Posts Tagged ‘Peter S. Beagle’

Many Meetings: World Fantasy 2011

November 29, 2011

Doesn’t this sound like I’m describing a bizarre dream? I mean the kind you have at night, when you’re sleeping. Doesn’t this sound like one?

I’m walking and walking, but I can’t get anywhere. I can see the building I’m trying to reach; it looms in the near distance, behind a grove of dense jungle vegetation and some courtyards. The walkway I’m on doesn’t lead there. I cut through a gap onto a large expanse of concrete, its perimeter arranged with patio furniture. Famous writers, editors, and publishers are sitting in the shade of parasols. I walk to the plaza’s middle and discover it has no exits; even the gap I came through has vanished behind me. The palm trees are laughing. No . . . no, it isn’t the trees. It’s a party going on somewhere close by. It’s night now. I can see the warm glow of light from a verandah where the shapes of people are half-visible through the silhouetted fronds; I can hear them laughing and talking, but I can’t reach them. In a little fountain, stone lions spew water from their mouths. Suddenly there are archways all around me, leading off the plaza, each offering me a tantalizing avenue between hedge walls. I hurry along the most promising one, only to find a swimming pool blocking my path. I retrace my steps and follow another, which brings me to a snack bar that sells cups of coffee for one thousand dollars each. I know I’m staying here somewhere . . . this place is a hotel, and I have a room, but I’m not sure exactly where it is any more. I can almost swear the hedges and palm trees shift. For an instant, I’m sure I know the way now . . . but I come to a cast-iron fence. A few people wearing name tags the same color as mine wander along the other side of the fence. We stare at each other as if across a vast gulf that swallows sound. I can’t get to them, and they can’t get to me. We smile at one another and wander in our several directions. I glimpse Neil Gaiman on my side of the fence, not fifteen feet away. He’s clearly searching for a gate in it, too. I’m closer to the party now, farther from the lions. The palm trees are definitely chuckling. I’m not sure what day it is. Sometimes, just when I’m about to expire, I stumble into a suite staffed by wonderful volunteers where there’s free food and coffee. Now I’m back in my room on the second floor, looking down at the garden below, which is surrounded by a low wall with no doorways or gates in it. I tell myself that I can vault over that wall — it’s low enough — and then I can make another attempt at getting back to the building I was first heading for, somewhere beyond the hedges. There’s Neil Gaiman again, dressed in his customary black, a shadow flitting among deeper shadows. In my room, there’s a near-lifesize portrait on the wall of a little Victorian girl in a blue dress. She’s staring at me with piercing eyes. Wherever I go in the room, her gaze follows me. Somehow I understand that she alone knows the route through the mazes of this place where the stars blaze, where brown hills shimmer on the horizons, and where never a shred of cloud crosses the endless blue sky . . .

It sounds like a dream, yes, but that’s the experience (or part of it) of World Fantasy 2011. Don’t get me wrong: it was a wonderful time! I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to connect and reconnect with so many other fantasists. Professionally, this was my best convention yet. And it’s always, always a great and rip-snorting good time! I’ll try to hit some of the highlights here.

San Diego, site of the World Fantasy Convention 2011

 I’m not the only one who noticed the eeriness of the girl in blue. Apparently that same portrait hangs in ALL (or many?) of the rooms in this hotel. Con-goers were talking about her, and there are mentions of her all over the Internet, and not only by those who attended this convention. One blogger I’ve read hung her shawl over the painting so that the eyes wouldn’t follow her. Fortunately for me, the picture hung in my roommate’s half of the room, so she didn’t really bother me.

California: land of fantasy plants, brown hills, and a preternaturally blue sky

Before I forget: I’ve been thinking about steampunk again lately, probably because the book I’m trying to work on has some steampunk elements. [For more about steampunk than you probably want to know, I covered it in a blog entry two years ago–specifically:

 https://fredericsdurbin.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/steampunk-wfc-2009-part-4/

Not long ago, I saw a brown T-shirt with these words on it: “Steampunk: When Goths Discover Brown.” I really like that. But a short while back, I came up with my own definition. “Steampunk is historical science-fiction for humanities people.” Don’t you think that’s pretty good? I’m not trying to exclude math and science majors who enjoy the genre — I know there are some of them, too. The point I’m making is that steampunk uses technologies that are comprehensible to non-scientists. Writers, poets, and artists can design fictional machines that we ourselves understand. All the parts make sense, unlike in real science. Steam technology and buoyant air bags that bear ships aloft are very satisfying to us laymen. See what I mean? Steampunk is the science of what should be. “This is how I’d build the airship, and this is how it would work in a romanticized world.” Irresponsible, you scientists say? Well, yes, on one level. But the story still has to work. It has to be engineered like the delicate clockwork mechanisms that steampunks adore.

But I digress! Groink! (That’s the sound of changing the subject with a monkey wrench.)

Groink-sssssssss! (That’s a steam-driven monkey wrench.) 

San Diego, October 2011

 
One of the best things I heard at this year’s convention was an anecdote told by Neil Gaiman. He’d just finished writing a major novel, and when he ran into the novelist Gene Wolfe (who has been called “our Melville”), he gleefully exclaimed, “Gene! I’ve finally figured out how to write novels!” He says Gene looked at him pityingly and said, “Neil, you never figure out how to write novels. You just figure out how to write the one you’re on.” That is most certainly true! I know the basic rules of “good writing,” but invariably, every time I’m working on a book, I find a host of reasons that I can’t apply those rules in this case. Maybe on the next book, but not on this one. See, this one is different . . . They’re all “different.”
 
 
 
 At an excellent panel on fiction for children and young adults, William Alexander said this: “I love books now, but I’ve never loved books more than I did then.” He meant “than I did when I was a kid.” So it’s an immeasurably worthwhile and noble and wonderful thing to write for that audience — to aim our work for the time in readers’ lives when great stories have the maximum emotional impact. That idea makes me happy, and it makes me tremble with the awe and the tremendous responsibility it involves. It makes me glad to be alive in this world with this amazing privilege, this calling. Think about it! Writing books for readers — including young readers. What else IS there? Where, I ask you, would you rather be? What would you rather be doing?
 
 
 
Did you know that what was HUGELY popular among Dickens’s work during his lifetime was not the works of his that are mostly read today? They’re not the Dickens books that we study in schools and turn into movies and read at Christmas teas. In his day, crowds thronged the docks in New York, elbowing and jostling, nearly pushing one another into the harbor as the ships pulled in — waiting for copies of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop to be unloaded. We don’t know for sure which books are going to stand the test of time. So take courage! Write the stories that you must write, and don’t worry about the market. History will be the judge. Do your best, writer — that’s all you need to do.
 
The sea is the home we cannot return to. That’s the fear and the allure of mer-beings. If you follow them into the waves, you drown. In the sea or in the air, we are vulnerable from all sides. (Yes, Steven Spielberg was onto something very big in Jaws. That’s why it remains the greatest film ever made.)
 
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The ancient race of serpent-beings reportedly runs all through world mythology. Also this: vampires, werewolves, and sea beings that predate humankind — all world cultures have these myths.
 
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Our treatment of what we don’t understand says a lot about us.
 
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In the fiction of former eras, social class created the barrier between lovers. Now it’s often species. She’s a human, he’s a vampire. She’s a human, he’s a werewolf. Whoa! — my own flash of insight just now: he’s a human, she’s the Evenstar of her immortal people! Yes, Tolkien started it!
 
*     *     *
One panel posited that the main sources of the zombie craze are HIV and Alzheimer’s. Diseases that you can’t come back from . . . it’s your loved one’s face, but your loved one is no longer there. To defeat a zombie is to defeat death.
 
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Do you see why I fight tooth-and-nail to go to this thing every year? As one long-suffering friend of mine put it: “Yes, I can see how that convention is Freddie Nirvana.”
 
“The Call of Cthulhu” was inspired by an earthquake that happened in the same year and season as when Lovecraft set the story! I never knew that. (My own “A Tale of Silences” was inspired in part by a series of earthquakes that rocked Japan.)
 
The constant, repeated cycle of building and collapse: Lovecraft was onto this. Sociologists and scientists of his day mostly thought that civilization was an ever-rising curve, that ours was better than anything before. Today, we’re increasingly aware of wondrous, fantastically-advanced civilizations that preceded ours — civilizations which have vanished. Lovecraft knew!
 
*     *     *
The things that survive the millennia are the dark fears of humankind. Someone asked at a panel what the panelists thought would be the equivalent of the Homeric epics from our own present time — what will be the literature that survives and is known a few thousand years from now, if the Earth is still here? Without missing a beat, Tim Powers said, “Lovecraft.”
 
I’d say he has a point. I’ve always taken great delight in the fact that our oldest work in any form of English is Beowulf — a monster story. (I’m dancing like Snoopy!)
 
Personally, one of my favorite panels was one on airships. That was quite important to me, because I seem to use so many of them. There’s one (albeit in a minor role) in the book I’m trying to get back to now. There’s the Jolly Jack in Dragonfly. And the airships are the real stars of The Fires of the Deep. It was designing them that got me started on that book.
 
Putting a sail on a fantasy airship wouldn’t make sense, you know. You can’t tack against the wind if you’re in the wind with no resistant surface beneath you. That’s the sort of wonderful nerd facts this panel was brimming over with. Yes, I took a lot of notes!
 
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Trouble is our best friend as writers. (Trouble for the characters, that is.)
 
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Did you ever think about the connection between The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings? In both stories, after the great adventures, we come home to a home that isn’t in its perfect state anymore. It needs cleaning up. There’s still some work to do.
 

Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle was another highlight of this year’s convention. What a truly astounding writer! I took along my copies from childhood of The Last Unicorn and A Fine and Private Place and got him to sign them.  I’ll try to reproduce my conversation with him.
(He was wearing a shirt that said “What Would Buffy Do?” I knew from previous years that he is an enormous fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as am I. It’s a brilliantly-written series.)
Me: I like that shirt! I know you’re a great Buffy fan. Me, too!
PSB: I would have sold my CHILDREN for the chance to write for that show. And they would have agreed to it — readily.
Me: Ha, ha! Yes! [Pause. He begins to sign.] You can see I’ve brought along my old, treasured copies of these.
PSB: Yes! These old Ballantine editions are wonderful.
Me: I love Gervasio Gallardo. I’ll buy any book that he’s done the cover for.
PSB: Absolutely. [He is genuinely friendly and treats fans like people, smiling and making eye contact.]
Me: The Last Unicorn meant so much to me when I read it as a teenager.
PSB: It was a HARD book to write. Tamsin was fun. But this one was . . . like pulling teeth.
Me: Wow! Well, thank you very much!
PSB: You’re welcome!
 
One of the very best times at this year’s convention was listening to Peter S. Beagle’s reading on Sunday. When you hear Beagle read, you know you’re in the presence of a master. He read a new story of his in its entirety, and he is truly an enchanter with words. At the end, I was misty-eyed at the sheer wonder and aching beauty of it.

Charlaine Harris

There she is: Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse books, those Southern Gothic Vampire Mysteries. The TV series True Blood is based on those books. My agent introduced me to her — she shook my hand and actually chatted with me — very gracious lady!
 
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I also got Tim Powers to sign my copy of Declare. He’s always super-nice and a real joy to hear on panels. We celebrated our mutual left-handedness.
 
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And then there’s the man in black, the man of the hour . . . the creator of the Sandman graphic novels, books such as American Gods, Coraline, Stardust, The Graveyard Book, Anansi Boys, Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things, and others. He had a big hand in the screenplay of that latest Beowulf film, too. Here he is!
 

Neil Gaiman

So after I circulated through the mass book-signing on Friday night, collecting the signatures I had come after, talking with friends old and new, I went and got into Neil Gaiman’s long, long, long line. We were allowed three books apiece. I had bought three copies of The Dangerous Alphabet: one for myself, and one each for two dear writer-friends who couldn’t attend the convention this year. Waiting in line wasn’t bad at all. It was a chance to meet another writer and an artist (the people on both sides of me) whom I probably wouldn’t otherwise have gotten a chance to talk with. So yes — it was a historic night. I met Neil Gaiman face-to-face. We exchanged actual spoken words!

Neil Gaiman, October 28, 2011, San Diego

One of the funniest experiences this year was a completely unintelligible panel. I won’t name names, but we all settled down to listen in anticipation, because the topic promised to be highly interesting. And I’d guess it was, but only the panelists themselves know, because they had a mumbled conversation that no one beyond six feet away could hear! I’ve never seen anything like it. Very near the beginning, when it became obvious that not just the moderator, but everyone on the panel was mumbling, an audience member yelled, “WE CAN’T HEAR YOU!” The panelist who was speaking glanced up at the audience for one instant, then turned back to the moderator and continued mumbling. In ones and twos, people drifted out and left quietly and politely through the double-doors.

San Diego sunset

Another highlight was the evening — Saturday, I think — when some friends and I ventured into a part of San Diego where there were shops and restaurants. We had a delectable Mexican dinner, but the best part was getting to see a Zombie Walk! I’d heard about them before and seen my cousin’s photos of one, but the real thing was very cool to behold! What seemed like about a hundred people had made themselves up as zombies (this was the weekend right around Hallowe’en). Some looked basically like unkempt (living) people — rumpled clothes, messy hair, maybe trickles of “blood” on their faces or shirt-fronts. But some had gone all-out, with elaborate makeup and costumes. In a long, growling, glassy-eyed procession, they shambled down the crowded market streets, sometimes “devouring” a friend in the crowds of spectators. Children watched in delight. Babies cried. Dogs barked. Shopkeepers came out to admire. Many of these zombies were teenagers, but sometimes whole families had gotten into it. One lady was an utterly terrifying zombie bride, with a bouquet of wilted flowers, a wild nest of hair, a desolate face, a dusky dress that scraped along the pavement like dry leaves . . . boy, she gave me the SHIVERS!
 
But my favorite was a young woman with a ratty cascade of hair and an artfully-applied pallor — and blood, and ripped-up clothes; I’ve always had a thing for dirt-streaked women. She LOCKED her gaze onto mine as she approached, and her expression was what I can only describe as an undead come-hither look — very seductive. She turned her head to keep staring into my eyes as she passed me, and even after she passed. I think she could tell I considered her a highly attractive zombie. Boy, was that fun! Quite an erotic moment. If the zombie apocalypse really happens and we all die, I hope she’s the one who eats my brain.
 
*     *     *
Another great adventure was going to Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, which is ALL fantasy and horror (mostly fantasy)! Bookstores do not get any awesomer than that! Boy, do I wish we had one of those close to home! They have a permanent signing station built right in, a counter with a curved cutaway section and a chair for an author to sit in, with a great writing surface. Tamora Pierce was signing on the day we went, and she had an unending line of fans for the entire hour or so that we were in the store. I looked at the calendar of events, and they have giant-name authors coming all the time! Good argument for moving to San Diego: Mysterious Galaxy!
 
These two (above) pictures were taken on the way back from that store. We successfully managed the train and bus systems!
 
*     *     *
 
What else? I had wonderful and productive meetings with my agent and with the staff and friends of Black Gate. I met some amazing writers. Talked with friends I see only at World Fantasy. Made some new friends.
 
Okay, the best time of all at this year’s convention was getting to do my public reading. Oh, was that a good time! I had a fantastic audience this year! My heartfelt thanks go out to two excellent friends from the Dealers’ Room (you know who you are!); to the ladies I met on Friday night, who actually CAME on Saturday, as you promised — and brought a posse!; to my ever-faithful Pittsburgh compatriots; and to John O’Neill, editor and publisher of Black Gate, who not only attended the reading himself but gathered up several of his friends and dragged them along! To all of you who attended, laughed at the funny parts, sighed with happiness at the cool parts, and cackled with relish at the other cool parts, THANK YOU! You all made it an unforgettable convention for me, and you renewed my focus on who I am and what I need to be doing. Thank you!
 
 
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Tinkerbell is mean in the actual book. She actively tries to kill Wendy.
 
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Charlotte’s Web didn’t win the Newbery in the year that it was eligible; the book that did is now totally obscure. Kids still ask librarians for Charlotte’s Web, even when it hasn’t been assigned.
 
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One panelist said, “Buffy is one of the most accurate portrayals of high-school life ever.”
 
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Harry Turtledove pointed out that the rowers in the Greek and Roman ships were professional rowers, not slaves. Slaves weren’t used in that capacity until the Middle Ages! So, much as we love Ben-Hur,  his stint as a ship-rowing slave isn’t historically accurate. Which is okay — it’s still a great story. After Salamis, it was a badge of honor for Greek citizens to have scars on their bottoms from the rowing benches. They would go around showing off their bums to one another: “I was at Salamis! See?”
 
*     *     *
 
“You can be old and cool and funky and wonderful. Stop being afraid of death and decay!”
 
*     *     *
 
Neil Gaiman said: “We make our living telling lies, and the lies are all true.”
 
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Oh! One panelist — in fact, it was Robert Silverberg — quoted my favorite line from The Aeneid: “One day we’ll laugh even about this.”
 
That’s pretty much the news from World Fantasy 2011 in San Diego. Did we all get out of the hotel maze, or are some people still lost there in the surreal dream? I hear the zombies are moving in. Hot zombie chick, if you’re reading this, you can send me one of your ears any day!

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!

DRAGONFLY: The Commentary Track

May 30, 2008

Dragonfly was conceived and written on two continents, on opposite sides of the world. Come along with me on the official fan tour of historic locations relating to the book! What you’re looking at here is one of two “Birthplaces of Dragonfly.” This is the one that’s easier to get to if you live in Japan. This little grove of trees is in front of the Humanities building at Niigata University’s Ikarashi campus. As the story goes, I had come to the university that day with two friends who were attending a special seminar on how to make kimchee. This is so far in the dim past now that I don’t remember why I tagged along, since I had not intended to go to the kimchee session. While my two friends were indoors learning how to bury cabbage and spices with the full intention of digging them up again, I was wandering around in the location you see, and the ideas for the book began to flood over me. It started, as I recall, with the two names Dragonfly and Mothkin. I glimpsed in my head something like a cutaway diagram of cellars or levels descending into the Earth. I knew Dragonfly was a girl who was going to journey down and down into a place that would be peopled with werewolves, vampires, and other Hallowe’en boogey-folk.

An early idea that I later discarded was that Dragonfly would spend much of her life in Harvest Moon —DRAGONFLY was conceived in this evergreen grove near the statue known as VICTORY. that she would live, have a job, marry, and have children there. I imagined her pulling a cart with onions to sell. The phrase “Onion Years” swirled around in my mind. In the finished book, Dragonfly does get into a bit of agricultural commerce with Sylva, but she doesn’t become the mother of a new generation of werewolves. (If they had had a child, what would they have named the little one? Maybe “Glamis” after Grandpa Cawdor, in keeping with the Macbeth theme? Or perhaps it would have been twins, Mac and Beth?)

What follows here are some views of fall in the place I grew up. This is what autumn looked like to me as a child. So this is the other half of the tour: the sights and settings that colored the (overabundant) descriptions in Dragonfly. I loved the fall — not as much as summer, but I loved it — and Hallowe’en was its crowning glory. I’d already be thinking of costumes in July or August. I’d figure out what I wanted to dress up as. It was usually something from whatever book I was reading: a Skull-Bearer from The Sword of Shannara,  Gandalf, C-3PO, the shark from Jaws (those are all real examples). . . . Mom and Dad would lend their grownup engineering expertise. Dad would build things like Skull-Bearer wings, and Mom would open the trove of ancient family clothing and props. She also knew how to shop the Goodwill and Salvation Army stores for excellent costume raw materials–such as the Styrofoam dinosaur head that I wore in one Hallowe’en parade, or the shaggy fur coat that, when snipped and re-stitched in the right places, became a wondrous full-body gorilla suit for my gradeschool-sized body. Dressed as the gorilla, I emerged from the darkness near Memorial School where people were lining up for the annual parade, and I remember some kids reacting with a bit of genuine fear.

What a wonderful holiday! The parade is a long tradition in our hometown, going back well before my time. When I was little, one family heirloom was a hideous rubber crone mask — wrinkled brow, melancholy eyes, cucumberish nose, jutting warty chin, etc. My maternal grandmother used it once to freak out her husband. He was a Taylorville policeman. On the night of the Hallowe’en parade, he was directing traffic at the parade lineup. His wife, my grandma, approached him in full costume, wearing the mask (which apparently he didn’t know about), and proceeded to “get fresh” with him–patting his face, being very clingy, etc. I smile to picture this proper, serious policeman (in the black-and-white photo I’ve seen of him, he wears his uniform, a pair of glasses with tiny round frames, and a Hitler moustache) beginning to squirm as his unknown “assailant” begins to cross the line from holiday merriment into “This-is-most-irregular.”

I could never stop with just one costume for the Hallowe’en season. I’d develop at least two: one for trick-or-treating and one for the school party. (Sometimes there’d be a third for the parade.) Although I knew full well the costumes I’d be making would be cooler than anything “off the rack,” I could never resist ogling the bright, simple suits that a lot of kids bought last-minute at the stores downtown. (People bought things downtown in those days, from the stores all around the town Square. This was long before we had a Wal-Mart.) You know those costumes, I’m sure: the face-masks secured by an elastic string around the head, the garish two-piece attire whose designs and colors don’t even try to simulate what the character is supposed to look like. For example, Frankenstein’s monster–instead of wearing ragged, mismatched, stolen clothing, the dime-store monster wears a shiny yellow shirt with his own menacing portrait on the chest, and scary-letters proclaiming him “FRANKENSTEIN!”

Well, I’d generally beg my mom to buy me one of those. If my cousin was visiting, he’d ask for one, too. Mom never indulged us in this request. She’d say, “No. You don’t want one of those sleazy costumes. We’ll make a better one.” Kids, of course, are always on the lookout for the proper names of things; I latched onto the term “sleazy costumes” and assumed it was the proper name for that type of dime-store costume . . . perhaps even a brand name. My mom often told the story of how my cousin and I ran after her along the bustling sidewalks of our town, both of us wailing, “I WANT A SLEAZY HALLOWE’EN COSTUME!” (We never got them. We ended up with not-at-all-sleazy costumes.)

Anyway, I wrote the first 80 or so pages of Dragonfly in Japan on my Ricoh N-10 word processor, a machine about the size and weight of a microwave oven. Most of the rest, as I recall, was written in Taylorville that summer, some at our dining room table, some at my aunt’s house, and some outdoors on a card table set up just behind “the cave,” the root cellar/storm shelter you see pictured here. (That may have been the year I bought the 75-foot extension cord to enable me to write outdoors. All through my twenties, I loved the idea of writing out in the open air, in the wondrous lights of nature — the golden sunlight, the purple shade, the green glow of leaves.)

 

Here’s the General Education building at Niigata University as it appears today. This is where I do most of my teaching and a fair amount of my writing-related thinking.

Naming (especially in fantasy) is fun. To this day, I’m still struck at odd times with names for Untoward pairs and wish I’d used them in the book. I honestly don’t know why Dragonfly (the character) has that nickname. I liked “Mothkin” because of its suggestion of someone “kin” to the fluttering moths of the summer night, winging out of the black to beat against the screens or cling there. It seemed a good image for a dark, streetwise Agent of the Peaceable Kingdom as Mothkin is. Angels, I thought as a kid, shouldn’t all be dressed in pristine white with never a hair out of place. And in church Christmas plays, they shouldn’t be portrayed by the blonde girl. I always wanted to cast an angel to look more like a veteran prize fighter, more like a pirate. Finally with Mothkin, I got my chance.

“Sam Hain,” of course, is a sort of joke based on “Samhain,” the Celtic Lord of the Dead. (I know that the Celtic name isn’t pronounced like “Sam Hain” looks. But Hain himself wouldn’t be above adopting such a name as a pun of his own, so I think it’s justifiable.)

Uncle Henry was based on a character of the same name, appearance, and profession in my first real short story as a legal-aged writer, a piece called “Maybe Tonight” (which makes a good performance piece to be read aloud on Hallowe’en night). But it later occurred to me that Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz also had an Uncle Henry. I don’t think it was a conscious homage. It’s more a tribute to the first name of one of my two favorite college professors. Uncle Henry’s appearance is based on the psychologist who evaluated me for the Volunteer Youth Ministry program to determine if I was fit for living overseas in a foreign culture.

Sylva’s name, of course, is meant to evoke woodlands and wildness. Eagerly Meagerly — well, my idea there is the juxtaposition of eagerness — to the point of being ravenous and rabid — with meagerness, a state of inadequacy or lack. If you think of a skeletal ghoul tormented by an insatiable hunger, you’ll have pretty much the picture I intended. Mr. Snicker: the double meaning of “laughing” and the onomatopoeic closing of a pair of scissors — he’s “one who snicks.”

“Noyes” is another of my favorite names in the book. It struck me as perfect for a vampire. First, it sounds like “Noise,” and he is a whiny, verbose character. Second, it’s a combination of “No” and “Yes,” which seems right for one who is undead–both dead and yet animate.

The two biggest influences on Dragonfly? I’d say Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn — particularly the part about the Midnight Carnival.

Until next time!