Category: Essays and reviews

Charles Beaumont, Co-Creator of “The Twilight Zone”

About twenty-five years ago, I wrote a short essay on the life and work of Charles Beaumont that was eventually published in a small press magazine in Florida.

Since that one-time appearance, that essay has sat in my archives, gathering dust. I thought it was high time I dug it out, polished it up and posted it on Beautiful Desolation.

Beaumont had enormous influence on my early writing. He and Richard Matheson were my guys, the ones who felt (like I do) that horror/suspense is at its best when it tells small, intimate, gripping, intense, human stories.

In the case of both authors, many of the tales they wrote in the 1950s, long before Twilight Zone was even a gleam in Rod Serling’s eye, exhibited all the best qualities of classic TZ episodes: brevity, satire, empathy and bloody great twist endings.

I don’t want to steal any thunder from my essay—click on the link below and it will take you directly to the PDF, which I make available, like everything else on this site, at absolutely no cost. Just one of the perqs you collect for hanging out here in my odd little literary salon.

Read on:

Charles Beaumont: An Appreciation

Best Reads of 2016

9780812987232Managed to read over a hundred books and view about the same number of movies in 2016.

You’ll find my list of favourite films over at my blog, Cinema Arete.

Read slightly more non-fiction than fiction last year, a bit of a worrying trend. I’ve really cut back on my genre fiction in the past while; I’ve found the suspension of disbelief rarely works for me any more. The last horror novel I read, by Peter Straub, struck me as completely implausible and I barely finished it.

More and more, I’m looking for quality reads, books that are innovative, literate and unique.

And, more and more, contemporary fiction just doesn’t meet that criteria.

 * * * *

Best Books Read in 2016

Fiction:

Fortune Smiles (Stories) by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Execution by Hugo Wilcken

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo

The Heavenly Bible by Donald Ray Pollock

Today I Wrote Nothing (Stories) by Daniil Kharms

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse

The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken

The Adulterous Woman (Stories) by Albert Camus

Honorable Mention:

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

Poetry:

Without by Donald Hall

Felicity by Mary Oliver

Non-fiction:

Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life by James Hawes

Ghost Wars: Secret History of CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden by Steve Coll

Contrary Notions by Michael Parenti

When the Facts Change by Tony Judt

Disaster Capitalism by Antony Lowenstein

Young Orson: The Years of Luck & Genius by Patrick McGilligan

We Learn Nothing (Essays) by Tim Kreider

Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk

Honorable Mention:

The Idea of Communism by Tariq Ali

Goebbels: A Biography by Peter Longerich

My Life & Travels by Wilfred Thesiger

Hogs Wild (Essays) by Ian Frazier

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Best of…2015

imagesI was fortunate this year, hitting the century mark (100+) both in terms of the number of books read and movies watched.

I’ve gone through my lists and compiled a roster of favourites–difficult, in many cases, to settle on a definitive order, impose a hierarchy of excellence. Every single selection brilliant in its own right and worthy of inclusion:

BEST BOOKS

Fiction:

Bleeding Edge (Thomas Pynchon)
Purity (Jonathan Franzen)
Stoner (John Williams)
Fat City (Leonard Gardner)
The Book of Aron (Jim Shepard)
Number9Dream (David Mitchell)
Something Rich and Strange (Ron Rash) Short Stories
Gaps (Bohumil Hrabal)
Young Skins (Colin Barrett) Short Stories
The Normals (David Gilbert)
Payback (Gert Ledig)
As Far as the Eye Can See (Robert Bausch)
Cain’s Book (Alexander Trocchi)
The Commissariate of Enlightenment (Ken Kalfus)
Strong Motion (Jonathan Franzen)
All That Outer Space Allows (Ian Sales)
Highrise (J.G. Ballard)
Three Men in a Boat * (Jerome K. Jerome)

Non-Fiction

The Price of Inequality (Joseph Stiglitz)
The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Ilan Pappé)
Theodore Rex (Edmund Morris)
Colonel Roosevelt (Edmund Morris)
The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible (Charles Eisenstein)
Werner Herzog: Conversations (with Paul Cronin)
Orson Welles’ Last Movie: The Making of “The Other Side of the Wind” (Josh Karp)
Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun (A.J. Somerset)
My Father and Myself (J.R. Ackerley)
When in Disgrace (Budd Boetticher)

467416-hard-to-be-a-god-hard-to-be-a-god-poster-artBEST FILMS:

“Hard to Be a God” (Directed by Aleksei German)
“Amores Perros” * (Dir. Alejandro Inarritu)
“Leviathan” (Dir. Andrey Zuyagintsev)
“Sightseers” (Dir. Ben Wheatley)
“Valerie and Her Week of Wonders” (Dir. Jaromil Jires)
“Blue Ruin” (Dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
“Winter Sleep” (Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
“Gomorrah” (Dir. Matteo Garrone)
“Amarcord” (Dir. Federico Fellini)
“Boyhood” (Dir. Richard Linklater)
“L’il QuinQuin” (Dir. Bruno Dumont)
“Time Crimes” (Dir. Nacho Vigalondo)
“The Devil’s Backbone” (Dir. Guillermo del Toro)
“The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” (Dir. Werner Herzog)
“What We Do in the Shadows” (Dir. Taika Waititi; Jermaine Clement)
“Berberian Sound Studio” * (Dir. Peter Strickland)
“2001: A Space Odyssey” * (Dir. Stanley Kubrick)
“Chinatown” * (Dir. Roman Polanski)

Honorable Mention:

“Closely Watched Trains” (Dir. Jiri Menzel)
“Jodorowsky’s ‘Dune'” (Dir. Frank Pavich)
“Wild Tales” (Dir. Damian Szifron)
“Satyricon” (Dir. Federico Fellini)
“Ex Machina” (Dir. Alex Garland)
“Land of Silence and Darkness” (Dir. Werner Herzog)
“Stroszek” (Dir. Werner Herzog)
“Nightcrawler” (Dir. Dan Gilroy)
“Her” (Dir. Spike Jonze)
“Maps to the Stars” (Dir. David Cronenberg)

PLAYLIST (Musical Favourites)

Tom Morello “The Nightwatchman” (World Wide Protest Songs)
Ty Segall “Manipulator”
Porcupine Tree “Up the Down Staircase”
Pere Ubu “Raygun Suitcase”
The Stooges “Raw Power”
Paul Banks “The Base”
Merle Haggard “I Am What I Am”
J.D. Crowe and the New South “Lefty’s Old Guitar”

Best Comedy: Bill Hicks “Salvation: Live at Oxford”

TV

“Rick & Morty” (Seasons 1 & 2)
“True Detective” (Series 1)
“The Mighty Boosh” (Series 1-3)

  • Denotes “Previously Read” or “Previously Viewed”

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The Price of Independence

cover,jpegI recently “celebrated” my 52nd birthday and, not unusually, I think, spent part of the day musing and reflecting on my life arc, decisions made, paths chosen.

It can be a somber, sobering process, this kind of self-evaluation, and, inevitably, I get around to my writing.

Thirty years as a professional author and not much of a dent made. Black Dog Press, my imprint (described as a “micro-press” on my Saskatchewan business license) barely scrapes by. It’s no coincidence that I usually publish my titles in the early spring, right after the annual check from the Public Lending Rights folks arrives. It just about pays for each new release.

And let’s be honest, my books sell very modestly; outside a small coterie of readers, I am virtually unknown. I sent out something like 45 copies of my last book, Disloyal Son, to newspapers, magazines, assorted literary folk, receiving precisely three polite acknowledgements and no reviews. Not one. One mystery magazine emailed me, thanking me for sending a copy their way and offering to sell me a full-page ad that could maybe/possibly run in the same issue as the review (hint, hint). I didn’t have money for the ad and they didn’t end up publishing a review. It’s the way things work these days. Kirkus Reviews? Publishers Weekly? For the right price you can commission a four-star review and laudatory blurbs…never mind that no one has even glanced at the book in question.

Publishing is a dirty business, there’s no denying it.

And it’s hard to stay positive, to keep on keeping on, when you know the deck is stacked, the marketplace flooded with a quarter million new releases every year, a clammer of dissonant voices begging to be heard, a hellish, caterwauling chorus.

But it’s the work, that joyfulness I feel when everything is clicking, sentences and paragraphs almost being dictated to me, that’s what makes it worthwhile. As long as I’m able to put pen to paper, as long as those words don’t dry up, inspiration fleeing from me, I think I can endure almost anything.

Creation is everything to me. As soon as I’m done a project, I’m ready to move on, tackle another challenge. And that’s why I don’t spend much time mourning the poor sales of my last novel or short story collection, or grind my teeth down to the gums as I watch their rapid plummet to the bottom of Amazon’s sales rankings. Those four-dollar royalty checks? Hey, bring ’em on.

Just…keep the words coming. In good times and bad. Darkness and light. Ecstasy and despair.

Anything but that screaming silence.

Amen.

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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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Winding up David Mitchell’s THE BONE CLOCKS

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.

 

 

Anecdote of the Jar

Junk1I recently read a volume of Wallace Stevens’ selected poems (The Emperor of Ice Cream and Other Poems; Dover Publications, 1999) and one piece in particular stands out in my mind.

“Anecdote of the Jar” appears about halfway through the book. Like all the best poetry, it manages to be, simultaneously, deceptively simple and yet enormous in its implications.

I can’t cite the poem in its entirety without paying a stipend to Stevens’ estate (and more power to ’em), but I can tell you that it succeeds, in three brief stanzas, at revealing humankind as the ultimate invasive species, spreading our cargo cult of garbage and useless detritus to the farthest reaches of our planet. Pepsi cans and cluster bombs dropping like manna from the heavens, a “north Atlantic gyre” of Walmart bags and accumulated human waste and debris, literally an island of filth to navigate around, map and study.

Understand, I know nothing of the genesis or conception of “Anecdote of the Jar”, this is purely my take on it, a highly subjective interpretation. The poem was likely written in the 1920’s or 30’s, long before the full scope of our crimes against the environment was apparent. Was Stevens’ prescient, somehow aware of what was coming? I’m not qualified to answer. I do know that quite often poets are like a canary in a coal mine, detecting dangerous elements and tendencies within our society the rest of us either don’t or (more likely) won’t acknowledge.

Junk3Just by its mere presence on a hillside in Tennessee, a jar, the simplest and most basic of objects, defeats that ancient landscape, forever marring it. Nature, in an instant, overtaken and violated, no longer pristine, untouched by human hands.

I think “fair use” permits me to quote two crucial lines:

The wilderness rose up to it/And sprawled around, no longer wild…

That’s it.

That’s what happens when you drop a fast food cup in the woods or toss your garbage from a moving vehicle. A single thoughtless act that spoils the scenery for the rest of us.

Remember the backpacker’s credo: Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.

And, even so, I beg you, make sure you walk on tiptoes…

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