My review of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Lois the Witch and Other Stories is now live at Innsmouth Free Press as part of their Women in Horror Week. Like most Victorian writers Gaskell wrote her share of ghost stories and those in the collection are a nice grim assortment. Not only that but I suggest that Gaskell’s ghost stories serve as proto-noir and precursors to the works of Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, and Dorothy Hughes.
I also make a joke about bonnets and four-in-hand neckties.
Go check it out.
There will never be a rainy Saturday afternoon long enough for all the movies that require a rainy Saturday afternoon to be fully appreciated.
It’s December. Here’s my list of ten favorite reads for the year.
1. The Vagabond – Colette
Rene Neree is a divorced woman in the first decade of the 20th century who has “fallen” from society and become a vaudeville performer. The crux of the book concerns the question of whether she should give up the stage and remarry or reject a comfortable marriage in order to pursue her career. What sweeps you along is less the plot and more just Rene’s character and perceptions as she lives and travels around Europe. You have to love Colette. She’s sharp, perceptive, and funny without being genteel. In the book’s first chapter she calls a man a whore. You have to appreciate that.
2. The Tartar Steppe – Dino Buzzati
Drogo is a newly appointed captain whose first assignment is a remote fort on the border. At first he hates the place but as time goes on he finds himself incapable of living elsewhere. It’s a bit funny and a bit sad. I wrote about this one in a One Book, Four Covers post.
3. Embassytown – China Mieville
Tons have been written about this book. It’s SF set on an alien world where the aliens speak a peculiar language that requires the development of genetically engineered human ambassadors. The main character is not an ambassador but a woman who is a colonist and has entered the alien language as a metaphor.
4. The Strangers in the House – Georges Simenon
I like books about grubby curmudgeons with substance abuse problems who despite these traits or maybe because of them can face certain challenges and succeed over them. Simenon wrote a ton of books. When he’s good he’s very good indeed. Here’s a quote.
5. Riddley Walker – Russell Hoban
Post-apocalyptic wandering around radioactive England written in a crude degraded form of English – what’s not to love? Seriously. This is one of those books that can possibly make you drunk by reading it. The One Book, Four Covers treatment is here.
6. Dark Companion – Jim Nisbet
This book was just loopy. It’s a violently absurd noir novel about the relationship between a deadbeat drug dealer and his level headed Indian-American neighbor. Mayhem ensues. Sort of hard to say more about it than that.
7. Wild Life – Molly Gloss
Wild Life is set in the Pacific Northwest during the early decades of the 20th century and features a feminist single mother of five as its heroine. A child goes missing near one of the lumber camps and the woman sets out to find her despite the stories of a mysterious creature wandering in the woods. This description doesn’t do the story justice. It’s a powerful read. If you want a hint of Gloss’s style read The Grinell Method over here at Strange Horizons.
8. The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog – Doris Lessing
This is the sequel to Mara and Dann. It’s not as intense as its predecessor, and mostly focuses on Dann who spends much of the book doing nothing except moping and drugs. As with the Simenon book mentioned above I like books like this. This one also had the added pleasure of being set millennia in the future when much of Europe is covered by ice.
9. Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner
I adored this book. Another early 20th century woman refuses to accept the roles society offers her, and in this case she packs off to the countryside and becomes a witch. Here’s the One Book, Four Covers for it. And here’s a bit more. Warner’s collection of fairy stories for adults The Kingdoms of Elfin is also pretty great.
10. Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
Friends have been telling me to read this for years now. The frame story involves a young Marco Polo telling Kublai Khan of all the fabulous cities Polo has visited in his travels. The cities are of course fabrications — fantasies and metaphors symbolizing human relationships with others and objects and ideas, and yeah, it’s great.
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And if you’re curious here’s the list from last year.
Like most people I have folders and folders full of pictures glommed from all over the Internet. Lately I’ve been making crude collages with them on power point. The above is for a short story about a junky ghost hunter and the codependent relationship he has with his assistants. I made it after the story was written, which is a bit different than using it to brainstorm.
That’s one for a story in process. It hasn’t come together yet like the first one, but that’s likely because the story’s not done. Evocation’s my goal, and there’s a tendency to be prejudiced towards the chosen images and using them to illustrate the story, as opposed to finding the pictures that evoke the story best.
“Shadows Under Hexmouth Street” is my Joe Mitchell in Lankhmar story (mixed in with bits from my late aughties day job at an architectural preservation company).
Joe Mitchell was a 1940s New Yorker writer. That’s him over there on the left. He specialized in urban pieces about kooks and weirdos. Lankhmar’s a massive fantasy city created by Fritz Leiber. That’s it in the middle as drawn by Mike Mignola, the Hellboy guy. In the early 1970s Leiber published Our Lady of Darkness, there on the right. It wasn’t set in Lankhmar, but it featured a magic system called polisomancy. Polisomancy’s all about capturing urban elementals born from construction materials and was practiced by kooks and weirdos in cities.
My story’s about that.
I actually can’t stand hyper-real, “vivid” world-building. Leiber names maybe at most a dozen streets in Lankhmar and describes less than half a dozen neighborhoods — I’d be surprised if he mentions more than four neighborhoods.
However I realize I am in the minority with this opinion and wonder if the clotheshorse swordporn I hate so much might stem from audience overlap with the SCA that values that level of immersion.
Remember Lucas’s Law: The Clone Wars were so much better imagined than seen. The job is to write stuff wide enough for the reader or player to get lost in and shape on their own, than to shape it all for them and suck the life out of it.
(from an email discussion with some friends)
It’s December. You can expect some year end posts. Here’s my list of 10 favorite reads from this past year.
1. The King Must Die by Mary Renault: A historical novel set in ancient Greece retelling the early life of Theseus up to his killing the minotaur and returning to Athens. It walks a fine line between the real and the fantastic because while nothing “magical” happens, the characters believe their world is magical.
2. God’s War by Kameron Hurley: Probably the most recently published book on this list. Some people have a problem with science fantasy. I don’t. This read like a hybrid of China Mieville and Anne McCaffrey. If that doesn’t sound great then I don’t even want to hear it. In a way it recalled the 1970s when genre lines weren’t so fiercely defined. I’ll probably read the sequel Infidel when I’m home next month.
3. The Last Days by Brian Evenson: An absurdly violent detective novel about a cop infiltrating a cult of extreme self-mutilators. This is one of those books that grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let go. Not for the squeamish.
4. Warlock by Oakley Hall: A western with an introduction by Thomas Pynchon. Hall is one of those “writer’s writers”, I think. He never was popular but he worked in popular genres. (I’ll also track down his Ambrose Bierce detective novels when Stateside.) This reminded me some of Deadwood, but it probed more into the American habit of making heroes of violent men.
5. I Was Looking For A Street by Charles Willeford: Willeford’s memoir of being a freight riding runaway during the Depression. Parts are heart-breaking, but other parts show a compassion for humanity in all our absurdity.
6. Freaks’ Amour by Tom De Haven: Another disturbing and violent book. It read like Sid & Nancy meets Tod Brownings’ Freaks or Philip K. Dick meets punk rock. Take your pick. Mutant entertainers try to survive in a world that despises them. The book’s a weird relic of the 1970s and the Cold War, but oddly relevant. The most likable character is a drug-dealer who sells mutant goldfish eggs.
7. The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George Higgins: I blathered about this one before.
8. Flanders by Patricia Anthony: A magic realist novel set in the trenches of World War One? Maybe. The Last Temptation of Christ meets Goodbye To All That? An American sniper in World War One slowly begins to crack due to combat stress and the homicidal tendencies of his fellow soldiers. While in No Man’s Land he begins to see visions of the dead and those about to die.
9. The Double Shadow by Frederick Turner: A lost classic of the New Wave? It’s a shame Turner didn’t write more SF. He might have won a name for himself as a peer of M. John Harrison, Samuel R. Delany, and Gene Wolfe. (Though he did go on to a career as a poet and teacher.) On a terraformed Mars the scions of two royal families engage in a status war fought with aesthetics and style. Even if the book was meant as a critique of an emergent culture of narcissism, it still works as an SF novel. Definitely worth tracking down.
10. Memoirs of a Spacewoman by Naomi Mitchison: The Spacewoman in question is a communications officer / ambassador / diplomat in a future utopian society. There’s little in the way of plot and “thrills”, but a lot of wonder as she recounts her experiences from a life time of alien contact.
Buddhist monks invented tea thousands of years ago in what is today southwestern China. These monks lived atop the mountains and found the beverage improved their ability to meditate over long periods of time. Also it complimented their other super-powers. Soon the habit spread throughout the lowlands, and in the 7th century Lu Yu wrote his now famous panergeric to the beverage, A Fistful of a Cup of Tea. People became ecstatic — so much so that when Lu Yu died he became God.
The first westerner to have drunk tea was the north African traveler Ibn Battuta who traveled to India in search of a job. He was impressed by how the beverage invigorated the spirit and increased energy.
After watching one too many of his coworkers get torn apart by angry elephants, Battuta decided to return home. When he got there no one believed a beverage like tea could possibly exist.
It wasn’t until George Orwell wrote his seminal essay, Tea, after singlehandedly defeating the forces of Spanish Fascism, that the English stopped drinking boiled mud and adopted the habit.
The rest is more or less history.
I’m not a fan of writing posts, especially those written by unpublished, self-published, and/or “neo-pro” writers. Nor am I fan of “celebrity slushreaders” going on about how they dream a story they select might win a Nebula like they were right there writing the story beside the author, or at the very least keeping their tea mug filled, as if reading slush wasn’t the equivalent of being so much human baleen.
Bullshit on all that.
But I’ve got two writing posts itching to get off my fingers so let me just get them done between now and next week and then I won’t have to write about writing or slushing for the rest of the year. I’m putting it here for my own benefit as much as anyone else.
People talk a lot about hooks and openings and grabbing the reader so they keep on reading. And yeah I use the word hook as well, but it’s not about that at all. (Rudy Rucker has a great bit on “hooks” in his Writer’s Toolkit, which everyone should download.)
Other folks talk about establishing trust between reader and writer, and I agree with them but wondered how that trust was gained because it has to be right at the start. Then I got a couple stories in the slush this week that helped me figure it out.
What it comes down to is control.
You can do whatever you want in your story. Write it lush or transparent. Climb Freytag’s pyramid or flip it on its peak and kick it in the rear. Anything goes as long as you’re in control.
As long as each word and sentence connects to the next word and sentence and the whole thing makes a pattern where there’s nothing more you can subtract from it. That’s control. Having pieces left in your hand at the end is control.
What’s not control is starting your story with a well-groomed hook and then piling on introspection, backstory, and/or setting details. What’s not control is leaving nothing out, but throwing it all in there and hoping for the best. Lush doesn’t mean overgrown or overwriting a story so thick it collapses under its own weight.
Every word must link together. They can be ugly or oddly shaped words, but they have to fit into the story’s overall pattern (and of course that pattern can be all freak-a-deak weird, but there has to be some discernable resonance there).
That’s it. Writing post number one is done. It’s all about control.
Next week 10 Bad Slush Habits. Until then here’s Spoek Mathambo’s disturbing cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control”. Don’t blame me if it gives you nightmares.