Posts Tagged ‘H.P. Lovecraft’

Reels in the Dark

July 11, 2009

First, news from the writing front couldn’t be better! The Sacred Woods is entering the home stretch. I’ve been smashing personal records right and left for words written in a day. First there was the 3,315-word output on July 4th (fitting, huh?) — then came a few days of “real” work (the kind where you have to make a living); then 3,827 words on Thursday, 3,121 yesterday, and 2,795 today. The book is now at 57,242. [It’s easier to write faster near the end of a book or story, because you have the momentum and focus; you’re no longer trying to figure out what it’s all about.] So you can see what I’ve been up to, and that’s why this posting is coming at the bottom of the weekend instead of at the top, as I’d prefer. I’m still hoping to have the book’s first draft finished by about the end of the month. This is one of those cases in which the story is practically writing itself: it knows where it wants to go, and I’m just careening along with it, holding onto the bridle for dear life with one hand, opening doors for it and smashing down fences with the other. This has very little to do with my abilities or lack thereof; it’s one of those best instances that we writers always hope for in which an idea finds you and comes pouring through.

I was struck tonight by the words from Proverbs 3:5-6 — “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”

When writing is going well, it truly is an experience of the Divine — a sacred experience. And so little of it seems to come from “my own understanding.” It’s a “trust-with-all-your-heart” thing all the way, and you just rejoice and give thanks when the paths are straight. A good (writer) friend once quoted this line to me from Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, and I’ve kept it right here on my desk ever since: “God made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.” That’s what it’s like as a writer, when you’re writing. Worries about your life and the future pale away to almost nothing, because you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing. You try not to get hit by cars when crossing the street, because you feel you have to live until you get this story finished. I suspect it’s something like the feeling a pregnant mother has when she’s carrying around a baby inside her. She knows what she’s supposed to do. The world is remarkably clear.

You may think this is all purple and hyperbolic, but it’s not, really.

Since we’ve talked about Anne of Green Gables — another line from it that has stayed with me through the years — and I’m quoting from memory here, so this will be inaccurate — is something like, “And, as usually happens when duty is looked squarely in the face, she had looked duty in the face and found it to be a friend.”

There’s a line at the end of The Untouchables spoken by Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, in which he tries to put his role into perspective when he’s asked by a reporter to give a comment as “the man who got Capone,” the one who put Al Capone behind bars. Ness says: “I was just there when the wheel went ’round.”

I think that’s true for anything good we accomplish in life, writing or otherwise. But Stephen King makes the point in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that you have to put yourself in that place where the ideas can find you. You have to show up at your keyboard or your notebook (or whatever your particular life’s canvas is). You have to be ready. Writing is a guy who may show up at that place, if he knows you’re going to be there and have the lights on and be hospitable.

That being said, I’m definitely not suggesting that we should sit through our lives waiting for inspiration to strike. Inspiration needs people who are in shape enough to handle the work — to open those doors and smash those fences out of the way. By the same token, you can turn out good, salable stories that are solidly crafted but not necessarily inspired. Nor should we worry too much about what is inspired and what isn’t. Is it a good story? — That’s the more important question.

So, anyway, keep thinking about what Eliot Ness says about being there when the wheel comes ’round. . . . I’ve been thinking this week about how some aspects of life move in circles.

1. As a kid, I read Cricket Magazine. Mom got me a charter subscription when the magazine launched back in 1973. I had the LP record album they put out in those years and practically wore it thin listening to it so much. I remember sending them a story when I was in my early twenties, which came back with a form rejection. I really hadn’t learned my craft well enough yet — the wheel hadn’t come ’round. A little over ten years ago, I started sending them stories they accepted.

2. As a kid, I was fascinated by the covers on the H.P. Lovecraft paperbacks in our bookstore — grotesque monsters with scales and tentacles and eyes in strange places. I would sit in the yard on long summer days, in long summer twilights, delighting in the smell of mown grass around me and the reek of noisome swamps and unspeakable crypts and squamous horrors emanating from the Lovecraftian tales. I used to look at the name “Arkham House” on the copyright pages, never dreaming that one day my own book would be published by Arkham House.

3. As a kid, and increasingly with every decade of my life, I read FATE Magazine. It was my dad’s favorite periodical. (Mom was all Cricket and The Smithsonian.) My very first professional acceptance was a non-fiction article I wrote for FATE back in the April 1998 issue. I still remember literally jumping around the room for joy when I opened their acceptance letter. That’s a good story in and of itself: I was living in Japan and got this idea for a wonderful surprise for Dad. I knew he looked forward to his subscription copy of FATE each month. So without breathing a word to my parents about what I was doing, I researched a mysterious phenomenon in Japan, took the pictures, wrote the article, and sent it off to FATE. That was during their “good” years, when they were doing the large-sized magazine instead of the little digest-sized one that they’ve done before and since. They accepted it, I got to experience being paid for writing (!!!), and the first my parents knew about it was when Dad starting flipping through his copy when it came in the mail. As I heard the story later, he kept repeating “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it!” Then he asked Mom if there could be more than one Frederic S. Durbin teaching at Niigata University. “No,” she assured him, “that’s him.” When I talked to him, he asked me how I got those amazing pictures, and I was able to tell him, “With your old Minolta camera.” That was a very happy circle that came ’round — and I even managed to do it again a couple years later. (“There’s sure a lot of weird stuff in Japan,” Dad said the second time around. Yes, there surely is. Mom said, “You sure can keep a secret!”)

I still read FATE, by the way, and aside from the fascination and escapism, it yields some really good ideas for stories. I won’t tell you which ones — because I sure can keep a secret.

So . . . by grace, in the fullness of time, I got published in Dad’s favorite magazine, and then in Mom’s. And by august old Arkham House, the pulp-era book publisher that has endured.

There’s one more “circle” story: back in high school, I went to my first writer’s conference, held at Illinois Wesleyan University, a conference later known as the Blooming Grove Writers’ Conference. The fiction workshop leader that first time I went was Paul Darcy Boles. (I still use a quote from his workshop in my writing classes. I’ll bet you can find it back in the archives of this blog!) At that time he was a hale, white-haired gentleman with twinkling blue eyes. We discovered a mutual love of the movie Dragonslayer, and he read two manuscripts I’d sent in: one was a little Tolkien-derivative story, and one was the beginning of what later became The Threshold of Twilight. He liked the Dwarf in my Tolkien-derivative story — he said it wasn’t a “Disneyfied” Dwarf; he said I didn’t poke fun at my characters. About the Threshold piece, he said the only thing wrong with it was that it wasn’t finished. Very much the right things to say to a high-school kid wanting to write! He signed his wonderful book Night Watch for me with the words: “For Fred — A fine writer who knows about enchantment.” I learned a few years later that he had passed away. I’ve never ceased to be grateful for the early encouragement he gave me. (And to Mom, for taking me there!)

What makes that a “circle” story? Two things: one is that just last week I found his book Glory Day on-line and ordered it. He talked about it all those years ago, and the idea fascinated me, but I’ve never thought to try to get a copy. (During the years before the Internet, I doubt it would have been possible.) The second is that I’ve used the title for both a poem and for a  short story that I’m trying to whip into shape for Cicada but don’t really know how. The editors there liked it, but it’s really not a story yet — they’d like to see it again if I can figure out what the story is.

So I’m going to close out this post with a rather lengthy extract from that story (my story, not Boles’s) — because it’s appropriate for summer, and because it brings the Boles circle around — and because the title of this entry is “Reels in the Dark,” and this excerpt is about home movies and what they represent.

I’ll just say that this story is intensely autobiographical. The “John” character is me, and there’s almost nothing in this passage that’s made up. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

At full dark, the home movies began. John had long since become the projectionist, his dad having turned over all the equipment to him. But Dad still governed the proceedings, ensconced in his recliner. Dad’s movies were from the era of eight millimeter film, almost unheard of these days. Watching them was like traveling to the past in more ways than one. TVs, no matter how big they got, could never match the ambience of a darkened room, the whir of celluloid and sprockets, and the bright, flickering images on the tall tripod screen. Dad’s movies distilled the sunlight of long-past days, the green of vanished summers, the faces of relatives now old or gone.

The reel most in demand was a compilation of home movies shot over many years, spliced together in no particular order, one section even having gotten put in upside-down and backwards, with horses galloping in reverse in the sky, consuming their dust-clouds like living vacuum cleaners. Scenes of Mom and Dad’s courting blended with family baseball games (lots of swings-and-misses, and then a long, panoramic shot of a dozen guys searching for the ball in high weeds; but the dramatic hit that had sent the ball there was, of course, the one moment not captured). Picnics in the park gave way to more horses (these right side up); Dad looking like a movie star, young and straight; flowers in the park; and a Labor Day parade. Toward the film’s halfway point, there was a silver dot high in the sky, passing behind a transformer and power lines — an unidentified silver dot which never failed to generate obliging speculation from the audience about just what it WAS. Always Dad nodded gravely and knowingly in his chair, his gaze intent on the screen until the scene changed to the digging of the lake, which Dad had helped to survey.

“We saw more snakes than you’d believe,” Dad would say. “We tramped all through that bottomland, and I bet we saw a snake every twenty steps. They can hide anywhere there’s a blade of grass. Once some of the guys and I were sitting on the ground to eat our lunch. We were in a circle with our feet almost touching, and a snake crawled right out from between us. We never dreamed it was there.”

Dad told stories about the images in the same way every time, and the audience’s questions themselves followed a time-honored ritual. That, too, was a part of the enchantment of old silent eight as opposed to videos or DVDs. No music, no audio required the discipline of being quiet — not that any soundtrack could have competed with the cousins all together in a single room. The audio was supplied anew by the audience each time, viewers interacting with glimpses of the past.

It was almost, John thought, as if all the generations of the family were still here; as if those who had gone before somehow overflowed the screen and occupied the room’s shadowy corners, not ghosts but warm and chuckling presences, not morbidly returned from beyond but rather never gone in the first place — as comfortable and worn as the furniture, as solid as the bookcases, filling a space that must be filled for completeness, but unregistered in the sight.

There came shots of dogs, the wild fox cub Dad had found and cared for until it had been big enough to return to the wild, and then a full seven minutes of nothing but cigarette smoke in a sunbeam at the little house, where Mom and Dad had first lived when they were married — just cigarette smoke filling the frame, curling and swirling above an ash tray. “Now wait,” Dad would always say, holding up a finger. “Now watch. There’s a place where the smoke looks just like Aunt Opal’s face.” An obedient solemnity would settle over the group, and for a few minutes the summer night would take on a suggestion of chill. And this was the only point at which the movie litany varied. For sometimes Dad himself would miss the face, and would mutter, as the footage went on to other things, that somewhere in there Aunt Opal’s face was as clear as day; and at other viewings Dad would shout “There!” in triumph and point at the screen. And the kids in the audience would see only smoke, because they’d never met Aunt Opal; and a few of the cousins might give a start and cry “I saw her!” and rub at the gooseflesh on their arms. But whether Dad or anyone else saw or didn’t see Aunt Opal in the smoke, if anyone suggested rewinding and re-watching, Dad would say, “Oh, let’s go on. It’s getting late.” And even the most curious were secretly grateful, because the curling, drifting smoke was a little sinister.

Years ago, Dad had introduced the trick of running the film backwards in a certain part to the wild amusement of the audience. It was a scene of the cousins as kids, the oldest no more than ten, swimming in a plastic backyard pool. The ritual exclamations were always the same: “Look at Jack!”; “Look at my braces!”; “Can you believe I wore my hair like that?”; “J.T.’s trying to drown me — look, he keeps pushing my head under!” Interspersed with these lines came the frantic identifications of swimmers among all the splashing and submerging. “Is that you, Mom?” a little cousin would ask, standing up in front of the screen and reaching out a hand to touch the past — but blocking the very part of the image that held the most interest. The child would blend with the picture, its glowing colors projected on the hair and skin and T-shirt back, until everyone cried “Sit down!”

There would be the inevitable explanation for the young ones who hadn’t been there: “Dad threw in a bunch of nickels and pennies, and we were diving for them.” The “Dad” the cousins meant was Uncle Rick, and the film’s highlight was when he dashed across the yard in his swimsuit, the pool empty now of kids. Uncle Rick, all berry-brown and with jet-black hair, a scrawny Tarzan, dove into the pool, displacing a prodigious amount of water. At that point, John’s dad would switch the projector into reverse. The tidal wave would return from the lawn to the pool, and Uncle Rick would fly out backwards, land on his feet, and sprint away across the grass, receding into the distance. It was a delight that never grew old, when the whole group would shriek with laughter. This was what they came to see year after year, bringing new spouses, new girlfriends and boyfriends, new babies. In fact, the film had its identity in this scene: the request was always for “the movie where Dad jumps out of the pool,” as if it had been recorded that way.

Maybe the past, John thought, it what we make of it. Once it’s happened, it belongs to us, for our re-shaping. All these decades later, Uncle Rick’s jumping out of the pool was far more important than his jumping in. It was better-remembered, better loved. It became the reality.

John’s favorite part came just at the end, when the audience had had their fun, when the little ones were starting to fall asleep, and the moms were collecting baby bottles and socks, and the dads were jingling car keys. It was a slow pan across a front-yard Fourth of July party in a distant time. Distant, for the film, though it was in color, had a slightly washed-out look, and the cars in the driveway had fins like Batmobiles, and some of the old men wore straw hats or fedoras, and the women had Catwoman glasses with heavy black frames.

The scene always recaptured the crowd’s flagging interest and spawned arguments about who was under that tree, whether or not that car was Uncle Rick’s (Uncle Rick fiercely denying it if he were present), and whether that could really be Cousin Liz at the end of the table. (“When did Liz ever have hair like that?” someone would roar in genuine indignation.)

At the end of the pan, the camera would be pointing at the porch steps. Someone had set down a paper plate there, and the food on it was now being gobbled up by Tag, Dad’s matronly beagle. As the plate slipped to the ground and Tag hurried down the steps after it, the camera went back to the party.

What fascinated John even more than the long-ago people he’d never met was the yard, the trees, the buildings, and the background fields, all of which he knew intimately. Here, though, he was seeing them as they had looked thirty years ago, the landscape more open, the giant oaks younger, the barn roofs straighter-edged. He stared past the picnickers at the root cellar, its concrete dome free of the trees of heaven it now wore, whose roots were destroying it. He gazed in wonder at the ingrown gate — the last remnant of some dismantled corral fence. In John’s own time it was half-swallowed by the trunks of the maples against which it rested, but in the film, the gate was newly leaned in place, its boards smooth and solid.

Okay, wake up! Thanks for wading through a long post! As for comment direction this time — any comments are welcome — but some possible jumping-off points are:

1. Circles of life: tales of things in your own experience that have come full circle.

2. Questions about any of the above. I welcome questions.

3. Stories of things families do together: family rituals, celebrations, traditions, etc. Do you have your own version of the “home movie” experience?

4. Tales of your own “doing what you’re meant to be doing” experiences. Is it writing for you, or something else?

5. Theories on our interactions with the past. Is the past fluid, as John comes to suppose in this story? I think this could be a really interesting topic.

Books, Part 2: Fred’s Lists

May 15, 2009

It occurred to me this evening that I have now been a professional writer for ten years: a decade of selling fiction. So miracles do happen. For years and years, I seriously doubted I’d ever be published at all. But if you stay the course, things happen when they’re supposed to. If you’re a writer aspiring to make your first sale, don’t give up.

(How was that for a really short sermon?)

Anyway, more about books! For anyone who has not yet been there, I strongly encourage you to back up to the previous post and especially to read the reader comments beneath it. The readers of this blog have been answering the call to recommend favorite books. You’ll find wonderful titles there to keep you busy for a good long while. And everyone: you can keep right on recommending books in response to this post — or at any time. On this blog, good books are always on the subject!

The Book Center, May 1970. In the early 1980s, many a D&D meeting was held in this store's basement -- a D&D group that was also part book club. . . .

The Book Center, May 1970. In the early 1980s, many a D&D meeting was held in this store's basement -- a D&D group that was also part book club. . . .

[Aside: the phrasing of that last sentence is an echo from our years of playing Dungeons & Dragons back in junior high, high school, and college. To keep the game focused, we set up something called the Pun Fund. It was a can with a slot in the top. When it started out, as the name implies, if you made a pun, you had to pay a fine by dropping a coin into the slot. Quite soon, though, we expanded to a whole system of fines for anything that held up the game. If your character went on an “Ego Trip” (meaning he talked too much about himself or otherwise behaved like the center of the universe), that cost you a nickel. If you used “Logic,” you had to pay up. (A “Logic” violation meant that you stopped the game cold by arguing that a particular pit trap, for example, violated the laws of physics.) The catch-all offense was “Off the Subject.” That one’s self-explanatory. But in the interest of decency, we soon established the rule that certain things were always on the subject and could not be fined — most notably, food. Any mention of when we’d be taking a food break or what we’d be eating was always, always to the point and welcome. (And for reasons I never understood and never agreed to, Bugs Bunny was always on the subject. You could be in the middle of the most harrowing adventure ever, with the city about to go up in flames, and if you said something in a Bugs Bunny voice, you could not be fined! Go figure. . . .)]

My, do I digress! One more topic before I get to The Lists. . . .

My house from the air, July 1970: My house is just to the right of the road in the center of the picture, surrounded by the little ring of trees. Note that our pond wasn't dug yet, and the farm across the road was still standing. (Don't die of nostalgia, anyone!)

My house from the air, July 1970: My house is just to the right of the road in the center of the picture, surrounded by the little ring of trees. Note that our pond wasn't dug yet, and the farm across the road was still standing. (Don't die of nostalgia, anyone!)

I was happily surprised to discover some on-line reviews of Dragonfly I’d never seen on a site called “goodreads.” What made me even happier was that some of the reviews were quite recent! The book was first published in 1999 — a decade ago — and the mass-market Ace edition is out of print. (It’s still easy to acquire for pennies on Amazon. Yes, you can buy this book for about the price of a Pun or an Ego Trip!) But now and then, people are still finding it, and even better, they’re still liking it! Here are a few lines from some of my favorites, and notice the dates!

In April 2008, “Woodge” wrote: “I found this while browsing in a bookstore and I must admit that the arresting cover caught my eye. Upon a closer look, the cover would seem to appeal to a Young Adult audience but an even closer inspection revealed that to be misleading. (There’s a moral here somewhere.) . . . Well, it was as advertised. This imaginative, original story gets cracking from the very first pages. The imagery is lush and painted with a rich vocabulary. There’s nothing cutesy about the story . . . and it manages to include all sorts of beasties. Vampires, werewolves, gypsies, and other various ghouls all make an appearance in this unpredictable tale. And when the action is really moving it brings to mind thrills you might find in a summer blockbuster. Good times.”

In October 2007, “The other John” wrote: “(Had to re-read this one and get my fix of Midwest October…) Dragonfly is a great read. The premise is nothing new — a child has adventures in a mystical realm. But unlike Dorothy, Meg Murry or the Pevensie children, Bridget Anne (also known by the nickname Dragonfly) heads down to a dark realm — the essence of Hallowe’en. Not quite hell, but much closer than any other ‘faerieland’ of which I’ve read. But it’s not all blackness, either. There is love and hope and faith amidst the suffering and death. Mr. Durbin does a very good job of bringing the story to life, weaving together the plot and the characters. Nothing is wasted — details that I just thought of as embellishment suddenly turn out to be important to the plot. One of the folks who reviewed Dragonfly at Amazon.com said that the book reminded him of Ray Bradbury. Me, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis, partly because of the basic premise, partly because of the underlying Christianity of the heroes. . . . But despite Mr. Lewis’ skill in portraying good and evil characters, his fiction comes across as a weekend gardener — a tad dirty, but still very prim and proper. Dragonfly, to continue the metaphor, is more like a real farmer, for whom sweat and dust are a part of daily life. I really enjoyed reading this and I’m going to put it on my shelf so I can read it again. I suspect it will only get better the second time around.”

On January 1st of 2009, “Jaymi” said: “I remember picking this book up on a lark. It was the name and the cover that caught my eye. We were just about to leave the store when I saw it and knew I had to have it. I’m glad I got it. Imagine Neil Gaiman meets H.P. Lovecraft and this is one possible reality. Dragonfly is the story of a 10-year-old girl who foolishly adventures down into a horrible realm (much like Lovecraft’s Dreamlands). Dragonfly follows a strange ‘exterminator’ down into her basement. . . .”

This is probably my favorite: on April 25, 2009, “Crystal” wrote: “I find it hard to believe this book is not more popular. Far from being overwritten or too descriptive, the narrative is perfect. Death is not off limits, nor does the author try to dumb the story down. So far, it’s as d**n near to perfect as I have come across.”

Finally, on September 10, 2008, “Todd” said: “It is very dark and complex. . . . I really enjoyed the writing style. It is imaginary and literary, with lots of allusions to mythology, great books, and the Scriptures. But they are very very subtle. This is no Left Behind kind of cheap Christian novel. The author, a Lutheran, does a wondrous job of weaving elements of the Christian faith in . . . . I hope he writes more soon.”

There’s also a review in a language I can’t read and my computer can’t reproduce, so I won’t quote that one.

Groink! On to THE LISTS!

I’m going to give you three separate lists here (you’ll see why as we go along). Obviously, I’m not making any attempt to identify the greatest works of literature in the history of humankind. For that, I commend to you The New Lifetime Reading Plan, by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major, though the authors aren’t as focused on fantasy and horror as most of us are. (The weirdos.) Heh, heh. What I’m going to list here are the books that, for whatever reasons, have meant the most to me, have influenced me the most, and/or that people who know me well have recommended to me. In general, the books appear in no particular order: if they make the list, they make the list. Without further adieu, then (lest the referee declare us Off the Subject, and we all have to fork over a nickel or a dime):

List #1: My Treasured Books (The Small Shelf):

1. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

2. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

3. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

4. Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees

5. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

6. My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett (This is a children’s book, but its influence on me is immeasurable: it’s the very essence of mystery and exploration, penetrating the unknown, adventure in exotic places, friendship, and doing things for the right reasons. The illustrations and those wonderful maps are at least half of the enchantment.)

7. Collectively, the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Where to begin? Among my favorites are The Dunwich Horror, A Shadow Over Innsmouth, At the Mountains of Madness, and “The Dreams in the Witch-House.” My absolute #1 favorite of his short stories is “The Shunned House.” And finally, his story that I believe supersedes genre and belongs in every college freshman English lit survey course textbook, right alongside “A Rose for Emily” et al., is “The Strange High House in the Mist.” I’m telling you, Lovecraft. . . . I grew up reading him, because the covers intrigued me in our family’s bookstore. As a kid, as a grownup, I read him perennially, and he’s one of the few authors whose stuff I’ve read most of. Even now, when spring comes around and the weather warms up, I itch to dig out a volume of Lovecraft, go outdoors, and read until the sun sets. Lovecraft in the dusk is the ultimate reading experience! If you don’t own any Lovecraft books yet and are wondering what to buy, I’d point you toward the annotated Lovecraft editions edited by S.T. Joshi, who is probably the world’s leading Lovecraft scholar. [I’ve personally met him — he shook my hand at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, and he gave Dragonfly a wonderful review in Weird Tales!]

Peter S. Beagle, signing books at the World Fantasy Convention in Texas, 2006.

Peter S. Beagle, signing books at the World Fantasy Convention in Texas, 2006.

8. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

9. The Book of Wonder, by Lord Dunsany (To protect the very guilty, I won’t tell you how I acquired my copy of this. But it’s worth acquiring, even if you have to venture into a Peruvian temple and outrun a gigantic rolling stone sphere and a tribe of angry Hovitos.)

10. Bertram’s Fabulous Animals, by Paul T. Gilbert (This is another children’s book, but it gave me endless hours of entertainment as a kid. In a nutshell, the protag, Bertram, is a kid who keeps finding out about various fantastic creatures, and he always wants to get one as a pet. His mama always kind of misunderstands what he’s talking about and says okay. He gets one, and pandemonium ensues. Finally, Bertram’s daddy comes home (he’s always in Omaha on business) and straightens things out and sends the destructive and/or selfish fantastic creature packing. It’s that delicious combination of funny and fascinating and terrifying that makes for the very best of children’s books. I remember almost having nightmares about one of the creatures . . . and laughing really hard many a time.)

11. Enchanted Night, by Steven Millhauser (This is my most recent discovery on this list. But it belongs here. I found the book in Tokyo, because of its beautiful cover. Now I read it almost every summer. But I implore you: read it only at night, during the very hottest season you can manage in your part of the world. It’s pure magic. The whole book [which is quite thin, an easy read] takes place during a single summer night; it follows the nightly adventures of a group of people linked by the fact that they are all residents of the same New England town. Wow, just thinking about it makes me want to take it down off my shelf right now. . . .)

12. The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough

13. Jaws, by Peter Benchley (Go ahead and laugh, but everything I’ve written has been colored in some way by Jaws. I’ll never forget the happy hours spent on my Aunt Emmy’s back stairway, just off her kitchen, reading Jaws. Yes, this is a rare case in which the movie is better. But the movie wouldn’t exist without the book. The book was first.)

14. Beowulf, by the Beowulf poet

15. Andersen’s Fairy Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen (My mom would read these to me whenever I was really sick, so I will forever associate them with fevers and vomiting and delirium — but also with tenderness and love and the comforting presence of a mom . . . and release from all responsibility, because you’re sicker than a dog . . . and the hope of recovery, and the delight of water or ice cubes to a dehydrated mouth . . . and fantasy, and dreams. . . .)

16. October Dreams, edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish (This is a hefty collection of stories about Hallowe’en by many different writers, some famous, some you’ve never heard of. And what may be even better than the fiction is that between the stories are short recollections by the writers of their favorite Hallowe’en memories. I get this book out every October and read around in it.)

List #2: Honorable Mentions:

1. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury (His best book — and the single greatest influence on Dragonfly — there’s even a balloon.)

2. The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (I’ve met him and heard him preach at the church he once served [he’s a Lutheran pastor] in Evansville, Indiana.)

3. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (I remember crying in Miss Logan’s first grade classroom as I finished this book. It’s the book that taught me that stories that make you hurt can be among the most effective — and that really good endings are what you should aim for as a writer.)

4. The Charwoman’s Shadow, by Lord Dunsany (My Cricket story “Ren and the Shadow Imps” is a tribute to this one.)

5. The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories, by Steven Millhauser (Wonderful, wonderful stuff — Millhauser finds the details that recapture all our childhood longings — longings, perhaps, as C.S. Lewis said, for things that do not even exist in this temporal life.)

6. It, by Stephen King (In my opinion, this is Stephen King’s best work: it doesn’t get any better than this. I read most of this book in the summer just before I left for Japan, and finished it up in Tokyo.)

7. ‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King (His second-best book. Vampires!)

8. The Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling (Ever heard of them? They’re kind of obscure, but you can probably find some somewhere. . . .)

9. I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven

10. Annapurna, by Maurice Herzog (This book inspired my next-door neighbor and me to climb everything in sight: the barn, trees, buildings. . . . And to take grainy photos of ourselves at the summit.)

11. The Book of Lies, by Agota Kristof (Search for her name, not for this title: I don’t think the three short novels that make it up were released under this title in the States. This book is not for everyone — it’s very disturbing in places. But for virtuosity of technique and construction, it’s brilliant!)

12. Zothique, by Clark Ashton Smith (Happy memories of dusty crypts and sere mummies that creak as they walk. . . . I saw a new release on Amazon of some of Smith’s stories.)

13. The Lost World, by Arthur Conan Doyle (A South American plateau on which dinosaurs still live . . . for a pre-teen boy, Heaven.)

14. The Land That Time Forgot and its two sequels, The People That Time Forgot and Out of Time’s Abyss, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Fun, fun, fun, fun!)

15. The Man-Eaters of Kumaon, by Jim Corbett (He was a big-game hunter hired by the local governments of India’s Kumaon district whenever they had a problem with a big cat that turned maneater. It’s a factual account of his showdowns with various tigers and leopards. Not a “chick flick” at all, but I’ll bet some of you chicks would like it. . . .)

16. The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (Never would have read this if I hadn’t gone to college. Glad I did.)

17. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare (I saw this performed, too, outdoors on a summer night. Just as much fun as the play was seeing the cast milling about under the trees before and after the show — all these people dressed as fairies in the light of the moon, taking part in this magical experience that is a theater production, which happens briefly in life and then is gone forever, but never forgotten. . . .)

18. The Mothman Prophecies, by John Keel (If you’re going to read just one book on Fortean subjects/the paranormal, this should be the one.)

19. Shiokari Pass, by Ayako Miura (A story of what it means to be a Christian in Japan. I’ve been there — I’ve stood in the actual Shiokari Pass on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido. If you’ve seen the movie — I was there!)

20. Run, Melos! by Osamu Dazai (A collection of short stories by one of Japan’s darkest writers — when I was a young, tormented twentysomething, I loved it — “He understands!“)

21. Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne (Um, yeah. Doesn’t take much to see the influence this has had on me.)

22. Kwaidan, by Lafcadio Hearn (The title means Weird Tales. Hearn was a westerner who moved to Japan and spent the end of his life there, documenting the ancient, strange folklore of Japan for English readers. In your readings of ghost stories from around the world, if there’s ever a Japanese ghost story, I guarantee you that it came to you via Lafcadio Hearn. This book’s shadow falls large across Dragonfly.)

23. The short stories of Algernon Blackwood and Ambrose Bierce (Particularly “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” by Blackwood and “The Damned Thing” by Bierce. I have delightful memories of reading these in the pine grove in my first years in Niigata.)

24. In Evil Hour, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

And finally:

List #3: Books Recommended to Me by Those Who Know Me and Whom I Greatly Respect:

1. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg

2. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

3. Zod Wallop, by William Browning Spencer

4. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

5. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo

6. The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson

7. The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer

8. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

9. Montmorency, by Eleanor Updale

10. Inkheart and Inkspell, by Cornelia Funke

11. Cloud Atlas,  by David Mitchell

12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller

13. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

14. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder

15. The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

16. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

17. The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Graham

18. Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

19. Roverandom, by J.R.R. Tolkien

20. Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson

21. Stravaganza: City of Masks, City of Flowers, City of Stars, City of Secrets (4 books), by Mary Hoffman

22. Surprised by Joy and Till We Have Faces,  by C.S. Lewis

23. Phantastes, by George Macdonald

24. “The Golden Key,” The Light Princess, and The Princess and the Goblin, by George Macdonald

25. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

26. House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski

27. “The Door in the Wall,” by H.G. Wells

28. The Garden of Forking Paths, by Jorge Luis Borges

29. The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen

30. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

31. “The Mezzotint,” by M.R. James (Actually, I think I may have read this one: was it reprinted in Mooreeffoc?)

32. Fingerprints of the Gods, by Graham Hancock

33. “The Lonesome Place,” by August Derleth

34. The Shadow Year, by Jeffrey Ford

35. No Clock in the Forest, by Paul Willis

36. Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons

37. Song of Albion, by Steven Lawhead

38. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

39. Unlundun, by China Mieville

40. The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Think that’ll keep you busy for awhile? Happy reading!

Wisdom from World Fantasy

November 12, 2008

As promised, here’s a little tour through my notebook — stuff that I wrote down while listening to panels at the World Fantasy Convention 2008 in Calgary.

David Morrell, one of this year’s Guests of Honor, the creator of Rambo in his novel First Blood (1972), has a book out on writing that I’d love to read: The Successful Novelist (2008).

He says the keys to writing success are talent, discipline, hard work, and luck. (No real surprises there, but I thought it was worth writing down, because it’s true. Or rather, mostly true: it depends on your own interpretation of the “luck” part. As Obi-Wan says, “In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.” Again and again in my own writer’s path, things have happened that, to many, would seem like sheer dumb luck. The right thing is written on the silliest whim at the right time, sent to the right editor at precisely the right time, etc. — my own interpretation is that there’s an overarching plan — yes, it’s my blog and I’ll say what I want. I believe that God works things out, opening doors at just the right moments. But certainly the parts about talent, hard work, and discipline are indisputable.)

David Morrell says that, because of who we are and the life experiences we’ve had, we all have a dominant emotion. He compares it to a ferret — a ferret that lives inside us, trying to get out. Our task as writers is to identify the ferret. Figure out what it is you’re supposed to be writing. It may take a lot of trial and error, but keep listening, keep trying to sight the ferret, so that you know what it is.

It’s the daydreams that lead us. Your ferret will likely identify himself most readily when you’re not thinking about him. Be aware of your daydreams — of the things that come up and come out again and again in your writing. In a sense, your body knows what it should be writing.

David Morrell: “Be a first-rate version of the person you are, instead of a second-rate version of someone you’re not.” That one’s good. We should all think hard about that one. I spent a few years stewing over how I could be “like J.K. Rowling.” But I’m not like her, and I shouldn’t be. There are other stories that I’m meant to tell. I’ve got a ferret of my own. [This analogy is particularly funny to me because there is an actual ferret living in my house in the U.S. — an old ferret that sleeps most of the time, kept by my cousin, who’s renting that house from me. I hope my inner ferret is more active than that one! But at least I know what a ferret looks like. . . .]

Morrell again: “Serve the story. It will tell us what’s important.”

Morrell: “It’s the journey that’s important. All we have is the moment. Enjoy every day that you’re doing what you’re doing.” That’s profound, isn’t it? My dad used to say, “Having is never as good as wanting.” I’ve had some heady, wonderful moments as a writer, for sure. But I’ve come far enough on the path to feel the truth of this quote. If I didn’t enjoy the creation of the story — the daily setting of words on paper, of shaping a tale where one didn’t exist before — of striving to make it better through revision — then there would be no point to this. There are far more efficient ways to make money. The wonderful thing about being a writer is that I get to be a writer. And sometimes people like what I write, and that’s icing on the cake! And sometimes people pay me for writing, and that’s icing on the icing. But it’s the journey . . . that’s what it’s all about. “How can I solve this plot problem?” . . . ” Wouldn’t it be cool if. . . .?”

Frank Sinatra reportedly had this sign on his door: “If you’re going to knock on this door, be sure you have a damn good reason.” Yay, Frank! I didn’t realize we had so much in common! I thought it was just the blue eyes.

Morrell recommends these writers, important in the history of horror: Richard Matheson, Jack Finney, Ira Levin, and Thomas Tryon’s The Other and Harvest Home. He says Dracula is one of the best novels ever (Bram Stoker).

A ballet dancer on one of the panels used a ballet model of writing: a story is like the High 5th Position in ballet (arms arched high over your head, fingers of your two hands pointing toward each other): the story starts at your left elbow. Your head is at the center, between your arms. The story goes up one arm and comes down the other, ending at the other elbow. That is to say, you don’t want to dump too much into the story at the beginning. Let it start small and build — let it climb — the main stuff happens in the middle (your head) — and also there shouldn’t be too much overwhelming stuff at the end. Let the story diminish to its graceful conclusion at your other elbow. The dancer didn’t say this, but remember the “lady” on the Monty Python episode who had the theory about the brontosaurus? “The brontosaurus is thin on one end, gets very thick in the middle, and is thin again on the other end.” Take your pick: ballet or brontosauri.

From (I think) a young-adult fiction panel: If something is done extremely well, it doesn’t have to be startlingly new. As Fujiwara no Teika said long, long ago: “Don’t strain for novelty.” Stories that have been done a thousand times have been done a thousand times for a reason: the pattern works. But characters and the details you bring to the story are infinite and unique. You alone see the world through your own filter. The book you write will be different from the book anyone else writes, even if the plot, examined on a lab table, isn’t anything Earth-shakingly original.

People reread and reread Tolkien. Write books that people will reread. I’m never happier than when a fan tells me s/he rereads Dragonfly every October. And one of my favorite fan letters for “The Star Shard” in Cricket was one saying this was a story the reader would curl up with on a rainy day no matter how many times she’d read it before.

Today, there’s a huge focus on plot at the expense of the characters and the richness & atmosphere that makes people reread a book. We’ve all seen this, right? Many movies nowadays are made with about three or four different surprise plot twists at the end — I suspect many books are the same — writers are clawing desperately to find “surprising” plots. But if plot is all you’ve got going on, people will read the book once. If you build a rich world, people will come back again and again, because they’ll want to live there.

You have to nail the pacing. Keep it moving, especially young-adult fiction. Keep things happening.

Terry Pratchett says writing/plotting a novel is like looking down into a valley full of mist. You can see a treetop here and there, and maybe you can see the exit to the valley, but you can’t see all the stuff in between, down below the shroud of the mist. You have to discover that as you go along. I have certainly experienced that! Things become clear at the time they’re supposed to. Writing is a journey of discovery.

My agent says January is a good time to submit manuscripts. So is “back-to-school” time in September. The worst times are December and August, when people are out of their offices.

“The French language is of critical and sometimes disproportionate importance to the French.” — Barbara Hambly

Dave Grossman has two books titled On Combat and On Killing. David Morrell and David Drake made the point that one mistake frequently made in thriller fiction is that an ordinary person, when faced with a life-threatening situation, is suddenly able to kill like a soldier. In fact, humans have a kind of shield in their minds that prevents them from killing. Our instinct and tendency is to preserve life. It’s wired into us for the preservation of our species. Long ago, the Army used to train soldiers in marksmanship. But they found that even soldiers who could consistently peg the bullseye of a target wouldn’t fire their weapons in combat. [I’ve heard findings about how owning a gun for self-defense doesn’t usually work out. What happens most often is that a criminal, breaking into a person’s house, uses the defensive homeowner’s gun against him/her.] Now the Army trains soldiers to kill — to kill instinctively. It uses video games — you see an enemy, and you react. People who haven’t been trained in that way have an awfully hard time shooting or stabbing another human being. Our instinct is to preserve life. Our brains sabotage our deadly force. The chilling flip-side of that coin is: What about the generation of kids who are being trained by video games to see enemies and react?

Sharyn November makes the point that writers have an internal age they gravitate towards. “It’s interesting to see what people’s internal age is.”

Garth Nix says it’s all about an emotional connection. That’s why some books are successful. Readers make an easy emotional connection with the characters. That is quite profound — don’t gloss over this idea. How can we create that connection in our writing? That’s worth thinking long and hard about.

Peter Pan is a beautiful book, says David Morrell. So is The Prestige.

Emotional honesty. Dickens’s Bleak House. “The man could write,” says Morrell.

He also says, “God rewards the brave.”

Hollywood: “Against a backdrop of war, they fell in love.” Fantasy fiction: “They fell in love, but in the meantime, they had the dark lord to defeat.” Characters in fantasy are revealed through how they deal with some external thing.

A character who’s a stranger to the fantastic context allows you to describe it. An indigenous character doesn’t give the fantastic context a second thought. Boy, do I wish I’d thought of that before all those drafts of The Fires of the Deep!

Argument is manipulation.

Lovecraft’s stories are all: “A certain family are probably descended from monsters.” Heh, heh, heh! But look back up there to a point made earlier: Lovecraft could do that plot again and again, because his ominous atmospheres are so much fun to experience: all those sagging gambrel roofs and narrow alleyways, those tombstones thrusting up through the soil like the bleached claws of some enormous buried hand, those weird swamps with preternatural glows, that non-Euclidian geometry. . . .

I want to track down a poem about two corbies (ravens) talking about going to feast upon a dead knight in a field: “Where shall we go and dine today?” It sounds wonderful.

Someone asked Stephen King, “Why do you write horror?” He replied, “What makes you think I have a choice?”

“Horror is a genre of tone.” — Barbara Hambly

I was SO RELIEVED to hear Barbara Hambly say that when she’s writing, she doesn’t have the time or the emotional energy to read fiction. Thank you, Barbara! People act like reading fiction is easy. I love it, but for me, it takes focus and energy. I’ve always felt like a cretin for not reading more. Hambly says what she’s working with is the memory of those genres before she started writing professionally. There may be hope for me yet! That’s so refreshing and inspiring to hear, after hearing so many writers who say, “Oh, yes (yawn): I read ten novels a day. I just can’t help it.”

Let a book be what it wants to be. Don’t try to force a particular genre on it. Write it, and then worry about where it fits in.

Vampire fiction: now that the religious aspects are essentially gone, vampire novels are romances. That’s pretty much all that’s left.

And cycling back to David Morrell: “The destination is not nearly as important as the voyage.” It’s worth saying twice!