Reading at Powell’s Books Tonight

Several Portland locals with stories in CTHULHU FHTAGN! will be reading at Powell’s Books (note: SE Hawthorne location) tonight.

Information:

The Ross E. Lockhart-edited, H. P. Lovecraft inspired Word Horde press anthology CTHULHU FHTAGN! features 19 macabre tales. Five of these are from authors who call Oregon home.

Wendy Wagner
Edward Morris
Mike Griffin
Christine Morgan
Nathan Carson

Thursday, Nov 12
Powell’s Books on Hawthorne
7:30pm
free

The event page on Facebook is HERE.

Check out this lovely book!

cthulhufhtagn

Reading With Pulver, Nicolay and Barron

In an earlier post, I mentioned the surprise reading. If you don’t know what I’m going on about, check out Reading Between Greats and come back.

Joe had already warned me and Scott Nicolay we must be present, so we had an idea he had some plans in store. When this picture was taken, Joe was up at the table fiddling with paper. That’s me, Lena, Scott Nicolay and Lady Lovecraft in front. Behind LL is Justin Steele, behind him Cody Goodfellow, and waaayyyy in the back, Laird Barron.

reading-waiting

Joe, better known as Joseph S. Pulver Sr., read a story that will be published in S.T. Joshi’s “Mountains of Madness” themed anthology. In his introduction, Joe described his motivation in writing the story as trying to imagine “What if Laird Barron wrote a riff on At the Mountains of Madness?”

He carried along a copy of the anthology he edited, The Grimscribe’s Puppets, but didn’t read from it. This didn’t seem unusual. Lots of writers carry their latest book up to the table or stage during readings and panels, so people will see it and be mind-controlled into buying a copy.

reading-joe

Joe’s reading was excellent. He stopped about halfway through his story, and said he and Laird both felt strongly about the importance of helping boost newer writers by lending attention and offering endorsement.

He held up his copy of Grimscribe’s, said a few flattering things about me and about Scott Nicolay, and asked us to come up and read selections from our stories in that anthology. Me first.

reading-mg1

I recall thinking “I should be really nervous.” I did feel on the spot, unsure how to begin. A story came to mind, a recurring dream I used to have about going to a David Bowie concert. I’d sit in the front row, and before the band started, Bowie would call me up to the stage and insist that I play guitar for them. I’m certainly no guitar player, but in the dream, I make a go of it, convinced that good intentions and zeal will allow me to bluff my way through, playing in place of Ronson, Fripp and Alomar.

I told the audience, “This feels something like that dream,” then read the beginning of “Diamond Dust.”

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It seemed to go well, though that’s hard to gauge as it’s happening. People applauded.

Scott Nicolay came up, and wisely skipped the sort of preamble and introduction I offered. He read a chunk of his excellent tale, “Eyes Exchange Bank,” drawing laughs in all the right places.

reading-scott

Laird Barron came up last, and read the entirety of “D T” from the Pulver-edited King-in-Yellow-themed anthology, A Season in Carcosa. It’s a wonderful story, full of dark unease as well as humor, and pseudo-biographical portraits of recognizable figures, primarily Karl Edward Wagner.

I’ve read “D T” several times before, and very much enjoyed hearing it in Laird’s own voice.

The reading came full circle, from Joe mentioning Laird’s inspiration in his story, to Laird reading his story from a book edited by Joe. And in between, two writers with the highest respect for Barron and Pulver. This was a very special opportunity for Scott and me.

reading-laird

Afterward, many people came up and said nice things. We all signed many books, that is, Scott and I signed The Grimscribe’s Puppets, and Laird and Joe signed their many, various other things. I watched one guy pull out a stack of at least a dozen Barron collections, novels, and anthologies in which his stories appear.

There were questions about Grimscribe’s, and comments from a few who had already read it. One guy told me he was going to run upstairs, buy a copy, and hurry right back so Scott and I would sign it. Also in the room were other contributors to the same anthology, such as Richard Gavin, Cody Goodfellow and Simon Strantzas, so it was a great opportunity for a reader to grab several signatures, including that of Editor Pulver.

Later, when Scott, Lena and I went to lunch, a guy came into the burrito place and asked, “Was it you, just reading with Laird Barron and Joseph Pulver?”

I affirmed that we were. He said he’d enjoyed the reading, and had tried to buy the book, but found it sold out. I told him he must be wrong, that he should’ve asked at the Miskatonic River Press table, because I knew they’d had quite a few copies left before the reading.

It turned out he was right. There was at least some kind of run on these books after the reading. If Scott and I allow ourselves to imagine we had some part in creating a bit of buzz about the book, this is the greatest possible feeling. I’m already very grateful to be included in the book to begin with, and the reading was a wonderful treat.

grimbscribes

The book is currently available from Amazon in three formats: Hardcover (of the casewrap variety, not cloth-cover-with-paper-dustjacket), Paperback and Kindle. Direct link HERE. You’ll also be able to grab it from Miskatonic Press, as soon as Tom Lynch obtains more copies, HERE.

Again, thanks to Joe Pulver, Laird Barron, Scott Nicolay, Tom Lynch, and everybody who attended the reading.

Words In: Immobility by Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson, one of my favorite short story writers, specializes in brief, enigmatic mysteries with a Kafkaesque flavor. Most of his collections have come out from publishers with more of a literary/experimental focus (Underland, Coffeehouse, Four Walls Eight Windows). It wouldn’t seem unreasonable to categorize Evenson as a straight “literary” writer whose work contains speculative or “genre” elements only to accentuate the weird unease in a Kafka/Lynch sense, and not as raw meat for a genre readership. Such a conclusion about Evenson’s work might seem to be argued-against by the release of Immobility, a post-apocalyptic tale which almost be called an “adventure” (if a quiet one), published by SF/Fantasy powerhouse Tor Books.

The story begins with the awakening from cryogenic stasis of Josef Horkai, a paralyzed amnesiac with unexplained resistance to the environmental toxins and radiation which keep the rest of the few surviving humans hiding underground. He’s given a mission by Rasmus, seemingly in charge in this desolate, wrecked post-Kollaps aftermath, and a pair of “mules” named Qanik and Qatik, twins or perhaps clones, carry Horkai on the assignment. On the way, Horkai tries to get information from the mules, whose responses often seem nonsensical, yet sometimes contain information or even wisdom.

Horkai’s muddled memory, which leaves him uncertain about such basic facts as whether he’s even human, drives him even more strongly than any assigned mission. Immobility isn’t just about Horkai’s paralysis, but about his inability to choose any direction for himself because he lacks the necessary information to judge his own situation. Plagued by cyclical memories of sleeping and awakening from sleep, Horkai struggles to understand who he is, and how to deal with direction in which he has no say. I take this as a direct and explicit comment about the way some religions keep followers in the dark, use them as fodder for the promulgation of the faith. Evenson’s own history as a former member of the Mormon church, and the story taking place in Utah, particularly near the Brigham Young University campus, would seem to support this interpretation.

The story is reminiscent of Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road in terms of mood, yet in that story the protagonist was strongly driven toward a certain end. Horkai isn’t sure what he’s seeking, beyond the most basic sort of self-knowledge. The foundational nihilism of Immobility should come as no surprise, as in his acknowledgements Evenson name-checks Thomas Ligotti, a horror writer noted for his pessimism about humanity. I enjoyed Immobility, found it stimulating and well-written, though not quite as sharply-honed as Evenson’s short works. It’s worthwhile for those readers who enjoy darker tones and a bit of philosophical challenge, but may be too bleak for some.

Words In: The Light is the Darkness by Laird Barron

Conrad Navarro, modern gladiator in a secret underground battle series called The Pageant, pursues his lost (possibly dead) sister Imogene.

Told in a style quite different from Barron’s recent novel The Croning. Pulpy, fast-moving. Seemingly less serious, yet at its core abysmally dark. Some sections more briskly written, while others contain Barron’s characteristically dense, flavorful descriptions.

As with The Croning, strange events are gradually revealed to take place on a grandiose, primordial scale. Part epic, part comic book, part myth. Gods and demigods stride the Earth, concealed among us, concerning themselves with matters frightful and destructive to ordinary mortals.

The Light is the Darkness

Words In: Liquor by Poppy Z. Brite

I’ve long been familiar with Brite’s horror genre work of the 1990s, but more recently have heard good things about Liquor and its sequels. This series concerns a couple of New Orleans boys (Ricky and G-Man) who dream of making the leap from restaurant cooks to restaurant owners, rough-edged, hard-drinking guys with a lot of attitude, sort of a fictional counterpart to Anthony Bourdain’s popular memoir Kitchen Confidential. The idea always sounded fun to me… and it is. Engaging, easy to read, and full of attitude and energy.

Brite is (or was at the time she started this series) in a relationship with an up-and-coming chef. One noteworthy element of Liquor is the believability of the insider’s point of view on the world of the restaurant chef. The “behind the scenes” aspect feels realistic, intimately detailed, and gives an idea of the weird mix of aspects inherent in the world of the chef: Rock star glamor on one hand, and on the other a gritty blue-collar kind of toil filled with sweat, burns, blisters and backache.

Liquor cover

I enjoyed the New Orleans atmosphere, and found Brite’s writing straightforward and clear. The “restaurant insider” stuff, as mentioned, is fascinating as well. The real draw to these books is the characters, not only Ricky and G-Man (lifelong best friends, roommates, and also lovers, though within the story they’re just starting to be more open with everyone about this latter aspect) but also their friends, cohorts, business collaborators, and the various nut jobs and assholes who provide obstacles along the way.

It’s easy to see why Brite gained so many devoted readers with this series, and also why her long-time readership mostly didn’t seem to mind this giant leap in style and subject matter from her early goth-weird-horror work. This is well-crafted fiction of the sort most readers will find enjoyable, perhaps a 4-star rating out of 5. Those with an interest in the restaurant business, the art of cuisine, or New Orleans as a setting should find even more to like, and rate it more highly.

Words In: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus, like many very popular books, seems to divide opinion. Lots of “best of the year” lists and five-star reviews, but quiet a few 1- and 2-star reviews as well. There’s a lot of magic here, both in the literal sense and metaphorically in term of atmosphere and wonder. Circus imagery abounds, which is not a surprise given the title, and the “black and white with a dash of red” color scheme of the cover seems to be the color of just about everyone and everything in the story. Descriptions are rich with detail, and it would be fair to say Erin Morgenstern devotes at least as much attention to describing the accoutrements of the circus as developing her major characters.

Le Cirque des Rêves, a seemingly mystical traveling circus which appears without warning, vanishes just as suddenly, and is only open to patrons at night. A pair of young magicians, Celia and Marco, are brought up in lifelong magical training, each by an adoptive father figure, in preparation for a competition between these two older men which will be played out by Celia and Marco, at some time in the future.

If the book has one failing, it’s a greater focus on the performances and mechanisms of the circus and the magical contest than on the internal workings of the characters. The story is not perfect, but the writing is so lushly descriptive and image-rich, the setting so attractive, I found myself in love with it all anyway. I believe this is one of those books prospective readers can easily judge by the cover and synopsis. If it doesn’t seem like your kind of thing, it almost certainly isn’t. Those readers to whom the central conceit seems interesting will likely be enchanted and forgive the book its few shortcomings. Many, like me, will adore this book and find themselves eagerly awaiting a followup from this first-time novelist.

Words In: Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy, Ellen Datlow, Editor

I’ve been reading a lot of story anthologies lately, and the word “uneven” comes up in my reviews so often I sound like a broken record. Many anthologies are mixed in terms of quality, and while you might guess the problem to be the difficulty of finding enough strong writers to participate, I think it’s more that some of the most prominent writers earn their spot by name recognition alone, and just go through the motions. Most of the stories with “New York Times bestseller” as part of the author bio seemed to me rushed, superficial and generally lacking, as if cranked out to fulfill a commitment rather than to express ideas. There are exceptions. Jim Butcher is well-known, with a successful series of novels, and his lead-off story “Curses” is enjoyable and engaging. The strongest work here, and there is certainly enough of it to justify purchase of The Naked City, comes from emerging or mid-list writers.

Matthew Kressel’s “The Bricks of Gelecek” may have been the most beautifully crafted piece here, and certainly the most poetic. It’s my first exposure to Kressel and I’ll keep his name in mind. Jeffrey Ford’s “Daddy Longlegs of the Evening” overcomes a somewhat puzzling and ultimately not-entirely-satisfying central concept by virtue of a pleasing narrative voice and wonderfully crafted prose. Lucius Shepard’s “The Skinny Girl” is likewise stronger on style than content, but the piece is relatively brief and moves along well. Shepard is one of the truly fine craftsman of sentences in genre writing. Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Way Station” feels like the most heartfelt and intense of stories here. As with Kressel, this is a name I’ll follow in the future. Caitlin R. Kiernan is one of my favorite writers of weird and fantastic fiction, and her “The Colliers’ Venus (1893)” was an excellent, flavorful period piece with a bit of steampunk feel, but not so much as to annoy those of us who find steampunk tiresome.

Lavie Tidhar’s “The Projected Girl” started off strong and had me engaged for a while, only to drag later on. Could’ve been a great 20 page story or even a very good 30 pager, but at 40 pages overstayed its welcome. Likewise, I went back and forth on Elizabeth Bear’s lengthy closing piece, “King Pole, Gallows Pole, Bottle Tree.” It’s well-written and emotionally real, but often the fantasy component to the story felt tacked-on to a real world story about a couple of friends.

I understand story anthologies are tough to put together. Often bigger names have to be included in order to get a publisher interested. This necessity makes things tougher on Editor Ellen Datlow, who’s better at this kind of thing than anyone, as the all-stars don’t seem to be putting in as much effort as the players off the bench. That’s not a reason to avoid The Naked City, not at all, but this will be of greater interest to fans of writers like Kiernan, Ballingrud, Ford and Shepard than fans of the better-known names prominently featured on the cover.

Words In: Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke

I imagine some readers might have avoided Chesya Burke’s collection due to the title, convinced that the stories were not merely concerned with the black experience, but intended specifically for a black readership. To avoid Let’s Play White for that reason would be a mistake, though, for any reader interested in a unique take on the horror and fantasy genres.

The stories in this collection take place in a variety of settings, both in terms of time and place. Some are contemporary and urban, while some of the most effective pieces take place decades ago in the American South. So much fantasy and horror fiction tends to happen in imaginary alternate worlds, yet Burke demonstrates there are plenty of compelling settings for stories in the real world outside the most common “present-day-big-city” approach.

It’s my belief that a writer’s technique and skill change most quickly early in their career, so first collections or early novels are quite often uneven. I’d say that’s the case here. Though I appreciate stories that retain mystery, or that leave key questions unanswered, several stories here left me unsatisfied. In order to pull off the mysterious ending, it’s necessary to engage the reader and provide some kind of payoff, even if there’s not clean resolution. A few of the stories were a bit slight, less than fully formed, or ended too near where they began.

Having said that, the greater number of stories in the collection are quite accomplished. “Cue: Change” is an unusual take on the zombie tale, and also a bit of a change in terms of tone from the rest of the stories here. “What She Saw When She Flew Away” is an affecting tale about a young girl whose twin has died. Other favorites include the historical settings of “I Make People Do Bad Things” (about a brothel madame in mid-century Harlem) and “The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason,” a novella that takes up the last 1/3 of the book. The Ms. Mason of the title is a witch who travels through a number of small towns. In one, she tries to help young girls who may have powers similar to her own. Given enough space to flesh out her ideas a bit more here, Burke portrays the milieu with a lot of vividness and flavor.

Many first collections are internally inconsistent, but the better stories in Let’s Play White more than justify the collection as a whole, and show Chesya Burke to be a capable writer worth following.