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.