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.
When you read a Richard Matheson novel or story you believe it and you believe it because his characters are real people, reacting as real people would when placed in an extreme situation or confronted by the uncanny. Robert Neville, the protagonist of I Am Legend, is the sole survivor of a worldwide plague, the last living human on a planet of vampires. But Neville is no square-jawed, ass-kicking hero, he is a lonely man, his isolation gradually driving him mad. One day, and he knows this, he will simply open the door, walk out and let the waiting creatures take him, ending his suffering. The Shrinking Man’s Scott Carey loses more than his height as his mysterious affliction gradually reduces him to microscopic proportions. He battles gamely to retain his masculinity, his identity and, finally, in life and death battles with predatory animals and insects, his very existence.
More than any other writer of dark fantasy except, perhaps, Ray Bradbury and his friend and colleague Charles Beaumont, Matheson wrote tales that make your heart ache. As you read the story “Little Girl Lost” you experience that poor father’s panic when he realizes his daughter is calling out to him from a place beyond his reach. “Mute” and “Steel” are incredibly sad, affecting stories, offering only thin glimmers of hope, a fleeting chance of redemption.
He and Beaumont were critical influences on my early writing—I knew them first through their work on “The Twilight Zone”. Only later was I lucky enough to scoop up their short story collections (both thrive in the short format) in affordable (usually used) editions, reading their tales over and over again. About twelve years ago I packaged up some of those collections and sent them to Mr. Matheson for signing (along with a self-addressed stamped envelope). He was good enough to oblige and now those books are the treasures of my collection.
I think Stephen King said something along the lines of Matheson deserving credit for taking horror out of the moors and forests and bringing it into the suburbs. I can’t think of a single good horror writer from the past thirty years who wouldn’t consider him the dean of dark fantasy and cast their eyes downward at the mere mention of his name.
And let’s not forget, he could also turn his hand to other kinds of writing. I’ve read several of his western novels and they stand up well compared to the rest of the field. He had a lifelong interest in matters relating to the power and potential of the human soul. He took his researches into the paranormal seriously and the depth of his knowledge manifests itself in what I think is his finest novel, Hell House. His was an active, seeking mind, restless and sharp and, at least when it came to his work, unsentimental and occasionally pitiless. That’s part of what made him great.
I feel a real sense of loss tonight. Yes, I know he was eighty-seven years old and his time had come. I desperately wish I’d had a chance to meet him, exchange a few words with him. I doubt I would have said anything remarkable or cogent. Of all the Big Boys, I suppose there’s only Harlan Ellison and one or two others left.
There’s a strong sense, a la the demise of Bradbury and Harryhausen, of an era coming to an end.
The King is Dead! The King is Dead!
Long will we mourn his passing.
I’m a writer. But the printed word isn’t merely my vocation, my bread and butter; it has been, from an early age, a constant companion, confidante… and refuge. It gives my life purpose and direction, helps define me and makes me who I am.
I’ve always been a reader. For diversion and escape, yes, certainly, but I also possess an insatiable desire to know, learn everything I can about other people and places, give in to possibility, open myself up to astonishment. As a child I discovered that the ability to suspend disbelief for prolonged periods of time was a valuable coping mechanism, a life skill they didn’t teach in school.
I read anything I could lay my hands on. Remember the Companion Library series? Two classic kids’ books printed back to back: Heidi and Black Beauty. Hans Brinker and Tom Sawyer. We had the entire set and once I finished them, I scanned the rest of our modest collection, plucking out anything that looked halfway promising. I can recall spending many a rainy afternoon with the likes of Zane Grey, John Buchan and Daphne DuMaurier.
Remained a bookworm through my teens, acquainting myself with the work of Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick. They were the guys who inspired me to scratch out my first short stories. Crass imitations of far better authors; calling those early efforts “juvenilia” is being excessively kind.
But I caught the writing bug and what followed was a long apprenticeship that continues to this day. My first sales came in my early 20’s, to CBC Radio and a now-defunct literary magazine called Rubicon. Writing was no longer a hobby, it was an obsession. “The pain I can’t live without,” as my colleague Robert Penn Warren puts it.
Even after twenty-five years the process of creation, committing words to paper, is still a source of profound mystery to me…perhaps even magic. At the end of the day, when I look at what I’ve written, I get goosebumps. I have no firm recollection of composing those pages. In truth, I’m no closer to understanding how and why I write than I was when I first started out, all those years ago.
But here’s the strange thing: while I continue to revere fine writing and apply myself, day by day, year after year, to the service of literature, the amount of reading I do has declined precipitously in the last couple of years.
Now, as I’m sure you’ll understand, that’s a hard admission for a man in my line of work to make.
In partial defense, I add that I do read a fair amount for research purposes, books and magazine articles, not to mention the endless hours spent on-line, Googling like crazy. I like to read non-fiction to get my mind warmed up in the morning. Something historical, twenty or thirty pages over breakfast before heading upstairs to my office and commencing work.
But reading for pleasure, picking up a book for the sake of killing a few hours, immersed in a fictional universe? For a considerable length of time that notion hasn’t held much appeal. I’ve found other activities, diversions to occupy me.
It’s no coincidence: since 2007, I have enjoyed a period of remarkable productivity in terms of my writing–two novels completed, a couple of radio plays, short stories, essays. That productivity comes at a steep price, i.e. many long hours sequestered away in that little room at the top of the stairs.
When I finally lurch out of my office in the late afternoon or early evening I’m bleary-eyed, soft-headed with fatigue, barely sentient. Words. I’ve spent the last eight or ten hours staring at words, wrestling with and endlessly rearranging words, so many bloody words—
And so settling into our big arm chair with the latest Ian McEwan or Irvine Welsh doesn’t interest me. Sorry, lads. At that point I want to hang out with my family, catch up on their lives. As well as being an author guy, I’m also a husband and father. Those responsibilities are important to me.
Then, as it gets on into the evening, I’ll chill out with a glass or two of scotch, pop in a “South Park” DVD or an old “Black Adder” episode. Later, in bed, I might get through another ten pages of that non-fic book before my eyes refuse to stay open a moment longer and I reach over and turn out the light…
How did a lifelong reader descend to this, treating books like a luxury, an indulgence, rather than a necessity? Holding off starting a new novel by a favorite author because I don’t want to “waste” an afternoon reading it.
Shame on me.
And I feel worse when I check out on-line forums and see how much the real bibliophiles are reading. The sheer amount of books these people claim to go through is ridiculous, unbelievable, impossible. They have to be lying. When do they have time to, oh, y’know, work, sleep, interact with their families?
Their devotion to books is inspiring—to the extent that I had decided to amend my ways. I’ve got shelves and shelves of wonder-filled books and I’m giving myself permission, here and now, to spend every free moment I can rediscovering my all-consuming passion for reading. No movie or other media can move me like a good book can. Nothing else gives me that sensawunda.
And I’m going to do my best to ignore that niggling, insistent voice bemoaning the valuable time reading takes away from my own writing. Pay no attention…or, better yet, counter with the argument that it was through reading that I learned everything I know (what little that amounts to) about writing. Reading a well-crafted book is a form of professional development, damnit! How can I grow and improve as an author unless I acquaint myself, firsthand, with the work of gifted colleagues who are breaking new ground in character, structure and narrative? Closely studying their sentences, the way they frame their thoughts.
As a child, I recognized the power and majesty contained in words. Reading untethered my imagination and charged my creative energies. I dearly wanted to do what my literary heroes did, tell a tall tale that would hold readers in its thrall. Make them forget who they were, all their problems, the fears bedevilling them. That was the initial impetus.
I aspired to be the next L. Frank Baum or Arthur Conan Doyle. Creator of something that would live forever.
A story for the ages…and the ageless child inside us all.
Copyright, 2009 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
“Here where others offer up their works I pretend to nothing more than showing my mind.”
“What’s important, finally, is that you create, and that those creations define for you what matters most, that which cannot be extinguished even in the face of silence, solitude and rejection.”
I’ll be turning forty-four later this month and, naturally, with the passing of another year I can’t help taking stock, appraising the state of my life and work. That can be a tricky proposition, especially when you have, ahem, depressive tendencies.
The first thing that comes to mind whenever my birthday rolls around is the line from that old Pink Floyd song that goes “another day older, another day closer to death”. Some people actually celebrate their birthdays but not me—I have to dwell on mortality, my mind taking a sharp, left turn toward morbidity. Typical.
But the point of this post is not the inevitability of death (thank God), it’s about change, rites of passage, the sense of moving into another phase of my life and, especially, my writing life.
I’ve written a number of journal entries (don’t worry, I won’t reproduce them here, I have more respect for you than that) in which I state that I feel my literary apprenticeship is over and I now have a strong sense I can take all that I’ve learned and can finally start establishing my own unique voice.
Does twenty-two years seem like a rather extended apprenticeship? Not to me. Over the course of that time I have immersed myself in the best writers I could find, reading them, studying them with the rapt attention of a monk scrutinizing ancient holy texts.
Applying all I’ve learned and assimilated from the Masters has taught me technical craftsmanship but it has also reminded me of the importance of discipline, self-sacrifice and perseverance. They’ve given me crucial insights into the level of commitment and devotion required to create something of lasting worth. I’ve always admired authors who are original and innovative and now, more and more, I want to see those virtues reflected in my work.
And I don’t mean literary experiments, self-referential, modernist (or post-modernist) tripe composed for my eyes only and readers be damned. I’ve gone down that road before and while it produced some interesting prose, I found, after awhile, that it didn’t speak to my heart and spirit and resulted in closed, claustrophobic bits and pieces that seemed to obscure rather than illuminate. In the end, I abandoned that approach as a creative cul de sac, a road that went nowhere.
What I’m talking about are new approaches to characterization and, also, incorporating more cinematic elements to structure and story, employing multiple viewpoints, juxtapositions, flashbacks, superimpositions, fadeouts, cutaways…all in an effort to deny that old canard that “there’s nothing new under the sun”.
Nothing new…what a bunch of horseshit.
The first time I read Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist I knew I had found a writer with fresh ideas, thematically and stylistically. Every Cormac McCarthy novel I read is an epiphany. Project X by Jim Shepard body-slammed me with its remarkable authenticity.
The best authors have their own distinct perspective they bring into play…and after twenty-some years I can finally say that I’m ready to tell my stories my way. The history of the world from the standpoint of an agoraphobic neurotic obsessive-compulsive perfectionist with delusions of grandeur.
Or, looking at it another way, I can grace my stories with the hard-won insights of a man who has now lived more than half his life, who’s gotten married, has two sons, lost friends, gained friends, fought, fucked up, suffered, laughed, seen and done things I couldn’t have imagined even a decade ago. Thanks to a host of life experiences my work is informed by a richness and maturity that wasn’t there previously, deeper shades and tones I couldn’t have managed as a younger author.
I’m not as afraid as I used to be, not as prone to ungovernable fits of rage and frustration. That doesn’t deny my work passion, it means I can better channel, direct and control those passions that used to send me shooting off in all directions, dissipating my creative energies.
I’ve written extensively of futility on this blog, the despair that sometimes overwhelms me because of my brain chemistry and bad genetics. Some people have then turned around and used these confessions in other forums to attack my credibility on subjects relating to literature. I’m a “failed writer”, don’t I even admit it myself?
Yes, according to my high standards, my literary output seems pretty insubstantial. But look at who I’m holding myself up against, geniuses like Louis Ferdinand Celine and Joyce and Beckett and Bobby Stone. Who wouldn’t come off as second-rate compared to those lads?
But when I look at the wannabes out there, the ones who insist on calling themselves writers because they published a romantic fantasy novel in e-book form, I come off pretty well, don’t you think? These twats actually have the nerve to announce to the world they’ve written 80 or 100 (or more) novels in the course of their illustrious careers…and yet when you “Google” their names, none of their work seems to be kicking about. Funny. And they’re the first ones to get biscuit-ersed (Irvine Welsh’s hilarious phrase) when I talk about “aesthetics” and “critical reading”.
“I write to entertain,” they sniff daintily, demurely paging through a fat forest-killer with a dragon or unicorn on the cover. And when I call them on their silly pretensions, their transparent lies, I’m dubbed “elitist” or a “pompous ass”.
Go back to your fucking knitting, you hobbyists. How do you manage to see your keyboards with your heads so far up your own arseholes?
Worse yet are the horror hacks I’ve come across with their brain-sucking zombies and superannuated vampires and misogynistic rape fantasies. They go ballistic when I remind them of the subtle, cerebral horror of Roman Polanski. Their tastes run more toward the latest Rob Zombie abomination, great gouts of blood spraying everywhere to the accompaniment of a throbbing, crunching soundtrack. Subtlety to them is a body count under a hundred.
Horror fiction has been in the doldrums for a long time and I blame the splatterpunks, who unzipped their flies and pissed all over the genre in the late ’80’s and early 90’s. It’s never been a field that features good writing but, Christ, the stuff that’s been proliferating in the past ten to fifteen years is scraping the muck and slime off the bottom of the barrel. It’s time to take the genre back from these fuckheads—where is our generation’s Ira Levin or Clive Barker or Richard Matheson? Who will save us from these purveyors of shit?
Well, it won’t be me. I want nothing to do with horror until it cleans up its act. And that means smarter editors and more talented writers—and the chances of those things coming to pass are roughly the same as the Rapture sweeping up all the worthy Christians next Thursday (and good riddance to them).
In any event, I’ll still be here, in this 10 X 12 office, composing my strange, little stories, dreaming of a readership in the tens of millions. And I’m content with that.
An unjaundiced look at my career tells me things might be looking up. My novella “Kept” may or may not be made into a movie that may or may not be pretty good. I’m working on a new project, feeling more engaged than I’ve felt in a long while. My marriage is solid, my family the greatest support system a guy could ever want or have.
Success and riches may never come…but I made a conscious choice a long time ago that regardless of what happened I would never compromise, never sell out, that I would aggressively defend my offerings from the predations of those who are not worthy to pass judgment on any title more sophisticated than a Dick & Jane reader. That stance has probably cost me a shot at fame and fortune…but, conversely, my work can’t be accused of being derivative or formulaic and I’ve composed some truly original fiction that I believe will stand the test of time.
“Tell a good story and the readers will come…eventually,” I wrote on another blogger’s site and I believe that.
You found me here, didn’t you? And now you might just scroll down and read more screeds by this crazy fucking Canuck…or click on Stories and tackle the excerpt from my smashing great novel So Dark the Night (it’s worth it, believe me).
Thanks for taking the time to pop by—and I’m grateful, as well, to my regular readers, the repeat visitors to Beautiful Desolation, folks I’ve come to know through their comments and personal communications.
Let’s give it another forty-four years, shall we? See what happens. I’ll keep putting one word ahead of the next, telling my stories in my own inimitable style.
Yes, the apprenticeship is officially over. From here on, whenever you read one of my tales, the only voice you’ll hear is mine.
Listen to my song…