Monstrous Creatures

I’m finally getting a handle on my nonfiction collection, which I turn in about a week from now. The contents have begun to make some sense, thanks in large part to comments from Matt Cheney about the order. This isn’t final, but it’s getting close. All text that’s previously published has been edited and perfected, some of it radically. The idea of focusing on the theme of monsters and the monstrous has meant leaving out some worthy material but what’s gained by that is a more interesting focus. Some of the “monstrous” subtitles will be more subtle in the final, too.

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A Dark Matter/Skylark Review at B&N Review

(No, this post is not about the song, although the song kicks ass.)

The Barnes & Noble Review has posted my piece on Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter. Originally, the review focused more equally on both the Doubleday version of the novel and Subterranean Press’s version (titled The Skylark), but for space reasons and the fact that The Skylark is not available to most readers the published review focuses on The Skylark only inasmuch as it provides insight into A Dark Matter. There are some spoilers that you can avoid by skipping the “In what kind of horror” paragraph, although given Straub’s focus on the characters rather than the events, they’re not, in an odd way, spoilers.

The review as published does reflect my point of view accurately—and the editors there did a great job re the repurposing—but I’ll be using the full 2,500-word version of the review in my nonfiction collection Monstrous Creatures.

Note: Subterranean Press still has copies of The Skylark available. I highly recommend picking up a copy.

This bit that was dropped I want to post here, though:

Another decision that works in A Dark Matter’s favor is the absence of an extended novella-length passage detailing the full extent of Hayward’s depravity—this depravity condensed down to a few pages near the end. The extended version in The Skylark constitutes the best fictional account of a psychopath, and a psychopath’s relationship to his mentor, that I have ever read. It’s a classic of deep, disturbing characterization, merciless and oddly moving. As a test of Straub’s ability to inhabit a loathsome character and understand that character, it’s perhaps unparalleled in modern literature.

But the section also places extreme emphasis on a character that, while important, is still peripheral to the main characters. In The Skylark, which relies more on multiple points of view throughout the narrative, the scene seems more appropriate, but in the new structure Straub has built for himself in A Dark Matter, Hayward’s point of view would have seemed out of place—it would, in fact, have eclipsed the true core of the book, far exceeding in emotional complication anything that happens to the four friends. In Skylark in particular, horror for Hayward’s actions and a wretched pity for his victims, often outweighs, for example, our feelings about The Eel. Perhaps in part because Straub, through Harwell, keeps telling us The Eel is special and wonderful, but she’s never allowed to demonstrate these qualities in actual scenes.

I should note too that I read The Skylark, then read Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and after that read A Dark Matter. This had an interesting effect on me, in that Bolano’s novel is in an odd sense about a vanishing point in the distance that 2666 never reaches. I read an interpretation of 2666 that basically suggested that the novel is about an event that occurs in the year 2666 (perhaps not literally that year), toward which all of the events and characters, and perhaps their descendents, are moving. And we just get a glimpse of the road toward that point—that the absence of that culminating event creates a powerful ghost or absence hanging over 2666. This certainly dovetails with my reading of Bolano’s novel. Especially since in the foreground of the novel, of the words themselves, you have another absence: the absence at ground zero of the various characters in the different parts of the novel meeting up at novel’s end. That potential event also occurs in the future, beyond the book’s last pages. This made me view the occult event I’d encountered in The Skylark very differently when I read A Dark Matter–although this difference is somewhat peripheral to the review posted at B&N Review. This difference is that I no longer believed it was at all important what happened in the meadow in Straub’s novel. I no longer believed, from a writer’s point of view, that knowing what the characters had seen made any difference. In short, from a writer’s point of view I now wanted a third version of Straub’s novel: one rearranged and structured to leave a hole in the middle that was the event in the meadow. I didn’t want different interpretations of the event. I didn’t want the event at all. I wanted only what happened before and what happened after, and I wanted that from multiple points of view. Again, this did not impact reviewing the actual novel in front of me. But it began to make me think, then, too, of certain of Karen Joy Fowler’s novels and stories, in which an absence shows the shape of a thing–what she leaves out haunts what is left in.

Anyway, something is bubbling up in my writer’s brain about all of this that’s going to fuel a future story or novel, I’m sure.

(No, not this Sky—…well, actually, this one kinda relates.)

(No, this post isn’t about that dark matter, either.)

Mah Eyes, Mah Eyes

My left eye has gone blind from reading steampunk stories.

My right eye has gone blind from reading weird fiction.

Thankfully, Ann’s not gone blind yet–and my third eye decided to open up right as the other two were going blind, and now I’m reading something composed on its thorax and cinderhausenblickblick by a multi-dimensional thing out of Alpha Centauri. But, the tale’s not quite right, and now I’m going to have to reject the story…and this thing has got tentacles in twelve dimensions, and shark’s teeth in twenty and claws in six.

I’ll be lucky if I’m not ripped from gultch to zillip.

Lovecraft’s War Against the Ravens

Hmmm. So the story I’m writing and posting in bits on facebook, using photos of the text, is getting a bit straaaange.

Haven’t seen these bits on facebook? That’s because I’m writing from the future. These bits won’t appear there for a couple of days. Bwaaahahahaha.

(For more on the notebook I’m writing in, click here.)

Steampunk Reloaded: One Week Left

I thought I’d just re-post the Steampunk Reloaded anthology guidelines below. We’ve had a really good response so far and have taken several reprint stories submitted during this open reading period. But there’re only a few days left. Please note that it’s probably a little too late to send us a snail mail submission–would rather see only e-submissions at this point.

Ann and I are both excited about the stories we’ve taken, and about the anthology as a whole.

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Everything, Interwoven Together, From Everywhere

Ann and I had a wonderful weekend at St. George Island, much of which consisted of sitting at the Blue Parrot and sipping margaritas whilst reading for various projects, including the humungous book of weird fiction.

In reading the excellent Foundations of Fear edited by David Hartwell, we were curious to discover the presence of either the word “onion” or “opinions” in Clive Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities”–and simultaneous with that impulse a guy asked us what we were reading, and it turned out in the 1960s and 1970s he’d known Damon Knight on the beaches of St. Petersburg. Right as my finger pointed to the word “onions” in Barker’s book. While the guy was telling us interesting stories about passing acquaintance with various writers–there being a kind of hidden connectivity to the world, and if you’re going to be reading books with titles like Black Water, more of it will come to the surface–I was thinking about Barker’s phone call to me a couple of years ago, after The New Weird came out. It was a gruff, deep voice, sounding oddly subterranean.

Barker: Jeff? Is this Jeff? This is Cliver Barker.


Barker: I just wanted to say I really liked The New Weird. A great anthology.

Jeff: Thanks. It’s kind of you to say.

Barker: There’s just one problem.


Barker: It’s “opinions” not “onions”.

Jeff: Pardon?!

Barker: On the last page of the story. It should be “opinions” not “onions”. Last breath and opinions. It’s a typo I’ve been hunting down for over sixteen years.

Jeff: We can correct it in any second edition.

Barker: That would be a relief. It keeps coming up. Thank you.

And, sure enough, in Foundations of Fear, the line reads, “After that, it was quick. The bones yellowing, the bones crumbling; soon, an empty space which he once filled with breath and onions,” rather than the correct “filled with breath and opinions.” An understandable mistake, I think.

Meanwhile, too, stories have been spilling out of me, including the semi-satirical, semi-serious untitled Lovecraft-Borges story I’ve been posting on facebook. (Note that I’ve locked myself out of facebook and am just remote posting the photos of story text from my phone’s email service.)

It appears I’ve finally moved past the intense process of creating Finch and Booklife simultaneously. And I think I was right to give myself permission not to write much fiction over the past year. Now, it feels natural, and several different stories and novels and coming up from the subconscious. One, “The Quickening,” will be the sole original story in my story collection The Third Bear. Another, “Borne,” will be either a long novella or short novel. A third, “Komodo” keeps opening up in my mind to the point that what was once perhaps a short story could possibly be two novels. Mostly, I’m just glad to be writing again. it keeps the bees buzzing in my head from getting too loud.

Reading also rejuvenates me marvelously well, and I’ve finally had time for the kind of sustained reading that replenishes the imagination. I credit Bolano’s 2666 with much of the restoration, but also lots and lots of Tove Jansson . Now, though, it’s the reading of countless short stories for our projects that has me excited; rediscovering or encountering for the first time so much interesting material has me (and Ann) really excited.

From time to time, I’ll post either TOCs or short reviews of some of the books we’ve read. Our ultimate goal is to read every fantastical, horrific, or science-fantasy story ever written because we’re looking, long-term, at developing several different projects. Part of accomplishing this impossible goal require repairing the schism created by the idea of genre versus mainstream. Which is to say, fantastical literature, as we know even though we don’t always remember this fact, exists outside of the label “genre” and outside of the genre subculture. As SF/fantasy/horror diversifies and also accepts influence from around the world, it’s important that this other wall gets broken down. It’s harmful to our understanding of what constitutes fantasy, and it’s a kind of a self-imposed blindfold, too.

Here’s the TOC to 17 From Everywhere, published in 1971 by Bantam Books and edited by Lee A. Jacobus. It contains mostly mimetic stories, which comment on and co-exist quite nicely with the few fantastical selections. A wonderful side effect of reading outside of genre-only sources is to be exposed to different approaches and traditions, of course. I’ve also included the opening lines of each story.

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Having a Tea Party in Reality Land

So, some people are having a tea party in Washington D.C. this weekend. It’s very much like the tea party in Alice in Wonderland. There are many participants who seem to share genes with the Mad Hatter. Unlike with Alice’s tea party, though, the surreal absurdity on display isn’t harmless. In tough economic times, the potential rise of a far-right political movement—especially one based on lies and on simplifications—is cause for concern. It shifts the consensus reality just a little farther toward the conditions whereby a free state (albeit one beset by corporate lobbyists and other constraints against being a true democracy) becomes a truly totalitarian state.

So, I’m having a little tea party of my own here today. Here are a few of the planks in its platform.

—The sky is generally blue except when it’s cloudy.

—Global warming is real, and a threat to national security (and everything else).

—Electricity is real, not magic, and so is science.

—The federal government isn’t bad; stupid or greedy people in any system are bad.

—Gravity also exists, except when it comes to national politics.

—Religious freedom includes everybody, even (gasp!) atheists.

—Immigrants are people just like me and you (in fact, exactly like me and you).

—Evolution exists and functions even without your belief in it. In fact, it could care less about your belief or lack of belief.

—Our own quality of life is inextricably tied to the quality of our environment.

—Barack Obama is indeed a citizen of the United States of America.

—People who don’t believe in facts have quite literally gone insane and should not be trusted.

Well, those are just a few of the things we’re talking about at our little tea party today here in Reality Land. It would be nice to be able to talk about more complex issues, but for the moment, as Reality Land becomes so eroded that it’s almost an island now, almost falling into the sea now, it’s enough to shore up the sand bags a little by shoving them into place over the windbags.

The Quickening

In the old, tattered photo Sensio has been dressed in a peach-colored prisoner’s uniform made out of discarded tarp and then tied to a small post that Aunt Etta made me hammer into the ground. Sensio’s long white ears are slanted back behind his head. His front legs, trapped by the crude arm holes, hang stiff at a forward angle. The absurdly large hind feet with the shadows for claws are, perhaps, the most monstrous part of Sensio—the way they seem to suddenly shoot from the peach-colored trousers, in a parody of arrested speed. The look on Sensio’s face—the large, almond-shaped eye, the soft pucker of pink nose—seems caught between a strange acceptance and an inchoate rage.

Sensio was, of course, a rabbit, and in the photo, Aunt Etta’s stance confirms this bestial fact—she holds the end of the rope that binds Sensio to the post, and she holds it, between thumb and forefinger, with a form of distaste, even disdain? Such a strange pose, delicate against the roughness of Sensio; even a gentle tug and his humiliation would be undone.

Or maybe not. I don’t know. I know only that Aunt Etta’s expression is ultimately unreadable, muddied by the severe red of her lipstick, by the book-ending of her body by a crepe-paper bag of a hat and the shimmering turquoise dress hitched up past her waist, over her stomach, and descending so far down that she appears to float above the matted grass of the ground. (Between the two, a flowsy white blouse that seems stolen from a more sensible person.) She’d dressed me in something similar, so that I looked like a flower girl at a wedding. The shoes Aunt Etta had dug up out of the closet pinched my feet.

Sensio had said nothing as he was bound, nose twitching at the sharp citrus of the orange blossoms behind them. He’d said nothing as we’d formed our peculiar circus procession from the bungalow where we lived to the waiting photographer. No reporters had come, despite Aunt Etta’s phone calls, but she’d hired the photographer anyway—and he stood there waiting in white shirt, suspenders, gray trousers, black wingtip shoes. He looked hot even though it was only spring, and was so white I thought he must be a Yankee. His equipment looked like a metal stork. A cigarette dangled from his lips.

“That’s him,” Aunt Etta said, as if Sensio were her rabbit and not mine. Shameful, but that’s what I felt that long-ago day: Sensio is mine, not hers. I was twelve in 1955, and big for my age, with broad shoulders that made me look hunched over. I did chores around the orange groves. I helped to get water from the well. I’d driven the tractor. In the season, I’d even helped harvest the oranges, just for fun, alongside the sweating, watchful migrants. But I was still a kid, and as Aunt Etta put Sensio down and bound him to the post I’d pounded in the day before, all I could think was that Aunt Etta had no right to do anything with him.

“Do you have to tie him up like that,” the photographer asked Aunt Etta, but not in a caring way. He reached down to ruffle my hair and wink at me. I flinched away from him, wrinkling up my nose. People were always touching my head back then because I had orange-red hair, and I hated it.

Aunt Etta just looked at him like he was stupid. She was stiff that morning—a broken hip that had never completely healed—and further trapped in her ridiculous dress. She grunted with effort and no little pain as she leaned precariouslyto loop the rope over and over again across Sensio’s chest. “Shit,” she said. I heard her, distinct if soft. She looked over as she straightened, said, “Rachel, finish it for me.”

So I tied the last knots and knelt there beside Sensio, smelling the thick musk of his fur.

“It’s okay,” I said to him, thinking, Aunt Etta’s just gone a little cracked. She’ll be better soon. I tried to will the message into that deep, liquid eye, through to the brain beyond.

Aunt Etta tapped my shoulder with her thick fingers. “Come away.”

“Are we ready, then?” the photographer asked. Aunt Etta wasn’t paying him by the hour. He was already looking at his watch.

In the photo, Aunt Etta has the end of Sensio’s rope in her right hand, arm extended down, while her left arm is held at a right angle, palm up, thumb against the index finger. At first, when I show the photograph to people, they think she’s holding a cigar in her hand, because the photograph is so old. Then they realize that’s just a crease in the image and they think she holds something delicate in that hand—something she’s afraid to close her hand around for fear of damaging it.

But I know there was nothing in Aunt Etta’s hand that day.


Just a fraction of our library of strange short fiction–there’re another ten to fifteen shelves not shown. Ann and I are beginning to read for a “big book of weird” we’re editing for Grove Atlantic. It’ll be 750,000 words, covering 100 years. To be published in November.

A tale of 9 novellas – Rachel Swirsky’s Nebula reading, 2009

First off, thanks to Jeff for letting me continue these guest posts even though he hath returned. This is the end of my nebula posting series, so I’ll be toddling back to the corners of the internet where I usually post — Big Other, Alas a Blog, Ambling Along the Aqueduct, and my livejournal.

Now, novellas. Well, first things first — novellas are long. Anyone else notice that? I guess I always knew they were long, but it didn’t really strike me until I compiled a list and started to read. You can’t get through 9 novellas in a day. Or at least I can’t.

Secondly, novellas are hard to access. I went through the SFWA list of nominations, and then through the SFWA boards, and ended up with a grand total of… 7 novellas that I had free access to. Seven? And I was supposed to nominate from that? So I went back through my list and picked out a couple more novellas that weren’t available for free access, but which I thought I might be able to get the author or publisher to send me. Both requests were answered in the affirmative, and I ended up with two more novellas — bringing my read-for-nomination total to nine.

Nine is still not enough novellas to make an informed reading list, I think. However, given the length of the pieces, and the fact that I have run out of the time I allotted for this project, I’m going to swing with it.

But I’m not going to compile a list of nominees and recommended reading as I did for the other two categories, because it doesn’t seem like it would be as helpful. Instead, I’m including a few brief reviews. (I read one that is not listed here, but had nothing to say about it.)

#1 – “Sublimation Angels” by Jason Sanford, Interzone

This was the first novella I read, and the one I liked best — although it’s possible that my appreciation for it was inflected by the fact that I didn’t have to read it off of my ***ing computer screen, since I had a copy of the magazine in hand. I don’t mind reading off my screen for most purposes, but after about 70-100 shorts, 55 novelettes, and 9 novellas — my eyes are strained, my headache is pressing, and I’m considering buying a damn kindle.

You, however, can read it online as the author makes it available in PDF form.

This hard SF adventure tells a complex story about alien encounter, the travails of living on an inhospitable alien world, hierarchies enforced by resource control, filial love, romantic love, evil artificial intelligences, morally ambiguous artificial intelligences, and more. It deals with some old SF tropes in ways that were new to me, which kept me intellectually engaged. And the action is consistent and interesting, keeping me emotionally engaged through swift turns, reveals and reversals.

I could muster criticisms, but I won’t bother — this is an engaging read, both intellectually and plot-wise. I will definitely be nominating it.
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