Thursday, March 31, 2005

Obscure German Characters

Montmorency asked about my interest in obscure German characters so here goes...

I first came across Alfred Wegener in geography textbooks at school. Back then (in the seventies) plate tectonics was only just being unveiled as fact to most of the population and it gave me the first taste of feeling (erroneously, probably) that I was at the forefront of things, learning stuff my parents didn’t know. I thought it a beautiful theory, the way everything fitted together quite literally, and explained things such as the distribution of volcanoes, earthquakes, mountains in such a pictorial (and in retrospect, obvious) way. I also found the fact that Alfred Wegener had been soundly ridiculed but then proved right (well almost right) after his death incredibly tragic and romantic. Then, when I tried to find out more and found that he had such an exciting life as an Arctic explorer and died in quite heroic circumstances I was completely hooked. There was so much to the man, and from snippets of his writing I think he was quite lyrical in his own way, so that’s how I justify his ‘voice’. I got quite obsessed, really, and I think I still am. It’s become my mission to make him better known and get the credit I think he deserved.

The main character in my other book is Heinrich Hoffmann, the author of Struwwelpeter (or Shockheaded Peter in English) which is a set of cautionary tales for children. I became interested in him through my research for Wegener. I was looking through a book on German history and I saw an insert describing Heinrich Hoffmann. As far as he was concerned his most important work was as a progressive psychiatrist, and yet not many people know about that facet of his life - if they know about him at all it is as the author of a set of rhymes for children. Although he was proud of the book he was more proud of his medical work and campaigning. And that was the main point of the book - how what we do in life, what we think is important, might not turn out to be how other people remember us.


Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Shamanic Journey

Hello again. Firstly, thanks for all the kind comments, you’ve been so welcoming - it’s good to know that someone is out there and I’m not just talking to myself.

Now back to the shamanism...

It’s difficult to decide when my shamanic phase started - after all I do not look the part. I have neatly trimmed hair, a tendency to wear suits rather than cheesecloth and what I like to think is a healthy scepticism for anything spiritual. However a couple of years ago I found myself lying on a treatment bed in a Bavarian Schloss while an intelligent and very courteous middle-aged gentleman felt my head for ‘moving plates’. He said that lack of movement in my skull indicated I had a blockage elsewhere in my body, but I have not yet found out where it is. He mentioned that his technique had an American Indian influence which I guess stoked the first small flame of interest.

Another contributing factor, the main one, is 'the book'. I had been searching for a voice to tell the story I was writing set in South America and by reading around came across an Indian who had been cast out of this tribe for apparently causing the death (by witchcraft) of one of the chief’s relatives. I think most writers can relate to outcasts. Sometimes I think I am one.

Then I learnt from a TV programme that the same images recur in shamanic trances, no matter how they have been initiated - drugs, days of sleep deprivation, self-hallucination, drumming - and that these same motifs have been drawn on cave walls by homo sapiens tens of thousands of years ago: grids, animal helpers, geometric shapes. I think that is when I became hooked and wanted to find out more. Up until now my Indian had just been a bit odd, now he was going to be a fully initiated shaman.

So I did a little research, googled ‘practical shamanism’, was surprised to discover that there are some UK practitioners and signed up for the weekend course.

It was excellent. Henry Shukman in a recent article in the Guardian (,,1434889,00.html) recommends a drug-induced shamanic journey to relieve writers block, but I found that drumming surprisingly had the same effect without the nausea. I told Jeff before I went that if my ‘animal helper’ (an animal guide to the spirit world) turned out to be a meerkat I was legging it, but mine turned out to be a fairly quiet and inoffensive tortoise. I didn’t see shapes but I did see myself dismembered by angels, my organs removed and cleaned and then replaced and afterwards I felt so unaccountably happy I am calling it my ecstatic experience.


Sunday, March 27, 2005

Greetings from Chester

Greetings from the first of Jeff’s guest bloggers. I thought I’d start by introducing myself...

I’m a Welsh woman living in Chester which is a small city established by the Romans on the Welsh border. Since there is a law which states that any Welshman caught within the walls after midnight can be shot with an arrow I have to be careful. There is a small amphitheatre, the local Spud-U-Like has a glass panel in the floor through which you can see a Roman hypocaust, and a friend of mine dug a hole in her garden recently and found skulls and a very rare sort of ancient glass. Apart from that nothing much tends to happen here. Last week the headline in the local newspaper was ‘Child gets hand stuck in plastic bucket’ with the interesting follow-up story that exactly the same thing had happened to her aunt twenty years earlier, which had also made the front page. On each occasion the fire brigade were able to come swiftly to the rescue since, presumably, they were not already occupied. Nothing much changes - but we have got broadband. Which has changed my life - not always in a good way.

My cohabiters are a husband to whom I am connected via lap-top and two sons who are erm 20 and 15, I think. Obviously we have had to buy a hub. I’m not very good with ages or names and frequently get them muddled up, which is an hereditary failing.

I spend my entire life writing, reading and researching except sometimes I get a sudden weird surge of guilt and adrenaline and skulk at the back of an aerobics class or spinning session. I do that, enjoy it and think I must do that again, maybe tomorrow, or the next day...

My research at the moment involves shamanism so I am working my way through Mircea Eliade’s SHAMANISM - ARCHAIC TECHNIQUES OF ECSTASY (as recommended by my incredibly well-informed ex-colleague and esteemed writer Alan Wall) which is fascinating and has enough fantasy to keep me going for some time. To complement this I spent last weekend flat on my back ‘journeying’ with the aid of aboriginal drumming and a couple of lovely Shamanic guides In London. More on that in my next blog.


Friday, March 25, 2005


While I'm away, two very talented and gracious individuals, author Clare Dudman and my sister, Elizabeth VanderMeer, have agreed to guest blog.

Clare will take the first shift, for the first two weeks. She's the author of One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead and 98 Reasons for Being, both excellent, even sublime novels. 98 Reasons for Being will be out in the United States in July.

My sister Elizabeth is currently pursuing her PhD in environmental studies with an emphasis on environmental journalism. This pursuit has taken her to Edinburgh where she currently resides. Elizabeth is an accomplished nonfiction writer and poet.

I'm very much looking forward to what they both have to say. (It's even possible that one of my younger brothers may weigh in with some wisdom toward the end...)

And with that, goodbye for now!



Fantastic Metropolis, courtesy of Luis Rodrigues and the other editors, is now running a feature based on my various secret lives projects. This includes the first appearance of the title story of my Golden Gryphon collection, "Secret Life," online.

Also included are a few short excerpts from my upcoming limited edition Secret Lives collection. (Er, I might advise picking this up soon if you're planning to--it'll be sold out soon.) well as an original piece about the secret life of William the Conqueror, which will shock, surprise, and amaze almost everyone.



Thursday, March 24, 2005


I’ll be on the road for two weeks starting Saturday. Below find my official schedule. I’m thankful to the Florida Department of Humanities for a travel grant that makes this trip possible. I look forward to meeting some of the readers of this blog along the way.

Guest bloggers? Why, yes, there will be guest bloggers. More on that tomorrow.


March 27, Sunday—Reading—Elliott Bay Bookstore, Seattle—3:00pm (with L. Timmel Duchamp)

I’ll be reading and signing at one of my favorite bookstores (101 South Main Street, Seattle) with one of my favorite writers, Timmi Duchamp. I’m really thrilled about this. Also, anyone who buys a copy of Secret Life will receive a mini-mini secret life. Afterwards, anyone who is so inclined can join us for drinks. I also will be debuting the new VanderSampler at the reading:

April 1, Friday—Panel—Associated Writing Programs Conference—1:30pm (with Jessica Treat, Rosalind Stevenson, and others)

I will be reading a paper as part of a panel on “The Novella: Exploring the Boundaries of the Form” panel (Associated Writing Programs Conference, Hyatt Regency, 655 Burrard Street, Vancouver, BC, Canada).

April 2, Saturday—Reading—Unassociated Writers Conference—5:30pm

I will be doing a reading for the Unassociated Writers Conference (Western Front Society 303 East 8th Avenue, Vancouver, BC), right after Lance Olsen.

Additional information of possible interest

My new sampler will be available at the Omnivision table at the book fair component of the AWP conference, and possibly at the Fiction Collective 2 table.

On Thursday, March 31, I’ll be at the FC2/Soft Skull party from 6 to 7, then over to the Vancouver Public Library for Alison Stine’s reading. (It’s rather generous to myself to call Alison a “former student,” but I did first meet her while teaching creative writing via a correspondence course many years ago and since have stayed in touch. She’s an extremely gifted poet and working on a novel at the moment.)

On Saturday, April 2, I’ll be hanging around the AWP dance party at some point, since I’m told it’s a hoot.

And much else, informal and otherwise, will no doubt develop.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


Tamar Yellin's Genizah at the House of Shepher, which I mentioned on my blog awhile back, has gone white-hot/red-hot just prior to its April 15th release date. Not only have rave reviews come in from the library trade journals, but reviews are also forthcoming in major newspapers and general review magazines. I think it is entirely possible that this amazingly skillful first novel will turn out to be one of the unexpected large-scale success stories of 2005.

I do have to say, though, having sampled The Da Vinci Code, that the quote in the press release below is inaccurate, in that Tamar's novel was written by a masterful prose stylist and is in every way a serious literary novel even while being immensely entertaining.


The Genizah at the House of Shepher
Pub date: April 15th, 2005
Publisher: The Toby Press
ISBN: 1 59264 085 0

"IMPOSSIBLE TO PUT DOWN." - Booklist starred review





Beginning with a search for the ten lost tribes and ending in an attic, where lies an important bible which has been missing for seventy-nine years, The Genizah at the House of Shepher is Tamar Yellin's critically acclaimed debut novel.

Returning to her grandparents' home in Jerusalem after an absence of many years, Shulamit, an English biblical scholar, stumbles into the mystery of the so-called Shepher Codex, an ancient and valuable manuscript of the Bible which has been discovered in the "genizah" or attic. In uncovering the truth about the Codex she reveals the loves, hates and histories of the Shepher family itself and at the same time struggles to answer pressing questions: what is the significance of the Codex and where does it come from? Who is the stranger, Gideon, who is desperate to enlist her help? Above all, whom does the Codex belong to and what part must Shula play in its destiny?

"'The Genizah at the House of Shepher' quickly sweeps readers up in an exhaustively researched, intelligent saga about the whereabouts of the only true handwritten copy of the Bible." -

Yellin, a prize-winning Bible student herself was inspired to write the novel when a vast cache of family documents was discovered in the attic of her grandparents' home in Jerusalem, shortly before it was scheduled for demolition.

"It was an incredible sight," she says. "Even the dust on the floorboards was composed of disintegrating paper."

Among the huge array of family letters, diaries and early newspapers was found a vitally important Hebrew bible, containing notes on the text of the Aleppo Codex, regarded by scholars as the most perfect text of the Bible in existence.

The Codex had been destroyed by fire in 1947, and the notes were the only surviving evidence of what its text had been. The notes had been missing for more than seventy years. They were eventually used to reconstruct the vanished Codex.

"Even small variations in the Hebrew text of the Bible can be of tremendous significance," Yellin states. "Because every Hebrew letter is also a number, the Bible is like an enormous codebook. A change in a single letter can be of huge importance, for example, to numerologists who are seeking to calculate the date of the end of the world."

Seated amongst the remains of her family history, Yellin first conceived the idea for The Genizah at the House of Shepher.

"The novel took thirteen years to write," she says. "There was a huge amount of research to be undertaken, which took me to libraries in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Leeds and Toronto."

Once completed, it took another three years to find a publisher. It went the rounds of the London publishing houses twice, before finding a home with distinguished U.S. independent The Toby Press. "The whole business made me ill in the end," Yellin recalls. "One morning at the hospital I was given the devastating news that I may have cancer. That afternoon I received an email from Matthew Miller at The Toby Press, asking if the rights to the novel were still available."

Fortunately, the cancer scare turned out to be a false alarm, and Yellin completed a fourth and final rewrite on the novel before its publication in April, 2005.

Ynetnews, the English edition of leading Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, has compared 'The Genizah at the House of Shepher' to Dan Brown's bestseller 'The Da Vinci Code.' "The mystery crops up like a Jewish, low-profile version of 'The Da Vinci Code.' Shulamit is like novelist Dan Brown's cryptographer Sophie Neveu, who sets out on a journey to seek the secret her great-grandfather was charged to protect.

"As in 'The Da Vinci Code,' Yellin's book challenges readers' minds with a fair measure of intrigue and scholarly adventure, albeit its biblical topic."

Award-winning novelist Jeff VanderMeer, whose 'City of Saints and Madmen' appears this month from Pan MacMillan, has drawn parallels between the novel and A. S. Byatt's Booker prize-winning 'Possession.' "Beautifully written and evoking echoes of A. S. Byatt's Possession, Yellin's novel melds the personal and the wide panorama of history into a rich, satisfying tale."

Yellin herself describes her novel as "not only an academic thriller, but an interrogation of Jewish identity, a meditation on exile and belonging, and, along the way, a love story. In constructing what I call the "mythical history" of the family Shepher, I was re-imagining and striving to come to terms with my own family narrative and with my place in it."

Monday, March 21, 2005


Perhaps my favorite version of City of Saints & Madmen has just been released by Pan Macmillan in the United Kingdom.

The cover's wonderful and it's highly portable--and potable. I recommend it to anyone who likes 750 pages of interrelated controlled insanity. Or even the opposite of that. I keep a copy of this version on my lap while I watch television and pet it like a cat...or maybe I don't. (You'll never know.)

My favorite description of the book was offered up to me at the Pan Mac launch party for Jeff Ford and me back in April of last year. Claire Bott (sic?), a reviewer, handed me the following poem in the form of a paper airplane:

Some books
are like
yourself up in
a cozy
blanket. Some
books are like
going for a
swim in the
sea when the
wind's up.
Some books
are like eating
an exotic
meal. This
book is like
hanging by
your hands
from a tightrope
above an
height, while
terrible things
creep up from
below and
things drop
down from
above and
your grip
inexorably, to

I couldn't have said it better myself. At the time, I remember being somewhat disconcerted, unsure if this meant she liked the book or not, when it didn't really matter. If someone's willing to write you something like that, it definitely made an impression on that person. If I had it to do over, I would have read it and just looked her in the eyes and said, "You have to trust me enough to let yourself fall." ...

(Evil Monkey: "Wot wot? I see Jonathan Strahan has written a very reasonable post about building a web site." Jeff: "Yes. What about it?" Evil Monkey: "It's very reasonable." Jeff: "Yes. It's reasonable." Evil Monkey: "It doth not account for this, though, and probably not for bits and pieces of this." Jeff: "Oh, come on--it's a great, really reasonable piece about author sites." Evil Monkey: "It sure is. Very reasonable." Jeff: "...but what if I want to explode the fuck out of reasonable and do something cool as shit?" Evil Monkey: "That's reasonable too, dude. But can I tell you something?" Jeff: "What?" Evil Monkey: "Just don't spray when you talk. And if you're going to stand that close, either kiss me or back off." Jeff: "That sounds reasonable.")

Friday, March 18, 2005


...has been a strange, transitory month. I've spent much of it fulfilling fiction and nonfiction obligations--a story for Jay Lake's TEL anthology, more secret lives (I think I can safely say the Secret Lives book won't be out until October), a piece on House of Leaves for Horror: Another 100 Best Books, edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, various PR projects (including a VanderMeer 2005 sampler)--but also dealing with the distracting situation of having had a mole on my arm diagnosed as pre-cancerous. I had it surgically removed this past Tuesday (a very common procedure, although the first time I've had surgery of any kind), which has been quite a relief, but which is also kind of weird in a Frankenstein way. I've never had stitches or a long gash in my arm or anywhere else for that matter. It's so strange to be typing and feel the stitches tighten every so often. At times, it almost feels like the wound is separate from me. The discomfort isn't great; the sensation is just unfamiliar. I keep trying to differentiate it from other sensations so I can use it sometime.

This month I've also been thinking about this blog and how I use it and what I use it for. When I started it, I felt I used it as a kind of personal journal focused on writing. Then came a transitional phase when I realized I had an audience--I mean, I knew I had an audience before, but I didn't know, if you see what I mean--and I began to post entries with an awareness that there were readers to be entertained. More recently, this awareness has changed yet again, in that I realized that the audience had grown enough that it would be effective to publish interviews and features on writers who interest me. Even more "off topic," I've begun responding to the entries of other bloggers. This counter-punching was never my intent when I started because the point has been to share my own experiences.

So, in some ways, I feel as if I've lost something with this blog. I've gone electric, so to speak, and there's no longer that pleasant sense of having to lean forward to hear an unplugged, acoustic guitar. This means I've gained something as well, but at the expense of creating something more personal.

I haven't reached a decision on what I'll do with the blog in future--for one thing, I'm going on a mini-tour of Seattle and Vancouver soon, and am prepping for that--but I do see a time coming where I re-direct the blog's intent. Either to re-purpose it or to regain the original intent.

In the meantime, I'm feeling somewhat transition-y and restless. About two weeks before any big trip, I find it more and more difficult to write any fiction, and I've done just a couple of short pieces recently. That makes me mentally twitchy, while the stitches are making me physically twitchy. (How Ann puts up with all of this, I don't know.) I'm kind of in a driving-down-a-deserted-street-late-at-night-after-a-light-rain mood. Which means Seattle and Vancouver will be good, since you'd be hard pressed to find many places in Tallahassee you'd want to hang out at after one in the morning. I'm looking forward to a lot of late nights and cool or strange or even languid conversations and a lot of visual stimulation, being in places I haven't been before. There's this sense of wanting to explore and kind of to roam that comes over me sometimes, and it's frustrating at the moment to wait a week to get to that place.

One thing the movie Lost in Translation did is perfectly capture that kind of late night slide, the way places and people merge and you're sort of part of the places and apart from the places, and it's a feeling that's both comfortable and edgy. I think you need that as a writer. And it's not so much that going to new places provides inspiration--it's that it knocks things loose from inside of you that were already there but needed a way out. And it makes your nerve ends react differently. Processing is different. The same street that in your home town excites no interest from you has its doppelganger in a strange city, and there, by god, every little detail suddenly becomes important, and when you're home again, driving on that road, the two become superimposed and the familiar suddenly becomes strange. Those sorts of things happen.

Maybe it's just a way of wrenching yourself out of the familiarity of what's around you so you can again appreciate the miraculous in the mundane.

And maybe I'm re-purposing this blog already.

Thursday, March 17, 2005


Vera Nazarian has had what one might call a colorful life. She immigrated to the USA from the former USSR as a kid, sold her first story at the age of seventeen, and since then has published numerous works of short speculative fiction -- or "wonder fiction," (not New Weird, Vera? not Slipstream? :) ) as she prefers to call it -- in many anthologies and magazines, has seen her work on Preliminary Nebula Awards Ballots, honorably mentioned in various Year's Best volumes, and translated into seven languages. An active SFWA member, she made her novelist debut with the critically acclaimed Dreams of the Compass Rose, followed by epic fantasy about a world without color, Lords of Rainbow. Look for her first short fiction collection Salt of the Air with an introduction by Gene Wolfe from Prime / Wildside in August 2005.

One of her latest and most intriguing books is The Clock King and the Queen of the Hourglass--a far future "dying earth" science fantasy about identity, erotic desire, flying water and a mystery. It is a signed limited edition novella in book form, with an introduction by Charles de Lint, coming from PS Publishing in May 2005, both in hardcover and trade paperback. I'm very much looking forward to it.

And now, without further folderol...Vera


Why should readers pick up your new book as opposed to, say, just about anybody else's book?
Now what kind of question is that? Why, certainly everyone should pick up all those other fine lovely volumes filled with scintillating words and deep imagery and butterfly thoughts that are getting published at the rate of too many a minute, plus or minus a sneeze, and I'll just slip mine into the queue gently, see, you won't even notice --

Oh, wait! You just saw me sneaking up, did you? Well, criminy. I suppose now you'll have to pick up my book first.

Does your book have any socially redeeming qualities? If so, what are they?
As a rule, my books are all uniformly steeped in stodgy wisdom and contain arcane symbols disguised as ordinary punctuation that, when you run them through a decryption device, spell out BUTTCRACK.

However, rest assured that such is not the easy ending to the puzzle, but merely the start of an intricate Sherlock-Holmesian journey. Indeed, fool simpletons would assume it is the punch line to this quip, and would pound their thighs like baboons and guffaw, and come away with the notion that they have seen the full extent of cleverness.

Meanwhile, the quiet, more insightful reader would continue plowing onward, soon to be rewarded with the tidbit that what you have before you is in fact a complex and subtle and extraordinary acronym, and a thing of power. I'll give you a hint: "Books Universally Thought To Convey Rare And Curious Knowledge."

Bright-eyed readers, please be sure to look for and expect evidence of BUTTCRACK in all my work.

Does your book have any medicinal or mental health value to readers?
Yes, just like a fine pair of suspenders, a well-constructed brassiere, a high-rise elevator, a construction crane, or a batch of yeast dough, my book -- indeed, all of my books -- is equipped with the sublime ability to lift. It works best upon things intangible, such as spirits, desires, memories, and dreams.

Assume your book has been filed under "Ages 8 to 12" in the children's section, perhaps by mistake, perhaps not. How horrified do you imagine a child would be after reading your book, and why? How many years of therapy would the child take to recover from the experience?
I envy this child; he or she will be delighted. I can wish no better fate upon any young person to have such a first exposure to the pretty birds and the shiny bees.

If no one buys your book and you are unable to continue publishing your fiction due to the intense vilification that occurs in the media, what line of work will you go into?
Inconceivable! Ask me another. Since I am too old to go back to that big wild techno-jungle, and too focused on writing as my most pressing creative outlet to resume the fine and musical arts, publishing and publicity is a place where I'll probably stay, and there will always be the website work. Come to think of it, I'll become a literary agent.

Saturday, March 12, 2005


I've mentioned Iain a few times before, and he's been a guest blogger here. Now, on his blog, he's announced that his story "Lilies" from Postscripts 2 has been taken for the Stephen Jones year's best, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. I think "Lilies" is an excellent, finely nuanced story, and I think we're going to be hearing a lot from Iain in the next few years.


Friday, March 11, 2005


I'm very sad to hear that Kelly Rothenberg passed away at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on March 7th. His wife Maureen let us know. Kelly had health problems worsened by a stroke a couple years back. This time his heart couldn't take the strain of a second stroke. Kelly was younger than me and I'll always remember him as a gentle soul, an honest and hard-working writer. He was a stubborn cuss, too, and sometimes we'd argue about POD and iUniverse and all kinds of related things. Kelly had written a lot of nonfiction for Magill's and other reference guides, in addition to his fiction. Although we had been in constant touch during his first stroke, when he'd been in the hospital here in Tallahassee, we'd fallen out of touch since, which I very much regret. He lived in Valdosta, Georgia, and we never had a free moment to visit him and his wife, although they visited us several times.

Our prayers are with his wife, Maureen, and the rest of his family. He died still doing what he loved: writing. No matter what the setbacks, Kelly kept on writing. I admire him for that. The last entry on his website reads, "02-11-05: Making a few slight changes to the website ... Getting ready to work on several fiction pieces as well as some more book reviews for Magill."


PS If you knew Kelly--several people in the horror community did--and you'd like to see about contributing to Kelly's favorite charity in his honor, you can query at this email:

Sunday, March 06, 2005


Now this.

Exactly how much of this thought police bullshit are we going to put up with? How much cretinous, non-imaginative, death-of-the-soul crapola from bureaucrats and pig-headed morons are we going to allow to go on? I mean, this is absolutely ridiculous. This is how we're fighting "terrorism", a straw man to begin with?

This is offensive on so many levels I don't even know where to begin.



As several of those who have commented on this post have observed, this situation is as much a result of Columbine as it is the events of 9/11 and their aftermath. The more general issue is one Matt Cheney addresses on his blog.

I remember the aftermath of Columbine quite well, as it affected my stepdaughter, Erin, to a ridiculous degree. Simply because she was different from other students, because she wore black, because she sometimes wore punk clothes (which, even though it hardly matters, teachers and administrators couldn't differentiate from "goth"), she ran into all kinds of problems at her middle school at the time (despite being a great studnet). She survived that era of hysteria, but it did leave its mark on her, and for others--quite harmless students whose only crime was suffering from unconventional imaginations and an "excess" of creativity--the repercussions were much more serious. (As I think Jon Stewart or one of his guests said, when the serial killer recently arrested for murdering more than ten women was found to have been an upstanding leader in his local church, you didn't suddenly see people being wary of local church members across the country, or their kids.)

It's true that there may be facts about this Kentucky case that have not come out yet, but as of this moment, the whole thing seems to stink rather badly.

Thursday, March 03, 2005


Last year, Jack Dann approached me about doing an essay on the Romantic Underground for Nebula Awards Showcase 2005, which just came out this month. Essays about other major movements (or non-movements, as some may protest) such as the New Weird and the Interstitial would round out that section of the anthology, Jack said.

Now, I did not know I was a member of the Romantic Underground; nor had I ever heard of such a movement before. However, Jack had seen my name bandied about in connection with "RU", and thus the invite. I did a little double-checking to make sure I hadn't missed something, and then let Jack know that I'd be happy to do an essay, but that it might not be what he was expecting, and I'd understand if he couldn't use it.

The first page of what I finally sent him read as follows:

THE ROMANTIC UNDERGROUND: An Exploration of a Non-Existent and Self-Denying Non-Movement

Jeff VanderMeer

With apologies to my friends and colleagues in the various real "movements," "umbrellas," and "committees" mentioned in this essay, all of whom I regard with affection and respect.

Although the phrase "the romantic underground" is often attributed to Shelley and his minor poem "The Assignation of Lapels" (1819), the Romantic Underground actually began as an offshoot of the Decadent Movement in France. The first text identified with the Romantic Underground was Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony (1874), since claimed by the Symbolists.

As you might expect, Jack was surprised by my approach, but to his credit took the essay anyway, as it did, in a sense, fit his brief--although, since the RU didn't exist, the essay served to examine other current movements in a humorous way.

Humor is a great way to get one's point across without seeming pompous; it can also allow the recipient of a critical comment to perhaps laugh at the same time he's digging an arrow out of his ass. (And, to my great delight, at least one target in my RU essay has written to me telling me how much he liked the piece.)

But what I'm getting at is this: a few people have insinuated that my RU essay is a form of minor blasphemy--that in poking fun I am somehow lowering the level of discussion. Nothing, dear reader, could be further from the truth, as I think you'll see if you read the essay. If we can't laugh at ourselves--and I've poked fun at myself many times--then we're really too self-important to be taken seriously anyway. And if humor can't be conduit for serious discussion, then I don't want to participate in serious discussion.

At the end of my essay, there's a footnote that reads:

That said, it is worth noting the recent discovery of a new journal by Angela Carter. This journal may finally cut through the fog of denials to the core of the Romantic Underground movement. In the journal, Carter scrawled a list of points that seem uncannily like the recipe for the perfect literary movement. Could this be the manifesto of the Romantic Underground-nistas? It reads as follows:

1 - It should focus on individual works.
2 - It should include no works that do not fit its manifesto or mission statement.
3 - It should appeal to both the heart and the head, inciting passion and thought in equal measure.
4 - It should be blind to gender, race, and nationality.
5 - It should separate commerce from art and only operate at the level of art.
6 - It should encourage creativity and experimentation.
7 - It should partake equally of high and low culture.
8 - It should partake equally of high and low literature.
9 - It should do no harm to any writer.
10 - It should be both humble and arrogant, as appropriate.
11 - It should deny its own existence at all times.
12 - It should exist in the soul and spirit, heart and brain, of one writer at a time.
13 - It should express the bittersweet confluence of seriousness and humor, honesty and deception, that we all experience in life.

Perhaps this is one way of saying I don't believe in Movements but only individual writers.

It is also a way of saying we can do better and try harder--and that we shouldn't "settle" for whatever hazy aesthetic happens to be wafting around.

In the end, the Romantic Underground is deadly serious. And, I think, one of the best essays I've ever written. Check it out--along with very interesting and honest essays by China Mieville and others.