I beg your forgiveness for this interruption, but this is the first of twelve pitch advertisements for my Patreon that I’ll post throughout the year. I am using Patreon to support my writing (and lifestyle, which involves a lot of pajamas, tea, and books.) And what will you get in return for your support?
Quite simply, you will get nothing.
You get nothing
Let me explain: While in the past I’ve offered patrons an exclusive monthly column about old weird books called Yesterweird, those posts are now here. As of this moment there will be no difference between supporting me and not supporting me. Oh yes, you’ll have my gratitude and thanks and emanations of good feelings in your direction, but materially? Materially, you will have nothing.
No rough drafts, no serial novels, no sneak peaks, no discords, no podcasts, no sub stack coupons, no forums, no vlogs, no postcards, etc.*
At least for now.
Are you sure you know how patreon works?
Right now, your support will go towards a blog anyone can read for free. Yes, it will also go towards works in progress, but there’s no guarantee anyone will ever see those. Would you like to hear about a novel that might never be published or have me promise a self-pubbed RPG that never materializes? Or would you like me not to tell you about those things, then possibly surprise you with them at some point in the future? I don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep. What I can guarantee is a blog post about an old book, once a month, and various other assorted book club like activities.
The Tiers of Nothing
- 1USD – Welcome Aboard! You get nothing and over the course of the year you buy me two coffee-shop beverages.
- 3USD – A Place of Repose: You get nothing and over the course of the year you buy me a dinner and a few beers.
- 5USD – In the Thick of It: You get nothing and over the course of the year you pay one of my bills. Why are you doing this?
- 10USD – A Fine Mess: You get nothing and over the course of the year you buy me a round-trip high-speed train ticket from Busan to Seoul. We can’t go on living like this. If we ever meet I am going to talk to you about lowering your pledge.
- All other pledge amounts: You get nothing and I leave it up to your imagination to fill in the details by multiplying your pledge amount by twelve and then thinking of something you buy with that amount.
And I know this all sounds very flippant, but I am not going to make promises I can’t keep.
* One thing you will get if you support me is a long PDF that’s a setting document for a current project I’m working on. You can expect more stuff like that to materialize.
So you will get something, but you should expect nothing.
Welcome to portrait country.
Not physical portraits as in the Dorian Gray sense (although one does show up in our second story “Enoch Soames”), but the prose sort. First in the short ghost story “Importance” by Manuel Mujica Lainez, about a Mrs. Hermosilla Del Fresno, a self-important woman whose soul after her death lingers on for eternity among her possessions, and second in Max Beerbohm’s longer story about time travel, deals with the devil, and “Enoch Soames”, its titular self-important writer of dubious quality.
I’ve little to say about “Importance”. It’s a good story, concisely told and with a barb to it. Mrs. Hermosilla Del Fresno is a very important widow, nearly the most important widow in her city. The one blemish in her pedigree is that she comes from a less than spectacular family. All of whom she cut out of her life as she rose in society. Then, as these things happen, she woke up one morning only to find herself dead. At first she assumed it was only a matter of time before the angels appeared to take her on to her celestial reward, but as time goes by, and her dreaded relations reappear, she realizes that no angels are coming for her, and this is to be her eternity, her soul trapped in her bedroom, ever aware of how her family degrades her memory.
It’s a good solid shot of smugness followed by impotent rage towards God and man.
What’s not to like?
I hadn’t heard of Lainez until now and it appears his books were never much translated into English. The two that were, Bomarzo about an immortal Renaissance duke and The Wandering Unicorn a tale about the fairy Melusine set against the back drop of the Crusades, sound right up my alley and will likely warrant some tracking down or interlibrary loan next time I’m in the USA.
Now back to the Black Water and “Enoch Soames”…
I don’t know if Max Beerbohm is much remembered these days. He’s certainly someone that shows up a lot in any book about early 20th century English Literature, but more as a scenester than an actual writer. The sort who draws funny pictures of literati and has those pictures and his bon mots published in the smart set papers. Beerbohm’s funny, and perceptive, but a bit arch and smugly long winded in that British high society sort of way. If he were alive today, he’d very likely have a very popular podcast or even late night talk show.
“Enoch Soames” starts as a cutting satire of a certain type of wannabe writer. Soames is the arrogant dabbler who lurks at the margins of the literary scene whose overwhelming sense of self-importance is so distant from his actual ability and output to make him a farcical character. He apes the decadent style while also dismissing it and everything else that crosses his field of vision while working intently on some niche work he proclaims to be nothing shor of groundbreaking. When it’s published it has the title “Fungoids” and no more than three people buy it.
Beerbohm recounts meeting Soames on multiple occasions and finds him morbidly fascinating. As things progress, Soames worries more and more about his legacy and whether people will realize his genius after his death. He’s nearing a fever pitch when the devil steps in (or speaks up since he’s sitting next to Soames and Beerbohm in a crowded café) and offers to transport Soames exactly one hundred years into the future in exchange for his soul. Soames makes the deal and from that point on things go very badly for Enoch Soames.
First he’s not remembered as a significant writer at all. Second, he’s not even real but an imaginary character most famous as the subject of Max Beerbohm’s short story “Enoch Soames”. This leaves him crushed and deflated, so that when he returns to his own present day he’s unable to resist when the devil comes calling for him. The devil here is the theatrical sort dressed in pure Mephistopheles. Beerbohm describes him as looking like the sort of criminal that lingers around train stations in the hopes of stealing some high-class lady’s jewelry case.
As a rather Soamesian sort myself, the story did make me cringe. Beerbohm’s best remembered as a caricaturist after all. The portrait is perfect and Soames has a vividness despite his being described as “dim”. Trust me, if you have ever at all been near any sort of scene then you have met guys like Enoch Soames with their unwarranted high opinions of themselves. That Beerbohm paints his picture and then erases it in the same story is a clever act.
Next week. . . more writers I’ve only heard about but never read!
And so here we are, another year of book tracking. My goal for this year is to read at least one book a month written in the past ten years, something which I failed to do this January. Here are some things I read that you might like to track down.
Goldfinger by Ian Fleming: I am not a big James Bond fan and find the character’s continued existence to be puzzling. I can never get around how they keep changing actors without there being an explanation. At least with Doctor Who there’s an explanation behind their regenerations! Still, I find myself fascinated with the Bond novels and the power fantasy they portray. We think about the movies with all their gear and supermodels, but the books are much more about indulging in the ear marks of the jet-setting lifestyle and are full to the brim with lavish descriptions of food and local customs where Bond is never simply a tourist spectator. Bond’s also really good at card games your grandmother plays. Like a whole subplot might revolve around a high stakes Rummikub tournament. Anyways, Goldfinger has Bond attempting to foil the plot of the villainous Auric Goldfinger who plans on robbing Fort Knox. Pussy Galore shows up as does Odd Job and a lot of anti-semitism, misogyny, and anti-Asian racism.
Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis: Nothing shatters your national heroic narrative about an event like books written during that event. Lewis served in British Field Intelligence during World War II and his book on the occupation of Naples gives a sobering account of life during wartime. Did you know the US mafia managed to get in good with Allied Command and profit from a flourishing black market? Did you know US soldiers had orders to kill all German soldiers taken prisoner in the war (even being told to beat their heads in with their rifle butts if necessary to save ammunition)? Did you know food was scarce in Italy after the war, but candy was plentiful? The details are often heart-breaking and anger-making, but they’re just as often blackly comic and absurd. Whether displaying one face or the other, Naples ’44 will shatter any sort of rosy view you might have held about the US’s actions during World War II.
Hospital Station by James White: This is the first book in White’s Sector General series about an intergalactic hospital and the problems doctors face treating alien patients there. It’s a collection of short stories that tend to follow a certain pattern: mysterious alien shows up at the hospital, alien wreaks havoc or does very strange things, doctors try to figure out why the alien is doing what it does, finally the heroic Doctor Conway follows his instincts and discovers the right way to treat the alien. There’s clever stuff here: empathic spider aliens (who work in the children’s ward naturally…), a shapeshifter having a nervous breakdown and wanting to return to the primordial ooze womb of its species, and a surgeon made from pure energy that wants to develop a brontosaurus’s telepathic abilities. White was a self-professed pacifist and these stories make a nice counter to the militarism in a lot of the SF of his peers. That said, and for all the wonderful imagination White exhibits in depicting weird alien physiology, he can’t imagine a human doctor with a non-Anglo name or a woman he doesn’t then go on to describe as “curvy”.
In an English cottage two old women sit and drink tea. Outside, the modernizing world makes its noisome rumbles and smoke. Inside, the women eat small sandwiches, sip tea, and gossip about the lives they’ve led. One, the sick one, begins to tell a story. It is not a love story but it is a story about love and devotion and a deserted house where something called a “token” lives. If you go to the house and stand outside the door the token will listen and let you take on someone else’s troubles for your own. The woman went there for love, so she might take on all the pain destined to come to her man. It didn’t matter that she could never be with that man. She was his and that was all that mattered. Now, the cancer on her leg grows, and the story ends when the nurse arrives and complains about old ladies and their gossip.
That’s the outline of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Wish House”. A story I like more as an idea than in its written form. It’s all told in a very roundabout way, and by the time the actual Wish House appears it’s easy to have gotten distracted by the why’s why and who’s who in the story. But retelling the story above, the idea becomes visible again and I’m once more interested in the “token”.
Other sites will go into the Christian symbolism Kipling employs in the story. The sick woman’s name is Grace. GRACE! Get it? But all that’s pretty scant sauce on an idea I wish had more exploration.
Now on to a story about a suburban father who fears for his son and what he’ll learn about life down at “The Playground.” This is a Ray Bradbury story, so it’s ripe with what now reads as corny Twilight Zone weirdness, but that’s only because Ray Bradbury was as good as he was and made his legacy ubiquitous.
This is an anti-nostalgia story with an adult remembering their childhood as an era of brutality and powerlessness. The father views the playground in question as a demonic place where children are introduced to the world’s cruelties and it’s now his responsibility to protect his child from those same cruelties. That the playground has the supernatural power to spare the son by sacrificing the father (Get it!?!) pushes this into the fantastic.
“The Playground” has some great descriptive passages in it as Bradbury renders hop-scotch outlines, slides, and swing-sets through a lens that would do Hieronymus Bosch proud. Also when set right after the Kipling story the whole notion of taking on another’s troubles as one’s own becomes much more sinister. Kipling’s a believer in his story, while Bradbury is an agnostic at best. Sure, the playground has a manager and the light is on all the time in their office, but no one’s ever in there and the manager’s never been seen.
I feel like I should read more Ray Bradbury. At the same time I feel like I’ve already read too much Ray Bradbury. Yet, I haven’t really read all that much Ray Bradbury. It’s just that decades of entertainment have absorbed so much Ray Bradbury that we’ve all read Ray Bradbury without having read Ray Bradbury at all.
Next week some more spooky shit!
Today on Black Water Book Club dead lovers once more appear and jealousy rears its ugly head.
First, Edith Wharton’s “Pomegranate Seed” about Charlotte, a newly married woman trying to uncover the truth about the mysterious letters her husband keeps receiving. That the husband’s first wife died tragically lets you know right away where this story is going, and while it delivers few surprises it is a deep dive into an individual’s emotional landscape as they oscillate between jealousy, curiosity, and fear. Wharton’s one of those writers that can have a character walk up the steps to their house then go on for three paragraphs of internal monologue as the character pauses before their door with key in hand. That Charlotte becomes obsessed with finding out the identity of the letter writer leads her to lay a trap for her husband that ultimately has tragic results. Overall, the story’s a bit disappointing. The touch is very light and the haunting raises more questions than it answers. But if you like introspective stories that focus on a character’s emotional landscape, this might be something you enjoy.
Also, a last note about Wharton: I had always associated her with the late 19th century, but she died in the 1930s and was publishing right up until the end of her life. All that’s to say that when the narrator talks about automobiles I did a bit of a double take.
Next we have “Venetian Masks” by Adolfo Bioy Casares, another story about being haunted by the specters of obsession and jealousy, only this time the explanation is scientific as opposed to supernatural. An unnamed narrator describes his love affair to Daniela, a brilliant biologist. As time goes by the affair grows increasingly strained until it ultimately ends, and the narrator tries to move on with his life but fails. Years later he learns his friend married Daniela, and by chance the three encounter each other in Venice during Carnival. Only now it appears that there are at least two Danielas, because of cloning technology and the fact that Daniela’s a brilliant biologist. What she’s done is custom designed cloned versions of herself to give to her former lovers. That’s the reveal, and the narrator’s reaction to this information slams the story shut.
This is the kind of SF story you either love or hate. It’s more interested in the scientific idea of cloning than in how that science would work. And the story plays out in a strange setting that’s ambiguous and confused. It’s Carnival! Everyone’s wearing masks of archetypal characters. Is the narrator only playing a part in some timeless farcical love story? Is Daniela the model for a new Columbina? What sort of future will her technology usher in? How creepy is it that she sells off her clones to her former lovers when she has outgrown those lovers? Who cares! The narrator’s an obsessive hypochondriac prone to psychosomatic illnesses and that condition matters more to the story than any exploration of technology or future world distorted by cloning technology. I am absolutely fine with that and so far alongside “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” this has been one of my favorite stories in the anthology so far.
Next week, Kipling and Bradbury!
Welcome back to the Black Water Book Club. Today we’ll enjoy a very short one and a somewhat longer one.
IA Ireland’s “Climax For a Ghost Story” is an example of what would today be called flash fiction. It’s very much the kind of story places like Daily Science Fiction publishes regularly. That’s not a quality critique on flash fiction (I quite enjoy writing it myself!), Daily Science Fiction (who do what they do very well), or the story itself, just that its brevity no longer makes an intriguing curiosity but places it in a stylistic tradition. Read it for yourself:
“How eerie!” said the girl, advancing cautiously. “—And what a heavy door!” She touched it as she spoke, and it suddenly swung to with a click.
“Good Lord!” said the man. “I don’t think there’s a handle inside. Why, you’ve locked us both in.”
“Not both of us. Only one of us,” said the girl, and before his eyes she passed straight through the door, and vanished.
What actually makes this story notable is not the story itself but the likelihood that its author never existed and the whole thing’s a fabrication. The story’s said to come from Ireland’s 1919 book Visitations, which there seems to be no record of. Nor is there any record of the existence of Ireland’s 1899 book A Brief History of Nightmares. What is mentioned is that Ireland claims descent from William Henry Ireland, an infamous eighteenth-century forger who tried to pass his plays off as lost works by William Shakespeare. So for now, I’ll believe I.A. Ireland’s a hoax until some librarian tells me otherwise.
On to the next story, a tale of remembrance and loss. . . and getting a hand-job from your dead lover’s ghost until you die. The story’s called “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio”, and it’s written by Tennessee Williams. And here we are going straight into Ick Country of the sort you’ll find in Samuel R. Delany’s writings on New York City’s Times Square.
But first, up front, I’ll just admit that I really, really liked this story. It’s all atmosphere. Yes, squalid, dilapidated, and sordid atmosphere, but that’s a feature not a bug. It’s also kind of a tender love story.
Pablo Gonzales is an aging watch repairman in Texas who is so much surrounded by time as to have become indifferent to its passage, and one day he decides to go to the movies. That’s the story, except more so.
Mr. Gonzales inherited his watch repair business from his long dead lover, Emiel Kroger. That this story is set in 1950s USA means their relationship does not at all look healthy. Kroger’s described as a grotesque (“very fat, very strange”) who picks up a teen-age (possibly underage) Gonzalez for sex one night. That Gonzalez returns Kroger’s affection, surprises the older man, and the two form a relationship that’s both master and apprentice and romantic partner. In time Kroger dies leaving everything he owns to Gonzalez. Meanwhile the local movie palace the Joy Rio descends into decrepitude, becoming the center of an illicit world of sexual practices on its upper floors. Mr. Gonzales is a regular visitor to the upper floors. That this is 1950s USA means all these assignations have to be done subtly or one risks bringing the wrath of society at large down on oneself, no matter how ugly and sordid that greater society might be. There’s a nice anxious paranoia in this story as Mr. Gonzalez navigates the risks and rules of the sorts of seductions carried on in the Joy Rio. When a misstep throws his life in sudden danger, it’s too the upper floors Mr. Gonzalez flees and where the ghost of Emiel Kroger waits.
There’s a companion piece to this story called “Hard Candy” that I hope to read some day, and the Ick Factor here is definitely drawn from Williams’s own life. There’s tenderness within the grotesque on display, and both serve to make this a very unsettling story, perfect for the sort of book the Black Water Anthology hoped to be.
Next week … faint hand-writing and Venetian masks!
Your step-mom will try to kill you, but she will fail. So instead she’ll turn you and your brothers into swans. After a few centuries you’ll become human again, except you’ll be incredibly old. But fear not! It’ll all be okay because you’ll be baptized before you die.
The king will send you and your brothers on a suicidal mission (because you killed his da), but when you do well the king will have his druid cast a spell so you all forget what it is you’re supposed to be doing. Then three shouts from a hilltop will kill you.
The “Salmon Leap” is the cobra-claw secret move of all Irish heroes, well, that and a short spear stab to the belly.
You’ll know such a terrible secret about the king that you’ll start to die. A druid will tell you to go to the woods and tell the secret to a hole in a tree, but later a fucking bard will show up and make a harp from that very tree that tells everyone the king’s terrible secret. (The king’s secret is that he has horse ears.)
You will go hunting deer, but the deer will tell you to cut that shit out because they’re actually your half-sibling from the gap year your dad/mom spent as a deer because they annoyed a druid. This will also apply to wolfhounds and birds.
The fairies will be small, unless they are big. Either way, you’re likely in for a bad time.
Your dinner will get cold because all the heroes have gotten into a pissing match over who’s most worthy to cut the meat. Eventually this will be settled by a gigantic brawl, which was the whole point of the feast anyway.
Brain-balls are the deadliest missile weapon and made from the brains of a mighty warrior you killed mixed with lime and sculpted into a sling bullet.
The king will get hit in the head with a brain-ball, not die, but live in an infirm state with the ball still in his head. He’ll then die when the druids tell him about Jesus’s death and he gets so angry the brain-ball falls out, killing him.
If you’re a woman your eyes will be hyacinth blue, lips scarlet as rowan berries, feet slim, and the light of the moon will glow from your face.
Don’t drink from that cup! It has elf genetic material in it!
Oh shit, you drank from the cup, now your daughter’s an elf and kings will fight over her, and she will probably get turned into a bird or leaf or breeze, and she’ll spend countless days like this until she meets a monk or elf or druid.
If an elf loans you a horse and tells you not to get off a horse, DON’T GET OFF THE HORSE.
Actually, it’s best to avoid horses all together.
You will be rash and ignorant but eating more fish will make you wise.
Swamps are the best place to practice poetry.
Three things make a poet: the Fire of Song, the Light of Knowledge, and the Art of Improv, or Extempore Recitation as the druids call it.
No brave deed will be done that Conan the Bald won’t mock and belittle.
You will know a guy named Dermot of the Love Spot. You will regret this, but your wife won’t.
Refer to your OCD as a geis and everyone will be cool with it.
Strangely beautiful princesses are either elves… or Greeks… or Picts.
The fairies will steal your stuff and/or family just so you’ll stop by for dinner.
The King will disappear for six months to a year. No one will know where he went and they’ll be much speculation. Say hello to all your new wolf, bird, and deer siblings!