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.

some bears, rolf armstrong

“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…

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Darkly Didactic: The Lingering Lessons from C.M. Muller’s HIDDEN FOLK


hidden-folk-cover

The ostensible simplicity of a line like, “Look, Dad, a door!” belies a complicated subtext in the story “Absconsa Laterna,” and acts as an unassuming invocation of irretrievable consequence.

Far from his first publication project, but his first fiction collection, many of the “strange stories” in C.M. Muller’s Hidden Folk possess such unpretentious portents, and those who follow Muller through these thresholds will certainly remain haunted and, likely in some way, fundamentally altered.

Muller’s aesthetic is one of calm, sharply-defined surfaces; and though the illustration of a quiet, dawn-dim pond—the scene of an early-morning fishing episode, say—may be a mundane metaphor, it’s serviceable for this assessment.  We read Muller, in part, because of his subdued execution:  beneath the superficiality of that peaceful, reflective epidermis is a dark district inhabited by shadowy entities.  Focusing on the surface yet coaxed by curiosity, we narrow our focus, shift the lenses of our eyeline toward a furtive movement below:  the languid sway of infected kelp…the peek-a-boo retreat of something sinuous…the serpentine flash of scales.

A sense of Muller’s aesthetic is gained after reading the collection’s opener, “Vranger,” but it’s with the conclusion of “The Dust Child” that readers begin to better understand not only Muller’s tonal wheelhouse but his artistic intentions.

d79aa5f091228bf7d492b0dfb04fd936--night-gallery-tv-landMuller comes from a line of writers (I count myself among their motley ranks) influenced and affected by a particular era of the late-1980s and early-90s horror and science fiction; and though not directly affected by it, the 80s produced a variety of fiction which reflected predecessors directly “shaped” by the time-bound structures of, sure, radio shows, but more specifically televised serials—especially Serling’s instructive segments on the Twilight Zone and, later, his morose portraits on The Night Gallery.

prayersSome fantastic commercial short fiction was borne out of that 80s-90s span.  It’s a subjective submission, but I’d point to the work of my personal North Star writers of Charles Grant, Norman Partridge, Ed Gorman; and to tighten my scope and intent here, I’d direct one to, notably, Robert McCammon’s wonderful Blue World and Dan Simmons’s indelible Prayers to Broken Stones.  It’s evident there’s quite a bit of DNA from imparted from these periods (I can’t help but think Muller is sharing a sly wink to Simmons’s “Metastasis”—which was, suitably, converted into a teleplay titled “The Offering” for the early-90s anthology series Monsters—in his presentation of the aforementioned “The Dust Child”).  The result, in Hidden Folk, is a collection showcasing a pleasing circularity.

In “Absconsa Laterna,” Muller constructs a scenario which is a suitable creative-process metaphor for, perhaps, the often aimless and meandering routes we take in order to gain genuine momentum, and as Muller submits, “[W]e were able to witness the slow and often painstaking process by which many artists constructed their fantasies.”  Here, Muller relies on a central topic that I, as a writer, often have trouble navigating:  the “loss” of a child.  And I mean it when I say that I’m still haunted by the nonchalant words of a child, “Look, Dad, a door!”

twice-told-3d-cover (1)“Resurfacing” and “Diary of an Illness” are essentially fraternal twins with dissimilar voices; but something realized in the scenarios is a glimpse at the author behind the barrier of glass; although “Resurfacing” is more potent and reflects some of that signature circularity.  Something else that occurs to me with this story is the reprisal of the doppelgänger device.  Muller is adept at portraying the dimensions of “the shadowed self” (“Krogh’s Remains”)—a motif which certainly telegraphs his forthcoming anthology, Twice-Told:  A Collection of Doubles (set to be released, quite appropriately, on February 2, 2019— 02/02, in case I was too subtle).

“The Church in the Field” captures many of the writer’s eruditic strengths and fiction-rhythmic tendencies, and is perhaps his most artistically didactic.  The story contains a line which might very well sum up this unsettling collection, as Muller’s effectively created “brooding sketches of darkness and hunger.”

My central, critical observations come in the form of my need for more interactive dialogue.  There are too few instances of Folks engaging in spoken interplay; and I find that the exhalation of conversation might dispel the murky mist of ambiguity.  But there is a knowing liberality in Muller’s vagueness, as if gifting his audience with a participatory reciprocity.  You have to want to see what he see; and I think he wants some questions to linger.  “There was nothing more pleasurable,” says one of his narrators, “than patience.”

As a writer, yes, but more so as an editor and scrivner, C.M. Muller is a commendable custodian of the horror medium and its continually forking branches.  Of course, writers are aware (in some cases to a debilitating degree) the nuances of dramaturgical interactions in which we all engage; but it’s a writer’s obligation to infuse their products with abundant gravity so as to, ideally, sufficiently drag the readers beneath the exhibited surface.  In Hidden Folk, Muller has succeeded at both.

And so, my encouragement to curious parities is this:  while I’m loath to surrender my own copy, I’d like you to imagine the rectangle of a dark bookcase, its shelves packed shoulder-to-shoulder with varying, somber volumes of traded tales…I would then gesture toward the slatey spine of Hidden Folk.  “Look,” I’d say to you, removing the object wrapped in overcast, “a door…”

An Eloquent Undulation: C.M. Muller’s NIGHTSCRIPT, Vol. 4

N.4

Now in its fourth permutation, C.M. Muller’s Nightscript anthology continues to house — within its slate-scrubbed clapboard, concealed behind murky panes — a series of stories which, due to their strangeness and peculiarity, may have never otherwise discovered a proper home.
A shrewd student of a number of creative mediums, Muller is neither clumsy nor casual in his execution of these annual projects; and it really is a demonstrative exercise in voice and vision — his conjuring, capturing, and making incarnate (from font, to paper, in artwork, in tonality) a singular aesthetic.

Nightscript, IV expectedly contains a number of top-notch stories penned by (as Muller is wont to do) many “unknown” scribblers — this is one of the fantastic aspects of the series, as Muller places emerging names in close proximity with established writers, as is the case in N.IV with appearances by V.H. Leslie (“Sugar Daddy”) and Steve Rasnic Tem (“By the Sea”). I was personally taken with L.S. Johnson’s “A Harvest Fit For Monsters” (a grim and ambiguous tale of war-torn grief); Farah Rose Smith’s “Of Marble and Mud” (a crisply written narrative focusing on the frightening and fragile bond between two sisters); and Mike Weitz’s “Rainheads” (bearing bleak shades of apocalyptic horror).  Joanna Parypinski’s “The Thing In the Trees” is a personal highlight for me—one of the most haunting and deftly-handled tales I’ve encountered for quite some time.

Nightscript alumnus Charles Wilkison (“The Dandelion Disorder”) makes a welcome appearance, as well as Christi Nogle (“Cinnamon to Taste”) and Daniel Braum (“The Monkey Coat”). Resonating, still, for me are the stories “There Has Never Been Anyone Here” by J.T. Glover; “By The Sea” by the aforementioned Mr. Rasnic Tem; and Kirsty Logan’s “My House Is Out Where the Lights End,” which serves as the publication’s breathtaking, closing punctuation.

Another part of Muller’s magic is his sapient strategy in weaving an ambiguous melody in the sequencing of the tales, yielding a unique resonance and eloquent undulation to each installment.
hidden-folk-cover

Nightscript is, of course, an annual celebration of the pleasant melancholies of autumn; but its contents are suitable for any timeframe in which a reader can carve out some solitudinal space, as the well-crafted tales call for your attention and close-reading consideration. More than this, Nightscript is — in Muller’s mental landscape — a vital venue for voices often lost beneath the wind-swept blanket of brittle, burnt-orange leaves — an otherwise unnoticed sibilance existing in the shadowed, foreboding fringes of a rickety-limbed forest.

Recently, Muller announced the forthcoming release of his first collection of tales, Hidden Folk. And if you’d like to get to know a bit more about this writer, editor, and self-described scrivener, check out an interview with Muller conducted by Scott Dwyer over the The Plutonian.

“This Godless Apprenticeship”: Weirdbook Magazine, #40

Just noticed that editor, Douglas Draa, has announced the release of Weirdbook #40, which includes my story, “This Godless Apprenticeship.”

Weirdbook no. 40, J. Florencio

Weirdbook #40, Cover Art by J. Florêncio

Though obviously dictated by a narrative’s shape of and the dynamic demands of the characters therein, my accustomed, rhythmic (first-draft) product clocks in around eight- to ten-thousand words; and while I can certainly contort the constraints of these pieces, I often have trouble finding suitable word-count venues.

I was sketching several stories at the time (each having subsequently gained both their intended dimension and fulfillment in publication), but—due to the period-period backdrop of the seventeenth century—took a digressive detour with this one. “This Godless Apprenticeship” is a pirate story (a first for me), and while it’s a shorter tale than I’m used to (just short of 5K words), it was a self-imposed challenge to infuse as much historic research as I could into its saltwater-eaten frame.

Captain Kidd, Pyle

Captain Kidd, by Howard Pyle

The story begins with my quartermaster, Thomas Ware, conducting nightwork for his trade-calloused superior, Captain John Lacewage, aboard the aptly named brigantine, The Gaggler Coach. It was a fun one to write, and like most tales of this variety, I learned quite a bit (more, certainly, than the brief yarn reflects).

The “set list” for Weirdbook #40 follows:

Features:

From the Editor’s Tower, by Doug Draa

Stories:

“Iconoclasm,” by Adrian Cole

“Have a Crappy Halloween,” by Franklyn Searight

“Early Snow,” by Samson Stormcrow Hayes

“The Dollhouse,” by Glynn Owen Barrass

“Elle a Vu un Loup,” by Loren Rhoads

“Bringing the Bodies Home,” by Christian Riley

“Restored,” by Marlane Quade Cook

“Nameless and Named,” by David M. Hoenig

“Playing A Starring Role,” by Paul Lubaczewski

“And the Living is Easy,” by Mike Chinn

“The Prague Relic,” by Paul StJohn Mackintosh

“The Circle,” by Matt Sullivan

“Sanctuary,” by John Linwood Grant

“The Giving of Gifts,” by Matt Neil Hill

“The Santa Anna,” by Jack Lothian

“The Dread Fishermen,” by Kevin Henry

“Blind Vision,” by Andrew Darlington

“The Thirteenth Step,” by William Tea

“This Godless Apprenticeship,” by Clint Smith

“Waiting,” by John W. Dennehy

“Pouring Whiskey In My Soul,” by Paul R. McNamee

“True Blue,” by Darrell Schweitzer

“The Treadmill,” by Rohit Sawant

“The Veiled Isle,” by W. D. Clifton

Poetry:

“Gila King,” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

“Necro-Meretrix,” by Frederick J. Mayer

“Grinning Moon,” by Frederick J. Mayer

“The Burning Man,” by Russ Parkhurst

“Silent Hours,” by Russ Parkhurst

“The Old White Crone,” by Maxwell Gold

Douglas Draa and his partners at Wildside Press create a top-notch product (back in September, 2018, Draa’s What October Brings: A Lovecraftian Celebration of Halloween, which he edited, secured a standing at #15 among Amazon’s best sellers in the Horror Anthology category), and you can be confident the stories contained in this volume have been handled with equally trenchant attention.

Snag a copy here: Weirdbook Magazine, Issue #40.

pyle, plank

“Walking the Plank,” Howard Pyle

A Process, Well-Nigh Ossified

Skel Mel, paint, ready for edits (for upload).pngI’ve had several pleasant exchanges with representatives from Hippocampus Press over the past month or so, culminating in (among other processes) the completion of the galley proofs for my second collection, The Skeleton Melodies (due out mid 2019).  This volume includes twelve short stories and one, previously unpublished novella.  The table of contents follows:

  • “Lisa’s Pieces”
  • “The Undertow, and They That Dwell Therein”
  • “Animalhouse”
  • “Fingers Laced, as Though in Prayer”
  • “By Goats Be Guided”
  • “The Pecking Order”
  • “Her Laugh”
  • “Knot the Noose”
  • “The Rive”
  • “The Fall of Tomlinson Hall; or, The Ballad of the Butcher’s Cart”
  • “Fiending Apophenia”
  • “Details That Would Otherwise Be Lost to Shadow”
  • Haunt Me Still

Pleasingly Bleak: the Figments of J.R. Hamantaschen

A Deep Horror....jpg

Cover Art by Laura Givens

Next to discussing this author’s quality of work, that J.R. Hamantaschen continues to steadily produce pleasingly bleak fictions amid (or perhaps due to) the backdrop of social-media neediness is to be commended.  In his collection, A Deep Horror That Was Very Nearly Awe, Hamantaschen, with an almost prosecutorial execution, submits fictions containing themes familiar to his fans; but this most-recently revealed cache of stories (eleven in all) is a bit more resilient in their aesthetic and tangible in their approachability.

Along a literary landscape which, in some ways, has become distorted by the online channels of gnathonic, echo-chamber transmissions, Hamantaschen’s tales—devoid of a simpering sentimentality so prevalent in those interweb mediums—remain untinged by the typically mundane anchor of social-media activity, and reflect an admirable variety of isolation.

That said, Hamantaschen invests energy to, and capitalizes on, focusing on (what would otherwise be considered) the mundane—those day-to-day interactions which most dismiss despite possessing a prism for our multiform realities (case in point:  the story “No One Cares But I Tried”); and though I wager he’s knee-deep in the daily fray, A Deep Horror… budges very little when it comes to giving in.  “He usually didn’t like people looking at him dead on,” writes Hamantaschen in one of the pieces; but that’s precisely how the writer scrutinizes his subjects.

A few of these fictions are lengthy and contemplative (this volume contains a sturdy, novella-length study, Faithfully and Lovingly), and several pleasantly strain convention.  “7099 Brecksville Road, Independence, Ohio” is a meta-exercise in set-up which has a pay-off punctuated by a “back-to-the-drawing board” relent in this drudgery of thankless creation.

One of the more scalpel-sharp stories is the opener, “Rococo Veins and Lurid Stains,” which casts several regret-dwelling characters who—throughout several colorful exchanges—are plotting some sort of, well…exchange.  Cautious of exposing too much of the tale, there exists in this piece a sort of literary loop, a “chain”:  “You don’t come back as who you were before,” a central character suggests.  “You probably come back as something else and it’s doubtful you’d have any real memory of who you were before.”

My nits include several layout-formatting, general editing throughout the volume, and a number of distracting POV jumps (particularly in “That’s Just the Way Things Are These Days”).  But audience members aren’t reading Hamantaschen for these reasons.  Rather, it’s something more innately unique.

Aside from a bleakly acerbic sense of humor, the most compelling characteristic to Hamantaschen’s work is his voice.  Not unlike certain moments in life which bear the potential of developing into indelible vignettes, Hamantaschen’s resonant voice emerges in unlikely moments:  a stylistic mechanism within his narratives which seamlessly serves to insulate an unnerving scenario—the scenario, in many cases with J.R. Hamantaschen, is simply existence.

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.”

dan-simmons-2005

Meeting Dan Simmons:  summer, 2005

 

branch

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.

####

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