Friday, September 24, 2010

Laird Barron

I grabbed his book Occultation and Other Stories at the library, in large measure because he won a Shirley Jackson Award (this being mentioned on the cover).

First I read the second story, "Occultation," because it was short and because it was the collection's title (thus suggesting some conviction that the tale can carry one's expectations for the entire book). It was duly creepy, but at the end it felt like all that had been accomplished was a juxtaposition of disturbing imagery and a set of cheap shocks rather than a coherent story. This reminded me of two things: poetry by John Ashberry and the "language" poets (on my mind because of an essay in last month's Poetry); and the short fiction of Kelly Link. Sure enough, the back of the book sported praise by Link, whose work has always seemed to me more like an acrobatic stunt than real storytelling. Also, a story with similar imagery but infinitely superior workmanship and far more satisfying fright appeared decades ago with John B. L. Goodwin's "Cocoon" (1946), reprinted in Bradbury's tremendous anthology, Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow. Find it and read it.

Next I tried the collection's first story, "The Forest." The writing didn't exactly sing (and I suppose neither he nor his editor knew the difference between uninterested and disinterested), and the story slogged along through clumsy sentences and cliché characters. Then there came the interesting part that didn't make sense—but was, at least, interesting. This was then left behind for an embarrassing, um, climax. 'Nuff said.

What bothers me most is that this writing is associated with Shirley Jackson (through the award in her name). Jackson is not merely a fantasist or horror writer. Jackson's theme, typically, is what people do in uncomfortable situations, be they mundane or terrifying. And Jackson's prose is always clean, smart and precise. She is, for me, one of the premier stylists of American prose. Work in her name should go to the finest writers. Perhaps Barron has better work. Given that I'm moving on from this book, I doubt I'll come across it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In praise of limestone

Prodded by some errant ideas and a mention of my yet-unwritten story on last week's "Book Cave" podcast, I did a tiny bit of writing this evening for "Unearthed." The text accrues drip by drip. I've become a literary pointillist, writing the smallest components on the way to making my stories. Later in the process, I smooth it all out and connect the pixels, but in the meantime it's nothing but a bunch of dots.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Books bought

A spittle's-worth of writing in the past week, and so we speak of other things.

Books purchased at the annual library sale ($1.50 for hardbacks; $1.00 for papers; $.50 for mass market paperbacks (the penny dreadfuls of the sale)):

Amos Oz, Where the Jackals Howl and Other Stories (hardback; dust cover like a paper grocery bag)—stories Oz wrote in the '60s and revised in the '70s; this English first edition came out in 1981

Michael Cunningham, The Hours, (hardback, signed)

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes (hardback, hefty, contains "all 356 original illustrations [from The Strand Magazine] by Sidney Paget)

Angela Carter, Saints and Strangers (paperback; Carter is a gap in my reading knowledge, and my colleagues have recommended her)

Percival Everett, I Am Not Sidney Poitier (paperback; I know nothing about this novel, but I like the title and the style of the cover)

ed. Nick Caistor, (The Faber Book of) Contemporary Latin American Short Stories (hardback, 1989; seemed useful to add to my international reading knowledge)

Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Collected Stories (paperback, but solidly built; I have the collection Crown of Feathers, but in a smaller, weary paperback; this has more in a better package)

Katherine Mansfield, Stories (paperback; given that I just taught "The Garden-Party," a favorite story of mine, this past week, this seemed a fortuitous discovery)

Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (paperback with something sticky that must needs be removed from the back cover; I've never read her, I confess)

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (Vintage paperback; I've been meaning to reread this (I must have read a borrowed copy in college) ever since reading Pnin and seeing again Nabokov's greatness, so now I have it)

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer (hardback, a load; a few years ago, I bought this same edition over eBay, but its binding is loose, the cover roughed-up, and many of the pages marked; this copy is beautiful inside and out, and thus certainly worth a buck-fifty)

All of the above: $13.50 plus a three-mile walk and running into various friends. A good day.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

To Russia, with love

I keep forgetting to mention: "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" will appear in ESLI (translation: If), Russia's oldest science fiction and fantasy magazine. The editor contacted me recently to express his interest in reprinting the story in translation.

I love the idea of Russian readers (and a Russian editor thinking well of the story), and I hope some of those readers will let me know what they think.