Decay

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It’s funny how things come around.

Many years ago now, fresh off the nihilistic high of selling a series of brutal sixgun-and-sorcery stories about centaurs conquering the West to Beneath Ceaseless Skies, I got the idea for something even darker and more sardonic, a story about horribly downtrodden, poor and desperate human beings, trapped by oppression and circumstance, using the most awful means at their disposal to grasp at a shred of personal agency and self-determination. And I did it. It didn’t make me feel particularly good about myself, but I wrote it. “Decay”, it’s called. This was not like anything else I’d written nor am likely to again. It’s an incredibly dark, bitter story. No, not like chocolate. Let me be completely honest: I wrote a story about shit. Maybe the only shred of lightness about it is a thread of humor so black it’s practically psychedelic.

But, I thought, it’s powerful. So I shopped it around.

And it got rejected. A lot. A few times, for months, years, I pulled it from circulation, thinking this is just too awful, too disgusting, nobody was going to buy it and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to see it in print. But every once in awhile, I’d get in a dark mood and send it out again.

Fast forward to twenty sixteen. Andrew Fuller of Three-Lobed Burning Eye has decided to take a chance on it. And I do think he’s taking a risk; I told him so. He seemed convinced–more convinced than I was. I admire him for that. Me, I even thought about taking my name off it.

So now in this, the first week of November, just when a lot of people are looking forward with dread to the awful, disgusting, unconscionable thing that just might actually happen one week from today, “Decay” is out in the world.

And I went and read the story again, just to remind myself of what I’d committed to. And suddenly, astonishingly, it seems like there just might be a redeeming message in there somewhere after all. I’m thinking in this context, maybe that blacker-than-black sense of humor might actually look brighter than I thought.

There’s a place for catharsis.

Or, to think of it another way: if it’s a choice between helplessness and taking the only other option available to stop the world from turning to shit…as for some of us it seems to be….

That City, with Cherry Blossoms

Cherry Blossoms, Boston, April 2013

I suffered through the recent horrible events in the city that was once mine from a distance of about seven hundred miles. I tried not to look at the news; I didn’t do very well. I didn’t know anybody directly involved. Until recently I didn’t think I had any great attachment to my city beyond that it was the only one I’d ever really known. I don’t love cities, though I can’t say I’m not fascinated by them. I love trees. I don’t consider myself a particularly emotional person. But for some reason, distance and homesickness combined with disturbing current events to make me cry silently while watching the news, wait to wipe away tears when my wife wasn’t looking, and dread the moment when what had happened came up in conversation (inevitable, since it was all anybody seemed able to talk about, even from seven hundred miles away).

Then, a few days after it had all wound down (except for the questions), I found myself obliged to return, as a result of an entirely unrelated tragedy, a sad, strange, serendipitous coincidence that allowed me an excuse to walk around and feel the breeze and drink beer and hug people and take pictures of spring in the city I only irrationally realized I missed when fear and uncertainty and mortal danger beset it.

Everybody seemed a little jittery, shell-shocked, not sure how to act. Freshly printed t-shirts for sale everywhere said “Boston Strong”. But otherwise everything was still there, pretty much how I’d left it, except for the person I’d come there to mourn. And even she, wiser heads soon made me realize, was still there too.

Happy spring.

Tlön, R’lyeh, Orbis Tertius (Notes for my Bibliofantasies Panel)

Friday 3:00 p.m. Vaughan BIBLIOFANTASIES
Many classics of the fantasy and supernatural revolve around mysterious, exotic, arcane, or potentially threatening books or collections of books. The panel will go beyond the Necronomicon to discuss examples, and the enduring popularity of the trope. Helen Marshall (M), Tina Connolly, Jennifer Crowe, Michael DeLuca, Don Pizarro.

All books are codifications of thought–they take something mutable and subjective and make it fixed and objective. This has vast potential negative consequences; e.g. religious doctrines. Writing anything down is an act of exclusion.

Myth-encodification

  • Book of the Dead, Egyptian, Tibetan
  • Popol Vuh – fascinating example because lost and found again. What happened to the myth in the intervening time? It exploded.
  • Plato’s Phaedrus – A Socratic dialogue wherein Socrates shoots down the written word as lazy and weak.
  • The standardization of the Bible. apocrypha, gospel of Judas
  • Malleus Maleficarum
  • Grimm’s, Mabinogion

Fictional books are a resistance to this process. They restore subjectivity and mutability–at least, until somebody actually tries to write them. Thinking about this conflict leads me to Borges and Lovecraft: Lovecraft because he’s in the panel description, Borges because I’m pretty much always thinking about Borges.

Lovecraft
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” –Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

By which of course he means also the opposite, that terror is founded on the attempt to correlate experience with that which contradicts experience. I really like and am sad that I can’t corroborate the theory (Wikipedia, elsewhere) that Abdul Alhazred’s last name comes from “all has read”, that the Necronomicon is the result of a human being attempt to comprehend everything–or at least, everything that has been written.

Wilbur had with him the priceless but imperfect copy of Dr. Dee’s English version which his grandfather had bequeathed him, and upon receiving access to the Latin copy he at once began to collate the two texts with the aim of discovering a certain passage which would have come on the 751st page of his own defective volume. This much he could not civilly refrain from telling the librarian–the same erudite Henry Armitage (A. M. Miskatonic, Ph. D. Princeton, Litt.D. Johns Hopkins) who had once called at the farm, and who now politely plied him with questions. He was looking, he had to admit, for a kind of formula or incantation containing the frightful name of Yog-Sothoth, and it puzzled him to find discrepancies, duplications, and ambiguities which made the matter of determination far from easy. As he copied the formula he finally chose, Dr. Armitage looked involuntarily over his shoulder at the open pages; the left-hand one of which, in the Latin version, contained such monstrous threats to the peace and sanity of the world.

–Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

Borges

“…an enormous circular book with a continuous spine…that cyclical book is God.” –Borges, “The Library of Babel”

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is the fragmentary, subjective history of a conspiracy to create an encyclopedia describing a fictional culture whose establishing principle is subjectivity. It may in fact be an indirect reference or homage to the Necronomicon? Lovecraft died 1937, story first published 1940. And we know Borges read Lovecraft, though he didn’t like him much, because later he wrote “There are More Things”, an acknowledged Lovecraft homage (in reference to which Borges calls Lovecraft “un parodista involuntario de Poe”). And (skipping over Clark Ashton Smith etc) the fan reproductions/insertion of Necronomicon entries in card catalogues etc seems to originate in the 70s, possibly influenced in turn by Borges (or by a secret conspiracy to allow Borges to influence the legacy of Lovecraft)? Cool! Johannes Valentinus Andrea, 17th century philosopher referenced in “Tlön”, “invents” the Rosicrucians in approximately the same way Borges invents the cult of the Necronomicon? Through satire. Hee! And by drawing this silly connection, I am more or less aping the philosophers and literary theorists of Tlön, who “seek not truth, or even plausibility–they seek to amaze, astound.”

Consider, with respect to all this, the old saw that it becomes less scary once you see it. Lovecraft suffers from this–At the Mountains of Madness becomes a story about eldritch cosmic bureaucrats once we learn too much about them. In “The Dunwich Horror” I wish the big slimy whipporwill-tweeting thing would have stayed invisible. Does this mean being in the position of Adbul Alhazred–knowing everything and making the decision to record the most awful part of it (making it the truth?) would actually be, not sublime, not awe-ful, but freaking boring?

Still, for some reason, in this my fourth or fifth time through “Tlön, Uqbar”, I find myself most intrigued by the reclusive Texan millionaire, Ezra Buckley, whose arrogance impels the clandestine society of Tlön to create not a country but a planet, and who ends up being as responsible as anybody in this story for the world’s true history being eclipsed by that of Tlön. I’m kind of itching to write a story about him.

More Fictional Books in Classic Genre

  • Eco – Name of the Rose
  • Alexander – The Book of Three
  • Gaiman – Sandman, Destiny’s book, the Library of Lost Books
  • Ende – The Neverending Story – interesting example, since it at once creates the fictional book and codifies that book, but only partly so. As I interpret it, the second half of the novel breaks out of the bindings of the fictional Neverending Story, though of course not the physical one.

Fictional Books I’ve Read Recently and in the Near Future

  • Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Shadow of the Wind
  • Gabriela Damian Miravete – “Future Nereid”, in Three Messages and a Warning
  • Me – “Other Palimpsests”, everybody else (or so I presume) in Bibliotheca Fantastica
  • Samatar – A Stranger in Olondria – There’s an ebook coupon for a free sample of this in your WFC swag bags.

“The Eater” at Pseudopod; Pink Lady’s Slipper

My story “The Eater”, about the guy at the beginning of time whose job it is to taste everything and decide what will kill us and what will keep us alive, (which originally appeared in Apex back in July), is live today at Pseudopod!

Pseudopod, should you have been unaware, is a weekly horror fiction podcast, sister to Escape Pod and Podcastle, a triumvirate I have been struggling to break my way into for quite some time. I love reading fiction aloud, and hearing fiction read aloud, and “the Pods”, as they are affectionately known, are some of the best places to do that. For a reader, I am lucky enough to have netted Laurice White. I haven’t had a chance to listen yet—will do so on my ride home—but I expect it will be great.


Pink Lady’s Slipper orchid, Cypripedium acaule, mixed deciduous woods, Bull Hill, Sunderland, MA
(AKA/e.g., the replenishing pitcher flower of legend.)

It is an ancient Mariner


A Gustave Doré woodcut for Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Death and Life-in-Death game for the Mariner’s soul.

The first issue of Fantastique Unfettered comes out today, featuring my story “The Driftwood Chair”, a tale of nautical tragedy, hallucinatory demon ghosties and star-crossed beach flirting, set in Cape Cod, and much influenced by Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. I wrote it at Odyssey in 2005 as a kind of good-natured challenge with PD Cacek, got some phenomenal criticism from my fellow classmates and Steve and Melanie Tem, then sat on it obsessively revising and revising for the succeeding five years. You know, the usual story. There was way more Mariner in the original draft… but the feel of it (and an easter egg reference or two) is still there in spades. I love this story. Hopefully you will too.

O the Mariner is so awesome, it’s really hard to pick out just one quote.

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

If you’ve never read it, do so now. In fact, if you’ve only got time for one, skip “The Driftwood Chair” and just read the Ancient Mariner. Of course, if you’ve got time for two….