Archive for August, 2010

Neighborhood Sports

August 21, 2010

For this entry, we have a guest columnist. This is a new feature of the blog that I hope to include from time to time. We have a fascinating, richly-diverse (if not “rich”) group of readers — people in far-flung places with all sorts of experiences and insights. The next logical step in making this truly “our” blog is to let some of you take the podium now and then. It’s strictly on a volunteer basis — no one is required to “take a turn” or anything — but I hope the wheels are turning in the minds of some of you. If you have an idea, you can let me know; or if I have an idea, I may contact you with a plea to write us a piece. That was the case for this entry: once I’d read the article, I asked its author if we could use it, and he graciously agreed.

The following column was written by the sports editor of The Perry Chief in Perry, Iowa. The author also serves as an AP beat writer for Iowa State University football, and occasionally, ISU women’s basketball. You know him as Mr. Brown Snowflake, whose real identity remains hidden to protect the innocent.

This column first appeared in the April 23, 2007 edition of The Perry Chief. On February 5, 2008, it was awarded second place for “Best Sports Column” by the Iowa Newspaper Federation from among 76 entries statewide.

Without further adieu, then, here is the work of our first-ever guest columnist:

FROM THE PRESS BOX: Neighborhood Sports

You wouldn’t know it by looking at me now, but time was the author spent hour upon hour playing sports. Either my parents planned exceptionally well or else the dice came up in my favor, as kids that were my own age or near to it were abundant in the neighborhood where I grew up. A bike ride of just a few blocks uncovered several other guys in my age group.

The result was a youth spent playing whiffleball, kickball, basketball,
football, maulball (often referred to, in those innocent days of the mid-70s to early 80s, as “smear the queer”) or any other variety of sports. An occasional game of “kick-the-can” or “bloody murder” might spring up, and if you could round up enough people (10 per side being the oft-desired but rarely achieved goal) a block-wide “capture the flag” might be undertaken.

Two-block long and lightly travelled Cottage Street served as a one-time home to kickball games, with Mr. Manual’s (correct spelling) pristine front yard an automatic out if the ball stopped in it. Of course, the older Mahan and Wilson girls always seemed to do just that,
and Mr. Manual would come out, chew us out and fetch the ball (we weren’t allowed on his little homestead, naturally).

The neighbor across the street from Manual (and next to my buddy Doug’s first house in the area) was, at the time, a certain Mr. Williams, a huge Oakland A’s fan who used to set up a cardtable with little paper cups and a cold jug of Kool-Aid for us.

When we outgrew Cottage Street we switched to Elm for whiffleball, with two shingles intentionally left to melt into the asphalt (where they remained for years) serving as home plate and second base. An old white oak served as first base, with a broken section of curb making a perfect third. And, as all could easily recognize, over the power lines was an automatic home run while launching one into Nelsons’ pool meant that not only were you out, but that you had to get the long-handled scoop to retrieve the ball.

We would wrap layers of black electrical tape around the thin yellow plastic bats and would also tape the ball (leaving the holes open, of course). The need for a catcher would often result in “ghost-runners” and “pitcher’s hand” was the standard order of the day.

On occasion the games would switch to the yard between Martins’ and
Eichelbergers’, but that was fairly rare, as were maulball games in my
backyard, because of the stone birdbath that, miraculously, no one ever collided with. Prized beyond all others was the 20×15 foot cement slab (complete with a circular built-in drain along one side) and 10-ft basket built by the one-time owners across from our backyard, the Ganeys. Mick had played high-school ball with Michigan and Iowa State coaching legend Johnny Orr and had put the court in for his kids, but as the years passed it really belonged to the neighborhood.

Long after the Ganeys had moved to Georgia the court still carried their name, despite the home changing hands two or three times. We used to shovel off the snow, squeegee the court dry, and play hoops in three layers of clothing in all but the worst of winter weather. A great 3-on-3 court and one that, even into high school, friends would drive across town to play pick-up games on. Thankfully the series of new owners never minded, and would sometimes turn on the floodlights for us.

Adolescence meant driver’s licenses and that meant a travelling circus. We even busted into the light box at the softball complex behind the high school and would turn them on and play ball until midnight. I guess the police figured — similar to when we did the same thing for full court hoops at Manners Park — that as long as we were in sight and sober we were not burning down the town, so they left us alone, though they would sometimes chase us off if we were too loud.

I think back to those times with Doug, Dan, Joe, Skybob, Iron Fran, Bill,
Fygar, Crewser, Bernandini and all the others and wonder where the days went. I know the answer, but looking around today I worry this generation won’t have such memories. I belong to what has been named “Generation X” or the “13th Gen.” Those of us born just after the Boomers (1966 in my case) and in the short years afterwards grew up just before the explosion of cable TV, video games and computers. My high school had three computers, the total power of which was significantly less than a Playstation.

For fun we played ball. Played catch, shot hoops. Spit chew and B.S.’d each other while punting a football. Yelled “Car!” and waited for the next pitch.

I cannot recall the last time I saw a similar sight. Two years ago in
Marshalltown I spent two hours on a beautiful sunny Saturday just driving around looking for something of the sort. Not a whiff. I have already done the same in Perry, with the same results.

Mr. Williams’ Kool-Aid would just sit there today.

Back to Fred: And there we have it! Many, many thanks to Mr. Brown Snowflake! This essay is particularly interesting to me because I was a country kid with only two others in the neighborhood, which pretty much precluded team sports.

Long ago on this blog we all told stories about places we played as kids. The discussion this time will certainly overlap with that, but we can also focus, as this column does, on the things we did there — the games, the activities, the building of treehouses, the lining-up of dinosaurs or army men (or both). . . .

Stories, anyone?

Cthulhu’s Reign: Talking with John R. Fultz

August 14, 2010

This April saw the release of a new book certain to delight fans of H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos stories. Edited by Darrell Schweitzer and published by DAW Books, Inc., the anthology is called Cthulhu’s Reign and includes stories by Ian Watson, Don Webb, Mike Allen, Ken Asamatsu, Will Murray, Matt Cardin, Darrell Schweitzer, John R. Fultz, John Langan, Jay Lake, Gregory Frost, Brian Stableford, Laird Barron, Richard A. Lupoff, and Fred Chappell. Cthulhu Mythos stories as Lovecraft wrote them (though he never used the term “Cthulhu Mythos”) foreshadow a time when the Great Old Ones — unspeakably monstrous beings that descended from the stars in a primordial age and are now sleeping in the deep places of the Earth and beneath the sea — will awaken, arise, and make the world their own. In Lovecraft’s tales, we catch glimpses of the cosmic horror in secretive cults, isolated New England towns (redolent with rotting gambrel roofs and moldering crypts), ancient dusty tomes, and strange human-monster hybrids who are the firstfruits of horrors to come.

Lovecraft’s stories look ahead to this time “when the stars are right” and “the Earth will be wiped clean.” For the most part, very few of the multitude of writers who have added to the Mythos in the years since Lovecraft have tackled the question of what the world will be like after sunken R’lyeh rises from ocean depths and Cthulhu begins his squamous reign. (A noteworthy exception is Neil Gaiman’s story “A Study in Emerald” in his collection Fragile Things, which presents a most unique take on Sherlock Holmes and the royal families of the world.)

This anthology steps into the breach. As its title suggests, the stories take us to a world in which Cthulhu is no longer sleeping.

One of the writers, John R. Fultz, graciously agreed to answer my interview questions here. (You may recall that he chatted with us on this blog in November of last year, in the post called “Pen and Sorcery: An Interview with John R. Fultz.”)

My apologies for some slight redundancies: I sent John all the questions first, and in a few cases his earlier answers partially address later questions. I didn’t want to alter what he actually said, so everything is presented here in full. (Just so you know the instances of repetition are not a case of my not listening!)

1. First of all, the table of contents of this anthology reads like a hall of fame. Every writer here is a recognizable name in the industry; many of them have been hugely successful and have produced award-winning fiction for years. How did you feel when Darrell Schweitzer asked you to contribute a tale?

 
I was totally honored by the chance to be in this book. Darrell mentioned it and wasn’t sure if he had any more room for additional stories, so I wrote one that wasn’t terribly long. It was the story itself that drew his final “Yes.” If I had written something he didn’t feel was good enough for the book, I know he would have told me. So I was elated when he accepted “This Is How the World Ends.” This is such a great anthology, I’m really proud of it.  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

2. Most of your previous work has been fantasy, not horror. How far back does your interest in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories go? [I was drawn to the books in about 5th or 6th grade by the delightfully horrendous covers on the paperbacks in our family’s bookstore.] Can you remember how you first encountered them and what your reaction was?
 

 

I don’t recall reading my first Lovecraft tale, but I believe the first HPL book I ever read was THE DOOM THAT CAME TO SARNATH AND OTHER STORIES. Followed by THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH. I’m talking about the Del Rey Lovecraft series with the amazing Michael Whelan covers (see attached images). I’m not sure exactly which one came first, but a friend of mine in high school was reading these and recommended them. It was the exquisitely creepy cover art that got my interest. And when I read stories such as “The Doom that Came to Sarnath,” “The Other Gods,” “Polaris,” “Ex Oblivione,” and the beautiful “Quest of Iranon,” I became an instant fan. They were fantasies unlike anything else I had experienced at the time: lyrical, poetic, full of brilliant images and mythic grandeur, with a current of subtle horror reminiscent of the best dreams and nightmares.
 
That’s when I started looking for anything by Lovecraft…and that lead me to THE DREAM-QUEST collection. “The Dream-Quest of Uknown Kadath” absolutely blew my mind, and that book also featured the magnificent stories “Celephais,” “The White Ship,” “The Silver Key,” and the stunning “Through the Gates of the Silver Key.” Lovecraft’s cycle of “Dunsanian” or “Dreamlands” stories remain my favorites of all his works. Some purists decry that part of his body of work as less exceptional than his more “pure” horror…but I disagree. Another terrific thing about these stories is that they led me to the spectacular fantasy work of Lord Dunsany, who was one of Lovecraft’s literary heroes (and with good reason). Some see these tales as Lovecraft simply “trying to be Dunsany,” but I see them as a vital part of Lovecraft’s output…and even though they are fantasy they are laced with the elements of cosmic horror that infuse the rest of his work.
 
So my HPL fanhood began with these two books, but led me to the other books in the series, all bearing gorgeous Michael Whelan covers: THE TOMB AND OTHER TALES and AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS AND OTHER TALES OF TERROR. Finally, during my first year of college (’87-’88) I discovered August Derleth’s THE TRAIL OF CTHULHU, which entertained me to no end. It was a perfect blend of pulp adventure and Lovecraft fiction. I remember really enjoying this story of Professor Laban Shrewsbury and his colleagues seeking out the Black Island where Cthulhu was soon to rise. Still, when it comes to Lovecraft, nothing beats the stories in those first two collections for me…although “At the Mountains of Madness” is also a favorite.
[Fred here: “The Quest of Iranon” was a big influence on my story “The Place of Roots” (Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 2001). I was also enchanted with Lord Dunsany as a teenager. But I must confess I have never really delved into Lovecraft’s “Dunsanian” or “Dreamlands” stories. I think I’ve read pretty much everything else of his, and my favorites are the “witchy” New England stories, with the secret attic rooms, the impossible angles, the swamps full of croaking frogs, and the people that are not quite people. I love how, rare as the forbidden Necronomicon is, copies seem to turn up everywhere, just when some innocent character is enjoying too much sanity. Oh — and for me, the Michael Whelan covers are beautiful, but they represent the Lovecraft of my twenties and thirties. The Lovecraft I devoured in my childhood had the Great Old covers — the incomparable Gervasio Gallardo and some other artists whose names I never knew. I wish I had those books here so I could scan the covers and offer glimpses!]
 
 3. Reading “This Is How the World Ends,” I was deeply impressed that you were able to tell a story in a contemporary voice, a modern setting, that also felt quite true to Lovecraft’s intentions and sensibilities. Did your editor give you any specific guidelines concerning what your tale should or should not be?
 
No, Darrell simply told me the “hook” of the anthology, i.e. that it involved stories set after Cthulhu and the Old Ones rose up to reclaim the earth (or “wipe it clean” as the case may be). From there I was free to pursue my own Lovecraftian muse. Darrell is one of fantasy’s Truly Great Editors, and that’s what truly great editors do — they get out of the way and let writers write. I decided to go in a very survivalist, post-apocalyptian vein. I didn’t want the typical scholars trudging through libraries or detectives tracking cultists. I wanted to see how an “Average Joe” would survive when these preposterous space-gods started crushing humanity into pulp. My initial thought was “Sort of like TERMINATOR with giant monsters instead of robots…”
[Fred here: It’s excellent that your character was meant to be an “Average Joe,” and his name actually is “Joe”!]
 
 4. And in a related question: was there some back-and-forth between you and the editor as you revised your story? Did he ask for changes, or did he pretty much trust you all to produce polished stories on your own?
 
Darrell handled all his editing on a case-by-case basis. I had no knowledge of his process with other writers. But most of them were people he invited to participate, so knowing Darrell I’m pretty sure he didn’t mess with their writing processes very much. Again, the sign of a terrific editor. In the case of my finished story, he didn’t ask for a single change as far as I remember. Of course, he’s been a fiction mentor for me for many, many years, so over the course of our friendship he’s taught me how to write the best possible story I can. We’ve known each other for over twenty years, although we didn’t meet face-to-face until a few years ago at the 2006 WorldCon (where he actually introduced me to Harlan Ellison!…I was dumbstruck.).
 
5. When you set out to write this story, were there any particular aspects of Lovecraft’s vision and style that you wanted to maintain or perhaps explore further? Was there a specific quote or passage that you kept before you as a guide? And, without giving away your plot, is there a dimension to the vision that you added, that is uniquely your own? What is the John Fultzness of this story?
 
Ha! “Fultzness”…I love that, Fred. Let’s see…the aspect that I wanted to explore was the sheer monstrosity of HPL’s creations…I wanted to dive deep into “monster tale” territory and let the blood and slime fly. In this I was probably inspired by Mike Mignola’s terrific HELLBOY and B.P.R.D. comics — which are very Lovecraftian and visually brilliant. Many of the other authors went into the depths of sheer “strangeness”…exploring the metaphysical, cosmic, and spiritual side of Cthulhu’s Reign…but I chose to take a more direct route to horror. This was a conscious choice…I wanted it to feel almost like a western. I did do some research about what HPL said would actually happen when the Old Ones returned and took back the planet, then I let my imagination run wild. If I added anything that is uniquely my own, it might be that I filtered my twelve years as a Californian into the story. I wanted to write a “West Coast Cthulhu Apocalypse Western Survivalist Horror Tale.” I guess I did that. If I did it all over, I might go in a more metaphysical or cosmic direction…but I still like the way this story flies in the face of all that phantasmal stuff by staying “down to earth” until the final scene.
[Fred here: That’s fascinating! Lovecraft’s stories are mainly focused on the East, on New England. You took things out West, and yes, as I read the story, I noticed how Californian it is. I was thinking, “I’ll bet he’s actually been to all these places.”]
 
 6. Lovecraft wrote his stories in the 1920s-’30s. Since that time, generations of writers have produced an uncountable number of Cthulhu Mythos tales, some faithful to Lovecraft’s vision, some horrendously not so. If one adds in the fiction more generally influenced by the originals, the number of Lovecraft-inspired stories increases exponentially. There are Lovecraft scholars who have written dissertations on him; there are lifelong fans who know every detail of his stories — and you knew such people would read this anthology. Given all that, was it daunting to write a Cthulhu Mythos story? Did it come easily? How did you set about the task?
 
Actually, it did come rather easily because I didn’t really think of it as a “Cthulhu Mythos” story…I thought of it more as a Survivalist Horror story with Western elements…and of course, Lovecraft elements. This is one reason I wanted a protagonist who was as far removed from the Cthulhu Mythos as possible…not a professor, or occultist, or other typical Lovecraftian character. Just an average, everyday American (albeit, a war vet), who has to deal with a World Gone Mad. Once I had a firm handle on my character, Joe, the story began to write itself. The driving theme was SURVIVAL. That is Joe’s goal throughout the entire story…how do you survive in a world that is essentially un-survivable? This story is the answer to that question.
 
7. Your protagonist is a military veteran, a man who has known loss and disillusionment, but he’s a determined survivor. (He’s quite different from the typical protagonists Lovecraft chose!) Was that a conscious deliberation on your part, or did that character just come to you whole cloth from the beginning?
 
Yes, very conscious choice, as I described above. Since I wanted to explore the concept of SURVIVAL, I needed a protagonist who literally knew how to survive. Those brave men and women who go fight their countries’ battles know all about surviving in a world gone to hell. So a vet seemed a natural choice for the soft-spoken “badass” that I needed for this story. Joe was inspired to a large degree by some of the farmers I encountered in the San Joaquin Valley (central California’s “salad bowl”), which ironically reminded me of the farmers I had known back in my native state Kentucky. Farmers are tough folk…a farmer who is also a veteran…that is someone who will survive. Remember that old Hank Williams Jr. song “A Country Boy Can Survive”? That could actually be the theme song of this story. I’ll remember that when it’s optioned as a movie. 🙂
[Fred here: Your Joe is certainly no pale young man given to bouts of melancholy and inclined to sit up far into the night poring over eldritch texts.]
 
8. Somewhat related (and this is more of an observation than a question): in Lovecraft’s tales, the conflict is almost never physical. It’s a battle against gradually-awakening, often unwanted awareness. The character goes to an unfamiliar place, uncovers information (willingly or unwillingly), and the knowledge comes at a terrible cost. In your story, there’s no “uncovering of forbidden knowledge” to be done. There’s no need for a copy of the Necronomicon. The Old Ones are back, and their presence is unmissable. The conflict becomes, at least on the surface, very physical. (Your story doesn’t stop at the surface, though.) Any thoughts on this? (Again, I haven’t given you a question to answer . . . so you’re entitled to say “Yes, Chris Farley, I remember that. Yes, I liked it.”)
 
Chris Farley reference! Nice…
 
Your observation is spot-on. I wanted to write a story that would defy all that “forbidden knowledge” and “esoteric mysteries” rigamarole and take a more direct route. I mean, after all, this is a world where A GIANT SQUID-GOD FROM SPACE HAS RISEN FROM THE OCEAN AND CONQUERED THE WORLD! There aren’t many mysteries left at this point! When terrors lurk in the shadows and awful secrets are learned from ancient tomes, you are in Lovecraft territory…but in this anthology all bets are off. CTHULHU has won. It doesn’t matter what you do…what you know…you’re in the same boat as every other shlub. So even though some of the other stories in CR really boggled my mind, I’m glad my story was more of a knuckle sandwich than a terrifying thought.
 
9. Your editor, Darrell Schweitzer, is a living treasure of our genre(s) [fantasy and horror]. He coedited Weird Tales for years and won a World Fantasy Award for it. He’s written and edited a very long shelf-load of amazing books and given us “about three hundred short stories, hundreds of essays, reviews, and poems” (I’m quoting from the bio notes). He even writes Cthulhu limericks and will recite them if provoked. For all this, in my firsthand experience, he’s always willing to talk to “the little guy,” to encourage the relatively unknown writer. What was it like working with him?
 
I love Darrell. He is an unsung genius. I don’t say this because he’s a friend of mine. I knew it before I ever met him. Back in ’89 when I picked up a copy of WEIRD TALES and read his story “The Mysteries of the Faceless King” I became an instant fan. I set out searching for any stories of his I could find. Every one of his story collections is full of timeless, glimmering prose jewels. Like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard, he’s also an amazing poet…which is probably why his prose is so lyrical and engaging. I consider him one of the Greatest Living Fantasy Writers, although he gets more attention for his critical/essayist/editor role. Anyone who takes the time to explore his back catalog of story collections and read MASK OF THE SORCERER will see what I’m talking about. He’s an author that EVERY fantasy fan should be reading.
 
As you mentioned, in addition to being a literary genius, Darrell is also one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. His sense of humor is staggering…he may be the biggest Three Stooges fan I ever met. And he really knows how to give writing advice that works. I started sending story submissions to WEIRD TALES many years before I was ready to be published…I was a sophomore at the University of Kentucky, writing fantasy tales in my Creative Writing class and sending them to WT. Darrell always gave me the greatest responses and told me how to improve my writing, unlike most other rejections I got early in life, which were basically just form letters. Darrell was extremely encouraging to me as a young writer…which meant a lot to me because he was already one of my favorite writers. And still is. I knew that, someday, if I could only write a story that was good enough for Darrell Schweitzer, I could call myself a Writer. That day finally came in early 2004 when he accepted my story “The Persecution of Artifice the Quill” for WEIRD TALES. It appeared in WT #340. Until that time I had only really been published in small-press mags.
[Fred here: About Darrell’s sense of humor: I remember talking with him at a very late hour at a World Fantasy Con, and from his pocket he pulled a collection of rare, ancient coins and explained that he was a “dealer in bargain-rate antiquities.”]
 
10. I don’t think there are many who would dispute the claim (I’m quoting Mr. Schweitzer here, in his introduction) that “Lovecraft (1890-1937) was the greatest writer of weird and horrific fiction in English in the 20th century.” Why do you think Lovecraft’s impact has been so enormous? What is his appeal? Why do you think he’s still being read, when so many writers from the pulp era have become historical footnotes?
 
Who can say why an author truly achieves immortality? It might be the sheer quality of his work. It might be the cult-like devotion of his fans and readers (and all their work to preserve his legacy). I do think the appeal of Lovecraft’s fiction is a universal one…fear being the oldest emotion…and the power of his writing is so great that it rises above outdated diction, verbiage, and style. Just like the work of Edgar Allen Poe does. It’s the STORIES that are so good, we don’t mind the “old-fashioned” style in which they are told. With Lovecraft, as with many other fantasy/horror authors, that antiquated style is actually part of the charm. I also think his appeal lies in how he merged fantasy and horror in unique and expansive ways that opened new doors for other writers. Howard and Smith were so inspired by HPL’s stories, they started writing tales set in his universe! That tells you something right there.
 
11. Although your story is gruesome and horrific (as a Cthulhu story ought to be), your language often reads like poetry — descriptive, vivid, and understated, leaving much to the reader’s imagination. To quote: “. . . something big as the moon crawled out of the ocean.” It amazes me that a mere half-sentence can be at once beautiful and terrifying. And this part: “A single day and all the major cities . . . gone.” I couldn’t help hearing an echo of Plato’s description of how Atlantis was destroyed in “a single day and night of misfortune.” Do you have any thoughts about the relationship of poetry to tales of the strange and terrible?
 
Oh, definitely. Most of my favorite writers (especially fantasy and horror writers) were also poets. Poetry is the bare distillation of words…the sheer essence of words themselves…it requires a mastery of imagery and word choice. Every word matters MORE because there are so few of them. Even a long poem has waaay less words than a short story. Poetry cuts right to the heart of what makes fantasy and horror work: effective imagery and the joy of language. I never considered myself a poet…but I try to achieve a lyrical quality in my prose. The fact that I wrote songs for many, many years does help, songs and poetry being closely related. But I think it’s more a matter of being aware of metaphor, simile, and figurative language. Using those well is far more effective than throwing in a bunch of adjectives. It’s all about creating images in your reader’s mind by appealing to the five senses…as well as the spiritual sensations. Robert E. Howard was a terrific poet, and Clark Ashton Smith (despite his tremendous verbosity) was as well. Their stories sing with lyrical imagery that brings their fantasies to life. So there is definitely a link between prose and poetry, especially in the realm of weird/fantastic fiction.
[Fred here: This reminds me that John has also written a series of excellent articles on the craft of writing fantasy. His blog is in my blogroll over there at the right. Click on that, and you’ll get to his blog; from there, I think you can find links to the Black Gate website where his articles are.]
 
12. Do you have a favorite among Lovecraft’s stories? [I would be hard pressed to choose just one, though I think I could single out four or five. Is that an oxymoron, “singling” out “four or five”?]
 
That is tough. I think I would have to choose “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” It’s sort of the crown jewel of his “Dunsanian/Dreamlands” stories…which are my favorite HPL tales.
[Fred here: For atmosphere, I love “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and “The Dreams in the Witch-House.” I believe “The Strange High House in the Mist” completely supersedes genre and should be included in the English lit survey texts used in colleges and universities. My #1 favorite HPL story just might be “The Shunned House,” because in a way it encapsulates the cosmic horror of Lovecraft much as John 3:16 encapsulates the Gospel.]
 
13. Finally, what’s next for John R. Fultz? What’s out, what’s coming out, and can you give any hints about what you’re working on? I believe your epic fantasy graphic novel Primordia is due for release in a complete, remastered, beautiful edition very soon. Would you care to tell readers why they should rush out and get it, and where to do so?
 
The PRIMORDIA graphic novel is a “stone-age faerie tale” written by me, beautifully drawn by Roel Wielinga, colored by Joel Chua, and published by Archaia Comics. It is truly a feast for the eyes, and anyone who likes epic fantasy will dig the story. It combines everything I’ve ever loved about fantasy in the comics medium…and the hardcover includes a new short story from me called “The Tale of the Dawn Child,” as well as a lot of other extras.
 
I have a really cool wizard story called “The Thirteen Texts of Arthyria” coming up in THE WAY OF THE WIZARD, an anthology coming in November from Prime Books. This one will be packed with “big-name” fantasy writers like Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin, to name a couple.
 
My story “The Vintages of Dream” should be appearing in the very next issue of BLACK GATE, and I have a new tale called “The Gnomes of Carrick County” slated for an upcoming issue of SPACE AND TIME.
[Quick interruption from Fred: My story “World’s End” should be in that very same issue of Black Gate, so everyone: that’s the issue to get, this fall, BG #15!]
 
This October LIGHTSPEED, the new online science-fiction magazine from John Joseph Adams, will be featuring my sci-fi/horror story “The Taste of Starlight.” It is the most disturbing and horrific thing I’ve ever written…just in time for Halloween. Can’t wait!
 
I’m currently working on a novel that blends high fantasy with Native American adventure fiction to create something that is neither. Tentative title: THE LIFE AND DREAMS OF TALL EAGLE.
 
John, thank you so much for your time and for agreeing to do this interview!
 
Thanks, Fred!
This is Fred again: for those of you who are wondering how to pronounce “Cthulhu”: I remember reading Lovecraft’s specific explanation. It must have been in one of his letters, though I don’t remember which one or to whom. He explained that it was meant to be a representation of a name produced by a physical speech mechanism not even remotely human. It’s a use of our alphabet to approximate an utterly alien utteration. That being said, Lovecraft pronounced it by saying “Kluh-loo,” two syllables, with the first being extremely guttural. Just pretend you’re a colossal squid from space, and say what feels natural.
There is also a Lovecraft-based movie that those who appreciate his fiction should know about. In 2005, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society released a labor of love . . . and craft, heh, heh (25 cents to the Pun Fund) . . . called The Call of Cthulhu, a film version of his story by that title, which is one of the three key stories for understanding the Cthulhu Mythos (the other two being The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow Over Innsmouth). What sets this movie apart and makes it rise (like sunken R’lyeh) over the morass of mostly poor attempts to bring Lovecraft tales to the screen is that the filmmakers took great pains to create a movie that might have been made in Lovecraft’s day. It’s silent and black-and-white, very carefully made to look like a vintage relic of the early thirties — yet behind the grainy, authentically-primitive presentation are state-of-the-art techniques. A bunch of people worked really hard, knowing what moviemakers know now, to produce a stark, haunting 47-minute movie that looks for all the world like it was made then. And this, I truly believe, is the way to bring Lovecraft’s Mythos to a visual medium. This is the HPL Historical Society, so they’re sensitive to what his stories are supposed to feel like, what is important about them, and what oughtn’t to be sacrificed. There are abundant special features in full color, which are every bit as much fun as the movie itself. I am a discriminating buyer of DVDs: I try to buy only ones that I’m pretty sure I’ll watch again and again. And I consider this one to be a good investment.
By the way, you’ve gotta love the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s motto: Ludo Fore Putavimus. They claim that’s Latin for “We Thought It Would Be Fun.”

Midsummer Rambles

August 10, 2010

I’m nearly done figuring student grades, and my summer vacation officially begins tomorrow — so very soon, I should be able to give my full attention to the novel-in-progress! The weather couldn’t be better: blue skies, sweltering heat, brilliant sunshine, green leaves, and the blue shade beneath trees offering portals into other worlds. It’s hot here — finally hot enough to satisfy me. (I have to enjoy it to the full, to make up for the 499,999 Niigatans who are complaining about it. Golly, don’t these people know about H.P. Lovecraft? That’s how you deal with heat: read H.P. Lovecraft. Or any good story!) For me, heat is one of the greatest incubators for the imagination. Everything seems to go better when it’s hot. Pens write better, because the ink inside them is all liquid and warm. I plant my flag here: I claim this season! “I sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world!”

So anyway, I think I’m going to address two unrelated topics in this post. That’s the plan, anyway — let’s see how it goes.

First, here’s something that might be of interest to readers and writers, and it might spark some good discussion. (Recently Chris, another friend, and I were talking about print-on-demand technology and why it’s economical and may be the future of paper publishing.) Anyway, this is my recent experience:

At the last World Fantasy Convention, I attended a panel about often-overlooked, not-widely-known older works of fantasy that are well worth looking up. (It was one of the best panels last year, though there were many extremely good ones.) One panelist brought up The Garden at 19, by Edgar Jepson, written in 1910, a book that is “very chilling, with chilling illustrations” and is about Pan-worshipers. Since I had just read Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, my ears perked up, and like a shameless fanboy, I approached the panelist in the hallway afterward to make sure I had the particulars right. He was a spry little old collector/purveyor of rare treasures of the genre, very gracious and helpful, and obviously delighted to talk about good books.

So I made a note of The Garden at 19, putting it on my wish list to track down someday. Well, recently I had occasion to order some books from Amazon. (I needed a couple things for research on my current novel, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic! Is it not cool of me to do research for what I’m writing? I’m like the Scooby gang!) Before I went to the checkout, I typed in The Garden at 19, and I found two very different offerings: a really expensive collector’s edition, and a strange, generic edition for $19.66. Since I was buying and hadn’t gone on a book-buying spree for awhile, I decided to splurge on that one. [Paying 2,000 yen for a book doesn’t seem nearly as expensive as shelling out twenty bucks. . . . I wonder what the psychology behind that is? Does the money in our “second countries” seem less real to us, or is it something inherent in the nature of yen? I think that might be it: instead of a dollar bill, you have a 100-yen coin, which you treat and spend about like a quarter. You don’t get into paper money until the 1,000-yen bill, which is worth very roughly $10. I think that’s the reason. If a hundred yen were a bill, not a coin, it would feel like a larger sum of money. But I’m the last person who should be talking about economics.]

So . . . into my mailbox comes my shipment of books from Amazon. The copy of The Garden at 19 was . . . very interesting. It represents a phenomenon of the present age that didn’t exist even a decade or two ago. This book has been produced by optical scanning — using OCR software to scan a rare, original copy of Jepson’s book. The edition I bought comes with a disclaimer/apology inside the front cover: the publishers apologize for typos, because they employ no proofreaders. Proofreaders would drive up the cost, and most of the books they offer for sale sell only a few copies.

I did some looking around on their website (www.general-books.net). They use robots to turn and scan the pages of old, rare books. No human is there to look over the robots’ shoulders. The books may be tattered, smudged, dog-eared, marked-up copies from personal collections, from libraries, gleaned from auctions, etc. The scanner does its best to see through the wrinkles, graffiti, and dirt. But scanning is still an imprecise science.

I’ve encountered some interesting mistakes made by scanners. One friend let me read a manuscript in which the scanner had interpreted “King” as “Icing”! See how that could happen? Also, the scanner repeatedly read “fairy dell” as “fairy deli”! Wow! I wonder what foods are sold at a fairy deli? Lembas? Probably you shouldn’t eat anything from a fairy deli, or you may sleep for a hundred years.

The company, General Books LLC, reformats the book to make it look nice. There are no interior or cover illustrations — OCR software can only read letters, not pictures. The cover just has the title and the author’s name against (in this case) a beige background that looks like the texture of leather.

When this reformatting is done, page numbers change, so generally the company removes the table of contents and the index — both would be meaningless.

If you buy the book, though, you can go to their website and download a free PDF copy of the original book they scanned; in theory, this would allow you to see the intent behind the incomprehensible typo. They claim 99% accuracy, but that still amounts to a lot of typos, if you do the math: every hundredth word is botched. I noticed that even before I read the disclaimer or looked at their site. The book begins in mid-sentence, which I don’t think was Jepson’s intent. Also, there are no bibliographic or cataloging details, but the company explains how you can find all this information on their website. (I only know the book was first published in 1910 because that’s what I heard at the panel — you don’t see that, or the city of its publication, inside the cover like in a normal book.)

They claim to offer “millions of titles.” They have free bookclub trial offers, etc.

I’m neither promoting nor condemning the phenomenon, but I think it’s highly interesting. On the one hand, I’m glad extremely rare books can be made available this way; I don’t mind the typos too much, because it’s still a pretty good glimpse at what long-ago and/or obscure authors wrote, and typos have always been a fact of life for book-lovers. The monks in the monasteries added typos . . . uh, “quillos”? . . . from time to time, and they weren’t robots.

On the other hand, I roll my eyes at the mindless, impersonal sloppiness of it all. I feel a little like Japanese farmers feel when they hear about the American practice of planting crops from an airplane. (Yes, that is really done in the States! I’m not talking about crop-dusting, I’m talking about actual crop-planting! From the air.)

And am I the only one who wonders about the legality of this? I assume it’s okay, since these are printed volumes with the publisher’s contact information on them, and I bought this copy through Amazon, not in some back alley. But they claim to offer “all the greatest books of all time” for free on the related site www.million-books.com.

Thoughts? Questions? Discussion?

Groiiinnk! (Changing the subject with a monkey wrench. . . .)

Okay, my second topic is just a nice summer experience I had last Friday. I helped gather lotus blossoms by boat!

Lotus blossoms are greatly in demand in Japan at the time of Obon (August 13th). Obon is somewhat similar to Hallowe’en, with the spirits of the dead coming back to Earth. People use lotuses to decorate their homes for this festival. It’s a flower with spiritual connections for Buddhists. Probably you know that Buddha himself achieved his enlightened grasp of all things when a lotus blossom popped open.

Well, my friend K. runs a flower/fruit/vegetable market, and she got permission to use a certain person’s boat and harvest lotus blossoms from his pond. She recruited me as “boat wrangler.”

Lotus flowers are really interesting: they completely take over a pond. The water becomes absolutely choked with the tall stalks. The leaves are broad, and if you’re sitting in a boat on the pond’s surface, the lotuses tower over you. I had to move the boat about thirty feet from a shed to the water’s edge — I used a convenient grove of weeds as runners, so that I wasn’t scraping the hull over concrete. We asked, and the owner told us it was okay to plow the boat through the lotuses. As long as their roots are intact, there’s not much you can do that will hurt them.

I launched the boat. To our consternation, it had no oars or paddles. K. called the owner on her cell phone, and he said, “Oh, just pick up a stick from the garden and use that.” I wielded the longest, stoutest stick I could find, but it didn’t work well: near the shore, it would sink into the ooze of the pond’s bed; I could push the boat forward a little, but when I pulled the stick free of the mud, the boat would reverse its course and come back to where I started. Once we got out onto the pond’s center, the stick didn’t reach the bottom at all!

This is all happening in a dense, aquatic forest of lotuses, which aren’t thrilled about letting a boat pass. It’s like being stuck in the Sargasso Sea. It’s muggy, sweltering, and buggy. The sun was swiftly westering, and K. was worried about being stranded in the dark. She kept reminding me of how quickly the sun sets.

We discovered the most effective way to move the boat was to grasp lotus stems and pull, gently but steadily. Hand-walking this way, pulling on the left and right, I was able to navigate the pond, and we collected quite a batch of the uncanny pinkish blossoms.

The stems have to be snipped off underwater. (The water was as warm as a bath!) Then you put your thumb over the severed stalk and transfer the plant to a tub of water, such as we had in the boat.

That’s all there is to the story. Nothing dramatic happened; no mud monster awoke from the slime; the boat didn’t capsize, and we got back to shore well before dark. But the whole thing was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a long time. It was like being 13 again: a chance to play with a boat on a pond. We got sweaty, muddy, itchy, and generally filthy. But it was one of those moments outside time, when you’re with a good friend, working together, the weather is hot, school is out, and all the cares of the world recede into the distance. If I happen to live until I’m sixty, seventy, or eighty, and wherever the paths of life take me, that will be a day I remember: I’ll say, “I wish I could go back and re-live that evening of gathering lotus blossoms.”

[It’s actually the unopened ones we were harvesting — more like “buds” than “blossoms,” but “buds” doesn’t sound as nice.]

Happy Stories to all! This is the season for stories!