Richard Matheson (1926-2013)
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.
Article on the future of books
Peter Darbyshire has just published an article in the Vancouver Province, discussing the future of books and publishing—you’ll find it here. He was good enough to ask me about my experiences as a long-standing independent author and publisher (21 years and counting) and I was only too happy to oblige.
Smart man, Peter, a guy who knows what he’s talking about. He’s had his own adventures in the publishing biz and is familiar with the new technologies that are allowing authors the chance to by-pass traditional gate-keepers and take their work directly to readers, via e-books and print on demand efforts.
As I wrote to Peter in a followup note, one of my fears is that while these technologies may empower good authors turned off by a corporate system that slots and niches books, producing dozens of copy-cat knockoffs of popular titles, it also accords terrible scribblers the opportunity to foist their mindless, adolescent crap on the world. Thus, the marketplace is currently overwhelmed by dreadful vampire porn, brain-eating zombies and godawful tripe that wouldn’t pass muster in a high school yearbook. Anyone can call themselves a writer these days and with a minimum investment can produce a decent-looking book with their name on the cover. “Look at me! Aren’t I great? And you all thought I was a loser!”
I recently posted similar views on a couple of sites frequented by amateur writers and wannabes and was soundly taken to task for my arrogant insistence that there is a difference between good writing and bad writing. One remark I’ve heard a number of times is that “we live in a post-literate society and the old standards no longer apply”. You know, standards like good spelling, syntax that isn’t tortured beyond recognition, an ear for dialogue, an aversion to over-writing, etc. etc.
In the old days, these dingbats would be working in the rightly discredited sub-sub-genre of “fan fiction”, read by a few geeks with too much time on their hands and a roomful of Star Wars action figures. Now they can inflict their offal on a far wider audience, pricing their e-books at 99 cents to draw the most possible readers and congratulating themselves for their genius.
It’s truly sickening.
I do not want to be lumped in with folks who have no respect for the printed word, who wish to emulate literary idols like Stephenie Meyer, James Patterson…the very worst of the worst. I revere great writing and devote enormous time and effort to producing the finest, most literate work I can; to hear these people crowing about how many e-books they’ve sold, how much money they’ve made, goes against everything I believe in, as an author and an artist. Their attitudes revolt me, their “writing” makes me shudder, their success impresses me not one whit. They are bottom-feeders and pornographers and if that’s what sells these days, the literary world is in more trouble than I ever imagined.
Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Man
“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…