Words In: Welcome to Hell by Tom Piccirilli

This book (full title Welcome to Hell – A Working Guide for the Beginning Writer) is a quick, easy-to-read overview of (as should be obvious from the subtitle) all kinds of things the new, aspiring writer ought to do. It covers a wide diversity of aspects of the process of moving forward as a writer, from the importance of reading as “food” for the budding writing, to the necessity of self-editing. There’s a section on elements of writing technique such as narrative voice and conflict, and some mention of things peripherally related to writing, such as networking online and rubbing elbows at conventions.

The tone of the book is casual and conversational, but there’s no nonsense, and no shying away from the central truth that for a writer to move even the first step past “beginner” status requires a thick skin, tons of hard work and inexhaustible persistence. Piccirilli himself is a writer of horror and thriller fiction, and most of the points he makes are backed up by examples from genre fiction, but the lessons here are applicable to any writer of fiction, genre or mainstream, short stories or novels.

I know I’m not the only fiction writer who compulsively picks up just about any book about our favorite subject, but I should point out this book really is geared specifically toward beginners. Even a writer slightly advanced beyond that (say, skilled enough to have been published at least once, even if they’re still struggling to get published regularly) may find much of this advice already second nature. For what it’s intended to be, which is a primer for the writer truly just getting started, it’s full of good advice in an easy-to-digest form. In fact, it’s a very quick read, just over 50 printed pages with fairly big type. You could easily re-read the book several times until it all sinks in.

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Review: Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

I love short stories. I love Neil Gaiman’s writing. Does it follow, then, that I love Neil Gaiman short stories?

Some of them, yes.

Smoke and Mirrors covers a lot of ground: humor, erotica, whimsy and horror. Included are several poems, some flash fiction pieces, and a number of conventional short stories. The tone, regardless of what mood or emotion a given story is going for, tends toward the straightforward. Unadorned, no-nonsense, but clear and effective.

Gaiman’s favorite trick is to flip a well-known fable or fairy tale upside down — to reveal events seen from a different character’s perspective, or to modernize a traditional character or scenario.

“Murder Mysteries,” a long story retelling interactions between angels going back to the very formation of the universe and the human sphere, may be the most ambitious and interesting thing here. “Snow, Glass, Apples” is likewise richly told and well written.

“Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar,” which visits a variation on Lovecraft’s fictional town of Innsmouth, and “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale,” about a guy who turns to an assassination service to help him deal with his frustrations, are particularly funny.

Many of other pieces were comparatively slight, though. In my recent review of Joe Hill’s collection “Twentieth Century Ghosts,” I said the book might have been improved by eliminating the weakest 1/3 of the material, and I’d say the same thing here. A shorter book, but a much stronger one, would result. I give the collection as a whole 4 stars, but there’s quite a bit of 5-star material here, as well as some individual stories I’d give 3 or even 2 stars.

Overall a hit-and-miss collection, yet it contains some very worthwhile stories fans of Gaiman won’t want to miss.

The Ones That Got Away

Just finished reading a very fine story collection by Stephen Graham Jones called The Ones That Got Away. It’s not The Ones WHO Got Away. There’s a story called “The Ones Who Got Away” but the collection’s title changes one word. No, really, it’s OK if you’re confused.

The Ones That Got Away by Stephen Graham Jones

The book collects thirteen stories published in a variety of venues ranging from more obscure journals and anthologies to the more prominent such as Cemetary Dance. In his story notes at the end, Jones offers entertaining and casual insights into the conception and crafting of each story, and in some cases talks about different versions of the story that existed along the way before he found a way to tell what he wanted told. I love this kind of stuff! It reminds me of the story notes that were always part of Harlan Ellison’s collections, which I looked forward to as much as the stories themselves. Jones seems to have such a humble attitude and likeable personality I imagine most readers will enjoy these bits, even those not looking for insight into the craft of writing.

I’ve always preferred horror fiction with a greater emphasis on character and story than on monsters and gore. Sometimes, though, horror fiction with literary aspirations takes this too far, and downplays the horrific aspect so much the end result is not horror at all, but a vague, low-key sort of ennui. This collection manages that balance perfectly, with plenty of gruesome details and chilling scenes that never become gratuitous or cause eye-rolls.

The first story, “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit” is exemplary. It’s a beautiful, sensitive story of fatherly love for a son, yet it’s also a tale so gruesome and disturbing as to cause nightmares. Despite its brevity, this story carries a serious payload.

Some stories are stronger than others, as in any collection, but not one is less than good. I suppose “The Meat Tree” is the one I feel could be removed without weakening the whole. In every other case, Jones combines a vivid conceptual imagination with convincing characters and conveys the whole in an engrossing voice. The final novella (“Crawlspace,” original to this collection) is some of the most gripping and anxiety-producing fiction I’ve ever read. It’s hard to imagine a reader making it from the first story to the last without being impressed.

The book was a finalist for a “Best Collection” Bram Stoker award, but was matched-up against the potent and masterful Occultation by Laird Barron (who wrote the introduction to Jones’s collection), and the book that won the award, Full Dark, No Stars by the world’s most popular author (doing some of his best work here) Stephen King.

Some writers exhibit a single strength, but Jones has all the bases covered. His writing has an edge without losing accessibility, his stories address familiar tropes and concepts in a way that seems fresh, and he seems in every case fully in control of his world, its mood, and the effect it has on the reader. I recommend this book, and it has definitely convinced me to seek out other works by Jones.

Red Dragon and the Queen of Angels

I’ve seen the movie Silence of the Lambs many times, and the movie Manhunter once, but haven’t previously read any work by Thomas Harris. Manhunter is based on Harris’s third novel Red Dragon which was more recently re-made into a film of the same name starring Ed Norton.

I’m now listening to the audiobook of Red Dragon and I’m pretty impressed with it. Harris’s style is simple, kind of terse and unornamented, more of a gritty detective story than a horror story in terms of feel, but there are these incredibly hard-hitting and awful scenes of horror interspersed throughout. The horror feels real, though, not supernatural or make-believe. I haven’t enjoyed a new fiction author discovery as much since Robert Charles Wilson a few years ago, and I look forward to reading Harris’s later books, though I’ve heard Hannibal is not quite as good and Hannibal Rising is fairly questionable. OK, let’s just say I’m looking forward to finishing this one up, and then reading Silence of the Lambs.

Just recently finished Queen of Angels by Greg Bear and found it a challenging, thought-provoking piece of science fiction, quite different in style from the other Greg Bear works I’ve read. Though definitely a science fiction story, this one feels more literary and sort of poetic than his other stuff, though maybe closest to Blood Music. An interesting story focusing on distortions of the mind, and questions of consciousness and soul, both human and artificial. I’ll probably want to pick this up again in a year or two and go through it once more, as it’s fairly thick with ideas.