Category: Horror novel

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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Final Shameless Plug For My Saskatoon Reading

Hope to see some of you folks in Saskatoon tomorrow night (Wednesday, October 12th).  The place:  McNally Robinson bookstore on 8th Street.

The show starts promptly at 7:30.  (Here are the details.)

Yeah, I said “show”.  Because readings are public performances and I do my level best to make them as interesting and entertaining as I can.  The best I’ve ever seen was Timothy Findley; man, could that guy read.  And, natch, Tiff had a background in live theater.  He knew how to turn it up a notch.

Others…not so much.  I was at a reading once (no names!) featuring an award-winning poet, an icon of Canadian verse…and it was so appalling, so utterly fake and ridiculous, that it was all I could do to keep from shrieking with laughter.  Cripes, he was funny.  My wife kept trying to catch my eye but I refused to look at her, knowing we’d lose it and make a spectacle of ourselves.  Little beads of sweat trickled down my temples as I fought to keep my composure.

He’d speak in this silly, affected voice, dragging out certain words:  “The wind…moved through…the grassssss…”

Hee hee.  Still makes me chuckle.  What an arsehole.

I gave a reading on Baffin Island, sharing the bill with another writer who read so long that the candles in the wine bottles burned down and fell to the glass bottoms, extinguishing themselves.  The room getting darker and darker as more and more of the stubs dropped.  Pshh. Pshh.  Pssh.

About seventeen years ago, I made the mistake of agreeing to read in a bar in Ottawa.  The regulars tuned in for about the first six or eight minutes but then the noise level began to rise and I started frantically cutting passages as I read, rushing to finish the performance as quickly as I could.  Anyone who was listening (probably damn few of them) would’ve found the narrative completely incoherent.

Well.

There won’t be any horror stories tomorrow night at McNally-Robinson.  Nossir.  I’m well prepped and I’m reading some of the most exciting passages from my supernatural thrillers, So Dark the Night and Of the Night.  Anyone who shows up is gonna enjoy themselves, guar-an-teed; they sure as hell won’t be bored.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my rehearsing…


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.

Reading at McNally-Robinson (Saskatoon)

I’ll be reading from my two supernatural thrillers,  So Dark the Night and Of the Night, at an upcoming event at the McNally-Robinson Bookstore in Saskatoon.

The date:  Wednesday, October 12th
The time:  7:30 p.m.

Alicia Horner, the affable and hard-working Events Coordinator at McNally Robinson, has put together a promo page which provides all the relevant details.

Copies of both books will be available for purchase and, natch, I’ll be happy to sign them for you.

Don’t get to do stuff like this often enough and I miss it.  My readings are very performance oriented (so to speak); I hate a boring author/reader and feel a genuine sense of accomplishment when I’ve entertained a live crowd and won over some new fans.  Always seem to find a receptive audience whenever I read in Saskatoon—yet another reason why that city figures prominently on the list of my favorite places on Earth.

Jot “October 12th” down on your calendar (see how much advance notice I’m giving you?) and, if you’re in the neighborhood, drop by and hang out with us for awhile. And, afterward, browse the store, buy some books, keep the sputtering flame of literacy alive.

Hope to see you in October and I look forward to introducing you to a couple of terrific page-turners.

Montana Sojourn

Back from my trip to Montana and I’m ten days older, a helluva lot wiser and a great deal more appreciative of the beauty, wonder and diversity all around us.

I haven’t traveled a lot—as frequent readers of this blog know—and find the concept of leaving my home office for an extended period of time onerous.  But my two trips to the state of Montana have convinced me this mindset is not only silly but perhaps even counterproductive.  On both occasions I returned refreshed, energized and inspired…and produced some fine work as a direct result of my rambles through “Big Sky country”.

The first time was back in late Spring, 2002 and I was in pretty wretched state.  I’d just expended enormous energies completing final drafts of the two novellas that comprise my book Righteous Blood.  There is incredible darkness in those pieces, almost as if I was trying to purge myself of all the vileness and fury I’d accumulated for who knows how long.  The book was also intended to be a kind of “fuck you” to the entire horror genre, which, to my mind, took a nosedive into the toilet sometime in the mid-1990’s (sadly, it’s in even worse shape now).  I no longer wanted anything to do with the field and had zero desire to be lumped in with the losers and hacks who made their home there.  The morning we left for Great Falls, I was a burnt out case.  When we returned, a week or so later, I was a new man.

Montana had worked its magic on me.

This time around, I had the same travel partner (my father-in-law, Ken Harman) but was in far better condition, mentally and creatively.  The motivation behind our latest voyage was different too:  we were going down to Livingston and spending a week interviewing historians and curators, familiarizing ourselves with some of the settings featured in my western novel, The Last Hunt.  A research trip and I had a satchel of notes and a box of resource material to prove it.  And because some of the action takes place in Yellowstone Park, we spent one entire day viewing some of the most spectacular, mysterious and breath-stealing scenery the world has to offer.  I stood on a spot where I could see where much of the final part of the novel is set and, I gotta tell ya, kids, it gave me goosebumps.

Met a number of pretty amazing people as we rambled about the state and couldn’t believe how generous people were with their time, how friendly and forthcoming.  Lee Whittlesey, historian at the Heritage and Research Center down in Gardiner, was a wonderful host and raconteur, his knowledge of the Park extraordinary, his anecdotes and detailed answers to my questions had me scribbling furiously to keep up.  Lee, you’re a gem.

Paul Shea, the curator of the Gateway Museum in Livingston, showed me dozens of photos from the town’s early years and there were also amazing shots of Cinnabar and other local places of interest.  And he did so in an office shrouded in plastic, workmen banging and sawing away, the museum undergoing extensive renovations at the time.

Our most fortuitous encounter in Livingston was with John Fryer, a man who just might be the single most charming individual I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.  A natural, innate charm, nothing affected or manufactured.  Anyone fortunate enough to be acquainted with John knows exactly of what I speak.  We walked into John’s bookstore (“Sax & Fryer Company”) on Callender Street and knew we’d come to the right place.  A terrific selection of novels and non-fiction and the ladies employed there rang in our purchases on a cash register that was over one hundred years old.  Ken mentioned a certain classic saddle he’d just sold and John’s eyes brightened.

“Come on downstairs.”  We followed him to his basement lair where he showed us a mini-museum of saddles and western-related gear.  John and Ken chatted about the various items, both of them momentarily (and happily) cast back more than a century, men who could happily exist in less civilized times, untouched by modern technology.

Through John, we met the great western writer Richard Wheeler.  Mr. Wheeler is a national treasure, six-time winner of the Golden Spur Award; he and Elmer Kelton are the two consistently best writers the genre has produced in the past thirty years.  We spent several hours in his company and every minute of it was a treat.  I’m not much of a drinker but I raised a bourbon or two that night, I tell you.  Jim Beam Black, a truly infernal concoction.  And, another true confession, that same evening I stood eight feet from one of the five finest authors in America and didn’t know it.  After we’d said our farewells to Mr. Wheeler, the bartender signaled me over and murmured “Did you notice Jim Harrison at the end of the bar?”

I think I might have stopped breathing.  Of course I had.  I’d looked over, saw this rather hard-looking seed, and thought “Hmmmm…”  Didn’t think “Could that be Jim Harrison?”, more like “What an interesting face…”

I wanted to beat my forehead against the bar.  What a lost opportunity.  Just to wander over, hold out my hand and say “Thank you for every word you’ve ever committed to paper.”

Well.  There it is.

Livingston is a mecca for fine writers and artists of all stripes.  Harrison and Tom McGuane are regularly sighted.  Margot Kidder has a place in the hills and Walter Hill has been known to visit.  Sam Peckinpah loved it there and shot holes in the ceiling of the Murray Hotel to prove it.  “What did you do when Sam did that?” someone once asked the Murray’s long-suffering proprietor.  “Plug ’em up and send him the bill,” was the wise, terse reply.  There’s kind of a roll call of honor in the Murray’s decidedly un-trendy bar, signed photos of some of its more celebrated patrons.  While Ken listened to a rather manic guy explain the proper way of catching and subduing a six-foot black snake, I took a wander, checked out the various black and white pictures—

And there he was.  James Crumley.  Thick, craggy face, somehow managing to simultaneously convey humor and immense sadness.  To me, Crumley is the man.  For years I dreamed of buying him a drink in a joint much like the Murray Bar, perch myself on a stool beside him and just…listen.  He told wonderful, funny stories, the locals remember him well.  Always attracted a retinue of hangers-on and sycophants when he blew into town for some good fishing and hard drinking.  Ah, Jim…

I experienced a wave of sadness looking at his picture.  Went back to the bar and ordered another bourbon, raised it in the direction of his portrait.  To your good soul

Met any number of terrific people in our travels.  We stayed in three separate RV parks in the state and ran across all kinds of interesting folks, every one of them with a story to tell.  I have no doubt that they will appear, in various guises and composites, in upcoming stories and novels; hope I can do justice to their complicated and conflicted natures.  Never encountered anyone I didn’t like, nor did I hear the lame jingoism that one frequently associates with our friends south of the border.

Montana is a western state, its citizens contrary, stubbornly independent.  They’re folks who believe in hard work, straight talk and minding your own damn business.  People who don’t think much of government at any level—local, state and most especially those vultures in Washington.  They’re tolerant of dissent and possess the sharp, practical minds of their ancestors.  I admire them for their respect for their heritage and history and thank them for the hospitality they extended to Ken and I, the fellowship we found in their company.

Hopefully it won’t be another decade before I go back.  I felt at home there and it’s taken time to re-acclimatize myself now that I’m back in Saskatchewan.  The walls of my office seem a lot closer, almost oppressive.  I miss the mountains and suspect I might have left a vital, irreplaceable part of myself at that overlook near Hell-Roaring Creek.

Author photo courtesy Ken Harman (Thanks, Cap’n!)

Twenty years as an indie publisher

Last night we had the official launch of my new novel Of the Night at the North Battleford Library.

A heartfelt thank you to Wendy and all the hardy souls who braved the first serious cold snap this winter to celebrate the birth of my latest literary offspring.  Sherron and my two sons handled the lights and tech and made sure everything went off without a hitch.  Thanks, guys!

Naturally, I over-prepared, endlessly rehearsing my introductory remarks and the three excerpts I had chosen to read.  Ah, well.  I think it went off well and the good vibes bubbled over into the book signing afterward.

Speaking of those remarks:

I’ve decided to post them, since they’re a good, concise description of my experiences over the past two decades as an independent author and publisher.  I hope these words will inspire others while, at the same time, providing insights re: some of the difficulties and frustrations I’ve endured for choosing the less-travelled path (my essay “Solace of Fortitude” covers similar territory, albeit at greater length).

To all the indie authors out there, struggling to make themselves heard:  write on!


* * * * * * * *

 

What do you do when you’ve written a good book and no one wants to publish it?

Twenty years ago, when faced with that dilemma, I made the somewhat irrational decision to go ahead and print it myself.  I knew nothing about what went into producing a physical book but, to my mind, that was beside the point.  Getting that book, that gruesome little book, into the hands of readers was paramount.

Because the alternative—giving up, throwing in the towel—means that a good book never even has a chance at finding a readership.  It languishes in a box somewhere, years and perhaps even decades pass and it doesn’t see the light of day.  It might be a lost classic…or a piece of garbage.  We’ll never know.  Book-lovers aren’t accorded the opportunity to render their verdict.

And let’s take a look at the recent track record of the folks who decide what gets published and what doesn’t.  Hardly encouraging, to say the least.  Sales figures are dropping precipitously, bookstores and chains all over the U.S. and Canada are closing or seeking bankruptcy protection; independent bookstores have almost entirely disappeared.  Venerable publishing divisions have been lopped off or dramatically downsized, layoffs announced, the demise of the book predicted, onset of a post-literate culture looming—

Doesn’t sound like publishers and retailers have succeeded at capturing the contemporary zeitgeist, does it?  Why have so many people, apparently, stopped reading or scaled back to the point where a substantial number of respondents in one poll indicated they hadn’t read a single work of fiction in the past year?

Could it be that the industry is printing and selling books that nobody wants to read?  Perhaps in their efforts to meet the lowest common denominator, rehashing the same types of books over and over again, scraping the creosote off the bottom of the barrel, traditional publishers have alienated serious readers; worse yet, bored them with formulas, derivative prose, copycat covers and cookie cutter authors.

Publishing today has been debased by celebrity and dumbed down to attract people who normally wouldn’t tackle anything more demanding than the back of a cereal box.  This mentality is abetted by greedhead agents looking to nab their 15% of the pie and corporate editors who know full well the suits upstairs want big numbers, bestsellers…and if they don’t deliver, they’ll lose that rent-controlled apartment, all those sweet perqs and per diems that make their lousy lives bearable.  Shit, let’s face it, the markets take one more big dip, the guys in the boardroom start getting nervous and anyone could end up in the street.  There are more than a few ex-CEOs and executive vice-presidents living behind 7-11’s, begging spare change so they can get their Blackberrys out of hock.

So let me ask you something:  why should I, as an author, defer to anyone affiliated with an industry that publishes godawful tripe by the likes of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, Sophie Kinsella and…well, feel free to fill in the blanks with your most detested hack of choice.  Those inept scribblers aren’t better writers than I am:  their prose has all the symmetry and grace of someone slipping on a wet floor with an arm-load of pots and pans.  Understand, I don’t resent their big money contracts, but I sure as hell detest them for taking up valuable shelf space and making mince-meat out of the printed word.

I love good writing and revere authors who trust and respect their audience enough to break away from convention, fearlessly leading readers into strange, unknown terrain. But it’s getting harder and harder to find work that seems fresh and exciting.  You have to look farther afield, to some of the small and micro-presses out there…because traditional publishing is a wasteland of zombies, vampires, tepid romance and poor-me memoirs.  It’s enough to make a book-lover weep.

But there are alternatives.  Those small presses I alluded to…and a growing number of independent authors who, taking a cue from their musical counterparts, have gone their own way, demanding total autonomy over their career and creations.  Seizing control of the means of production, refusing to be exploited and humiliated by a system as ancient, obsolete and calcified as a dinosaur turd.

Independent authors…like me.  Back in 1990 I knew I had a good book, a cool collection of short stories that counted among its fans none other than the great Timothy Findley.  How could it fail?  But that volume, titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination, was turned down by literally every press and publisher you can name.  So I released it myself.  We sold out the entire print run in 4 1/2 months…and I was hooked.  I loved the sense of empowerment the process of self-publishing gave me, loved how every decision–from the selection of cover art to the choice of interior font–was left completely up to me.

This year, 2010, our imprint Black Dog Press is two decades old and it’s my 25th anniversary as a professional writer.  Usually I’m not one who displays much interest in birthdays or anniversaries but I felt compelled, on this occasion, to do something I hadn’t done before, which is release two books in one year—just to prove my oddball micro-press is still alive, still kicking.

I think the books in question, So Dark the Night and Of the Night, are representative of the best of what independent presses are capable of producing.  Thrilling, literate, original fiction; books for readers who still treasure a well-told story.

And aren’t they beautiful?  For that, credit belongs to our long-suffering cover designer, Chris Kent, working his magic with lovely artwork created by Ado Ceric and Adrian Donoghue.  I also want to say special thanks to Sherron, for the invaluable role she has played in the conception, creation and release of literally every single thing I’ve written for the past quarter century.

So…what do you do when you’ve written a good book and no one wants to publish it?

D.I.Y.  Do it yourself.  Use new technologies like print-on-demand and e-books and blogging to get your work out there.  Let your readership decide if your prose is worthy…or not.  Write as well as you can and edit your work carefully; do a better, more conscientious job than your traditionally published, over-paid counterparts.  Help defeat the impression that the indie movement is nothing more than a haven for amateurs and never-will-bes.  Most of all, don’t let anyone deny you a voice, your rightful place at the campfire.  Your story is important.  It’s part of a long tradition, a Great Narrative as timeless and enduring as the very fabric of Creation.

“In the beginning was the Word…”

And don’t you ever forget it.

Happy Birthday…From me

Every year my birthday rolls around and I do my level best to ignore it, dismissing its significance.  This drives my wife crazy (that awful epithet “fun-killer” fired at me like a curare-tipped dart) but, on the other hand, it definitely simplifies gift-buying.

“Anything you want?”

“No.”

“Nothing?”

Firmly:  “Nothing.

And so forth.  But this year, okay, I have to admit, there’s a lot to be thankful for.  We had a health scare in our family recently and that really put things in perspective.  My daily mantra of “health, happiness and wisdom” assumed new relevance…and poignancy.  Fortunately, it turned out to be a false alarm and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief.  But we had a renewed appreciation for the frailties of the flesh and the bonds of family.

Then there are the two books I’ve released this year—yeah, sure, the e-books had been bouncing about for awhile, but to walk into a bookstore and see my work sitting there, waiting for some curious reader to happen along…well.  Sends a shiver through me just thinking about it.

Yeah, it’s official.  We’ve cleared the proof and Of the Night is good to go.  For sale as of…NOW.  You’ll find pricing and shipping info in my Bookstore.  Click on the book cover (above) and ogle the artwork, browse the jacket copy.  If you order your copy from me, I’ll be happy to sign it.  Otherwise, you can get it through your local bookstore, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.

I love this book–it’s a fitting companion piece to So Dark the Night.  Scary, darkly humorous, a short novel you’ll zip through in one or two sittings.

To accompany the release of Of the Night, providing a kind of fanfare, is a CD worth of new  instrumental/ambient music I’d added to my Audio page.  I call this selection of musical oddities Language With No Vocabulary and I’m making it available to you free—play it, download it to your heart’s content.

Here’s a sample cut, a luvly little number I call:

Cidades Fantasmas (Ghost Cities)

(Photo by Jason Minshull)