Saturday, November 21, 2015

Trouble in Lovecraft Land - We're All Better Than This

Firstly, I apologize for the lack of updates to the blog. I've been keeping busy with fiction editing for Strange Aeons magazine, as well as writing reviews for the next issue and starting a new column of booze/cigar/book pairings. I've also been reviewing books and discussing news of The Weird on The Outer Dark podcast.

The weird fiction community means a lot to me. I started to become involved back in 2012 when I started the blog, but it wasn't until NecronomiCon 2013 that I met everyone. I couldn't have imagined a warmer welcome, and since then I've come to regard many of my colleagues as good friends.

Since then, there's been many petty feuds and disagreements. The boat is rocked sometimes, but things usually right themselves fairly quickly. In the past several months tensions have been on the rise, and due to political differences many find themselves taking a side, or doing their best to stay out of it while shaking their heads at how absurd it's all become. Science Fiction had the Sad Puppies to deal with, but that fiasco managed to infect genre as a whole. Robert Price made a speech at NecronomiCon 2015 which likened the Middle East to Lovecraft's Red Hook, and this moment was when lines begin to solidify.

The most recent issue was the decision to change the World Fantasy Award from a bust of Lovecraft to something more neutral. While many argued on either side, it's an issue that should have been dropped weeks ago, yet instead it continues to grow and become one of the biggest problems the community has faced.

ST Joshi has always been a very well respected member in the field, and the most well-known and productive scholar of HP Lovecraft. He is, understandably when one looks at his life's work, not happy about the change of the WFA. Here is a man who by all rights knows Lovecraft more than anyone. His initial protest was just that, one man making a statement against a change he couldn't stomach. If he wants to return his WFAs then so be it, that's his business. But it doesn't end there.

Joshi, and others, have been making increasingly uglier posts about the situation. It seems there are several people, including but not limited to Joshi, who feel that removing the Lovecraft bust is the first step in removing Lovecraft from everything. And this is where things get out of hand, and some people need to step back, calm down, and look at things like the intelligent adults we all know they are. Lovecraft's legacy is not going anywhere. Most of the people who were for the change don't want Lovecraft erased at all!

Changing the statue and being a fan of Lovecraft are not mutually exclusive. I think the change was a good idea. The award itself has moved away from what it started as, and it was never called the HP Lovecraft Award. In actuality, I had no strong feelings either way in the beginning, the award holders have every right to decide how their award appears, but after hearing arguments it is for the best that the award changes.

With that being said, I love Lovecraft. My blog takes its name from his work, as an homage to the author responsible for bringing me into the world of weird fiction in the first place. I have a house full of Lovecraftiana, be it artwork (those Liv Rainey-Smith woodcuts though!) or sculptures (my toddler nephews love looking at McKittrick and Broers takes on Cthulhu) or books. My League of Legends username is SeƱor Cthulhu (add me if you want, but I'm terrible). My friends have spent hours drinking booze and playing Arkham Horror. My students draw me pictures of Cthulhu. You get the picture.

So there. I'm a huge fan of Lovecraft, and I'm all for the award changing. It's that simple. Joshi and friends are smart enough that they should be able to understand that the award change does not mean that Lovecraft's influence is trying to be denied or pushed aside or covered up. There is no reason for the ugliness we are now all experiencing.

In the past week I have seen Joshi's wife telling a poet that he must not want to work with any publisher affiliated with Joshi because he posted that he disagreed with Joshi's wording on the issue. This poet was on Joshi's side in regards to the statue changing. If that's not pure insanity, I don't know what is. In the latest blog post, Joshi went after many authors and editors including Ellen Datlow, the genre's greatest editor, and Jeff Vandermeer, one of the most important voices of the the weird working today. The vitriol being spat out questions Datlow's integrity for being pro-change yet editing Lovecraftian anthologies, and accusing Vandermeer of "[...] failing to grasp the immensely complex social, political, cultural, and historical factors surrounding this entire issue." Datlow and Vandermeer have been the most inclusive editors out there. Datlow is one of the most well-read, intelligent, and kind editors working in the field. To question her morality is so ridiculously insulting it actually made my jaw drop to read it. Vandermeer has made it a mission to show readers the truer, broader horizons of weird fiction. He doesn't dismiss Lovecraft, but makes it clear that Lovecraft is a small part of the entirety of the weird. His anthology The Weird showcases this perfectly. Joshi goes on to say that all of these authors and editors will be forgotten while Lovecraft's legacy will remain, a petty and gross thing to say, taking the issue of the statue change to a very personal level.

And the situation is not limited to Joshi. Associates are now circling wagons. Some publishers are now deciding not to publish people for being on one side of the issue. The "Old Guard" and the "New Blood" seem to be truly at odds for the first time, and it's really not pretty at all.

I know most of this post comes across as anti-Joshi, and while it's true that I feel he is acting really out of hand and taking this issue much further than it needs to be, sinking to the depths of foot-stomping and making personal attacks, I don't want to use any of this as an attempt to make Joshi irrelevant. I don't take glee in the fact that his post makes him look terrible, and that it's in actuality hurting his cause even further. Some people are responding calmly, but not all, and it's just as ugly as his post.

No, I don't feel any of those things. Instead I feel a deep and profound sadness. I see a community full of wonderful people that seems ready to collapse on itself. I think ahead to the next convention, and I wonder, is it going to be so nastily divisive? Are guests going to refuse to be on panels with other guests? Are blowouts going to ensue, or are both sides going to ignore each other, lending the air a feeling of two separate and simultaneous cons inhabiting the same physical space but seeming light years apart? I don't want that.

One of the most appealing aspects of this community is the diversity. This includes the people whom I find myself disagreeing with on many levels. I don't want them ostracized, but I don't want them drawing lines either. It's my hope that the goodness of this community will shine through the current ugliness, and we will all be able to find whatever it is in ourselves to get along, or at least keep it civil, because that is the weird fiction community that I fell in love with.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Review: Bastards of the Absolute by Adam S. Cantwell

I think it's appropriate to open this review with a look at the physicality of the book itself. Egaeus Press is consistently publishing some of the best looking hardcover books being put out today. The appearance and feel of the book is enough to get any jaded bibliophile to drool.

Now, even though the book as a physical object is gorgeous, the most importantaspect is the quality of the writing between the covers. Thankfully, this book delivers.

Adam S. Cantwell is a British author, and part of what I'll for now call a "European strange literature" movement. Certain things that come to mind when talking about this subset of weird literature: Old World Europe, dense prose, intellectual narrators, decadence, surrealism. Many of these authors have their work published as beautiful, limited hardcovers from publishers such as Passport Levant, Ex Occidente, Side Real Press and now Egaeus Press.

Several of the stories in this collection have appeared in limited tribute anthologies to Bruno Schulz, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Hanns Heinz Ewers, or as very limited Passport Levant editions, so it's great to see them all collected in a beautiful, yet affordable edition.

Some of my favorites:

The Face in The Wall is a story about a man who is imprisoned inside a city wall. His entire body is in in the wall, with only his face exposed. He spends ages in the wall, watching the changes of the city, and coping with ill treatment from citizens of the city. A clever blend of fantasy and horror, it's great story to open the collection with.

Next up is The Filature, a story in tribute to Hanns Heinz Ewers. As punishment, a German man's employers send him to a Chinese silk factory. The story reads as his journal, and we see the man repeat many of the same mistakes that brought about his corporate exile in the first place. Some truly creepy moments in this one.

Music is an important aspect of several stories in the collection. Three of which (Moonpaths of the Departed, The Kuutar Concerto, and Symphony of Sirens) first appeared collected together as A Pallid Wave on Shores of Night by Ex Occidente. Another, Beyond the Two Rivers: A Symphonic Poem, first appeared in The First Book of Classical Horror Stories edited by D.F. Lewis. I loved the shared themes of these stories, and how they managed to all use music differently. Several (all?) feature real life composers. My favorite of the four may be The Kuutar Concerto,  which features Sibelius having a drunken night out in seedy bars after an incident at one of his concerts. He runs into someone who knows him from the past, and the drunken revelry spirals into the realms of the otherwordly.

Only For The Crossed-Out is Cantwell's Bulgakov tribute, and is a wonderfully absurd story. A clerk of sorts works in an archive of books where they cross-out and censor books.Things take a turn for the interesting when our protagonist falls down a chute and becomes trapped in a basement mass-grave of books.

The collection ends with Orphans on Granite Tides, originally released as a stand alone by Ex Occidente. Billed as a "Metaphysical Grotesque," this tale follows a German man who finds rare books and manuscripts as his occupation, although this job of his has become his life. This serves as a frame story for a peculiar document he finds. The document claims to be a sort of memoir by a well traveled Native American, who has metaphysical experiences and sees the world within our own world. A difficult piece, but one that shines for it.

This book was my first experience with Adam S. Cantwell's fiction, and shan't be the last. His fiction is tantalizingly mystifying, and brings readers to a magical, Old World Europe that is equal parts horrifying and beautiful.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Necronomicon 2015: We Are Providence

I've been terribly slacking when it comes to blog posts. Between my day job, other work I'm doing in the weird fiction field, reviews appearing elsewhere, and sometimes going through periods where I don't read nearly as much as I should, I've just not been giving this blog the attention it deserves. I hope to remedy this, and I have a few reviews lined up that I have to type and post, but first I wanted to take the time to do a post about NecronomiCon Providence, which was held this past weekend.

I actually wasn't planning on doing a write-up on the con this go around, even though it came up earlier in the weekend when The joey Zone told me he enjoyed my blog post about the 2013 con. That was my first con, and it was special in many ways. It truly changed my life.

On Sunday, the final day of the con, I went to see friends in the vendor's room after participating on The Future of Weird Fiction Panel (more on that later). I picked up the Dim Shores chapbooks I pre-ordered, and was planning on buying an original Cthulhu art piece from Dave Felton. I first met Dave at the 2013 con. One afternoon we were both in the Haven Brother's food truck, and recognizing we were both attending the same con, struck up a conversation. Dave was familiar with The Arkham Digest, and we had a nice chat.

So here, the final day of NecronomiCon 2015, I found myself hanging out with Dave in the vendor's room. He gifted me the Cthulhu piece, and told me about reading my write-up of the last NecronomiCon, and some follow up Facebook posts by myself and others. He commented on seeing me say somewhere about how it changed my life, and that he realized the first con changed his life too. He remember how Jeffrey Thomas remarked on Facebook that it felt like the con was still going on via Facebook, which in a way it really was. Excitement was running high for everyone, and it seemed that none of us really wanted to let go of what was truly a magical weekend.

Dave Felton is amazing.

After we parted, I headed downstairs for lunch before grabbing a train home. As I sat on the train I thought about the weekend, and quite a bit about the conversation Dave and I had a few hours earlier, and I came to the conclusion that writing about this year's con was something I should take the time to do.

I remember quite clearly the mix of emotions I had going to the first NecronomiCon. The Digest wasn't even a year old, and despite having made friends and acquaintances online, this would be the first time I would meet many of them. Excitement and nervousness both boiled so high I could no longer tell one from the other. Would I just see them on panels? Would we get to talk much? Would it be awkward? Would they be polite but not really want me bugging them?

My fears turned out to be unfounded, and I felt as if I had come home, so to speak. These were my people.

A lot has happened in the last two years. I've attended a few more cons (the wonderful HP Lovecraft Film Festival Portland, Cthulhucon Portland, Readercon). I edited an anthology that was published. I started to become a guest at the cons I attended. I've been on panels. I've had a story published, another one taken for con-exclusive round robin. Reviews and interviews by me are appearing in other places. My anthology was nominated for an award. In two years I went from being a fan who wrote reviews, to an active participant in the field that I love. It's been, simply, a wild two years.

Future of Weird Fiction Panel. L to R: moderator SJ Bagley, Simon Strantzas, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, myself, Mike Griffin, Joe Pulver

Even though I take pride in each accomplishment, everything I've done so far pales in comparison to the best thing that has come from all of this: the friendships. I've been lucky to fall in with some truly wonderful people, some of whom I talk to almost daily. And this is why cons are so special. Some people go for the gaming. Some to see some cool, hard to find films, or hear their favorite authors read. Some go to watch some interesting panels. And sure, all of that stuff is fun, but that's not why I go anymore. I go to see my friends. Social media is a great way to keep in touch, yeah, but isn't even comparable to being able to sit around a restaurant table enjoying good food, good drinks, and fine conversation with friends you too rarely get to spend time with. I'm sure I'm far from alone with this sentiment.

NecronomiCon is cementing itself as the premiere weird fiction convention. As sad as I am that it doesn't occur ever year, I think having it every other year actually works best. Neils Hobbs and crew should be commended for doing such an excellent job.

I arrived late Thursday night. My flight out of Philly was cancelled at the last second but I managed to catch a train just in time. It was a stressful day, but I finally made it, just in time for the witching hour. As I walked towards the hotel from the train station, I saw a group of people on the edge of the small park across from the hotel front, directly in my path. As I moved closer, they began to take on more familiar shapes, and I realized that it was several of my friends. Running into them upon arrival couldn't have been a better welcome in Providence.

A beacon in the dark...

Although I missed out on the Thursday night shenanigans, I managed to see several readings and panels over the course of the weekend. I caught most of the Ramsey Campbell interview, and all of the New Weird panel. I attended readings by Mike Griffin, Pete Rawlik, David Neilsen, Scott Thomas, Richard Gavin, Tom Lynch, Simon Strantzas, Jeffrey Thomas, and caught the end of Michael Cisco reading during the Aickman's Heirs book launch. I also attended, and was called upon to get up and introduce the authors, readings by Scott Nicolay, Anya Martin, and Joe Pulver. My weekend also ended with a bang when I was invited by moderator SJ Bagley to take an absent Laird Barron's spot on The Future of the Weird panel. Other panel members included Simon Strantzas, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mike Griffin, and Joe Pulver, and was quite a bit of fun. Scott Nicolay recorded the panel for his podcast, The Outer Dark, and I know there is some video footage out there as well.

While not attending panels or readings, I was apt to be found in the vendor's area, the hotel bar, a restaurant, or somewhere else among friends. Along with all my old friends, there were many other online friends I was able to hang out with the for the first time, including but not limited to: Heidi Ash, Scott Dwyer, Matthew Warren Richey, Michael Wehunt, Damien Walters, Barry Lee Dejasu, Rick Lai, Scott Jones, Christopher Patrick Burke, Michael Bukowski, Todd Chicione (we met so briefly last time), Ian Welke (we hardly saw each other! Definitely a drink next time!).

The weekend was just as magical as it was two years ago, and I hope that this con continues for a long time.

L to R: Lena Griffin, Erin Laroue, Nathan Carson, Ross E. Lockhart, Scott Dwyer, Heidi Ash, myself, Tom Lynch

A final story, to end the post.

In 2013, when I first arrived, I dropped my bags off in my room at the Biltmore and then went down to the hotel bar for dinner. A man staying in a neighboring hotel (The Omni or Hotel Providence I believe) wandered in and took the seat next to me. We exchanged pleasantries and names, realized we were both there to attend the same con, so had a conversation over beers and dinner. I realized then that there was probably nothing to be nervous about. I was attending a convention with a bunch of other kindred spirits, and would be in good company. After we parted, I entered the lobby and ran into the group of people who would become some very important people in my life. For the rest of the weekend, the man I dined with and I didn't cross paths.

As the Future of Weird Fiction panel wound down, several people approached the stage to talk with the various panelists. Some wanted to remark on something we said they heartily agreed with, or thought profound, one lady told me she was happy I mentioned video games since she was a game designer. A few people came bringing books for the panelists to sign. But one stood out in particular. It was the man who I shared a meal with when I first arrived in Providence two years ago, and now our paths finally crossed again, two years and a convention later. He was with his wife (or girlfriend? I'm not sure.) who had some questions, and he recognized me from before, and thought it was very cool that I was now on panels.

Afterwards, while I sat on the train, I thought about running into this man. I thought about my friends I was leaving. I thought about what Dave Felton said to me. And I realized: cons are more than meet and greets, and more than panels and vendors and fancy costume balls. Cons are about friendships and coming together. They change lives.

Weird fiction fans and Lovecraftians are often considered a fringe society. We are often outsiders, spread thin. But on weekends like this, it all changes. We all make the pilgrimage. Introverts become temporarily extroverted, and we all share an experience that is totally different yet the same for all of us. We realize that we aren't outsiders at all, we are a family. We are Providence.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Interview: Simon Strantzas talks Aickman's Heirs

Robert Aickman's fiction is often referred to as "strange fiction" instead of "weird fiction."
Whether or not you're a fan of labels, they do exist even if they best serve consumers. What are the defining characteristics of strange fiction as opposed to weird fiction? Do the two ever overlap?

I wrote a whole essay on this topic for Nightmare magazine last December, so I urge anyone with an interest in this topic to visit that site and read the thing. The truth of the matter is these terms are in many ways unimportant. Horror, Weird, Strange, Dark Fantasy—whatever dark fiction is written, someone will come along and classify it. The thing is, these terms are to a large extent meaningless—the genre is so fluid that there really are no firm dividing lines between them. Some stories wholly occupy one space, some multiple. That's how it should be. But, that said, I did write an essay explaining differentiating the two. Why? Because I feel that it still serves an important purpose. Not to chop up, categorize, and sub-genrify Horror, but instead to identify some of its most pervasive and interesting threads. By understanding how the genre works, I feel we can better understand the genre itself. As writer, that understanding is a powerful tool.
But, your question. I suppose it's unfair to direct readers elsewhere, so the crux of the difference (to my mind; yours may differ) is this: the Weird seems to be primarily an American-led movement, and the Strange European-led. The Weird is concerned with the effect on us of the extra-planetary, and the Strange the effect of our internal world. This is due to a large degree on the mindsets of the two peoples as a whole, the Americas staring at the stars and exploring, the Europeans gazing at their shoes and reflecting. 

I think it's safe to say that many horror and weird fiction fans have at the very least heard of Robert Aickman, and with new, affordable editions of his work published in the last few years many have had the opportunity to read his fiction. What sets Aickman's works apart from his contemporaries and those who came before him? 

Aickman followed in a less-travelled line of ghost story writers whose concerns were of the ambiguously internal. His precursors were writers like Onions and, most specifically, de la Mare, but unlike them he had the influence of modern psychiatric thought and philosophy to bolster his beliefs. Using them, he was able to fashion his thoughts on sexuality, poetry, and dream-logic into something wholly unique at the time it was written. And, still to a large part, it's remained so. Aickman is difficult to imitate, precisely because what he wrote was so uniquely born of his own personality. Not many writers can claim such singularity.

What does Aickman and his work mean to you? How has Aickman influenced not only your work, but the weird/strange/horror fields? What current authors are currently carrying on his legacy?

Aickman has been immensely influential on my own work by showing me how much of a story can be intuited by a reader by only the scarcest of clues. Forming narratives that exist on a different plane than the page is fascinating, though the danger one faces is some readers are unwilling to follow along the entire way. This evokes confusion and frustration, but if I've played my cards right, never a sense of aimlessness.
Aickman's work was heralded by only a select few for a number of years, but I feel that tide is turning. "Aickman's Heirs" being, I hope, of the first of many to champion him. What effect this renewed interest will have on the genre remains to be fully seen, but already we're seeing writers picking up the baton. No one is writing quite like him, of course, but we're seeing strong threads in the work of Steve Rasnic Tem, Ramsey Campbell, Lynda Rucker, Daniel Mills, and Terry Lamsley. To name but a few.

Aickman's Heirs is your second time editing an anthology, with Shadows Edge being your first, with a third coming in the form of The Year's Best Weird Fiction Volume Three. What have you learned from editing? Is this something you enjoy and will revisit?

I've learned that editing is a challenge that demands one's full attention, and that there is little more exciting than the discovery of new talent. But all that time takes its toll, and the more I edit the less time I have for my own work. Some writers may consider it a fair trade, but I'm disinclined to agree. I think my own fiction has been under attended to for some time now, and I hope to remedy that over the coming year.

For the readers who have yet to read anything by Robert Aickman, what are five essential stories that they should start with and why? What makes these stories special?

My favorite perhaps is "The Inner Room", a tale unlike any others in its mystery and symbolism. But it's very oblique, and not where I'd send a new reader. Instead, perhaps I'd point them to my first Aickman tale: "Ringing the Changes". It's perhaps the most straight-forward of his work, yet still maintains that sense that there is more beneath the surface than immediately clear. Or, perhaps I'd direct them to "The Swords", a dazzle of sublimated sexuality, one that's in turn funny and disturbing. It doesn't go in the direction one might expect, though like great fiction, it's conclusions are inevitable. Since I'm naming the popular tales, I might as well suggest "The Hospice", which revels in its bizarre nightmarishness and dislocation. And, finally, a personal favorite: "Marriage", a story about the pull of love and lust.  
There are so many more that this, though, that I could recommend. Aickman was absolutely fantastic, and I'm quite pleased to have this opportunity to help highlight his work by showing how its influenced this new generation of writers. 

Thanks for your time!

The thanks are all mine.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Review: Aickman's Heirs edited by Simon Strantzas

Robert Aickman is a name that many readers of horror/supernatural/weird fiction have probably heard before. He didn't have a huge output of fiction in his time as a writer (I believe he wrote 48 or so stories that were published) but the stories he did write have long since established his name in the genre's history.

Aickman's fiction is most often referred to as "strange stories" instead of weird fiction or horror. His stories are less about the weird crossing over into reality as they are about reality and strangeness being intertwined. Even the most mundane objects or conversations found in his stories are laden with the strange, and his stories often utilize dream logic. One of his most well-known stories, The Hospice, serves as a prime example, and reading the story is akin to playing voyeur to someone's dream. Subtle is also a key word when it comes to Aickman. Much of the dread and unease from his stories comes across in a quiet, subtle manner, and often include liberal doses of dark humor.

These stories have influenced many writers over the years, and one among them is author Simon Strantzas. It was actually Simon Strantzas and Daniel Mills who pointed me in Aickman's direction years ago, and for that I am grateful.

It's also fitting that the man who introduced me to Aickman's work is the editor of the anthology I'm reviewing, Aickman's Heirs. I couldn't think of a better editor for this project, and ever since Shadows Edge I've been eager to read another anthology with Simon behind the helm. And oh boy, was the wait worth it.

Aickman's influence is explored in fifteen stories from some of the finest working authors. Brian Evenson's "Seaside Town" is an excellent choice to kick off the anthology. A man set in his ways gets dragged on a vacation with his girlfriend, and what follows is an excellent example of how to quietly and slowly build up dread.

Richard Gavin's "Neithernor" comes next and, as usual, is a standout. Gavin is a master of creepy stories, and this one ranks up there as one of his most unsettling.

I'm familiar with John Howard, although I haven't read him until I read his story "Least Light, Most Night." I now plan to seek out more of his work. The story itself concerns a man reluctantly accepting his coworker's invitation to a social gathering, and then it gets weird.

I'm most familiar with David Nickle due to his great novels, but the man can write some stellar short fiction as well. "Camp"is about a newlywed couple on a camping trip, and Nickle deftly hands the creep factor.

D.P. Watt's "A Delicate Craft" sees an immigrant worker taking up an unlikely hobby, and Nadia Bulkin's "Seven Minutes in Heaven" explores a small American town with a secret.

Michael Cisco's "Infestations" has a woman struggling with personal demons return to her home city to clean out a deceased family friend's apartment. Dread and paranoia infest the story.

Lynda E. Rucker's "The Dying Season" is perhaps my favorite story in the anthology. A couple spends time in a trailer at a leisure resort during the off season when they meet a young couple staying somewhere nearby. Rucker's story is brimming with subtle unease, and haunted me long after reading it.

Michael Wehunt's "A Discreet Music" stays closer to home, as a grieving widower is changing while confronting truths about himself. John Langan brings the strange into a strip club with "Underground Economy" while Helen Marshall's "The Vaults of Heaven" takes place in Greece as a British archaeologist is brought on to do some work on a few ancient finds.

Malcolm Devlin's "Two Brothers" is a sad story about growing up, while Daniel Mills writes the most subtle story of his that I've read, "The Lake." Growing up is also a major part of his story, as past events shape who we become. "A Change of Scene" by Nina Allan is the longest story in the book, and like some stories before it concerns a vacation gone wrong. The anthology ends with Lisa Tuttle's "The Book That Finds You" which is an eerie tale concerning a woman and her obsession with a certain obscure weird fiction writer.

The fifteen tales paint a powerful landscape of the strange, the subtle, the uneasy, and at times the darkly humorous. Strantzas's sophomore editing gig couldn't have been any better, and I'm sure this anthology will find it's way on many Best Of lists at the end of the year.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Interview: Molly Tanzer Talks Vermilion

To start, this is your first novel? How did it feel to finish such a big project?

It’s certainly my first published novel. I typed THE END on my first novel back in… gosh, maybe 2008? 2009? It was fun, but it was definitely training wheels time. I think that beast was like 175k, and it was bonkers. The second novel I wrote I feel no affection for whatsoever; in fact, I deleted it from my hard drive when I finished it, it was so awful. 

As to your second question… I’ve experienced various sensations at various times, with Vermilion. Finishing the first draft felt great. Finishing the draft that went out on submission felt… exhilarating. Finishing the version that’s now printed and thus no longer editable felt pretty terrifying, actually!

Much of your fiction takes place in historic time periods, but to my knowledge this is your first time writing a Western. What attracted you to this setting? What did you set out to do with the tropes and the genre?

My initial desire to have a conversation with the Western came about when I moved to Colorado. The scale of the landscape was amazing—I had visited before, but waking up every day to see mountains, being able to explore them at my leisure… living right where the prairie meets the front range… wow. It triggered my memories of being wild for the Little House books as a kid, and bam, I wanted to write something about this place. Uh, and I was also watching a lot of Deadwood.

The thing is… as you noted, Westerns have certain tropes. Most modern Westerns, in terms of novels and film/television, seek to either draw attention to those tropes, or to invert them, because even though the Western has fallen out of favor, we’re still all too aware of those conceits. In terms of characters, you have the Gritty Loner, the Native Threat, the Trifling Whore vs. the Good Woman, and so on. In terms of plots, you have A Stranger Comes to Town, the Man with a Past, The Person from Back East Who Must Leave Civilization Behind, and so forth and so on. Because they’re all very familiar, a Western that unconsciously draws on tropes can come off as feeling a bit outdated… take Appaloosa, the film, for example. While it was an enjoyable movie with a lot to like, I was annoyed by the movie’s embrace of the Trifling Whore trope in Renee Zellweger’s character. Maybe it’s a holdover from the novel, I’m not sure, but regardless, it was boring because it was just so dang familiar.

With Vermilion, I wanted to invert the Western while still paying homage to and drawing on the tropes of a genre that I love. So, while I might start with a Gritty Loner as a hero(ine), she goes East, not West; she moves from a state of detrimental independence to flourishing under positive interdependence (in the traditional Western, the hero usually has to “go at it” alone, leaving behind any wimminfolk or friends). Additionally, throughout the novel, traditional outsiders, even within the “Weird” Western, such as women, progressive thinkers/social radicals, and racial minorities prove more “civilized” and establish order much more effectively than those in a position of privilege. Oh, and of course, Lou is a person of color, and she gets a white sidekick. That was also fun to write!

One of the major themes throughout the book is gender fluidity and sexual orientation. Could you discuss why you chose to explore these themes at length and what you hope readers took away from this theme?

First and foremost, I write what I like to read! But it was also part of my mission above. Classic Westerns are often relentlessly heterosexual—or at least, they try to convince us they are, by having rough-and-tumble ‘good buddies’ visit a whorehouse or get married to make it clear they’re not really hot for one another. Hell, even Red River, which is famous (infamous?) for its awesomely homoerotic subtext, pairs Montgomery Clift’s Garth with a lady at the end, much to Cherry’s dismay. I’m having a hard time even coming up with a classic Western that features lesbians, or the implication of lesbianism. Maybe a little in East of Eden, but like, that’s kind of a stretch. (If anyone knows of any, let me know in the comments!)

Westerns are often very traditional in their approach to gender roles, as well… when men were men and all that. Women, with notable exceptions, are almost exclusively relegated to domestic duties, and even the ones that saddle up to ride with the boys are usually doing it to stay close to the man they love. Mattie from True Grit is the obvious counterpoint, but that’s one of the reasons True Grit is so good. And when you do get a gender-ambiguous character, like Calamity Jane in Deadwood, they tend to be tragic in some way. I wanted to spin this, and have a genderfluid heroine at the center of the narrative, one whose ambiguousness helps her, rather than makes her some sort of object of pity or spite, and who doesn’t have some sort of magical transformation moment where she puts on a dress to amaze the hero, showing she was “beautiful all along.” Meh.

As to what I wanted readers take away… I’m not sure how to answer that. Sure, I had a lot on my mind when I was writing it, but first and foremost I wanted Vermilion to be a fun adventure story—and I saw the characters and their private lives as natural fits for the tale, rather than object lessons. If anything, I wanted to normalize the presence of such characters and themes within the genre of the Western, not draw attention to them!

On that note, I’ll point to a novel that was almost constantly on my mind while drafting Vermilion: Connie Willis’s Uncharted Territory, a novel that at first I wasn’t sure I liked when I read it in college, but really stuck with me in that way of better books. For those who haven’t read it, I shan’t spoil it, but I actually structured the first chapter to be an homage to her novel in my first draft, and though I eventually chose to introduce Lou in a different, more effective (for my project) way, I kind of still regret the loss. Those who have read Willis’s novel probably know what I’m edging around—and anyone who hasn’t, who liked Vermilion, might want to pick up a copy. It’s a Space Western, and it’s super good.

Vermilion has quite a lot going on, being a weird Western with elements of Ghostbusters and a liberal dose of Chinese mythology/folklore. The psychopomp business is especially fascinating. What sort of research did you do for this novel?

What sort of research didn’t I do would probably be an easier question to answer. Of course I put a lot of hours into researching the Chinese cultural element, because I wanted to be as respectful as possible in my treatment of Chinese-American culture and the Taoist traditions Lou’s work draws on. I also read and did just a ton of random stuff… I visited a train museum, drove up to Cheyenne to see the lay of the land to give those scenes a touch of verisimilitude, researched the properties of cinnabar/vermilion… hiked all around the Rocky Mountains (oh, the sacrifices I make for art!). Hell, I even contacted a period firearm museum for information on Lou’s LeMat, toured the death facilities at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and got a prescription filled at a Chinese apothecary in San Francisco after reading all about traditional Chinese medicine in a copy of the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. Fun times!

Now for the big question. Are there any plans for a sequel? Will we see further adventures of Lou Merriwether or more fiction set in the same world? 

More fiction, certainly. This August, Nightmare Magazine will be reprinting a short story of mine called “Qi Sport,” which is about Lou’s first adventure. It’s referenced in Vermilion, but this is the full account. And next year, Lazy Fascist will be releasing a standalone edition of “Rumbullion: An Apostrophe,” a novella/short novel of mine (which you actually reviewed). “Rumbullion” is very tangentially related to Vermilion. No one who read “Rumbullion” on its own would have any idea it was related to anything else, but I think anyone who reads Vermilion first will notice some overlap.

As for an actual sequel… I feel confident saying Vermilion won’t be Lou’s last adventure. We’ll have to see! 

What else can readers expect from you in the coming months?

I have several short stories coming out—one in Joe Pulver’s anthology Cassilda’s Song, and all-lady King in Yellow anthology, that’s sort of about Ayn Rand and Carcosa… it’s called “Grave-Worms.” I have another story called “The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad” in Innsmouth Free Press’s She Walks in Shadows, ed. Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Oh, of course, and “But Only Because I Love You,” in Dreams From The Witch House.

In terms of big stuff, I have another novel coming out this November from Lazy Fascist, called The Pleasure Merchant. It’s an 18th century picaresque about Tom Dawne, a wigmaker’s apprentice who becomes a manservant when he is dismissed after one of his wigs is sabotaged, and then rises through late 18th century society… but as Tom’s station changes, so do his pleasures… Anyways, it’s probably my most personal novel to date, and my least speculative work (even if it’s the most horrifying, in a lot of ways). It’s very loosely based on the real-life 18th century philosopher and poet Thomas Day, who was bewitchingly terrible. If people have heard of Thomas Day, it’s usually because he wrote a poem called “The Dying Negro” that was intended to drum up support for the abolition of slavery (good!), but Day’s sympathies did not extend to women. Because he was unlucky in love—this guy was basically an 18th century “nice guy”/MRA and all women he came near basically fled his presence—he adopted two orphan tween girls, took them to France to isolate them, and tried to train them in the hopes one of them would blossom into his ideal bride. The account of his experiment is best chronicled in Wendy Moore’s How To Create The Perfect Wife which I highly recommend if you want an excellent pop history read about how horrible the 18th century really was.

Thanks for your time!

Thank you!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review: Vermilion by Molly Tanzer

Author Molly Tanzer has been a longtime favorite here at the Arkham Digest. Both of her collections, A Pretty Mouth and Rumbullion help set the standard for modern weird fiction. Vermilion is Molly Tanzer's first novel, and is one of the biggest releases of the year. The description from publisher Word Horde's website:

Gunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp, Elouise “Lou” Merriwether might not be a normal 19-year-old, but she’s too busy keeping San Francisco safe from ghosts, shades, and geung si to care much about that. It’s an important job, though most folks consider it downright spooky. Some have even accused Lou of being more comfortable with the dead than the living, and, well… they’re not wrong.
When Lou hears that a bunch of Chinatown boys have gone missing somewhere deep in the Colorado Rockies she decides to saddle up and head into the wilderness to investigate. Lou fears her particular talents make her better suited to help placate their spirits than ensure they get home alive, but it’s the right thing to do, and she’s the only one willing to do it.

On the road to a mysterious sanatorium known as Fountain of Youth, Lou will encounter bears, desperate men, a very undead villain, and even stranger challenges. Lou will need every one of her talents and a whole lot of luck to make it home alive…

The West is always best when it's served with a liberal dose of weird. Tanzer's novel is unique in many ways. Lou Merriwether, the protagonist, is a half-Chinese girl in a time and place where the Chinese are looked upon as being less than human. Being a psychopomp also further alienates her from the world, as people seem to regard people in her line of work as being creepy. Lou has a few close friends, but is a bit of a loner. She's stubborn and tough and far from perfect. She makes mistakes, sometimes acting without thinking, and berates herself for not thinking things through. She doesn't give up though, she is determined and tenacious.

Gender fluidity is also a prevalent theme throughout the novel, and the willingness to explore the subject is one of the novel's great strengths. Too often fantasy protagonists are generic, cookie-cutter characters, but not so in Molly Tanzer's fiction. Lou  is at her most comfortable wearing men's clothing and cutting her hair short, and going by Lou instead of Elouise. Her sexuality itself is a little less clear and defined. Gender fluidity doesn't end with Lou, but for the sake of spoilers I'll leave it at that. 

The diversity on display is perfect. Characters of all races and orientations are represented. The world building is excellent, and Molly has created a gritty Western world in which the supernatural exists alongside the normal. Bears talk and have their own civilization, co-existing with man despite tensions. Spiritual and undead threats are handled by professional psychopomps like Lou, while monsters are dealt with by licensed monster hunters. 

Woven throughout are elements of Chinese folklore and mythology. Geung Si, a hopping vampire/zombie hybrid from Chinese folklore, make a few appearances. While Lou has many tools at her disposal for her psychopompery, she deals with Geung Si by using more traditional Chinese methods. Her other methods deal with using some interesting, steampunk-esque technology. Tanzer created a really interesting system for how it all works, and I'd love to see more.

My only real complaint with the novel was the villain. At times he was way too hammy, one of those villains who catches the character only to reveal all by talking and talking and talking. Tanzer handled this well however, as even the protagonist refers to tiring of the villain and his "hammy" ways. This self-awareness helped me overlook what I thought to be the novel's one deficit.

Fans of fantastic adventure books and readers looking for something fun and different shouldn't hesitate to pick this one up, as it's already one of the best books of 2015.