Archive | October 2012

One Book, Four Covers: Jan Morris’s Last Letters From Hav

This is the book that made me start this series.

I find it interesting when a book has had a few covers and each edition or subsequent publisher has put their own stamp on it. What’s also interesting is how certain iconic images become tied to certain books. Like Moby Dick — you pretty much have either a whaling boat or a whale on the cover. Dracula covers are predominantly black and red. Conan covers feature sweaty manflesh, etc. Other books may lack iconic imagery, but get sold on their iconic style. If you’ve ever seen Black Lizard’s Jim Thompson reprints then you know what I’m talking about. They’re dark books, film noir dark. Random House’s Philip K. Dick reprints from the 80s and 90s would be another example. They’re garish and weird with computer generated graphics for the garish and weird computer enthusiastic guy. (British PKD reprints went in a totally other direction — more classically SF.)

And then there are books without iconic content or where the iconic content has yet to bubble to the surface and you get character pin-ups, scene illustrations, bland photographs, or weird abstract expressionism like you did with SF/F from a certain era.

All of which brings me back to Hav. (I know I’ve used Hav and Last Letters From Hav almost interchangeably.) Hav is Jan Morris’s fictional travelogue to a country somewhere between Greece and Turkey. Morris made her name as a travel writer (best vacations a book can buy) and Hav largely reads as a straight travelogue until you remember she’s making the whole place up and using the country as … something … a metaphor or vehicle to write a memoir or critique of history or travel writing. It’s not really any one thing.

So how exactly do you convey that? The maze with the train in it is pretty cool. As is that fantasy cityscape with the Chinese tower right in the foreground. That may look too fantastic but I love that cover. The later printings like the NYRB one (and others I haven’t included because they’re too similar) also feature the Chinese Tower but show it on fire. If you have no clue what the book is about and see that cover, you might develop expectations regarding the book, ones it is not at all likely to fulfill. Sort of the same way if a friend recommended A Scanner Darkly to you by saying “it’s about an undercover cop in the future who’s trying to take down a drug ring”, you’d likely be disappointed. Maybe the cover with the De Chirico-esque city scape and typewriter does the best in capturing the book’s mood.

What’s most weird about these burning tower covers is that they attempts to make an icon from one event out of many potential ones. Is the maze race any less iconic, or the maze itself, or the sense of travel, or Mamoun’s trumpet, or the troglodytes and their snowberries? To picture that one event, the burning of the tower, to the exclusion of all others — well, I don’t know. Is that what the book is about? It’s not really what I think about when I think about the book.

But what exactly are covers for then? To attract buyers? To signify that the book is X instead of Y? To signify that we are X-type person instead of Y-type? To keep the inner pages from falling out? And then when books get multiple covers over decades how are they packaged for new readers?

Looking at an old cover for Hav after seeing the new NYRB one made me wonder all these things, and that’s how One Book, Four covers got started.

And now you know, etc.

Mr. Good Morning

Here’s a story.

I used to pass this guy every morning on my way to work at this certain streetlight. He’d be on a bike and I’d be walking.

He was an older Korean guy wearing a baseball cap and aviator sunglasses, always casually dressed but super neat like if it were raining he’d be riding the bike one handed holding an umbrella with the other, and the open umbrella would be perfectly parallel to the road, not held sloped or slanted like you or I or any other slob would.

Anyway, he always said “Good Morning” to me, so that’s the name I gave him. He was like my alarm clock. If I didn’t see him on my way to work, I knew I’d be late.

But in the past few months there’s been all this construction near work and I’ve had to detour past the place where we usually met, so I hardly see him. I still do but it’s rare and no matter when I do, he always breezes by me on his bike saying “Good Morning.” This even happened once on a Saturday afternoon.

So I told Jin about the guy and she thought it was amusing. But then earlier this week we were coming out of the supermarket and there the guy was in his track suit and wearing a cravat (and baseball cap). It was nighttime, he said “Good Morning”, and we stopped and chatted with him. Turns out the guy’s a retired master ship’s surgeon from the Korean Navy who works as a school crossing guard, which is where he’s always going in the morning. He also thought I was from Uzbekistan. Jin was more than a little amused by that, and after we left she said, “You know that guy’s now going to take you out drinking.”

That might be interesting.

One Book, Four Covers: Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories

How about that crow cover? That’s pretty nice.

I found a used copy of this at What the Book in Seoul. It was published in the 1980s but the most recent story in it is an Aickman from the 1960s. The majority are from the 1920s, but all are from the 20th century.

In his introduction Dahl talks about the ghost story as a world tradition and the sheer wealth of source material available. This didn’t prevent him from putting together a mostly British table of contents. In fact my biggest complaint against this book is that it’s irritatingly British. Everyone is prim and proper and ducking into corner shops in search of bric-a-brac. Dahl also talks about how bad most authors’ ghost stories are. Even the big name folks’ stories are atrocious. He feels the same when it comes to children’s books too. People think they can write one easily, when the results are quite different.

There is a logic to Dahl’s selections and if you’ve ever read one of his stories you’ll see a kinship between them and his selections here. Most of them have zinger endings of the morbid sort.

Another little chestnut from the introduction is that Dahl records his surprise at how well women write ghost stories. After making a few wince-worthy generalizations, he applauds women as horror writers. They were so good he feared that the whole book would be nothing but women authors. But in the end the men roused themselves and prevailed, thirteen testicle-endowed individuals to eleven uterus-bearers.

Imagine if it had been otherwise. The horror!

Roof Dog

Roll for initiative.

The Korean Word For Alibi

Today’s question:  “What did you do last weekend?”

Today’s answer:  “I killed a chicken with Minsu.”

Followed by…

Minsu:  “No. No.  I did nothing, teacher.  Nothing!”




Shadows of Lost Rivers

Here’s something.

Back at the beginning of this year Beneath Ceaseless Skies published a story of mine called “Shadows Under Hexmouth Street”. (That’s the link to it. You can read it later.) One of the inspirations for that story was an article I read about subterranean rivers in Greenwich Village. The article included an apocryphal story of someone fishing for blind crayfish through a manhole cover in the basement of their apartment building.

Today I found out about a documentary called Lost Rivers.

“Once upon a time, in almost every city many rivers flowed. Why did they disappear? How? And could we see them again? This documentary tries to find answers by meeting visionary urban thinkers, activists and artists from around the world.”

It sounds pretty neat.


Fools! Fools!

“Fools! Fools! I thought. Love it! Love the loss as well as the gain. Go home and dig it. Nobody was killed. We saw victory and defeat, and they were both wonderful.”

– Barry Hannah, “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet”

The Other Side of McMedieval Feudalism, or The Use of Mythic Distance in Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur”

So that fascinating thing I hinted at about the setting in my last post about Le Morte D’Arthur – it’s totally generic McEurope, but instead of this being a design flaw, it’s a design feature.

Actually calling it McEurope is too specific. It’s more McMedieval Feudalism seen from the top without ever looking down. It’s an aristocracy divorced from all other social classes with an endless supply of weapons and armor to fight with. You have to at least enjoy that stuff as aesthetic trappings without any attendant realism. Only once does someone go to town and see a craftsperson to get a thing fixed. That’s your realism. Peasants hardly ever appear in it, and knights apparently have nothing better to do than stand all day beside bridges challenging whomever happens to walk by. “None shall pass”, etc.

What locales there are all blend together. Bridges, cloisters, and wells with maidens (or knights) weeping beside them lend some decoration to the otherwise indistinguishable setting. There are castles, and outside every castle is a forest. Inside the forest adventures happen.

But I said this is a feature rather than a flaw. What makes it fascinating is how quickly bright sanitized McMedieval Feudalism can become weird foreboding mythic id-laden fairyland. The one rule is when you go into the forest stuff happens to you. That stuff can be the frat-house jousting (with accompanying sides of homoeroticism and misogyny), or something a lot weirder and subconsciously ripe. It’s no surprise that “the forest” gets transformed into “the wasteland” during the Grail Quest.

What to make of this? On one hand the setting is so bland and divorced from reality as to be nonsensical. On the other hand that blandness has an advantage when telling a story and playing with archetypes, especially because the bland is divided in half, a mundane world and its fantastic reflection, and the archetypes are never quite certain when the one will shift into the other. Not just this, but any deviation from the uniform setting stands out.

So it’s okay to be bland as long as it’s a conscious choice. Use it to your advantage. Dive deep and swim in the dark waters waiting beneath the bland’s placid surface. Find those pearls waiting down there along with those toothsome beasts. What you find might be wonderful or it might be ugly, but it won’t be bland. That’s for certain.