluted yet streamlined feel to it, echoing its subject matter.)

Also effective is the way in which Crowley sets up, in this passage, the tension between the present and the past. In the rest of the story, Crowley smoothly slides between Phillippa's conversation in the car with John and her memories...all of which merges together in present-day catastrophe and past regret in the story's enigmatic but powerful conclusion. I am not entirely sure I understand the conclusion of the story, but I like that it is mysterious. I will return to this story, and its conclusion, after reading more of the collection. I will worry the ending of "Her Bounty to the Dead" until I have a better sense of it. Or until all the meat is off the bone...

Saturday, August 28, 2004

COMPARTMENTS by Zoran Zivkovic

As I said previously, there are a number of wonderful books about to be published--or already published, in the case of Zoran Zivkovic's Compartments, a short novel or long novella already available in English in continental Europe, and soon to be published in the UK magazine Postscripts from PS Publishing.

Compartments follows an unnamed individual through the various compartments of a train, wherein he encounters any number of odd or humorous people. It's hard to convey the sense of dry humor and yet melancholy that permeates Compartments. But it's a potent combination, combined with some very effective description and specific detail. The structure is similar to Stepan Chapman's "Minutes of the Last Meeting" from Leviathan 2, but the effect is entirely different. Is it allegory? Perhaps. But what I most enjoyed about it were the little moments, the interplay between the narrator and the people he discovers. I also found this novella to be different in tone from the Calvino-meets-Twilight-Zone melange of some of Zivkovic's short stories. Highly recommended, and hopefully more readily available in English soon.

Here's a short excerpt from the book.

I ran as fast as my legs would carry me.

The carriage had just pulled away from the buffer at the end of the track. Even though it was still moving slowly, had I been carrying any luggage, particularly anything heavy, I wouldn't have made it. Luckily, all I was holding was my coat and hat.

I didn't know how to get onto a moving carriage. Was I first supposed to jump onto the step on the platform of the last car and then grab hold of the handrail, or the other way around? Who knows what I would have done if the back door hadn't opened just as I caught up to the car. The conductor came out onto the platform.

"Give me your hand!" he shouted.

I stretched out the arm with my coat thrown over it. He grabbed my hand and heaved mightily. The next instant I was standing next to him on the platform.

"Wonderful!" said the conductor with a smile.

"I'm sorry," I replied, out of breath.

"Come, now! You have no reason to excuse yourself. Quite the contrary. I'm delighted that you joined us. Welcome!"

He patted me lightly on the shoulder. We stood there for several moments without speaking, smiling at each other.

"I'm afraid I don't have a ticket," I said contritely.

"The ticket isn't important. The essential thing is that you made it."

"I'm extremely grateful to you."

"Let's go in," said the conductor, moving aside to let me enter first.

To Recap...

For those who have only been keeping up with this suddenly frenetic blog over the last few days, I started out with a list of books that I planned to read and comment on by the end of the year. This was the original list:

CLARKE, SUSANNA - Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
CROWLEY, John - Novelties * Souvenirs: Collected Short Fiction
DAY, CATHY - The Circus in Winter [reading in progress]
DUDMAN, CLARE - 98 Reasons for Being
HAND, ELIZABETH - Mortal Love [reading in progress]
IRVINE, ALEXANDER - One King, One Soldier
MIEVILLE, CHINA - Iron Council
SARRANTONIO, Al - Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy [reading in progress]
VONARBURG, Elisabeth - Dreams of the Sea

It's since been suggested to me that I add the following, which I will try to do.

BALLIETT, BLUE - Chasing Vermeer
ERICKSON, STEVEN - Gardens of the Moon
HARWOOD, John - The Ghost Writer
MILLS, MARK - Amagansett
STEWART, SEAN - Perfect Circle
ZAFON, CARLOS RUIZ - The Shadow of the Wind

If anyone has any other suggestions of major books published this year, fantastical in nature, that I should add, please post a comment. And also let me know if any of this is of interest. By the end of the year, I'll go back to more observations about the writing life. But for now, I'm using this blog as a spur to keep me reading.


Friday, August 27, 2004


Joyce Carol Oates' story "####: Six Hypotheses" in the Sarrantonio-edited fantasy anthology Flights is a taut, nicely-told horror story about a family either going insane or being haunted by some sort of demon.

The semi-experimental structure of the story reminded me of House of Leaves-and some of Douglas Winter's tales. Oates' story is divided into six Hypotheses about the death of the Loving family ("Loving" in this case being a lame play on words, noted as such in the narrative). Each section probes at the deaths from a different hypothetical angle while telling the reader just a little more about events leading up to the deaths.

There's not much to say on a structural level because, while somewhat unusual, Oates' approach has been done before--and here it's applied to very traditional Amityville Horror-type subject matter. I'm not saying Oates' story is a cliche--it's a well-wrought horror story using a structure just familiar enough for the reader to be comfortable with it. In fact, you could argue that the simple fact of the cut-up--of dividing the story into sections with subtitles labeled "Hypothesis 1" through Hypothesis 6" doesn't warrant the label "experimental." You could, with a little work, take out the subtitles and stitch the story back together again with minimal damage done.

Which is a round-about way of saying that the story is much more traditional than it might at first appear.

What I like about the story, in any event, is not its structure, but its style, which shifts just slightly as the story focuses on different characters. These tonal shifts, within the more objective tone of a nameless omniscient point of view that presents the hypotheses, are much more interesting than the structure of the story or, even, its resolution, which is fairly typical. How we get there, however, is so skillfully done that I don't think most readers will mind the echoes of other stories and novels.

What exactly is the family terrified of? Why have they become withdrawn and nervous and anxiety-ridden?

Third month of the #### contagion. Humid midsummer. The bog is fraught with reptilian/insect life. Thrumming through the night and much of the day. The drunk-looking moon swings overhead. Big Fitzie [the father] isn't going to abandon his family, spends nights away in Philly the two-hour commute to and from is treacherous when you're sleep-deprived, can't keep your fucking eyes open. Can't sleep in the Dream House but can't sleep anywhere else, either. Shattering into pieces is Big Fitzie. He'd begun to see the things, too. Awake-seeming he has seen. Flying/pecking/jabbing/stabbing black fissures in the air like tears in fabric. Can't focus on the things directly only elliptically. Afterimage not the things themselves. In the corner of Big Fitzie's disintegrating brain.

Oates' use of specific detail is startling after the Powers story, and especially the generic Asaro story. (Although the order of the stories in Flights thus far makes sense--two imaginary world fantasies followed by a real-world fantasy followed by a horror story--each time getting a little closer to "reality".) More little sparks of detail that make the story real:

In the bog amid the twittering cries of late summer, slow unfurling coils of water snakes. Licorice black, with creamy-pale bellies and eyes unperturbed as glass.


[The baby was] A bundle of frantic shorted-out neurons. Kicking and shrieking red-faced gasping for breath like a tiny pig being smothered and both parents exhausted and sleep-deprived staggering through their daytime lives like somnambulists.

In short, in the hands of a lesser writer, this story would be more susceptible on the basis of the ideas/plot alone of being rendered mediocre. Instead, it's a very accomplished horror story that, despite its echo of familiarity and a perhaps mundane ending, overcomes those defects to give the reader a little shiver of fear, of recognition, and of delight.

(A little dissenting monkey simultaneously clambers up to my shoulder and whispers in my ear, "But this is the kind of stuff Oates can turn out in her sleep." But I'm not going to listen to that monkey. That monkey is evil. That monkey is in league with the ######s in Oates' story.)

PREVIEW: The Genizah at the House of Shepher by Tamar Yellin

Several interesting, creative, passionate novels are being released in the next nine months or so. The Genizah at the House of Shepher by Tamar Yellin is one such novel. It exists at the edge of fantasy but often has a wonderfully fantastical quality to it. After writing short stories for many years, Yellin has made the leap to long fiction with her first novel.

What is the novel about? As Yellin herself describes it:

Genizah (the Hebrew word, meaning literally "hiding place," refers to a depository for old or damaged sacred documents) is the saga of a Jerusalem family stretching over a hundred and forty-five years and four generations, but it is also a thriller about a missing biblical codex and the search for the true text of the Bible. The tale of the family Shepher, their aspirations, feuds and love affairs, is very much fiction, but the real-life history which inspired me to write it is just as full of mystery, intrigue and scholarly adventure, if not quite in the Indiana Jones mould, then perhaps as close as biblical studies ever get to that.

That real life history involves Yellin's great-great-grandfather.

[The novel was inspired by] a series of events which led to the reconstruction of one of the most important biblical texts, the Keter Aram Soba or Aleppo Codex. Written in Tiberias in the tenth century, this is the copy believed to have been consulted by Maimonides when compiling the laws pertaining to Torah scrolls in his Mishneh Torah. The Codex was extensively damaged in 1947 when Aleppo's Jewish community was attacked and its synagogue burned down. It is believed that members of the community attempted to save the book by hiding a few pages each. While some have been retrieved, about two hundred are still missing, including all five books of the Torah.

What is the link between the Aleppo Codex and the family Yellin? Around 1854 my great-great-grandfather, Shalom Shachne Yellin, left his hometown of Skidel in Lithuania to make the long journey to Jerusalem. A famous scroll-checker in his native country, he was asked by the rabbis of every community along the way to inspect their Torah scrolls, and it was two years before he finally reached his destination. When he arrived in Jerusalem, he was asked by the religious authorities there to embark on yet another journey: to Aleppo in Syria, to examine the famous Keter Aram Soba, regarded by many as the most perfect text of the Bible in existence. The Codex was kept hidden by the Aleppo community, who refused access even to the most respected of biblical scholars, but armed with a letter of recommendation signed by all the great rabbis of Jerusalem, Shalom Shachne was to study the text and compare it to that currently in use, noting down all the necessary corrections.

By this time my great-great-grandfather was seventy years of age and in failing health, so he appointed his son-in-law, Yehoshua Kimchi, to be his substitute. Kimchi was less of an expert, but by writing down all the necessary questions and instructions Shalom Shachne provided him with the tools necessary to complete the job. Some ten years after the rabbis' first request, Kimchi set off for Aleppo. On his return, the book in which he had written his vital notes was kept at the house of Shalom Shachne's son, Zvi Hirsch the Scribe, and for years the scribes and scholars of Jerusalem, seeking to solve problems or answer questions about the text and punctuation of the Bible, would visit to consult it.

Then, on the death of Zvi Hirsch around 1915, the book disappeared.

The story of the book's reappearance in real life is also part of the basis for Yellin's novel.

Anyone who has read Yellin's fiction in Nemonymous, Leviathan 3, The Third Alternative, Stand, and other fine journals knows that she is a consumate stylist. Her sentences are to die for. Here, for example, scenes set in Jerusalem fully evoke every aspect of the spirit of that ancient city.

There was the city of streets and there was the city of roofs. It was possible to cross Jerusalem without setting foot on the ground. Every cat knew this and so did every robber. On cool evenings the citizens of Jerusalem went up onto the roofs and enjoyed the breeze. Women sat behind perforated walls where they could observe without being observed. Neighbours could be visited by stepping from one roof to the next.

The city was crowded and the houses small. Nevertheless whole rooms went to waste, as it was the custom to throw rubbish into the bottom chamber of the house, where it festered until the local boys carried it away on a donkey through the Dung Gate and flung it onto the spoil heaps which adorned the edges of the city.

And the Dung Gate, when questioned on the matter, said, Rather the rubbish of Jerusalem than the jewels of the whole world

The Genizah at the House of Shepher will be published by Toby Press in March 2005.

Yellin has a messageboard and will soon have a web site.


LIGHT by M. John Harrison

Last year, I wrote this about the U.K. edition of Light by M. John Harrison in a SF Site review:

Some books make you want to run for a thousand miles, to dive off of buildings just for the burn of the fall. Some books are like drugs, adrenalin rushes, fireworks. M. John Harrison's Light is not just among the best SF novels of the year -- it's without question the best read of the year. Harrison has jettisoned all banality, dead spots, padding, and come up with a novel that moves without sacrificing depth. Not since Stepan Chapman's The Troika and Iain M. Banks' Use of Weapons has a novel managed to so single-handedly revitalize and re-energize the SF field.

Now the novel has been released in the United States for the first time (August 31) by Bantam Books in a handsome trade paperback.

I recently re-read some of my favorite passages from the novel and found Harrison's sentences just as powerful, playful, and deadly as the first time around. This is a must-buy for North American readers who love intricate, passionate, challenging fiction of any kind. As the cliche goes, I can't recommend this novel highly enough. Buy it. And then buy it for a friend. That way you can help ensure that fiction this distinctive and unclassifiable (and fun!) continues to be published in the U.S.

Thursday, August 26, 2004


Hal Duncan has just sold two novels of his Vellum series to Pan Macmillan in the UK. Hal is a 30-something Scottish writer, and this is his first sale. I've read the first book and it's wonderful stuff. Beautifully written.

You can find a summary here, although I'm not entirely sure the summary does the book justice. Complex, with two or three intertwining narratives, it's often remarkable. It won't be published until next year, but make a mental note to look for it.

Duncan has a message board and a blog.


The third (long) story in The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day is titled "The Last Member of the Boela Tribe," and it is wormholed through with miniature stories. These miniature tales are connected through the Boela Tribe--the manufactured name for Bascomb Bowles, transformed by circus moniker into Boela Man, the African Pinhead, his soon-to-be wife, Pearly the Zulu Queen, their child, and the generations hence. There is also the story of the abused elephant Caesar who kills his trainer, this story fractured between what happened and what people say happened.

"The Last Member of the Boela Tribe" takes some chances by being told mostly in summary with some half-scene and just a few full scenes, but the power of Day's storytelling is such that the technique works. This is also a story about grotesquery--what we would consider the physical grotesquery of "freaks," or those manufactured to play freak, and the true grotesquery of those whose actions are grotesque; for example, the man who puts out his cigars on Caesar's tongue. As ever in these stories, Day interweaves fascinating observations about the circus and circus animals into her narrative.

He admired the dexterity of the elephant's trunk--part nose, part hand--a versatile appendage which could also be (depending on the circumstances) cowboy lariat, swath-cutting scythe, water bucket, showman's hook, lightning bolt, mother's hand, flyswatter, trumpet, crane, or exclamation point. Sometimes, a trunk could be a billy club, a loosely held weapon capable of knocking the wind--even the life--out of a man.

I love the rhythm of that passage, with its mix of the lyrical and the practical. There is a subdued jaunty quality to the prose throughout "The Last Member" that serves as a perfect counterpoint to the almost gothic, depressing quality of the described events.

It falls to the last of the Boelas, Chicky Bowles, to finally avenge Caesar and, as the subtitle reads, find "His Place in the World." Chicky is a dwarf, and his essay on dwarfs for a school essay forms one of the story's most beautiful, sad, and interesting passages:

There are many cons to being a dwarf. In ancient times, dwarfs were left outside to die, either from exposure to the cold and heat or from being torn apart by wolves. Sometimes they were sacrificed to the gods so the tribe could get rid of its sins. In some parts of the Orient and South America, small children were captured and placed in small crates--their heads free outside the boxes, their bodies crouched inside. For years, the makers fed the children's mouths and emptied their wastes through small trap doors. Over time, the children became like root-bound plants. When fully grown, the children were freed and taken away to some faraway land, "found" in the woods by their own makers, who displayed them in freak shows as an ancient race of being never before seen on Earth.

In the end, Chicky frees himself from his self-defined role as a dwarf by both embracing that role and by committing an act of release. (I'd quote more from the story, but I don't want to ruin it for any potential readers of the book.)

I really admire the structure of the story, in that Day is able to take what are separate story fragments about disparate lives and connect them through the simple idea of father/mother-to-son-to-granddaughter-to-great-grandson--an idea that only works (freighted down as it is by so much summary) by weaving the story of Caesar through the various pieces of the narrative. So in terms of the story's form, you have a straight line--a descending straight line--and either a spiral around the line depicting Caesar's contribution to the plot, or a series of stitches through time that intersect with this downward plunging line. And, then, at story's end, the spiral and the line come together to form the outline of a door leading out past the end of of the story.

"The Last Member of the Boela Tribe" reminds us that we live in a world of fantasy, and that fantasy doesn't always have to do with escape or with the frivolous. Fantasy can be the defining element of our lives--for self-preservation, for making a living, for getting on in the world.

Bascomb Bowles doesn't live out the fantasy of being an African pinhead for escape. He does it for money, he does it to make a better life for himself.

The real fantasy is the one in which we deny the grotesqueries and wonderfully bizarre elements of our world. The real fantasy is when we try to pretend that the world is an ordinary, mundane place.

(Cathy Day has a web site devoted to information about her book. It includes an excerpt.)

Wednesday, August 25, 2004


Later this year, Monkey Brain Books will release my definitive nonfiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? Excursions into the Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror--300 pages culled from 15 years of reviews, essays, articles, and new journalism-style convention reports, with an amazing cover by Scott Eagle.

I'm happy to have this collection out. It's kind of a companion piece to my short story collection Secret Life, covering the same general time period. With all of this work "codified," so to speak, all of my major writing from 1988 to the beginning of 2004 is in print. Now I can focus on the future, including the new novels I'm planning on starting on later this year.

Here's the table of contents:

Why Should I Cut Your Throat When I Can Just Ask You For The Money?

Rum Runners, Tiny Castles, And Allergies
Leviathan Overview
Sudden Hummingbirds, Sudden Dislocations: The Interstitial Experience
City Of Saints & Madmen: The Untold Story
A Short Essay On Teaching Creative Writing
Scott Eagle: The Interview
The Best Fireworks Display You’ve Ever Seen

World Fantasy Convention 25: 1999

The Circus Of The Earth And The Air
Pulphouse #18—The Jesus Issue
Lorien Lost
Longing For Blood
F&SF—January 1997 Issue
Read This #1: 1997
Shadow Bones
The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits: A Top 40 List
Read This #2: 2000
Island of the Sequined Love Nun and The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove
Silent Children
Look To Windward
The Scar
Observatory Mansions
Read This #3: 2002
In Springdale Town

Vanishing Books, Fake Diseases, and Alien Babies: A Myopic View of ReaderCon 14 (2002)

Edward Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet
The Death of the Imagination?
Horror: Alive Or Dead? A Discussion of the Current Horror Malaise
Cordwainer Smith: An Appreciation
Barry Hughart’s Slight Flaw
The Infernal Desire Machines Of Angela Carter
Angela Carter : A Personal Appreciation

Anarchy, Surrealism, Dead Authors, & Ambergris

As for the context behind the title of the collection, I offer this excerpt from the title convention report--Georgiacon 1990. A group of us out late at night in downtown Atlanta, looking for a place to eat...

Eventually, we stumbled upon a box-sized Domino's Pizza joint—a coffin, with the China Syndrome “control room” protected by bullet-proof glass. Shifty-eyed delivery boys sidled shell-shocked out of a steel-reinforced door on their bicycles, as if expecting to be robbed, raped, and killed upon their departure.

As we ordered and then waited for our pizza, we all sweated profusely. It felt like Hell, which is to say it felt like Calcutta on a breezeless day. For the first time I understood why I’d brought a passport from Florida into Georgia.

About five minutes later, an angry black man in jeans and t-shirt entered the Dominoes box and asked us if we could spare some money. He held out a dollar and said, “I need just one more to get a burger at McDonald’s.”

“We spent all our money on pizza,” Dan told the man, from his vantage sitting in the only chair.

“Don’t lie to me!” the man said, up close and personal, spitting in Dan’s face. “Don’t lie to me! If you don’t want to give me money, say no. Just say no.”

Dan looked up at the man and said, “No.”

Stunned silence.

Great. Conveniently, we had given Domino's the opportunity to kill us through the bad temper of a customer rather than the usual delivery truck rammed through the sternum at high speed or the equally effective twenty years’ slow death from high fat and cholesterol content.

The angry man hesitated, stiffened, said, “All right, then, man,” turned on his heel, and walked out the door.

By the time the Noble Panhandler had left, my pulse was doing a variety of colorful tropical dances. I disliked the idea of dying, like Thomas Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge,” under a foreign sky, in a foreign state, because some guy wanted a dollar:

Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Jeff for ever be;
His homely Florida breast and brain
Grow up a Georgia tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.

I disliked to my marrow the idea of dying in a Domino's. My idea of death is to kick off while locked in an embrace with my girlfriend, eating chocolate chip ice cream, and reading a last few pages of Angela Carter.

So imagine my distress when a second man walked in, looking like Jimi Hendrix in the same way I resemble a hybrid of Mel Torme and Robert Redford. Not only did he stumble and slur his speech, but he held a pill bottle in his hand while he smoked a cigarette. After trying, unsuccessfully, to order a glass of water, he turned his attentions to us.

I backed into a corner and held my pen stiff against my side, sharp point exposed. I suppose if attacked I could have inked him to death. Ann and Amy stood against the wall. David looked like he wanted to punch someone. The smell of sweat and fear and pizza filled the room, mostly my sweat and fear.

Dan, meanwhile, sat on his throne and held counsel with the man, who rambled on about a food kitchen that gave out flying hot dogs. Dan held the pills while the guy tried to give directions to the hot dog place.

“Oh, barbital,” Dan said with a smile, reading the pill bottle label.
Barbital. It meant nothing to me at the time, though it should have since I own an epileptic cat. Barbital. A downer. A barbiturate. Not speed. Not a paranoiac or an hallucinogenic. To Hendrix, we were moving in fast forward.

Had I known, I would have suggested Dan seek out our first assailant, the Angry Young Man, and stuff barbital down his throat while saying “No” to our current druggie when he handed Dan the barbital.

Spiritual ecstasy wracked my body three minutes later, when the pizzas passed through the control room drop box and into our waiting hands.

“Right, thanks,” we said—and rushed out the door.

A block later, we glanced around and said, with one voice, “Where’s Dan?!”

We backtracked around a corner, and there was Dan, barbital fiend in tow. Talking to the man like he was a good buddy: the gentle giant and his sidekick.

Later, Dan would explain that the guy was “just beautiful,” that he was deep into philosophy and had explained life to Dan, gems like “Why should I cut your throat when I can just ask you for the money?”

Yes, agreed Dan, why not?, walking back to the Radisson as we shadowed them wraith-like from far ahead. Yes, why not, as they felt their way through the skyscraper maze, the clop-clop of weary horseshoes dull on the asphalt, the stars distant above.

Shaming the rest of us and our panic.

Just a dollar’s worth.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

INTERLUDE: Michael Connelly's Bosch Novels

I've always loved mystery/detective novels, but in the last year it has become an absolute addiction, since the narrative pace of most of them means I can read them while riding the exercise bike and still follow along.

Lately, I've gotten hooked on Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch detective novels. To me, they read like a cross between early James Burke and Lawrence Block--more descriptive than Block, less so than Burke, "typical" damaged detective main character--lots of character development there. Very good twists that you don't see coming, and very good writing. Very taut writing. When I saw this guy was a national bestseller from his first book, I expected Grisham's lame style. But instead, these are excellent noir-ish detective novels. I'm half-way through the fourth, The Last Coyote, and it's as good or better than the first three.

MORTAL LOVE: Days 2 - 4

I'm now on page 136 of Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand. I'm reading it slowly, so as to savor the characters, images, and the entire sensory experience Hand has gifted us with in this novel. The plot is slowly coming into focus--of necessity, as she continues to go back and forth between three different times and sets of characters. But I don't mind--each strand is equally interesting, each set of characters just as compelling. At this point, I've been completely won over by the novel.

Even elements that usually don't work for me, work for me in this novel. For example, I dislike portrayals of historical characters in most novels because it is so hard to do well; it can derail a novel for me if the portrayal seems more like caracature. But Hand is having a wonderful time with characters such as Algernon Swinburne and Oscar Wilde's mother. Sometimes you can sense a writer's delight in the writing, and I think I detect that in Hand's depiction of Swinburne.

Inside the private dining room stood a single table, and here sat a short, slight middle-aged man, staring gloomily at a glass of beer.
"Hello, Learmont," he said, but did not bother to stand. His child-like voice was so high-pitched that Radborne began to laugh, thinking this must be some shared joke. At the little man's disgusted expression, he stopped and looked down, abashed. This gave him an excellent view of the man's shoes, which were tiny and made of walnut-colored kid with pearl buttons.
. . .
Algernon took his glass of beer and sipped from it. He shot Radborne a keen look. "Do not let him cure you, whatever the matter is. Do you know, I used to sit at this very table with Burton and Bradlaugh and Bendyshe, and we would devour human flesh.
"Don't be absurd, Algernon," said Learmont.
"Human flesh!" Algernon's fluting voice grew shrill. "Oh, Mr. Cuntstick, I was a far happier madman and cannibal."
"Happy, and merry, and bad! 'And I would have given my soul for this, To burn forever in burning hell.'"
Radborne watched in alarm as the little man got to his feet, raising his glass. "'Preserve us from our enemies,'" he recited...
He took another sip of beer, grimaced and sat down. "I despise beer," he said. "Watts-Dunton told me it made Tennyson great. I do believe it is what killed him."
"I didn't know Tennyson was dead," said Radborne. Algernon glared at him.

Hand's depiction of Wilde's mother is also wonderful.

Behind him a figure loomed, a mountain of red silk topped by a dead bird...She stared at him fiercely: a woman tall as he was, towering over six feet in high-heeled boots. She wore a sweeping dress of crimson silk, tufted with black velvet tassels and with numerous onyx and ivory brooches pinned haphazardly across the bodice. Beneath the ibis-crowned hat, her hair was the color of a magpie's wing, blue-black and so heavily lacquered that the smell made Radborne slightly ill. She must have weighed nearly twenty stone, not fat but genuinely massive--broad-shoulders and with a wide, once-handsome face, now thickly dusted with pearly gray powder, deep-set brown eyes kohled cartoonishly black.

Meanwhile, in the present day, a mysterious woman is, in an almost off-hand way, seducing would-be book-writer Daniel, although it's not off-hand for him:

He leaned toward her, and she took his face in her hands. Her fingers were so hot he flinched. When her mouth touched his, he resisted, but only for an instant. Then he felt as though his entire body were somehow being remade beneath her touch, her limbs flashing heat so intense he gasped, the skin burned from him so that his ribs scored her breasts and his skull her cheek, his hair tangling hers in tendrils of ash and flame and his fingers blue fire flickering across her face.

I am not finding much to dislike in Mortal Love.


FLIGHTS: Days 2 - 4

"Straight edges could take your soul."

"In this city, straight edges brought the spells of cruelty, but only if they appeared in inanimate objects or drawings."

"His hosts...had warned him. Avoid the city. If he was imprudent enough to enter, he must create no straight edges."

"The inhabitants of a long-vanished civilization had raised the original city. Its purpose: to cage Edgers [demons]."

"As long as the human created no straight lines, they remained free, but if they ever made a mistake--as had Denric tonight--they became prey to the Edgers."

Catherine Asaro's "The Edges of Never-Haven" is the third story in the Al Sarrantonio-edited anthology Flights. I didn't like it very much and the more I thought about it, the more I realized how many stories are written about nothing at all: about characters we don't care about, doing things we don't care about, motivated by things we don't care about. Stories whose themes are either non-existent or so obvious as to make them be about nothing. Even entertainment cannot flourish within indifference.

In the case of "The Edges of Never-Haven," I think the problem is the extremely artificial curves-versus-edges nature of the milieu, which seems to exist only because the writer made it up and decided to write it down on paper. There's no specific detail in the story to make me believe in the setting. There's nothing in the main character of Denric, who turns out to be a "Ruby Prince," to spur the reader forward, either. In place of the heroic prince, we get instead a kind of cipher who is neither anti-hero nor fully three-dimensional person:

"He had never been strong enough to wield a sword well or interested enough to learn strategies that would compensate for his lack of muscle. Nor was his perpetually tousled mop of hair and his face, which too many people called 'angelic,' likely to inspire dread in his enemies. He was only a little less than average height, and in reasonably good shape, but compared with his brawny, towering brothers and their natural skill at weapons, he had always felt lacking."

The other problem is that very few of the sentences in this story are performing double or triple duties. For example, in the above paragraph, the "too many people called 'angelic'" line would have been the perfect opportunity to put a face or name to his friends, his family--introduce some connection between him and another human being. The entire paragraph, serving as it does as a generic physical description, could have taken on another dimension entirely. But the character remains as cardboard as the setting.

There's really nothing wrong with the story, despite some very lame dialogue, but there's nothing right with it, either. It's just...inert.

I then tried to read the fourth story in the anthology, "Pat Moore" by Tim Powers. It features angels or ghosts and a lot of manifestations of same in the car of Pat Moore, along with a lot of explanation in dialogue from said angel-ghosts about what is going on. After the second session in Moore's car, I decided to abandon the story. It's either a exposition-in-dialogue-heavy story that doesn't work or it's just not to my taste. Either way, it was time to cut my losses and move on to the Joyce Carol Oates story, which thus far is much more interesting.

A couple of thoughts struck me after having read the first four stories in this anthology. The first is that the anthology thus far seems to exist in a universe parallel to the one I exist in. Which is to say, I haven't thus far, except in a couple of places in the Powers' story, found much to identify with--anything that seemed personal to the writer: a detail, a little glimmer of a truth, universal or otherwise. I don't know if this has to do with what I'm bringing to the table or what the stories are bringing, but...And the second thought that occurred to me is that Sarrantonio may be more of a caretaker than an editor.


Sunday, August 22, 2004


"Circus proprietors are not born to sawdust and spangles."

I'm now two stories into Cathy Day's first short story collection, The Circus in Winter, and am pleased to find that I am not as jaded by my 36-year love affair with circus tales as I would have thought. From Something Wicked This Way Comes to Nights at the Circus to a hundred more, I've always loved circus fiction.

The collection begins with "Wallace Porter, or What It Means to See the Elephant," the tale of a future circus owner and his love for the doomed Irene. Irene married Porter to escape propriety, only to find herself smothered in it by a Porter energized to create propriety for her out of misguided love. She is also slowly dying from a tumor:

"Then one morning Porter woke up in a shaking bed. Irene lay on her back, panting, wet with sweat despite the chill that had crept in overnight. Her body was a curled fist, and her own fists were digging into her belly, her eyes shut tight."

I like this story because of its deceptively simple language that leads to a certain level of horror and disillusionment that's quietly powerful. It also made me think again of Silverberg's story in Flights (see below), in that both this story and Silverberg's are about a certain miscommunication in love and what that leads to. Both stories are character studies, in a sense, but in this particular case, Day is the better storyteller, in that her story unspools itself from the personality traits of the characters in a very natural way. I also got a much deeper sense of Irene's character than I did the sorceress in Silverberg's. In other words, there is a kind of dance going on in Day's story between Wallace's and Irene's expectations. Although Irene is weaker in a physical sense, she is in many ways stronger than Wallace mentally--has a stronger sense of self, and deeper control of herself. But the main point here, I think, is that in Silverberg's story the sorceress remains an object of love, unknowable, whereas in Day's story, Irene is all too knowable due to Day's narrative skill. Irene is an equal partner in the narrative, and this makes the story stronger than Silverberg's because the sorceress is not an equal partner in his story.

That Porter's ownership of the circus grows out of his realization of the way in which he has misinterpreted his wife's desires is a powerful narrative hook into the rest of the book--it hangs over the circus like an unspoken memorial to Irene and addds a sense of pathos to the second story.

The second story in Day's collection, "Jennie Dixianna," builds skillfully on the first, detailing acrobat Jennie's seduction of the lovelorn Porter, and includes a little twist, or sting in the tail/tale, that provides yet another hook into the next story, without in any way making it seem like a Twilight Zone story; all of the hooks I'm talking about are of the type that affix themselves under a particular character's skin.

Jennie has a wound with a physical manifestation:

"Jennie suffered a chronic rope burn on her wrist, a constant open sore that, when not in the ring, she hid with her long black gloves. Every one of her performances broke the wound open and left the rope stained red."

Which is why her relationship with Porter is unequal--she has the upper hand:

"She saw the pain in [his eyes], in his stoop, his gait. While others felt sympathy for him, Jennie felt only disdain. She wore her wound like a talisman bracelet, a secret treasure. Surely, Jennie thought, much could be gained from a man so weak of heart."

The way in which Jennie uses Porter, and yet Porter uses her as well, forms the heart of this tale. There are many wonderful descriptions in the story that serve to deepen the characterization, such as this description of Porter walking toward Jennie:

"In the distance, [Jennie] saw Porter trudging up the hill with Grace. He made slow, careful progress, like a man trying to cross a river of ice cracking with spiderwebs, like a man who wasn't sure if he wanted to get to the other side."

Other things I like about the story: Jennie is calculating, but also quite human, distant yet not distant, venal yet sympathetic. I like the way in which the stories, thus far, seem to be dovetailing into one another without anything seeming pat. I like, again, the seeming simplicity of the prose, which only serves in an odd way to accentuate the grotesqueries of the plots and characters. I think that a more florid style would have taken away from this element, turned a strength into something rather more indifferent.

Another thing I'm struck by is that the prose here has so much more in common with Mortal Love (Hand is precise, controlled, yet passionate, never florid--which may turn out to be a negative thing, but it's early days yet with that reading) than with the stories I've read thus far in Flights.

More tomorrow.



In early September, Catherynne M. Valente's deeply, gloriously strange short novel The Labyrinth will be released by Prime Books. I love this novel. It's utterly drunk on language, it's uncompromising in its vision, and it's also fun and playful and adventurous. I think it's the opening shot across the bow by someone who will become one of our major writers.

Below find the introduction I wrote for the novel.



An Introduction by Jeff VanderMeer

Flying doorways that "appear in the morning like dew-dampened butterflies, manic and clever." "Latinate clams" that clatter in the water, "their vulgate symphony of clicking nails and meaningless morse code . . . " Voices "like a rustling of linden leaves, like sand becoming a pearl." A Great hare that speaks, a "handsome golden macaque with a bodhisattva face," a decapitated Queen-all this and more awaits you in Catherynne M. Valente's small jewel of a novel, The Labyrinth. Have we been here before? Yes and no-we've seen these mountains, those valleys, before (at least from afar), but that makes no difference. Every time language dislocates and damages us with the intensity of its unexpected beauty, and the truth of that beauty, we undergo a similar transformation-and we return so we can be dislocated and beautifully damaged once again, albeit in a slightly different way.

Tapping into the same wellspring of charged imagery as the Decadents and the Surrealists, The Labyrinth displays a confidence and sophistication of language rare in a first novel. That the author is drunk with words belies the control with which she uses them. The reader will be reminded of Latreaumont's Maldoror, Alice in Wonderland, and Angela Carter's more surreal fiction, but at the same time, Valente's voice is unique, her style her own. Metaphors and similes crowd the page, some literal, some figurative. Each sentence has the ability to surprise. Many have the ability to inflict damage.

Valente is certainly as fearless as any of the great non-linear, ur-logical Surrealists or Decadents-for her, language is not a balancing act, but the equivalent of flinging oneself off of a cliff, determined to sprout wings before hitting the rocks below. Most of the time, Valente does grow wings well before annihilation. Or, rather, I should say, writes herself wings.

But what of the tale? Is it secondary to the prose? No, not so much secondary as fused to the prose-this is one book where the story cannot be separated from the way in which it has been told, which is all to the good. Our nameless narrator navigates her way through a labyrinth as much metaphysical as sensual, as much dream-like as empirical (despite the sharply empirical nature of its many lovely descriptions).

Some works simply require savoring at the level of language. The Labyrinth is one of these works, best enjoyed paragraph by paragraph, word by word. So many fictions are inert at the level of language-as lifeless as an old shoe-that I found it wonderful to be reminded of the possibilities. The best analogy I can make is to a beach at low tide, rich with tidal pools. The beach as a whole is quite satisfactory, but the tidal pools, which from a distance are just mirrors of the sky, prove to be even more compelling: look into each one and you discover that each teems with life, each its own self-sufficient community. The same with Valente's fiction: each paragraph is self-sufficient and contains an entire world. You can lose yourself in a paragraph in The Labyrinth, which is, perhaps, fitting.

If, like me, you enjoy such literary fireworks, you will find much within these pages to delight you.

Saturday, August 21, 2004


I've now read Al Sarrantonio's blithe introduction to this anthology of "Extreme Visions of Fantasy" and I've read two stories. The introduction is harmless but facile, eager to claim that any mantel of "the new dangerous visions" must be decided by the readers, but equally eager to bandy that term about in a way that is either arrogance or simply a lack of grace.

But, on to the two stories, prefaced by equally harmless (and yet oddly annoying) introductions, in which claims are made for both tales that they don't live up to.

"The Sorceror's Apprentice" by Robert Silverberg commits fully to neither its exotic fantasy setting nor to its lust story. Silverberg, often reliable, lost me on page three of his story with this weary paragraph of exposition:

"He could see right away that that attraction [for the sorceress he's serving as an assistant to] was in no way reciprocated. That disappointed him. One of the few areas of his life where he had generally met with success was in his dealings with women. But he knew that romance was inappropriate, anyway, between master and pupil, even if they were of differing sexes. Nor had he asked for it: it had simply smitted him at first glance, as had happened to him two or three times earlier in his life. Usually such smitings led only to messy difficulties, he had discovered. He wanted no such messes here. If these feelings of his for Halabant became a problem, he supposed, he could go into town and purchase whatever the opposite of a love charm was called."

Etc. There are many somewhat leering descriptions of the sorceress, who keeps fending off Our Hero's advances, until finally he tries to kill himself by diving into a river, she saves him by turning them both into otters and for no particular reason, she, exhausted (and there is an over-long paragraph about the fact that male otters are stronger than female otters and that is why Our Hero isn't exhausted), is saved by Our Hero who then, with her enthusiastic permission, fucks her on the river bank. After which the relationship returns to normal, she shows him a really cool sorceror's trick, and he, emboldened, "knew now that he would go on searching, forever if necessary, for the key that would unlock her a second time."

Which, frankly, is all just a bit smarmy. We never see any real reason why she should succumb to Our Hero's non-existent charms. Most of their interactions is conveyed through summary, so we get no hint of Our Hero's possible Wit or Wisdom, or of any spark of chemistry between the two of them. In short, there's no wizardry in the tale, but no real romance either, and, caught between those two possibilities, the story just feels...flat.

The second story, Kit Reed's "Perpetua" begins with a wonderfully audacious first paragraph:

"We are happy to be traveling together in the alligator. To survive the crisis in the city inside, we have had ourselves made very small."

I happily anticipated further wonders, but the story becomes smaller and smaller as it progresses, and less ambitious, from that opening gambit. We are told of anonymous catastrophies in the modern world outside. Telepathies between the narrator and the alligator ensue, as does some complaining about having to leave boyfriends behind in order to be miniaturized and saved from said catastrophies...and I couldn't help thinking that Reed had completely betrayed the sense of wonder inherent in her opening...still--those are great lines with which to begin.

More tomorrow.



I'm 70 pages into Elizabeth Hand's Mortal Love. Thus far it is fascinating, with the three storylines of equal vigor, although I'm not quite sure why the second, following actor Valentine Comstock, is in first person rather than third, like the other two, but perhaps I should find out. The beauty of the descriptions lies in their tactile nature. The images are not necessarily images that resonate, but they are fecund images that are almost four-dimensional in their sensuality. For example:

"It was like Aladdin's cave. Or Madonna's. On one side hung floor-length dresses of burned velvet and satin and pale gray eelskin, black lace sheaths fringed with feathers or sewn with scales, shimmering peignoirs so fine they looked as though they would melt on the tongue. There was a gown made entirely of orange cock-of-the-rock plumage and another of hummingbird feathers...nothing his mother had owned ever smelled like this--opium and new leather and beeswax, musk and sea wrack."

The woman who haunts all three threads, Decadent era, recent past, and present, is wonderfully robust and physical--not ghostly, not ethereal. And yet, there is a little niggling worry in the back of my head: it's not all going to turn out to be a personification of the muse story, spread over 300 pages, is it? Because if it is, then not all the great description in the world is gonna save it. But, we shall see--with any luck it's something much more marvelous than that.



Since I've got a bit of a lull before I begin my next novel, I've decided that there are just too many fascinating fantasy and pseudo-fantasy book being published this year. I want to read them all. To motivate me to do so, I'm going to write about them in my blog. Every day I'll post something about what I've read. So as to mix things up, I'll throw in some story collections and fiction anthologies. My goal is to finish all of these books by the end of the year.

If anyone has any other suggestions of books that came out this year that deserve a read, let me know. I should say up front that I cannot stomach reading the Stephenson, no matter how good. He's just gotten too turgid for my tastes. But, let me know what else I might be missing out on...

CLARKE, SUSANNA - Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
CROWLEY, John - Novelties * Souvenirs: Collected Short Fiction
DAY, CATHY - The Circus in Winter
DUDMAN, CLARE - 98 Reasons for Being
IRVINE, ALEXANDER - One King, One Soldier
MIEVILLE, CHINA - Iron Council
SARRANTONIO, Al - Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy
VONARBURG, Elisabeth - Dreams of the Sea


Thursday, August 19, 2004


When you come out of the desert into the border town, you feel like a wisp of smoke rising into the cloudless sky. You’re two eyes and a dry tongue. But you can’t burn up; you’ve already passed through flame on your way to ash. Even the sweat between your breasts is ethereal, otherworldly. A mirage has more substance.

The border town, as many of them did, manifested itself to you at the end of your second week in the desert. It began as a trickle of silver light off imagined metal, a suggestion of a curved sheen. You could have ignored it as false. You could have taken it for another of the desert’s many tricks.

But The Book of the City corrected you, with an entry under "Other Towns":

"Often, you will find that these border towns, in unconscious echo of the City, are centered around a metal dome. This dome may be visible long before the rest of the town. These domes often prove to be the tops of ancient buildings long since buried beneath the sand."

Drifting closer, the blur of dome comes into focus. It is wide and high and damaged. It reflects the old building style, conforming to the realities of a lost religion, the workmanship of its metal predating the arrival of the desert.

Around the dome hunch the sand-and-rock-built houses and other structures of the typical border town. The buildings are nondescript, yellow-brown, rarely higher than three stories. Here and there, a solitary gaunt horse, some chickens, a rooting creature that resembles a pig. Above fly the sea gulls that have no sea to return to.

Every border town has given you something: information, a wound, a talisman, a trinket. At one, you bought the blank book you now call The Book of the City. At another, you discovered much of what is written in that book. The third took a gout of flesh from your left thigh. The fourth put a pulsing stone inside your head. When the City is near, the stone throbs and you feel the ache of a pain too distant to be of use.

It has been a long time since you felt the pain. You’re beginning to think your quest is hopeless.

That's an excerpt from "Three Days in a Border Town," my latest short story, out in Polyphony #4, and officially begins the story cycle "prologued" in my Secret Life collection with the experimental cut-up story "The City." The stories take place in the future of my Veniss Underground setting--so far in the future that they could be read as dark fantasy. The next story in the cycle is called "The Circus on the Bridge" and continues our heroine's quest. I'm very proud of "Three Days" and hope fans of my work will pick up Polyphony #4 for it. This cycle will eventually form a mosaic novel of sorts.

Jonathan Strahan had some very kind things to say about "Three Days" in his blog (July 21st entry).

Polyphony #4 looks to be very strong. I can't review it officially since I'm in it, but I've read four or five stories and been impressed. Stepan Chapman's "Ataxia, the Wooden Continent" is very amusing and I loved Alex Irvine's "Down in the Fog-Shrouded City," which is beautiful and wacked out and inventive. Other contributors include Gavin Grant, Eliot Fintushel, Theodora Goss, Lucius Shepard, Don Webb, Robert Wexler, and Michael Bishop. The official release date is apparently September.



On my summer reading list for Locus Online, I praised Clare Dudman's One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead, which is not just the best first novel I've read in ten years but one of my favorite novels of the past decade, period.

Now she has a new novel out, which my wife has read and says is every bit as strong as One Day. Here's the synopsis on Amazon.co.uk of 98 Reasons for Being:

"In 1852, a girl named Hannah Meyer, an inhabitant of Frankfurt?s notorious Jewish ghetto, is admitted to the town asylum. She has been silent for weeks, she will not sleep or eat, and wagging tongues have resulted in a diagnosis of nymphomania. Ignoring this, Hannah?s mother begs the asylum?s new doctor to treat her. He is the revolutionary Dr Heinrich Hoffmann, physician, alienist, reforming politician and author of the famous book of children?s rhymes, "Struwwelpeter". Hoffman uses all the methods at his disposal, from ice packs and blood letting to electrodes, in an increasingly obsessed effort to cure Hannah. Nothing works, until he resorts to talking - telling her anecdotes from his youth, revealing the case-histories of Hannah?s fellow patients, confessing to his troubled home life. Only then does Hannah begin to respond, and gradually yield her tale of love, transgression and prejudice. As Hoffman uncovers the secret of one human mind he also starts to make sense of his own: what is important, what will last and what aspects of him will remain - what, in the end, are his real reasons for being."

As with her previous book, this isn't fantasy but is related to fantasy in a way I can't quite put into words. The books are dreamlike in some ways, intricately structured, and the use of detail is quite beautiful. I'm reading 98 Reasons right now and so far it is indeed every bit as good as her first novel. I can't recommend these books highly enough. (98 Reasons won't be available in the U.S. until March 2005.)

Saturday, August 07, 2004


According to Poppy Z. Brite, the horror community sucks. And she names me as part of the problem in her latest blog entry (August 6th). She says I took potshots at her out of envy at her publishing deals. She then goes on to imply that I think she and Kathe Koja are castrating bitches.

There's only one problem here. I think Kathe Koja is a great stylist and a wonderful writer, and I actually published one of her first, early stories in my magazine Jabberwocky back in the late 1980s. I also tried to solicit work from Brite and Koja for the Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases. I also tried to solicit work from Koja for Leviathan.

(It's probably irrelevant or anecdotal at best to note that my wife Ann deleted a negative reference to her in a book column in Ann's magazine The Silver Web because she thought it was unfair to Poppy. I totally agreed with that decision.)

For the record, let me state that I have read exactly three pieces by Poppy Z. Brite. One of them was her first novel, which I thought was mediocre. The second of them was a story about India that I didn't think was accurate in its descriptions. The third was an excellent absinthe-drenched pseudo-Decadence story (which is what prompted me to solicit work from her for the fake disease guide). End of story. I can't remember reviewing either the novel or the India story. And I can't remember commenting on them in public. If I did comment somewhere, it would have had to have been literally over a decade ago. And it certainly wouldn't have been out of spite.

I am still planning on picking up Brite's latest novel, which looks very interesting. The farther she's gone from the horror field, ironically enough, the more interesting her work has seemed to me.

In short, I think Poppy's thinking of someone else or has been fed some wrong info or is blowing up some slight I can't even remember and then magnifying it to the point of potential libel.

Yes, welcome to the horror community--it really does suck. And if you want to learn to what extend, you'll just have to read my nonfiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? There's an essay on horror in there--that doesn't even mention Poppy Z. Brite--that'll curl your toenails.