Saturday, December 20, 2014

Old Footprints

I should accept that life is a line of peaks, plateaus, and troughs. They cannot be transformed into anything else; they can only be faced when we come to them. How we confront them is a clue to what we are, perhaps the one reliable measurement of whatever qualities we have. This measurement counts for nothing to other people, but for ourselves in isolation after midnight, it presents the starkest and most candid glimpse into why we persist, why we fail, and why we fool ourselves into treading these mazes of persistance and failure. Old footprints never lead the way, but they show us that we have been here before, and that we kept on walking.

-- From today's writing session.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

That Fine Old Failure Dream

Tonight I dreamt that I was back in highschool. I had just failed the final grade, and within myself, I screamed at the prospect of being trapped in school for a whole new year. Why had I failed? Was it my fault? Was it the school's? Would I never grow up?

Then I woke up, anxious, trembling... in a world led by the likes of Harper, Abbott, Obama, puppets for psychotic businessmen and sociopathic bankers.

We're all failing highschool, but the rich kids think they're grown-ups.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Just Another Deadly Myth

In the last years of his life, my father and I often talked about exceptionalism. I could never understand it, but my father (born and raised in America) told me there was nothing to understand: it was a myth, and like any myth, required no supporting arguments or evidence to back it up.

People believed in exceptionalism, and in their minds, this made it as true as winter or sunshine or the midnight breeze. This made it possible to rationalize any crime, any atrocity, for the sake of Us versus Them. And if he were alive today to read about torture in the United States, my father would be appalled but unsurprised.

Love Never Heals

Sonnets are often used to present ideas and arguments, but at a price: the strict form of the sonnet can distort intended meaning, and too much emphasis on the idea can result in dry poetry that might as well be prose.

I love the challenge of squeezing my chaotic moods into a box, and as an exercise in writing technique, this can be instructive... but is it always worth reading?

And so I'd like to ask:

-- Is the idea presented in the first eight lines clear?

-- Do the final six lines feel arid, unemotional?

* * * * * * * *

Love never heals. It only shares our pain,
And witnesses the struggle we endure
As we defy those patterns that immure
Us in our prison-selves. Indeed, the chain
We have allowed to bind us as we strain
Against all things but habit, can (with pure
And self-directed strength as armature)
Be severed only by our own disdain.

The task is ours alone. But you, my dear,
With all your wounds and grief, you sought for light,
And so I shook with every sob you cried.
I saw your prison made of guilt and fear,
I offered maps to guide you from the night,
But you preferred captivity. I tried.

-- Tuesday, December 09, 2014.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

R. A. Lafferty's Advice On Writing

QUESTION: What thing is most necessary for a young person wishing to become a writer.

ANSWER: A good spoke-shave of matched flint-stones is the most necessary thing for a young person wishing to become a writer. Without a good spoke-shave, there is no way to fashion a good lance. Without a good lance there is no way to kill a grown Wooly Rhinoceros. And really elegant writing can only be done on the shoulder-blade bones of the Wooly Rhinoceros.

Do not cheap-jack it, young people. Do not settle for less than the best. Do not write on the shoulder blades of a cave bear. A cave bear is much easier to kill. It may be killed in its sleep. But what you write on its shoulder blades will lack elegance.

The shoulder blades of the Wooly Puma may be used for writing elegant short poems. And the Wooly Puma is almost as dangerous as the Wooly Rhinoceros to encounter and kill. But its shoulder blades are not big enough to allow longer and more substantial writing.

Do not, in any case, write on a bull's shoulder blades. The inferiority of the writing on such a surface will give you away.

For elegant narration, there is nothing like the shoulder blades of the Wooly Rhinoceros to write on, an obsidian blade set in antler handle to cut the letters into the elegant bone, and "Fat John's Dragon Blood Ink" (he really makes it from Dire Wolf blood) to fill in the notches and cuts for high visibility.

Go first-class in everything you use if you wish to attain distinction.

-- R. A. Lafferty, "Calamities Of The Last Pauper."

Monday, December 8, 2014

La main blanche et la blanche patte

Another of my attempted translations, this time from Paul Verlaine.

As usual, for the sake of accuracy, I've decided to fall back on prose. And as always, comments are welcome. I'm not a translator; if my choice of words is dead wrong, then please let me know!

Femme et Chatte

Elle jouait avec sa chatte;
Et c'était merveille de voir
La main blanche et la blanche patte
S'ébattre dans l'ombre du soir.

Elle cachait -- la scélérate ! --
Sous ces mitaines de fil noir
Ses meurtriers ongles d'agate,
Coupants et clairs comme un rasoir.

L'autre aussi faisait la sucrée
Et rentrait sa griffe acérée,
Mais le diable n'y perdait rien...

Et dans le boudoir où, sonore,
Tintait son rire aérien,
Brillaient quatre points de phosphore.

Poèmes saturniens,
Œuvres complètes de Paul Verlaine, Tome Premier.

Librairie Léon Vanier, Editeur. Paris,  1907.

* * * * *
Woman and Cat,
by Paul Verlaine.

She played with her cat, and it was marvellous to see the white hand and the white paw frolic in the black of night.

She concealed -- the little minx! -- under mitts of black thread her murderous agate nails, sharp and glossy like razors.

The other one, likewise demure, withheld her sharp claws, but the devil keeps an eye on these little details....

And from this boudoir that rang with airy laughter shone four bright specks of phosphorous.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Unmeasured Age of the Stars in their Dementia

Another attempted translation of Leconte de Lisle. The vocabulary gave me trouble, and so I'd welcome any criticism of my accuracy.

La Joie de Siva

Les siècles, où les Dieux, dès longtemps oubliés,
Par millions, jadis, se sont multipliés;
Les innombrables jours des aurores futures
Qui luiront sur la vie et ses vieilles tortures,
Et qui verront surgir, comme des spectres vains,
Des millions encor d'Éphémères divins;
Et l'âge immesuré des astres en démence
Dont la poussière d'or tournoie au Vide immense,
Pour s'engloutir dans l'ombre infinie où tout va;
Tout cela n'est pas même un moment de Siva.
Et quand l'Illusion qui conçoit et qui crée,
Stérile, aura tari sa matrice sacrée
D'où sont nés l'homme antique et l'univers vivant;
Quand la terre et la flamme, et la mer et le vent,
Et la haine et l'amour, et le désir sans trêve,
Les larmes et le sang, le mensonge et le rêve,
Et l'éblouissement des soleils radieux,
Dans la Nuit immobile auront suivi les Dieux;
Se faisant un collier de béantes mâchoires
Qui s'entre-choqueront sur ses épaules noires,
Siva, dansant de joie, ivre de volupté,
O Mort, te chantera dans ton Éternité!

by Leconte de Lisle.
Alphonse Lemerre, Editeur. Paris, 1895.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Plain yet Rich, Simple yet Subtle, Graceful yet Strong

"Here are a great many words I have uttered about words -- more than I had meant. The subject is indeed important, as I said at the beginning, not only to writers, but to all of us -- both as readers and as ordinary human beings, who have to think in words, and to talk them, and to write them, at least in our letters. It is important to us, too, as inheritors of our native tongue, which each of us, in his own minute degree, must help to leave better or worse for those that come after us. We may question, indeed, whether style has ever been much improved by books on style. The influence of creative writers, of national history, of social change, surely weighs far more. And no teaching can give talent; yet sometimes, perhaps, it may help to save talent from being wasted. A lot of writing is too confused and obscure; a lot is too wordy; a lot is too peevish or pompous or pretentious; a lot is too lifeless; a lot is too lazy. These are not hopeless faults to cure oneself of, if only one can remember them. If you can remember to pursue clarity, brevity, and courtesy to readers; to be, if not gay, at least good-humoured; never to write a line without considering whether it is really true, whether you have not exaggerated your statement, or its evidence; to shun dead images, and cherish living ones; and to revise unremittingly -- then, though you may not, even so, write well, you are likely at least to write less badly. For, obvious as such precepts are, nine-tenths of the books that are written seem to me to ignore one or more of them.

"The English of [the] future, even if its bounds are ever more widely set, will inevitably differ more and more from ours. That is part of the eternal change of things, and can be accepted without too much regret. But what that English of the hereafter is like, depends, as I have said, in its minute degree on what each of us says each day of our lives. One may hope that it will still be a language plain yet rich, simple yet subtle, graceful yet strong. Whether the effort to keep it so succeeds or fails, I trust that even those who disagree most strongly with all I have said, will yet agree that this effort needs, generation after generation, to be made."
-- F. L. Lucas, Style.
First published in 1955 by Cassell & Co. Ltd. Reprint edition: 2012 by Harriman House Ltd.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Comfort Me With Apples

David Longhorn's anthology, Supernatural Tales 28, has a story -- or should I call it a segment of a story? -- that I recommend to anyone who thinks our field is too familiar, too clichéd.

The story, "Comfort Me With Apples," is part of a longer piece by Jacob Felsen, "Bright Hair About The Bone." It turns the most common of human issues into something quietly strange, and its deceptively simple ending has remained in my head for the past few hours.

For me, this is the great advantage of supernatural fiction, horror fiction, dream fiction: it makes the familiar seem alien, and by doing this, paradoxically, it brings us back to the lonely questions that keep us awake in those hours long before sunrise. It brings us back to ourselves.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Watch Your Step

This afternoon I had a Web chat about writing, with someone who believed that grammatical mistakes were nothing more than "semantics." He felt that readers would understand what he had to say, whether he wrote grammatically or not.

I made the point that no writer can assume this, ever. We have no way to control how any reader might interpret what we say, but we can control how we say it. Grammar is control, and to ignore it is to toss away one of the best tools a writer has.

For a weak analogy, I mentioned someone who might work for days and days on a beautiful hardwood floor, only to leave a deep hole in the middle of the room. "People can walk around it," he would say, but is that a safe assumption? And what happens in the dark?

But beyond the risk of confusing readers is the risk of insulting them.

I always assume that anyone who takes the time to read my stories will know more about English than I do, and will have more important books lurking in the background waiting to be read. If I allowed myself to slip, if I allowed myself to write without my full attention, any clumsy phrase or ugly clause would be as obvious as a hornet's nest on a sidewalk, and I would lose the reader's trust.

In that sense, grammar becomes more than just a tool for writing; it becomes a promise to the reader. It says, "I respect your knowledge and your taste. I appreciate your time. Let me use that time with competence and care."

Pain on the Playing Fields

When I read a published story that fails in technique or vision or clarity, I feel as if I, too, had failed. I feel ashamed.

My last girlfriend would have scowled at this admission and replied, in her stern, cold voice, "Boundary issues!"

Well, perhaps. But I recall a moment from decades ago, on a playing field back in school, when someone was hit by a soccer ball right in the groin. He clutched at himself, staggered, nearly fell over... and all around him, the other boys gaped in sudden sympathetic agony. At moments like this, boundaries vanish.

Writing can fall apart easily, and mine often has; I kept two woodstoves burning for years with my failed attempts to learn. For that reason, my reading boundaries are thin, and they, too, have been known to vanish.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

One Thousand

Since publication, readers have downloaded In A Season Of Dead Weather day by day, and this morning, the number of downloads reached 1000. Who made this possible?

You did.

You took a chance on an untested writer; you mentioned the book online, discussed it, reviewed it. Your generosity and your word of mouth have allowed this book to live, and you have all of my gratitude.

Thank you!

(So... shall we aim for 2000?)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Don't Forget to Mention Garmentrude

These Are the Winter Tires of Our Truck's Undoing

A Story in the Modern Style
by Ran Screaming.

Chapter 1.

Rickolas was sitting at his kitchen table, sipping cold coffee and staring at the rising sun -- the same rising sun that shone into the kitchen window of his ex-wife, Rhondola, whose divorce lawyer, Spearmint, could see the rising sun from his penthouse on 833 West Anthrax Avenue, but even a penthouse could offer no compensation for the loss of his cloned son, Jiffer, to the Sons of the Rising Sun Rising cult of Warsaw, where the rising sun was not yet visible at this hour to Franchise, the Crown Prince of Porkrind, who was now sitting in his boudoir and sipping coffee that was much warmer than the coffee being sipped by Rickolas as he sat at his kitchen table, watching the rising sun rising.

Damn, thought Reego. What am I going to do about Peever's guacamole problem?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bracing Himself For The Worst


Nightgems of the Dragon's Jewels

An Epic in the Modern Style
by Ran Screaming.

He'd often thought back to that moment.

Gripping his poignard, brandishing his sword, tugging his forelock, cleaving his gaze unto her own, he'd entered the nunnery, bracing himself for the worst.

"Halt!" he'd whispered, savagely.

She'd blushed.

"Sir, why do you unhinge the dignity of this night by intruding upon our personage?"

He'd stared back at her, unmanned, unable to reply, silent, at a loss for words.

"And furtherto, what is more," she'd husked, sulkily, "Wherefore the sword, the poignard, the tugging of the forelock, the quiet savagery?"

He'd spat. "It is Doom, your Ladyship. It is Doom and the utter Violation of All that Space and Time have been to us."

She'd wondered at his words, pondering, questioningly staring, beseechingly querying within her mind thoughts that'd been hard to express in otherwise vocal terminology accessible to one of such low status as he.

"Pray forgive my brief and momentary silence," she'd apologized contritely, "but far afield had been my thoughts. You did, I trust, mention a certain Doom?"

He'd rolled his eyes at that, scratching at his armpits, clutching at his harness and heaving up his sagging breeches in a tardy display of hardy manly modesty.

"My Ladyship," he'd gasped, "It is thus. Word has come of the Trilogy. Three Books shall not suffice. The Gods and Great Ones of Earth and Air and Sea and Crystal and Dragon's Ichor have fore-ordained, that just as the Scene before us attends to its Terminus, then indeed shall the Blood be pouring."

The spear'd pierced her neck. She'd crumpled. The blood'd run red upon the tesserae.
He'd barfed.


Volume Four of the Dragon Sigils of Unicorn Dreams Trilogy Series Five, by Ran Screaming:

The Frozening is Coming

Now a TV series and an iPod app!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Yak-Oil Soap


Cricket Eyes And Bee Stings And Ears That See The Wonder

A Novel of Modern Life
by Ran Screaming.



He looked at her, and remembered summer nights, pizza, calamine lotion, vitamin pills, electric razors, thermostats, and jaundice.


She looked at him, and remembered bobbing for apples, hopping over cracks in the sidewalk, skiing down snow-frosted mountains of snow, hoping for sunny days, waiting for buses, scouring the dishpans.

"I --"

Then he remembered that night back in 1992.

Yes, that night. On that night, he had looked at her, and he had remembered pop tarts, microwave ovens, rubber cement, socks, cake ingredients, yak-oil soap.

She had looked at him, and said, "What?"

And then she had remembered herding wildebeest, sacrificing a goat to the gods of abstinence, bursting balloons in the park as children looked on with tear-filled eyes, pumping gas into bottles and then stuffing up the bottles with rags and then lighting the rags and then running like hell.

Then she had remembered that she had remembered that afternoon in 1986.

"This --" 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Welcome to the Death of Nuance

A: It sucked!

B: It rocked!

A: It sucked!

B: It rocked!

C: Although I find the characters two-dimensional, I respect the writer's implication that traditional forms of character development might not work in a story that places more emphasis on metaphysical imagery than on standard narrative arcs. For what it's worth, I still found their circumstances compelling in a visceral way.

A & B: You suck!!!!!!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


A long, complex dream in which I am part of a new minority that must leave Canada before a deadline.

I work in the vast lobby of a hotel, and every day, people I know disappear. Others perform symbolic protests that look like team sports training exercises, before they, too, disappear.

Acceptable Canadians are not allowed to speak with me, except to give orders. To my grief, I see former girlfriends in the lobby who will not acknowledge my presence.

As the people around me vanish, my sadness overwhelms me, and every day, I tear out clumps of hair from my scalp, clumps of beard from my face. This goes on throughout the dream: every transition takes place to the sound of tearing, to pain, to a glimpse of hair clutched in my left hand.

-- Wednesday, October 1, 2014.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Only Tools We Have

After I had read a story by Alice Munro that did so many things well, I sat for a long time and wondered why the story had not worked for me. Then I recalled these words from Joanna Russ:

Only the preservative of style can make things not only enter people's heads and hearts, but stay there.

[Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 1979.]

Whether I like this or not, I have to agree. Words are the only tools we have to bring our stories to life, and how we the use the words, how we choose them for accuracy, order them for clarity, and place them for impact, is not icing on the cake; it is the cake.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Friend Behind Phenomena

A haunting comment on gods and spiritual beliefs and metaphysical ideas:

We are gregarious animals; our ancestors have been such for countless ages. We cannot help looking out on the world as gregarious animals do; we see it in terms of humanity and of fellowship. Students of animals under domestication have shown us how the habits of a gregarious creature, taken away from his kind, are shaped in a thousand details by reference to the lost pack which is no longer there -- the pack which a dog tries to smell his way back to all the time he is out walking, the pack he calls to for help when danger threatens. It is a strange and touching thing, this eternal hunger of the gregarious animal for the herd of friends who are not there. And it may be, it may very possibly be, that, in the matter of this Friend behind phenomena, our own yearning and our own almost ineradicable instinctive conviction, since they are certainly not founded on either reason or observation, are in origin the groping of a lonely-souled gregarious animal to find its herd or its herd-leader in the great spaces between the stars.

-- Gilbert Murray, The Stoic Philosophy. George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1915.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Absence of Dead Baggage

Over the past two years, I have always gone back to the short stories of William Sansom because of his approach to character.

Often, he has no interest in the typical details of a character's exterior life, and any mention is either passed over quickly or ignored. Job? Social background? Type of clothing? Brand of shoes? Favourite this or that or whatever? He has no compelling interest in these things, and so the dead baggage that weighs down too many stories is usually absent from his work.

Instead, he puts the characters into awkward or alien or harmful situations, and looks at their efforts to conceptualize these events, to define for themselves how they think and feel about their sudden crises.

This might seem abstract in theory, but in execution, Sansom gives his characters an almost paranoid awareness of their physical surroundings, and he describes their conceptualizations in terms that are equally physical. The result is like a prose poem of sweat and cold fire and gooseflesh. It goes right to the heart of who these people are and of how they respond to the wind and the rain and the grit of a terrible place.

The result, for me, is fascinating and refreshingly clean. It would hardly work in a novel, but in a short story, it opens ominous doors.

For years, now, I have tried to write in my own way, on my own terms. Discovering Sansom, and watching him achieve his own peculiar goals, has made me want to continue on my own particular paths.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

And That's the Way it Is


Something happened.

"Oh, no!" said someone.


"I can't --"

"Yes, you can."





More development.


Only by the light of winter stars can the dreaming mind accept mortality.

And then --


"I'm trying!"

"Try harder!"

A fallen leaf sails away on a film of petroleum colours.


Opaque epiphany.




"Nothing, all around us! Nothing!"

The End.



Friday, September 19, 2014

Dead Air Came Out To Meet Her

Technique is the set of tools that a writer brings to the crafting of a story. Some stories require one set of tools, some demand another; but the beauty of technique is that it can be applied to many kinds of story in different ways.

Quite often, technique is buried in the text of a story; but every now and then, it can be visible on the surface and all the more easy to examine. No writer can show us what to write -- for this, we need our own experience, our own obsessions -- but a writer who uses technique openly can show us how to write.

A story might offer an excellent model on how to use a diary format to build credibility and suspense (Guy de Maupassant's 1887 version of "Le Horla"), or it might show how to use a frame effectively, and why it should be used for certain effects (William Sansom's "A Wedding"). But for an example of how to use foreshadowing, and details that unify a story thematically and dramatically, I like to suggest Elizabeth Bowen's "The Demon Lover."

(Because the story is well-known, most of you have read it; but all the same, I will not describe the ending. On the other hand, I will point out foreshadowing details, so be warned.)

Right in the opening sentence, Elizabeth Bowen tells you how the story will end:

Towards the end of her day in London Mrs. Drover went round to her shut-up house to look for several things she wanted to take away.

Revealing so much at the start is a dangerous game: there is always the risk of giving away too much. To conceal her intentions, Ms. Bowen adds a few commonplace details of motivation and time:

Some belonged to herself, some to her family, who were by now used to their country life. It was late August; it had been a steamy, showery day: at the moment the trees down the pavement glittered in an escape of humid yellow afternoon sun.

But some of these everyday details, appropriate to London during the second world war, add a sense of unease:

Against the next batch of clouds, already piling up ink-dark, broken chimneys and parapets stood out.

Then vague unease gives way to a clear hint of what lies ahead:

In her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up; a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs. Dover’s return. [Italics are mine in every quotation.]

Other specific hints:

Shifting some parcels under her arm, she slowly forced round her latchkey in an unwilling lock, then gave the door, which had warped, a push with her knee. Dead air came out to meet her as she went in.

Although these hints become clear only in hindsight, after the story has been read, they add to the mood right from the start, and provide a unified impression of the story's atmosphere and intentions.

Again, Ms. Bowen does not want to give away too much, too soon, and so she continues with everyday details. But even here, a phrase or an image will send echoes throughout the story:

Now the prosaic woman, looking about her, was more perplexed than she knew by everything that she saw, by traces of her long former habit of life -- the yellow smoke stain up the white marble mantelpiece, the ring left by a vase on the top of the escritoire;  the bruise in the wallpaper where, on the door being thrown open widely, the china handle had always hit the wall. The piano, having gone away to be stored, had left what looked like claw marks on its part of the parquet.

Then she goes beyond hinting:

There were some cracks in the structure, left by the last bombing, on which she was anxious to keep an eye. Not that one could do anything --

At this point, she brings in a short flashback that fills in context without giving much away. Yes, there is information, but its vagueness adds to the hint of something at the heart of the story that is mysterious and threatening:

Hearing her catch her breath, her fiancé said, without feeling: “Cold?”

“You’re going away such a long way.”

“Not so far as you think.”

“I don’t understand?”

“You don’t have to,” he said. “You will. You know what we said.”

“But that was -- suppose you -- I mean, suppose.”

“I shall be with you,” he said, “sooner or later. You won’t forget that. You need do nothing but wait.”

The threat becomes physical:

Now and then -- for it felt, from not seeing him at this intense moment, as though she had never seen him at all -- she verified his presence for these few moments longer by putting out a hand, which he each time pressed, without very much kindness, and painfully, on to one of the breast buttons of his uniform. That cut of the button on the palm of her hand was, principally, what she was to carry away.

Four pages later, Ms. Bowen echoes this moment and unifies past with present:

She remembered with such dreadful acuteness that the twenty-five years since then dissolved like smoke and she instinctively looked for the weal left by the button on the palm of her hand.

At this point, for the sake of those who have not read the story, I should stop.

But as a model worth study, "The Demon Lover" has more to offer than I've mentioned here. At one point, it shows the power of a sudden transition:

She unlocked her door, went to the top of the staircase and listened down. 

She heard nothing -- but while she was hearing nothing the passé air of the staircase was disturbed by a draught that travelled up to her face. It emanated from the basement: down there a door or window was being opened by someone who chose this moment to leave the house.

The rain had stopped; the pavements steamily shone as Mrs. Drover let herself out by inches from her own front door into the empty street. The unoccupied houses opposite continued to meet her look with their damaged stare.

As you can also see, the story offers a good lesson in how to use physical detail to imply a danger that goes beyond the physical. This comes to a point on the final page: for me, one of the great fearful endings in horror fiction.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Distant Sounds From Kindred Seas

A difficult poem to translate. I seem to have left out the beauty!

by Leconte de Lisle

Le vent d'automne, aux bruits lointains des mers pareil,
Plein d'adieux solennels, de plaintes inconnues,
Balance tristement le long des avenues
Les lourds massifs rougis de ton sang, ô soleil!

La feuille en tourbillons s'envole par les nues;
Et l'on voit osciller, dans un fleuve vermeil,
Aux approches du soir inclinés au sommeil,
De grands nids teints de pourpre au bout des branches nues.

Tombe, Astre glorieux, source et flambeau du jour!
Ta gloire en nappes d'or coule de ta blessure,
Comme d'un sein puissant tombe un suprême amour.

Meurs donc, tu renaîtras! L'espérance en est sûre.
Mais qui rendra la vie et la flamme et la voix
Au cœur qui s'est brisé pour la dernière fois?

-- From
POÈMES BARBARES, by Leconte de Lisle.
Alphonse Lemerre, Paris, 1872.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Assassin Century

Another of my attempted translations, this one from Leconte de Lisle.

Aux Modernes.

Vous vivez lâchement, sans rêve, sans dessein,
Plus vieux, plus décrépits que la terre inféconde,
Châtrés dès le berceau par le siècle assassin
De toute passion vigoureuse et profonde.

Votre cervelle est vide autant que votre sein,
Et vous avez souillé ce misérable monde
D'un sang si corrompu, d'un souffle si malsain,
Que la mort germe seule en cette boue immonde.

Hommes, tueurs de Dieux, les temps ne sont pas loin
Où, sur un grand tas d'or vautrés dans quelque coin,
Ayant rongé le sol nourricier jusqu'aux roches,

Ne sachant faire rien ni des jours ni des nuits,
Noyés dans le néant des suprêmes ennuis,
Vous mourrez bêtement en emplissant vos poches.

-- From

Alphonse Lemerre, Paris, sans date (1889?).

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

With its Banners of Bereavement, its Bastions of Basalt

An eerie, decadent poem by Stuart Merrill, with my attempted translation. Any criticism is welcome!

par Stuart Merrill

Or ce sera par un pays de crépuscule
Où le soleil de pourpre, au ras des horizons
Qu'exhaussent des volcans fauves de floraisons,
Présagera les jours lourds de la canicule.

Un fleuve de flamme y déroulera ses flots
Entre les archipels de lotus et la grève.
Où la vieille Chimère, en l'âpre rut du rêve,
Tordra d'un vain essor ses flancs gros de sanglots.

Parfois, carène noire et cordages funèbres,
Une galère, aux pleurs des tambours et des voix,
Exaltera, le soir, sur sa poupe en pavois,
Le simulacre d'or d'un monstre des ténèbres.

Puis déferlant sa voile au vent des mauvais sorts
Et battant les lointains de l'écho de ses rames
Sur un rythme barbare et bas d'épithalames,
Elle appareillera, pesante d'enfants morts,

Vers la Cité d'amour et de grande épouvante
Dont on ne dit le nom qu'avec des sacrements,
De peur de trépasser en les impurs moments
Où son désir d'enfer hanta l'âme fervente ;

La Cité qui là-bas avec ses étendards
De deuil, ses bastions de basalte et ses morgues,
Leurrera de ses voix de théorbes et d'orgues
Les pas las des Damnés et leurs regards hagards.

Et quand viendront les jours lourds de la canicule,
Les volcans, éclatant en fauves floraisons,
Feront hurler d'horreur, au ras des horizons,
Sodome, la Cité Rouge du crépuscule.

by Stuart Merrill.
Chez Léon Vanier, Paris, 1891. 

A High Cold Star

When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.

Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: "Yes, but I love myself."

A high cold star on a winter's night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.

-- Stephen Crane, "The Open Boat," 1897.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Beautifully described, erotic and just ever so slightly disturbing

Tim Jeffreys has posted a review of my science fiction novella, All Roads Lead To Winter.

What I really wondered, after discovering what the story was about, was whether the author could pull this off convincingly. In my experience, it's one thing to have a weird idea as a writer, but quite another to get the reader to buy into it. I have to say that I was totally convinced by this tale....

There's a depth to the writing that lifts this above being a mere curio... and the characters were well drawn with clear motivations. Mark Fuller Dillon is a talented writer, one to watch. I can't wait to get stuck into his short story collection.

The full review is available at Goodreads.  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Welcome to Midlife Crisis. Please Keep Off the Lawns.

Here I am, lost and confused by life, but I accept my confusion. I feel as if I had stepped off a train at the wrong town, in a purple summer dusk with an orange moon perched on the hills and the pines. The houses are elaborately tall, teetering blocks of pseudo-Queen Anne locked at the ends of narrow yards by thorn-mazes of wrought iron, but they stand there black and, as far as I can tell, empty... as empty as the lanes.

I could stay here for a long time and stare at the houses, confident that nothing would stare back, but I want the next train to pass by, and soon. I have to go somewhere.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Buck Stops Here

Without warning, on the day I turned 50 years old, I began to write sonnets.

Sonnets have a great advantage over other forms of writing: they are strict. Despite the small freedom of variation in the rhyme schemes, they present a steady wall of rules.

Many people object to rules of writing, but I appreciate them. For the most part, I write short stories, and as H. E. Bates has pointed out, "The basis of almost every argument or conclusion I can make is the axiom that the short story can be anything the author decides it shall be." The drawback of this freedom is the subsequent inability to know if a story has been sufficiently well-crafted to communicate with readers. I worry about this, because my stories are self-published, and all responsibility for their clarity or vagueness must lie with me alone. As Truman would say, "The buck stops here." If my stories fall apart, the fault is mine.

My sonnets, on the other hand, follow tradition. At the end of the day, I might not be certain about the constantly-shifting ones and zeroes of the stories filed away on my hard-drive, but I do know that a sonnet can be nothing else.

I need that certainty. There it is.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

In A World Falling Apart

I need to stop reading news in the morning: it kills the rest of my day.

Yet as a Canadian, as one of the luckier human beings on this planet, I feel the need to understand the current mess (in part because my country is involved in messing things up). I have never learned how to do this without anger, shame, and despair. Not even the decades I spent working with social and political activist groups could ease that feeling in my gut.

Perhaps, for those of us not being bombed or droned or starved or occupied to death, one of the challenges of the century will be to survive on the inside: to live in a world that is falling apart, without falling apart ourselves... because if we fall apart, then how can we help other people?

But again, I have never learned how to do this.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

No Room for Sleights of Hand

Willa Cather -- June 14, 1902.

For the first time, I've read one of her stories: a novella, "My Mortal Enemy," that offered some of the best prose I've read this year. It would seem almost too natural and effortless to be called a style, were it not for the implied control that keeps it clean, clear, concise, vivid, and lively.

Whether such control came easily to her, or whether she worked for it, I've no idea. But I do know that styles like this can be hard to find, and I'm thrilled to find hers.

Something else I know: writing of such clarity and simplicity would expose any false intentions or fakery to instant recognition; it leaves no room for sleights of hand or for Barnum and Bailey showmanship. It is what it is, it does what it does, openly... and beautifully.

(Photograph courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.)

Friday, July 25, 2014

All Roads Lead To Winter

M. R. Cosby is an Australian writer, whose recent collection of strange stories, Dying Embers, has been receiving strong reviews.

He has just written a strong review himself, of my novella, All Roads Lead to Winter.

"It's not often that I finish reading a book and say to myself, 'Wow! That was quite something,' but I did with this one....

"Go and download a copy now; Mark Fuller Dillon is a rare talent who deserves to be much more widely read."

The Novel Démeublé

"The boat was pulling out, and I was straining my eyes to catch, through the fine, reluctant snow, my first glimpse of the city we were approaching. We passed the Wilhelm der Grosse coming up the river under tug, her sides covered with ice after a stormy crossing, a flock of seagulls in her wake. The snow blurred everything a little, and the buildings on the Battery all ran together -- looked like an enormous fortress with a thousand windows. From the mass, the dull gold dome of the World building emerged like a ruddy autumn moon at twilight."


"The Henshawes’ apartment was the second floor of an old brownstone house on the north side of the Square. I loved it from the moment I entered it; such solidly built, high-ceiled rooms, with snug fire-places and wide doors and deep windows. The long, heavy velvet curtains and the velvet chairs were a wonderful plum-colour, like ripe purple fruit. The curtains were lined with that rich cream-colour that lies under the blue skin of ripe figs."

Later still:

"The snow fell lightly all the afternoon, and friendly old men with brooms kept sweeping the paths -- very ready to talk to a girl from the country, and to brush off a bench so that she could sit down. The trees and shrubbery seemed well-groomed and sociable, like pleasant people. The snow lay in clinging folds on the bushes, and outlined every twig of every tree -- a line of white upon a line of black. Madison Square Garden, new and spacious then, looked to me so light and fanciful, and Saint Gaudens’ Diana, of which Mrs. Henshawe had told me, stepped out freely and fearlessly into the grey air. I lingered long by the intermittent fountain. Its rhythmical splash was like the voice of the place. It rose and fell like something taking deep, happy breaths; and the sound was musical, seemed to come from the throat of spring. Not far away, on the corner, was an old man selling English violets, each bunch wrapped in oiled paper to protect them from the snow. Here, I felt, winter brought no desolation; it was tamed, like a polar bear led on a leash by a beautiful lady.

"About the Square the pale blue shadows grew denser and drew closer. The street lamps flashed out all along the Avenue, and soft lights began to twinkle in the tall buildings while it was yet day -- violet buildings, just a little denser in substance and colour than the violet sky."

-- Willa Cather, My Mortal Enemy. 1926.

"How wonderful it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window; and along with it, all the meaningless reiterations concerning physical sensations, all the tiresome old patterns, and leave the room as bare as the stage of a Greek theatre, or as that house into which the glory of Pentecost descended; leave the scene bare for the play of emotions, great and little—for the nursery tale, no less than the tragedy, is killed by tasteless amplitude. The elder Dumas enunciated a great principle when he said that to make a drama, a man needed one passion, and four walls." 

-- "The Novel Démeublé."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Silvere felt himself swooning. "Ah, my God!"

"The next day Silvere waited at the street corner. A vendor was selling chestnuts. Two gamins were fighting in an alley. A woman was scrubbing some steps. This great Paris throbbed with life.

"Heloise came. She did not perceive Silvere. She passed with a happy smile on her face. She looked fresh, fair, innocent. Silvere felt himself swooning. 'Ah, my God!'

"She crossed the street. The young man received a shock that sent the warm blood to his brain. It had been raining. There was mud. With one slender hand Heloise lifted her skirts. Silvere leaning forward, saw her--"

A young man in a wet mackintosh came into the little gent's furnishing store.

"Ah, beg pardon," said he to the clerk, "but do you have an agency for a steam laundry here? I have been patronising a Chinaman down th' avenue for some time, but he-- what? No? You have none here? Well, why don't you start one, anyhow? It'd be a good thing in this neighbourhood. I live just round the corner, and it'd be a great thing for me. I know lots of people who would-- what? Oh, you don't? Oh!"

As the young man in the wet mackintosh retreated, the clerk with a blonde moustache made a hungry grab at the novel. He continued to read: "Handkerchief fall in a puddle. Silvere sprang forward. He picked up the handkerchief. Their eyes met. As he returned the handkerchief, their hands touched. The young girl smiled. Silvere was in ecstacies. 'Ah, my God!'

"A baker opposite was quarrelling over two sous with an old woman.

"A grey-haired veteran with a medal upon his breast and a butcher's boy were watching a dogfight. The smell of dead animals came from adjacent slaughter-houses. The letters on the sign over the tinsmith's shop on the corner shone redly like great clots of blood. It was hell on roller skates."

Here the clerk skipped some seventeen chapters descriptive of a number of intricate money transactions, the moles on the neck of a Parisian dressmaker, the process of making brandy, the milk-leg of Silvere's aunt, life in the coal-pits, and scenes in the Chamber of Deputies. In these chapters the reputation of the architect of Charlemagne's palace was vindicated, and it was explained why Heloise's grandmother didn't keep her stockings pulled up.

-- From
"Why Did The Young Clerk Swear? Or, The Unsatisfactory French."

Last Words, by Stephen Crane.
Digby, Long & Co, London. 1902.

Photo: Kean Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

One Person: One Shadow. Elegant.

The story of a good person hunted on false charges, forced to dig up unforseen layers of courage and cunning to survive until the next paragraph, is one that never gets old; and in Levels: The Host, Peter R. Emshwiller has come up with a fun and fresh variation on this theme.

One key to this variation is the use of an innocent, surprisingly naive person who must learn to survive in a cruel environment without becoming cruel himself. That person, Watly Caiper, is a young man with a compelling dream: to be a mother. To that end, he will do anything -- but as he discovers, "anything" means one thing to a good man, but something else entirely to a man who has no concern for people, for ethics, or for life itself.

It can be hard to write about naive heros without having them seem stupid or credulous to the point of pain, but Peter Emshwiller walks the tight-rope well.

He can also bring other skills to the page. He can dream up a vivid place and time. He can plot in devious ways that play fair with details already provided. He can end chapters on a note that makes you hurry to the next. He can surprise you with appropriate moments of humour or dismay. Best of all, he can make you care about his hero: a man both naive and courageous, both desperate and fundamentally good, who can carry the weight of the story right to the final page.

With all of this in mind, I have to admit that I nearly bailed out of the opening chapters, and only because of the prose.

At his best, Peter Emshwiller can write with an individual voice that is unpretentious, clear, and engaging. He makes a few grammatical mistakes ("like" and "as" have to play by different rules), and every now and then he might choose the wrong word ("nauseous" does not mean "nauseated"), but on the whole, he can describe an action, a setting, or a state of mind with conviction.

Yet in the opening chapters, this individual voice is undermined by needless repetition:

It struck Watly suddenly -- almost physically -- that the most wondrous thing about Second Level compared to First was a very simple thing. A basic thing: People had only one shadow here. Just one. Like Brooklyn. The solitary sun cast only one elegant shadow for each object. On First Level there was never only one shadow. Down below, as one walked from beneath one daylite to another, a fan of shadows danced about, fused and separated, faded and grew -- always in motion and never alone. Here it was different. Here a person could have a sense of solidity. One person: one shadow. Elegant.

In the early chapters, this verbal padding is often relentless, and it buries passages of lively description and fun, quirky insight beneath a pile of words. All too often, a statement is repeated. All too often. Almost constantly. Almost every time. Repeated. Statement after statement. After a while -- after just a few moments -- after just a few paragraphs -- I began to notice the repetition more than I noticed the story.

Very much to my relief, this repetition soon fades away to the point where the story can stand up and be enjoyed. The flaw has less to do with writing than with a lack of careful revision. From this debut novel, I would say that Peter Emshwiller can write well; if he can learn to revise well, then his obvious abilities will shine out all the more.

But for now, I recommend this book: for its roller-coaster plot, for its keen sense of place, for its emotional warmth and humanity, and for the glimpses of the writer's personality that gleam from the pages.

The Host is an individual book with an individual voice. In our current publishing environment, this matters more than I could say.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

You've Been a Long Way Away.

Brief Encounter.

It was not an ending I expected, and I'll confess, it shook me up. That entire final sequence was presented so starkly and so eloquently in purely visual terms, that all of the dialogue could have been removed -- yes, even the final words -- and every viewer would have understood.

Cathartic? Oh, yeah!

But above all, it showed me why David Lean is famous.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

J'aime les images qui me font rêver

Georges Franju:

Je suis très proche de ce qui est insolite, de l'image insolite qui est dans la vie quotidienne....

Le fantastique se crée, l'insolite se révèle....

J'aime les images qui me font rêver, mais je n'aime pas qu'on rêve pour moi.

"I am very close to that which is unusual, to the unusual image that can be found in everyday life.... The fantastic is created, but the unusual is revealed.... I love images that make me dream, but I don't like someone to dream for me."

-- From CINE-PARADE: "Le Fantastique," directed by Michel Hermant. May 20, 1982.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Whirlpool Effect and the Maze of Mirrors

I've been trying to squeeze out the essence of a certain trend in 21st Century fiction that makes reading a story hard for me. So far, I've been able to extract two elements: the whirlpool effect, and the maze of mirrors.

The whirlpool effect is a refusal or inability to tell what is, at heart, a simple story in appropriately simple terms. Instead, the writing circles around events, and pours out a gush of extraneous detail. In short, because the writer does not emphasize the more important details over the lesser ones, everything feeds the whirlpool, and the water spills out all over the place.

This lack of emphasis might be the source of another trend. Instead of interacting with events directly, in a physical way, the characters reflect upon events, then reflect upon reflections, until the flow of the story is replaced by a stop-and-start fumbling through a maze of mirrors.

Nobody would say that non-linear narratives and constant introspection are invalid methods. But to me (and I'm likely wrong about this), the 21st Century maze and whirlpool seem less a conscious aesthetic choice than a refusal to discriminate between what matters to a story, and what can be cast aside. And what's more, it seems to imply a hesitation to let the story stand on its own uncomplicated, uncomplexified feet.

Any thoughts about this?

Murder Your Darlings

The most famous advice from Arthur Quiller-Couch is, I think, often misunderstood. What he has in mind, I believe, is not any writing essential to ideas or moods or narratives, but "extraneous Ornament":

"Style... is not -- can never be -- extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: 'Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it -- whole-heartedly -- and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.'"

-- From On The Art Of Writing (1916).

Oh, That Modern Style!

Our Tires Redeem the Asphalt Glories of Creation

A lyrical story in the modern style
by Ran Screaming.


He'd know'd it'd be hard for him to hide the drugs he'd haggled over in Tucson in the hotel highlands of Vanishing Point, but he'd kept his eyes on the road, his hands gripping the wheel, his foot tapping and bouncing and hovering and aching near that clutch thing down there by the vinyl floor covering he'd picked up in Wormley, where it'd been a sale item, a steal, at 95 cents, yeah, keep the change, how 'bout that weather, huh, not like useta be.

"Thar's a Buick."


"Is too."


Matty'd always be hampering his style. She'd be sitting beside him, guzzling Cokes, fumbling with the silver talisman of her jacket zipper, crushing mayflies between her teeth, casting aspersions on his naked dreams and glories.

"You sure that ain't a Buick?"


He'd picked her up in a bar near Wattahollowstump, where she'd be'd singing a torch song, tossing her feet along with the honky-tonk stomping rhythms, bellowing each couplet like a monsoon in apple season.

"It had that kinda Buick roof, ya know?"


Was there any point to life, he'd asked. Was there any. Her song'd touched him, but not in a good way, not in a way that'd have met with parental approval. He'd see'd right through her, right in that first primeval moment, that trilobitic caesura of cigarette clarity.

"Any more Cokes?"


"Fine. I'll just keep watchin' them Buicks."


"Ran Screaming is the lyrical genius of our geological epoch."

"His sentences gloat and chortle, pounce and retreat, sigh and bellow, wobble and sparkle."

"No one can match his clarity of vision, his precision, his concision, his incisions into the heart of literary ambience."

"I have heard the future of the approaching, imminent American literary renaissance, and it sounds like Screaming."

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Things unchanged by life

What I learned by watching Powell & Pressburger's The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp:

That even in times of desperate crisis, art can be colourful, energetic, humane, and crafted with care.

That even in times of international hatred, art can show two people who should be enemies becoming the best of friends.

That even though art often fixates on the appearance of women, it can also show, at the same time, that women are just as varied and versatile and obstinately themselves on the inside, as men are.

That art can show the degree to which we are not changed by life, and that this lack of change can often be a good thing: a sign of character, strength, and our own essential decency.

And finally, something that I did not learn, but which
The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp reaffirmed to me:

Powell & Pressburger were two of the world's great film-makers... and they still are.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"I just want to put my hand around your ankle. I’ll be very happy to pay you."

John Cheever was born on this day in 1912.

Some of the most effective stories I've read this year have been Cheever's, and what makes them work for me is the quiet control, the clarity that he brings to his prose.

This writing seems at first glance understated and almost impersonal... which makes it all the more shocking when his characters reveal the chaos behind their eyes. As much as I love horror fiction, I have to admit that being ambushed by a slice-of-life-in-the-suburbs tale has the advantage of surprise; you can never tell how a Cheever story might twist around and stab you in the gut.

But along with horror, the stories conceal humour as well -- often bizarre, absurdist humour of the "what the hell was that?!?" variety. And this, too, becomes all the more effective when set against the calm assurance of the prose.

I put off reading Cheever for a long time, because I suspected that his themes and settings and people would not interest me. I was wrong. Dead wrong.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Family Traits

After an evening of digging up weeds, I stepped into the kitchen of the farmhouse, just in time to see my father, appalled, stalk up to me with a rolled up copy of Dollars and Sense magazine clutched in one hand.

"There are one million prisoners in the United States," he said. "One million! That's mind-boggling!"

Then he stalked off into the living room, and I could hear him say to someone else, "Have you seen this? There are one million prisoners in the United States! Can you believe that?"

This happened years ago, but I remember it as just one more indication that I am very much the son of my father.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The lessons in life....

While biking in the warm evening sunlight through Vincent Massey Park a few years ago (not long before I met my last girlfriend), I heard the sound of Caribbean pop music. "Women!" I thought, and raced off to find the source.

The sound came from a small bandstand, where festival musicians performed in front of a hillside lined with people in the golden slanted light of day's end. Several people danced to the music. I parked my bike near a line of trees and bushes off to the side of the bandstand, where I was mostly hidden from the crowd, so that I could dance, too.

Within a few moments, one of the musicians waved to me, invited me to step onto the bandstand. I laughed and shook my head, but he kept waving: Come on, get up here!

And so I went up onto the boards and showed the crowd my dance moves, which, in the past, have been charitably called psychotic. The crowd cheered; I bowed and said thanks. The concert was over. When I left the stand, the musician tapped my fist with his own, and said, "Respect! Respect!"

As I was unlocking my bike and getting ready to leave, a pasty-faced, overweight kid walked up to me and said, "Your dancing sucks."

I glanced at him; he could not have been much more than eleven years old. "Whatever you say, kid."

But he had more to say. "Learn to dance" -- lazy gesture like a horizontal karate chop -- "or get the fuck out."

I leaned on my bike and stared at him.

"Let me put it this way," I said. "When you turn 45, and you can do what I just did... good for you."

I could tell from his face that he had no idea what I was talking about, and so I shrugged and walked away with my bike. But at the back of my mind I had something else to tell him. I regret not having said it:

"Kid, we're only given one life each, and life is too precious to leave to experts. A few skills matter to us, and we learn them as well as we can. Everything else we do, not because we're on TV, not because we're being judged, but for the pure joy of being alive. If you're not willing to sing or dance because you're not as good as some peacock on a TV show, then you're not alive at all."

I doubt he would have understood, but I think he should have heard it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Some New Dawn Perspective

Contradictory Sonnet 2

Nothing is old-fashioned, nothing falls.
To every work of art, to every book,
To every song or symphony, we look
Or feel or hear and heed their distant calls
Through some new dawn perspective without walls
As long as we agree to take the hook.
Then we can understand, as might a cook,
That flavours never fade if one recalls.

And how am I to stand in this regard
With my old-fashioned writing, my concern
For syntax, and for grammar, for the hard
And self-reductive trimming of the lard,
For discipline, to make the phrases earn
The slow relaxing of the reader's guard?

-- Wednesday, March 12, 2014.

For Stragglers or for Strugglers

Contradictory Sonnet 1

If I should seem old-fashioned in my style,
In craftsmanship, in tone of voice, in theme,
Forgive me, for I chase a lightning dream
That perished in the passing of a while
Not fifteen years ago. The decades file
And scurry into corners, where they gleam
A fitful moment only their extreme
And failing glimmers for the evening dial.

For me, as well, the hour has run late
And my aesthetic choices are surpassed
By writers whom the eager celebrate,
And so they should. No century need wait
For stragglers or for strugglers. Let the fast
Proclaim this living season I predate.

-- Tuesday, March 11, 2014.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Writing Process

I've been invited by M. R. Cosby to take part in a Writing Process blog chain. James Everington will be posting his comments on the same day.

I'll have more to say about these writers in just a moment; but first, here are the questions and my replies.

1) Why do I write what I do?

I write because too many details of life can slip away before we understand their importance.

Impressions pop into our heads and fade before we can touch them; dreams evaporate in the morning light; emotions rise and pass by, to leave only tremors in their wake. I write because I hate to lose these beautiful, terrifying moments, and because I feel moved by their fragility.

One example: when I was nine years old, I dreamt that I had entered the mind of a non-human creature that had just been born from nothing.  It was not much taller than a grass blade, and I could see from its perspective on the forest floor; I could feel the autumn wind, and sense the overwhelming pressure of the night. Somehow, I understood that this tiny thing was vastly more intelligent than I was, and that its limited lifespan would end long before daylight. Within just a few seconds, it came to understand more about itself and its place in the world than I would ever gain from a human lifetime, but it would die before that knowledge could be shared.

As a child, I was haunted by this dream, and many others; I wanted to share this inner life. I drew pictures of the dreams, I described them to anyone who might listen, but I learned quickly that people had no interest in the stuff that cluttered my head.

By the time I was ten years old, I was already a book addict. Stories by H. G. Wells and Clark Ashton Smith made me realize that I could use fiction to share my dreams. This would be a challenge. I wrote for years and years, I studied, I read and re-read, but I would have to wait until I was nearing thirty before I could begin to write stories that captured the mood of my dreams. In everything, I've always been a late bloomer.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I'd like to believe that my stories belong, in spirit if not in quality, to many traditions: Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, L. P. Hartley, Walter de la Mare, J. G. Ballard in the United Kingdom; Ambrose Bierce, Clark Ashton Smith, C. L. Moore, Avram Davidson in the United States; Marcel Brion, Marcel Schwob in France; Bruno Schulz, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Michel de Ghelderode, and so on.

One minor difference is that I have no belief in the supernatural or the spiritual, and so I tell stories about mental breakdowns, hallucinations, bizarre psychological states, paranoia. The irrational.

Although I can't use ideas or imagery from other writers, I do my best to apply their methods. For example, I like to think of "Who Would Remain" as my Clark Ashton Smith, R. A. Lafferty, M. R. James, Leigh Brackett, and Ronald Firbank story, because their techniques influenced the way I thought about the writing.

To show you what I mean:

Clark Ashton Smith would maintain the steady pace of a story by having his characters notice details of setting or scenery as they moved through them; there was nothing static in his visual descriptions. Ronald Firbank would strip down his prose to give his pages energy and speed, but would then shift gear for startling moments of painful emotion. Leigh Brackett would link a specific detail of the landscape to some looming, terrible event, so that any description of this place would become a reminder, an enforcer, of that anticipated threat. M. R. James would turn the arrival of his ghosts into subjective, psychological states, by describing almost dreamlike moments of perception. R. A. Lafferty would hold a wild or plotless narrative together by using repeated phrases as guide-rails or anchors for the readers to hold onto. And so on.

The beauty of technique is that it can be applied to any kind of story, and to even the most personal material.

This comes in handy, because I base my stories on things I've seen, people and places I've known, moments of personal dread or confusion, and above all, on my dreams. I have no choice: when I invent, my stories lie there on the page, dead; when I remember, they spring to life. For that reason, the only stories I've shared are the ones based directly on my own experience. The other stories have ended up in boxes or in woodstoves. Rest in peace.

I write dream and nightmare stories; that's my genre.

Still, I chafe under these limitations, and would love to extend my writing beyond them, but I've not yet found a way to do this with any good result. When I read someone like Anton Chekhov or Katherine Mansfield, I'm astonished that they can turn the simplest, most ordinary moments of life into something heart-breaking and powerful. It's beautifully mysterious to me, but for now, beyond my reach.

3) How does my writing process work?

I write every day, and aim for at least 1200 words, but that's no guarantee that I can type anything useful. I have boxes and boxes and boxes of stories that went nowhere, that failed to live up to my hopes, that tempted me to strangle them before they left the keyboard. Yet all the same, I had to write them: it was the only way to learn.

Because my stories are based for the most part on dreams,  I find it hard to hammer them into shape, to the point where they could make sense to the reader. Sometimes a story can take years to complete. For that reason, I work on several at once; I piece them together as if they were jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces; I type notes to myself and play around with plotting. When a story begins to click into place, I give it my full attention.

Sometimes I hit a vein of good luck, and I can finish several stories in a row. For instance, I completed "The Weight of Its Awareness" and then started immediately on "The Vast Impatience of the Night." That was a wonderful month!

In most cases, I have no idea where a story will go until I finish the first draft, and so I have to spend as much if not more time on revision. I'm glad for this, because I love to clear away the scaffolding and polish the floorboards: it's quiet, relaxing fun.

I also believe that every sentence, every paragraph, should be as clear as I can make it. If someone were to say, "In your story, I don't understand why this happened," I would reply that the story is like a dream, and for that reason, mysterious. But if someone were to say, "I don't understand your sentence, here," then the failure is mine. I revise to avoid that failure.

At the same time, I revise to compress: I try to convey as much as I can in the fewest words. Yet even though I love the effect, I'm still not sure of its wisdom. How do readers respond to density on the page? I won't know until they tell me.

On the rare occasions when I know from the start how a story should end (as I did with "All Roads Lead to Winter," one of the most autobiographical things I've written and therefore the most clear in advance), I like to revise as I write: every day when I sit down to begin, I revise from the start to the point where I had stopped on the previous day, and then I keep writing. This helps to maintain the tone, and it leaves me with less work to do once I'm finished; but I rarely have the chance to do this. Instead, I have to write to discover what I'm going to write.

4) What am I working on?

Right now, I have a pile of uncompleted stories; I always do. I'll see where the dreams take them.

* * * *

Saturday, March 8, 2014

From the earthworm crushed in the muck to the lightning that wanders in the deeps of the night

Another rough approximation of a poem by Leconte de Lisle.

Once again, there was no way that I could match the power of his language; but still, I wanted to give some hint of his work to those who have not yet read it.

Solvet Saeclum
by Leconte de Lisle.

You shall fall silent, O sinister voice of the living!

Furious blasphemies driven by the winds, cries of terror, cries of hatred, cries of rage, frightful clamour of the eternal shipwreck, torments, crimes, remorse, desperate sobs, spirit and flesh of man, one day you shall be silent!

All shall be silent, gods, kings, convicts and vile crowds, the hoarse roar of prisons and cities, the beasts of the forests, the mountains and sea, everything that flies and leaps and creeps in this hell, everything that trembles and flees, everything that kills and eats, from the earthworm crushed in the muck to the lightning that wanders in the deeps of the night! Nature, in a single instant, shall cut short its noises.

And there shall be nothing under magnificent skies: no happiness won back from ancient paradise, no Adam nor Eve to maintain the flowers, no divine sleep after so much pain; this will be when the Globe and all of its inhabitants, a sterile block torn from its vast orbit, stupid, blind, filled with a final howl, heavier, more headlong every moment, shall hurl its ancient, wretched crust against a stationary universe, and pouring out from a thousand gaping holes its oceans and interior fire, it shall fertilize with its vile remains the furrows of space where the worlds ferment.

Solvet seclum

Tu te tairas, ô voix sinistre des vivants!

Blasphèmes furieux qui roulez par les vents,
Cris d'épouvante, cris de haine, cris de rage,
Effroyables clameurs de l'éternel naufrage,
Tourments, crimes, remords, sanglots désespérés,
Esprit et chair de l'homme, un jour vous vous tairez !
Tout se taira, dieux, rois, forçats et foules viles,
Le rauque grondement des bagnes et des villes,
Les bêtes des forêts, des monts et de la mer,
Ce qui vole et bondit et rampe en cet enfer,
Tout ce qui tremble et fuit, tout ce qui tue et mange,
Depuis le ver de terre écrasé dans la fange
Jusqu'à la foudre errant dans l'épaisseur des nuits!
D'un seul coup la nature interrompra ses bruits.
Et ce ne sera point, sous les cieux magnifiques,
Le bonheur reconquis des paradis antiques,
Ni l'entretien d'Adam et d'Eve sur les fleurs,
Ni le divin sommeil après tant de douleurs;
Ce sera quand le Globe et tout ce qui l'habite,
Bloc stérile arraché de son immense orbite,
Stupide, aveugle, plein d'un dernier hurlement,
Plus lourd, plus éperdu de moment en moment,
Contre quelque univers immobile en sa force
Défoncera sa vieille et misérable écorce,
Et, laissant ruisseler, par mille trous béants,
Sa flamme intérieure avec ses océans,
Ira fertiliser de ses restes immondes
Les sillons de l'espace où fermentent les mondes.

There before the errant moon

For the past year, I've been fascinated by the work of Leconte de Lisle, to the point where I've wanted to offer translations for people who have not yet read his poetry.

I felt it was best to offer prose translations; there was no way that I could match his rhythms without sacrificing the beauty and power of his language, and so I had to fall back upon the roughest of rough approximations.

At any rate, here we go.