Digression: the trick (part 2)

Sorry I’m late with this one. Blame capitalism, and fondue.

So by now I figure you can see what I’m doing. In a lot of ways Lovecraft and Waits are apples and oranges. But sometimes a fruit salad is just what you’re looking for.

It doesn’t have to be Lovecraft and Waits, it could be anything. Edward de Bono, the guy who coined the term “lateral thinking,” he wrote this book called Po: Beyond Yes and No. I can’t tell you too much about it, because de Bono’s ideas about copyright and trademark are really not very lateral at all — and if you haven’t heard of him, that’s probably why. Also it’s like fifteen years since I read it. But Po‘s lateral idea is pretty straightforward: stimulating creativity by juxtaposing random ideas.

Climate change po plate glass.

  • A majority of scientists concur that, like climate change, plate glass is man-made.
  • Climate change is subtle and hard to detect. Plate glass is transparent and hard to see.
  • Local temperature increases are most noticeable in urban areas. Plate glass is most commonly found in urban areas.
  • Generating electricity from oil and gas produces atmospheric CO2, contributing to global warming. Air conditioners require electricity, and also (thank you, thermodynamics) produce excess heat. Skyscrapers in the world’s oil capitals, hot places like Houston and Dubai, require a lot of air conditioning. One reason skyscrapers need so much A/C is that they’re largely made of plate glass. A coincidence? I think not.
  • The insurance industry is in danger of being overwhelmed by climate change. My great-grandfather, an insurance agent, was killed by plate glass.

Damn! Forget the financial crisis, world community! We’ve got to get on this plate glass thing!

…where was I…?

…right. Tom Waits po H.P. Lovecraft, po America.

H.P. Lovecraft’s America isn’t Tom Waits’s America. Lovecraft lives in an America of dark forests, demon-haunted hills, ghastly catacombs littered with unspeakable relics. In Lovecraft’s America, a thinning population of white-collared Anglo-Saxon New Englanders clings to a tenuous existence, caught between swarming immigrant untermenschen and the ever-present threat — or temptation — of devolving themselves, through inbreeding or interbreeding, into something less than human. The happiest among them are the ignorant. The few of them that understand their situation suffer from nervous disorders. (Of course they’re also threatened by unspeakable horrors from the cold of space and the depth of time, but in the end that’s kind of a side issue.)

Tom Waits lives in an America of blacktop and telephone wire, boxcars and elevated trains, Illinois cornfields and New York waterfronts. The people of Waits’s America are working men and waitresses, card-sharps and vaudevillians and small-time crooks — and not a few freaks. Their lives aren’t exactly secure. But when they have troubles, they’re ordinary troubles: money, heartbreak, alcohol, man’s inhumanity to man, six or seven kinds of bad luck. When they have reason to be happy, it’s an ordinary human reason: they’ve got cash in their pockets, they’ve got a song to sing, they’ve found Jesus, they’ve fallen in love.

Uncle Violet, Frank the used office furniture salesman (and arsonist), the Eyeball Kid, the Jersey Girl in the see-through top, the one-armed dwarf captain throwing dice while the ship loads for Singapore — their America isn’t a whole lot less weird than the America of the Akeleys and Whateleys and Wards, and sometimes it gets them into trouble they can’t get out of. But they’re on top of it, they’re coping.

…was not his very act of plunging into the polyglot abyss of New York’s underworld a freak beyond sensible explanation?

No, it wasn’t, Howard. It was a job. Sometimes you got to get behind the mule.

The Names of Towns

2. The Names of Towns

… caves, cellars, old age, great expanses of time, monumental architecture, non-Euclidean geometry, deserts, oceans, rats …

The job takes Dizzy from Toronto to Cleveland, Cleveland to Cincinnati, Cincinnati to Bowling Green, Kentucky. In Cleveland, he visits the Hamann Museum of Comparative Anthropology. In Bowling Green, he spends three hours in the basement apartment of a former Ogden College lecturer in “mental science”, now known only as the Rat Man.

From Bowling Green, Dizzy goes to Mammoth Cave National Park. He goes into the cave a tourist. He comes out a murderer.

Dizzy’s trail goes cold for a while.


We pick him up again in Honduras, standing in a jungle clearing amid the ruins of the Mayan city of Copan, smoking a Pall Mall and looking up at the stela of Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, listening with one ear as his guide tells him about Diego de Landa burning the codices of the Yucatán. Dizzy likes the guide, a defrocked Mexican Maya Catholic priest named Basilio Choc, and when he’s finished his cigarette, he allows that this was a damn shame.

“How much you figure a guy could get for one of those?” Dizzy asks.

Choc, who looks old enough to have been there when they did the burning, smiles and shrugs.


In La Libertad, Dizzy finds a steamer headed north for San Diego. In San Diego he picks up a used Buick convertible, a mongrel dog named Ahab, and the address of a man in Benton, Arizona who can fix him up with a new name. The break-in at the San Diego State College mathematics department, never solved, probably has nothing to do with Dizzy, but it’s a fact that he leaves town that same night.

Morning finds Dizzy in the parking lot of a lunch-car diner in Yuma. At his side the dog Ahab is chewing on a pork-chop bone Dizzy had wrapped up in a napkin. The sun is coming up over the Gila Desert and the ancient brown hills are touched with gold. Dizzy puts the top down and starts the engine; turns on the radio, and smiles.

Digression: the trick

So I said yesterday that part of this free idea business was a trick, and that today I’d show you how the trick was done.

Some time ago my genius writer friend Meghan McCarron, who’ll be guest-blogging here next month (Nov. 17 – 21), and whose Tumblr feed Marmalade Chronofile is a seemingly bottomless well of amazingness, found this transcript of Tom Waits, talking between songs during a set at Burbank Airport.

Songs, I think, have to be anatomically correct … I always believe you gotta put a change of clothes in there … and … you know that type of thing … you have to put ahh … you know, the names of towns and … it’s good to put something to eat in there as well … and some weather … you just never know, ’cause folks, you know, you send them out there and the people take those songs, and they do things with them, and they need … you know it’s like a Swiss Army knife … I don’t know, that’s the way I see it … that’s the way they are to me …

… only now that I go digging for the link, it seems like maybe she got it from Matt Cheney — whose name ought to be familiar to Jeff’s regular readers — but anyhow …

Some time after that William Gibson quoted a bit of Luc Sante, talking about H.P. Lovecraft in the New York Review of Books, and after some rummaging around in cyberspace I found the rest of it, or anyway the part that interested me:

Although he was married briefly, and many years later his former wife was moved to state, peculiarly, that he was an “adequately excellent lover,” it is clear from all available evidence that sexuality, procreation, and the human body itself were among the things that scared him the most.

He was also frightened of invertebrates, marine life in general, temperatures below freezing, fat people, people of other races, race-mixing, slums, percussion instruments, caves, cellars, old age, great expanses of time, monumental architecture, non-Euclidean geometry, deserts, oceans, rats, dogs, the New England countryside, New York City, fungi and molds, viscous substances, medical experiments, dreams, brittle textures, gelatinous textures, the color gray, plant life of diverse sorts, memory lapses, old books, heredity, mists, gases, whistling, whispering — the things that did not frighten him would probably make a shorter list.

I came to Lovecraft and Tom Waits in college, and almost at the same time. Oh, I’d been exposed to Lovecraft earlier, probably back in the golden days of role-playing games when there was so little money in the business that Gary Gygax could violate trademarks and copyrights with near-impunity, but it was in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college that I finally got around to checking out At the Mountains of Madness from the Cupertino public library; and it was in my junior year of college that somebody at the Stevenson College (UCSC, not Edinburgh) coffee shop decided that Rain Dogs was the right thing to play every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning before Japanese 101.

Now some of you probably know Tom Waits better than I do, and I know, this being Jeff’s blog, that some of you know Lovecraft way better than I do. Don’t let me stop you from correcting me. But, before we go any farther, do let me just point out that for the purposes of this idea-concocting exercise, I can be wrong as wrong can be about both these guys, and the trick still works.

The early 90s, that was a weird time to come to Waits and Lovecraft both. Historians have been talking about the long nineteenth century for a while, about a century and a quarter long, from the French Revolution to the First World War. In the early 90s they were starting to talk about the short twentieth, from the First World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Maybe it’ll stick, maybe it won’t. Maybe they’ll date the “long twenty-first century” from 9/11 — or from the Gulf War — or from 1989, when the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan. But at the time, that divide sure felt like the real thing.

And I was on one side of it, the 21st-century side, and Waits and Lovecraft, they were on the other.

Understand, not only was I a video-game-playing, giant-robot-anime-watching, styrofoam-space-colony-building 21st-century kid, by the time I started college — coming back to California after three and a half years in Tokyo — I’d lived almost half my life outside the US. It wasn’t just the past that was another country, it was America, too. Twentieth-century America had — still has — a certain mythical quality for me, idealized, something made out of chrome and Bakelite and painted metal, running on diesel and cheap leaded gas, played in smokey cafés, recorded on vinyl and celluloid. That was where these guys came from, what they were about.

Of course, it was obvious to me even then they didn’t see it the same way.

(To be continued…)

A Change of Clothes

Hello, Tallahassee! I just swam down from Switzerland, and boy is my siphon tired.

Hey, VanderMeerkats. I’m David Moles, and I make things up.

They say people are always asking writers how they come up with their ideas. They also say people are always coming to writers with ideas, offering to split them fifty-fifty, on account of they figure coming up with the idea was the hard part and the writer just has to do the writing. To nip all that in the bud, this week I’m going to put together an idea, in four parts, show you how I came up with it, and at the end of the week give it away free to anybody who wants it.

1. A Change of Clothes

Sexuality, procreation, the human body, invertebrates, marine life in general, fat people, people of other races, race-mixing, slums, percussion instruments…

Dizzy Caetano is five foot five, with the body of a smallish Greek god and the temper of a smallish Greek god who’s touchy about his height. In no particular order, he likes oysters, soft-shell crab, women, and the music of Fats Waller. Dizzy’s father was a Portuguese prizefighter and his mother was a Puerto Rican negro showgirl. Dizzy fought, too, when he was in the Merchant Marine, but that’s over now.

In a dirty one-room apartment overlooking the railway tracks, Dizzy is fastening a clean white collar to a blue striped shirt. He’s sliding the knot up his tie, hooking his thumbs in his suspenders and hitching them up, brushing the dust from his black wingtips, folding a silk handkerchief just so, and tucking it into the breast pocket of his gray wool jacket. He’s picking up his hat and, from under it on the carved Chinese end table, the keys to his Oldsmobile.

On an out-of-tune piano, somewhere very close, someone is playing “The Joint is Jumpin’.” Dizzy Caetano has a job.

Part of this (hinted at in the title and the epigraph) is a trick, and tomorrow I’ll tell you how that part’s done. The rest is just doing what I nearly always do, which is to start with a character — in this case Dizzy, here.

My dad says there are people who talk about people, people who talk about things, and people who talk about ideas. (My friend Jackie adds a fourth category, people who talk about themselves, like I’m doing now. I try not to do much of that, but what the hell, I’m on stage.) Me, when I talk about people, I tend to talk about them in terms of ideas expressed through relationships to things.

If it was my friend Ben Rosenbaum telling you about Dizzy, you’d be hearing about Dizzy’s mother, and his half-brother, and his ex-wife, and the kid he sees maybe once a year who calls another man ‘Daddy,’ and how Dizzy feels about that. But Ben’s an extroverted, happily married father of two with an interest in psychology, and I’m an introverted, stoically single father of zero with an interest in social history, so I don’t know these things about Dizzy yet, and instead of human relationships you get demographics and material culture.

Sorry. It’s just the way I’m wired, I guess.

Meanwhile, I dream of the day Will Hindemarch mentioned, the one David Simon dreads, when somebody tells me “exactly where my work is shallow and fraudulent and rooted in lame, half-assed assumptions.” First, it’d satisfy the narcissistic craving for attention that’s the reason I got onto this writing scam in the first place. Second, it’d be really useful to know. So feel free to tell me, in the comments. If you run out of ammunition, I promise to give you more tomorrow.

David Moles–Guest-blogging on Ecstatic Days Oct. 27-31

I’m pleased to welcome David Moles as this week’s guest blogger. David is a Sturgeon Award winner and a past finalist for the Hugo and John W. Campbell awards. He co-edited (with Jay Lake) the critically acclaimed All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories and (with Susan Marie Groppi) the World Fantasy Award-nominated Twenty Epics; his fiction has appeared in Polyphony, Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and F&SF, among other places. He’s currently killing time in Switzerland working on a novel and waiting for the dollar to go back up.

Exit, Pursued by Gatling-Abe

Thanks to all of you for coming by this week. This week has rekindled my love for blogging, I think. So thank you all for that, and for reading and, especially, for your feedback this week. Much appreciated.

I wanted to leave you all with two things. First, a quote I saw this week which struck me as either true or Internet True, take you pick:

“The best measure of a blog is not how many people it reaches, it’s how much it changes what you do. Changes your posture, your writing, your transparency, your humility. What blogging has done for me is made me think. I get to think about how the outside world will understand something I’m trying to do, for example.”

— Seth Godin interviewed by Josh Spear, Trendspotting

The second is this artifact from the Internet, which I thought you’d enjoy. (Source unknown; if you know the origin of this piece, drop a comment here and let us know.)

So, then. Cheers.

Another wonder from the Internet

Predator Say: “Vote! Kill! Er, No, Not Kill–VOTE First!”

Friend, writer, and bookseller Caleb Wilson emailed today to relate how Predator: South China Sea has become involved in the early voting process: “I voted early today, and I was reading your Predator novel in the line (about a 45-minute wait) and of course took it into the booth with me, and in the end it was the book that pushed the ballot into the machine. Thought you might like to know that your book has now taken a small role in this election!”

So remember to vote. And bring the Predator along if you like. He believes in the right to bear arms and the right to tear arms. He believes in a strong defense by preemptively being offensive. And, from his extensive vacations in remote locations he too believes in the value of isolated small-town America…

Also, thanks again to Will Hindmarch for his blogging, and I’ll post an introduction to our next guest, David Moles, shortly…

News: Predator Offer, Steampunk Con, Italian Pirates, Weird Tales, German Shriek, and More

(Stephen Youll’s original artwork for my Predator novel.)

Lots of news to report, with more to follow next week. I’ve put it all in one post so if you want to skip it…it’s easy to! (Oh, and although the final TOC isn’t set, Strahan has taken “Fixing Hanover” from Extraordinary Engines for his year’s best.)

Predator Contest
First off, the cool new BookSpotCentral is offering a great contest–a signed copy of my Predator novel AND a Predator figurine for each of five winners. The figurine does double duty as an ink stamp. They’re also running an interview with me about the experience: “Here it was just like, ‘Don’t show the Predator doing soft-shoe, eating ice cream, or reading the newspaper.'” Amazon also just asked me to write about the experience, resulting in this blog post. Thanks again to Rob Simpson and Victoria Blake at Dark Horse, and to Jay Tomio at BookSpotCentral.

Guests at the Steampunk Convention (Sunnyvale, CA)
Next weekend, we’ll be guests at the Steampunk Convention, along with Jake Von Slatt, Greg Broadmore, the band Abney Park, and more. We’ll have a couple of panels and a signing. (And, on Tuesday, Nov. 4, we will be doing a signing at Borderland Books in San Fran at 7pm.)

Fast Ships, Black Sails Pirate News
As the release date for our pirate anthology approaches, some exciting news: highly respected publisher Newton Compton picked up the Italian rights at the Frankfurt Book Festival. The Night Shade edition is picking up rave advance reviews from Locus, Publishers Weekly, and elsewhere. Gardner Dozois even seems impressed–and he’s hard to impress!

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Penguin Books’ Great Ideas Series: VanderMeer Versus the Classics, 60 Books in 60 Days, Starting in December

(The Predator: outgunned and overmatched but still fighting…)

Many thanks to Penguin Books and in particular Colin Brush for sending me the entire 60-book set of Penguin’s Great Ideas series. Not only are these classics, they’re presented in gorgeous designs.

So here’s the skinny: I’ve set myself the daunting challenge of reviewing all 60 books in the Great Ideas series, one a day, every day from December 13th until I’m done. I’ll read one book each night before bed and then blog about it the next day. (Granted, some of these I’ve encountered before.) A short review, a quote from the book, and a question posed to readers based on my reading of the book. 60 books. 60 days. Will I go mad from the weight of this? Will my reviews more resemble the ravings of the obsessed by book thirty or forty? Tune in to find out. And…Bring it on!

Brush also sent the first ten in their new line of horror novels, published as part of the Red Classics series. (More on them in a separate post before December.) These are beautiful books, some of which I haven’t read before.

A few more photos below the cut (whole set here.)

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Books Received: Centipede Press, Fiction from the Phillipines, and More

Thanks to Will for guestblogging this week–in fact, he may still be posting more today and tomorrow, but I need to break in briefly with a few things…

First off, a stunning selection of books from Centipede Press, which I recommend without reservation. If you like dark fantasy and horror, Centipede Press is doing some of the best editions out there.

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