Tagged: Surrealism

“Test Subject” (short story)

Yesterday I was feeling completely listless and dull-witted. Couldn’t work up the energy to do much of anything.

Then I remembered a couple of photos Sherron sent me. Sometimes, in the morning light, our kitchen walls get these really cool shadows and patterns projected onto them; my visually-oriented wife noticed this pair and took some shots with her cell phone.

I called up the photos, placed them side-by-side on my computer screen, stared at them for about thirty seconds.

Then I grabbed my blue Hilroy exercise book…and started scribbling. No thought, no pre-planning, just went for it.

It’s an old trick…worked for the surrealists and, by God, it worked for me.

Here’s the story, accompanied by the images that inspired it:

* * * *

Shadow1

The Test Subject

ALL RIGHT, TERRY, YOU KNOW THE ROUTINE. WE NEED YOU TO TAKE US THROUGH WHAT YOU’RE EXPERIENCING AND DESCRIBE—

It’s hard…I don’t…there aren’t any…

COME ON, YOU HAVE TO DO BETTER THAN THAT. WE NEED SENSATIONS, COLORS. PAINT US A PICTURE.

(Laughter) You don’t…it isn’t like that. God, I wish I could explain, show you…but there’s no (indecipherable), no, ahhhh, common reference points.

ARE YOU DISORIENTED, DO YOU—

What? Did you say ‘distortion’? Everything’s distorted. It’s like…like…

GO ON.

…this kaleidoscope…constant movement…twisting and spiraling…

ARE YOU FEELING NAUSEOUS?

I feel—oh, Jesus! Jesus! Did you see that? It just…wow…this bolt of pure blue light…zipped right past me and it—I swear it smelled like cinnamon.

THAT’S WHAT WE WANT TO HEAR! YOU NEED TO DESCRIBE THE EFFECTS, HOW THIS THING MANIFESTS ITSELF. TERRY? TERRY, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?

I know. I see what you’re…but it’s really got on top of me and…and…it’s just too…and then everything just changes, like that! Did you see it? Like the whole universe suddenly switched polarities and—and flowed in the opposite direction. Whoa, trippy. And there’s something…I see something…

YES?

I dunno…a shape…presence…now it’s up there, by the ceiling, sort of floating…

POINT. SHOW US WHERE YOU MEAN.

There. It keeps shifting, flowing, like I said. I can’t quite…it blends in with these other blob things…they kind of swirl and mesh…yeah…swirl and mesh…mesh into a mess…

WHAT ELSE? DO YOU GET A SENSE OF ANY—

–someone turn up the heat? It’s freezing in here.

THE TEMPERATURE IS KEPT AT A CONSTANT 24 DEGREES CELSIUS.

I’m telling you—fuck! That time it zoomed right past me. This bright-colored blur…I could’ve reached out and—

TELL US WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE. GODDAMNIT, TERRY—

It’s made of light and…uhhh…wow! Oh, wow…there it is. Hovering, just in front of me. Holy shit, I think it’s looking at me—

EASY, TERRY, COME ON NOW. YOU’RE TRIPPING, REMEMBER? IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD. SO GET A GRIP—

It’s staring at me, man. Studying me. I’ve never…I’ve seen little green men before but…this thing knows

KNOWS? WHAT DO YOU—

–knows I’m here and it’s curious too. Wondering who I am, what I’m doing. This is its backyard and I’m trespassing on…

–ONLY AN HALLUCINATION—

Bullshit! Bullshit! There’s something in here and it isn’t just the fucking drug. It sees me. It sees me and I want out. Get me out of this! Somebody! I need to–

TERRY! TERRY!

Gimme the fucking antidote! I want to (indecipherable). This is fucked, this is totally—

AT THE REQUEST OF THE TEST SUBJECT WE ARE DISCONTINUING THE SESSION AND—

What the fuck are you? What do you want from me? Keep away from me—

IT’S OKAY, TERRY, WE’RE COMING IN. BOB AND ANGELA ARE RIGHT OUTSIDE AND THEY’LL—

Oh, Jesus, oh, Jesus– (Heavy breathing, panting)

WHAT’S—

It’s coming, it’s—ahhhhh…Christ, it’s got me…help me…it’s–(indecipherable).

(Shouts of alarm, a woman screams)

BOB? ANGIE? SECURITY! SECURITY! WE HAVE AN EMERGENCY SITUATION UP HERE AND WE NEED A COMPLETE LOCKDOWN, REPEAT—WHAT? WHO’S THAT? WHO’S THERE? IS SOMEONE OUT THERE? HELLO? HELLO?

(End transcript)

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Quote of the day–Max Ernst

Ernst:Man Ray“…my roamings, my restlessness, my impatience, my doubts, my beliefs, my hallucinations, my loves, my fits of anger, my revolts, my contradictions, my refusal to submit to any discipline including my own…have not created a climate conducive to a serene and smiling life’s work.”

Max Ernst

In case you’ve only just arrived

The name is Burns. Cliff Burns.

Indie author and publisher. Creator of weird music and even weirder short films.

You’ll find all the relevant biographical info about me here.

I offer a sizable batch of my stories for free reading and downloading, you’ll find them here.

A number of my books are available for purchase and you can find ordering info here.

I know some of you (many of you? most of you?) view indie/self-published writers with a great deal of misgivings. I don’t blame you. The advent of blogging, print on demand and e-books has led to an explosion of self-published novels and volumes of poetry and the vast majority of them are unbelievably horrible. So bad, I wouldn’t wrap fish in them (real or virtual). In my view, when it comes to self-published offerings, Sturgeon’s Law is too kind—at least 98% of the self-published efforts I’ve tried to read are embarrassingly juvenile and inept. Derivative, tuneless, execrable drek.

I acknowledge that.

Now I want you to pop back to my roster of professional credits, scroll down until you get to the blurbs appearing below them.  I think it’s pretty clear I’m no dabbler.  For the past twenty-five (+) years, day in and day out, I have been putting words on paper.  Writing is my obsession, an essential article of my faith, the activity that keeps me from absolutely losing my mind. Have a glance at one of my stories, a tale like “Daughter”.  If that one doesn’t have you hooked within about ten lines, kid, you’re reading it upside down.

I became an independent author and publisher by choice.  Producing and releasing my own work allows me to present it in the manner I intended; every choice is left to my discretion, from the cover art to the layout. It’s time-consuming, frequently maddening but, in the end, worth it for the control it gives me over all aspects of book production, promotion & distribution.

My books are available through Amazon and can be purchased as e-books from Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, etc.

I hope you’ll take a chance on an author who has taken advantage of the new technologies to present an alternative to the rather dreadful crop of books the trads (traditional publishers) have been releasing since they went corporate and lost their souls. My stories and novels are thrilling, original and literate. They transcend easy genre classification; years ago, someone referred to my odd oeuvre as “Twilight Zone on acid stories” and I suppose there’s some truth to that. I draw inspiration from the surrealists and my work frequently displays more than a passing affection for the macabre.

If you’re feeling a bit flush this month, experiencing a craving for a much-needed mental goose, give some thought to picking up one of my books or downloading some of my stories.  It’s simple, just a matter of a few clicks of your mouse.  Remember how bored you were the last time you walked through a bookstore? Unable to find anything that spoke to your particular zeitgeist. Now’s your chance to veer off the beaten track and discover an author who makes no attempt to cater to the marketplace or kowtow to editors and agents.

But be warned: here there be tygers.  My writing takes a toll on readers who have been lulled into lazy modes of thinking. My fiction is a wake up call, a warning klaxon, a condemnation.  You can do a lot of damage with a steady hand and a sharp scalpel.

Time to check out some of my work. Go ahead. What are you waiting for?  You’re not scared, are you?

Automatic Writings

automaticLast week I joined Sherron out on the patio to keep her company while she made masks.  Her materials consisted of old juice jugs and papier-mache.  It was fun to watch her work and see faces and personalities emerge from simple plastic containers–the gal possesses an artfulness, visual acuity and imagination that I would swap a kidney for.

It was a lovely day, the first decent weather we’ve had in what has been a cool and unpredictable summer.  I brought along a book with me, the Atlas Press edition of The Automatic Message, a surrealist classic featuring the work of Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and Philippe Soupault (translated by David Gascoyne, Anthony Melville & Jon Graham).

BretonBreton was a big believer in automatic writing, composing prose with no forethought or planning, allowing the pen to skitter across the page, recording whatever was on the author’s mind at that moment.  Some of the “experiments” undertaken in this manner resulted in pure gibberish (as can be expected) but on other occasions something clicked and the author was able to channel words and images directly from the subconscious portion of the mind, where myths, dreams and inspiration reside in their purest form.

I started reading The Automatic Message and all at once was overcome with a desire to put something on paper.  I rushed inside for my pad, reseated myself and while Sherron applied layer after layer of sodden tissue paper to her creations, I put pen to paper…and let everything fall away.

I’m reproducing here some of the efforts I composed that day.  These are first drafts, no touch-ups or corrections (except for the odd comma added or deleted, for the purpose of clarity).

This technique, while it might seem daunting at first, seeks to put the editorial portion of your brain on hold and permits you to tap into deeper, non-critical areas of consciousness and sometimes (not always) the results can be surprising, instructive, even unnerving.

I think you’ll understand what I mean once you’ve read the samples I’ve provided:

First Light

The guiltless robin knows no travail only the ceaseless pursuit of wind and rain and morsels, wriggling grubs devoured in sharp, yellow beaks.  Teach us the ardor of kindly wings curved in flight and remind us of the eternal beckoning sky.  Somewhere in the shouting beyond mystery waits with claws and teeth and rending.  But that is tomorrow after a long sunset and an ageless night of stars that shine but do not burn.

amazonAmazonian

Jungle sounds, ancient bird cries overhead, the last dinosaurs roosting above me in bone-lined nests.  Gliding, relentless above a furled canopy that admits no light to skulking, near-sighted mammals whose lives are governed by weak, frail senses oblivious to higher calling.  God of the leaves, roots and berries:  furnish us with sustenance and kill us quickly with red claws, bearing us aloft to bursting light, colors unimaginable to dead, in-turned eyes.

The Tower

Some futile voice insisting words carry the weight and mass of Jupiter like failed suns they draw all light toward them letting no hope escape into harboring dictionaries lexicons of lost languages preserved against extinction by dusty academics housed in Babel towers ivory-colored rooms hardened against nuclear sized impacts the bones of the curators dissolving into polished floors mute mouths gaping wordless.

wagonContinental Divide

Out on the frontier in long trains of sweating creatures cursing men the loneliness of vast distances existential mesas where ancient bones are pried out and held to the first light in 65 million years upon dry lakebeds parched lips upturned prayers to a Creator grown still and thoughtful God of expanses crammed into leather bound books tattooed with births and deaths parchment thin pages like elderly skin drained of life-giving blood.

Flies

I want to reassure myself on your smooth shoulders the lithe sweep of your back reminding me of insupportable days youthful fantasies wrought in carefully weeded gardens.  My head like a pecked chick.  When the trains sang it was a reminder that hope is transported across long plains plumes of smoke with dreams attached.  In hot weather the house would leak fleeing moss and sometimes sparrows would roost in the eaves and flies buzz somnolently waiting for inevitable decay.

robinLeisure

How the doleful hours long to be filled with spritely birdsong unencumbered by syntax!  You think too much your bold thoughts commence to devour your barely formed nascent spirit before it has a chance to fill your fluttering breast.  Be still the fears that beat against your neuroses like living dead upon unresponsive doors.  Remember thou art mortal and if the color of roses offend thee, pluck out your eyes and render yourself dumb.

Homo Erectus

Rooted in heavy houses gazing fearfully out at the universe speeding away from us spreading parsecs of empty space blank canvas dark matter coloring airless density splattered black to pouring edges racing outward in a timeless rippling current expending the energy of that first cough sneeze scream shit the candle guttering we are the smoke rising to dissipate into nothingness.

***********************************************

And there you have it.  Those short bits were scrawled in less than an hour, before the spirit departed and I was left scratching my head at what I had produced.  I read some of them to Sherron and we tried to decipher what they might indicate in terms of my state of mind and current preoccupations, fears and obsessions.

I offer these pieces to you not as examples of great literature but in an effort to convince you to give this method a shot, particularly if you are suffering from some form of writer’s block or are feeling like you’re in a creative rut.

Automatic writing is a good way of addressing both those problems/mindsets and I urge you to take the plunge, start scribbling.  I’m always surprised by what my brain comes up with when it doesn’t sense that harsh, editorial eye watching, judging, condemning.

Try it…and see what happens.

surrealists

His Masters’ Voices

Initially, I read to escape.

Found my way to the neverlands and never-will-bes as part of a protracted and determined effort to seek refuge from a real world in which I was vulnerable, helpless.

Books also helped assuage the loneliness, the sense of otherness that frequently assailed me. I’ve always had an earnestly held desire to isolate myself from an indifferent, possibly hostile universe lurking just outside my front door. It’s a type of agoraphobia, I suppose, a reluctance to leave an environment where I wield power and control and venture out into the Chaosium.

Ray Bradbury was an early companion, The Golden Apples of the Sun an important reading experience when I was ten or eleven. So was Arthur C. Clarke’s tale “A Walk in the Dark”. I went through many anthologies and short story collections (I have a love of short fiction that persists to this day). Candidly, I was an indiscriminate reader.  Popular fiction, history and, when I was particularly desperate, books plucked from my grandmother’s shelves: Daphne DuMaurier, Harlequin Romances, just about every offering in the Companion Library Series (I was bored by Hans Brinker but loved Baum’s Wizard of Oz and also, surprisingly, The Five Little Peppers).

Science fiction dominated my young adulthood: Lucifer’s Hammer (Niven & Pournelle), Childhood’s End (Clarke), Voyage of the Space Beagle (van Vogt) and every story by Robert Sheckley I could lay my hands on. Sheckley was a fortuitous discovery—I can reread his fiction today and still enjoy it. There’s something about the combination of SF and satire that definitely appeals to me. Some of Sheckley’s best stuff is in Citizen in Space, a volume that shouldn’t be too hard to find. Check it out.

By my mid-teens I was writing a fair bit (mainly bad poetry) and seeking out literary role models, authors whose sensibilities came closest to my own. I found I liked tales with a Twilight Zone-ish aspect to them, something not quite right with the world, fate lying in wait for our hapless hero just around the next bend. Enter Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont; Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison and Jerome Bixby. They became big influences–I think it could be fairly said that their grim(m) worldviews and melancholy ambience still inform the work I produce today, twenty-five years later. That’s how strong an impact their books and tales had on me.

By the time I was eighteen, I’d given up on poetry and was turning my hand to short stories. Slowly, incrementally, I got better and that’s entirely due to the excellent tutelage of my literary heroes. I’ve never taken a writing class or workshop; my “education” is entirely the product of a lifelong addiction to the printed word. I’ve evolved into a better, more critical reader by seeking out authors and books that challenge me intellectually and aesthetically. In the process, I’ve also become a better writer, more demanding when it comes to evaluating and critiquing my own work.

My literary tastes are constantly progressing, expanding. For a time I was enamored with the surrealists and then Samuel Beckett, J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs, authors and movements bent on distorting or eliminating traditional narrative. I was also drawn to the intricate, cerebral mazes constructed by Jorge Luis Borges.

Over the past decade or so, other writers have instructed me, helped propel my work in interesting new directions: Paul Auster and Jonathan Carroll (his first novel, Land of Laughs is a magnificent effort). Don Delillo and Cormac McCarthy. James Crumley. Robert Stone. Jack O’Connell. Irvine Welsh.

Each passed along important lessons—I luxuriate in prose by good authors, immerse myself in it, dissect and analyze it to discover how a certain effect was achieved. My hyper-critical mind has little time for those who resort to “hackdom”, it recoils from the discordant, tuneless prose produced by such derivative or porous imaginations.

Lately, my reading has ranged all over the place—one day, Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, the next something lean and mean by Charles Willeford. Nonfiction in the morning to get my brain moving, fiction to wind me down at night. I may go two weeks without reading a book, then binge on them, blasting through six in the next six days. For the longest time I didn’t read science fiction; now, thanks to authors like Tony Daniel, John Barnes, Charles Stross, Peter Watts, Vernor Vinge, James Morrow, Iain M. Banks, Paul Di Filippo, Dennis Danvers and others, I’m back in the fold.

Can’t say the same for horror, unfortunately. The field is in a dreadful state. Do most of the guys and gals scribbling zombie stories these days even know who Matheson and Beaumont are? Do they understand that a well-told tale is a beautiful and enduring thing? Doubtful. They’re too busy ministering to their printers. All that blood and viscera keeps clogging up the works. Such “writers” have nothing to teach me.

Right now I’m really attracted to condensed narratives, brief and fierce and tight. Many books these days are afflicted by clutter and bloat…so I seek out authors who have pared down their prose to the bare minimum. Providing descriptions and back stories with a few well-chosen words. Those fat tomes by Proust, Tolstoy and Durrell will have to wait for another time.

I think it’s important for an indie writer these days to be aware of the DIYers and mavericks who preceded them. Independent spirits like Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Poe, Lovecraft, Kafka, Celine, Artaud, Dick and Ellison. Non-conformists and originals, determined to protect the integrity of their work, willing to risk rancor, exile, public indifference or disapprobation. While our themes and objectives may differ, the examples they set as individuals of great fortitude and perseverance have served to inspire me when I’ve questioned my talent, the direction my life and/or career is going in.

Each of the authors I just cited suffered mightily for their art, endured great privation and ignominy…but their books and stories are still read today. Their travails have been vindicated by slow posterity, their creations consigned to the ages. Art that ennobles the human experience, that faithfully reproduces the pleasures and pains of existence and depicts without flinching the true state of the soul will prevail over yesterday’s bestseller, today’s flavour-of-the-moment. Count on it.

We will always have cause to empathize with Lear’s rage and despair and have it within us to hate with the virulent malice of the Count of Monte Cristo. A thousand years from now the persecution of Jean Valjean will still move us to tears (virtual or otherwise). As a species, we’ve been imbued with the capacity to love and the capability to do enormous harm. Great art does not allow us to shrink from such notions nor concede responsibility to outside agencies. It is a mirror, the ultimate reflecting surface; it does not lie and when we balk, commands us not to look away.

Cliff’s Reading List:

A few years ago my nephew Jesse asked me to put together a reading list for him—this is a revised and updated version of that roster of faves. Books I commend without reservation for their intelligence, savagery, grace and wit:

Martin Amis DEAD BABIES (vicious/hilarious)

Paul Auster ORACLE NIGHT; THE COUNTRY OF LAST THINGS (magic realism)

J.G. Ballard RUNNING WILD (chilling short novel)

Wilton Barnhardt GOSPEL (brilliant!)

James Carlos Blake IN THE ROGUE BLOOD (terrific western)

Joseph Boyden THREE DAY ROAD (Sherron & I loved this book)

Anthony Burgess EARTHLY POWERS

Benjamin Cavell RUMBLE, YOUNG MAN, RUMBLE (brilliant, edgy stories)

L.F. Celine JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT; DEATH ON THE INSTALLMENT PLAN

Michael Chabon AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY; YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION

Nicholas Christopher VERONICA; A TRIP TO THE STARS

James Crumley: (anything by this author)

Don DeLillo UNDERWORLD

Philip K. Dick A SCANNER DARKLY

Katherine Dunn GEEK LOVE (shocking, bizarre…one of our faves)

Steve Erickson DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS (surreal, well-written)

Timothy Findley NOT WANTED ON THE VOYAGE (brilliant)

Ken Grimwood REPLAY (suppose you had your whole life to live over?)

Jim Harrison TRUE NORTH (great American novelist)

Ernest Hemingway FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (his best book)

Nick Hornby HIGH FIDELITY (avoid Americanized movie)

John Irving HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE (still his best)

Denis Johnson JESUS’S SON (grim, powerful stories)

William Kotzwinkle THE FAN MAN (another big favorite)

Ira Levin A KISS BEFORE DYING (very suspenseful; terrible movie)

Lee Maynard CRUM

Cormac McCarthy BLOOD MERIDIAN; OUTER DARK

Ian McEwan BLACK DOGS; CEMENT GARDEN

Martin Millar LUX THE POET

Henry Miller TROPIC OF CANCER; BIG SUR & THE ORANGES OF HIERONYMUS BOSCH

David Mitchell CLOUD ATLAS; BLACK SWAN GREEN

Seth Morgan HOME BOY (staggeringly good; author died tragically young)

James Morrow TOWING JEHOVAH (blasphemous; hilarious)

Chuck Palahniuk LULLABY; CHOKE; FIGHT CLUB

Stephen Pressfield GATES OF FIRE

Mordecai Richler COCKSURE (very funny); BARNEY’S VERSION (what a swan song)

Tom Robbins ANOTHER ROADSIDE ATTRACTION; STILL LIFE WITH WOODPECKER

Bruce Robinson THE PECULIAR MEMORIES OF THOMAS PENMAN

Abraham Rodriguez SPIDERTOWN (amazing novel); THE BUDDHA BOOK

J.D. Salinger THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (legendary)

George Saunders (anything by Saunders; he’s one of the best)

Jim Shepard PROJECT X (he’s a great short story writer too)

Robert Stone OUTERBRIDGE REACH; DAMASCUS GATE

Donna Tartt THE SECRET HISTORY (excellent first novel)

Hunter S. Thompson FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (changed my life)

John Kennedy Toole CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES

Guy Vanderhaeghe MY PRESENT AGE (very funny & sweet)

Rich Wallace WRESTLING STURBRIDGE (great YA novel)

Evelyn Waugh DECLINE & FALL

Colson Whitehead THE INTUITIONIST

Non-fiction:

Karen Armstrong A HISTORY OF GOD

Thomas Cahill DESIRE OF THE EVERLASTING HILLS

Wade Davis ONE RIVER (travels in Amazonia & elsewhere)

Annie Dillard HOLY THE FIRM

Richard Ellmann JAMES JOYCE (biography); OSCAR WILDE (biography)

Jon Krakauer INTO THIN AIR

Bill McKibben ENOUGH (too much technology is gonna kill us)

Margaret McMillan 1919 (story behind Versailles negotiations)

Graham Robb RIMBAUD (biography)

Eric Schlosser FAST FOOD NATION; REEFER MADNESS

Andrew Smith MOON DUST

Anthony Storr SOLITUDE

Barbara Tuchman MARCH OF FOLLY

Elie Wiesel NIGHT