Saturday, February 21, 2009

Twenty Authors (Part Two)

Twenty Authors (Part Two of Three of an Incidental Series)

Milorad Pavic
I put most authors on this list because they wrote multiple things which affected me. In the case of Pavic, I've only managed to get through one book. I've tried a couple of others-- Last Love on Constantinople and Landscape Painted with Tea, but neither of them grabbed me. The one that continually bores into my subconscious is The Dictionary of the Khazars.

It should be pretty obvious that I like the idea of meta-fiction-- though some of it I find a little too precious and self-aware. The best stuff has a device and plays it through straight. Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler for example could easily end up being goofy. But he manages the trick of having a continuing narrative built from the pieces of disparate texts. In the end it is a kind of love story, a really classic tale built from very modern techniques and awareness.

The Dictionary of the Khazars has many stories running through it. It is literally, a dictionary or rather an encyclopedia of entries, broken into sources from three different faiths, that is supposed to be about a lost people. Somehow it manages to blend magic, love, dream-catching, deep history, murder mysteries, folklore, present affairs, and ten thousand other things together. I go back and reread it every couple of years. It is a book of wonders that you can enter into at any point. I'd love it if I could convey a fraction of that mad and tangled dream across to players in one of my games.

(The Dictionary of the Khazars)

Philip K. Dick
When we first started hearing about Blade Runner, the Griffon Bookstore was in its second location. We'd hang out there on the weekend, and occasionally go down the street to the Hallmark store to look at comics and sci-fi magazines. I remember reading an issue of Fangoria...or some other movie magazine that had shots of the film. It looked so cool...so different from anything else we'd seen in sci-fi and the title, “Blade Runner”...what the hell did that mean? Again, it just sounded cool.

Not all that long after I first heard about the movie, we were in an Osco Pharmacy when I saw they had a novelization of Blade Runner. I'd read some of the Alan Dean Foster adaptations like Krull, Outland and Alien...though I may be getting my timeline mixed up here. Anyway, I bought the book and went home to read it. It was, of course, not a novelization, but in fact the original Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. I read it and loved it-- though I didn't get everything. It had such a weird and different approach to sci-fi-- like a strange domestic tragedy against the background of slightly dystopian world.

Of course then I saw the movie. And while I loved the movie, I was also disappointed. So much of what I'd enjoyed about the book had vanished. I remember trying to explain to my parents what the differences were, but I don't think they got it. Over the next couple of years I started picking up whatever PK Dick books I could find. DAW had a lot of them: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Maze of Death, Ubik and so on, but many of them were out of print or truly obscure. This could have been just after Dick passed away and so I imagine many of the rights were up in the air. Eventually they started to put together the collected short stories and reprint most of his stuff but it took some time.

How can I put this...reading his works in early high school was an absolute mindf*ck. His heroes are more often slightly worn-down everymen who usually lose, the plots vary from enigmatic to just plain absent, a bizarre sense of drug culture and perception permeates everything, and in nearly every book reality isn't what it seems. I'd say I love about half the books I've read of his...and mostly because despite the often lame writing I feel deep affection for the schlub characters. There are sci-fi plots and elements, but most of the time they're about people just trying to deal with the strangeness and madness of the world around them.

(We Can Build You, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said)

Clark Ashton Smith
I went through my Lovecraft phase pretty early. When I was in grade school they had these wonderfully awful editions of the Lovecraft books with matching dark covers and a single twisted visage on each one. I remember my sister telling me not to read them. I'd seen the weird treatment of the Lovercaft Mythos in the first Deities and Demigods for TSR (before they got sued to remove them). Then Chaosium came out with the Call of Cthulhu rpg which my sister brought a copy of home. Eventually I snuck one of the books from a friend and read it and got absolutely terrified. I remembered confessing I'd read it to my bewildered Mom and Dad one Sunday morning. Their reaction told me that I was probably a little oversensitive, and despite what Cat had said it likely wasn't illegal for someone my age to be reading them.

Eventually I figured out that there were the Lovecraft stories and then there was everything else: Howard, Dereleth, deCamp and all the others. Some bastardized, some borrowed and others just kind of fell in the same circles. That's how I found Manley Wade Wellman, when they tried to tie his Silver John stories in with that. I also came across Clark Ashton Smith, but only a little. Eventually I'd realized that I'd seen something of Smith's earlier-- in another bastardized version. One of the earliest AD&D modules was Castle Amber-- a very strange thing that seemed more Edgar Alan Poe than anything. It turned out they had stolen a great deal from Smith for this.

Over time I managed to track down and read a bunch of his weird tales. They owe more to Lord Dunsany than anything else. They're strange and fantastic tales, more mythic and poetic than anything else. They don't have quite the overwriting that HPL does and his use of language actually carries something across rather than obscuring. I love these stories and go back to reread them again whenever fantasy fiction starts to seem drab and boring to me.

(Zothique, Xiccarph)

Harlan Ellison
I can't remember exactly what I read first of Harlan Ellison's stuff. When I was in high school they did a reprint run of his collections. I read through a bunch of the short story collections-- Deathbird Stories, Shatterday, and so on and enjoyed them. Then I mixed up in all of that I picked up a copy of The Glass Teat. That wasn't fiction but instead a strange set of essay and review about television. Now mind you, most of the stuff he was talking about was at least a decade before my time or else just barely in my awareness. But I remember it being the first time I actually understood about a writer's voice in non-fiction. I hunted down all the other essay collections I could find by him and read those. The fiction stuff I could take or leave. I have mixed feelings about him as an author-- he's built a really contradictory persona. But boy can he write. Reading his stuff makes me acutely aware of that power.

(Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed, Strange Wine)

Ray Bradbury
I'll admit to being a scardey-cat when I was a kid. I still am-- I love horror stuff, but it does get under my skin and stay in my head. I have a very high ability to suspend my disbelief. Movies with really striking visuals like The Ring, Blair Witch and The Grudge freak me out-- and yes, after seeing each of those movies I couldn't get to sleep for several nights. I know some people found them goofy or unaffecting, but man...

So I have a very distinct memory of receiving a collection of ray Bradbury stories at someone else's birthday party when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I think it was a doorprize. Eventually I sat down to read it. There's a story in there where a guy begins to think that his own skeleton is out to get him.

Sounds stupid, right. But it absolutely freaked me out. It would be another couple of years before I'd go back to read Bradbury. By that time we'd had that awful Martian Chronicles mini-series and Stephen King had mentioned Something Wicked This Way Comes as a great horror novel in Danse Macabre. I went back and started to pull together whatever Bradbury I could find. This time I loved it-- some of it still spooked me, but so much of it was rich, poetic and wonderful that I couldn't get enough. I remember one night sitting on a swing down at the park by our house and reading a Medicine for Melancholy...and just absolutely enjoying myself. I was reading Bradbury during some of those nights I recall going with my dad onto campus. He was working late in the office and we'd have the big empty hallways to ourselves.

Bradbury's just right for those kinds of strange, and maybe a little sad, memories.

(The October Country, Long After Midnight)

Alan Moore
The first thing I ever read by Alan Moore was a stack of British comics called Warrior my sister brought home. They had the first Marvelman stories in them. It'd be another several years before Eclipse comics would reprint them in the US as Miracleman. The whole revelation that he wasn't really a superhero-- and that image of the government trying to kill him and his pals with an atomic bomb-- that stuck with me.

A few years later I wandered into one of the on-again, off-again comic books stores that we used to have in South Bend. It was a few blocks away from my house and I went there rarely. It lay a little outside the range of places my mom would have approved of me going out to unaccompanied. But I was a latchkey kid so I had a good deal of time to myself. This would have been middle-school, 1983, I think. Anyway, they had a quarter or dime bin of comics I rummaged through. In there I found two series that I had started to read over at a friend's house, but hadn't gotten far with: Arion, Lord of Atlantis and Swamp Thing. The former was cool because it was fantasy, the latter because I'd read some reprints of the old Berni Wrightson stuff. I bought up as much of it as I could and went home.

The Swamp Thing issues started somewhere before the double-digits. Those issues weren't bad. I remember the Beast of the Apocalypse showed up in there somewhere, and an issue about a demonic child molester. Lah-lah-lah...then I got to "The Anatomy Lesson". As I recall it wasn't the first issue Moore did-- I think that was the one before where he cleared the decks of the various characters and plots that had been hanging around. But this issue...listen, if you haven't read Moore's run on Swamp Thing, you really have to. It is amazing how he managed to change the status quo and make it seem logical, how he didn't make you feel like it was a reboot, how he managed to keep contact with the DC Universe while absolutely changing the rules. People talk about Watchmen being the comic that brought about a change in superhero comics, but I'd say his run on Swamp Thing-- that updated the cosmology of DC and introduced John Constantine and did a hundred other things amazingly well...you have to imagine it in the context of things-- nothing else like this was going on. Nothing. We hadn't seen Sandman yet, there was no Vertigo line, the X-Men still only had one title...a whole different world. Moore made me appreciate that horror could be done in comics, pointed me to a new generation of horror writers (Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker), and gave me the first comic that I actively went out searching for every single month.

And then he also wrote a whole bunch of other mind-blowing stuff later. Some I like better than others, but I've found something enjoyable in everything he's written. And usually something that changes the way I think about things.

(Top Ten, Supreme...too many things to choose from here...)

Stanislaw Lem
There's a real theme here for me of reading some wildly odd writers at a young age and that sticking with me long after. In grade school one of my friends was reading Tales of Prix the Pilot. I ended up reading Lem's The Cyberiad...which was very different from the Dr. Who novels I'd been reading at the time. If I recall correctly, it is about dueling scientists, battles with math and a kind of surreal (and European) of what speculative fiction meant. Again, it was one of those books that changed what I thought sci-fi was. Years later I'd start to read more of Lem's work-- seeing how it fit into the tradition of Kafka and Orwell. His stuff is what I'd like to call “idea” fiction rather than being about conventional characters and plot. I love them for that completely different approach to what this genre can do. A Perfect Vacuum is a collection of reviews for non-existent books...you have to love that.

(The Investigation, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub)