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.
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”.
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.
An intimacy only death allows.
Forced into close alignment to conserve space.
A press of upturned faces.
Rows and rows, near a field of spring wheat.
Bright sunlight, a perfect cloudless day.
In defiance of this latest atrocity.
* * *
The Last Room
Is someone there?
Why don’t you come nearer?
Step into the light…
I can barely see you.
There’s so little time.
Please, show yourself.
I don’t want to be alone.
Take pity on my penitent soul.
* * *
—careening down a narrow path, bucking and weaving through the forest, in headlong flight.
“Hurry! It’s catching up with us!”
Realizing my mistake when the trees around us begin to glow, giving off a vivid, blue light.
The ground vibrating, feeling it through the floorboard beneath my feet.
“Oh, Christ! Oh, Jesus, help me—”
The light coruscating, fierce, accompanied by a blaze of heat, the exterior of our vehicle starting to blister and smoke…
* * *
Reporting as ordered, funneled in with the rest.
Hemmed and jostled, barely able to move.
Exhausted and compliant.
A clipped, officious voice from the loudspeaker, appealing for calm.
Distant shouting, the news spreading in visible ripples through our midst.
The gates are closing…
© Copyright, 2014 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
“That’s him. That’s our guy.”
“You kidding? You’re taking the piss, right?”
“Look, I’ve been up all night, you wanted to see what I got, this is it.”
“But what is it?”
“It’s a, waddaya call it, a screen capture.”
“Like they take a picture, a still frame. Enhanced all to fuck but that’s what they came up with. There’s your perp.”
“I still don’t get it. You’re saying that’s taken from the hallway camera—”
“Yeah. What you’re looking at is, like, a single fucking frame. That new guy, Panda or Pandra, whatever the fuck, he spotted it. And, man, how he managed it, I’ll never know.”
“So he’s zipping through the footage and something clicks and he goes back and slows everything down—”
“Right, exactly. And this thing is there for a flash, right outside the fucking door, and then it’s gone.”
“Fuck that. Nothing fits. This is a locked door mystery and the two of us are hanging out to dry here. In less than an hour I gotta go upstairs, smile ever so nice and show them…what exactly? This? This fucking—”
“It’s all we got.”
“Nine of our best standing around with their thumbs up their arses while the guy we were supposed to be babysitting—“
“No one got in or out. You said so yourself.”
“No one but this guy. That’s what you’re telling me, right?”
”The question is, what are you going to tell them.”
“I’m not going to tell them anything. I’m just going to show them this. The best evidence we have.”
“Then? Then it doesn’t matter. Because it won’t be my problem any more…”
© Copyright, 2014 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
I’d assembled a “Best of…” collection of tales and spent more than a year trying to find a publisher for it. All of the stories in that collection, titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination, had been previously published, some in pretty prestigious publications. A couple had aired on CBC Radio and I’d even received a generous grant from the Canada Council that helped pay for writing part of the book.
See, the widely held view is that single author short story collections, regardless of the stature of the writer, just don’t sell. Sadly, I can tell you from personal experience that this is not an urban legend, for some reason contemporary readers shun the short story format. God knows why. Regardless, publishers tend to shy away from anthologies and such and my little offering was no exception.
“These stories are well written but as you know in today’s marketplace short story collections do not attract significant sales, etc….”
Heard that one a number of times.
But, curiously enough, the one sentiment repeated over and over again was this: good writing, exciting plots and themes, but we don’t publish this type of thing.
What exactly was “this type of thing”?
My own bizarre concoction, a spicy stew of science fiction, horror, fantasy and mainstream, literary prose. A mash-up of every genre under the sun, defying categorization and safe niches. Which didn’t help matters. As far as Canadian presses were concerned anything with the slightest taint of genre was out—more than one Canuck editor gave me the impression that my stories weren’t, well, Canadian enough, didn’t conform to some weird, unwritten cultural checklist.
And as far as the Americans and Brits were concerned, I was a young, emerging writer, no following, and while my work showed originality and creative spark, it wasn’t worth risking a significant investment of time and resources.
So my book was effectively dead in the water.
But I couldn’t help thinking about a fellow I’d heard about out east, a guy who’d made it his mission in life to stick a pin in the Canadian publishing industry and, in general, make a nuisance of himself. Crad Kilodney’s best stunt, in my view, was submitting classic stories by Kafka and Hemingway and others to a national literary contest and then publicly embarrassing the judges and administrators for failing to recognize their literary merit.
Crad, understandably, found it difficult to place his work so he started publishing it himself and selling it as limited edition chapbooks on the streets of Toronto. My wife brought me back a copy of one he dubbed Bang Heads Here Suffering Bastards in the late 1980’s and I was immediately impressed by the author’s chutzpah and creative passion.
When my Sex collection was passed over by every publisher north of the Rio Grande, I recalled Crad and his fuck you, DIY mentality and thought to myself, shit, I can do that too.
It took me months to put it all together, find the right cover art, a printer and bookbinder, and the final price tag was (gulp) just over $3000 to print 500 copies. Money I did not have.
Fortunately, the entire print run sold out in about five months.
It was astonishing.
I think my old chum Mark Ziesing sold at least 70 copies through his small mail order company alone. The Regina bookstore I worked for at the time also moved a lot of copies and every time Sherron and I travelled somewhere, we always took a box with us, nabbing consignment sales in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto.
There were no returns.
The crowning moment was when our bookstore staff had dinner with Canadian literary icon Timothy Findley. Once he heard I had a new book out, Tiff generously asked to see it. After reading it, he sent me the most beautiful blurb possible. I was unable to use his kind words on that edition of Sex and promised him I would never employ them on any other title except the one for which they were intended. And so when I re-release Sex and Other Acts of the Imagination on its 25th anniversary early next year (2015), it will finally feature Tiff’s warm praise:
“This is a book of hot dreams and frozen nightmares. It floats on a plane few writers achieve, where the imagery is raw but the insights are tender. The people in these stories will stay with me for a long time to come.”
Thanks, Tiff. You dear, sweet man.
I’ve published a couple of short chapbooks and a collection of novellas (Righteous Blood) through other small presses but I have to say none of those experiences came close to the joy I felt writing, editing and publishing my own work. No middle men, no editorial interference, no bullshit. Controlling all the creative and aesthetic decisions, right down to the choice of font and margins.
I was hooked.
I released books through my imprint, Black Dog Press, in 1994, 1995, 1997…but that last title (another short story collection!), The Reality Machine, cost me close to $7000 and put a serious strain on our finances. It took us awhile to recover and then I embarked on a 3 1/2 year odyssey that became, eventually, my occult thriller So Dark the Night.
The completion of that novel coincided with the arrival of print-on-demand publishing, the biggest change to the book biz since Joe Gutenberg opened his first copy shop in Mainz. Thanks to POD, publishing on a smaller scale has become much more affordable, plus I now have access to the international marketplace I’ve always coveted. Physical book or digital version, it’s up to my readers.
Since the 2010 publication of So Dark the Night, this press has released 5 more titles, each of them professionally designed and formatted, featuring eye-poppingly gorgeous cover art. You’ll find them in my bookstore and, I think you’ll agree, they look as good as any offering you’ll come across in your favorite book store. The writing isn’t bad either.
So that’s the story behind Black Dog Press, my eccentric little publishing venture. Twenty-five years and eleven titles later (two more in the pipeline), and we’re still going strong.
I may never get rich but at least my work is out there, available to readers who seek prose that veers from the familiar and mocks the very notion of consensual reality. In this era of corporate publishing, a profit-mongering environment that encourages the proliferation of sub-literate, derivative fiction, independent presses like mine offer hope and inspiration to those of us who revere the printed word and refuse to kowtow to the mediocre and witless.
Thanks for your support over the years.
The best is yet to come.
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:
This weekend, I completed final edits on my latest book, a collection of short stories titled Exceptions & Deceptions.
The title is derived from a quote by Francis Picabia: “The unknown is an exception, the known a deception”.
The collection features 19 stories, including a novella titled “Second Sight”, which is previously unpublished. It’s my first book of stories since The Reality Machine (1997) and, needless to say, I’m ecstatic to see these tales finally in print.
I’ve settled on a cover but I’ll keep it under my hat until our mate, Chris Kent, designs a mockup for us to post.
This is going to be a bee-you-tiful book.
Projected publication date of mid-June.
* * * * *
By now you’ve probably heard the rotten news regarding the health of one of the literary greats, Iain Banks.
Fifty-nine years old.
…and suddenly all the little foibles and annoyances in my own life seem pretty feeble.
If you haven’t already, make sure you seek out and read one of his fine books. The Wasp Factory, maybe the best debut novel I’ve read, and two truly magnificent science fiction offerings, Consider Phlebas and Excession.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: it’s an honor sharing a universe with the likes of Iain Banks.
His work is a tribute to the power of imagination, that very human capacity to envision and describe impossible worlds…and make the faraway and exotic come to life.
Thank you, Mr. Banks. For every word you’ve committed to paper, the dreams you’ve willingly shared.
* * * * *
A wonderful surprise in my virtual mailbox this past week. Yury Sabinin, an industrious chap now residing on Canada’s west coast, has taken it upon himself to translate some of my better known works into Russian. It initially started as an exercise for a non-English speaking friend overseas but now Yury has completed a couple of translations, “Apocalypse Beach” and “Invisible Boy”, which I offer for free reading/download.
My gratitude to Yury for granting his permission to reproduce those translations here.
Just click on the links below: