Friday, November 29, 2013

Assault of the Garruloids

One step forward, eight steps back: that seems to be a trend in 21st Century narrative prose.

As an example, here's a passage (altered slightly) from a book that I will never buy:

We were in the kitchen trying to find a new way to cook rutabagas when Janie burst through the ceiling. We spent a lot of time doing that --

Bursting through ceilings?

-- working together in the kitchen of the ski lodge; in groups, laughing and sharing tea, or alone, staring at pots that never boiled, trying to find a purpose in life, trying to find the garlic butter. I was usually alone. I had been an only child, and my early years were bitter. I always thought that my parents blamed me for their inability to have any other children, and so, instead of enjoying my childhood, instead of playing with doll parts and setting fire to cockroaches, I spent those years feeling a terrible sense of guilt as my parents longed for a larger family. It's a cliche, I know, and pointless in the context of my tale, but I'm being paid by the word, and readers tend to skim a lot these days. Who can blame them? I certainly can't. Even when I read my own stories, I skim a lot. It saves time and it keeps me sane.

Janie fell to the floor and lay there in a heap.

Back in the 20th Century (that age of dinosaurs), most writers would have maintained narrative tension by focusing on what happens when someone bursts through a ceiling. What's more, to keep the story in motion, they would have provided these childhood background details in passing.

But steady pacing and economy seem out of fashion, these days.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Brutality and Poetry

Les Yeux sans visage. Georges Franju, 1960.

There can be a fascinating conflict in horror between confrontation and comfort.

I suspect that many people find reassurance in the rituals of horror; they know that Dracula will be forced back into his tomb by daylight or by cross; they know that Cthulhu will fail to destroy the world because "the stars are not right;" they know that an exorcist will clean up all the cold pea soup. Everything strange, every threat, will become familiar and predictable and pleasingly bland.

Yet horror can also confront our fears and preserve their power. No cross, no stars, no cleaned-up soup; instead, the abyss. The grave. The darkness at the end of all things.

Comfortable horror wins fan clubs and imitators, but confrontational horror tends to be distrusted. We never see long lines of people eager to buy tickets for Shame or Seconds or Eyes Without A Face.

Eyes (Les Yeux sans visage) is an interesting hybrid. The elements are familiar: isolated house, mad surgeon, terrible experiments, a ghost -- all very comforting. Yet the house is a modern medical clinic, the surgeon is torn between parental guilt and a doctor's drive to dominate everyone and everything around him, the experiments are the sort that you can read about in medical journals, the ghost is a deeply sad woman who has lost everything she loves.

The plot, as well, might seem familiar, but here again, the standards never quite match our expectations. The police are active, alert, intelligent, and useless. The grieving fiance does everything a sane and loving person would do, but achieves nothing. There is human retribution and punishment, but always, lurking in the background, the cold stare of the abyss.

In the end, this brave and beautiful film, with its brutality and poetry, leads us into the dark and lets us go. It will never be popular, but it is unforgettable.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Angry readers please apply

Damon Knight: Science fiction means what we point to when we say it.

Some readers (not to mention writers, editors and publishers) may be unpleasantly surprised by the pugnacious tone of the reviews that follow. I won’t apologize -- not very often, anyhow -- but I will explain. As a critic, I operate under certain basic assumptions, all eccentric, to wit:

1. That the term 'science fiction' is a misnomer, that trying to get two enthusiasts to agree on a definition of it leads only to bloody knuckles; that better labels have been devised (Heinlein’s suggestion, 'speculative fiction,' is the best, I think), but that we’re stuck with this one; and that it will do us no particular harm if we remember that, like 'The Saturday Evening Post,' it means what we point to when we say it.

2. That a publisher’s jacket blurb and a book review are two different things, and should be composed accordingly.

3. That science fiction is a field of literature worth taking seriously, and that ordinary critical standards can be meaningfully applied to it: e.g., originality, sincerity, style, construction, logic, coherence, sanity, garden-variety grammar.

4. That a bad book hurts science fiction more than ten bad notices.

The publishers disclaim all responsibility; angry readers please apply to me.

-- Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder, 1956.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Peter Tennant's List

Once again, a story of mine has been listed by Black Static reviewer Peter Tennant as one of his favourite horror stories of 2013 (so far).

Other stories listed are by the brilliant M. John Harrison (whose collection, The Machine in Shaft Ten, was for me a highpoint of the 1970s), along with John Langan, Nina Allan, Anne-Sylvie Salzman, John Howard, Steve Rasnic Tem, Conrad Williams, Daniel Mills, D. P. Watt, Terry Grimwood, Joseph D’Lacey, Jason A. Wyckoff, Anne Michaud, Livia Llewellyn, and Elizabeth Stott.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Urgency Today

Every day, I write 1200 words to keep myself active. Here's a passage from today's work:

I have read that plateaus are often reached in learning, that periods of achievement are often followed by periods of confusion, frustration, directionless questing. This brings to mind a centipede that I watched earlier this year: marching across the asphalt of the Gatineau Parkway, it seemed unstoppable, mechanical, locked into the programs of insentient purpose. Yet when the centipede arrived on the verge of the grass, it paused, and began to twist its head and upper segments back and forth, back and forth, uncertain of what to do next. In motion, it seemed a mechanism; in doubt, it seemed alive.
 I must remind myself that human beings are often most alive, most aware, when routine breaks down and the passage from day to day becomes a challenge. Here I am on the verge of something new, and if I find myself casting about in confusion, I can at least take heart in being alive with an urgency today that I might not have noticed as keenly yesterday.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Rage Behind the Mask

Walt Kelly was born today, in 1913.

Because my father was a university professor, I had access to the university library while still in highschool.

In the summer of 1979 -- while I was being astonished by the novels of Mervyn Peake -- I chanced upon a book by Walt Kelly, Ten Ever-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Years With Pogo (1959). I had read the comic strip as a child, but I had never understood it; compared to the simplistic drawings and dialogue of the strips around it, Pogo had seemed like the relic of an ancient, eccentric world.

I glanced through the book, thought, "What the hell," and took it out.

By the time I had reached the halfway point, I was totally devoted to Kelly's art, his writing, and his world. I became a hunting fanatic: not only did I search through used bookstores for other volumes in the series, but I dreamed of Kelly books that had never existed.

What fascinated me about Kelly (beyond his power as a draughtsman and writer), was the tension in his work between a child-like whimsy and a seething rage at the idiocy of crowds, the mendacity of lunatics in power. Pogo was the mask of an angry man who had found a way to channel his anger for public consumption -- but the rage was there, like barbed wire in a birthday cake.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Rhythms of Planting, Harvesting, Aging and Loss

The Ballad of Narayama, directed by Keisuke Kinoshita. 1958.

A great challenge of art is how to deal with troubling topics in a way that sheds light on them without scaring away an audience. One solution is to provide a beautiful background without losing sight of the pain and loss in the foreground; this film does that in the most haunting and magnificent way.

The film is essentially a ballad, presented with song and music, not as you would find in a musical, but as a form of commentary. The action takes place in vast, theatrical sets that are gorgeously detailed yet clearly artificial, and the entire production is bathed in stunning colours. Just when you begin to think that nothing else could top the visual splendour of the previous moment, the film surprises you again -- and again.

This breathtaking visual beauty serves a tale that would otherwise be too raw, too harsh to consider. The story deals with a peasant community that has taken a severe approach to the question of population: whenever the elders reach the age of 70, they are carried off to the peak of a mountain, and left there to die. This procedure is ritualized in every way, right down to the songs that children sing, right down to the rhythms of planting and harvesting and the movement of the seasons. These people accept their way of life, and pass it on from generation to generation without complaint.

Yet all the same, these people are still human beings, with human feelings and human ties. The burden of leaving someone you love to die, alone, in the cold, is more than most of us could bear, and the film is clear about the human costs of this tradition.

In the end, The Ballad of Narayama provides no maps to an exit, no easy answers to an old human challenge. It confronts directly the ways in which we handle aging and death, and if you have any heart at all, this film will break it.

Yet at the same time, in its honesty, in its compassion, in its overwhelming visual beauty, this film will stay with you. I urge you to see it.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Skewed Reality

In the British magazine, Black Static, Peter Tennant has reviewed my collection of weird stories:

The stories are more complex and detailed than my précis of each one would suggest. Rather than James, it seems to me that the genius loci of this collection is Aickman, with a similar sense of skewed reality and the unsettling feel of madness and irrationality bubbling away beneath the surface of the text. Mark Fuller Dillon is an original talent, whose precise use of language, obliquely disturbing imagery and meticulous world building single him out as a writer to watch. My advice is to nip over to Smashwords and download this one now....
-- Issue Number 35

Friday, June 21, 2013

That World Beyond the Windowpane

The scholar puts down his pen and considers the sheets of paper lined up on the polished oak of his desk. The words are flowing; he feels confident that his examination of motifs common to Nora May French, George Sterling, Clark Ashton Smith and Robinson Jeffers will spark a new interest in their poetry. Not bad work for a Saturday afternoon.

He stretches in his chair, then stands to change the CD in its player. Ligeti's first quartet has run its course, and now he switches to the Szymanowski second. As the music fills the room, he considers the tone of the strings, the filigree of the counterpoint; then he turns to the window and draws the curtain aside for a glimpse of his neighborhood.

He sees a rain of blood-red gristle tumbling from the sky and bathing the people next door as they wallow in the viscera-bespattered muck.  They rake their fingers through the rotting membranes, and whenever they pull up a jawbone, a skull, or a coil of intestinal tissue, they drool with the amplitude of komodo dragons.

Suddenly, a whirling, globular mass of gripping human fingers rolls like a mutant tumble-weed into their midst; they hurl pitchforks, shriek with victory when it collapses like a writhing pin-cushion into a sanguinary pool. As they rush forward to seize it, a shadow blots the land... and a vast pterosaurian corpse plummets from the wrinkled black clouds, splashes like a giant squid into the brimming creeks. The neighbours howl, hurl themselves upon it, strip it to the bone with their carious teeth until nothing remains upon the red flood but a towering, cathedral-sized ribcage.

The final chord of the Szymanowski fades away. The scholar lets the curtain fall; he returns to his chair, then begins to note the correspondences between "Desert Dweller" by Smith, and "Summer Holiday" by Jeffers.

Yes, the words are flowing. Not bad work for a Saturday afternoon.

For James Rockhill.
Monday, February 18, 2013.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Great Interior Fields

And now, a John Sladek memorial moment.

A mixture of Castle of Otranto and Turn of the Screw, at first. There are two secretive children and some mysterious (not always gigantic) manifestations: Someone in the house reaches into a cupboard to pick up something, and a giant hand reaches in the window and snatches someone away, or almost. The giant hand is that of the children’s dead brother. Once a peculiar rocket-plane zooms in. It is painted in childish toy colours: red/white striped wings, yellow wheels, blue fuselage. Flapping its wings (in imitation of a visible gull) it skims low over the great interior fields.

Of the children’s whispered conversations, the only words which can be distinguished are ‘jelly days'....

An Italian political quarrel: One man is to be put to death in the restaurant kitchen, in this way: His body has been marked with horizontal lines into ten zones. He is to be shot in one zone, allowed to heal, then shot in the next zone (head, then neck, then chest…). The waiters deny this plot, and even the victim tries to cover it up.

I discover that I am dead. I do not know how I came to die, or how I know I’m dead. Perhaps I am talking to someone and realize they are not listening.

Deathland is very pleasant and ordinary. Everyone has to work at their former job, more or less. Sociologists are very much in demand, the place seems like a kibbutz, very jolly and industrious, equipped with many wall charts.

It seems one can only communicate with the living through accidents and imitation. At last I understand what ‘jelly day’ means. It is of course just the day one leaves one’s mortal jelly.

We gather in the cafeteria in the evening to watch a TV play about the end of the world. In the play, the actors tune in to Radio 4 to catch the end-of-the-world news.

On a hunch, I tune in to Radio 4 myself. But there is nothing unusual on, just the same bouncy Muzak tunes I expected.

Then I realize that this is the news -- ordinary, palling life goes right on, up to the last moment. As I realize it, I hear thousands of footsteps coming downstairs into the cafeteria. The new crowds are arriving. It is everyone’s jelly day.

From "The Commentaries," by John Sladek, 1969.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Peter Tennant's Favourite Horror Stories of 2013 – Part One

Peter Tennant, who reviews books for the magazine Black Static, has posted a list of his favourite horror stories of 2013 (Part One). Very much to my shock and delight, Mr. Tennant has included several stories from In A Season Of Dead Weather.

Also mentioned are stories from the Tartarus Press anthology, Dark World, from the Steve Rasnic Tem collection, Onion Songs, from a This Is Horror chapbook by Conrad Williams, and from a Spectral Press chapbook by Paul Kane.

2013 is off to a fascinating start!

Friday, April 12, 2013

No Special Artifice, No Special Credit

"How nice, 'to meet a mermaid washing her silken sark by the stream' in the words of the learned L. C. Wimberly, author of Folklore in the English and Scottish Ballads. He says this was 'evidently common experience; no special artifice was needed to get such a story believed.' In which case no special credit would have been obtained by telling it. In which case no special reason was needed to make it up. How’s that for remorseless logic? And has anyone ever spoken of remorseful logic? Don’t answer that. Washing her silken sark by the stream: ever such a lovely alliteration; remember the bear sarks? Who went berserk? Serk or sark, then, means skin… or garment… and, by extension, skirt: to which it is obviously related; and shirt, just a bit less obviously. A cutty sark, in small letters, is a short garment, and, by extension, either a loose woman or a cut-down sail. The Cutty Sark was a famous sailing vessel, and a brand of whisky is named after it. I was once, like the wedding guest in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, seized hold of, in England, by a very old man who proceeded to tell me that one of his cousins had been the last second mate on the ship Cutty Sark and that another of his cousins had shot the last man killed in a duel in England. It would have been even more interesting and to the point had he himself been an ancient mariner, but he was actually an ancient dentist. From time to time, though, I have had a mental image of a sailor, clad in a cutty sark, having had a drink of Cutty Sark, sent aft (or would it be forward?) to trim the cutty sark of the Cutty Sark. Whilst so engaged he espies a woman a-washing her cutty sark; 'A mermaid!' he cries. Says the second mate: 'No, she is only a cutty sark.' Ah well."

-- Avram Davidson, Adventures in Unhistory.

A truly wonderful ebook, by a truly wonderful writer.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

One Frame in the Long Film Strip of English

Language is our key to the past and our ticket to the future. If we abuse it, if we pretend that our whims about grammar and spelling are more important than clear communication, then we shut ourselves away from the long corridors of history.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ce qu’on rêve, ce qu’on adore et ce qui ment

"L’Astre rouge," by Leconte de Lisle

Along with George Sterling, the most interesting poet I've read in some time has been Leconte de Lisle; and like Sterling, de Lisle often "casts a cold eye" on human existence with a cosmic perspective that both frightens and fascinates me.

One concept that seems to have haunted de Lisle is the idea of a dead universe, frozen and still for eternity, locked in what he calls, in another poem, la Nuit aveugle -- but here, in this poem, he adds a wounded, staring eye at the centre of non-existence: mindless, pitiless, eternal.

I suppose this work appeals to me, because it brings to mind those nightmares that plagued me when I was four years old: vast looming or spinning things in the sky, my screaming attempts to warn people who would not look up, the universe dissolving into dust and nothingness within a silent instant.

- - - - - - - - - - -

Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle
From Poèmes tragiques, 1884 (édition de 1886).

L’Astre rouge

Il y aura, dans l’abîme du ciel, un grand Astre rouge nommé Sahil.
(Le Rabbi Aben-Ezra.)

Sur les Continents morts, les houles léthargiques
Où le dernier frisson d’un monde a palpité
S’enflent dans le silence et dans l’immensité;
Et le rouge Sahil, du fond des nuits tragiques,
Seul flambe, et darde aux flots son œil ensanglanté.

Par l’espace sans fin des solitudes nues,
Ce gouffre inerte, sourd, vide, au néant pareil,
Sahil, témoin suprême, et lugubre soleil
Qui fait la mer plus morne et plus noires les nues,
Couve d’un œil sanglant l’universel sommeil.

Génie, amour, douleur, désespoir, haine, envie,
Ce qu’on rêve, ce qu’on adore et ce qui ment,
Terre et ciel, rien n’est plus de l’antique Moment.
Sur le songe oublié de l’Homme et de la Vie
L’Œil rouge de Sahil saigne éternellement.

- - - - - - - - - - -

Although I'm certainly no translator, and I could never do justice to de Lisle, I'll offer an extremely quick, ugly and inadequate approximation of this poem:

"There will be, in the abyss of the sky, a great red star named Sahil. -- Rabbi Aben-Ezra

"On the dead continents, lethargic waves swell in the silence and immensity, where the final shiver of a world has trembled; and from the depth of tragic nights, only red Sahil burns and stings the waves with its blood-covered eye.

"Through the endless space of naked solitudes -- this inert abyss, deaf, empty, identical to the void -- Sahil, the supreme witness, the lugubrious sun that makes the sea duller and the sky blacker, broods with blood-red eye over the universal sleep.

"Genius, love, sorrow, despair, hatred, envy, everything we dream, everything we adore, everything that tells a lie, Earth and sky -- nothing remains of that ancient moment. On the forgotten dream of Man and Life, the red eye of Sahil bleeds eternally."

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Strange Power of This Story

In A Season Of Dead Weather is reviewed in detail here:

"I enjoyed this collection, not least because I felt I was sharing the imaginative world of someone who doesn't seek easy answers or rely on obvious gimmicks. I hope you'll give Mark Fuller Dillon's stories a chance. Like many good short story writers, he is unlikely to ever receive the considerable backing of a major publisher, despite being vastly more gifted than the average bestselling hack."

Thursday, March 14, 2013

News... on the March

Another book review, this one from the Paranoid Contracts website:

"For those of us who like reading alone late at night this one regularly sends a tingle down your spine. In some of the stories you wonder if people are just paranoid but in others you feel there probably is somewhere in your city where people go down stairs to a different world."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Endless Winters

In A Season Of Dead Weather has gained a review:

"I’m a genre reader and rarely read stories just for their styles and language. Dillon’s In a Season of Dead Weather is one of those rare works that can make even a genre reader like me want to take a second look at the literary. Highly recommended."

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Take Away the Words

Back in 2005, a beginning writer asked for my technical criticism of two stories.

Over the course of several weeks, I took his two stories apart, not only sentence by sentence, but clause by clause, word by word. I taught him basic principles of grammar and sentence construction; I revised many passages for the sake of clarity and dramatic emphasis, to show him the importance of language in the craft of storytelling. In terms of content, I added nothing: the ideas, the plots, the imagery, were all his, and his alone. I worked only on technique.

The process went on and on and on, and became gruelling for both of us; but he was patient, dedicated, willing to work hard and to put up with my stern lecturing.

Afterwards, we fell out of touch for eight years, but I've recently noticed that he has built quite a reputation for his work, and I was happy for him. I sent an email, and we exchanged a few messages.

As you might expect, we ended up discussing craftsmanship. He wrote:

"It's not a writer's job to write perfectly.... Your job is a story-teller's job, not a technician's job. One must focus ultimately on the tale told, make that the primary concern. Against that, all else is secondary."

I replied:

"For me, writing a story is both jobs, because reading a story in both ways can be a great pleasure. And the beauty of fiction is that it can be read both ways.... I see it as a balance: the story, and the telling of the story, are equally important."

That was three days ago. Since then, I've come to suspect that I was wrong.

The telling is more important -- vastly more important -- because without the telling, there is no story. To add more emphasis: the telling and the story are one. The telling is the story.

I should be clear about this: by story, I mean a crafted fictional narrative that cannot be paraphrased without a major loss of significance, beauty, or power.

Narratives that come out of an oral tradition are designed to be paraphrased. Legends, folk tales, bedtime stories for children: they not only survive paraphrase, but thrive on it.

Fiction, on the other hand, is often more complex. Could you paraphrase King Lear, or The Flower Beneath The Foot, or Titus Groan? Could you paraphrase "The Secret Sharer," or "The Terminal Beach," or "The Fifth Head of Cerberus"?

Tone, imagery, metaphor, sensory texture: these are essential to fiction, and the only way to convey them is through language. It stands to reason, then, that poorly described action, imprecisely described physical detail, vaguely described emotional weather, kill the illusion of reality, the conviction by which a story lives or dies.

The goal of writing is not "perfection" (whatever that might mean); the goal is clarity. The goal is to make the story as vivid and as real as possible in the reader's mind. And this is why technique matters, because words are the only tools we have to bring our stories to life.

Take away the words, and you take away the story.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Shifted Diamond's Instant Shock of Light

In the wake of modernism, some fascinating writers were cast aside, and one of these was a California poet with an interesting circle of friends and an even more interesting way with words: George Sterling.

I came to Sterling late. His friend and pupil, Clark Ashton Smith, I discovered when I was ten years old; his friend and mentor, Ambrose Bierce, I discovered a few years later. Books by Smith and Bierce were easy to find in affordable paperbacks, but books by Sterling were scarce and expensive.

In recent years, thanks to, scans are now available of the poems that were collected while Sterling was alive, and they are the most fascinating things that I have read in a long time.

Time has been no friend to Sterling. He was one of the latest of late romantics, and by the year of his death in 1926, much of what he had written was considered old-fashioned, obsolete.

I agree with old-fashioned: his language was often deliberately archaic; but obsolete makes me bristle like a tomcat in the dryer. I have my reasons:

The experiments of modernism and the energies they released are one of the great legacies of the 20th Century. Writers, poets, artists, composers, anyone who felt the need for a new form had the freedom to develop it. Yet this development coincided with an idea that I consider false: that previous forms were now automatically and inevitably obsolete.

When writers discover the need for new forms, when they realize that old forms are hindering what they have to say, then by all means, they should experiment. Whether or not a particular experiment will succeed depends largely on what the writer wants to do.

As an example, the "condensed novels" that J. G. Ballard collected in The Atrocity Exhibition were suited uniquely to his obsessions, to his detached and clinical style; for that reason, I doubt they would have functioned for anyone else. But for him, they were essential, and he made them work beautifully.

On the other hand, if writers are able to work at their best in traditional forms, then critics and readers should give them a certain leeway.

(Please note that by "forms" I mean technical approaches to writing, structures for narrative. These are quite different from genres, which often owe more to marketing categories than to creative needs; in contrast, forms are devised and developed by writers themselves, for their own purposes. Sometimes, in other arts, a form is imposed as the one and only legitimate way to create something: this happened with serialism in music; and while serialism can be fascinating and beautiful in the right hands, it can be limiting for composers who have something else they need to say. Writers, in contrast, have had more freedom to pick and choose.)

Sterling chose to work in traditional poetic forms like the sonnet; he also chose to rely on the imagery and idioms of romanticism. For many of his critics, and for many of the poets who came after him, Sterling's embrace of tradition and archaic language made his work obsolete.

But I am neither poet nor critic; I have no battles to fight for the sake of modernism and no reputation to build in academic circles. What I want to do, is to learn as much as I can about writing, so that I can apply these lessons to my work.

So what do I find in Sterling?

Consider this:

Blunt as a child, since child he was at heart,
And sun-sincere, my friend to many seemed
Dull, rude, aggressive, tactless. Add to all
His bulk and hairiness and stormy laugh,
And one can find them some excuse for that.
'Twas seeming only. We, who found his soul
Thro friendship's crystal, saw beyond the glass
The elusive seraph.  In his mind were met
The faun, the cynic, the philosopher,
But first of all, the poet. Give to such
Apollo's guise, and matters were not well.
Too glad to pose, ofttimes he held his peace
Before the jest that sought his heart; but let
The whim appeal, and all his mind took fire --
The shifted diamond's instant shock of light.
Beauty to him (as wine's ecstatic draught,
Richer than blood, and every drop a dream)
Was like a wind some hidden world put forth
To baffle, madden, lure -- at times, betray,
Then win him back to worship with a breath
Of Edens never trodden. Yet he stood
No dupe to Nature in her harlotry,
Her guile, her blind injustice and the abrupt
Ferocities of chance, but swift to face
The unkempt fact, and swift no less to snatch
Its honey from illusion's stinging hive --
No moth that beat upon Time's enginery.
Yet loved he Nature well, as one might love
A half-tamed leopardess, for beauty's grace
Alone. Within his enigmatic soul
Sorrow and Art made Love their servitor,
For he would have no master but himself.
To what best liken him? Some singer must
Have used the star-souled geode's rind and heart,
Telling of such as he. Let me compare
His rugged aspect and auroral mind
To that wide shell our western ocean grants --
Without, all harsh and hueless, with, perhaps,
A group of barnacles or tattered weed;
Within, such splendor as would make one guess
That once a score of dawnings and a troop
Of royal sunsets had condensed their pomp
To rainbow lacquer which the ocean pow'rs
Had lavished, godlike, on the gorgeous bowl.

-- "A Character," from The House of Orchids and Other Poems. A. M. Robertson, San Francisco, 1911.

In one of his essays, Gore Vidal pointed out that the best use of an adverb is to surprise. When I read Sterling, I am reminded that adjectives can take on the same role: not only can they describe, but they can illuminate, they can shock, they can surprise us into recognition.

Auroral mind. Sun-sincere. Shifted diamond. The abrupt ferocities of chance. The unkempt fact. The star-souled geode.

When we concentrate on the modernity of form, when we use form as a basis for judgement on someone's relevance or obsolescence, we can all-too easily forget about something much more important and much more instructive: the writer's use of language.

By its nature, prose tends to be prosaic, but a poet like Sterling shows that other ways of writing are not only available, but are lively, electrifying, and necessary.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ecstasy, Yes... But Keep On Truckin'

When I began to write seriously (back in the Late Devonian), I imposed on myself a strict set of guidelines, and the most inflexible rule was that I could write only in a spare style.

In this I was motivated not by any classical desire for purity, but because I wanted to build a rock-solid foundation for my true ambition: to smash down the walls and to go wild.

I loved writers who wrote with abandon, with ecstasy, with passages of neon colour and all the brass of the orchestra bellowing for blood, and I very much wanted to bellow.

At the same time, I recognized the value of self-discipline; I understood the need for pacing, variety of tone, and a structure of narrative that would build towards and justify these loud and colourful passages.

What I sought to do, then, was to teach myself how to write without ornamentation, so that I could gain a sense of when it might be appropriate to blast the brass. To this end, I wrote for years without allowing myself more than the bare minimum of adjectives, and I still recall a day when I found myself shocked at the realization that I would have to use an adverb.

The result was a pile of prose that no one could want to read, but in the process I learned some lessons of value.

I also learned by studying these colourful passages from the writers I admired, and I came to realize that even here, there was more self-discipline at work than I had supposed.

One of these writers was Clark Ashton Smith: loved by a few, loathed by a few more, ignored by all the rest. Even today, in our age of post-literacy, some readers are still able to respect elaborate and labyrinthine stylists like Thomas de Quincey and Thomas Browne, but not many people seem able to stomach the prose of Clark Ashton Smith.

I love it.

And more to the point, his work taught me a fundamental principle that I keep in mind whenever I create a story:

No matter how elaborate the prose might be, no matter how dense the physical description or purple the rhetoric, the story must keep moving.

Smith kept his elaborately-written stories in motion by making sure that his prose did many things at once.

For example, instead of imposing a speed-bump with a static description of a landscape or a building, he would have his character walk through the scene, and while in motion, observe the details that came to him with every turning passage or opening door. The result was a sense of being there, of seeing not only what the character saw, but seeing with him.

In short, instead of interrupting the story, the descriptions became the story; and like the narrative itself, the descriptions kept on moving.

This might sound elementary, perhaps even too simple for consideration. Yet I've read many writers who never seemed to grasp this fundamental principle, who never seemed to realize that a story is not a painting. A story moves.

So yes, bring on the neon colour, bring on the bellowing brass. But even here, lurking behind the curtains, you often find self-discipline and craftsmanship.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Readers Without Borders

I've come to believe that the greatest challenge a writer has to face is not the long task of learning to apply words with precision, clarity, and force; nor is it the day-by-day sorting through experience, imagination, and dreams for story ideas; nor is it the life-long attempt to make any sense out of life.

The greatest challenge is to find readers.

This idea was reinforced last week when I spent several days poring through lists of people willing to review books, and then ebooks, and then self-published ebooks, and then erotic self-published ebooks that were also science fiction. I started on Wednesday, then looked up again to see that it was Friday. Now I understand the concept of missing time....

At the heart of the challenge, I suspect, is a fundamental difference between the way that most readers think, and that most writers work.

(This is hypothetical; I'm likely wrong. But it's a fun idea to kick around.)

I suspect that for most readers, reading is a repetitive pleasure. They read a story, they love it, and they would like to find a similar story to repeat the experience. Not only does that make sense, it's to be expected. If we try a bowl of squash soup and we love it, we are perfectly justified in hoping that the next bowl will be as good. At the very least, it should smell and taste a little bit like squash soup, and not very much like tumbleweed salad.

Repetition requires categorization, and again, that's to be expected. If we read a science fiction book and we love it, then we expect the next book we choose to have similar characteristics. As a result, readers, reviewers, publishers often have distinct ideas in mind about how a science fiction book might differ from a romance, or a mystery, or a guide to carp farms in Vanishing Point, Ontario.

Yet I suspect that for many writers, the circumstances are completely different.

Writing is often a way to make sense of life, and life is multiplicity. We live in a science fiction world of rapid technological change and looming planetary catastrophes. We live immersed in eroticism, in sexuality. We find ourselves confronted by mysteries, by puzzles, by nightmares and by joy. Life is a comedy, a tragedy, a thriller (and for anyone who tried to set the clock on an old-style vcr, a techno-thriller).

Because of this multiplicity, and because of this attempt by writers to capture a sense of how it feels to be alive, publishing categories are often less than helpful. By their nature, they impose repetition on something that wants to be vital and complex and free: an accurate impression of experience right now.

And again, not only does that make sense, it's to be expected. Art is a safe pathway into the unknown, a level catwalk over the abyss, an ideal way to plunge into risk, into darkness, into mystery, and to walk through the other side with all your bones intact.

In short, the needs of readers are often quite different from the needs of writers.

So perhaps, then, the challenge is not only to find readers; the challenge is to find readers who love safe pathways into strangeness, ambiguity, multiplicity; readers who love the melding, or the shattering, of categories.