To My Chums In This “Wretched Slum”

You’ve likely seen the late-night talk show bit before:  Their “man on the street” (read:  charismatic intern or witty sidekick) conducting random, sidewalk interviews, the topics of which your average, at-home viewer would have some knowledge or awareness—elementary-level history…a geographic softball…pop-culture trivia.  The edition I have in mind is a segment on Jimmy Kimmel Live over the past year or so, wherein participants are asked to simply name a book.  Any book.

Yes, yes:  The video has understandably been edited to highlight the more dopey pedestrians, and as a vox-populi viewer, I too chuckle as the participant struggles against the straightjacket restraints of fleeting recollection; but the composition also accentuates a suspicion (and corresponding, inextricable malaise) I’ve harbored for quite some time:  that our audience is not only dwindling, but writers are either fawning on or searching for an unknown audience that is increasingly indifferent.  As such, I have in mind a piece of a passage from Eudora Welty’s 1965 essay, “Words Into Fiction”:

[W]riting fiction, which comes out of life and has the object of showing it, can’t be learned from copying out of books.  Imitation, or what is in any respect secondhand, is precisely what writing is not.  How it is learned can only remain in general—like all else that is personal—an open question; and if ever it’s called settled, or solved, the day of fiction is already over.  The solution will be the last rites at the funeral.  Only the writing of fiction keeps fiction alive.  Regardless of whether or not it is reading that gives writing birth, a society that no longer writes novels is not very likely to read any novels at all.

Aside from my cooking endeavors in culinary school, my life is notably absent of a dossier for having been an academically stellar student.  Yet (along with heavy metal), books—even when I was not consistent about a readerly accumulation of pages in the later phases of adolescence (I was, for a time, deeply steeped in illustration, music, and the absorption of film)—have been a companionable constant; and although I submit the preceding paragraphs with mild irritation, it’s braided with an underpinning humility.  I am, to be grievously commonplace, grateful to have been provided modest quarters from which to communicate my fiction over these past ten years—the fiction being a manifest repercussion of my objective admiration of stories and their creators.

As I’ve consciously navigated these literary tributaries over the course of my adult life, the arteries and thoroughfares have repeatedly led me, and returned me, to horror.  And so before I continue, I’ll supply a name-a-book assist for those pitiful souls on the street.  I’ve even provided some delineation as to the most tangibly formative phases of my life and the books that compelled and indelible alterations to my creative habits:

Phase One (earliest memories):  Instillation

Instillation

Phase Two (elementary and middle-school years):  Dependence

Dependence

Phase Three (adolescence):  Transience-Insolence

insolence

Phase Four (young adult years):  Independence

Independence

####

Recently, while conducting a freelance class for client, someone casually asked what I wrote in my spare time.  Across disparate, overlapping discussions within the room, I said, “Horror.”  Mishearing, they (with no small amount of jocular shock) responded, “Porn?”

A hiccup of hesitation—a feeble, straightjacket clamoring for clarification.  I chuckled, this time projecting the word with precision.  Horror.  There was a moment of, perhaps, evident disappointment—as though the prospect of such a salacious avocation were of higher conversational value than the discipline of a genre category like Horror:  “literature’s,” wrote Straub with a fair amount of irony, “wretched slum.”  As the dialogue began to dissipate, I even admit to desperately term-dropping (with no small amount of capitulating shame, mind you) “literary” and “elevated horror,” with the intent of bringing some validating gravitas to my craft.

I’m still uncertain what my writing-product is considered.  I can, subjectively, term it whatever I wish, but it’s ultimately a determination of my audience and my critics.  My goal (sometimes engineered, though often jarringly organic) is to create stories that are braided with difficult-to-define helices.  An example would be something in the narrative and aesthetic effectiveness The Reflecting Skin (1990), not only one of my north-star films but a centrally formative creative compositions.

the-reflecting-skin

Nevertheless, while I continue to dwell on what the hell my thing is, the mere ambition and pursuit of writing for publication has been further complicated this coterie-based designation.  The result is a habit of contrarian withdrawal:  The closer I list toward one designation or another, I sense a shift in not only my personal habits, but also the sites of intrinsic excavation.

In all its chimeric characteristics (and no disrespect to Mario Vargas Llosa), one of the more hackneyed adages is that the discipline of writing is a form of exorcism.  It’s true, of course; but frequently, I’ve unearthed things in my own digging—wandered into curious corners in the catacombs of reflection and appraisal.  I have no regrets, but it does elicit the compulsion of more work:  Self-assigned homework which often compels some ugly calculus.

Which demands not only isolation but profound methods of balance in order for “work” to take place; too, within this self-imposed, though necessary isolation, comes the often self-defeating business of an inner voice that is not always coherent.  “Society is all but rude,” wrote Andrew Marvell, “[t]o this delicious solitude.”  But perhaps it’s more helpful to listen to Hermann Hesse’s hyperaware Harry Haller in Steppenwolf—an awareness that emerges in those who accept “no reality except the one contained within us.  That is why so many people live such an unreal life.  They take the images outside them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself.”

It’s lonely work, in other words.  Work and exertion that demands an unceasing scramble as we seek fecund balance.

#

I imagine I have saved quite a bit of loot in my private writing endeavors—those early morning examinations that, I say with no small amount of insolence, go nowhere (when we intuit that they not futile).  More than that, I have come to understand, and be grateful for, the benefit of exchanges with other writers, some of whom often fill in as impromptu therapists.  These dialogues, on occasion, reveal infrequent covetousness that, left undiscussed, bears the potential for a distracting variety of corrosiveness.

I like to believe I’ve held up on my part of this unspoken bargain, offering help where I can, camaraderie where it’s perhaps lacking, all while attempting to maintain meaningful correspondences.  Though distance itself could be considered a drawback, I’ve found that, over the past few years, maintaining a correspondence across “place” has fortified a sense of devotion as the habit plays to counter inconvenience.

One of the more rewarding activities to which has proven a network proclivity is the exchange of books—perhaps a rather mundane activity in the estimation of some, but it has provided a dependable pulse in the isolated landscape of this often solitary discipline.

It was a coincidence that I was reading one of those friend-gifted books at the time of Dennis Etchison’s death.  “Only after the failure of consciousness can the dream come,” Etchison writes in his introduction to Cutting Edge.  “It is at this edge that change takes place.”

cutting edge

In this, Etchison mentions one of Kenneth Patchen’s lines in Sleepers Awake:  “It’s a long way to the morning, but there’s no law against talking in the dark.”

Etchison shares a touching anecdote about a series of correspondences he’d had with Kirby McCauley.  “[McCauley] taught me that I could, after all, survive without altering what I wrote, and that I was not alone on the rock.” / “This book, then is my offering of gratitude to those who have made the fever dream of safe harbor a reality.”

As journalist Anneli Rufus wrote in 2003’s collection of essays, Party Of One, “For loners, friends are all the more essential because in many cases they are our sole conduits to the outside world.  They are channels, filters, valves, rivers from the outback to the sea.  When we find good ones, we pour ourselves into them.”

And it’s in these friendships (casual or continual) that I have found most valuable byproduct over these past ten years of publishing stories—as I continue to shakily navigate daily productivity, my desire or dismissal to adhere to genre labels, my vacillating regard for status—and it’s in these kindred companions that provide the most sober galvanism…a little lantern light in those sinuous, subterranean conduits—some oxygen in the catacombs.

“He who has begun is half done…”

And while Mike and Lawrence and Kevin and Harlen and Cordie watched the satellite pass over, their faces raised in wonder at the bright new age now beginning, Dale watched them, thinking of his friend Duane and seeing things through the words that Duane might have used to describe them…

—Dan Simmons, Summer of Night (1991)

As I’m wont to do on Thanksgiving evening, as dusk draws up on a day dedicated to frantic culinary endeavors, a spectrum of logistics, and general familial demands (I’m grateful for the chaos and chores in all their variegated forms), I also nurture a memory, a narrow moment which had a profound consequences.

DS

That day and date back in November, 2000, represent coordinates of a tectonic shift along what was, at the time, a rather ambitiously listless landscape.  As I, along with many of you, express sentiments of, I also grow preoccupied by a sense of melancholy at closing that crease-covered paperback—a daunting melancholy (The amount of time and attention it must take to be a writer…) which was not wholly unpleasant, as it compelled the dissective questions:  How is it done?…How does this work?…How do you get them to see?

I began studying.  I began dissecting.  I began.  Sapere Aude—Incipe!

####

(November, 2017)

20171123_2147513492415209868696562.jpg

Seventeen years ago this evening, I stole away from an acidic / insipid Thanksgiving-dinner-table conversation, retreating to an isolated, second-story bedroom to read the last eight pages of the Warner Books paperback-version of SUMMER OF NIGHT. I scrutinized / savored the novel’s last lines with the understanding that I’d inadvertently navigated myself toward a craft-creative crossroads…

I’m still trying to figure out what kind of writer I’m supposed to be…

 

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.

Bourdain essay (7)

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.

Bourdain essay (2)

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.

bourdain-essay-1.jpg

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.)

Bourdain essay (5)

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.”

bourdain-essay-6.jpg

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.”

Bourdain essay (4)

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.”

#

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.

Bourdain essay (3)

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.

#

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.

#

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

20160917_134848

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

 

 

Weird Fiction Review, Issue 1

No foolin’—this is out today

It’s like the arguments of some ardent audiophiles, those enthusiast that (in the digital age of aimlessly yanking a song or two from some disreputable source, absently arranging them in some arbitrary order) maintain that vinyl is the only way to go:  The listener forfeits the essence of the album—the liner notes, the song-to-song sequence, the warmth of the music.  Same could be said for downloading a book or short story.  Easy? Sure.  Convenient? Without doubt.  But think about what you’re missing out on—the art, the weight, the feel of the book.

Okay—yes, so I own a Kindle; but stay with me.  There are some publications which still honor a bygone era of storytelling, aesthetically impressive journals whose sole purpose is to appeal to both our sense of tactility and our imagination.

The Weird Fiction Review, Issue I, is a piece of publishing artwork—a glossy, flap-cover paperback containing 225 pages and a sixteen-page, full color gallery of David Ho’s vibrantly lurid images.  “The Weird Fiction Review is designed to promote serious scholarship in weird and supernatural fiction from the Gothic novels to the present day,” writes S.T. Joshi in his opening editorial, “with an emphasis on the literature of the late nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.

Fiction contributors include Michaels Aronovitz, Cody Goodfellow, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., Mare Laidlow, Jason C. Eckhardt, along with yours truly.  There are also eight essays (the focuses of which include Lovecraft, Poe, Blackwood, Stoker, and Gaiman, to name a few), and five poets offering weird work.

Leviathan by David Ho

In the spirit of bygone journals and (sadly) defunct periodicals which prided themselves on promoting the tradition of supernatural tales, S.T. Joshi’s Weird Fiction Review provides a darkly disturbing glimpse at the past, present, and future of dark fiction.

Follow this link to Centipede Press:  www.centipedepress.com

Or check out Amazon.com:  www.amazon.com

And follow this link to David Ho’s website:  www.davidho.com

As always:  thanks for reading, and thank you for your support.