From Uncategorized

VanderMeers & Interviews

Two new interviews just went up today. The first is by Laura Given at The Nerdy Book Club, and includes both a book giveaway and a brief video of myself reading and babbling about mask-related things. It also includes the Dust Bunny Theory of Novel Writing. The second is by Jeff VanderMeer at Omnivoracious, and includes both my astonishment at becoming a National Book Award Finalist and my further astonishment at being interviewed by Jeff VanderMeer.

I only just met Ann & Jeff a few weeks ago at the Twin Cities Book Festival, but I’ve loved his writing, her editorial vision, and their combined work as anthologists for many years. I got to introduce their presentation at the festival. Here’s what I said:

Ann VanderMeer is a prolific editor, publisher, and anthologist. During her too-brief tenure as the Weird Tales editor in chief the magazine was nominated thrice for the Hugo Award, and won that Hugo in 2009. 

Jeff VanderMeer is an equally prolific editor, anthologist, and fiction writer. He is twice a winner and twelve times a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. 

The two have collaborated on several anthologies, none more ambitious than The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Damien Walter calls it “an anthology of writing so powerful it will leave your reality utterly shredded,” and he implores us not to read it.

Definitions of the Weird are, of course, varied and contradictory, but the VanderMeer’s is the most rich, expansive, international, and compelling approach to an unsettling and uncanny literary tradition for which the rules are not known, and cannot be known. 

The companion website to the anthology, Weird Fiction Review .com, has grown into its own institution–if the anthology is too heavy for you to lift, I encourage you all to direct your browsers there. You’ll be fine. Really. It’s perfectly safe. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am honored to present Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.

It’s been a long while since I posted bedtime stories on this blog. Embarrassing, since keeping a record of notable bedtime stories is ostensibly the purpose of the blog. However, I am now honored and privileged to present the first remembered bedtime stories of the VanderMeers.

Ann remembers Briar Rose and Winnie the Pooh first and foremost. As the eldest child, Ann soon transitioned from audience member to reader and performer of bedtime stories. This gave her a considerable amount of power over her younger siblings, who could be bribed or threatened with the promise, or lack, of stories. Ann never abused her powers, of course.

Jeff remembers an illustrated book of “The Tyger” by William Blake. This explains much. He remains productively obsessed with fearful symmetries.

Ciao for now!

 

 

 

 

 

Weird Tales

Weird Tales published my first story. Their old offices were pretty close to my parents’ home in Pennsylvania, and I used to help with the slush pile whenever I happened to be in town. We go back a bit, WT and I. The magazine itself goes way back.

Ann VanderMeer used to be the editor-in-chief of Weird Tales. Under her leadership the magazine simultaneously embraced and transcended its history and legacy. It was art. It was gorgeous. It earned its first Hugo award.

Then VanderMeer was dismissed, in clumsy and callous fashion, because some guy named Marvin Kaye bought WT so he could return it to the glory days of Lovecraftian fanfic.

[Edited to add: I should have recognized that name: Marvin Kaye is the editor and anthologist who first published Orson Scott Card’s controversial novella Hamlet’s Father, which I reviewed unfavorably last year. Since then Kaye has claimed that a) Tor forced him to publish it (even if true, this is still an unimpressive attempt to pass the buck), and that b) he didn’t notice anything particularly offensive about Card’s novella. I find that claim astonishing. Either he didn’t read it at all, or his critical reading skills are significantly lower than the average brick. Read on for more evidence of the brick theory.]

More recently, Kaye decided to publish and defend a work of astonishingly ignorant and vicious racism. N. K. Jemisin and Jeff VanderMeer sum things up nicely.

The apologies, retractions, and damage control efforts from WT HQ are now underway. None of it matters, though.

Editors are guides. They lead you to certain spots in the tangled landscape of literature and say “Look. Look at this. It will be worth your time.” Ann and Jeff are the very best guides. I trust them to show me things worth seeing. I trust them to be good company around the campfire in those few moments we have left, before some unspeakable thing emerges from the forest to devour us. I’d follow them anywhere–even and especially to places where no sensible reader would ever dare go. Check out their new and massive anthology. Browse through Weird Fiction Review. I promise you it will be worth your time.

But I wouldn’t trust Marvin Kaye to lead an expedition across an empty room.

Jemisin says this, and I say ditto:

All my pleasure and pride at having been published in WT is gone. Goes without saying that I won’t be submitting there again, ever, but at this point I’m ashamed to have my name associated with the magazine at all. And that pisses me off especially, because something I really cared about has been destroyed. I was willing to give WT’s new owners the benefit of the doubt after the regime change; sometimes change can be a good thing, after all. But this editorial, and this decision to publish such poor-quality fiction on misplaced principle, makes it clear that WT’s reputation is now meaningless. By this gesture Marvin Kaye hasn’t just slapped me in the face, he’s slapped every author the magazine ever published, every hopeful author who’s submitted during and since VanderMeer’s tenure, every artist whose illustrations ever graced its pages, and every fan who voted for WT to win that Hugo.

She posted her WT story online, for free. I won’t be doing that with mine, mostly because I’m a little embarrassed to look back at my first story–not just the first one I published, but the very first story I wrote. I was proud of it at the time, though, and proud to have published it in Weird Tales. Not anymore.

Two Anthologies

Two anthologies. My stories are in them.

The first such story is “Ana’s Tag,” originally published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and now happily at home in Other Worlds Than These.

Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review, and said this about it: “Readers will greatly enjoy this exploration of our world’s foremost and ascendant speculative authors.”

Nice to feel ascendant for a bit.

The second story appeared in a “live anthology” created by the Unsettled Foundation and performed at a semi-abandoned movie theater alongside several other local authors. It was great fun.

The front lobby of the Hollywood Theater. It is my understanding that the usual sorts of ceiling monsters live here.
The view from the projection booth. You’ve all read “20th Century Ghost” by Joe Hill, right? Because you should.

My contribution, “Nicholas Went Looking for the Mayor’s Right Hand,” was first published by the late, great lit mag Zahir. You can still read it on their website. Warning: This is a kid’s story in the sense that it has a very young protagonist, but it is not intended for young readers, and domestic violence occurs offstage. The fine folks at Fantasy Matters reviewed the story, if that helps you decide whether or not to read it yourself. Or you could listen to me read it instead. (This is a .wav file. The .mp3 wouldn’t fit.)

I looked like this while reading.

My voice sounds over-enunciated to me, but nobody’s a good judge of their own recorded voice so maybe it’s actually fine. Note that this embarrassment is no reflection on the Unsettled techies, who somehow captured quality audio in a cavernous space.

Many thanks to all Unsettlers for creating such a spectacularly creepy event. Many more to John Joseph Adams, editor of Other Worlds Than These.

 

Grendel and the Grinch

I’ve just had an idea. An awful idea. I’ve just had a wonderful, awful idea.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a Beowulf retelling.

I should be posting this in December. June is hardly the month for thinking about the mythic origins of the Grinch. But I can’t wait for winter. This notion must be expressed immediately. If I delay, then I might have time to notice how ridiculous this idea is, and that must not be. Onward!

 ***

We begin with the most obvious parallels. Grinch and Grendel live in caves, well outside of town. Both of them are driven mad by joyous noise from this neighboring settlement.

Grendel Illustration by Chris Rahn

 

“Oh the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!” the Grinch complains. John Gardner’s version of the monster Grendel is horrified by a Shaper (bard, scop) and this entertainer’s ability to remake history with beautiful words and a harp. The recently animated Grendel just gets a headache whenever there’s a party in the mead hall. These antisocial monsters do not enjoy singing.

Both of them sneak into town at night, bringing mischief. The Grinch does so by masquerading as Santy Claus and stealing Christmas. Grendel does so by dismembering people while they sleep. Here the two tellings diverge a bit, it’s true. And while I could probably make a case for Cindy Lou Who as Beowulf himself, let’s move on to more serious scholarship.

 

(Here they are, both animated, both bewildered.)

The definitive lecture on Beowulf, the one that completely transformed how and why we read the thing, is “The Monsters and the Critics” by J.R.R. Tolkien. He gave it in 1936. He had written The Hobbit by then, but was only just getting around to publishing it.

Before Tolkien’s lecture, scholars thought of Beowulf as a Christian transcription of an oral, pagan saga, resulting in a fragmentary and unreadable mess. Filled with old monsters and new prayers, the story properly belonged to neither world. But Tolkien argued that this blend of worlds and world-views isn’t a mistake, that the bards who sang and the monks who wrote down those songs didn’t fail to “keep Scandinavian bogies and Scriptures separate in their puzzled brains… I think we may observe not confusion, a half hearted or muddled business, but a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion.” More recently, Seamus Heaney translated the saga and agreed with Tolkien in the introduction: “Beowulf perfectly answers the early modern conception of a work of creative imagination as one in which conflicting realities find accommodation within a new order.”

Both the Beowulf poem and the one penned by Dr. Seuss have a strange and strained relationship to Christianity. Christmas is a Christian holiday, after all. It insists very loudly that it’s a Christian holiday, with “Christ” right there in the name. But decorating trees with lights and celebrating community in the depths of midwinter is a much older tradition. Santa Claus is said to be All-Father Odin in a new costume. Odin was the one who convinced the sun to come back after its long winter retreat, so he was the one all the good little Norse children appealed to at solstice time. Christmas itself is a confusion of old and new traditions.

When the Grinch learns what Christmas means, he doesn’t get a Charlie Brown sermon.

Instead the Grinch gets a song sung by all the Whos in Whoville, and learns about community in the face of a harsh winter morning without gifts. And then his heart grows three sizes. Conflicting realities find accommodation within a new order. He carves the roast beast.

So the Grinch does dismember something in the mead hall. See? See? It all fits…

I leave you with the following quote:

The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and, what is more, probably with one that will not work.  – J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics”