Category: Dark fantasy

“Invisible Boy”–listen to the MP3

EctoplasmAs previously reported, I’ve been mucking about with sound recording of late—music, initially, but yesterday I thought I’d try my hand at some spoken word.

“Invisible Boy” is my best known and most frequently anthologized story. It appears in my collection Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination and has become one of my signature tales.

I’ve performed it frequently at live readings but, for some reason, resisted recording it.

I’ve rectified that oversight, adding some music for dramatic effect.

Hope you enjoy my rendering of a favourite short story:

Blog Post #400–We’ve come a long way, baby

For not the first time (and certainly not the last), I find myself apologizing for the lengthy interval between blog posts.

But, as I’ve pointed out previously, when I’m deeply immersed in a project I don’t have the time or energy to blog—so when these long silences (inevitably) crop up, I think you can safely assume I’m up to something.

In this instance, two short stories have been devouring my waking hours. One, “The Grey Men”, is a mystery/suspense tale clocking in at 1900 words, and “Magic Man”, the one I’m just wrapping up, is 8700 words (33 pages) long.

Upon its completion “The Grey Men” struck me as more accessible and genre specific than my usual efforts, so I did something very out of character and actually submitted it to a magazine for consideration. Longtime readers know I swore off that practice ages ago and only rarely offer my short fiction to publications or writing competitions. Why bother with extended (interminable) response times and form rejections when I can just go ahead and release my work either here or over on Scribd? But, I dunno, “The Grey Men” is a solid, convincing story and maybe just this once a perceptive editor will see its merits and snap it up. I’ll let you know.

I tackled “Magic Man”, in all honesty, because I was feeling quite smug and confident after completing “The Grey Men”. I should have known better.

The first draft of “Magic Man” was written back in 1984. I kid you not. It was one of the tales that signalled a shift from narratives centred around myself, my own life experiences, to venturing out into unexplored waters, creating entirely fictional worlds and characters. For that reason, I’ve always had a rather fond view of “Magic Man”, never completely forgot about it. And so, as an exercise, I pulled the one, typed copy of “Magic Man” out of my archives and set to work.archives

It was torture. First of all, I had to tap in the story, 4-5000 words of it, and that was an excruciatingly slow process because I couldn’t help correcting and doing adjustments as I went along, which really was incredibly stupid and stretched the process out. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Just type the fucking thing in, Cliff, and then start editing. Nope. Finally, got the entire draft on computer…and that’s when it really got difficult.

Obviously, I’m a much better writer now than I was thirty-one years ago. That guy back in 1984, he was still basically a rookie, a kid learning the ropes. So “Magic Man” needed work, lots and lots and lots of work. At the same time, however, I wanted to show respect to the kid, the one I remembered slaving away on this story, really excited about it because he knew it was a step, more like a lurching, uncertain stumble, in a new and different direction. I wanted to recognize that effort, the courage it took to complete “Magic Man”, and so I was also determined to preserve as much of the spirit of the original as possible.

Finally, two weeks later, it’s almost done. Sherron is downstairs reading the copy of “Magic Man” I printed last night. I didn’t tell her (never do) what I’ve been up to so she’s in for a treat. She’ll remember this story very well: after all, it’s one of the first I ever dedicated to her.

If “The Grey Men” falls into the mystery/suspense category, “Magic Man” is a bit more problematic. There are elements of dark/urban fantasy, I suppose, but for the most part it’s a mainstream effort. Realistic setting and scenario. Which will likely make it next to impossible to sell or market the bloody thing. The extended length will factor against it as well. In the old days, I might have sent it to magazines like Cemetery Dance or Midnight Graffiti, but the latter no longer exists and the former has been closed to submissions for ages. I might release the tale as a Kindle “single”, sell it for 99 cents a download, but I’m not sure what that would achieve. I’m very happy with how “Magic Man” turned out and would like to see it presented to readers in an attractive, respected venue.

So let me throw it out there: anybody know of a decent-sized anthology or magazine willing to look at an 8700-word story featuring a “touch of strange”? If so, drop me a line at blackdogpress@yahoo.ca.

We’ll talk.

********************************

400 blog posts? Can that possibly be right? Even with all the long gaps, the periods of time when I’ve completely ignored and shunned Beautiful Desolation?

Amazing. Inconceivable. I think that averages out to 40-45 blog posts a year or around one a week. Not bad for a full-time workaholic author.

Looking back over the years it’s interesting to note the changes in tone and content. I confess I was a very, very angry man when I first started posting on Beautiful Desolation eight-and-a-half years ago—check out a few of those early blog posts and you’ll see what I mean. I was fed up with money-hungry, corporate publishers and their idiotic editors, and the greedy literary agents colluding with them to destroy any chance of interesting, innovative authors getting into print. The publishing biz, especially after the big, multi-national takeovers in the 1980s (something else to thank Ronnie Raygun for), has systemically dummied down the marketplace to the extent that sub-literate, amateur purveyors of fan fiction have a better chance getting their work in book stores and sales racks than the next Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace. Disgusting, innit? My fury with that situation finally boiled over when a draft of my first novel, So Dark the Night, was rejected by an editor who kept me waiting over a year before delivering the bad news. I penned a very public “fuck off” letter to the industry, a portion of which which was reprinted in “GalleyCat“, an on-line site devoted (mainly) to the New York publishing scene. Folks who responded to my expletive-filled tirade warned me that I’d burned all my bridges and “would never work in this town again”.

But by that point I was beyond caring.  I had recently discovered print-on-demand (POD) publishing and immediately recognized that printing had finally caught up with the times and authors now had a relatively inexpensive and efficient way of releasing their own work without involving editors and agents or gate-keepers of any kind. I had self-published my first book, Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination in 1990, but those were the bad, old days of offset printing and all the horrors associated with that. Print-on-demand simplified and streamlined the process…and it also didn’t encumber you with 500 or 1,000 copies of your book to store and inventory (with POD there are no minimum print runs).

Thanks to print-on-demand, my wee imprint, Black Dog Press, was reborn, rejuvenated…and I was a much happier camper.

And so the rants here came a lot less frequently—though topics like the amateurization of the arts and National Novel Writing Month always seem to spark more vitriol—and I settled down, embracing the independent (indie) writing world, feeling empowered and artistically fulfilled, knowing that my work was available to the reading public exactly the way I envisioned it. No middlemen, no interference.

Coming up on ten (10) books later, and I keep doing my thing, making no apologies, kickin’ against the pricks. Older, greyer, a little wiser, a “grand old man” (at 52) of self-publishing/indie writing. Still refusing to pay obeisance to fashions and trends, still refusing to whore my talent, writing what I want to write. Power to the people, motherfuckers!

I’ve got a catalog of excellent books and every single one of them is unique and original and highly literate.

After thirty years as a professional author, I’ve seen ’em come and go but, hey, here I am, still standing, still creating and publishing intelligent, highly crafted prose while many one-hit wonders and flashes-in-the-pan have slipped into obscurity or disappeared altogether. Where are they now?

I’m a “neglected” author, I’m a “cult” author, operating on the fringe, below the radar, working without the slightest desire for fame or monetary reward.

But the main thing is I’m working, staying relevant, productive, thematically and stylistically daring. Consumed by the act of creation.

It will be interesting to read blog post #500 in a couple years’ time.

I wonder how much will have changed, with my writing, the state of the world.

In either case, I can only hope (and pray) it’s for the better.

city:laser

 

 

  • Sherron finished “Magic Man” a few minutes after I completed this post and loved it. Just for the record…

Ta da!

Sex:proof

The SEX collection is here!

Ordering details to follow soon…

 

The Trouble With Neil Gaiman

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.

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Two more translations–“The Hibakusha” & “The Cattletruck”

Photo: Sam Burns

Photo: Sam Burns

My chum Yury Sabinin has been very busy of late.

If you recall, he’s the chap who has taken it upon himself to translate some of my best stories into Russian. Originally, he set himself the task because he had a acquaintance back in Russia (Yury currently resides in B.C.) who he thought might appreciate my work. But she spoke no English so he very magnanimously decided to do the translations himself—he got in touch with me to secure my permission for the endeavor and I was genuinely touched by his devotion to his friend.

Here are his translations of two of my most well-known short stories, “The Hibakusha” and “Cattletruck”. Both are post-apocalypse tales from my very first collection, Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination (1990)…but they couldn’t be more different. You’ll find the original English versions on my Novels & Stories page. Meanwhile, for those of you fluent in Russian, check out Yury’s translations. Click on the PDFs below and away you go:

 

CliffBurnsСкотовоз

CliffBurnsХибакуся

“The World’s Greatest Living Science Fiction Writer”

Ray Bradbury has died and with him goes part of my childhood.

I remember the day I spotted the cover of The Golden Apples of the Sun in my school library. I was, perhaps, ten years old.  I hadn’t borrowed many books but something about this one drew me, perhaps the brazen declaration (right below the title) that its creator was none other than “the world’s greatest living science fiction writer”.

To me, science fiction was “Star Trek” and some of the old creature features they sometimes played serially on my favorite after school program. But right from the first pages of The Golden Apples of the Sun, Ray Bradbury made me see that science fiction wasn’t just about the future and that the world around me was filled with magic and mystery, it was all in the way I looked at it.

Ray was wary about the science fiction label anyway—he thought he was a fantasist and he was absolutely right. Science fiction is too constricting for a mind as wide-ranging and imaginative as his.  He was our small town Borges, the last surviving Grimm brother.  Friends and acquaintances testify to the kindness and civility of the man, and his novels and short stories always provoke a warm, nostalgic glow. But there is much darkness in his work, a real sense of menace present in his masterpiece Something Wicked This Way Comes; happy endings were infrequent.  The loneliness of the creature in his tale “The Fog Horn” is palpable.  It is the last of its kind, doomed and suffering. A serial killer haunts the pages of his much-beloved Dandelion Wine and books burn by the millions in Fahrenheit 451.  Temptation and sin torment his characters and all too frequently they surrender to their baser natures. Ray might have had a sentimental streak but he wasn’t unaware or indifferent to the conflicts that rage inside us.

Ray Bradbury expired at the ripe old age of 91.  The last few years must have been difficult—there were strokes and he lost much of his eyesight. But he kept working, we’re told, his determination to put words on paper nearly out-living his physical body. He graced this planet for over nine decades but never forgot the wonders and terrors of childhood, the desire kids have to discover the mysteries and secrets of the hidden world of adults.

He was, and remains, an original, inimitable, a one and only.

Thanks, Ray.

From that skinny, timid child of long ago and the forty-eight year old man he’s become.

Bon voyage.

Briefly…

Lots of activity around Casa Burns of late, fascinating diversions and developments, including:

My son, Sam, finally overcame all sorts of technical glitches and released his latest cinematic effort, a short film titled “Snoop”.  It’s already garnered a good number of “hits” and positive comments from folks who’ve seen it.  I know I’m prejudiced, but I’m just amazed how well it’s framed and cut; the kid’s visual eye is nothing short of amazing.  Be sure to head over to YouTube and take in an eye-catching caper film.

Last weekend, I checked another item off my “bucket list” and participated in a sweat lodge out at the Sweetgrass Reserve.  My gratitude to Joseph Naytowhow and my wife, Sherron, for making the arrangements, and to elder Fred Paskimin for a once in a lifetime experience.  It’s going to take awhile to assimilate the power and intensity of that afternoon.  A lot of spiritual energy surging and buzzing around that cramped, sweltering interior…

A few of you have been pestering me for an update re: my “100 Book Challenge”.  All I can say is that I’m holding my own.  I just finished book #82 but I confess progress has definitely slowed over the past couple of months.  I’m going to have to pick up my game if I expect to make the cut.  Recent reads include Knockemstiff, a superb collection of short stories by Donald Ray Pollock, and The New Space Opera 2, a so-so anthology of SF tales that featured a couple of genuinely solid efforts, including “The Island” by Peter Watts, which was the high point of the book.

Spending too much time over at Jukesy, arranging playlists of strange, ambient tunes and discovering new groups to add to my personal soundtrack:  A Place to Bury Strangers, The Vandelles, The Radio Department, Hank Williams III…

Still researching my western novel, arranging my notes for the next draft, which should commence soon.  But there are distractions, including pricing out a new roof for our house (which turned 100 this year), tons of yardwork, a pressing need for all-season tires for the Toyota—

And, of course, my upcoming reading at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Saskatoon (Wednesday, October 12th).  In case you missed my previous plug, here’s the official invite, drawn up by my pal Alicia at M-R:

Hope to see you there.