Thursday, September 30, 2004


Elizabeth A. Lynn's "The Silver Dragon" in the anthology Flights reminds us that "traditional" fiction takes as much or more skill than what we consider edgy or cross-genre. It's a brilliant take on epic fantasy in the pseudo-medieval mode. But, as indicated, traditional doesn't mean "simple" or somehow lesser than what's currently in vogue.

The tale begins with directness and becomes subtle as it progresses. The opening places the reader firmly into a realistic and comprehensible setting:

This is a story of Iyadur Atani, who was master of Dragon Keep and lord of Dragon's Country a long, long time ago.

At this time, Ryoka was both the same as and different than it is today. In Issho, in the west, there was peace, for the mages of Ryoka had built the great wall…and defended it with spells. Though the wizards were long gone, the power of their magic lingered in the towers and ramparts of the wall. The Isojai feared it, and would not storm it.

In the east, there was no peace. Chuyo was not part of Ryoka, but a separate country. The Chuyokai lords were masters of the sea. They sailed the eastern seas in black-sailed ships, landing to plunder and loot and carry off the young boys and girls to make them slaves. All along the coast of Kameni, men feared the Chuyokai pirates.

In the north, the lords of Ippa prospered. Yet, having no enemies from beyond their borders to fight, they grew bored, and impatient, and quarrelsome. They quarreled with the lords of Issho, with the Talvelai, and the Nyo, and they fought among themselves. Most quarrelsome among them was Martun Hal, lord of Serrenhold.

Note the excellent opening sentence, which serves to lock the reader's attention in on the story's ultimate focus, followed by the opening up of the world Atani lives in, followed by the narrowing of attention from countries, to people, to one person: Martun Hal, who will be the sand that makes a pearl of the story. By the end of the first page, we've been immersed in Lynn's invented world, and can see it as clearly as if we'd been given a map. (Yet Lynn also doesn't care to explain all of the place names and terms, leaving some sense of adventure to come. It's a device used equally well in a radical work like Harrison's Light.) This investment in detail upfront--not being afraid to slow the story's pace long enough to set the milieu and make it believable--pays off for Lynn later in several ways.

I was struck by the contrast between Lynn's (admittedly longer) story and both previous examples of "heroic" fantasy in Flights: Catherine Asaro's "The Edges of Never-Haven" and Robert Silverberg's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

Silverberg gets close-in to his character to begin "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," giving us mostly a contrast of the current city setting with the main character's prior digs. This makes sense for the story, in that the focus is firmly on one person throughout, whereas Lynn's story jumps from character to character. But it does rob the reader of a means by which to get a concrete sense of Silverberg's setting. In part, because (I think) Silverberg's writing in his Majipoor setting, he may assume readers already are familiar with it, or he's so familiar with it that he didn't realize he needed to include more detail. In thinking about "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" again, I believe one of my problems with the story is the setting--if it had been less generic, if it had seemed more real, I might have bought into the characters a little more. And the characters might have seemed more influenced by the setting.

In Asaro's case, she's made the choice to jump into the action of the story immediately, with just two sentences of description before we follow a hard-running Denric Windward Valdoria being pursued by demons: "The city of Never-Haven encircled a central plaza, where a circular fountain spewed up arches of water. Orb-houses filled the city, all round." It's not a bad idea as a short-term strategy. But the problem is, Asaro never goes back and fills in any appreciable detail. Which leaves the reader flailing around for a rock or a balcony or anything to hold onto.

If you go from the Asaro to the Silverberg to the Lynn story, you receive a nice creative writing lesson in the difference between one-dimensional, two-dimensional, and three-dimensional settings. You also get a sense for the pitfalls of using a close-in point of view main character in a heroic fantasy short story (as opposed to a novel). And you can see how vital this element is to heroic fantasy--it's the difference between success and failure. (It's also worth noting that in the body of the story, Lynn describes individual places--rooms in castles, etc.--in brief paragraphs; by not investing much in those descriptions, she can interject the macro descriptions of place that fuel the story's plot without fatally slowing the pace.)

But Lynn is doing a lot more in "The Silver Dragon" than just building an effective and believable setting. She also, in the preliminary pages of the story, gives us nice little glimpses of all the main characters, while using Hal's disruptive actions to hook us while we're being introduced to them.

Before long, fully grounded in setting and the various characters, major and minor, we're following Joanna, the daughter of a powerful lord, as she tries to visit Iyadur Atani, the master of Dragon Keep and the main character in the story. Joanna is convinced she will marry Atani, a man who can change into a dragon.

From there, we're immersed in military actions, a kidnapping, a quest to find a wizard, a relationship both personal and political, and much sacrifice, Lynn brilliantly balancing the need for each of the main characters to occupy center stage. Lynn also knows that for us to care about someone in a story, it doesn't matter what the character, no matter how beautiful/handsome or intelligent, says, but only what that person does. And how much that person is willing to give up for what they care about.

I'm reluctant to go into the details of the plot, or to quote any more from this story, since presumably some or many of you will read it for yourselves. However, I must say that from the general detail of the setting, zeroing in on the characters, and then exploring the relationship between Atani and Joanna, Lynn manages to achieve an emotional catharsis I would not have thought possible at the story's beginning. Yet, in retrospect, it is precisely her willingness to let the story unfold at its natural pace and to ground the story firmly in its setting, that allows for such a reaction from readers.

It's easy to think that New Weird or Interstitial or Whatever means "better" rather than "different." Lynn's novelette (novella?) puts the lie to that particular assumption. It reminds us of the complexities inherent in traditional storytelling, if the storyteller is good enough. It makes us think, too, about what grounds good fiction and good characters: a sense of place, a sense of purpose, a sense of pathos.

(Evil Monkey, sitting on my shoulder, poses the question: "Do writers of experimental fiction need to prove they can tell a good story before they start experimenting?" Evil Monkey also reminds me that the L.E. Modesitt, Jr. story "Fallen Angel" that follows the Lynn is so slight and falsely talky as to warrant little if any discussion.)


I’m very pleased to be one of the first to announce that my wife, under her professional name of Ann Kennedy, has agreed to be a judge for the International Horror Guild Awards. For those who don’t know, Ann has been active in the field as the publisher and editor for Buzzcity Press for many years—in fact, we met through Buzzcity Press. She has published numerous first or second stories by authors who have since become pretty well-known, such as Yvonne Navarro and Daniel Abraham. I should also note that she’s been a cohort and “silent” collaborator on every anthology I’ve ever done. Work from her magazine The Silver Web won numerous awards, including the British Fantasy Award, and appeared in many year’s best anthologies. Books published by her press included my own Dradin, In Love in 1996 and Michael Cisco’s IHG Award-winning The Divinity Student. Material for her consideration should be sent to: POB 38190, Tallahassee, FL 32315 ( For more information on the IHG awards, visit their website.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004


Good question. Why should I cut your throat? It's certainly something I wondered about when a junkie said it to a friend of ours late one night in Atlanta, while wandering downtown, looking for food after a long day at DragonCon in 1990...

Somehow that convention experience, my first, felt like the perfect opening to my collected nonfiction. Thus, MonkeyBrain Books has just released 316 pages of VanderNonfiction under the title Why Should I Cut Your Throat?: Excursions into the Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror. Although the book will not be available from bookstores until mid to late October, it can be purchased directly from the publisher right now.

What can you find in this tome? About 15 years-worth of essays, articles, polemics, reviews, and convention reports. The convention reports might be my favorite part of the book. From Harlan Ellison stories to bizarre New Orleans cuisine stories to visiting Lovecraft's grave to...well, these convention reports cover a little bit of everything.

But I'm also glad to see my long, long essay on Angela Carter finally collected in book form, as well as my essay on the creation of City of Saints & Madmen. It's also very cool to have a cover by Scott Eagle and be able to include an interview with Eagle in which he explains a little bit about the genesis of his work for City of Saints and for Secret Life.

The only nonfiction of note not included in this collection? My series of Odd Jobs columns on this blog, my Storyville Weekend report (collected on this blog, below), and my essay "The Romantic Underground," slated for inclusion in the Nebula Awards anthology in March 2005.

LOST PAGES--Special Richard Calder Issue

Claude Lalumiere's Lost Page Web Zine has done a special Richard Calder issue, with essays and appreciations by K.J. Bishop and Lucius Shepard, among others. I had hoped to contribute something, but lost track of time. But I can at least say, in this forum, that if there is a true descendent of the French and English Decadent writers from around 1880-1910, that person would be Richard Calder. His work is sly, baroque, beautifully written, and knows no boundaries in terms of breaking taboo. At its best, Calder's fiction takes you someplace completely alien, even if ultimately familiar.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004


The latest Emerald City is now up, and it includes my report on WorldCon. I hope Matt Cheney is not too shocked that I thought he'd be an old graybeard...

The report is rather incomplete. (It doesn't include my roommate Scott Carter and I laughing our asses off at a Conan O'Brien skit about Zel Miller.) For those who get my VanderWorld Report, you know I've done a half-dozen long reports on conventions, and it takes a lot of energy to do a 8,000- to 12,000-word report on a con.

I'm suffering from some kind of huge energy drain today, either the flu or some kind of minor sugar poisoning, so there's no further update on Flights today. Sorry.

Monday, September 27, 2004


Hurricane Jeanne took out our electricity--writhing powerlines like angry licorice strips. More blogging by tomorrow evening, about Flights, including Elizabeth Lynn's wonderful novella in that antho.


Thursday, September 23, 2004

SECRET LIVES--Ziesing Books offer

I've hesitated to blog about the special offer Ziesing Books has been running for fear of being inundated, but what the hell...

I love Ziesing books, and they've been big supporters since the beginning. So I told them they could run a special offer: Every person who orders a copy of my collection Secret Life through Ziesing will receive their own secret life. How it works is, you order the collection and give Mark and Cindy Ziesing information about your profession and maybe one hobby or other fact about yourself (where you live is also good to know). The more interesting the facts you give about yourself, the easier it is for me to write you a secret life.

So then I write a secret life for you, based on that information. I print out the secret life on special paper, sign it, number it "1 of 1", put it in a special envelope, illustrate the front of the envelope, and seal the envelope with wax and a "V" stamp. I send them back to Ziesing in batches and they send them out to you. (Right now, there's probably about a month's lag time between your order and receipt of your own personalized secret life.)

I agreed to do this special offer for orders through at least the end of September. I might extend it for a couple of stragglers in October, but the response has been so overwhelming that I have to put an end date on it or I'll be writing secret lives until I die.

The other thing is, I'll soon have enough secret life mini-stories for a small, limited edition book (and there's interest from publishers). So you will have a unique 1 of 1 item, but it might also appear in a book, too. Which I think may actually increase the worth of the 1 of 1 limited-limited edition you get.

Below find a couple of examples of secret lives. In each case, the first line or two contains information--factual or whimsical--provided by the buyer.



Sidney Miller is currently a water resources planner. In the past, while serving in the military, Sidney worked with chemical weapons in the Persian Gulf and helped destroy them while on the Johnston Atoll near Hawaii. However, few people know that Sidney is perhaps the foremost writer of water puppet plays in the West. This ancient art, developed in Southeast Asia, requires a strong knowledge of the water and of the dramatic arts. In Asia, vast pools are filled with milk to make them cloudy. The puppeteers lurk beneath the water, breathing through straws as they animate the puppets that seem to walk on water. Sidney has forgotten where he got the urge to create water puppet plays, but it was from looking at a Time Golden Book with a blurry photo of a scene from just such a play. Now, Sidney has built a secret swimming pool which he keeps filled with chlorinated milk at all times. For years, he has scribbled down his intricate, twelve-act plays in the margins of official army journals, keeping the details sharp in his memory. Now that he’s settled down as a water resources planner, he has found the time to stage many of the plays. Sidney has a unique style for these plays, since he has been reluctant to tell his family about his pastime—or to enlist other actors in the production of his plays. Or, even, to divulge the secret of his tarp-hidden swimming pool. But many is the rainy Sunday afternoon when he can be found submerged in his milk pool, breathing through a straw, as he manipulates the ten finger puppets on his hands and the ten toe puppets on his feet—creating a great crescendo of drama such as the world has never seen. Someday, he thinks, he will go legit. He will stage his plays at the public pool, to a great and watery applause. Someday...But until then, this is his secret life.


Jim Henry has a fluency with languages that extends beyond his mastery of Esperanto and the languages inherent in being a network systems programmer. Not only has he learned the musical language first put forth by French crackpots in the 19th century—a language that required the intricate use of several musical instruments just to “say” common every-day words—but he has also learned to understand the secret language of dust. Wherever he goes, their voices follow him--small, reedy, mellifluous voices. They call out to him with a poignancy that speaks of decay and loss. As motes swirl around him in the light of the midday sun, he understands that they are only ghosts, only shadows, of the people or animals they once encroached upon, their language a kind of insensate memory of the shapes of the past. Mumbled, whispered, rattled. There’s nothing the dust can’t tell him, if only he listens hard enough.


Kevin Pointer, a network administrator/photographer, dresses in black most of the time. He has demons in his house that open bottles of sake and make him drink it. "Drink the sake, human beast!" they scream at him, cackling and waving their little swords. "Drink it ALL!" So he does, after which the demons usually become much more reasonable and revise their request: "Read us Saki! NOW! Read it all!" And so he reads all of Saki's collected short fiction to them, until they fall asleep, their little black bellies rising and falling from their repast on the couch. It is then and only then that he retires to his bedroom, there to indulge in the particulars of his secret life. Every piece of black clothing he possesses must be cleansed of lint using only a single tweezers. This is a nightly chore, even for clothing he does not remove from the closet. One. Two. Three. Pieces of lint. He squints. Is that another piece, at the seam? Yes. Yes, it is. Pluck, and it is gone, a sense of deep satisfaction welling up inside of him. He achieves a Zen-like level of concentration by removing the lint in this manner. It gives him the fortitude not to gibber with fright and wet himself when the demons demand the drinking of the sake, the reading of the Saki...


Andrew Hatchell travels all week and thus cannot entertain more than one cat on his premises. He must balance his need for the company of cats with his need to sustain a day career as an enterprise data warehousing consultant. By night, however, Andy scours the cities he's sent to for cats in distress. A cat up a tree? No problem. Andy brings his own tiny titanium collapsible ladder with him. A cat beset by dogs? Andy will jump into their midst and break them up, no matter what the cost in bites and possible rabies. A cat hungry? Andy carries cat food in his plastic-lined pockets for just such an eventuality. If there are no cats in definite distress, Andy's will seek out those felines who seem disgruntled or in some way disinclined to purr. A family with a disgruntled cat will get a stern talking to. "Don't you know how to play with your cat?" he will tell the startled family gathered at the front door of their suburban house as he hands their plump tabby to them. "Kitty tease your cat at least once a day." He gives them the evil eye. "If I hear of this happening again I will be back."...Sometimes Andy wears his bulky superhero costume with the kitty ears, and sometimes he doesn't. Depends on the weather.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004


Every month, I send out the VanderWorld Report to subscribers. The VanderWorld Report includes news about what I've been up to, but also book, movie, and music reviews, as well as excerpts from fiction I'm working on, links to funny or weird websites, insider news on forthcoming books or book sales, and reports on conventions and conferences I attend. Below find the August 2004 report as a sample. There's another sample from last year here.

If you'd like to subscribe to the report, visit my website and click on the link at the bottom left. You'll get one email a month. It's not a discussion list so there won't be lots of emails clogging up your inbox. The September report will be emailed next week.

POB 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315 USA
Comments? Suggestions? Criticisms? Email

Music Reviews
Movie Reviews
Book Reviews
Excerpt from The Zamilon File

It's been a weird month. A lot of good things have happened (see VanderNews), but I've also been fighting my way through bouts of insomnia. I have managed to catch up on my reading and to get a final-final manuscript of the new novel, Shriek: An Afterword, to my agent. I hope to have very good news concerning Shriek in the next couple of months.

August in Tallahassee is as hot and humid as July, although the afternoon rains tend to become only intermittent, not a constant. Every once in awhile, you'll wake up to a lull in the heat: a breeze, a slight drop in the temperature, and you'll have a sudden premonition of fall. Football season is only a couple of weeks away, meaning that this town will erupt into frenzied bouts of Florida State University Seminole fever—and I, as a member of the arch-enemy race, the University of Florida Gators, will need to once again grit my teeth and play nice. (I will also once again break my promise to myself that I will not spend entire Saturdays positioned in front of the television watching college football...)

I hope you have all had a good summer. In fact, if you have any interesting stories about "What I Did Over the Summer," email them to me at and I'll include them in the next VanderWorld Report...


I'm sure this schedule will fill up with more events shortly, but I had to take a break from events to focus on writing and haven't ramped up my exploration of possibilities for 2005 yet.

(Vancouver, March 20 - April 2). I've been invited to participate in a panel on the novella, along with Jessica Treat, Rosalind Stevenson, etc. I hope to plan a reading at Elliot Bay Book Store in Seattle before the conference. More details on that later.

WORLDCON 2005 (Glasgow). Ann and I plan to make it to WorldCon next year in Glasgow, perhaps with a stop-over in Prague beforehand in support of Veniss being published in the Czech Republic.


Veniss Underground is a finalist for the World Fantasy Award in the best novel category. (It is also a finalist for the Southeast SF/F Achievement Award.)

The fake disease guide is also a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, in the best anthology category.

German publishing house Klett-Cotta has acquired the hardcover rights to City of Saints and Madmen, for publication next year as part of a literary fantasy line. I'm not at liberty yet to say what other books are in this line. Let's just say I'm excited to be rubbing shoulders with some of my favorite books from the last few years. Klett-Cotta is one of the largest publishers in Germany.

Another large German publishing house, Piper, has acquired the hardcover and paperback rights to Veniss Underground.

The Czech Republic's Laser Books has acquired the rights to Veniss Underground, in a deal that includes publication of all Veniss-related stories with the novel. Laser Books will also be publishing K.J. Bishop's Etched City, and is one of the Czech Republic's most respected houses for genre fiction.

The UK mass market paperback version of Veniss Underground will be released
by Pan Macmillan in October-December. It includes a bonus for readers unfamiliar with my work: the related novella "Balzac's War." This novella can also be found in my collection Secret Life.

The fake disease guide will be released in the UK by Pan Macmillan in November (in hardcover). Advance buzz in the book trade is excellent, and book club deals are in the works. (Bantam Books will release the US trade paperback in May 2005.)

Garry Nurrish is putting the finishing touches on the design of the City of
mass market paperback for Pan Macmillan. I think the format will demand dropping a little bit of text but make up for that by having a full (except for the last paragraph) decryption of the encrypted story.

Eric Schaller and I are working on a secret project called "Are You Dead?" that will combine illustrations and text.

Through September, I am making a special Secret Life offer through Ziesing
books wherein anyone who buys the collection from Ziesing gets a mini story detailing their own secret life. Visit their web site for more details.

Secret Life was a Barnes & Noble featured selection in July. It was also
reviewed in the Denver Post, SciFi
, and Booklist:

VanderMeer's stories are clearly influenced by the magical literature of Borges, Garcia Marquez, and Calvino, and like theirs, VanderMeer's muse is equally at home in places real (Peru, Cambodia, Florida) and fantastic. The collection opener, Secret Life, is the history of a five-story building, surrounded by desolation, that houses thousands-- from the janitors in the basement to the mysterious "Shadow Cabinet" on the fifth floor--and is brought down by a vine; ingredients including murderous rage over a presumably stolen pen and VanderMeer's revealing endnote on inspiration make the piece delicious. In the closer, Experiment #25 from the Book of Winter: The Croc and You, a story won't cooperate with its writer because it has been inspired by an image that is irresistible but impossible to fit into a plot. In between, "The Sea, Mendeho, and Moonlight" provide a vital legendary background for VanderMeer's imaginary city, Veniss, and other lovely, fantastic places are so well conjured that their most surreal elements seem veristic.


Below find a bunch of cool links from the usual suspects, including, first and foremost, Paul Larsen, Luis Rodrigues, and Neddal Ayad.

Get yer mail-order husbands here

The Lord of Whimsy--one of the funniest sites I've ever seen, complete with

Click on the eggs

Make a face

This is the way you write fantasy

Neil Ayres has a new web site

Dan Read has posted new material on his site.

New Brothers Quay

Bioneered household appliances

Cool art

And, of course, I must continue to push frog land


This month, I recommend the following CDs.

THE HELIO SEQUENCE, Love and Distance - Lovely pop/alt that reminds me of something Death Cab For Cutie might do if they were actually good.

ROBBERS ON HIGH STREET, Fine Lines - Sounds just like the band Spoon, down to the lead singer's voice. Very strange, in that sense, but just gorgeous stuff. Sounds like a lost Spoon CD--brilliant. I can't say it's derivative because it's too good.

LLOYD COLE, Etc. - Lost songs from 1996-2000. Recommended for hardcore fans, like me.

JOHN WESLEY HARDING, Adam's Apple - A new pop CD from one of my favorite singer-songwriters. It's mellow in places at first, but the smooth/complex arrangements and many little changes in the music made me appreciate it more and more with each listen.


In the rather awful movie Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, one character explains to another that to "buckwheat" someone is to, without getting into the really disgusting details, shoot them in the intestines so they die slowly, in terrible agony. Since then, Ann and I have rated movies as "buckwheat" or "not buckwheat", or containing "some buckwheat" or "a lot of buckwheat". If you feel like you were gut shot when you left the theater, that movie was buckwheat…I'm afraid we haven't seen many movies lately, but here goes…

ALIEN VERSUS PREDATOR. An Aztec/Cambodian/Egyptian pyramid under Antarctica created thousands of years ago. Infested with aliens and predators. Things pop out of chests with astonishing frequency. Logic flaws. Men in predator suits. Men in alien suits. Boom! Crash! Sizzle! Need I say more? Well, yeah, I have to say one more thing. The scene in which Our Heroine accidentally impales an alien on a stick and then receives the top half of the alien's head and the bottom half of its spine in honor of her achievement from a Predator who then makes her an honorary Predator instead of blowing her ass into the next crappy priceless. Reminded me of Mean Joe Green in those Coke commercials throwing his jersey to the kid... (One hundred
percent, dyed in the wool BUCKWHEAT!!!!)

COLLATERAL. Throw out Jamie Foxx's excellent acting, some good set pieces, and some excellent cinematography and Collateral is just another Hollywood movie, rather than a worthy successor to noir films of the past. Coincidences, stupidities (unprotected witnesses the night before a big case against a drug lord), and the wooden past of Tom Cruise's assassin character drag the movie down from classic status to "who cares." Go see Narc instead for something with bite. (One-half buckwheat)

THE VILLAGE. Once you realize that almost every element in this movie has been set up for one reason and one reason only--to support the heinous twist ending--you want to strangle the director with your bare hands. In short, the director has twisted the story to fit his Twilight Zone needs and as a result created all kinds of tears and rips in the fabric of his narrative that only become apparent after you learn the truth about the dumb-ass village. One reviewer called it "The Village of the Idiots" and I don't think they are far wrong. The horrible thing about all this is that the acting has a certain gravitas to it, the cinematography is excellent, and
the scares in the early part of the movie are superb. But everything--and I mean everything--is undermined by the ending. (Two-thirds buckwheat; the first half is 25 percent buckwheat and the last half is 150 percent buckwheat.)


I have been doing a forced march to Bhutan on my blog with regard to book and story reviews, so I would refer you there ( and tell you to expect an average of one entry a day there for a month at least (except during and right after WorldCon).


Part of The Zamilon File, my next novel/novella, is in the form of diary entries. Here is one such entry from early on. Enjoy. (The Zamilon File takes place 500 years after the events in City of Saints and Shriek: An Afterword.) Remember--this is a rough, rough draft...

Long before I ever saw the fabled towers of Zamilon, the fortress haunted my dreams. Now that I am here, I can say only that the dreams feel more real than the stone beneath my feet.

It was in the now far-gone city of my birth, Ambergris, that I dreamt of Zamilon. Although only 12, I did not know the name to give to the scene that played out inside of my head. A hot night in that tortured, martyred city, forever altered, defiled, transformed, by the War of the Houses and then by the rise of the gray caps. On that night, as on many others, I huddled by the window of our third-story apartment, waiting for my parents to return from a day of scrounging for food and medical supplies. That window, with its grimy gray frame, the glass long since shattered by gunfire, had become a kind of moving painting for me, as intense as any zoetrope. Below, our stretch of Albumuth Boulevard, once (I am told) one of the richest arteries of trade in the world, had become little more than a mess of rubble and blood. A day before, tanks and men had fought across that tableau, the light red, green, orange at their backs, their moans and screams matched to the colors' cruel intensity. I had watched unblinking, and did not realize until much later, from books that told of far more peaceful places, that this was not, in fact, the world.

A month earlier, a sniper had broken into the apartment while my parents were out. He ordered me to lie down on the floor and ran to the window, smashing it in with the butt of his rifle. A thousand shards of glass spread over me. The staccato recoil of his weapon--a sleek, sharp-looking semi-automatic--only echoed more loudly what I had heard all of my life. You could close your eyes forever and still never find yourself anywhere but where you were.

That was my window and I never told my parents how it got broken. I never told them about the sniper. I don't know why.

But the night I dreamt of Zamilon, I watched through the window to the customary places my parents hid in their zigzag path back to the apartment. Although I watched for hours, they did not come back. The light faded into as true a darkness as Ambergris will ever have: half-lit with fires, distant explosions, and the fuzzy subdued gold of mushrooms patterned across the wall of a half-destroyed building.

I grew sleepy. Below, silent and careful, the gray caps had begun to gather, moist and hunched and so utterly terrifying to me that I almost wet myself. The gray caps gathered at night because back then the city was not yet entirely theirs--points of resistance blossomed from between cracks in the pavement. A bullet-ridden bank, an abandoned hotel, a barricade made of timber and bricks: any one of these might hide a dozen snipers or even a tank. Frankwrithe & Lewden had won the War of the Houses. They did not intend to give up Ambergris so easily.

Rather than watch the gray caps, who unnerved me so and who might easily be able to see me despite their seeming ground-ward gaze, I went to sleep. My wish to await my parents' return defeated by my fear and my weariness. It is almost as wearying to wait as it is to take action. To wait while the gray caps' fungal technologies spread across the city and water seeps into Her from a thousand wounds. The smell of death, sweet and quivering in your nostrils, and the hope that some pale, clammy face will not rise to your window like an ill-fated moon.

So I drifted off...and in my dreams, I stood by my window and when I looked out I saw not Ambergris but the place I had long read of in my picture books and adventure novels: Zamilon. And not Zamilon as I see it now, sand in my boots and my tongue dry as salt, but a still-living Zamilon, the fortress-sanctuary of the Truffidian monks, redolent with centuries of knowledge, humming with a rich intellectual life--from the massive books on the shelves of its immense libraries to the chants of its inhabitants at the dawn of each new day.

They say Trillian the Great Banker once visited Zamilon. Voss Bender wrote about it. Martin Lake painted it from the words of others.

That was centuries ago, of course. No one lives here now but us, and we, we are only temporary, transitory, one might almost say...intermittent? We have stayed past our welcome. It is quite a stretch to tell you how I came to be here, more than to guide you back to the window of my youth, to the terrible truth that my parents never came back that night or any other night.

What shall I tell you of it that you might believe? Surely such a scholar as I should have no trouble putting pen to paper, save the paper's scarce and the ink is not so wet as it once was....And I wonder now if I was the only one who dreamt of this place or if all the sleeping denizens of Ambergris dreamt of it after a fashion.

I've read over my journal entries. They tell the story well enough. So be it.

I'll be back in September, probably late in the month. Remember, send me accounts of your summer adventures and I'll put them in the next report.

And, as always, I recommend the following:

For reviews, info on important authors, and much else, the Modern Word
For book orders, Mark Ziesing Books
For reviews, Rain Taxi
For reviews, Bookmunch
For fiction and nonfiction, Fantastic Metropolis
For news, reviews, and commentary, Locus
For reviews and commentary, The Agony Column


Anna Tambour is one of several talented Australian writers to make their mark in the last year or so. Her collection Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales contains several astonishingly original short stories.

Now she has her own Web site, complete with guest articles and essays by writers such as Vera Nazarian. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


I’ve re-established my dialog with John Crowley’s Novelties & Souvenirs after a prolonged absence. I find the book pulling me in despite my objections now, either because the material is becoming richer or because the stories have softened my resistance.

The Green Child

“The Green Child,” first published back in 1981, is a relatively straightforward story about two strange children discovered in an area called the Wolf-pits in West Suffolk in the twelfth century:

The two children stood blinking in the sunlight, their pale eyes blank as though they had just opened them on this world. They were quite small for what seemed their age, and their skin was green, the pale, luminous green of the verges of a twilight sky in summer.

The pleasures of this story lie not in the plot, which is simply the tale of the strange children being integrated into the village, but in the process of that integration, including the brother’s death, and in the quality of the prose. There’s a haunting beauty in the dissolution of their strangeness into the mundane. We never learn where they came from (they tell a tale of underground lands, but we hear this at best third hand, diluted by centuries)—whether aliens or faeries or Other—but it doesn’t matter much. We are meant to linger on the details, on the sadness of the sister’s transformation:

She came to eat human food without difficulty, and in time lost most of her green color, though her eyes remained large and strangely golden, like a cat’s, and she never grew to proper size, but remained always tiny, thin, and somewhat insubstantial.

And to linger on the uncertainty of their origins, the sheer unknowable quality of the story itself:

Eventually, it is recorded, the green child married a man in Lenna, and there “survived many years.” It’s not recorded what sort of man he was, or what sort of wife she made; nor if there were children of this union, and, if so, whether the blood in them of the land their mother called St. Martin’s Land made them different from other children. If there were children, and children of those children, so that in some way that green land elsewhere and also the distant bright country glimpsed across the wide river entered our plain human race, it must surely be so diluted now, so bound up and drowned in daylight and red blood, as not to be present in us at all.

This story sneaks up on you. It gathers its strength toward the end, where the sense of something lost—an opportunity, a time—becomes so strong that “The Green Child” stirs up deep emotion based solely on what it cannot tell the reader. That it is based on folklore and may be familiar enough as a tale doesn’t take away from that perfect sense of loss.


To me, “Novelty” is a stunning piece of fiction—moving and spiritual and having that sense of transcending to the universal that I also felt on first reading Joyce’s “The Dead.” It is my favorite story thus far in Crowley’s collection. Like some of my favorite stories—many of them by Nabokov, with which Crowley’s story shares clear affinities and parallels—“Novelty” is both metafiction and not metafiction.

On the face of it, it’s not much of a story: A writer sits in a bar interacting with both the barkeep and a woman while working out a novel idea in his head, an idea that brings back to him childhood memories and his own internal discussion of Catholicism. Again, little details make the story work, like “[The theme] had ‘fallen into place,’ as it’s put, like the tumblers of a lock that a safecracker listens to, and—so he experienced it—with the same small, smooth sound.”

That’s an apt description of the story itself, in which the writerly contemplation, the childhood memories, the interactions in the bar, all fit and work together to create a beautiful story.

In [the bar], many years later, it had struck him that the difference between himself and Shakespeare wasn’t talent—not especially—but nerve. The capacity not to be frightened by his largest and most potent conceptions, to simply (simply!) sit down and execute them. The dreadful lassitude he felt when something really large and multifarious came suddenly clear to him, something Lear-sized yet sonnet-precise. If only they didn’t rush on him whole, all at once, massive and perfect, leaving him frightened and nerveless at the prospect of articulating them word by scene by page…Waiting like a neglected ghost, the vast notion would beat its wings into the void.

Reading “Novelty,” I began to see other stories superimposed over it—Nabokovian mostly, and then my own story “Experiment #25 in the Book of Winter: The Croc and You” from Secret Life, which is also influenced by Nabokov and also concerns a writer in the act of formulating creation. It struck me, while reading, that even if Nabokov in part invented the model, the model works wonderfully well for a multitude of writers because every writer has a different approach to the same issues and problems in fiction. We each have our own entry point into the world of our fiction—or our own entry point into the world through our fiction.

I don’t know if a story like this is as of much interest to non-writers. I do know that for me, the reaching out for a kind of spirituality, as well as a kind of spirituality in the mundane, that can be found in the writing of a story or its finished execution on the printed page, has a great appeal. It’s not so much that writing can be considered a belief system per se, but that it can be the entry point to a belief system. I’m not trying to make the point that our writing reflects what we believe, but that we often are trying to capture some quality of the real world that shows us a glimpse of the other, of something transcendent…and that this can often be expressed in the way we’re able to describe or catalogue the minute details of the world, no matter how mundane.

In discussing his nascent novel with his editor, the writer says

In my religion, God and all the rituals and sacraments would stand for the real world. The religion would be a means of perceiving the real world in a sacramental way. A Gnostic ascension. A secret at the heart of it. And the secret is—everything. Common reality. The day outside the church window.

Isn’t that an apt description of certain types of fiction writers and what they aspire to write? I think it is.

There’s also a wonderful section in the story where the writer is running with the idea for his novel and poses a series of what if’s.

What if…Jesus had in the end refused to die on the cross? Had run away…out of a desire to share our human life completely, even our common unheroic fate. Because the true novelty, for God, would lie not in the redemption of men—an act he could perform with a millionth part of the creative effort he had expended in creating the world—but in being a human being entire, growing [too] old and impotent to redeem anybody, including himself.

Which again, to me, comes back to an idea of true heroism consisting of facing the mundane, and, perhaps, of seeing the other in the mundane. One value of fantasy, then, is in allowing us to see this more clearly through the use of fantastical elements. That fantastical elements can, by heightening our perception, heightening our experience of the world—sometimes through stylization, sometimes through other means—reveal the mystery in the mundane. Fantasy doesn’t do this better than “realistic” fiction, but it provides a different entry point and different perspective.

But I’m getting off-topic, because it’s not entirely clear that Crowley’s meaning in the story is the same as the meaning I’ve taken from it. Again, all writers use different delivery systems, and sometimes those delivery systems also take them to different places rather than the same place.

Still, there’s so much to identify with in this story if you’re a writer—moments of recognition that are good for a writer to experience in another writer’s work; something more specialized and focused than the universality—the recognition of one’s own life—that a writer strives for in his or her relationship with the reader. For example, the writer facing his lack of nerve (and if there isn't a bit of humor in this, there should be):

Oh God how subtle he would have to be, how cunning…No paragraph, no phrase even of the thousands the book must contain could strike a discordant note, be less than fully imagined, an entire novel’s worth of thought would have to be expended on each one. His attention had only to lapse for a moment, between preposition and object, colophon and chapter heading, for dead spots to appear like gangrene that would rot the whole….

Not to mention the ending of the story, in which the pen on paper in the writer’s mind becomes “in shape more like a bullet or a bomb.” And not to mention the interaction in the bar, which serves to ground the story in the present, while allowing the writer to explore his memories.

Like my own “Experiment #25,” “Novelty” ends with snow, a snow that infiltrates the imagined novel as well:

and at evening, the old man in his daughter’s house would sit looking out over the silent calm alone at the kitchen table, a congruence of star, cradle, season, sacrament, etc., end of chapter thirty-five, the next page a flyleaf blank as snow.

“Novelty” should be as blank as snow, given its metafictional content [I’m tempted to write, as if ending a review], but is alive with life and the luminous details of the mundane. (It is also, I should note, full of a gracious good humor and some wicked satire of the publishing industry and the ways in which writers interact with readers.)

I think Nabokov would have liked this story very much. I think he would have recognized his (conscious or subconscious) role in its creation, but would also recognize how Crowley has put his own individual fingerprint on the idea, the thought, the detail, the story, the world.

Sunday, September 19, 2004


Novelist Richard Kunzmann interviewed me, along with a lot of other short story writers, for an article/interview to be published next year in Germany, I believe. Since he didn't object to me posting my response on my blog, here it is...

What's your favourite anthology and/or short fiction magazine, and why?
I tend to read cross-genre anthologies like Polyphony, Trampoline, and Conjunctions, but I also read the O. Henry Awards anthology, Best American Short Stories, etc. Lately, I've been devouring all of the Dedalus anthologies--collections of Spanish, Dutch, German fantasy, and works from the Decadent era. When it comes to short fiction, I try not to stick just to magic realism or surrealism. I love all of it, the entire spectrum. I just can't keep up with it in magazine form, which is why I tend toward the anthologies.

What's your favourite short story, and why?
James Joyce's "The Dead" is one of my favorites for the way it opens up into the universal at the end--one of the most haunting and yet life-affirming endings in literature. I also love Bruce Sterling's "Dori Bangs" for its mix of common humanity and metafiction. "The Leonardo" by Vladimir Nabokov is another favorite for the way it tells you at the beginning that it's a story and yet makes you forget you're reading a story by the end. Gogol's "The Nose" is a lot of fun and yet good satire, too. "Lizzie Borden" by Angela Carter is a wonderful bubble of a story--a bubble rising to the surface of clear water, with the story ending just as the bubble reaches the surface, literally moments before the Borden murders. I love a lot of M. John Harrison's short fiction as well. Another favorite is Carol Bly, a writer from Minnesota whose work is deceptively mundane--she has a knack in a confined space for getting into multiple viewpoints. It shouldn't work, but it does, and at its best creates the same luminous quality I admire in "The Dead".

What are your thoughts on short fiction in general?
Being a recovered poet, I appreciate levels of intricacy. Poetry is the most condensed form, in that every word counts--a word out of place and the poem spirals into a decaying orbit of mediocrity. The precision necessary for a short story is only one step removed from that, and is perhaps a concession to the need to have a plot of some sort. But I think some short stories are, at base, extended poems--of mood, of character. So I enjoy that kind of A to B story with a luminous quality as much as something that tries harder to tell a tale. Oddly enough, it's only as I've begun to focus more on novellas and novels that I've come to appreciate the precision and discipline required for a short story. When you're writing a lot of short stories, you're so in the thick of it that the precision comes so naturally (when things go right) you don't think about it. But now I look back at my short stories and marvel that I was ever able to put so much in so few words. So I've come to see it as much more of a separate art form from other forms of fiction than I had previously been aware of.

Short fiction is often seen as just a proving ground for new writers and thus only of interest to a group of small press editors, and a tiny community of dedicated short fiction fans. Why should readers help preserve and market the format?
I guess an imperfect parallel would be why do we need plays when we have movies? That's perhaps more dramatic than the parallel in fiction--why do we need short stories when we have novels? But it points out the fact that short fiction is a separate skill, with its own unique requirements. And, to be honest, I think there are lots of novelists who are actually better at the short form. For example, David Morrell, a highly successful commercial novelist, is a master of the short form. His novels are somewhat interchangeable with other bestsellers, but his short fiction is often a force unto itself, unique. Peter Straub is an excellent novelist, but, again, his short fiction is even better sometimes. Because short fiction is so much harder than writing a novel or novella, there are fewer examples of it in its most perfect form. This might be why people are willing to dismiss it. But here in the U.S., inside and outside of genre, I see a flourishing of short fiction and attempts to preserve it. There are more year's best anthologies for genre than ever before and literally thousands of independent press magazines publishing mainstream fiction. I think short fiction is thriving, and although short story collections may never be as popular as novels, they still have their place. All in all, I think the future for the short story is bright.

Friday, September 17, 2004

NEW FAMILY: Introducing Jango and Jackson Del Rio

My reading has been further set back by the addition of two new family members--Jango (sometimes known as Jango Mango) and Jackson Del Rio (sometimes known as Duran Duran--although perhaps Arcadia would be more appropriate; for those of you have read my Anarchy on-the-road account from awhile back, in the VanderWorld Report, about the Nawlins book fair and World Fantasy, you'll know who we named Del Rio after...)


Jackson Del Rio

Jango's a big ole tabby cat who seems set to rule the roost. He's been going over the whole house, climbing onto anything climbable, opening all the drawers and cabinets, and in general making himself at home. Curious cat, we call him. Somehow we have to stop him from being domineering. To us, he's a sweet, goofy cat who loves catnip mice. But I'm afraid Shosh and Del Rio will find him more of a disturbance.

Del Rio's cautious, but not shy. Del Rio is very affectionate, but picks his spots in terms of coming out from his command and control HQ behind the toilet in the guest bathroom. He ventures out until Jango can see him. Jango kind of puffs up and Del Rio goes back into the bathroom. I wouldn't say they're behaving horribly toward each other, but there's definitely some caution there.

Shosh, meanwhile, got a look at Jango--a cat she could fit inside with room to spare--and got really small and ran for the hills. So we've continued to separate all three cats and will gradually ease them in to life together. We really hope that they get along okay. They're all so wonderful in their own ways.

Jango cracked us up when he started playing with the water in his water dish. And earlier, he went to the bowl that's full of catnip mice and instead of pulling one out, he just shoved his whole face in the bowl for a few minutes.

No one will ever replace Pretty Ugly, and our current cat, Shoshona, is none too pleased right now, but she'll have to get over it.


Wednesday, September 15, 2004

ABSINTHE: Retreading Ground Trod by the Decadents Over a Century Ago...

Yes, this is me at WorldCon, drinking absinthe from a human skull, both provided by a reader named Cliff. (Who also gave me a kick-ass compilation CD.) I had assumed I could drink the absinthe out of a paper cup, but was told I had to use the human skull...The absinthe tasted like liquid fiery liquorice. I enjoyed it. A bit like a strong liquor, only with more of a harsh bite to it...You can see that I enjoyed it more than my tongue, which is attempting to escape my body and run for it. The photo was taken by A.E. Roberts at the Polyphony party (although this low-res version is entirely my fault). You will have to ask Wheatland Press's Deborah Layne about rumors that the party was much wilder than even this photo suggests...


Tuesday, September 14, 2004

NONFICTION COLLECTION: Deleted Scenes--Storyville Weekend

Every piece of nonfiction I've ever written couldn't fit into my nonfiction collection, forthcoming from Monkey Brain Books. Some couldn't fit because they seemed more personal and less about science fiction, fantasy, or horror. One of these is my account of the Storyville Weekend in Robin's Hood Bay, England. Storyville, a group of writers and artists who communicated via an e-mail distribution list, was for several years central to my daily existence. It was a great avalanche of ideas and jokes and serious and nonserious discussions about writing. Through it, I got to better know Des Lewis, Liz Williams, Mark Roberts, Tamar Yellin, Keith Brooke, Neil Williamson, and many, many others (some of whom I'd known before, but stayed in more constant contact with due to Storyville). Eventually, Storyville weekends ensued, many times in England, because most of the members were from England or Scotland. For one of these weekends, a few years ago, I managed to make it across the pond. And this is my account of our weekend, which I freely admit may be of no interest to anyone but myself. That's the great thing about a blog--ephemeral, fluid, self-indulgent, and ultimately skippable if one wants to skip an entry...


P.S. WorldCon upset my reading momentum, but I'll be getting back into Mortal Love, etc., very soon...

My Storyville Weekend

On the plane over, I finally read the little safety brochures and was startled to learn that “the body expands slightly while in the air”—which could explain why my thigh was using the remote control embedded in the arm rest of the seat to order movies and TV programming, because it certainly wasn’t doing that before I got on the plane. Before that, it was a relatively technology-challenged thigh.

But the Storyville weekend didn’t start with the plane flight and the eight hours of listening to the hyena behind me chortle at his entertainment screen while clapping like a wind up monkey. It didn’t start with the funny look that the passport checker at Gatwick Airport gave me when he turned to the passport photo and found a hundred dollar bill beside it (“I was just trying to hide my money in different places,” I told him unconvincingly.) It didn’t start with Mark Roberts meeting me at the airport. It didn’t start with meeting Liz Williams, Gary Couzens, Trevor Mendham, and Rosanne Rabinowitz at King’s Cross Station. It didn’t even start when we boarded the train to York, or when, onboard the train, Lawrence Dyer sought us out to let us know he and Des Lewis were five cars up (Des, as befits a king, deigned not to go tramping up five carriages just on the off-chance of finding people he’d see anyway later—besides, we were just pulling up to York.) No, the weekend started with none of these things, nor with meeting Tamar Yellin, who picked us up at York and drove us the rest of the way. At that point, for me, everything was dreamlike and me a spectator wondering how to become a participant.

No, the Storyville Weekend began for me when, winding our way through rolling hills clumped with brown heather and, far off in the distance, an odd triangular obelisk of concrete (national security-related, of course), the car rounded a bend and—breath caught, gaze caught, between heartbeats—there, spread out before us, Robin Hood’s Bay: the miraculous long line of the cliffs topped with green, the dark blue of water flecked with the white of waves, the line where the dark blue met the light blue of the sky, and that point from which the sun suffused the town of stone buildings, sheltered by the bay, with an antique light. The light looked painted on, each rooftop individually lacquered in rich tones of brown and deep red. There was a collective gasp—it was so unexpected and yet so complete, no slow revelation over time, but all there, of a piece, and beautiful. I began to smile. Now it was real even as it became unreal—what could be more perfect than this place that looked like it had come out of an old story, with cobblestone streets and grizzled sea-goers in sturdy boats. Selkies and storms. Ghosts and tragic love.

Tamar drove Mark and me to our bed-and-breakfast, whereupon a little of the beauty faded even as the mystery deepened: Neither Mark nor I could open the gate to the place. We struggled with it like we were auditioning for parts as the apes in 2001 until Tamar, Homo sapiens to our Neanderthal, got out of the car, walked up to the gate, and opened it in about five seconds. Mark and I hooted our appreciation and scratched our armpits, knowing that we would not be consulted on the opening of doors, wine bottles, or much else for quite some time. Tamar drove away to the main bed-and-breakfast, Thorpe Hall, whilst Mark and I, quite chastened, set up digs in our respective rooms. Of our bed-and-breakfast, I know only these things: Gary stayed there too; it was luminous with light that cascaded off the burnt-red wood of the interior; it contained two spastic, crotch-sniffing black Labradors; the walls were covered with pictures of the owner’s family in various pseudo-Victorian settings, almost certainly taken at amusement parks in the United States; the bathroom was bigger than the bedroom and contained several pieces of equipment that were foreign to me; for some inexplicable reason, the owner’s wife told me she would bring milk up to my room, eliciting from me as much of a raised eyebrow as if she had said she would bring up a rubber chicken post haste; and the first night, I discovered a large butterfly fluttering around my room, its wings quickly losing luster, and grabbed a supposedly empty box on the cabinet top, captured the butterfly within, closed the top, opened my window, and cast the contents of the box out into the night...from the sounds of things hitting the pavement below, there must have been a whole division of tin soldiers inside of it (but, in the morning: nothing on the footpath below; had the proprietors protected me from my own embarrassment or had the sheep that baaed outside the window from across the street snuck over the gate in the night and cleaned up?).

Refreshed, memories of the gate disaster fast fading, Mark and I, joined by Gary, headed for Thorpe Hall, where everyone else was staying. The weather was good, despite the forecasts of doom-and-gloom. The shops, the houses, the green hills, all smiled with light.

But Thorpe Hall was empty. Mark and Gary and I knocked once, twice, then find that our fellow Storyvilleans had apparently been transformed into printed words: a Storyville library was laid out in the window seat of one of the sitting rooms. The lights were all on. The chairs gave the impression of having been used recently. Mark and I looked at each other. Somehow the nervousness of meeting Storyvilleans increased with this silence. Leaving The Shining to itself, we walked around back, where the crunch of gravel and the rise of voices reassured us. And then it was greetings all around and the first tentative words of hello. Dave Matthews, Phil, and Neil Williams had not yet arrived, but otherwise, it was a full convocation of Storyville: Tamar, Lawrence, Gary, Mark, Dawn Andrews, Des, Keith Brooke, Rosanne, Liz, Trevor, Iain Rowan, and myself. (Milling; indecisive; herdlike—yes, Storyville in the flesh was a many-headed beast that in an emergency would have died to the last word, but although many jokingly remarked on the amount of time it took to make a decision, this was not really the result of indecisiveness but because we were all in continuous conversation; decisions did not seem as important as communication.)

So, after some thought, Tamar led us down into Robin Hood’s Bay, dusk descending over the sea, dimming the light atop the buildings. Rambling along sidewalks, through what appeared to be people’s yards (!?), up cobblestone streets, clomping down steep stairs, we made our way to The Dolphin for dinner. The Dolphin was, for an American like me, the prototypical English pub—close quarters, dark wooden beams, an assortment of chairs and red-topped stools, rows of beer cans (including Monty Python Holy Grail beer), and solid food like fish-and-chips, mushroom-and-steak pie, and blood pudding. In The Dolphin, sitting at one long table with two small circular tables pulled up as well, conversation that had been perhaps stilted at times became natural, as we all seemed to relax and enjoy the moment. Most Storyvilleans chose beer, but having experienced a rather awful beer-related incident some eight years before and still scarred, I chose cider (I had to be careful with this, though—the sneaky Brits had made their cider as strong as some beers, something I did not realize until, at dinner in London Thursday night, I had four pints before noticing that for some reason my legs were not working the way legs were supposed to work, but more like the segmented dry twigs of a praying mantis.)

Into this atmosphere of good cheer, we welcomed the appearance of a traditional folk group: Monkey’s Fist. Ironically, I think we stayed longer than we would have just to get a glimpse of them. Around 8:30 p.m., they and their hangers-on and groupies entered the dining area. The Monkey’s Fist numbered four, their manager presumably being the thumb of the fist. All four were large men with bellies of varying pedigree. All four wore the Monkey’s Fist uniform—a t-shirt with some sort of monkey fist logo on the front and a series of what looked like monkey pictograms of monkeys in various states of monkey inebriation on the back. Two of the four Monkey Fists had their eyeglasses shoved into the front of their t-shirts. Disheveled beards were prominent, eliciting a disgusted look from the anti-hirsute revolutionary Tamar (who, having produced a beret, a cigar, and a riding crop, had just the moment before been delivering a manifesto against the production of hair upon the chin). Promisingly, one Monkey’s Fist had a guitar. I have always been of the opinion that, just as Chekhov believed a gun produced in the first act should be fired by the third, a guitar introduced at the beginning of a set should be played during the set. I hunched over on my stool, wedged between an optimistic Trevor and Iain, waiting for the show to start. As the tremulous notes broke over us, as the thunderous voices wailed their ancient sea shanties, as the full weight of Monkey’s Fist crashed down upon us...I realized I wasn’t enjoying it quite as much as I had hoped—although it took awhile to understand this because Des seemed to love it, which automatically made me wonder if I wasn’t missing something. The reason for my discomfort? For one thing, most of the songs sounded remarkably similar. For another, some of the lyrics—perhaps misunderstood by my American ears—were...suspect. Something about hanging grandmothers or tadpoles at one point. Monkey’s Fist then introduced a song “as in the Native American tradition,” only to subject us to yet another song in the same mode as the others. I simply cannot believe that when Custer was making his last stand, the Apaches taunted him with Old English sea shanties. However, perhaps the biggest disappointment was the lack of guitar playing. Except for one song, MF sung without accompaniment, the forlorn guitar forgotten, slung across the smallest MF’s shoulder.

Mark and Keith had been whispering to each other, their backs to Monkey’s Fist as they hunched over on their stools. Suddenly, about halfway through the set, as a song ended, the band’s manager stood up and pointedly asked them to please be quiet during the performance. If Mark and Keith had been quiet before this, they were positively funereal thereafter. They stared down at the floor in melancholy embarrassment as if all hope had left them. They could not have looked more depressed if they’d been ghosts hovering over their own corpses. Which, of course, made them immensely amusing to the rest of us.

As soon as we could politely do so and still find out who had won the raffle we had been gang-pressed into, we slipped out of the dining area, down the stairs, and into the night, there to laughingly incorporate Monkey’s Fist into the Storyville mythos. (We did see Monkey’s Fist again, not two blocks from The Dolphin, on Saturday, performing in front of some fishing boats. I had a sudden flash of paranoia, scenes from the movie Wicker Man playing out in my mind. Perhaps we were doomed to encounter them on Sunday, too, from even farther away, our fate by then decided, the inhabitants of Robin Hood’s Bay having woven us into the flammable surface of some immense monkey, symbolic of a May Day celebration postponed just in case fourteen or fifteen obnoxious writer/artist-types showed up in October.)

As penance for our mockery of Monkey’s Fist, the walk back proved to be a Bhutan death march of a trudge, up an incline I could have sworn had been less steep on the way down. Conversation died away as everyone concentrated on one more huffing breath, one more trembling step. The night was cool but not cold, the light of lamps and stars diffuse. The taste of sea air invigorated us with its energy.

More and more, the weekend began to seem like some sort of twisted exercise course intended to whip all of us Storyvilleans into shape. Down that hill, up this mountain, through this person’s yard, always steep descents and steeper ascents. My quads quite approved even as my lungs told me there must be a way to install escalators in this place.

At the next pub, Neil and Phil showed up after a five-hour drive from Glasgow, Phil in a trademark colorful shirt of the type I used to wear when I didn’t work for a tie-and-suit business and Neil his usual unfazed cool self. While Neil talked to Tamar about her novel, I quizzed a suddenly inscrutable Des about Nemonymous. “Who’s in it?” “Don’t know.” “Will you be advertising it?” “No.” “Will you be sending it out to reviewers?” “I was thinking about it. Possibly.” For the record, Des also claimed not to be a writer, despite over a thousand stories in print. My questions might have irritated someone else, but Des was gracious enough to take it in good humor.

After the pub, we all walked back to Thorpe Hall, there to talk in the sitting room until midnight, whereupon Mark, Gary, and I went back to our digs, hoping to get some rest in preparation for Saturday.


Saturday...the day of greatest Storyville Joy and the day of what some dubbed the Great Schism. I woke in a state of intense restlessness, almost a panic. There were a couple of reasons for this. The first had to do with the forced march of almost fifty thousand words of new fiction for an Ambergris collection, completed the day before I had boarded the plane. Over ten weeks, there had not been a day that I had not typed or scrawled words, many times opening a vein in my wrist to do so. I was still shivering and shimmering with the echoes of words. My fingertips tingled with the imprint of letters. Somehow, finishing the material had not satisfied the lust. I was still writing story fragments in my head, too exhausted for it to make any sense—literary heat lightning.

The second reason was that even by Friday night I had become acutely aware that the weekend was already slipping by—that there were only so many hours left to spend with my fellow Storyvilleans, many of whom I might not see again for years, depending on finances and circumstances.

That morning, it seemed tragic that there would be two separate Storyvilles: one for those who wanted to putter around the beach looking in tidal pools and flying Phil’s kite and one for those who wanted to hike up to the cliffs and only then, gluttons for exercise, descend to the beach below. Although it meant some would experience events and conversations the others could only guess at, it also meant some small measure of security: it seemed impossible that both groups could be snuffed out, given that splitting Storyvilleans into two groups gave each more speed in reacting to emergency situations...

I decided on the hike, along with Tamar, Garry, Lawrence, Mark, Neil, Rosanne, Iain, Keith, Rosanne, Lawrence, Liz et al. The weather, again, was profoundly perfect, the sky a reflected bowl of blue above a bay at low tide, strips of rock and sand stretching out well into the sea. The ascent to the top of the cliff consisted of a murderous aerobics once again, the steps muddy and steep. Lawrence and Tamar led, good naturedly disagreeing on the composition of the stones beneath our feet and the amount of time it would take for the foothills beyond the cliffs to become proper hills. The rest of us followed behind in little gaggles of groups, tromping over rocks and grass, over farmer’s fences (although Mark and I did have a little trouble with the gates, of course), through areas where interlocking bushes formed a tunnel with a door of light at the end. The vegetation had a depth of green not found in washed-out semi-tropical Florida, where all plants appear as if they have been in a life-and-death fight with the sun. The wind off the ocean sustained us. At one point, Mark posed by a farm gate like some designer-clothes-clad avant garde farmer, doing a series of absurd accents for our amusement.

Defeated by the welter of gates and by warning signs posted by farmers, Lawrence and Tamar eventually brought us back to the sea, our path lowering to the Boggle, where we lost Mark, Liz, and Keith to the appeal of the beach. By the time the rest of us made it back down to the beach, around 11:00 a.m., we were four: Tamar, Lawrence, Iain, and me. I took advantage of the low tide to walk out as far as I could, staring down into the tidal pools as I shuffled along: sea anemones, tiny writhing red worms, limpets, dark green kelp-like seaweed, oddly-shaped stones. The sky enormous above me, the sea restless and sly. The cliffs seemed small from that vantage. The town of Robin Hood’s Bay had been reduced to a few patches of brown-red roofs. I kept walking, driven by nothing in particular except the need to keep walking. There’s something about the natural world, when you can make a case for being all alone, that brings up emotions that have nothing to do with words. One of my purest, most pleasurable memories of growing up in the Fiji Islands is of walking out on to the reefs for hours at a time, sometimes a mile from shore. Any time I can come close to that experience, I am beyond happy.

After awhile, remembering a distressing Storyvillean utterance about fickle tides and being cut off from shore, I walked back to where Lawrence, Tamar, and Iain were looking for shells and fossils. Lawrence had found a fossilized mantle of a creature that is the ancestor of the squid and was kind enough to offer it to me. A fossilized squid! I couldn’t believe it. On any other day, that would have been the highlight.

We slowly made our way back to town, where the beach-dwelling Storyvilleans plied us with stories of Phil’s breakdancing kite. Back at The Dolphin for a much-needed lunch, we found that a sub-Schism had developed: Dave (just arrived), Mark, Neil, and Keith intended to dig in to their position opposite the television and remain there until after the conclusion of the England-Greece game. The rest of us wandered Robin’s Bay during this time—although Lawrence and I could not resist ducking in for the last 30 minutes of the game, managing to see three of the four goals scored—not knowing that, really, all of it was just preamble to the night. During this interlude, we visited bookstores and cafes. Des found an anthology that contained one of his stories. I found a treasure trove of novels by the long-forgotten mid-80s writer Stuart Gordon, whose Smile on the Void is one of my favorite books.

By mid to late afternoon, I found myself disengaging from my companions on-and-off for a few hours, content to just observe conversations, to notice a turn of phrase, a mannerism, faces. A sense of melancholy overtook me, a sense that it would all be over soon and knowing that I had rarely been in such enjoyable company. I found myself thinking of everyone with a general deep affection, from Des and his owl eyes to Neil’s subtle flashes of amusement to Tamar’s continual almost-smile, to...just the way the community in cyberspace had so seamlessly formed a community in the flesh. Dawn describing her latest work to me. Liz talking about her parents’ reaction to her novel. Rosanne on Doris Lessing. Iain describing his novel in progress. Gary on Eastercon. Phil and I discussing Robyn Hitchcock. Lawrence explaining fossils, talking about his book A Cottage on the Moss. Keith and I comparing old publishing scars. And a hundred other little moments as well. There’s really no way to capture such things in print.

That evening displayed Storyville at its finest, everything slipping into present tense. Having sequestered ourselves in the Thorpe Hall’s main sitting room, along with several dozen bottles of various types of alcohol, we begin by reading from among the books, magazines, and manuscripts left by the window seat: the Storyville library. And a rich, varied library it is—as wonderfully chaotic as Storyville itself. As I read through the materials, I am amazed by the depth of it all.

After much playful and clever conversation, I experienced a bit of embarrassment when it turns out Tamar was just joking about wanting to see baby pictures, etc. “Tamar,” I say, “you left off the emoticon! No emoticon! I didn’t know you were joking.” Tamar has brought photos of her husband, her dog, her house. I have brought sixty plus photos of various Vander-chagrin, from baby photos to high school photos to current photos of me dressed up for Halloween as Don King. I’m in diapers in some photos, dammit! I’m sure I’m turning red. As Tamar passes them around, I hope hopelessly that no one thinks I’m an arrogant bastard, but it’s probably too late. “I was coerced,” I want to say. “There was no emoticon!”

As preamble to the rest of the festivities, Trevor does card tricks with the help of a kingly finger puppet. The tricks are excellent and the puppet surreal.

Then comes the storytelling, beginning with the idea of each person in the circle composing a sentence of a story. This becomes quite hilarious, but is hard to follow and so we decide to try a story where each person just contributes the next word. The story that slowly takes form from this involves characters named Trevor, Duane, as well as squid, a hamster, and sex change operations. Des surprises by mostly contributing words having to do with sex. Liz sits back in a corner of a couch and produces an unrelenting list of strong verbs and nouns. Gary goes for the more obscure approach and contributes many byzantine words that cut hilariously against the simplicity of other entries. Iain, to my right, puts me in a bad position, seeing as I have lost any imaginative capacities I might have had sometime earlier in the day, with a series of strong words that force me into a “bridging” capacity—I think I say the word “through” at least thrice, which makes for tough times to my left, where Keith sits, staring up at me in my chair, a smile on his face as he hopes I’ll give him something better to work with than “an” or “the”. Over time, this drives me nearly insane with laughter. I’ll stare down at Keith and Keith will know exactly what’s coming—yet another retarded Vander “through”—and, though long-suffering, will devise some suitable revenge in the form of a brilliant response...which Neil will then run through his exceedingly devious Scottish brain and transform with his next work into another context altogether, followed by Gary’s OED word, followed by Rosanne’s vibrant variation, Dave’s analysis prior to adding his own, Lawrence, Trevor, Tamar, Dawn, Phil, and so on...At one point, we are debating the viability of such terms as “sarcastic wank” and “ironic wank,” although I cannot remember if this occurred during the single word story or before or after. The room’s spinning a little from the motion of all these words going around the circle.

Eventually, dizzy with the horrible and incoherent travails of the characters Trevor and Duane, convinced we will never be able to explain any of this to non-present Storyvilleans, we stop. (Somewhere around this time, I believe Liz gifted me with a pink mouse or “clanger” from a BBC children’s show—much to my enduring delight. I must again officially retract anything I might have conveyed in email form indicating a dislike for clangers. Clangers are marvelous creatures.)

If the word-by-word story had been sublimely silly, then the story reading was seriously sublime. I’m not a big fan of extended readings—I have the attention span of a vole—but there was something magical about that evening where everything seemed to work, each story commenting on the next. I sat back with my wine and let the words wash over me, trying to fix readers’ faces in memory. What impressed us all was the quality of prose that was, in each case, substantially different, underscoring the diverse strengths of Storyville. Dave, Mark, and Lawrence read stories by those who did not want to read their own and did a magnificent job. It was one in the morning before we finished and I know everyone was tired, but story by story, the readings had been the perfect capper on the evening. As Neil said, “I am full of words.” Glutted on them. A few of us soldiered on after most of the others had gone to bed, tired, intoxicated, but unwilling to let it end, until not one word was left to be said.

Finally, it was just Mark and me heading back to our lodgings, me directing Mark out of the way of several cars that, although stationary, seemed to be giving Mark some problems. It had gotten very cold (at least for me) and the stars were hard and bright. I was relishing the chill, enjoying the way the few streetlamps spread their shadows, amused by the small tufts of white on the dark green fields that signified sheep. It was that part of the night that you never really want to end, the part where silence is a companion and, after a night of literary stimulation, your mind works at a hundred miles an hour. You’re energized by the company of others and you’re full of images and memories that you keep replaying, but even that is not enough. I seriously thought about returning to Thorpe Hall and convincing someone to come back down from their rooms and walk the streets, the cars touched by shadow, the cobblestones dark with shadow, the fields sighing under the light gasp of wind, our breath appearing before us. I wanted desperately to do something. I wanted to write. I wanted to pour that sense of companionship and solitude onto the page.

At first, it looked like the garden behind the bed and breakfast would be a good place to sit and write—Mark said he’d sit with me awhile, although I could tell he needed sleep—but the moment we stepped out onto the garden, flood lights came on and spoiled the mood entirely, making us laugh.

So for hours I sat in bed with a notebook and pen and wrote fitful sentences that in no way did what I wanted them to do. The best of the worst of it was the following:

He sometimes had a strange longing for another life—a life he received inklings of in the small hours of the night, in a stray sentence of conversation curling around the corner from him on the subway. A chance meeting on a crowded street. A life that we never truly find our way to, too enraptured or entangled in the life we have already chosen or that has chosen us. [Note: This eventually wound up in my story “Secret Life”.]

After awhile, I snuck out for an hour or so, prowling up and down the streets, not looking for anything, but trying to find a way through to write what I wanted to write. A way to rapture. It never came, just left an ache that still has me wanting to write—feverishly.


Sunday went even faster than Saturday, as we drove into Whitby, there to explore the Dracula Experience. Neil won the unofficial Vanderprize for best reaction to the masked man paid to step out and scare us all amongst the dusty plastic exhibits: he simultaneously took a step back and forward, arms held out ahead of him in a classic martial arts defensive move that I have to think was subconsciously learned from some film. We also walked up to the Whitby Abbey, with its strangely weathered gravestones (one last bit of Storyville exercise). Perhaps the funniest thing on Sunday was watching Neil’s face light up as he crafted a story around the idea of the wild hamsters of Scarborough (with additional fabrications from Keith, Mark, and me), Whitby’s major landmarks eventually incorporated into the myth.

After the abbey, we had lunch in Whitby and talked about the “war” on terrorism. Iain left us during lunch, headed for the train station, first of the many disappearances that day. The rest of us eventually headed for the cars and York station, there to disperse to our various trains, Neil and Phil back to Glasgow by car. One last drink in the station café—holding the clanger up to Tamar’s ear like a seashell—and then into the station. Dave, Mark, Trevor, and I were on the same train. The rest had left, except for Tamar, Keith, Lawrence, and Des. I shook hands and exchanged hugs. I was still working through these feelings of needing to write...something...and the thought that I might never see these people again was just too much. I couldn’t deal with it. As I walked to the train, I looked back, hoping to hold some semblance of Storyville in my head, in the flesh...and then they were gone and we were on the train, heading back to London.

Storyville reduced to four: Mark, Trevor, Dave, and me. Then just Mark, Trevor, and me. Then just Mark and me, as the journey had started, leaving Trevor on a rain-soaked train platform as we made for the last stretch of the journey. The weather on the way back was horrible—rain lashing the train windows, skies black as night. As Mark’s wife drove us home, I kept having this daydream that could not at first be dislodged. In it, I write at a desk by an open window and through the window I can see Robin Hood’s Bay. The wind is chill off the sea. The waves lash the rocks. It is my room. I am renting it. And all across the town, other Storyvilleans have rented other rooms, so that we can always be Storyville in the flesh, not just an electronic ghost reanimated into flesh every so often.

These are the kinds of thoughts you have after meeting wonderful people. They are by nature bittersweet. They take awhile to fade. If you’re lucky, you write them down before they disappear entirely.


I think it's great Zoran finally has an agent--and a really good one, too--for English language rights...


The latest client of the John Jarrold Literary Agency is World Fantasy Award-winning Serbian author, Zoran Zivkovic. Jarrold will be selling the author’s English Language rights.

Zivkovic has won major awards in his native country, as well as being twice nominated for the distinguished International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and winning the World Fantasy Award for his mosaic-novel THE LIBRARY (2003). All of his work has received outstanding reviews, characterising his writing as:

THE FOURTH CIRCLE: ‘The finest allegory of understanding to hit the shelves in some time’

TIME-GIFTS: ‘Provocative and compelling…and deserving of a larger and thoughtful audience’

THE WRITER: ‘A glorious satire on the pompous myopia of establishment novelists and their naturalistic art’

THE LIBRARY: ‘Polished and frighteningly intelligent’

His most recent novel is COMPARTMENTS, published in 2004.

John Jarrold said: ‘Zoran is the fourth author I’ve taken on as a literary agent, and it’s stunning to work with a writer of such power and intelligence this early in the agency’s life. To label his work as post-modernist, magic realism or anything else that specific is to underrate his range. He’s just a fabulous writer, and I hope he won’t mind if I invoke Kafka and Milan Kundera when I look at the scope of his prose.’

For further information, please contact John Jarrold by e-mail on: or by phone on 01424 440652.

Friday, September 10, 2004

INTERLUDE: Back from WorldCon / Humanoid Graphic Novels / Otto from Realms of Fantasy

Ann and I got "stuck" in Boston for three extra days after WorldCon. There are worse places to have to ride out a hurricane that's ravaging your home state (Florida). The weather was wonderful and we spent a lot of time exploring the Back Bay, Harvard/MIT, and Boston Commons areas. After the (enjoyable but fatiguing) hustle and bustle of WorldCon, it was wonderful to be able to relax. (I do have a WorldCon report, but since an online publication is planning on running it, I'll just wait until that happens and link to it.)

Boston has some great comic book shops, and at one I found a ton of Humanoids Publishing graphic novels. Humanoids is my favorite graphic novel publisher--it's the one line where all I have to do is find "Humanoids" on the spine and I know I'm going to enjoy the book, regardless of who it is by. It doesn't hurt that they publish amazing, visionary work by Jodorowsky, Moebius, and Bilal on a regular basis.

In addition to picking up some of Jodorowsky's Meta Baron work, I also found Bilal's Townscapes, a triptych of short pieces from the 1970s revolving around weird towns or buildings.

The artwork by Bilal is wonderful and the stories by Pierre Christin beautifully strange. A recurring figure for change and/or justice, a blonde-haired man, drifts through these stories as the main linkage in the triptych.

In one story, the dwellings in a village literally drift away. In another, a castle becomes a ship. I really enjoyed these stories--art and narrative. And if somehow you've managed to miss Bilal's work to this point, this is a good place to start. Although his masterpiece, for me, is still The Nikopol Trilogy. Any graphic novel in which ancient Egyptian gods return in a floating pyramid to a future France ruled by a somewhat insane despot makes me suspend my disbelief and is both moving and disturbing gets my vote for one of the best of all time.

I picked up a lot of cool books at WorldCon (and got to talk to dealers such as Justin Ackroyd, Mark at Kathmandu Books, Sean Wallace, and Otto from Realms of Fantasy--more on him later), the prize, for me, being J.G. Ballard's collected short fiction (I'm not daft enough to add that to my reading list for the blog--it's over 1,000 pages and I just want to enjoy it in the leisure of my own thoughts, since the man was such an influence in how he dissects and re-configures time and space in his short fiction.) More on what I picked up at WorldCon in a future post, along with more commentary on Mortal Love, Crowley's collection, Flights, and The Circus in Winter...

But for now, let me just close by saying Otto at Realms of Fantasy Books is someone you need to meet (and buy from) if you're ever at a convention with him. He had me in stitches.


Wednesday, September 01, 2004


I'm heading off for WorldCon in Boston tomorrow (my WorldCon schedule can be found here) and so won't be updating my blog until Monday. I hope to see some of my blog readers at the convention. It should be fun.