Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Year's Best, Haunts, Gutshot

As well as my own collection, Rumours of the Marvellous, about which you're doubtless sick of hearing by now, I also pop up in a few other books this fall/winter season and I'm sure you're dying to hear about them. Your wish, my blemish, is, as ever, my command.

First, I'm lucky enough to appear for the second year running in Paula Guran's Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror from Prime Books. The lovely Ms. G selected my "Frumpy Little Beat Girl" (who first appeared in Curtain Call, last year's Rolling Darkness Revue chapbook from Earthling Publications) and got her all dressed up to be presented to a larger audience. Most grateful, ma'am. There are many great stories in this value-for-money doorstop of a book, but I want to give a particular shout-out to "The Broadsword" by Laird Barron, for one specific reason: Little fucker managed to scare me -- which, for a raddled old pro like me, is an increasingly rare pleasure.

Steve Jones -- master anthologist of his (or any other) generation -- has been kind enough to his old mate Pete to reprint "The Mystery", which was originally published in 2008's Spook City (edited by Angus McKenzie, from PS Publishing), in his new anthology from Ulysses Press. Haunts is a mix of reprints and new stories and -- as we'd expect from young Jonesy -- features a stellar line-up of authors and stories.  

In a previous post, I mentioned Conrad Williams' excellent 'weird western' anthology, Gutshot, and I'm delighted to say it has now been published by those old gunslingers at PS Publishing. Among its wonders, it includes the first appearance of my story "All Our Hearts are Ghosts" but, as I said before, don't let that dissuade you.

All three of these books are available from the usual online retailers and, if you're lucky enough to still have one, your friendly neighborhood brick and mortar. Christmas is coming, kids. Just sayin'.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

But Enough About Me... #2

One of the coolest things about Gordon Van Gelder's magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction is the regular last-page feature called "Curiosities", where various people contribute snapshot reviews (300 words or so) of obscurish books they feel should be more appreciated. The F&SF website hosts an archive of scores of them, and I recommend a visit -- especially if you're a writer and are looking for a new source of procrastination; you can happily lose a whole day there (and then alleviate your later self-loathing by telling yourself, with some justification, that it was 'research').  I also, needless to say, recommend the magazine itself, still available every month in real ink on real paper at real newsstands.

I've written a couple of entries for the "Curiosities" series. One was on Arthur Machen's The London Adventure, which I'll reprint sometime in another of these "But Enough About Me" posts, and the other -- from the January 2003 issue -- was on a marvellous (and woefully underrated) Michael Fessier novel from 1935.


Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind by Michael Fessier

"I was standing in front of the Herald and somebody fired a shot and I saw a fat man turn slowly on one heel and fall to the sidewalk."

With this economic attention-grabbing opener, Michael Fessier's first novel promises the kind of proto-noir pleasures which, while entertaining, are hardly unique amongst 1930s thrillers. Within a few pages, however, the reader discovers that the book is no conventional murder mystery but in fact a fantasy -- albeit one which elegantly hedges its bets before its poignant conclusion acknowledges that at least one of its characters is something other than human.

Fessier (1907-1988), the dedicatee of Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, was a screenwriter and the author of Clovis, a 1948 novel about a super-intelligent parrot.

Fully Dressed's 1935 printings are obscure enough that more than one bookdealer advertises the 1954 paperback as a first edition. Let us do them the kindness of assuming they are ill-informed rather than unscrupulous. Whatever edition you obtain, you're in for a treat. In exhilaratingly efficient prose -- so lean and speedy that even a slowpoke like me can read the book in two hours -- Fessier whips through his bizarre tale of a contemporary San Francisco penetrated by elements (and elementals) of the fantastic.

His style is facile and fun but his gaze is unblinking and dyspeptic -- there's a particularly disturbing scene involving the death of a child, for example -- and this collision of moral stances, as much as the plot's cross-genre delights, makes this seventy-year-old novel feel considerably more modern and alive than much of the swollen pap that passes for contemporary fantastic literature.

Friday, 18 November 2011

But Enough About Me... #1

I realized the other day that I have quite a backlog of non-fiction pieces about books, movies, famous friends, etc. The articles all appeared originally in magazines or anthologies which are now mostly out of print, and it occured to me that this blog might be a handy place to archive them. So every now and then, in between the usual and shameful I-fuckin'-rock postings, I'll put up one of these things in the vain hope that it'll make me look less of a self-centred asshole.

This first one, an appreciation of SOME OF YOUR BLOOD by the great Theodore Sturgeon, first appeared in 2005 in HORROR: ANOTHER 100 BEST BOOKS edited by Steve Jones and Kim Newman.


Theodore Sturgeon's Some of your Blood

The writer who died as Theodore Sturgeon in 1985 had been born as Edward Waldo in 1918. The "Sturgeon" came from his step-father, the "Theodore" was (I'm guessing) reverse-engineered from the diminutive it has in common with his real first name. He wrote prolifically from the late 1930s to the early 1960s and sporadically thereafter. The life is over now, but the work survives. And the work is wonderful.

Sturgeon was of that generation of fantasists whose work was routinely classified always as science fiction, whatever its actual nature. Certainly Sturgeon wrote science fiction (and the best of it was genre-expanding, influential, and quite marvellous stuff) but he also wrote westerns, mysteries, and fantasies -- some whimsical, some not-so-much, and some downright horrifying.

The science fiction field is keeping Sturgeon's memory alive and his work in print -- for which we should all be grateful -- but it means that some of his work, marginal to SF proper, is in danger of not being remembered or celebrated. Case in point; Some of your Blood, an almost unacknowledged masterpiece of unflinchingly dark vision and -- at least for the popular fiction of its day -- innovative execution.

This refreshingly short 1961 novel begins with medical and military curiosity regarding a minor piece of violence in the army, moves to a long story of a particularly deprived childhood in rural Kentucky, and ends as a reminder of how and where, and perhaps why, there are monsters among us.

Readers unfamiliar with the book who don't want part of its pleasures compromised should perhaps stop here and go read it, because there's a kind of punchline to the novel -- not quite an O. Henry or Frederic Brown all-in-the-last-line zinger, more a series of cumulative revelations in the last thirty pages -- which I will have to reveal at this point.

Though the nature of what's going on in Some of your Blood is unveiled slowly, it eventually becomes clear that it is in fact a vampire novel, albeit one blessedly free of the ossifying and irritating conventions of the genre. It overtly stacks the deck against there being any supernatural cause for its psychotic protagonist's condition, though his parents "come from the old country" and his father's phonetically rendered accent is a contextually-disguised joke: "Poy, dat schmells goot!" is the kind of line, we realize in retrospect, that could have come from the mouth of another, more well-known, bloodsucking emigre, had the latter not been of a more aristocratic lineage.

Another nod to Dracula is that Some of your Blood is, like its predecessor, an epistolary novel (or, more precisely, that particular riff on the form that includes various found documents, not all strictly letters) which allows the story to reveal its secrets obliquely, in patchwork glimpses of alternating analysis and revelation.

Some of the voices in the surrounding documents -- the vernacular of middle-class military men of their time -- may strike the modern reader as a little dated but the central voice of the book, a beautifully-observed prose that never steps outside the halting and uneducated voice of its 'writer' but nevertheless achieves a poignant folk-art poetry, is not only assured and masterful but is also a sustained demonstration of the bravura hide-in-plain-sight technique by which Sturgeon conceals the truth about his protagonist. Sentences which make perfect (if disturbing) contextual sense in what we believe to be the novel's reality take on deeper significance upon a second reading.

There are moments in the book which, nearly fifty years on, retain a stunning power. The protagonist’s innocent readings of the Rorschach tests given to him by a well-intentioned psychiatrist, for example, are both revelatory and deeply disturbing, exposing as they do the utterly alien drives within a character for whom we have previously felt at least pity and perhaps sympathy and affection.

Though Some of Your Blood is also, in its own bizarre way, a love story, it is by no means a “vampire romance” and it’s sobering and sad to compare this neglected gem to today’s best-selling bodice-rippers-with-blood, those fantasies (in the least generous sense of the word) in which the legions of Anne Rice imitators trot out their wearying tales.

Richard Matheson's I am Legend and Stephen King's Salem's Lot both receive deserved praise as novels which revivify vampire mythology by marrying it to well-observed contemporary (or, in Matheson's case, near-future) settings. It's easy to forget, of course, that that was also true of Stoker's Dracula upon its first appearance. Sturgeon's novel more than deserves a place in that particular pantheon. It recasts an ancient boogeyman as a terrifyingly and truthfully rendered contemporary monster. Over and above its real-world milieu, it possesses an emotional and behavioral truth that renders it a timeless classic of dark fantasy.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Rumours about Rumours

Two extremely kind reviews of Rumours of the Marvellous have just appeared in cyberspace, courtesy of those lovely gents Ian Hunter (in the British Fantasy Society's Book Review section) and Paul Kane (in Mass Movement magazine). If I was the kind of old dog who wasn't allergic to new tricks, I'd do that smooth move of highlighting their names as hot links so that you could jump straight to the full reviews, but I'm rubbish at all that, so you'll just have to google -- which, as exercise goes, is much better for your fingers than that lazy single-click stuff. See how I look out for you?

In the meantime, here's a couple of what we author chappies like to call "pull quotes" (as in the bits one pulls from reviews so that one can instruct one's publisher to emblazon them on the full-page ads they're taking out in Entertainment Weekly and the TLS. Or, in these sadly reduced times, to cut and paste into one's blog): 

"One of the best and most original writers of horror and dark fantasy to come along in the last twenty years ... a great stylist with a truly original voice"  -- Ian Hunter

"Believable characters ... subtle surrealism  ... incredible originality; Atkins' fiction is totally unique. Very highly recommended!" -- Paul Kane

Some time in December, the wonderful Glendale bookstore Mystery and Imagination will be hosting a reading and signing by me and that charming Hirshberg fellow. I'll post actual date and time once I have them. Please come along if you're local (or, if you're not local, well-heeled and obsessive).