WEIRD FICTION REVIEW #9 Now Available

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Weird Fiction Review #9 (Centipede Press, 2018), Cover Art by Colin Nitta

With last year’s passing of the illustrating titan Stan Lee, it’s suitable to celebrate his voice and verve (along with the great Jack Kirby) with the cover art of Centipede Press‘s latest installment of Weird Fiction Review, which offers a wry wink to the inaugural, 1961 issue of the Fantastic Four (released fifty-seven years ago this past November).  The odd quad featured on the cover are, of course, notables from the Weird field, with Caitlin Kiernan standing in for Sue Storm, Victor Lavalle repping the Human Torch, Stephen Graham Jones taking on Mister Fantastic, and Laird Barron depicted as (suitably, noting his affinity for the Carpenter film) The Thing.  The list price is $35, but Centipede Press’s site currently has it for $22.

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Weird Fiction Review #9 (Centipede Press, 2018) / The Fantastic Four, Vol. 1, Issue #1 (1961)

“The Weird Fiction Review,” goes the site’s synopsis, “is an annual periodical devoted to the study of weird and supernatural fiction. It is edited by S.T. Joshi. This ninth issue contains fiction, poetry, and reviews from leading writers and promising newcomers. This issue features fiction by Caitl’n R. Kiernan, Laird Barron, Victor LaValle, Stephen Graham Jones, Scott Bradfield and others, and articles by Stefan Dziemianowicz (an illustrated history of Gnome Press), Adam Groves (on surrealist horror novels), John C. Tibbetts (on Marjorie Bowen), as well as verse and other essays and fiction. The feature of the issue is Chad Hensley’s outstanding article on H.R. Giger-inspired Alien toys.”

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Brown University, Dec., 2018

Adam Golaski and Clint Smith, Brown University, December, 2018

In addition to a lengthy interview with author David Mitchell, Weird Fiction Review #9 also contains an exchange between Adam Golaski and me — an interview, of sorts, conducted by the Brown University English lecturer back in the fall of 2017.  The several weeks of correspondence was really an ideal way to get to know this writer who, perhaps, thrives in his obscurity.  We were able to spend a brief amount of time attempting to catch up back in December, 2018, on the Brown campus (shortly before our reading at the Arcade Asylum Author Series, Krampusnacht edition, at Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Council).

My story, “The Pecking Order” (a tale which begins with a young woman attending a former student’s funeral, but transforms into something appalling) can also be found in Weird Fiction Review #9.

 

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DEAD THINGS: Kindle / eBook Pre-Order Now Available

Friends and literary allies: A tad ahead of the March 18, 2019 paperback and electronic release, Unnerving has made available the Kindle / eBook pre-order of my novella, When It’s Time For Dead Things To Die, at Amazon for a very reasonable $2.99.

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Eddie Generous has also updated the Goodreads page to reflect the new cover art for this expanded and updated edition:

Amazon Kindle / eBook Pre-Order: Here

Updated Goodreads Book Page: Here

PLUTO IN FURS Anthology: “Behemoth” Claws Its Way Onto the TOC

I was recently notified that my “rough beast” of a short story, “Behemoth,” has been accepted to Scott Dwyer’s upcoming anthology, Pluto In Furs.  The spectrum of the tale pendulums between 1969 and 1987, as my protag, Dox Ingram, a mechanic, is inadvertently compelled to confront a protean horror inextricably braided to a disturbing encounter during his younger years as a soldier in Vietnam.

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“Some Bears,” Rolf Armstrong (PUCK, March 27, 1915)

 

“The title, Pluto In Furs, is obviously a play on Sacher-Masoch’s Venus In Furs,” writes Dwyer. “But whereas his book postulates that the female and the cruel are his objects of a masochistic worship, Pluto In Furs will explore what it means if darkness and the nonhuman are also worthy of masochistic worship.” That said, the anthology will also include some loosely-themed horror tales compassing the surreal, erotica, weird, as well as “quiet” ghost stories. Some authors have announced, while others are keeping their cards close to their chests; but I’ve had a glimpse at some of the imposing contributors, and readers are in for a sinister treat.

UPDATE:  February 5, 2019:  Official Pluto In Furs table of contents announced at The Plutonian:

“An Abysmal Masochism” (An Introduction) by Scott Dwyer
“The Tangible Universe” by Jeffrey Thomas
“The Wolf at the Door or The Music of Antonio Soler” by Devora Gray
“Other Yseut and Romance Tristan” by Adam Golaski
“Dermatology, Eschatology” by Kurt Fawver
“Headsman’s Trust: A Murder Ballad” by Richard Gavin
“It’s Hard to be Me” by John Claude Smith
“The Gutter at the Bottom of the World” by David Peak
“Tender is the Tether” by Rhys Hughes
“With Shining Gifts That Took All Eyes” by Mike Allen
“Stygian Chambers” by Orrin Grey
“Behemoth” by Clint Smith
“Worm Moon” by Gemma Files
“The Silvering” by Thana Niveau
“Walking in Ash” by Brendan Vidito

Dwyer’s aiming for an August, 2019 publication date.  More in due time…

Listen Up: “Don’t Let The Bedbugs Bite” Receives Otic Makeover

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So here’s a first for me:  one of my (early-published) short stories, “Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite” (originally appearing in the summer, 2011 installment of the British Fantasy Society Journal), has been refashioned in the form of an audible episode at Max Ablitzer‘s engrossing endeavor, Horror Tales.

Horror Tales has produced a series of top-notch episodes from writers Caleb Stephens (“The Wallpaperman”), G.D. Watry (“The Mosaic”), Timothy G. Huguenin (“The Unknown Thing”), and T.E. Grau (“Transmission”).

Each episode is expressly created by Ablitzer, who invests calculating care into the crafting of each story’s transition.  All tales are accompanied by the ambient underscore of music, and textured with the swaying draperies of eerie sound effects.

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According to Ablitzer, seven episodes have been planned, with an eighth under consideration.  As of early November, 2018, Horror Tales continued to chart around the world, entering Great Britain’s “top fifty” in iTunes; and the podcast also recently attained the following impressive international iTunes standings:

  • Paraguay:  #1 (Arts)
  • Singapore:  #2 (Literature)
  • Costa Rica:  #4 (Literature)
  • United States:  #30 (Literature)

The Horror Tales Podcast submission guidelines are found here.

For Bourdain: A Cult of Pain

Eight years ago, wanting to represent both my editor and the publication itself with some decorum, I’d slipped on a trendy-looking sport coat over a white dress shirt; and though I’d been told it would be a formal gathering, I wagered a pair of beat-up jeans would also be in order.

My daughter was born precisely a week earlier, and (aside from executing the requisite errands involved with having a newborn in the house) I hadn’t been absent for a significant amount of time. I recall feeling a touch of hesitation for leaving my wife and infant for several hours—this elicited from a sense of self-indulgence, but the truth was I had a job to do.

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Southside Times: September, 2010

I had a recreational gig writing a weekly cooking column for a local paper (this was before transitioning to full freelance). About a week before my daughter was born, I received an e-mail from my editor asking if I’d be interested in press credentials to an event promoting the annual Spirit and Place festival; and being a suitable fit for that particular year’s theme, “Food for Thought,” the Indiana Humanities Council was sponsoring “An Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert.” I considered it for a sliver of a second, responded, and immediately began preparing my questions.

Outwardly, as I entered Clowes Memorial Hall, I attempted to compose myself with the focused air of a “journalist,” but internally I was tempering a glee which comes from the anticipation of being in close proximity to a craftsperson of significant standing in a community’s trade—the self-instilled sobriety which comes in knowing a narrow opportunity is approaching to engage in a cogent conversation of some personal relevance and cultural substance.

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Southside Times: October, 2010

Though user-friendly and expedient, it would be too mundane, too simplistic to employ the term “celebrity.” But it would also be inaccurate to apply that nomenclature to Anthony Bourdain.

And though I certainly have them, I’m reticent to use the term “hero” in many of my written musings. The word makes me wince. No: I reserve that qualifier for those who have—in both figurative and corporeal ways at certain points along the timeline—saved my life. Besides, there’s a self-conscious whiff of the sycophant in such subscription—a casualness which (intended or not) at best rings fawningly, at worst parasitic.

But I’m not writing with the intent to cruelly or smugly split descriptive hairs. A hero, an inspiration, a mentor, a coach. Whatever. This is about being fundamentally affected, and it eclipses the ornamentation of being a cursory “fan.”

#

On the morning of Friday June 8, 2018, I started writing a few minutes after hearing of Anthony Bourdain’s death (content-wise, these paragraphs have undergone some line-edit surgical grafts in the interim). As shocking as it was to hear about a figure—a voice—being instantly depleted from future conversations, it was not as shocking as the cause of death: Bourdain’s elected method that continues to unsettle me, and insinuates disheartening, philosophical implications.

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Pen in hand, the first thoughts I scattered onto my scuffed-up mental cutting board were of Chicago. Eighteen years ago.

Released in August of 2000, Kitchen Confidential was Bourdain’s “breakout” endeavor which smoothly sluiced him into the current of mainstream pop-culture. With the subtitle, Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, the book was part memoir, part comedic-acerbic account of the industry’s often unsavory trenches. I arrived in Chicago a month later, and the book was equally pervasive in both presence and conversation. It appealed to the industry’s codified patois and irreverent sensibilities. (The companionable memoir made it easier to adjust to my new, overwhelming home in Chicago, and offered some much needed guidance.)

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Credit:  Robert DiScalfani

But there’s a tangible duality in the book’s personality and contemplations: a Jekyll-and-Hyde sort of lecture in which the author (not unlike a culinary coach worth their salt) simultaneously encourages and warns the reader and, ideally, a would-be culinarian. Toward the end of book, in the chapter, “So You Really Want to Be a Chef?,” Bourdain submits fourteen “suggestions” to the initiate:

  1. Be fully committed
  2. Learn Spanish
  3. Don’t steal
  4. Always be on time
  5. Never make excuses or blame others
  6. Never call in sick
  7. Lazy, sloppy and slow are bad
  8. Be prepare to witness variety of human folly an injustice
  9. Assume the worst
  10. Try not to lie
  11. Avoid restaurants where the owner’s name is over the door
  12. Think about that résumé
  13. Read
  14. Have a sense of humor about things

Like Bourdain himself, Kitchen Confidential (as well as the sequel-esque collections: The Nasty Bits and Medium Raw) was inclusive, part of its mainstream charm; but as it appealed to me in my early-twenties, and as I attempted to apply it to that formative phase of my life, it was a series of lessons and anecdotes which reinforced an endeavor to which I’d been committed (advertently, for the most part) since I was eighteen. It was in these unsavory trenches that I’d learned an ethos which I applied to the rest of my life. And I mean, think about it: with a tweak to number eleven—and with the obvious, verisimilitude-related questionability of number ten—those fourteen, aforementioned “rules” have been applied to myriad aspects of my approach to creative writing.

And so, practicing this exercise of writing, I have discovered (as I reluctantly reflect on his death and riptide of death itself) an element that profoundly unsettles me.

“I’ll be right here. Until they drag me off the line. I’m not going anywhere. I hope. It’s been an adventure. We took some casualties over the years. Things got broken. Things got lost. / But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

And then, in a merciless, knife-like manipulation, there’s this: “Songs from some other time…will always mean something to somebody present, but maybe you had to be there. / You look each other with the intense camaraderie of people who’ve suffered together and think…“We did well tonight. We will go home proud.” His summary: “There are nods and half-smiles. A sigh. Maybe even a groan of relief. / Once again. We survived. We did well. / We’re still here.”

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Credit:  Robert DiScalfani

Placing an emotional forefinger on it the best I can, I think, more than anything, I’m mystified and pissed—pissed that he quit before the end of (what I wanted to be) his shift.

#

Yet, in other ways, perhaps clues (if you read close) existed all along. “Though I’ve spent half my life watching people,” writes Bourdain, “guiding them, trying to anticipate their moods, motivations and actions, running from them, manipulating and being manipulated by them, they remain a mystery to me. People confuse me.”

Bourdain was candid and unapologetic about the way he’d lived and the positions to which he’d adhered. Another way to put it: he was refreshingly (if not viciously) honest for an age and culture (read: for a spectator-based dining room) immersed in assembling a cosmetic, media-friendly image. “Though far more successful and famous, Emeril [Lagasse] projects a public image completely devoid of greed, vanity, lust, or ambition,” wrote Bourdain wrote in The Nasty Bits, “sins to be found in obvious abundance all over Rocco [DiSpirito]’s more handsome but need-riddled face.” Bourdain punctuates this point: “It may not be all about the food in the harsh, unforgiving business of celebrity chefdom, but it is still about cooking, about the pleasures of the table. Those who forget that, even the prodigiously talented, do so at their own peril.”

And though Bourdain had (well over a decade before) transitioned from the gastronomic gauntlet, there were references along the way that some of the most attractive aspects of kitchen culture, and the lessons they furnish, contain profoundly dark alcoves, the shadows harmonizing with some of our darker, inner antechambers. If not kept in check, these shadows linger and threaten to unexpectedly assert themselves. (I think, too, of the bewildering suicide of Homaro Cantu, who discovered in his own restaurant in the spring of 2015.) From Melville’s poem Clarel: “Degrees we know, unknown in days before; The light is greater, hence the shadow more.”

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In foodservice, and in the modern culinary craft itself, hope and dismality are twined in a complicated arrangement. The truth is the industry is inclusive, and initially accepts anyone—as long as you’re willing to abide by the required vagaries of those tacit contracts. Still in my late teens, and having appraised the mercurial nature of the industry, I was sensitive to consequences when it came to the notion of a culinary career. I relished, for a time, the lifestyle; but I was also cautious, as I’d bore (and would continue to bear) witness to the hapless demise of my culinary colleagues. In short, if one remains unaware, the manipulative machinations of the industry will overrun your endurance, extinguish the light of your ambition.

Bourdain, in his essay, “Is Celebrity Killing the Great Chefs?,” explains, “Cooking professionally is hard. It ravages the mind and body. Hard-core purist foodies may gripe that a chef is not ‘keeping it real,’ but I invite them to try working a busy sauté station six long shifts a week on forty-five-year-old legs. Chefs who are still doing that beyond fifty don’t look forward to living much longer.”

A self-acknowledged former drug-addict—and professed, former fuck-up—Bourdain vouched for our craft, hauling it out of those behind-the-scenes trenches, elevating thankless work into something presentable and palatable for “civilians.” In The Nasty Bits, he offers, “The restaurant business, after all, is the greatest business in the world. Cooking is noble toil. And fun. No supermodel or television producer is ever going to say anything more interesting than my line cooks and sous-chefs.”

Bourdain helped us navigate the avarice of the cooking industry. The Spoils System (pun intended) is very much alive, and Bourdain’s ethos and articulated commentary offered and alternative view of the preconceived concept of a menial foodservice worker. “There is no deception more hypocritical, more nauseating, more willfully self-deluding than the industry-approved image of ‘the chef.’” For guys like me in my late-teens and early-twenties who did not fit in to (nor was accepted by) conventional career paths, Bourdain demonstrated that the craft of cooking could be much more cerebral than assumed by the vox populi.

Bourdain became an applauded celebrity, his voice and views gaining cross-cultural recognition and respect; his kitchen-commentary, lessons, and anecdotes essentially relaying and reshaping concepts familiar to a common cook, reinforcing things were already. And because he was a storyteller, he knew how to encourage, how to help us cope; he offered a lamplight for those in the “back of the house,” in the shadows.

“Cooking is, and always has been, a cult of pain,” he writes. “The people in our dining rooms are different from us. We are the other thing—and we like it like that.”

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As much as it’s bothered me since hearing the news, the details, it’s not really about death.

In my nascent days chasing dead-end pursuits, due to my artistic tastes and ostensibly darker sensibilities when it comes to my attraction to the mediums of fiction and film, I used to receive casual criticisms that I over-focused on death. It’s nothing I took personal. I understand the misguided assumption; but what I’ve learned in my creative endeavors—namely writing and culinary arts—that many of my compulsions were braided not with death, but rather impermanence.

I realized a few years ago that what, in part, galvanized my writing was my desire to create a legacy in ink: that my life could be revealed—that my life could be an identifiable endeavor.

I attempt to teach my students that creating a plate of food is a privilege, and if done properly, we can tell a story on that blank-slate surface; but as much care and skill we put onto that plate, we are required to part with it—the craft compels us to practice, incorporate, and become fluent, all for the sake of a stranger. Out of chaos, something cogent is assembled, all to disappear in a dimly-lit dining room. The privilege part comes when someone, sometimes a stranger, asks us to do it again. To recreate a cherished experience.

In 2007, I received the gift of a book from my father: My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals / Portraits, Interviews, and Recipes. I treasure that book, mostly because it reminds me of him, but also for the tutelage it offers. Some of the stories are surprisingly comical, others understandably morose.

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Bourdain is present on the roster of chefs and wrote the introduction. Reading it the first time, there was a lantern-flicker of remembrance in something Hemingway once said, that the best, early training for a writer was an unhappy childhood. Considering the circumstances, that reminder of Hemingway is no comfort now.

[W]hen we ask ourselves and each other the question, what—if strapped to a chair, facing a fatal surge of electricity—would we want to as the last taste of life, we seem to crave reminders of simpler, harder times. A crust of bread and butter. A duck confited in a broken home. Poor-people food. The food of the impoverished but (only in the abstract) the relatively carefree. When we think of what we would eat last, we revert from the loud, type A, obsessive, dominating control freaks we’ve become back to the children we once were. Not that all of us were happy children, but we were children just the same. If cooking professionally is about control—about manipulating the people, the ingredients, and the strange, physical forces of the kitchen universe to do one’s bidding; always anticipating, always preparing, always dominating one’s environment—then eating well is about submission. About letting go.

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I have more ingredients in my mental larder than I did eight years ago. My existential kitchen better supplied with nourishing provisions. But I’ve had coaches. And even if I’d never vocalized the simpering need for guidance, there were (and are) those who’ve acted as course-correctors, inadvertent tutors who’ve altered the avenues of my self-destructive tendencies and demonstrated how to enrich one’s existence. I’ve been a bystander, a spectator, but Bourdain was one of my central mentors.

Bourdain offered some final, girdering sentiments for me in his introduction to Appetites. “I became a father at fifty years of age. That’s late, I know. But for me, it was just right. At no point previously had I been old enough, settled enough, or mature enough for this, the biggest and most important of jobs: the love and care of another human being.” There’s more:

From the second I saw my daughter’s head corkscrewing out of the womb, I began making some major changes in my life. I was no longer the star of my own movie—or any movie. From that point on, it was all about the girl. Like most people who write books or appear on television, who think that anyone would or should care about their story, I am a monster of self-regard. Fatherhood has been an enormous relief, as I am now genetically, instinctively compelled to care about someone other than myself. I like being a father. No, I love being a father. Everything about it.

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Eight years ago, I arrived home from that Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert and shared jittery anecdotes with my wife. My wife listened, allowed me to tell my story. I watched as she fed our infant daughter, who now eagerly, inquisitively cooks alongside me in the kitchen.

Hours earlier, in the media room where the journalists were allowed to interact with the chefs, both Bourdain and Ripert were gracious—there were no real surprises: they were disarming and engaged precisely as they appeared in their various pop-culture platforms. There was no bullshit. It was—for viewers and spectators who witnessed his celebrity-ascension—a fundamental appeal.

Time was limited in that pre-show session with the other stringers and the chefs. I didn’t get to ask all the questions I wanted, but I was allowed plenty. Enough, after all, is as good as a feast.

Aesthetics of the Spine

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It was frigid, slate-skied, while afternoon gusts—droning through alleyway corridors like lips over the top of an icy bottle—drove snow into curved coves along lifeless sidewalks.  And though the weather itself may not isolate a specific calendar segment for the city of Chicago, I’ll go ahead and tell you this was February, 2001.

Block-by-block, brownstone-by-brownstone, for months I’d enjoyed getting to know the city and its outlying neighborhoods, and found an excuse to formulate scouting missions whenever I could.  On this particular day, I’d gone exploring again, forgoing the warm nest of my modest apartment in Uptown and layering-up, shrugging into my peacoat as I headed out on foot to the south and west for a (cheap) place to get a haircut.  I’d wound up down on Fullerton, settling for a spot that seemed comfortable, competent, and wouldn’t wither my frail stack of cash.

With the haircut over with (read:  no longer a shaggy savage), I headed back east, face pinched against the wind, thinking about school, thinking about the books I was reading—the books I wanted to read.  I was also thinking about how a person becomes a writer—how they practice…how they obtain affirmation that they’re on the right track.  Is the skill ingrained, developed?  Bit of both?  In all aspects of the things I aspired to be at the time, I was rather rough around the edges (we have some people trying to verify this, but I believe I still am), young in age, unseasoned in both academics and in undertaking genuine endeavors.

The previous November, I’d devoured a paperback copy of Dan Simmons’s Summer of Night.  (That novel continues to be one of my top-treasured reads—partly for sentimentality, I admit it.  Part of it was simple character identification:  I knew the wonder and uncertainty of Simmons’s eleven-year-old composites; and it was the first time that I remember reading, leaning against the window of a Greyhound bus (my favorite mode of transportation when visiting Indy), looking up from the paperback and peering out at the legendarily macabre Wolf Lake, and thinking:  How can I do this?  How does a person pull off this trick?)  At the time, and as an obsessive byproduct of my newfound absorption, I used my free time (some evenings, but mostly Saturday and Sunday mornings) wandering the aisles of used bookshops, seeking out any hardcover editions by the authors I wanted most to emulate (Simmons, Matheson, Bradbury, King, F. Paul Wilson).  I had indeed discovered a pair of signed, hardcover first-editions of Summer of Night (one at Bill’s on Belmont, another up in Evanston); alas, the appended price tags were, for my meager budget, out-of-bounds.

Hands shoved deep in my pockets, I was stalking down thesidewalk on the northside of Fullerton, nearing the L depot, when, passing by the Lincoln Park library branch.  I veered off the sidewalk, off-handedly grateful that, while browsing, I could temporarily knock-off the chill.  I’d had not, at that time, yet applied for a library card, so the books would be for browsing only, and, of course, nothing “for keeps.”

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Meeting Dan Simmons:  summer, 2005

 

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Almost immediately I spotted a cart parked askew near the entrance.  Curious, and knowing this to be a cart containing discard books with a cheap price tag, I appraised the cart, but only for a second or two before freezing.  Amazingly, there it was:  the black spine containing the white-lettered title—the cover, I’d memorized from months of pining.  It was, of course, a hardcover specimen—if only slightly battered—of Summer of Night.  With the cost of $3, and with five cold singles in my wallet, the price (as one lauded author once put) was right.

This one would be mine to keep.

####

I understand it smacks of smugness, but before signing on to the ambience of Facebook back in 2014, the public library—my public library branch, to be precise—was an environment which not only served as a simple source of comfort, but was a locale of private indulgence.  (Make no mistake:  the ye olde F-book has provided, and will surely continue to provide, connectivity and camaraderie to a community and an audience that would otherwise go neglected.  I’d be missing out on a lot, in other words.  And for that, hell:  I’m grateful.  I also understand that expecting total extrication is just as unrealistic, and perhaps mentally unsteady, as the type of disconnection on which I’m commenting.)  But the library provided yet another, perhaps more profound purpose.

Before slipping off the synthetic shore and wading into the (more often than not) brackish stream of social media, I used alternate (perhaps even considered antiquated) mediums to measure my progress as a writer.

Facebook is, of course, a sort of virtual scrapbook.  (I was visiting with a childhood friend, one who’d endured each level of school with me, from elementary to secondary.  Our conversation drifted into the To-Be or Not-To-Be of participating in our twenty-year class reunion.  We ultimately agreed:  What would there be to talk about?  I mean, the revelation of almost every small-talk chatting point could be obtained via Facebook—career…spouse…ex-spouses…exotic vacations.  The consensus:  prior to reified organisms like Facebook, ritualized events like reunions may have been sincere, but they are bygone as our personal relationships have been whittled to a select few while we revel in our thousands of “friends.”)  In other ways, Facebook is a bathroom wall where just about anything goes.  Some of it’s ugly.  Some of it’s harmlessly inane.  Some of it’s fucking hilarious.

But I have, in these past two years, come to understand the contortive effects of such an insulated environment.  To put another way, social media—as its personality is wont to do—alters awareness, subjectively contorting and gently rending the scope of reality.  From the “friends” you make to the publishers to which you submit, the virtual realm possesses the capacity to warp how we approach our craft.  This is not a novel observation, and each emergent technology has instigated these sorts of suspicions; but having been slightly seduced by the ease of its connectivity, I am still attempting to come to some sort of rapprochement with the platform.

In the January / February, 2016 issue of Poets & Writers, Frank Bures contemplates the dilemma of self-promotion vis-a-vis social-media platforms.  “It can feel like a crushing weight, like social media has become a giant pyramid scheme in which we are all selling some idea of ourselves, even as we struggle to believe our own marketing” (94).  Bures goes on to examine where the intersection of the “self” and the “work,” asking, “Does the brand encompass both?” (94).

Fortifying the discussion, Bures cites psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990):  “When not preoccupied with ourselves, we actually have a chance to expand the concept of who we are.  Loss of self-consciousness can lead to transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward.”

The library was (is) a cynosure as I “felt” my way through the formative stages of apprenticeship, possessing guidance which had a palpable gravitational pull.  And even as that apprenticeship continues to makes its tectonic, sometimes imperceptible shifts, the library continues to reveal clues about its role in my life.  Mainly, it’s a sobering reminder of my smallness and how much work (if I’m as serious about the craft as I claim) I have yet to do.

In his essay, “A Defense of the Book,” William Gass is infinitely more adept at framing what I’m attempting so say:

The aim of the library is a simple one, to unite writing with its reading . . . yes, a simple stream, but a wide one when trying to cross.  The library must satisfy the curiosity of the curious, offer to stuff students with facts, provide a place for the lonely, where they may enjoy the companionship and warmth of the word.  It is supposed to supply handbooks for the handy, novels for the insomniacs, scholarship for the scholarly, and make available works of literature, written for no one in particular, to those individuals they will eventually haunt so successfully, these readers, in self-defense, will bring them finally to life.  More important than any of these traditional things, I think, is the environment of books the library puts visitors in, and the opportunity for discovery that open stacks make possible.

Though a dull observation, a book is a simultaneously simplistic and convoluted device:  a companionable chimera of, among other things, entertainment, tutelage, and time-bound tradition.  And while much of this is owed to the stories themselves and how they’ve wainscoted the curving corridors of my life, still there’s indelible residue associated with cover artwork, with the elementary innocence in learning of a place called Loch Ness—of the scaly, snake-necked thing which subsists beneath the black-glass surface.

Even as I wrote that last line, I felt a low-level thrill (what I’ve come to privately coin as an “Echoshiver”) at the mere memory of the era I first encountered some of my favorite books (think about those deliciously lurid covers from the late 70s and early 80s—those ghastly, Pocket Book, TOR, and Signet tableaus which still, for me, elicit gut-centered giddiness).

It’s Pavlovian at this point, something akin to mental-murmur-litany:  when I enter my library, I call up that line from Updike, which encourages me to hang my head a little lower—to think about that cluelessly ardent kid on the Greyhound bus.  “When I write,” says Updike, “I aim in my mind not toward New York but a vague spot a little east of Kansas.  I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him.  The reviews, the stacks in Brentano’s are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf.”

It is a place to visit old comrades from childhood—The Cay…The Wishgiver…the aquiline outline of Sherlock Holmes…The House of Dies Drear—before moving on to check-in on more nascent though earnest influences:   Straub, Mark Frost, Shirley Jackson, Isaac Babel, Carver, Hawthorne, William Gay, Nathanael West, Leiber, Charles L. Grant—companions whom I’ve never had the compulsion to send a “friend” request.

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A few days ago, I had to part ways with, and return to the library, The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol.  I happened to be accompanied by a travel partner—my five-year-old daughter.

Our stomping-grounds library location is the Franklin Road branch.  (Notable digression:  the Franklin Road branch resides on acreage which had, for a slim period in the nineteenth century, been allotted land for the town of Gallaudet, which then shifted north and became New Bethel, now Wanamaker.)  It has, over the past three years or so, become a sort of ritual with us:  she enjoys dropping the returns through the check-in slot before angling off toward the kids’ section, each time I whisper (still adhering to that accustomed social more), “I’ll be right there…don’t leave without me.”  She typically provides acknowledgment with a reciprocal whisper, at least  a thumbs-up, though I am already mentally shaping (read:  steeling myself for) the day when Dad is a public anchor—that she’ll want to fly solo on these literary trips.

Unlike the behavioral adjustments and compromises we employ in order to adapt these to these protean shifts in technology and communication, the library is a place in which wonder can be renewed.  Where modest awe has a chance for restoration.  Where we can ponder the fragility of affirmation.

We walked in together, unlatching hands as the automatic doors opened.

Before checking out, we came to the consensus that she was old enough for her own library card; so what was originally a somewhat compulsive jaunt turned into a literarily monumental occasion.  We were laughing, my daughter tamping a small squeal just beneath her breath, puffing up with pint-size pride at her “big girl” acquisition.  Not then—holding her hand as we walked across the lobby—but now something has snuck up on me from Vonnegut’s narrator in the earlypart of Slaughterhouse-Five:  “I asked myself about the present:  how wide it was, how deep it was, how much of it was mine to keep.”

And there is one more significant anecdote about this trip.

Rounding the corner by the front desk, I happened to notice the discard cart filled with for-sale hardcovers.

Again it was the aesthetics of the spine that caught my eye.

Back in the spring of 2012, after years of engaging in a prolonged, three-pronged campaign of 1) aggressive accumulation of my own composition; 2) reevaluation / excavation of delinquent sketches and neglected stories; and 3) continued study of authors (contemporary, established) whose style I intended to, if not in some way emulate, simply learn from.  Incredibly, in one case I’d discovered that many of them—namely Norman Partridge, Cailtlín Kiernan, William Browning Spencer, and Joe Hill—had contributed tales to an anthology titled Subterranean:  Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 (Subterranean Press, 2011).  Alas, while much had changed since that winter of 2001, my bookshop allowance had not; and, eyeing a price tag of $150, I found myself unable to acquire a personal copy.  So, I settled for the next best thing:  I placed a hold at the library.

discardFor months I toted that gorgeous thing around, devouring it upon first reading before renewing it, dissecting the sections that most impressed me before renewing again…and again.  Then, the inevitable:  Some (perhaps) similarly-spirited soul placed their own hold on the volume, and thus my grip slipped from it.

Over four years had passed between the time I possessed and studied that book and where I currently stood:  slack-jawed in front of yet another discard cart.  I pulled the copy of SubterreaneanBut this couldn’t be exactly the same copy…could it?—and ran my palm over the cover, scoured the pages.  Now, the price of $3 was well within my wallet-bound wheelhouse.

My daughter asked what it was, and I proceeded to provide a condensed version of what I’ve shared with you in the preceding paragraphs.  And just as I was marveling over the coincidence of happening upon a book I adored—flipping through the pages—I froze as a plank of paper fell from the interior, landing at my feet.  My daughter plucked it up.  But I suspected I knew what it was before inspecting it up close.

Stunningly, it was an index card which I had—upon what I thought to be an impermanent though extended era of ownership—utilized as a study aid in my private homework, adding words to my rickety lexicon, taking notes about language, descriptions, transitions.  In four years, not one of the presumed owners or scrutinizing librarians had discarded the index card.  Whatever the book’s Central-Indiana adventure had been in the interim, our erratic orbits again aligned.

For a poet, awareness compels connection.  C. Day Lewis put it this way:  the poet’s task is to recognize the pattern.  And as little faith and belief as I have in anything, I stole a small, incidental assurance in this ostensibly meek anecdote.  My daughter and I walked to the car, both with a prize from the library.  I thought about metaphors and meaning.  I considered coincidence and signs.  I wondered about work and ink—pondered my daughter’s stretching shadow—these hand-in-hand moments.  I wondered about what was ephemreal, what was concrete, and wondered how much of it was mine to keep. — CS

 

 

Location, Location, Vocation

These first few months of 2015 are marked by several pieces of writerly news — notably, the acceptance of a pair of stories in two, inceptive publications, each helmed by estimable editors possessing inventive visions.

“Nøkken,” Theodor Kittelsen, entitled (1904) XNOYBIS, No. 1

My story “Animalhouse” found placement in CM Muller’s inaugural Nightscript,  “N. is a venue for ‘strange tales’,” writes Muller, “fictions supernatural, uncanny, [and] weird.”  The content will no doubt possess “subtle and darksome literary horror.”  Look for fictions in the vein of Robert Aickman, Shirley Jackson, Dennis Etchison, Flannery O’Connor, Terry Lamsley, Lisa Tuttle, Thomas Owen, Mary Shelley, and Arthur Machen,

The second odd abode in which my tale “The Rive” has found a “home” is in Jordan Krall’s venture, Xnoybis, a journal of weird fiction, the first issue of which will feature a “never-before-published interview with Thomas Ligotti from 1999 which has been approved by Tom himself,” according to Krall.  (The interview was conducted by David Edwards.)