Category: stephen king

Richard Matheson (1926-2013)

Picture 2To me, he was the best.

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.

Preserving the Future: A Modest Proposal

glove2My wife Sherron has thrown down the gauntlet.

The other night she told me:  “Listen, you’ve had your fun insulting editors and publishers, belittling their intelligence, always going after them.  Now, how about something constructive?  You’ve got ideas on how to improve things and make the system run better so let’s hear them, wise guy.”

Right.  Here goes.

First of all, it must be acknowledged that, by any standards, the corporate book publishing  model has been a complete failure.  Publishers are losing money, cutting staff, consolidating…and book sales have taken a big dip (according to one stat I saw on Mediabistro, down a whopping 13% in November, 2008 from the previous year).

And this notion that there are editors out there with the wisdom and far-sightedness of Solomon, who are somehow able to identify and manufacture the next monster bestseller is a complete fallacy.  Moronic, in fact.  Has no basis in reality whatsoever.  Look at what happened to Andrew Davidson (author of Gargoyle; Random House); guy gets a hefty advance, the book is promoted up the yin-yang…and it barely makes a ripple.  Certainly no threat to becoming the next Da Vinci Code, right?

lusiYou can’t pie chart a bestseller, you can’t graph which book is going to break through big time–and which ones are going to flounder and sink like the Lusitania.  Please recall that the enormous, worldwide success of J.K. Rowling resulted, largely, from strong word of mouth, parents passing along copies and recommendations of The Philosopher’s Stone until a genuine groundswell was created.

You can’t consistently create a bestseller but what you can do is use the new technologies out there so that, as a publisher, all your eggs aren’t crammed into one basket.  Changing the metaphor, why settle for the equivalent of a single shot, old style flintlock, when POD offers you the opportunity to wield a state of the art shotgun?

Print-on-demand (POD) gives you that capability.  Unlike the old, offset press method of publishing, POD is flexible, far less time-consuming and energy intensive and cheap to boot.  You can print as many copies of a particular title as you want, from 1…to ten million.

Instead of throwing big dough at a title/author that is, by no means, a sure thing, why not spread that loot around a little?  Rather than sign up five authors at a million plus each, why not give 100 writers a chance, paying them smaller upfront fees but rewarding them with a  higher royalty rate.  That payment regimen has worked with small and indie presses for years–and, believe me, you’ll be astonished at how little an author will accept in their desperation to get a book in print.  It’s depressing, really.  Pathetic.

Ah…sorry.  Wandered off topic.  Where was I?

Okay, now you’ve got 100 different authors with a hundred different books, 95 more opportunities to find the next Steve King than you had under your stupid corporate model.   And you don’t give your 100 hopefuls ridiculous print runs, you start modestly.  That way you won’t be stuck with massive returns, which then have to be remaindered, warehoused and pulped, more money down the drain.

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You can print as few as  500 or 1,000 copies per author and then emulate what the movie companies do when they offer films as limited releases, to gauge audience reactions and get some idea as to a project’s potential appeal.

Thinking along the same lines, publishers could send out review copies to newspapers, magazines and bloggers and, simultaneously, “test market” books in selected stores (or by offering them as downloads through e-Readers like Kindle et all).  Let the readers and the book-lovers determine which authors have wider appeal and then do another, larger printing to meet the demand (the author happily cashing in at the higher royalty rate).

Some might opine that under a royalty-based system the publisher would be tempted to cheat, since they’re the ones controlling the books.  I would argue that Bookscan and related technologies, as well as computerized inventories and the publishers’ selfish desire for authors to score a hit and sell a gazillion books makes the possibility of fraud quite remote.

axWhat I like about this system is that it allows a wider array of authors to develop a following, while not feeling the pressure of a big money contract hanging over them.  The risks are shared between the writer and the publisher…and as far as I can tell the whole thing seems like  a win-win scenario.

Corporate publishers have been slow out of the blocks when it comes to new technologies, especially POD.  Instead of utilizing  POD as I have suggested, some in the industry have chosen a more short-sighted and morally questionable approach.  In my view, they’re misusing POD by going after relatively small peanuts, offering print-on-demand services to aspiring and amateur scribblers who have yet to make the grade, encouraging them to sign up and print their own books.  Oh, and, let us not forget, that means said scribblers have to sell and distribute their own books.  The big boys deigning to offer no other assistance, content to serve as a glorified copy shop for dingbats desperate for a for-real-and-true book to wave in front of their friends (“See?  See?  Told ya I was a writer!”).

But I have my doubts these tactics will work.  Writers, as a rule, tend not be be made of money so you can only milk that teat so long.  Besides,  iUniverse and Lulu have been around a lot longer and have seized a sizable slice of the market share.  But it’s an enticing proposition, turning the old regime on its ear:   writers paying publishers, rather than vice versa.  Zowie!  And if there are enough stupid, starry-eyed authors out there, who knows?  Those rotten bastards could stand to rake in a nice stipend.

But those same publishers could make a helluva lot more if they abandoned their home run/big book mentality and settled for hitting singles and doubles for awhile…especially in these precipitous economic times.

boxI’m not saying my business strategy is completely original or perfect and if you have any thoughts on its weaknesses, how it could be improved, drop a line or two in the “Comments” box below.

Let’s see if we can put our heads together as bibliophiles and devotees of the printed word  and save publishing from the worst aspects of itself.

If it means a wider, more diverse cross-section of authors make it into print, having more books out there, more choices for readers, our efforts will be worth it.

Hey, you suits  in New York and Toronto!  Are you listening?

What do you say?

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Good Science = Bad Fiction

A number of years back I had the opportunity to meet Michael Swanwick. I attended a modest science fiction convention planets.jpgin Edmonton (Canada), hoping to hang out with my Canuck colleagues, put faces to some of the names that had been popping up alongside mine on the contributor pages of various genre magazines and anthologies. I was surprised that someone of Swanwick’s stature was attending—must have been a combination of a fortuitous touring schedule and the alignment of the planets (cue “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, please). I had fun at the convention, tootling about with my buddy, Dan, glancing surreptitiously at nametags, looking for people I knew only through their work. Met colleagues like Peter Watts and Robert Runte, Sean Stewart…good folks. I had no idea what Swanwick looked like and someone finally was good enough to point him out to me.

I approached him with some trepidation, hoping he wouldn’t recall that I’d panned one of his books, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (or something like that) in the New York Review of Science Fiction. Couldn’t help it; bad book. It was like Swanwick, a hard science guy, was tentatively dipping his toes in the lucrative fantasy market. He was simply out of his depth and the book was a stutter step in an otherwise excellent body of work (see: Vacuum Flowers, Stations of the Tide).

Fortunately, I had a good ice breaker since something he’d written, a short story or novella (I forget which) had just won a Hugo Award. I congratulated him and introduced Dan, everyone dutifully shaking hands. I saw his eyes dart down to our name badges but no bells rang because the conversation stayed genial…

…until I made a fateful mistake.

We were talking about the state of contemporary science fiction, all of us agreeing that the genre was in pretty good shape, some exciting writing out there. Then I made the observation that I wished the scientists who moonlighted as sci fi authors would spend as much time in the English Literature racks as they did their bloody physics textbooks and I saw Swanwick’s face harden like quick-drying cement.

“That’s why it’s called science fiction,” he snapped, or words to that effect.

“And that’s why science fiction writers are looked down on by mainstream critics,” I countered. “They may get their tech shit right but their prose is clunky and…”

Well, the conversation broke off not long afterward, Swanwick moving away to seek friendlier company. I could see Dan shaking his head in amusement.

For the record, that wasn’t my only social gaffe that weekend. It was around the time that Stephen King got hit by a vanbeer.jpeg while out walking and suffered grievous injuries. I’m not a fan of King’s and when someone in a group I was passing brought up the accident, I remarked that if I had been driving, I would have backed up and finished the job. I’d had more than a pint or two of complimentary beer at that point but the jab was tasteless, no question, and received with appropriate shock by those present.

“Who is that guy?” someone hissed.

Oops.

Well, truth be told, I’m a snob. And an elitist. I don’t read for pleasure, I read to learn something from the writer, picking apart their prose, analysing their style and word choices, point of view. There aren’t many genre writers who stand up well under such close scrutiny.

Fantasy writers…well, fantasy writers are uniformly terrible. Their audience is made up of pointy-eared boneheads who can’t wait for the next installment of the latest Robert Jordan abomination, a thousand pages of muck he manages to churn out on a monthly basis. Airheads. Twats of the first order.

Horror fiction has gone the way of the dodo—odd, that. Especially since there has been a host of high-grossing (emphasis on gross) slasher flicks over the past couple of years. You’d think publishing houses would be catching on and breathing some life into their dormant horror lines. But, then, publishers and editors aren’t that bright or observant, I’ve argued for years that most are barely sentient.

 

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Science fiction…well, I’ve always had a soft spot for space operas, galaxy-spanning works by the likes of Iain M. Banks and Vernor Vinge. Lately I’ve taken a hankering to guys like Richard K. Morgan, Tony Daniel and Charles Stross. I really dig the dark, depressing visions of Peter Watts.

But even as I’m reading my faves, that critical eye of mine is darting along and I’m frowning at the pages of exposition describing the deployment of nanometer thick solar sails or the operation of ram scoop starships, etc. etc., blah, blah, blah. Why do these fucking geeks feel the necessity of having every rivet of their imaginary space vehicles certified by NASA or some computer jockey at JPL? Who gives a shit?

Exposition is exposition, folks. And all that impressive science is getting in the way of the story, slowing things down to a crawl while you impress us with your research and erudition.

And have you noticed that while sci fi scribblers are quite good at describing possible futures involving A.I., FTL, “grey goo”, terraforming, et all, when it comes to creating the three dimensional people who populate these worlds, they fall flat on their faces? And the sex scenes, my God, have these guys (mainly guys) ever had penetrative intercourse? Maybe that’s why this whole “transhumanist” shtick is so big with the geeks—virtual sex isn’t so sticky and icky and maybe, with some careful engineering, we can get rid of the messiness of reproduction and evacuating waste in one technological swoop.

So, hey, you hard science types, put away your slide rules and Blackberries, shut off those role-playing games, shitcan those fucking physics texts and take a bite out of some of the great mainstream authors out there whose talent leaves you eating their book dust. Scribes like Paul Auster, Robert Stone, Colson Whitehead, Cormac McCarthy—they have a lot to teach you (probably more than you dare believe). For sheer power of the printed word, you can’t beat the Annie Dillard (Holy the Firm will make you want to break every pen on your desk and tear up your latest paper on “Theories Relating to Anomalous Telemetry on the Interstices of Event Horizons”).

One last observation: all of the theories and extrapolations scientist-slash-writers are taking such great pains to presentmars.jpg (to readers who will skim past that techno shit anyway) will likely be trashed by future discoveries and extrapolations. That’s the way science works. Better, instead, to shoot for universal truths—Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, which includes not a single equation or long-winded description of the engines that brought the Earthmen to the Red Planet, will be read a hundred years from now. It’s the power of the writing, dummies, the beauty and music of the prose.

Outdated science is quaint, laughable. In twenty years, likely less, the cosmological musings of the smartest egghead in the class of ’07 will be viewed with the same amusement and condescension as the cannon-propelled spacecraft from the 1936 film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Things to Come.

Science is finite.

Good writing, on the other hand, lasts forever.

 

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Pissing in the Pews: 3 Acts of Sacrilege

“Literary men are…a perpetual priesthood.”

-Thomas Carlyle

I.

I detest amateurs.

I’m talking about weekend authors, hobbyists, people who write when the mood strikes them or when they can “find the time”. I must write, every day, pen and paper always within easy reach, and people like that make my skin crawl. I pay a terrible price for my addiction to the printed word. The first thing I do when my eyes snap open each morning is ponder what I’m working on and then my guts start churning with a mixture of anticipation and terror. What if I’m not up to it? Worse yet, what if today is the day the well runs dry, inspiration slowing to a trickle and then…nothing.

journal2.jpgLook…if someone wants to scribble their thoughts on scraps of paper or save their fondest memories in a two-dollar, floral-patterned journal purchased at WalMart, that’s fine with me. More power to them.

But if these same part-timers then have the gall to type and print up the products of their facile reflections and submit them to periodicals for serious consideration, I have nothing but contempt for them. It’s because of them that slushpiles are overflowing so that by the time editors wade through all that crap and get to the work of serious writers, their critical faculties are completely shot and they must turn to strong drink for solace. Under such circumstances, the poor devils can scarcely be blamed for failing to identify the occasional diamond they might find buried under all that dung.

More and more publications are seeking to preserve editors’ sanity by limiting reading periods, sometimes welcoming submissions only a month or two out of the year. The overwhelming proportion of the material they receive is excrementally awful. Slightly fictionalized accounts of so-called lives, rendered with exquisite tenderness…with little or no attention paid to niceties like, oh, proper sentence structure, syntax, spelling, grammar…

Nowadays everyone thinks they have a story to tell and most of them are dead wrong. It’s not coincidental that so many submissions are written in the first person. As documentary film maker Errol Morris noted, “people prefer to be the hero of their life story”, the star and central character (a la “The Truman Show”), inhabiting a claustrophobic, solipsistic universe, a world where the rest of us are merely supporting players.

II

Which brings us to (ack! ack!) memoirs.

People who write memoirs are the equivalent of playground flashers, exposing their willies to the rest of us and expecting sympathy because of how small or malformed their shriveled members happen to be.

afflicton.jpgAnd let’s not leave out purveyors of “semi autobiographical” novels. You know the type—sort of a twisted take on that whole James Frey business. Frey pretended fiction was truth, whereas semi-autos like to pretend their fiction isn’t true. But there’s always a dead giveaway–their jacket copy. Marie Milquetoast has written a book in which the protagonist bravely endures a mysterious illness that has confined her to her home and, as a result, has developed a richly imagined fantasy life. Then we turn to the back of the book and, lo and behold, our Ms. Milquetoast suffers from the exact same affliction. Poor dear…

A word of advice: avoid this type of book like the leaking sores of a leper. Public masturbation in any form must be discouraged. It’s not hygienic and, besides, it only encourages copycat behavior.

A writer who bases a book or story on themselves is a lazy, self-absorbed, narcissistic arsehole. He or she is looking for pity, understanding. They are charter members of the “poor me” club, wannabe Prousts, without the talent, intelligence and erudition. Treat them like fly-blown corpses, stinking up the environment. Shovel on the lime and make sure to bury them deep

III

Pen names. Pseudonyms. Disguises. Masks authors wear to rob the stupid and gullible.

If an author refuses to put his/her name on a work, said work is, almost without exception, a piece of shit. There is absolutely no excuse to use a pen name. Stephen King claimed it was his publisher who proposed he use the Richard Bachman nom de plume because he was putting out too many books under his own name.

Um. Steve (if I may call you that), a suggestion: stop writing so many fucking books. Put more time and effort into your literary offerings rather than spewing them out like an incontinent fat man.

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Hack. It’s an ugly word, to my mind the worst insult that can be foisted on a writer. Walking fiction factories. Folks who can type a hundred words a minute and four hundred pages of drek in three weeks and congratulate themselves for their industry. People who can knock out a fantasy novel one month, a romance title the next and a western over a long weekend, all under different names. Is it possible to feel any admiration for these fuckers?

Writers who “collaborate” with popular actors or celebs, ghost-writing for familiar faces who can barely scrawl their own names. People who sign on to write books under another, more famous, name because the best-selling author in question has inconveniently died, leaving behind a legion of disappointed fans.

Hacks.

Shame on them for defiling the printed word, breaking the vows of our sacred priesthood. May they choke on their ill-gotten gains. If they ever had talent and vision, they lost it long ago, the first time they put commerce before integrity. Writing for money, whoring themselves for the crassest possible reasons. Not for them the cold garret, scribbling by lamplight, blowing on stiff fingers to better grasp a leaky pen.

We shall not retain their names, real or otherwise. We pay them no tributes; let them collect their earnings and slip away, thieves in the night, forgotten before the ink has dried on their latest shabby, indifferent offering.

History remembers the great and consigns these literary drudges to the rubbish heap. Where even the worms disdain them…