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coralineOkay, here’s the thing: I’ve never believed a single word Neil Gaiman has written.

Wow.

I can already detect a collective gnashing of teeth as Gaiman’s legion of fans leap to his defense, their counter-attack, predictably, hysterical, vitriolic and ad hominem. Shoot the messenger and deal with the actual, y’know, message later.

I know what I’ve just said might seem a tad critical and extreme at first glance but, as my hero Bill Hicks would say, hear me out.

Clearly, Neil Gaiman is effective at what he does. He sells a ton of books, has earned a bevy of prizes and a significant number of people await each new Gaiman release with genuine pleasure and anticipation.

All to the good.

And speaking for myself, I’ve found Gaiman’s stuff, for the most part, diverting, and he writes in a straightforward, unpretentious style. But upon opening any Neil Gaiman offering I’m immediately struck by the realization that this is not a tale set on Earth Prime—there is an unworldly feel to the material. Indeed, nearly everything I’ve read by the man distinguishes him as someone who, in one way or another, is a purveyor of modern day fairy tales and moral fables. But no one truly believes fairy tales or thinks they have any basis in reality. Do they?

And therein lies the problem.

That lack of credibility produces, I would argue, an emotional distance, a safety margin from which readers can observe the action without being unduly concerned with the fate of the characters. When your audience is granted that kind of dispensation, they stop closely identifying with the people at the heart of the story, stop caring. A potentially gripping yarn becomes merely entertaining. Good, escapist fun.

Doesn’t that pretty much sum up the Gaiman oeuvre?

While he tells a decent story, there’s not the kind of intimacy and closely observed detail that ramps up our emotional investment to another level. Think of the work of masters of the macabre Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont. They frequently dealt with fantastic subject matter but in their best efforts (see: “Matheson’s “Mute” or Hell House) there is an unnerving sense that this creepy account could be real…and our concern for what the characters are enduring becomes all the more genuine and heartfelt.

Give him credit, Neil Gaiman is conversant with contemporary cultural touchstones, borrowing shamelessly from mythology (Old Gods and Sandman) or re-imagining familiar standards (Coraline). But, to me, none of his work succeeds at suspending disbelief. And while I see a lot of archetypes—vampires, werewolves, ghosts, the usual suspects—I don’t, frankly, detect much innovation or originality. Tropes and stock monsters, employed in a standard story arc, with (almost invariably) happy, satisfying resolutions. Gaiman’s approach to writing is quick, punchy, visual; perfect for graphic novels. Illustrative but not particularly deep or insightful. His characters speedily sketched, unceremoniously thrust into peril, even mortal danger.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife…

(First line of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book)

Ah, yes, The Graveyard Book. In that 2008 novel Gaiman presents us with the story of a young human child raised in a cemetery by a variety of well-meaning ghosts and supernatural creatures. Clever, but by Page 50 my interest in the central character, Bod, was purely academic: how would he be successfully re-integrated into human society? The rest of the book zipped past in a blur.

Likewise, I was almost immediately turned off by The Ocean at the End of the Lane. A more recent effort (2013), it’s told (mostly) from the point of view of a child whose observations are so mature and thoughtful as to defy credulity. I disliked the book from its initial pages and it never really caught on with me. Finished it out of a sense of obligation, not joy.

It strikes me that Neil Gaiman is a perfect author for our sped up, ADHD-afflicted society. He writes moderately well, with visual acumen, setting the table quickly, not bothering with niceties like realism or verisimilitude. His fans will say I’m being unfair—after all, with fairy tales the effect is more important than the nuts and bolts of narrative (and perhaps they’re right).

But there’s a fine line in dark fantasy and horror literature, a point where the author must create the impression that what we’re reading is actually taking place, expend every effort to ensure we’re fully immersed in the story, crying and bleeding along with the protagonist, experiencing their dread as the knob starts turning, the door inching open. If we have no faith in their ordeal, no stake in what’s happening to them, the writer has failed us, failed to devise a scenario that is, at once, dramatic and nerve-rending and, despite our best efforts to think otherwise, believable and authentic.

Personal, intimate horror. What really goes on in the dark.

That’s what scares us and leaves a permanent mark on our psyche.

Fairy tales are fine for children, but surely adults require narratives of more depth—aesthetically sound and literate and, at the same time, unrelenting and provocative, seeking to exact an emotional toll, while defying and frustrating expectations.

It’s time Neil Gaiman started writing for grownups.

People old enough to know that in life there are no happy endings…and no such thing as a great artist who stoops to please.

figure

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ImageI recently recorded three brief podcasts, each about two or three minutes in length.

I comment on different topics:  “The Writing Life”, “Inspired by Fear”, “Why I Love Science Fiction”.

Hope you find something worthwhile in these monologues, insights into the way I approach my craft, the psychology behind some of my best known stories.

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boneclocksI’m still pondering James Wood’s rather unenthusiastic review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.

I read the review about an hour ago and now that I’ve had a chance to shower and clear my head, I’d like to get some thoughts down, try to sum up why I think Mr. Wood—and a number of other critics—have missed the point. Let me make clear, I have nothing against Wood, I think he’s a thoughtful, articulate reviewer, a smart man…I just don’t always agree with him.

There’s a taint, if I can put it like that, to his review, a whiff of innuendo. Mitchell’s a good storyteller, he allows, and The Bone Clocks is admittedly “entertaining”, but…

But what?

Well, apparently, The Bone Clocks lacks coherence, there’s a dearth of human significance and, then, near the conclusion of his critique, Mr. Wood finally lets the mask slip and his biases show:

Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant…the emphasis is shifted away from the human characters toward the supernatural goings on, and the human characters become mere decoders of the peculiar mystery that has befallen them: detectives of drivel. The fantasy rigs the narrative, so that there is something wearingly formulaic whenever Mitchell stages, as he regularly does, a spot of ‘realistic’ skepticism.”

I’m not sure how much fantastic fiction Mr. Wood has read but he must be aware of some of its noble practitioners, Kafka and Borges, Maupassant and Poe. While Mr. Wood opines that “supernatural” skullduggery detracts from the human story, I wonder if he would say the same thing if he was reading a novel or short story by one of the authors I just cited.

What I like most about Mr. Mitchell’s work is that it refuses to acknowledge genre constraints; he delights in playing with tropes and is fearless about introducing SFnal elements to his narratives, creating a vast and varied universe that astonishes literally at every turn.

Mr. Wood’s final assertion, that The Bone Clocks is a “theological allegory”, reflecting a “bleak Gnosticism” must have made the author laugh out loud.

Really, Mr. Wood?

I suspect David Mitchell’s bookshelves are extensive and a good deal more eclectic than James Wood’s. He (Mitchell) is also of a generation whose childhood was enlivened by tales of the mysterious and macabre, whether in books, movies or on TV. From “Dan Dare” to “Dr. Who”; Lord of the Rings to the magic of Ray Harryhausen. All of those influences going into the creative hopper…and what emerges is a mashup that doesn’t discriminate between “literary” and  “genre” fiction, employing elements of both, worshipping at the altar of neither.

Maybe that’s why a number of science fiction scribes I know are less than approving of Mr. Mitchell’s body of work. They think he’s nicking their best material without giving due credit, while some of literary crowd (like James Wood) would accuse him of slumming every time he goes off reservation and presents them with a “bad-faith tussle with a fantastic assailant who has already won”.

I’ll admit, initially I found the supernatural elements in The Bone Clocks a bit off-putting. I’d read no reviews or advance articles on the novel, not wanting to risk spoilers (and you won’t find any in this piece, I promise). The book startled me, intrigued me, then absolutely drew me in. Imagine a collaboration between Jonathan Carroll and Thomas Pynchon, both operating at the top of their form. There are conspiracies and mazes and secret societies and psychic shootouts…but, sorry, I swore I wouldn’t ruin the fun for you.

If The Bone Clocks was a song, it would have “crossover hit” written on it in big, block letters. The novel defies mere description and resists being slotted into any safe, comfortable niche.

Like its author, it is ambitious, ridiculously intelligent, culturally attuned, charming, witty and serenely confident.

David Mitchell is a marvel.

He’s managed to surprise us, yet again.

What a guy.

 

 

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night:hotelAs previously reported, I’ve completed the final polish of my next Black Dog Press release, a short story collection called Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination.

In the week since I’ve wrapped up work on Sex, I’ve been in kind of a “transition” phase, as I prepare for another edit of my novel-in-progress.

I couldn’t just dive back into the novel after spending several weeks tinkering with a batch of really dark, harrowing short stories—I needed a break, a way to ease into it.

I go through these periods every so often and it’s during these times that I create some of the strange short films and ambient musical pieces that you’ll find under my Films/Music” tab. It’s also when I’ll retreat to my cold, damp basement and slap some acrylic paint on canvas for a few days. Experimenting. Playing.

And I’m prone to sudden attacks of poetry, as well.

Which is what happened this time around.

For the past 7-10 days there’s been a lot of scribbling going on around here and much of it centers around a suite of stanzas I’ve put together under the title “Sixteen Rites of Deconditioning”.

To explain:

For at least fifteen years I’ve kept a couple of notebooks devoted to…I’m not sure what you’d call it. Automatic writing? Free associations? Visions?

When I’m in a certain mindset I feel a compulsion to scrawl words, disjointed sentences, dream sequences, snippets of verse. The spell only lasts a few hours, a day at the most, but I’m often surprised by what these sessions produce. Recently I decided to go through both notebooks and write down certain key words or lines or themes that stood out. Once I assembled a roster of these bits, I began to shape them, dividing them up, juxtaposing certain parts, creating fascinating fusions, collisions and cross-fertilizations.

I was delighted with the end result and just posted “Sixteen Rites of Deconditioning” on my Scribd page–I encourage you to zip over there and cast you eyes over a mind-blowing poem, by far the longest and most complex I’ve written to date.

I welcome your comments and reactions—the poem is certainly subject to a variety of interpretations and I’m interested by how people experience “Sixteen Rites”, if it strikes any familiar chords.

Am I plugged in to the zeitgeist…or spending far too much time alone in my office?

Let me know what you think.

splatter

 

 

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picnicMan, where has the summer gone?

I looked up from my desk a moment ago and watched another leaf begin its slow, stately death spiral to the ground below. The end of August coming up soon, the Labour Day weekend approaching; the nights have been cooler and we’ve been keeping an eye on the temperature in case frost threatens our tomato plants, which have been slow to ripen this year and still need a couple of weeks before harvesting.

I’ve been trying to keep up with the yard work, get outside as much as I can, stay active. My sedentary lifestyle isn’t conducive to good joints and sound posture. Not too great for the heart either, I’m guessing (though I haven’t had any trouble on that count yet, knock wood). As I get older, I have to make more of an effort to maintain my general fitness, monitor what I’m putting into my body and all that. Except the other day I took my bike out for a spin and ended up pulling a muscle in my lower back about two hundred yards from home. Not a bad strain, it turns out, but I hadn’t exactly been exerting myself at the time and I’d done my usual stretching that morning—what gives?

It’s called “middle age” and I’d better learn to deal with it and stop all this raging against the “dying of the light”. I’m told by venerable friends and acquaintances it won’t do any good. Aging with dignity, that’s the important thing. That and finding the right kind of underwear.

So much for the wisdom of our “elders”.

But as I hobble about this weekend, a cold pack strapped to my back with the sash off my bathrobe, I feel nothing but gratitude for a summer well spent.

It wasn’t all work and I did some traveling (not much), visiting friends and family. Fishing, sight-seeing…no complaints on that count. Even managed to take in a few films, read some books. Pacing myself more than I used to.

But I have to say the progress I’ve made on two separate projects since the beginning of June gives me my greatest feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction.

My short story collection Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination is now finished and ready for production. Sherron completed her proofreading last week and I’ve tapped in all the necessary changes and corrections. I’ve contacted my production and design folks, inquired as to their availability—looks like it will be my usual, reliable crew.

Hoping for a pre-Christmas release of Sex and will get you a sneak peek of the cover ASAP.

Meanwhile, my novel project also proceeded by leaps and bounds this summer, to the extent that I have no doubt I’ll be able to meet my self-imposed release date of April 1, 2015. Sherron also read a rough cut of the novel and, well, I don’t want to blow my own horn but let’s just say she enjoyed it immensely and leave it at that. Everything’s looking very, very good. I’ll be writing more about that book in the coming weeks (I know, up until now I’ve kept it tightly under wraps).

So the next six-eight months bode well: two excellent, book-length projects due for release and new work also on the horizon. A great way to celebrate (in 2015) my 25th year as an independent publisher and my 30th as a professional author.

It feels like I’m in a creative “zone” right now. I don’t want the spell to be broken, the magic to end.

Please, keep those words coming…

 

Photo credit: Sherron BurnsSher:tree

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The Algebra of Inequality*

Once they enter the algorithms
consult their computer oracles
assigning dollar value to life & limb
with suitable aplomb

In the boardrooms of corporations
where the wolves run free
who will pay due compensation
for the sheep they slay?

 

%22Algebra%22

 

*Title derived from “Report” (short story by Donald Barthelme)

© 2014  Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

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