Posts Tagged ‘H. P. Lovecraft’

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.”

A Writer’s Best (Non-Human) Friend

June 26, 2010

After all these years, I specifically remember only two of the presents I received upon graduating from high school. I know there were many others, and I recall the wonderful gathering of friends and family at our house — and the many cards wishing me well. But, material presents, I remember two: the Taylor family gave me a big black umbrella, which I thought was very cool — it seemed like just the thing to have as a college student; the other, from my parents, was Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. They filled out the front page: Presented to Fred Durbin by Mom & Dad, June 6, 1984. [Wow! That was the anniversary of D day, 40 years later! Isn’t that a solemn realization in and of itself? Forty years before I exited the troop ship and charged up onto the beach of the world, other young — and not-so-young — guys were doing it for real. If they hadn’t done what they did then, I would have been going out into a much different world. . . .]

But anyway: that dictionary has been my constant companion ever since. It’s been to college, it’s crossed the ocean several times, and wherever I’ve set up a workspace for even a short while, my dictionary has been within easy reach.

In 1993-4, the year I worked for a Japanese company thinly disguised as a school, I had an actual desk at work — that’s the only year I’ve ever had a workspace all my own on the job, a desk with my stuff on and in it — and yes, to be sure, my dictionary was there. My fellow native-English-speaking teachers, who had desks all around mine, regarded me as “the guy to have proofread your writing before you use it in any public way.” One co-worker in particular would ask me to proofread things, and whenever I would frown slightly and reach for my dictionary, she would laugh and say, “Okay, what did I misspell now?” (A dictionary at work is a great tool for politeness. It takes the heat for you. You never have to tell co-workers that you think they’re wrong; you adopt the official stance of being “not sure,” you look it up, and the authoritative answer is there in black-and-white!)

About ten or so years ago, I got to  thinking that the language had changed enough since 1984 that it was time for a new dictionary. Not that I wanted to get rid of my dear old Webster’s from my parents — not at all! But I felt it was time for that one to have a junior partner, a helper, a back-watcher. My mom was of the opinion that dictionaries never go out of date; she was still using the Webster’s she received when she went to college. Truth be told, I was using that one (of hers), too. It was our “house dictionary.” Mom had it on a wooden stand that was probably supposed to have been for a Bible. Throughout my childhood and even into my Japan years (since my dictionary was in Japan), I would run into the dining room when I needed to look up a word. It was tattered from decades of use and the pages were yellowing, but it still got the job done.

But I longed for a dictionary that reflected the current language, so when my friend C. in Niigata asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I said I’d really like the latest edition of Webster’s Dictionary. As it turned out, the local bookstore didn’t have a Webster’s when we went shopping. However, they had a beautiful Oxford English Dictionary. I immediately saw the wisdom and attractiveness of having both my Webster’s (American) and the Oxford (British). I could compare spellings and usages in the two countries as well as across time. So that was my birthday present from C. that year, and it’s one of the birthday presents I’ll always remember most — because now it stays with me, too, wherever I am.

C. is full of questions. Once he asked me something about the battle of Thermopylae. The next time I saw him, I gave him some detailed notes. He said, “Wow! You went ‘Net-surfing!” I said, “No, I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary you gave me.”

After my year in the States, I was shipping things back to Japan, and the guy who runs the shipping company in my hometown looked askance at these two heavy dictionaries I was sending overseas. It’s not cheap to send books that hefty. He asked, “Don’t they have dictionaries in Japan?” Well, yes, they do . . . but these were my dictionaries. They have children in Europe, too, but if you’re moving there with your family, I’ll bet you’ll take your own kids, even though they cost.

A third dictionary joined the team after Mom passed away: not her old one, which is now in storage (but will be back on my shelf someday, Lord willing, when/if I set up a desk in the States), but a deluxe Merriam-Webster’s that my dad gave her. I haven’t really gotten into the habit of using it, because my Webster’s and Oxford do the job so well for me. But still, I’m glad the deluxe edition is there.

So what’s all the fuss? What’s so great about dictionaries? After all, our computers have spell-checkers, right? And if you need to know anything, you can look it up on-line. Plus, there are perfectly good, state-of-the-art electronic dictionaries no bigger than a pocket calculator that could save me hundreds of dollars in shipping expenses. Yes, but. . . .

Partly, it’s the difference between buying a book on Amazon and buying a book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. The difference is getting to see and walk past and handle all those books you don’t buy.

When I go to look up a word in a paper dictionary, I almost never get to that word without being ensnared by four or five other words first. Seriously — can you go right to the word you went after, and not read anything else? It’s like putting a mouse into a cheese shop and telling him, “Go straight to the far wall, tag it, and come straight back here.” Not going to happen.

There was an English prof we had in college who would say, “I got the new such-and-such dictionary. I haven’t finished reading it yet. I’m about halfway through.” We thought that was hilarious, the idea of sitting and reading a dictionary. Personally, I’ve never done that, but the longer I live and the more deeply I appreciate language, the less funny that sounds to me.

Dictionaries give you definitions, of course. When I read H.P. Lovecraft, he nearly always sends me running for the dictionary. When I read Lud-in-the-Mist, I made a list of words to look up. You want to know what the list was? I’ve got it right here. Are you ready?

pleached, propinquity, ribands, ribbands, chiaroscuro, hierophantic, cozeners/cozening, plangent, potsherds, poncifs, fulminate, byre, barouche, exogamy, cockchafe, spurious, disquisition, spinney, brawn [as a food], syllabub, squills, “mopping and mowing,” hartshorn, carminative, civet cat, velleity, tuftaffities, sententious, osier, porphyry, quinsy, perdurable, casuistry, cicerone, frangipane, perroration, pullulating

Be honest, now. If you knew the meanings of even most of those, you’re a far better man than I! (Even if, like Eowyn, you’re not a man!)

But also, dictionaries help us with spelling. Like I’ve said, “queue,” “oubliette,” and “oeuvre”. . . . I have to look them up every. Single. Time. (It’s like trying to figure out which side of the car the gas tank inlet is on. If you’re like me, you squirm inwardly every single time you pull into a gas station — which side is it?!)

But those are just the clinical uses of the dictionary. The real reason I love my dictionaries, not simply rely on them, is that they’re like friends who actually help me write.

Writing is a notoriously solitary activity. We writers cloister ourselves off from the world, face the blank screen or paper, and make our sacrifices. We miss the TV shows and the visits and the concerts, etc., in order to walk the lonely path, that line from word to word to word. No one can do it for us. No one can tell us what to write. Except. . . .

“Where do you get your ideas?” people ask us. “Where do these ideas come from?”

I think the single best answer just may be “from the dictionary.” The words we use are all in there, after all. (Well, no, that’s not true. We speculative fiction writers insist upon making up a sizable percentage of our vocabulary. But the dictionary is a great help in making things up, too.) I can’t tell you how many times the dictionary has bailed me out when I’ve needed a name for a character or a place. Not that I necessarily use a word as-is to be a character’s name — I’m not writing Pilgrim’s Progress. But words have resonances; words have sounds and elements. I may lift a part of this word and combine it with a part of that one. I may borrow a word for the way it means or the way it rings. One thing can lead to another — the dominoes fall — and sometimes the dictionary can even unravel plot problems. It’s the wise friend who’s always there. It’s comforting, solid, and infinitely sane. It’s realistic, your anchor to the Earth. It can absorb your tears and help you see more clearly when you’re ready to.

Webster’s is the king of dictionaries for two reasons: it shows where words are divided (which Oxford doesn’t) — and far more wonderfully, it comes with pictures! They’re not there for every word. But for a huge number of words whose meanings are hard to grasp or envision, Webster’s is there with a visual rendering. Again and again over the years, a picture has snagged my gaze, and I’ve understood something new and crucial about my story. If a picture truly is worth a thousand words, then Webster’s is priceless.

A dictionary can help you find things that you didn’t know you were looking for. Character names . . . costuming . . . architecture . . . plot points . . . conflicts . . . historical details . . . complications . . . specificity. Precision. The right tool for the right job. At every stage of the writing process, from conceptual work to the final buffing of a manuscript on its way out the door, a dictionary is the friend to have beside you.

So how about you, dear readers? In your walk of life — in your career or your hobby — what is the tool you wouldn’t want to be without, and why?

The Enchanted Hour

June 12, 2010

It’s been called the Hour of Magic . . . the Enchanted Hour . . . that time when the sun only just peeps over the edge of the world, going or coming . . . when shadows take prominence, shapes become fantastic, the sky is painted with extraordinary hues, and the light is soft and strange. Even the words we have for it are beautiful: dusk . . . twilight . . . gloaming.

The transition time between day and night has always been seen as mystical. Ancient fairy-lore suggests it is a prime time for encounters with the Good Folk. How often it is recalled in story, song, and poetry! And I’ll just bet we all have some vivid memories of twilights — long ago or not-so-long ago. Among this crowd in this season, I think this topic could be one of our best times yet!

Since I’m wearing the blog conductor’s hat, I’ll start us off. First, I’ll go back to summers in junior high and high school. My dad’s favorite place in the world was the pond at the back of our ten-acre plot in rural Illinois. In the corner of the long, thin property, behind the field, and accessed by a quarter-mile of grassy lane, the pond was bordered on two sides by wild timber teeming with wildlife. Many’s the time we’d startle a deer drinking at the water’s edge. At our approach, it would spring away into the trees, a flash of tawny grace. The chorus of coyotes is typical night music there. I’ve met bright red foxes near the pond; opossums, raccoons, skunks, more snakes than I care to count . . . and you’ve heard, I think, of the adventure Mr. Brown Snowflake and I had down there on a moonless night, being stalked by a bobcat.

The hike down to the pond was the perfect length: long enough that you felt you were leaving the everyday world behind, but short enough that you could get there pretty quickly. Of course, we always had special pond vehicles: a barely-running car or a pickup truck with no doors (for easy jumping in and out of) — vehicles that were just for our land, not road-licensed; and, like most farm kids, I learned to drive them when I was about ten years old. [The problem with no doors on a farm truck is that wildlife thinks the truck belongs to it: more than once, we found discarded white snakeskins, disturbingly long — and diving into the truck without looking could mean diving through a giant spider web, spider present. In the country, you learn to keep your eyes open.]

But anyway, I was talking about my dad. He loved to go down to the pond and work: mowing with his weedcutter, sickling by hand, or reinforcing the dam, all of which we did together, and I’m sure there must be a place in Heaven for doing it again. As it got too dark to see the weeds, Dad would retire to a bucket seat out of some old car that he had placed on a high point a few feet from the water. He’d sit there wearing his ever-present bill hat, smoking a cigarette. (Can I say “cigarette” in a public forum?) From a long way off through the dusk, I could see the red spark of the cigarette’s end, a little beacon showing me where Dad was. If we’d stopped work early enough, while there was still light, I’d sit on a rock, or the concrete retaining wall — or best of all, on some piece of rusting farm machinery half-overgrown by weeds — and I’d read fantasy as the light faded. I specifically remember reading parts of Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique and parts of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane down at the pond.

Mom, for her part, loved to pull weeds in the garden until it got too dark to see. Or to pull weeds in any of the dozens of flower beds she had all over the yard. She was a firm believer in pulling weeds, not cutting them. “You’ve got to get the roots out,” she said. I always tried to convince her that, if floating seeds and spores had planted the weeds there once, they would do it again — it was the wonderful way of the green world — and that cutting or mowing was faster (and much more fun!). But she’d have none of it. I think we were both partly right.

So I’d help her pull weeds as the sun went down, and we’d have itchy hands that smelled of plant juices, our skin needing the occasional spine or bur removed with tweezers in the bathroom’s yellow light. And Mom and I would do the same: when she’d pulled enough weeds, she’d sit on the porch with her cigarette glowing, and I’d sit on a lawn chair or a cart and read H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Lord Dunsany. . . .

Childhood games were the best, weren’t they? Playing and playing with the neighborhood kids as the purple shadows deepened, as the sky shifted from gold to red to lavender to purple, and night came on with slow wings. If you were playing hide-and-seek, the twilight helped you hide. The dark made your dramatic charge back to home base all the more dramatic. And always, just before you finally surrendered and went inside to baths and beds, you would stop just for a moment and gaze in awe toward the west, where the last glow was crimson behind the silhouette trees, and the soybean mill stood like a black castle.

I remember the summer of 2006, after both my parents had passed away, and I was living in our old house, slowly cleaning it out, discovering all the old relics of our pasts — long lost toys, photos, Dad’s early writing, the treasures of my parents’ combined libraries. . . . By then, the pond was overgrown — ringed round with new trees, high with weeds — but still there, a haven for the deer and the foxes and the birds, which would make Dad happy. Weeds had taken over much of the yard, sharing the space with Mom’s flowers, some of which are still coming up unassisted to this day. (In her last years, when Mom was too arthritic to do much weed-pulling and Dad was too frail to mow, Mom declared that she was deliberately letting the yard grow into a “restored historic Illinois prairie,” which was a good thing, recommended by ecologists. Always looking at things from the best possible angle, my mom!)

During that summer, I nearly always made it a point to be outdoors when the sun neared the western horizon. I’d walk around the yard, studying the trees and the weeds, always accompanied by the dogs, who understand a person’s moods at least as well as any human being. Sometimes they’d wag and jump up and ask for petting; sometimes they’d sit quietly beside me on the sun-warmed road, peering west across the fields, watching the light go behind the bean mill.

And the fireflies! At our place, they come out by the thousands — yellow-green, Earth-bound stars! Winking and winking, far and near, high and low, from the trees to the fields to the forest. They are the heralds of things ancient and timeless, things whispered and read and re-told, the emissaries of Faery.

Give us what you’ve got: stories, memories of the dusk — all the tales that are meet and right to share! (Dawn is okay, too!)

Boo

October 2, 2009

“It was getting very late when we came to a certain house that was not at all like the others on its block.”

–from “Boo,” by Richard Laymon

 

October is in the chair, as Neil Gaiman might say — and has said! — check out his story “October Is In the Chair” in his collection Fragile Things. But seriously, it’s October now. Much as I love the summer, much as I believe the hot months are the real incubator of the imagination, and that they are the closest months we get to Paradise in this life . . . I have to admit that October is the single most focused imaginative month. After we’ve charged far afield and frolicked and absorbed as much sun as we could through the warm months, it’s sober October that sits us down before the fire and makes us gaze into the darkness of things. We catch our breath, and we shiver. We remember how good it is to be scared by a scary tale — so much better than being scared in real life! In stories, we just can’t resist seeking what’s out there — what’s down there. What might be coming, even now.

I have fond memories of growing up with tales of weirdness and fear. First, Andersen’s fairy tales: whenever I was sick as a kid, lying on the blue velvet sofa, shivering and sweating and unable to hold liquids down, Mom would get out the little blue hardback collection of Andersen and read to me. Strange and scary things happened in those stories. There were witches and magic, dogs with eyes as big as saucers, and my experience of them came with the mingling of physical discomfort, delirium, and the wonderful glow of love, care, security, and relief. My mom was there, taking my temperature and bringing me Seven-Up. And that, I believe, is fundamental to my perspective on horror. If I didn’t have a core belief that things will be all right, I’d have no reason to enjoy horror.

Bloodcurdling LovecraftThen there’s H.P. Lovecraft. I think I’ve mentioned before how I used to see the covers of his books on the racks at our family bookstore, and they looked like the perfect books to me as a nine- or ten-year-old boy: hideous monsters, tentacles, crumbling stonework, etc. Oh, how I wish I had an image here of the very first cover that drew me to Lovecraft! I’m pretty sure it was a collection called The Dunwich Horror and Others. At any rate, the edition you read doesn’t matter too much, as long as it’s Lovecraft, and as long as you read enough stories to get a feel for him. I particularly recommend The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited and with an introduction by S.T. Joshi. There’s also a More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, annotated by S.T. Joshi and Peter Cannon. Although I’m talking October books here, my childhood recollections of Lovecraft are of the dusty back room of our bookstore, reading and drinking Pepsi with my knees propped up against the edge of the battered desk . . . and of reading him outdoors at Annotated H.P. Lovecrafthome on hot, hot summer days — heat and light all around me, heat waves shimmering in the fields, leaves whispering in the breeze — and in the pages, coldness and subterranean darkness, moldering crypts, secret rooms, sagging gambrel roofs in ancient New England towns. . . .

Lovecraft is one writer I enjoyed as a kid and kept right on reading as I grew up. Back in about 1995, I lived and taught in the town of Shirone, but I also had a couple classes once a week in Sanjo. To get there, I took a bus to a tiny train station in the middle of nowhere (a town/station called Yashiroda), where sometimes I had to wait well over an hour for a train to come along. I would sit there at the station reading H.P. Lovecraft — outdoors in the summer; in the winter, cozied up to the kerosene stove inside.

In gradeschool we used to have Book Fairs in the “All-Purpose Room” — a big gray chamber at the heart of the building where lunch tables and seats folded down out of the walls, then retracted again when it was time for an all-school assembly, band practice, a play, a film, or p.e. class. Such Fairs were a delight: there were tables stacked with books, and you could browse among them and buy them for ridiculously low prices like five cents or ten cents. (At least that’s how I remember it now — any North School kids out there want to correct me?) It was at one such Book Fair that I bought a morbidly grim volume called The Creature Reader. And one of the stories in it was “Wendigo’s Child,” by Thomas Monteleone. It was about a boy in Arizona who rides his bicycle to a nearby archaeological dig, hoping to find cool artifacts, and he finds a little, leathery, wizened mummy that seems half human baby and half bird. Ill-advisedly, he takes the thing home and hides it in his basement, finding out along the way from a native American friend (to whom he doesn’t show the mummy) that such creatures were guardians of the burial grounds. Yes — what you’re imagining — that’s what happens in the story. The book gave me nightmares for months afterward. I loved it!

There was also a story in that book called “Godosh” [the author escapes me], about a sleeping giant inside a mountain who wakes up and wreaks a terrible vengeance when heartless land developers come to bulldoze the forest. Very satisfying to a pre-teen nature lover’s sensibilities!

I don’t know what ever happened to my copy of that book. I’m one who takes very good care of books, and I rarely lose track of ones I like. But the fate of that one is a true mystery. It vanished without a trace at some point.

There was a book called Shudders on the shelf in my bedroom for years and years. (When I visited my Cousin Phil’s parents back in 2006, I noticed a copy also shelved with his old books, which didn’t surprise me. We tend to gravitate toward many of the same books, even if they’re really obscure.) I honestly don’t know whether it’s a good collection or not, because I never got past the first story: “Sweets to the Sweet,” by a young Robert Bloch. That story scared me so badly as a kid that I stopped reading, put the book back into the bookcase, and didn’t touch it for what I think was a couple years. When I opened it again and read the Bloch story, it scared me again and I put it back on the shelf. I’d say there’s a fairly good chance that if I found the book again today, I still wouldn’t make it past the Bloch story.

As a teenager, I got into much of the earlier work of Stephen King. I devoured The Shining, I loved his short stories in Night Shift, and ‘Salem’s Lot is still one of my favorites of his — and one of the best vampire books around. But my favorite Stephen King is the novel It. (The novel, I stress: don’t even bring up the visual dramatization of it!) I read It at a major transition time in my life: I started it in the early summer of 1988, my final year in the States; I finished it in Tokyo in the winter of 1988-9. So my memories of it are bound up with both Illinois and Japan, and that time of moving to a new phase of life. It — to my thinking, this is the very best of Stephen King. All the pulse-racing, skin-crawling horror is there, but it’s tempered by an achingly beautiful nostalgia for childhood in a vanished era and a portrait of lifelong friendships — friends who will stick with each other though their lives hang in the balance. It’s a wonderful book.

Best Ghost Stories of Algernon BlackwoodDuring one of my first few summers in Japan, I found my way to the stories of Algernon Blackwood. In those years of my early twenties — a searching, angry, passionate, lonely, joyous, discovering time — I used to sit astride the seat of my parked bicycle on some forest trail near the sea, and in the green glow of filtered light, I’d read books. That’s where I read Blackwood’s “The Willows,” one of the scariest stories of all time. It was at around this time — 1990 or 1991 — that I had a very close brush with publication. A now-defunct small-press magazine titled Midnight Zoo expressed strong interest in my story “Iowa Mud,” but asked for revisions. I immediately subscribed to the magazine, revised the story, and sent it back. As I recall, they liked it still more, but wanted more revisions. So I obliged them. I loved reading the magazine — it was well put together, and the stories were right up my alley. They accepted the story, but before it saw print, they got into financial problems, as small-press magazines almost inevitably do. They asked if they could pay me in contributor copies instead of money, and I said sure. Then they ceased publication and disappeared altogether, and I never heard from them again. The story never made it into print. (Which may be a good thing.) [Oh — the point of telling about this near-publication experience {NPE} is that I sat around in that same pine forest revising “Iowa Mud,” so my memories of that time are all interwoven — my story, Blackwood, and Ambrose Bierce.]

About Blackwood: in the same collection, he has a story called “The Other Wing” which I always thought completely surpasses any notion of “genre.” It ought to be anthologized in college freshman literature survey textbooks, along with Lovecraft’s “The Strange High House in the Mist.”

The years have gone by, and I’ve always been on the lookout for good, scary tales. I know some people just don’t “get” horror, but given the choice between any two stories, I’ll almost always take the frightening one. (Like I said a few posts back: our oldest fully-English piece of literature is the story of a hero battling monsters — it’s in our blood.)

October Dreams coverMy first novel Dragonfly was/is an ode to Hallowe’en. And speaking of that holiday: THE BOOK to read in this season (while you’re taking breaks from Dragonfly) is an anthology entitled October Dreams, edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish. What makes this one so wonderful is that it isn’t just a compilation of great Hallowe’en stories by a whole host of writers, some extremely famous, some virtually unknown — but it also includes, between the stories, mini-essays by many of the writers on actual memories of Hallowe’ens in their lives. If you read it, you may even decide you like the essays best of all. In fact, I’d love to see a whole book dedicated to that. Someone should solicit Hallowe’en memories from about fifty speculative fiction writers, ranging from the bestsellers to those in the small press — wouldn’t that be excellent? Anyway, in that book is my favorite short Hallowe’en story ever: “Boo,” by Richard Laymon. I won’t spoil it by giving away particulars, but I will say that this story captures pretty much everything I love about Hallowe’en. It’s beautiful and nostalgic; in places it makes you laugh out loud — partly at what’s happening, and partly at your own memories it evokes — it makes you ache with longing, not only for the Hallowe’ens of your youth, but for childhood itself — and, like any proper All Hallows tale, it packs a deeply disturbing wallop. “Boo,” by Richard Laymon — I dare you to find better! (And if you find better, please please pleeeease tell us about it here!)

Finally, two movies I’ve seen recently, which represent a tip of the hatDog Soldiers to those two mighty pillars of the horror genre, the vampire and the werewolf. . . . Several friends had been recommending to me the film Dog Soldiers (2001). It is a genuinely creepy and entertaining story, and it’s the sort that I think I may like better on subsequent viewings. (To be 100% honest, after the way so many trusted friends raved about it, I was a tiny bit disappointed on my first watching; it’s a good film, but it had a lot of hype to live up to. But I liked it enough that I’m talking about it here, aren’t I?) A group of soldiers on training maneuvers in the Scottish highlands end up trapped in an isolated farmhouse, desperately trying to hold off the werewolves until dawn. What I found at once surprising — and ultimately unsettling — about this movie was the lack of movement on the part of the werewolves. I believe (don’t quote me on this; I could be wrong) that they were depicted by using people in costumes — people in unnatural postures, on stilts, perhaps; and given all that, the actors actually had very limited mobility. There’s almost no lunging or pouncing. What we have are instantaneous glimpses of nearly motionless werewolves — monsters frozen in terrifying silhouettes, looming in the shadows. And whether intentionally or not, this taps right into our childhood fantasies and nightmares. Think about it: as kids, the imagined images that scared us the most weren’t lunging enemies — they were the things that lurked . . . that watched us from the shadows . . . that towered over our beds. Capitalizing on that fear, Dog Soldiers delivers quite a bite!

Let the Right One InBut far and away the best movie I saw this summer, irrespective of genre, was the vampire film Let the Right One In. It’s a Swedish film, so you have the option of watching it either in Swedish, with English subtitles, or dubbed into English. So far I’ve watched it once each way, and there are things I like better about each version. It’s dark, haunting, beautiful, sad, and it uses the canon of vampire mythos to help us ask some profound questions. Some critics call it a “fairy tale.” Perhaps. Again — without giving too much away — it’s the story of the bonding and love between two lonely children — one living, one a vampire. It’s skillful and subtle, and it’s so thought-provoking that some of us discussed it for weeks after I saw it.

All right: that should give you puh-lenty of scary stories to chew on as we go into October (and it’s only the second day!). My plea for reader participation this week offers you two options. (Heh, heh — I hope this one fares better than my mythology quest, which went over like a lead balloon!) The first is obvious: tell us about great scary stories you’ve run into. What are your favorites? Under what circumstances did you experience them? How can we find them?

The second, if we can get a little creative, is this: we’re just now starting October. . . . If we act now, we can set up next week’s post. Use your imagination and come up with a sentence that suggests a spooky paragraph. Give us the first line. Evoke possibility. You don’t have to tell everything: the challenge is to suggest, to set questions exploding in the reader’s mind. Look back up to the very top of this post: that would be a perfect example. What makes that house different from all the others on the block? Surely you can think of one provocative sentence. If you devote some time to it, you’ll probably come up with five or ten set-up lines. You will probably have a hard time shutting yourself off. One of my own examples (which I’m probably misquoting) is the first sentence of my story “Shadowbender”: “Aunt Estelle wasn’t so bad; it was her house that bothered Shan.”

I’m inviting you to post a line — a sentence — that may yield a good, scary paragraph. Next week I hope to line up all these sentences and let readers choose one and try writing the paragraph it suggests.

As always, please remember that some younger people are reading the blog, too.

Meanwhile, happy October!