Tuesday, November 29, 2016

I Have to Know

One of the great advantages of life in Québec is that English is a minority language.

It is never the language you expect to hear automatically in stores or in hospitals, on buses or at protests, at voting centres or at police stations. Few of your neighbours can speak it well; many can hardly understand it.

As a result, in the places where you live and work and play, English can seem foreign.

For me, the beauty of this arrangement is that I, too, began to think of English as something that I hardly understood, and something I could barely use with competence. I began to see with clear eyes all the limitations, all the clumsiness, all the imprecision of my writing, and I realized that I would have to sit down and study the language I had once taken for granted.

I realized, too, that English is more than just a way to speak and read; English is a heritage. English is a gift that you can cherish or neglect, respect or abuse. If I neglect basic usage and grammar, if I speak without clarity, none of my neighbours will point this out, because none of my neighbours will know.

For that reason, I have to know. I have to learn. And I have to value what was given to me, because what I was given is not valued here.

-- Notes to myself, November 29, 2013.

Friday, October 28, 2016

A Blot of Parenthetic Night

ORAZIO: Sweet, did you like the feast?

ARMIDA: Methought, 'twas gay enough.

ORAZIO: Now, I did not.
'Twas dull: all men spoke slow and emptily.
Strange things were said by accident. Their tongues
Uttered wrong words: one fellow drank my death,
Meaning my health; another called for poison,
Instead of wine; and, as they spoke together,
Voices were heard, most loud, which no man owned:
There were more shadows too than there were men;
And all the air more dark and thick than night
Was heavy, as 'twere made of something more
Than living breaths. --

ARMIDA: Nay, you are ill, my lord:
'Tis merely melancholy.

ORAZIO: There were deep hollows
And pauses in their talk; and then, again,
On tale, and song, and jest, and laughter rang,
Like a fiend's gallop. By my ghost, 'tis strange.


ORAZIO: I'll speak again:
This rocky wall's great silence frightens me,
Like a dead giant's.
Methought I heard a sound: but all is still.
This empty silence is so deadly low,
The very stir and winging of my thoughts
Make audible my being: every sense
Aches from its depth with hunger.
The pulse of time is stopped, and night's blind sun
Sheds its black light, the ashes of noon's beams,
On this forgotten tower, whose ugly round,
Amid the fluency of brilliant morn,
Hoops in a blot of parenthetic night,
Like ink upon the crystal page of day,
Crossing its joy! But now some lamp awakes,
And, with the venom of a basilisk's wink,
Burns the dark winds. Who comes?

-- From "The Second Brother," in The Poetical Works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Vol II. J. M. Dent and Co. London, 1890.

Friday, October 21, 2016

What the Years Have Made

When I was child, I had friends my age, but I still preferred the company of adults. I recall visits where the children went off to play games, but I stayed at the dining room table or in the kitchen to hear what the adults had to say. And inevitably, at some point in the evening, what they had to say would trouble me.

Environmental catastophes. The terminal stupidity of domestic and foreign policy. Nuclear melt-downs -- remember Three Mile Island? Wars, wars, wars. The thermonuclear suicide of the human species. These adults discussed the topics as if they were discussing private matters that no one else around them seemed willing to mention, and I can recall the shift in mood, the hushed voices, that always preceded these frightening conversations.

Decades later, I have become such an adult.

Monday, October 17, 2016

What's New?

Nothing is old-fashioned if we meet it with a young perspective. A Jacobean tragedy, a Parnassian poem, a silent film, a late-Romantic symphony: for the right sort of mind, these are living discoveries, and they can often say more to us, in our midnight moods, than the voices of today.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Economy, Clarity, Force

I agree with Lucas, here, and would go further to say that style is what we need to express our own experience, our own imagery and ideas, with economy, clarity, and force. Modern styles might not allow us to be ourselves.

There are poets who can write vitally of, and in the style of, their own age; there remain others for whom it is equally essential to escape from it. Generations of critics have lost their heads and tempers squabbling which is right. Surely both. Surely it is understandable that a poet may wish to break away to some magic islet of his own, where he can feel himself monarch of all he surveys, because he shares it only with the dead. For they do not cramp our style as the living can. We can learn from them without fearing to become too imitatively like them; and the older the dead, the easier they are to elbow aside when we turn to write ourselves, as if their ghosts wore thinner and more shadowy with the years.

-- From Studies French and English, by F. L. Lucas.
Books For Libraries Press, New York, 1969 (Original publication, 1934).

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Not Merely in Bulk, But in Specific Gravity Also

Macaulay reviews a book that could almost be a modern fantasy bestseller -- at least, one that might succeed if it were padded out to meet the requirements of today's market.

The work of Dr. Nares * has filled us with astonishment similar to that which Captain Lemuel Gulliver felt when first he landed in Brobdingnag, and saw corn as high as the oaks in the New Forest, thimbles as large as buckets, and wrens of the bulk of turkeys. The whole book, and every component part of it, is on a gigantic scale. The title is as long as an ordinary preface: the prefatory matter would furnish out an ordinary book; and the book contains as much reading as an ordinary library. We cannot sum up the merits of the stupendous mass of paper which lies before us better than by saying that it consists of about two thousand closely printed quarto pages, that it occupies fifteen hundred inches cubic measure, and that it weighs sixty pounds avoirdupois. Such a book might, before the deluge, have been considered as light reading by Hilpa and Shallum. But unhappily the life of man is now three-score years and ten; and we cannot but think it somewhat unfair in Dr. Nares to demand from us so large a portion of so short an existence.

Compared with the labour of reading through these volumes, all other labour -- the labour of thieves on the treadmill, of children in factories, of negroes in sugar plantations -- is an agreeable recreation. There was, it is said, a criminal in Italy, who was suffered to make his choice between Guicciardini and the galleys. He chose the history. But the war of Pisa was too much for him. He changed his mind, and went to the oar. Guicciardini, though certainly not the most amusing of writers, is a Herodotus or a Froissart, when compared with Dr. Nares. It is not merely in bulk, but in specific gravity also, that these memoirs exceed all other human compositions. On every subject which the Professor discusses, he produces three times as many pages as another man; and one of his pages is as tedious as another man's three. His book is swelled to its vast dimensions by endless repetitions, by episodes which have nothing to do with the main action, by quotations from books which are in every circulating library, and by reflections which, when they happen to be just, are so obvious that they must necessarily occur to the mind of every reader. He employs more words in expounding and defending a truism than any other writer would employ in supporting a paradox. Of the rules of historical perspective, he has not the faintest notion. There is neither foreground nor background in his delineation. The wars of Charles the Fifth in Germany are detailed at almost as much length as in Robertson's life of that prince. The troubles of Scotland are related as fully as in M'Crie's Life of John Knox. It would be most unjust to deny that Dr. Nares is a man of great industry and research; but he is so utterly incompetent to arrange the materials which he has collected that he might as well have left them in their original repositories.

-- From Critical And Miscellaneous Essays, Volume II, by T. Babington Macaulay. D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1857.

* Memoirs of the Life and Administration of the Right Honourable William Cecil Lord Burghley, Secretary of State in the Reign of King Edward the Sixth, and Lord High Treasurer, of England in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. Containing an historical View of the Times in which he lived, and of the many eminent and illustrious Persons with whom he was connected; with Extracts from his Private and Official Correspondence and other Papers, now first published from the Originals. By the Reverend EDWARD NARES, D.D., Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford. 3 vols. 4to. London: 1828, 1832.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Two Levels

Something I've noticed while talking with francophones in my town --

English is unusual: it has two levels of grammar. The first is inconsistent, but relatively easy to learn, and it allows people to speak with ease, confidence, and clarity. The second level is hidden, and pops up when we try to write with a similar ease, confidence, and clarity; we find this harder than we had thought, because the hidden level of grammar now makes demands on us. The subjunctive mood, case forms, complexities of tense: we can talk all night and straight through to dawn without using them, but when we write, we need to understand their functions.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Strange in a Good Way

From the latest review of my novelette, At First, You Hear The Silence:

"This is a dark fantasy novelette; a strange (in a good way!) mix of sci-fi, horror, fantasy, rural life… it’s a short, tense read that starts off slow and creeps up behind you...

"The horror side of the story is well done. The birds are subtly introduced, and the silence that comes with them is as terrifying as the raptors themselves. I loved that Philippe has to get himself out of a bad situation, and his solution is masterful; I sometimes feel as if horror victims are too passive, and it added a nice air to have Philippe’s rescue of himself go so-nearly-wrong several times -- the suspense was excellent. The actual background to the horrors is nicely vague; we (and Philippe) don’t know what they want, why they’ve come, what they’re going to do next -- and it lends a suitably terrifying edge to the second half of the book that pervades the ending and leaves you feeling unsettled even after you’ve finished...."

Sunday, June 19, 2016

My Father's Eyes

My father was a good man, and for that reason, opaque to me. We had been close when I was a child, but when I was nine years old, we went our separate ways, emotionally; the fault was mine. And although, in his later years, I did what I could to gain some understanding of his inner life, something within me always blocked the way.

In 2004, he died suddenly and horribly on his living room sofa; my face was the last thing he saw.

After his death, I inherited his computer. One day, by accident, I found a series of digital photographs he had taken just a few months before he died. I recognized their purpose right away: he had formed a partnership with several other people to bring wireless, high-bandwidth internet service to the community, and he had mentioned to me that he needed "line of sight" information on locations where the mountains would not interfere with signals. For that perspective, he had taken these photos from one of the highest hills in the region.

I had climbed this hill many times. Even without snow, the possible ways up were never easy. My father had been a university athlete, but in his old age, he suffered from several ailments and a bone chip under one of his kneecaps. This made walking hard for him, to the point where he avoided the icy, unpaved roads all around us. Yet somehow, despite the ice, the snow, the jagged rocks, and the wind, he had climbed that mountain and taken the photos he needed.

I often think of him standing up there, in pain, with only three months left to live, doing what he had to do for the sake of his project and for the people who relied on him. From that height, he would have seen a landscape that I loved and that still reveals itself in dreams, but what he might have thought, or how he might have felt, are beyond my capacity to know.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Oh, That Wretched Book!

From: Mark Dillon
Newsgroups: alt.books.ghost-fiction
Subject: ***  The MEDUSA Fun-Time Quiz  ***
Date: 13 July 2001 --  20:00:41 GMT

Ahoy, shipmates! And welcome to me very own

* * *  MEDUSA Fun-Time Quiz  * * *

You are E. H. Visiak, noted authority on the life and work of John Milton. You intend to write a tale of "mystery, and ecstasy, & strange horror". Very well, then.  Do you --

1] Conjure up an atmosphere of mystery through the careful employment of verbal effects?

2] Suggest a mood of ecstasy through elaborately detailed sensual impressions?

3] Induce a strange horror in the reader by eschewing mystery, ecstasy, vivid description, local colour, suspense, spectral atmosphere and characters with character?

You are a young lad on a sea voyage into the Unknown. En route, which is your most remarkable adventurous experience?

1] You glimpse a volcano, briefly, through the distant haze.

2] You buy a parrot.

3] You study Latin.

You are the owner of a ship at sea, and your crew has sighted a monster on board!  Do you --

1] Search the ship to find the monster?

2] Question the pirate passenger who was seen many times, on land, accompanied by a monster?

3] Do *nothing* -- and tell the crew to trust in God?

You, the author, have just revealed the monster. How will you sabotage the dramatic effect of this "savage strange hideous creature"?

1] Have the monster knock on the door and... walk away.

2] Have the boatswain remark, "I see not why we should be in much dread of him...."

3] Make a joke about less-than-pretty mermaids.

4] Name the monster Jerry.

5] All of the above, dammit.

With only three chapters left before your epic anti-climax, do you, the author --

1] Hasten the action to build suspense?

2] Heighten the mood of spectral dread?

3] Halt the story to discuss the spiritual symbolism of "Psyche and Eros"?

Your protagonist is threatened by a mutant octopus!  How will you, the author, suck all the fear and wonder from this anti-climactic moment?

1] Make sure that nothing much happens.

2] Hint vaguely of a spiritual threat without bothering to convey its effects or implications.

3] Have your protagonist escape with ease after eight dull pages of twilit fumbling with a tentacle.

4] All of the above, while refusing to explore the imaginative possibilities of your half-assed novel.

Which passage quoted below best conveys the flavour of this tedious book?

1] "...One of the most truly original fantastic novels in the English language.  The prose is a joy to read, the vocabulary of Milton [sic] couched in the grammar of Stevenson [sic], while the plot is a heady amalgam of a boy's pirate adventure and metaphysical romance.  A voyage to the South Seas culminates in a rendezvous with the sunken demesne of the monstrous octopoid Medusa, last [sic] of a prehistoric race that achieved inter-dimensional travel [?].  It seems vaguely reminiscent, in this, of Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu," but is utterly unlike in spirit.  Visiak achieved [sic] the terror and wonder, the sense of awe, that Lovecraft could only grasp at."
-- R. S. Hadji, TWILIGHT ZONE MAGAZINE, August 1983

2] "I believe that I once described MEDUSA as the probable outcome of Herman Melville having written TREASURE ISLAND while tripping on LSD.  I can't add much to that, except to suggest that John Milton may have popped round on his way home from a week in an opium den to help him revise the final draft.  We're talking heavy surreal here."
      -- Karl Edward Wagner, HORROR: 100 BEST BOOKS, 1988

3] "He told me that he saw no light, but that, on a sudden, the sea was changed into a delectable land; a country of enchantment, having great tall trees, whereof the branches, with their massy broad leaves, did cast a cool delicious shade as green as emerald; and all about them, amongst bushes, bearing huge crimson blossoms, there appeared feminine and ravishing forms, all softness and delight, lifting up their alluring arms with a powerful strong enticement to come down to them.
"He said that he was exceeding fain to yield, though an old man, and though he had confidently supposed and hoped he had long ago overcome the lusts of the flesh and the seduction of the eyes, and was, indeed, in the very action of clambering over the bulwarks to cast himself incontinently down, as the rest did, into those blissful and delusory bowers, when (as he vehemently affirmed) he beheld the arm of the Almighty stretched out before him harder than granite.

"The awful spectacle took his soul with such a mighty rapture, and sense of abounding, adoring gratitude as to dispel that inordinate fleshly desire in a moment; whereupon, the airy charm dissolved and vanished away.

"These, to the best of my recollection, are his very words; and, indeed, they were lively imprinted in my mind.  I am only careful to set them down; not to comment upon them -- nor on their substance either. Let them explicate this mystery who can; I leave it to the philosopher."
-- E. H. Visiak, MEDUSA (final chapter), 1929

And there ye have it, mateys: a few short paragraphs that show, with a greater force beyond me, the pointless waste of time that luckless readers call MEDUSA.

Mark Dillon
Quebec, Canada

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Ingmar Bergman's PERSONA

One of the great strengths of horror is that it's not a genre, but a mood, a perspective, a suspicion, and so it can use any approach, any type of plot, image, or character, to achieve its ends.

Bergman understood this, and reaped the benefits.

He also understood that few things are more disturbing, more alien, than a human face.

Sunday, April 24, 2016


I'll go anywhere I can to learn about writing, and tonight I was drawn to a play by someone I'd not read before: Henry Arthur Jones.

I was prompted by a statement of William Archer's, in his book, Play-Making, A Manual of Craftsmanship (1912):

"The first three acts of [Mrs Dane's Defence] may be cited as an excellent example of dexterous preparation and development. Our interest in the sequence of events is aroused, sustained, and worked up to a high tension with consummate skill. There is no feverish overcrowding of incident.... The action moves onwards, unhasting, unresting, and the finger-posts [the foreshadowing details] are placed just where they are wanted."

Out of curiosity, I read the play, and it was indeed well-handled. It held my attention from the first page to the last, which is more than I can say for too much of what I read these days, or try to read.

Beyond the craftsmanship, though, what struck me was the writer's attitude towards the conventional sexual morality of his day (1905). This play about a "fallen woman" does not lack compassion, but it does lack rebellion, or even perspective on the social and political nature of morality:

MRS. DANE: Good-bye, Sir Daniel. Don't you think the world is very hard on a woman?

SIR DANIEL: It isn't the world that's hard. It isn't men and women. Am I hard ? Call on me at any time, and you shall find me the truest friend to you and yours. Is Lady Eastney hard? She has been fighting all the week to save you.

MRS. DANE: Then who is it, what is it, drives me out?

SIR DANIEL: The law, the hard law that we didn't make, that we would break if we could, for we are all sinners at heart -- the law that is above us all, made for us all, that we can't escape from, that we must keep or perish.

I can just imagine Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, or Henrik Ibsen raising their eyebrows at this idea of "the hard law from above." But it does make me realize that almost every writer I've taken to heart over the decades has been oppositional, individualistic, skeptical, or humane enough to pick a fight with conventional ideas from his or her own time, to the point where I expect this opposition automatically.

I'm glad that I read Mrs. Dane's Defence, but not only because it's a well-crafted play; it also reminded me that rebellion, in art as in life, is exceptional, never the norm.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

I completed this translation last year, in September, but was never happy with it. This morning, I changed a few nouns, then decided that enough was enough -- here it is.

(I'm still unhappy, because I re-arranged the emphasis in the final stanza. I do what I can to preserve the poet's choice of structure, but in this case, I ended with a pronoun that he had placed much earlier. I was wrong to do this, but my way seemed to work slightly better... at least, in English. That's no excuse, I know!)

by José-Maria de Heredia.

In what chill oceans, for how many winters -- who will ever know, frail and nacreous conch? -- have the currents, the swells, and the tides rolled you in the hollows of their green abyss?

Today, under the sky, far from the tide's bitter ebb, you have made for yourself a soft bed in the golden arena, but you hope in vain. Drawn-out and despairing and always within you moans the great voice of the seas.

My soul has become a sounding prison: and just as the moaned refrain of that ancient clamour still weeps and sighs within your folds,

In the same way, dull, slow, numb yet somehow eternal, growls the distant, stormy din from the deeps of this heart too full of Her.

- - - - -


Par quels froids Océans, depuis combien d'hivers,
-- Qui le saura jamais, Conque frêle et nacrée! --
La houle, les courants et les raz de marée
T'ont-ils roulée au creux de leurs abîmes verts?

Aujourd'hui, sous le ciel, loin des reflux amers,
Tu t'es fait un doux lit de l'arène dorée.
Mais ton espoir est vain. Longue et désespérée,
En toi gémit toujours la grande voix des mers.

Mon âme est devenue une prison sonore:
Et comme en tes replis pleure et soupire encore
La plainte du refrain de l'ancienne clameur;

Ainsi du plus profond de ce cœur trop plein d'Elle,
Sourde, lente, insensible et pourtant éternelle,
Gronde en moi l'orageuse et lointaine rumeur.

-- From
LES TROPHÉES, by José-Maria de Heredia.
Alphonse Lemerre, Éditeur. Paris, 1893.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Veins and Stars

Elizabeth Bowen:

Callie reached out and put off her bedside lamp.

At once she knew that something was happening -- outdoors, in the street, the whole of London, the world. An advance, an extraordinary movement was silently taking place; blue-white beams overflowed from it, silting, dropping round the edges of the muffled black-out curtains. When, starting up, she knocked a fold of the curtain, a beam like a mouse ran across her bed. A searchlight, the most powerful of all time, might have been turned full and steady upon her defended window; finding flaws in the black-out stuff, it made veins and stars. Once gained by this idea of pressure she could not lie down again; she sat tautly, drawn-up knees touching her breasts, and asked herself if there were anything she should do. She parted the curtains, opened them slowly wider, looked out -- and was face to face with the moon.

-- "Mysterious Kôr," from Ivy Gripped the Steps. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1946.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

De grands chantiers d'affolement

Translating Verhaeren is beyond my skill, and so I forced myself to do it. I've never been wise.

The Corpse,
by Émile Verhaeren.

In her dress the colour of bile and poison, the corpse of my reason is dragged along the Thames.
The bridges of bronze, where the carriages bang together with an interminable sound of hinges, and the sails of dark boats, let their shadows fall upon her. Without a moving handle on its clock face, a tall belfry masked in red stares at her like someone immensely [preoccupied?] with death and sorrow.

She died from having known too much, from having wanted too much to sculpt the motive, on the pedestal of black stone, of every being and of every thing; she died, atrociously, from an expert empoisoning; she died, as well, from a delirium for [towards] an absurd and red empire. Her nerves had burst, on some bright evening of celebration, when she felt its triumph drift, like eagles, over its head. She died not being able to take any more, with her ardours and desires crushed; infinitely exhausted, she killed herself.
Along the funereal walls, along the iron foundries where the hammers beat out sparks, she is dragged to the funeral.

These are wharves and barracks, always wharves and their lanterns, unmoving and slow spinners of dim gold from their lights; these are sadnesses of stone, a brick house, a castle keep of black where the windows, glum eyelids, open to the fog of night; these are vast marinas of insanity, full of dismantled boats and of sail yards docked against a sky of crucifixion.

In her dress of dead jewels that solemnizes the horizon's hour of purple, the corpse of my reason is dragged along the Thames.

She moves toward the perils in the depths of shadows and fog, to the long, dull noise of heavy bells breaking their wings at steeple corners. Unfulfilled, leaving behind her the great city of life, she heads for the black unknown, to sleep in the tombs of the night, down there, where the slow, strong waves, opening their limitless pits, swallow, for all eternity, the dead.
- - - - -

La Morte,
Émile Verhaeren.

En sa robe, couleur de fiel et de poison,
Le cadavre de ma raison
Traîne sur la Tamise.

Des ponts de bronze, où les wagons
Entrechoquent d'interminables bruits de gonds
Et des voiles de bateaux sombres
Laissent sur elle, choir leurs ombres,
Sans qu'une aiguille, à son cadran, ne bouge,
Un grand beffroi masqué de rouge
La regarde, comme quelqu'un
Immensément de triste et de défunt.

Elle est morte de trop savoir,
De trop vouloir sculpter la cause,
Dans le socle de granit noir,
De chaque être et de chaque chose,
Elle est morte, atrocement,
D'un savant empoisonnement,
Elle est morte aussi d'un délire
Vers un absurde et rouge empire
Ses nerfs ont éclaté,
Tel soir illuminé de fête,
Qu'elle sentait déjà le triomphe flotter
Comme des aigles, sur sa tête.
Elle est morte n'en pouvant plus,
L'ardeur et les vouloirs moulus,
Et c'est elle qui s'est tuée,
Infiniment exténuée.

Au long des funèbres murailles,
Au long des usines de fer
Dont les marteaux tonnent l'éclair,
Elle se traîne aux funérailles.

Ce sont des quais et des casernes,
Des quais toujours et leurs lanternes,
Immobiles et lentes filandières
Des ors obscurs de leurs lumières
Ce sont des tristesses de pierres,
Maison de briques, donjon en noir
Dont les vitres, mornes paupières,
S'ouvrent dans le brouillard du soir;
Ce sont de grands chantiers d'affolement,
Pleins de barques démantelées
Et de vergues écartelées
Sur un ciel de crucifiement.

En sa robe de joyaux morts, que solennise
L'heure de pourpre à l'horizon,
Le cadavre de ma raison
Traîne sur la Tamise.

Elle s'en va vers les hasards
Au fond de l'ombre et des brouillards,
Au long bruit sourd des tocsins lourds,
Cassant leur aile, au coin des tours.
Derrière elle, laissant inassouvie
La ville immense de la vie;
Elle s'en va vers l'inconnu noir
Dormir en des tombeaux de soir.
Là-bas, où les vagues lentes et fortes,
Ouvrant leurs trous illimités,
Engloutissent à toute éternité
Les mortes.

- - - - -

POÈMES, by Émile Verhaeren.
Mercure de France, Paris, 1917.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Frost in the Moonlight

Yes, that present participle in sentence 4 is grammatically awkward; an infinitive or the simple past would have made more sense. But I like the visual details, the movement, the simile about autumn grasses, the simplicity.

She was bent, but very tall and slender, and was walking slowly with a cane. Her head was covered with a great hood or wrapping of some kind, which she pushed back when she saw me. Some faint whitish figures on her dress looked like frost in the moonlight; and the dress itself was made of some strange stiff silk, which rustled softly like dry rushes and grasses in the autumn, -- a rustling noise that carries a chill with it. She came close to me, a sorrowful little figure very dreary at heart, standing still as the flowers themselves; and for several minutes she did not speak, but watched me, until I began to be afraid of her. Then she held out her hand, which trembled as if it were trying to shake off its rings.

-- Sarah Orne Jewett, "Lady Ferry." From Old Friends and New, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1907.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Martian Ambiguity

Writers have ways to link the patterns of a story to make it cohesive, but they can also break the patterns and end up with a story that seems fragmented or ill-considered. In "A Martian Odyssey," Stanley G. Weinbaum does both.

Because I had loved "A Martian Odyssey" when I was nine years old, I hesitated for decades to try it again -- so many things from childhood can disappoint us, and American magazine stories from 1934 can disappoint us absolutely. But my reading it a few days ago showed me a story with many strengths to compensate for a few weaknesses.

For one thing, the style is chatty and excitable in ways that might seem dated. The crew of the first Earth ship on Mars have brought a full cargo of exclamation points -- and these people use them! They lob words at each other as Martians hurl darts! They mock each other with friendly gibes! They roar, exult, snap, shrill, ejaculate, growl, shout! And as I read, I wanted them to stop.

On the other hand, there is energy in the prose, and the story moves rapidly. Compared to many American pulp science fiction tales from the 1930s, "A Martian Odyssey" is light on its feet.

And although its noisy space-crew might hover on the verge of becoming national stereotypes, their separate languages, and their frequent inability to understand each other, represent one of the patterns that makes the story fit together: communication is hard enough between people, but harder still between people and Martians.

Weinbaum uses the ambiguity of language to make his Martians vivid. Nothing on Mars can be defined in human terms with precision. Biopods look like plants but move like animals. The silicon creature is mindless, but can build structures with Egyptian skill. The dream beast is whatever its prey wants it to be. The barrel beings are a technological species, but seem limited in both intellect and behaviour.

Tweel himself, the most human-like Martian encountered, is nothing but ambiguous. He looks like a bird, but only at first glance. He seems adapted to local conditions like a native, but one sequence implies that he, or his ancestors, might have landed on Mars from beyond the solar system. Even the name by which he calls himself seems to vary from one context to another.

Yet of all the characters in the story, Tweel seems most at ease with language, and the most adept at its use. The narrator, Jarvis, fails to pick up a single word of Tweel's vocabulary, but Tweel can use a few English words to convey complex ideas. And so, he can describe  the silicon creature ("No one-one-two. No two-two-four."), the dream beast ("You one-one-two, he one-one-two."), and the barrel people ("One-one-two -- yes! Two-two-four -- no!"), in ways that Jarvis can grasp, and that leave him convinced of Tweel's more-than-human intelligence.

Weinbaum links these patterns of communication and ambiguous definition throughout "A Martian Odyssey," and in doing so, implies a stronger sense of story cohesion and subtext than most SF writers of the 1930s could manage. This makes me regret all the more the story's ending, which seems like an O. Henry twist grafted onto a narrative that does not need it. The ending adds nothing to the story's ideas or themes, and seems out of character for Jarvis, who, despite his constant yelling and gibing, is too thoughtful a person to do anything so stupid.

Endings matter, because they allow writers to give the patterns of a story a final coherence. Weinbaum seems to have understood this need for cohesion; I wish he had applied this understanding at the story's end. But narrative strengths also matter, and "A Martian Odyssey" has more than enough to keep its reputation high.

Illustration by Frank R. Paul, from Wonder Stories, July 1934.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Their Thoughts Have Burned Themselves into the Cold Rocks

The challenge in using alliteration and assonance is to make them seem deliberate stylistic choices, and not lapses in revision:

There is everywhere a token of remembrance, of silence and secrecy. Some stronger nature once ruled these neglected trees and this fallow ground. They will wait the return of their master as long as roots can creep through mould, and the mould make way for them. The stories of strange lives have been whispered to the earth, their thoughts have burned themselves into the cold rocks. As one looks from the lower country toward the long slope of the great hillside, this old abiding-place marks the dark covering of trees like a scar. There is nothing to hide either the sunrise or the sunset. The low lands reach out of sight into the west and the sea fills all the east.

-- Sarah Orne Jewett, "The Gray Man."
From, A White Heron, And Other Stories.
Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1914.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Unearthly Beauty

Brian Aldiss:

In Carl Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he recounts the vivid psychosis of one of his female patients, who believed that she had lived on the Moon. She told Jung a tale about her life there. It appears that the Moon people were threatened with extinction. A vampire lived in the high mountains of the Moon. The vampire kidnapped and killed women and children, who in consequence had taken to living underground. The patient resolved to kill the vampire but, when she and it came face to face, the vampire revealed himself as a man of unearthly beauty.

Jung makes a comment which could stand on the title page of this book: 'Thereafter I regarded the sufferings of the mentally ill in a different light. For I had gained insight into the richness and importance of their inner experience.'

-- From
Billion Year Spree, by Brian Aldiss. Corgi Books, 1975.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

With Talaquin or Mandragora

Avram Davidson:

Cyprus was another world.

The city of Paphos might have been designed and built by a Grecian architect dreamy with the drugs called talaquin or mandragora: in marble yellow as unmixed cream, marble pink as sweetmeats, marble the green of pistuquim nuts, veined marble and grained marble, honey-colored and rose-red, the buildings climbed along the hills and frothed among the hollows. Tier after tier of overtall pillars, capitals of a profusion of carvings to make Corinthian seem ascetic, pediments lush with bas-reliefs, four-fold arches at every corner and crossing, statues so huge that they loomed over the housetops, statues so small that whole troops of them flocked and frolicked under every building’s eaves, groves and gardens everywhere, fountains playing, water spouting....


From The Phoenix and the Mirror, 1969.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Longer Task

When a story fails to gain readers, I find it easy to blame the one person responsible for its weakness. What I forget, and what I must remember, is that the same person is responsible for the story's existence. Take away the person, and you take away not only the story, but the pleasure that awaits any reader who might discover it.

I have to keep this in mind, because the task of gaining readers can take as long, or even longer, than the task of learning to write.

Soft Sighing Strains

Sometimes, a story that impressed me when I was nine years old not only survives the passage of decades, but turns out to be stranger than I had realized.

"Noise" was my first exposure to the work of Jack Vance, and I went on to read a lot more by him during my 'teens. My reactions were mixed. Some of the stories I admired for their intensity and clever details -- "The Dragon Masters," for example, or "The Moon Moth." Others felt emotionally hollow; lacking all conviction of detail or mood, they seemed less like stories written than stories typed. The worst example of this would be "The Last Castle."

After a while, the doubts appeared. Vance had been praised for the sensual details of his work, but I found that other writers had better eyes for setting. I preferred Clark Ashton Smith, J. G. Ballard, Avram Davidson, M. John Harrison, Gardner Dozois, C. L. Moore: writers who presented their worlds with a vivid sensory conviction that went far beyond anything I had found in Vance. And although he had been praised as a stylist, I found more precision and flavour in the best prose of Damon Knight, James Blish, Brian Aldiss.

For me, his greatest limitation was a focus on surfaces, rarely on depths. His detached, ironic approach to narrative could only take him so far, and it often kept him away from those fundamental things that make fiction worth reading. A typical example: at one point in The Languages of Pao, the protagonist was left alone with a woman who took an interest in him. Most writers would use this moment to uncover a character's inner life, to suggest the emotions and motivations that he would normally keep hidden; but given this opportunity, Vance drew the curtain and slipped away. "The Last Castle" went even further in avoiding depths, and I could never understand its appeal.

And so, by the time I was twenty, I had stopped reading Jack Vance. Curiosity brought me back to his work a few years ago, and my reactions have been much the same: he will never be a favourite of mine, and much of his work is not for me, but some of the stories I loved in my 'teens I would still call wonderful.

"Noise," for example.

The story begins with a clumsy prologue:

Captain Hess placed a notebook on the desk and hauled a chair up under his sturdy buttocks. Pointing to the notebook, he said, “That’s the property of your man Evans. He left it aboard the ship.”

Galispell asked in faint surprise, “There was nothing else? No letter?”

“No, sir, not a thing. That notebook was all he had when we picked him up.”

Galispell rubbed his fingers along the scarred fibers of the cover. “Understandable, I suppose.” He flipped back the cover. “Hmmmm.”

The notebook, however, in a quiet and more confident style, tells an enigmatic story in stark yet colourful detail:

The blue day goes. The sapphire sun wanders into the western forest, the sky glooms to blue-black, the stars show like unfamiliar home-places.

For some time now I have heard no music; perhaps it has been so all-present that I neglect it.

The blue star is gone, the air chills. I think that deep night is on me indeed…I hear a throb of sound, plangent, plaintive; I turn my head. The east glows pale pearl. A silver globe floats up into the night like a lotus drifting on a lake: a great ball like six of Earth’s full moons. Is this a sun, a satellite, a burnt-out star? What a freak of cosmology I have chanced upon!

The silver sun -- I must call it a sun, although it casts a cool satin light -- moves in an aureole like oyster-shell. Once again the color of the planet changes. The lake glistens like quicksilver, the trees are hammered metal… The silver star passes over a high wrack of clouds, and the music seems to burst forth as if somewhere someone flung wide curtains: the music of moonlight, medieval marble, piazzas with slim fluted colonnades, soft sighing strains….

When I was nine years old, I loved the simple magic of the story. It offered no explanations, no background. It only conveyed the baffled response of one man to a strange yet welcoming place, and it did this one thing with clarity and confidence.

The star falls; the forest receives it. The sky dulls, and night has come.

I face the east, my back pressed to the pragmatic hull of my lifeboat. Nothing.

I have no conception of the passage of time. Darkness, timelessness. Somewhere clocks turn minute hands, second hands, hour hands -- I stand staring into the night, perhaps as slow as a sandstone statue, perhaps as feverish as a salamander.

In the darkness there is a peculiar cessation of sound. The music has dwindled; down through a series of wistful chords, a forlorn last cry….

A glow in the east, a green glow, spreading. Up rises a magnificent green sphere, the essence of all green, the tincture of emeralds, glowing as grass, fresh as mint, deep as the sea.

A throb of sound: rhythmical strong music, swinging and veering.

The green light floods the planet, and I prepare for the green day.

As I read this again last week, what struck me was the absence of those ingredients often considered fundamental to fiction. Is there any hint of characterization? No. Of conflict? Not really. Of rising tension? Hardly at all. Curiosity about the next page? This might work on a first reading, but not on the next.

Instead, what drives the story, what kept me reading, is a quality hard to describe yet undeniable: the allure of wonder. With stark imagery, with simple use of colour, "Noise" tugged me towards a mysterious, beautiful place, and made me want to stay.

People who read and write must decide for themselves what works in a short story. For me, quite often, this can be hard to specify; I can only point, and quote, and say, Magical. That was my response to "Noise" when I was nine years old, and this is how I feel about it now.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

A Spot of Bad Luck for the Meioses

[This one defeated me, but I'll post it anyways. Meiosis is not the same as litotes; I wish I had known before I started!]

Have some wine. The Meioses?
Remember them? On rocket skis?
They hit a wall at 90 Gs
(Hardly guaranteed to please).
The impact rocked them like a sneeze.
Although it burst their arteries
(A little bit) and scraped their knees,
And hardly helped their allergies,
They made it all seem like a breeze
When they poured themselves upon the trees
Like tinsel, or like strawberries
In a jam too red for comfort. Cheese?

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Twist: From Gimmick to Method

Few techniques in fiction are more dangerous than a twist ending.

All too often, writers lean on the twist to make a story interesting, but in doing this, can shift essential focus away from those other, more important elements of the story.

Writers might also hope to surprise readers, but readers are almost impossible to catch off-guard; instead, they predict the writer's ending long before the writer can spring any surprise. A writer out-guessed can seem unimaginative at best, foolish at worst.

On the other hand, a twist can be useful, not at the end of a story, but right at the centre. Putting a twist at the heart of a story allows a writer to maintain interest, while offering enough time to explore the implications of the twist: implications that transform the twist from a mere gimmick into a major component of plot, character, theme.

Another method is often effective. William Sansom provides my favourite example in "A Wedding," but Eric Frank Russell takes the same approach here. The idea is to present the story in retrospect, long after events have taken place, and then, in the final sentence, to provide one piece of information that shifts the entire story into a new perspective. This information is not a twist, but a fact -- a small detail -- that was not revealed in the course of the story, because the narrator was too engrossed in telling the tale to consider this one small detail important. The narrator takes it for granted, but for the reader, it becomes not a twist, but a bluntly dramatic explanation, an insight into context, a lens that puts the entire story into focus. It does not change the story; it justifies the story.

- - - - - - - - - -

Illustration by Matt Fox. Weird Tales, July 1950.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Monster Movie Vibe

David Longhorn, the editor of Supernatural Tales:

Many moons ago I wrote a review of a collection of stories by Mark Fuller Dillon. These stories are still excellent, and they're still out there, available as an ebook. In a Season of Dead Weather is well worth your time. The same can be said for his unusual 'alien invasion' novella All Roads Lead to Winter. Oh, and they're both free! So, if you've got an e-reader, there's no excuse.

Mark has now produced another story, and it's just as good as those 2013 publications... If you want an entertaining read with a slight Twilight Zone/Fifties monster movie vibe, this is for you.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Multiplicity of Suggestions

Lytton Strachey makes an interesting point, here, about the tools needed to convey a sense of strangeness and remoteness in writing, but I think he might have overlooked something:

There is, of course, no doubt that [Thomas] Browne's vocabulary is extraordinarily classical. Why is this? The reason is not far to seek. In his most characteristic moments he was almost entirely occupied with thoughts and emotions which can, owing to their very nature, only be expressed in Latinistic language. The state of mind which he wished to produce in his readers was nearly always a complicated one: they were to be impressed and elevated by a multiplicity of suggestions and a sense of mystery and awe. "Let thy thoughts," he says himself, "be of things which have not entered into the hearts of beasts: think of things long past, and long to come: acquaint thyself with the choragium of the stars, and consider the vast expanse beyond them. Let intellectual tubes give thee a glance of things which visive organs reach not. Have a glimpse of incomprehensibles; and thoughts of things, which thoughts but tenderly touch." Browne had, in fact, as Dr. Johnson puts it, "uncommon sentiments"; and how was he to express them unless by a language of pomp, of allusion, and of elaborate rhythm? Not only is the Saxon form of speech devoid of splendour and suggestiveness; its simplicity is still further emphasised by a spondaic rhythm which seems to produce (by some mysterious rhythmic law) an atmosphere of ordinary life, where, though the pathetic may be present, there is no place for the complex or the remote. To understand how unsuitable such conditions would be for the highly subtle and rarefied art of Sir Thomas Browne, it is only necessary to compare one of his periods with a typical passage of Saxon prose.

"Then they brought a faggot, kindled with fire, and laid the same down at Doctor Ridley's feet. To whom Master Latimer spake in this manner: 'Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.'"

Nothing could be better adapted to the meaning and sentiment of this passage than the limpid, even flow of its rhythm. But who could conceive of such a rhythm being ever applicable to the meaning and sentiment of these sentences from the Hydriotaphia?

"To extend our memories by monuments, whose death we daily pray for, and whose duration we cannot hope without injury to our expectations in the advent of the last day, were a contradiction to our beliefs. We, whose generations are ordained in this setting part of time, are providentially taken off from such imaginations; and, being necessitated to eye the remaining particle of futurity, are naturally constituted unto thoughts of the next world, and cannot excusably decline the consideration of that duration, which maketh pyramids pillars of snow, and all that's past a moment."

Here the long, rolling, almost turgid clauses, with their enormous Latin substantives, seem to carry the reader forward through an immense succession of ages, until at last, with a sudden change of the rhythm, the whole of recorded time crumbles and vanishes before his eyes. The entire effect depends upon the employment of a rhythmical complexity and subtlety which is utterly alien to Saxon prose. It would be foolish to claim a superiority for either of the two styles; it would be still more foolish to suppose that the effects of one might be produced by means of the other.

-- From Books and Characters French & English, by Lytton Strachey. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1922.

But is it foolish? I think a similar effect can be achieved through metaphor, through imagery, through the unexpected juxtaposition of everyday things. Some of the passages I want to quote are more "latinate" than others, but they all rely on definite, ordinary details to suggest something beyond the ordinary:

Before getting into bed I drew my curtains wide and opened all the windows to the warm tide of the sea air that flowed softly in. Looking out into the garden I could see in the moonlight the roof of the shelter, in which for three years I had lived, gleaming with dew. That, as much as anything, brought back the old days to which I had now returned, and they seemed of one piece with the present, as if no gap of more than twenty years sundered them. The two flowed into one like globules of mercury uniting into a softly shining globe, of mysterious lights and reflections.
-- E. F. Benson, "Negotium Perambulans."

His brain pounded with hate for the sea. The blue sea! The devouring shapeless sea with its evil swell, its monstrous depth, its wintry breakage of wooden boats, its cruel rocks, its drawing of bodies in such cold and nerveless draught, its vertiginous flatness sparkling and deceiving, its roots of oil and the furred and shelled beasts that preyed slowly on its bed, all of its wrack and wreck and rotting cold embrace and the tides that day after day, age after age, crawled up the beaches and then left them, desiring all but never needing, breaking uselessly and ceaselessly at the earth and at man.
-- William Sansom, "The Cliff."

Leonora Chanel stepped from the limousine and strolled into the desert. Her white-haired figure in its cobra-skin coat wandered among the dunes. Sand-rays lifted around her, disturbed by the random movements of this sauntering phantasm of the burnt afternoon. Ignoring their open stings around her legs, she was gazing up at the aerial bestiary dissolving in the sky, and at the white skull a mile away over Lagoon West that had smeared itself across the sky.
-- J. G. Ballard, "The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D."

It was a singularly sharp night, and clear as the heart of a diamond.  Clear nights have a trick of being keen.  In darkness you may be cold and not know it; when you see, you suffer.  This night was bright enough to bite like a serpent.  The moon was moving mysteriously along behind the giant pines crowning the South Mountain, striking a cold sparkle from the crusted snow, and bringing out against the black west the ghostly outlines of the Coast Range, beyond which lay the invisible Pacific.  The snow had piled itself, in the open spaces along the bottom of the gulch, into long ridges that seemed to heave, and into hills that appeared to toss and scatter spray.  The spray was sunlight, twice reflected: dashed once from the moon, once from the snow.
-- Ambrose Bierce, "The Night-Doings at 'Deadman's'".

Then he straightened himself up, and walked over to the fireplace, and stood there, looking at the burning logs with their frost-like ashes and their throbbing cores of flame. [...] The wind had blown the fog away, and the sky was like a monstrous peacock's tail, starred with myriads of golden eyes. He looked down, and saw the policeman going his rounds and flashing the long beam of his lantern on the doors of the silent houses. The crimson spot of a prowling hansom gleamed at the corner, and then vanished. A woman in a fluttering shawl was creeping slowly by the railings, staggering as she went. Now and then she stopped, and peered back. Once, she began to sing in a hoarse voice. The policeman strolled over and said something to her. She stumbled away, laughing. A bitter blast swept across the Square. The gas-lamps flickered, and became blue, and the leafless trees shook their black iron branches to and fro.
-- Oscar Wilde, The Picture Of Dorian Gray.

The Smiler With the Knife

Jorge Luis Borges: "From Allegories to Novels." 

Nominalism, once the novelty of a few, today encompasses everyone; its victory is so vast and fundamental that its name is useless. No one declares himself a nominalist because no one is anything else. Let us try to understand, nevertheless, that for the men of the Middle Ages the fundamental thing was not men but humanity, not individuals but the species, not the species but the genus, not the genera but God. From such concepts... allegorical literature, as I understand it, derived. Allegory is a fable of abstractions, as the novel is a fable of individuals....
The passage from allegory to novel, from species to individual, from realism to nominalism, required several centuries, but I shall have the temerity to suggest an ideal date: the day in 1382 when Geoffrey Chaucer, who may not have believed himself to be a nominalist, set out to translate into English a line by Boccaccio -- "E con gli occulti Jerri i Tradimenti" (And Betrayal with hidden weapons) -- and repeated it as "The smyler with the knyf under the cloke."

-- From Other Inquisitions. Washington Square Press, New York, 1966.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

At First, You Hear The Silence

My latest ebook is now available from Smashwords.

Jeffrey Thomas, author of Punktown, calls it:

An enthralling encounter with mysteries from beyond... tearing at the veil between worlds one minute, scratching at our very windows the next. Filled with breathless suspense and cosmic strangeness, it's a story sure to put the reader in the shoes of the sharply-drawn young protagonist, as his human strengths are put to the test.

David Longhorn, editor of Supernatural Tales, writes:

A new twist on what used to be called science fantasy, it strikes a great balance between horror, sf, and action writing. This is a modern, intelligent story with its roots firmly in the Golden Age pulp tradition.

Cover designed by Tragelaphus.

Engage My Interest

Francine Prose:

Not long ago, a young writer told me a story about being taken to dinner by his successful, high-powered agent. The agent asked him what he wanted to write about, what subjects engaged his interest. To which the young writer replied that, to tell the truth, subject matter wasn't all that important to him. What he really cared about, what he wanted most of all was to write... really great sentences.

The agent sighed. His eyelids fluttered. After a moment he said, "Promise me that you will never, ever in your life say that to an American publisher."

-- From Reading Like A Writer. HarperCollins, 2006.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Running Out Of Time

Late in her life, almost overnight, my mother became a piano student. She made rapid progress with classical conservatory lessons, and just before she died, she had moved up to a third teacher and a new level of skill; but despite her achievements and steady resolve, she never felt confident in what she could play.

I think she felt this way because we do not celebrate practice in our society. We see concerts, but not the lifetimes of training that make the music seem effortless. We see Olympic events, but not the decades of work to create an athlete. We see books, but not the woodstoves that were fed for years and years and years with lousy attempts to find the words.

Yet even though we never celebrate practice, people have long accepted its necessity. But what happens when a culture hits a point where it might not survive long enough to make practice worthwhile? After 1945, we had to face the constant fear of nuclear war; nowadays, we have to face climate change, neoliberal austerity, political collapse, and the real possibility that our civilization might be killed off not by disaster, but by business as usual.

When a lifetime is no longer likely, why should young people commit themselves to decades of practice? How can we show them the value of craftsmanship, when they might not have the necessary years needed to develop their craft?

This question matters to me, because I would love to celebrate the arts of today; but more and more often, I find myself going back to enjoy the achievements of yesterday, because yesterday valued craftsmanship, and yesterday offered lifetimes for practice.