Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I'm Bicuspal.

I'm really getting a kick out of photography. Working with this image was funny -- I had to cut the highlights, then pump up the light tones, cut dark tones, and pump up the blacks. Trying to get clarity without going all digital-image candy-color was a challenge.

But given the day's subject matter, I feel obliged to include a paleo-image. Here's a Hyaenodon horridus.

So this morning I come down and find and email that takes me by surprise. Through my association with Art Evolved, I've been invited to take place in a public art project at Harvard on September twenty-ninth.

(Of course this takes place during the month when time pressures have kept me from drawing my Anomalocaris.)

They're going to be making a chalk drawing of a timeline of the history of life on Earth outside the Harvard library and they want me to both draw and answer the questions of passers-by.

Normally I'd be thrilled but frustrated by the fact that I couldn't get there, but my current circumstances put me into a tantalizing position. By which I mean I'm in the position of Tantalus, who had fruit above him and water below him, both of which retreated when he reached for them.

See, I'm going to be passing through Boston on October fourth, in order to attend the Viable Paradise writer's workshop on Martha's Vineyard. (Among other things, I'll be asking for advice on selling my novel. If I play my cards right I should be able to get some kind of a boost.)

In order to participate, I'd have to take an extra week off from school and miss two classes in a row. I'd also have to find a way of attaching chalk to a stick and practice drawing with it -- my back ain't gonna let me crouch for five hours. I'd have to pay to have my flight changed, and find some way to stay in Boston for a week.

But this would be a hell of an experience, a great thing to put on my resume, and I could probably place an article on it in Prehistoric Times magazine. Heck, maybe a more prestigious publication might find it of interest...

I'm probably not going to be able to do it. But I'm going to try.

The Missus flat-out said, "You can't be gone for that long."

And I flat-out said, "I am not such an idiot as to fail to take advantage of an opportunity."

And she heard me...

It's weird -- I'm a writer, first and foremost, but the art thing just won't go away. In the long run, I intend to find a way of bringing the two together, but right now it seems that just as I'm getting my teeth sunk into the writing, the art busts in the door and pins me to the wall, screaming demands. I'm on the cusp of achievement in two areas -- I'm bicuspal.

All this gave me a sense of not-quite-deja-vu. I felt as though I'd been in this place before, where I was simultaneously getting a sense of real and unexpected progress in my main fields of endeavor. So I looked back at what I'd blogged a year ago today.

I wonder if there's something about the season...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Thoughts On Fantasy

I decided to take photography because I've been using photographs as a basis for doing my Dada/Surrealism-influenced fantasy art for Swill. Unfortunately, I seem to be developing a taste for photography in itself. Great. Just what I need. A new form.

What next? If it's dance, I might have to kill myself.

Well, if you didn't think I was an overweening ass before, this might just change your mind. I've got a couple of hours before I have to leave for school and nothing pressing that I can actually do, so I thought I'd write a bit about my philosophy of fantasy, how it evolved, and how I apply it to my own work.

As a child, my introduction to fantasy came when my parents decided to read the Hobbit to me. My maternal grandmother, Jean Bishop, was one of those who fell in love with Tolkien's work as it was first published, and she passed that inheritance on to my mom.

The Hobbit obsessed me. It let me live in another world, one far more satisfying than my own. My life seemed -- how does it go? -- flat, stale, and unprofitable. More than his words, Tolkien's illustrations gave me a sense of uplift, of expanded life, a sense that there was (despite the fears and suffering he portrayed) a better place than mine.

I think that in many ways, the pleasure we take in stories of other times and places, of fantastic people, creatures, and events, derives from the same roots as the impulse motivating religious belief. For many, religion gives them the same thing Tolkien gave me -- an escape hatch.

So throughout my childhood and teen years, I searched out as much fantasy as I could -- and my criteria for approval was distance from conventional reality.

This eventually led to my explorations into religion, the occult, spirituality, Forteana, and so on. I wanted that imaginary escape hatch to be real, but the more I looked for it, the more I realized that it didn't exist. If I hadn't pursued the numinous with intellectual rigor, I'd probably still have a vague belief that there's a supernatural influence in life.

This led me to ignore many of the strongest virtues of much of my favorite fiction. Lord Dunsany --

A few words before we go on. Lord Dunsany is the single most influential figure in fantasy. The two main schools of twentieth-century fantasy are the Weird Tales writers and the later Inklings, who included both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. He was in many ways a better writer than those who followed him, more mature, more original, more humorous, more wise in the ways of the world.

Most of those who followed him were enchanted, as I was, by his use of words, the way he summoned up an atmosphere of other worlds. His writing, especially his early writing, was consciously influenced by the Bible. This added a strong whiff of the Orient (apologies for the use of an outdated term, but in our cultural history there's a difference between the Orient and Asia) to his work. He recognized that the Bible, however much it's influenced the Western world, was a work of Eastern folklore and folk history, one whose essential mindset is exotic to the West.

As an adult, when I read Dunsany I still appreciate that exoticism -- but more than that, I'm conscious of his sense of irony and satire. When appreciated in full, his escapism is grounded firmly in the reality of the human experience.

Dunsany's awareness of mythology is congruent with Tolkien's fascination with the folk literature of Northern Europe. What I'm saying is that fantasy has its deepest roots in religion and folklore -- in stories that people really believe in. It's that sense of conviction that allows us to experience escapism. I've always read myths and fairy tales and so on with the same mindset that I bring to fantasy.

As a kid I was distressed to hear the speculation that The Lord of the Rings was a parable for WWII, with Sauron playing the role of Hitler. It seemed to make the whole thing a cheat. But when I read more of Tolkien's personal history, it seemed to me that the War of the Rings drew more from his experiences during WWI, and that many of the emotional beats in that story seemed to come from Tolkien's life, I had the opposite reaction.

The connection with reality made the story deeper, richer, more personal.

Look, these days I find the Lord of the Rings absolutely unreadable. And I've tried. The first volume begins entertainingly, but by the end I wanted to beat the living shit of of Tom Bombadil, and I hit The Two Towers like a bullet hitting Lexan. But I still respect Tolkien and wish happiness to those who truly love his work. I just don't see this as a novel written with a readership in mind. It's intensely personal, clearly the product of a deep-rooted compulsion, and for most of us it's inaccessible.

My growing feeling that escapism functions best when firmly rooted to the human experience was reinforced by the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories of Fritz Leiber. Leiber is a highly variable writer; he's done some absolutely dreadful stuff but at his best? He's one of the best. Honestly, he should be recognized by the Literary Establishment. I will flat-out say that Our Lady of Darkness is one of the two most direct influences on my novel The Ghost Rockers. (The other would be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Ghost Rockers isn't that much like either of them, but the influence is there.)

My absolute favorite Fafhrd and Mouser story is the farce Lean Times in Lankhmar. It is fucking hilarious, the supernatural just barely peeks in through the window, the satire of religion is pitch perfect. And yet it's set in another world that's clearly realized to the point where you smell it, you taste it, you feel cobblestones under your ass as you sit and listen to Fafhrd sing.

Edward Eager was another strong influence for me, and later John Bellairs. They both specialized in the intrusion of the supernatural into daily life. In Eager's works, this led to comedy, and in Bellair's, this led to horror. As much as I loved works like the Oz books and The Phantom Tollbooth, the way the fantastic and realistic elements were neatly separated from one another disappointed me. Either there is an Oz or there isn't -- and if there is, Dorothy isn't going to be the only person or thing traveling between the two worlds. That sense of separation seemed to make the fantastic elements of the story into a dream.

Or a lie.

You may notice that I spend little time discussing current fantasy. The fantasy I love is the product of a singular and eccentric mind, and most of what was written after the clearly plagiarized Sword of Shannara has been product. I'm certain that much of it is good product but it just isn't what I'm interested in.

I suspect that Dungeons & Dragons has much to do with it. Hey, I was rolling polyhedral dice back when you had to buy them from TSR and they were made out of shitty plastic that made them look like a Transformer's venereal scabs. I still read RPGs even if I don't play them.

But they gave people a clear model for creating a fantasy, a series of methodical steps that lead to the production of a world, characters, and a narrative. And that's what this stuff looks like to me -- the product of a method. All perspiration and no inspiration.

So when I set out to write a fantasy, I had a number of clear goals in mind.

1) It should offer escapism -- it's my job to show you amazing things that you will never see anywhere else.

2) It needs to connect strongly with reality in a way that makes the real fantastic and the fantastic real. The world of daily life and the other world are the same fucking world, even if it takes a while for the characters and the reader to see this. You ever think that virtually all humans throughout history would regard the way you live as exotic, magical, fantastic?

3) It should be personal and honest. There is a longstanding tradition of writer's putting elements of themselves in their characters, especially in Sword and Sorcery fiction. There's a lot of Robert E. Howard in King Kull, a lot of Moorcock in Elric, a lot of Leiber in Fafhrd. And to be honest, I'm a hell of a good character. Early in my current drive to become a writer, my sister and brother-in-law told me that my best fiction was the stuff I wrote in my own voice, my conversational voice. "It makes me feel like I'm in the presence of an incredibly powerful mind that's totally devoted to not being a psycho killer," was what my brother-in-law said. I've kept that statement in mind while writing.

4) It should be true to my time, place, and culture. I want to write a piece of epic fantasy that relates to my people, and derives from current folk culture. So while I'm trying as hard as I can to write real literature, I am consciously drawing on everything from popular music to movies to comic books, along with the deeper well of world mythologies and religious traditions.

5) It should be absolutely convincing. I'm thinking of Lovecraft's dictum that a horror story should be as carefully planned and executed as a hoax. It is my goal to have the fantastic elements of the book be the kind of thing that some people might actually believe in, no matter how bizarre they might be. To have the supernatural elements ring true to a degree that would have allowed me to start a cult based on them if I hadn't used them in a novel.

6) Finally, and in many ways most importantly, I wanted make this something that was truly unique, a real one-of-a-kind, and so I turned to sources of inspiration outside the fields of genre fiction. I brought surrealistic techniques to bear, I used direct observations from life, I started out by writing completely intuitively before organizing the material into a cohesive narrative. Dreams and visions (I'm crazy -- I get visions) and music and art and even evolutionary science play more of a role in what shows up on the page than Tolkien and Howard do.


Sometimes I suspect that I think too much about this stuff.

Monday, September 14, 2009

For And Against

So Erin O'Brian had (another) great post on her blog (don't be a fool -- click here), and with her kind permission I'm swiping the idea. It seems a lot healthier than a similar post I made a while ago. Tell you the truth? The fact that she ran out of things to be against leaves me stunned and humbled. She must not have a seething cauldron of hate where her heart should be, unlike certain people wearing my boots.

(And check it out! It looks like I topped ten thousand hits a few days back. I know that's not much in the grand scheme of things, but it certainly gratifies me.)

I am for broccoli rabe with Italian sausage and garlic-roasted potatoes.

I am against grated carrot salad with raisins, dressed with mayo.

I am for conservatives who support small government and liberals who support social welfare.

I am against mosquito bites.

I am for man-eating sharks.

I am against cell phones.

I am for stomp-boxes.

I am against seafood.

I am for garlic, leeks, chives, shallots, and yellow, red, and green onions.

I am against elephant garlic.

I am for shank, chuck, short ribs, jowls, tails, and stray chunks of gristle.

I am against boneless skinless chicken breasts and fillet Mignon.

I am for the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble, and the Bill of Rights.

I am against the Federalist Papers and the bulk of the Constitution.

I am for members of the city counsel.

I am against Presidents.

I am for rockets, robots, and rayguns.

I am against the kind of pornography where you can't tell whether it looks more like open-heart surgery or a PBS special on marine invertebrates.

I am for naked fat chicks.

I am against the way the fast food industry has destroyed the collective palate and metabolism of our nation.

I am for a bacon-cheeseburger with grilled onions and fries.

I am against Laughing Cow cheese.

I am for Stilton.

I am against breeding more humans.

I am for kids.

(This is how a childless man winds up changing diapers and babysitting.)

I am against people who crowd me off the sidewalk. (I'm thinking about instituting a 'let 'em bounce off of me if that's what they want' policy.)

I am for coconut crabs.

I am against papillons.

Actually, there's this book called Animals Dangerous To Man? I'm for all those guys.

I'm against adorable little bright-eyed fuzzy creatures that bite like hell.

I am for Roger Corman.

I am against Steven Spielberg.

(That's right. I'd rather watch Carnosaur than Jurassic Park, and I'd rather watch my severed foot be eaten by maggots than watch any other Spielberg movie. Except for Catch Me If You Can, which was actually pretty good.)

I am for women whose looks don't even come into the question because, you know, they just got it.

I am against women whose attempts to look and smell perfectly feminine have rendered them flammable.

I am for the brutal.

I am against the fabulous.

I am for unexpected kindness and true courtesy.

I am against etiquette.

I am for twenty-ounce tumblers that you can drop on cement and the glass won't break.

I am against goblets.

I am for beer.

I am against coffee.

I am for over-proof liquor.

I am against disgustingly sweet girly shots and twenty-proof schnaps that tastes as though it came from the syrup cruet at IHOP.

I'm for the syrup cruet at IHOP. I may never eat there again, but come on! They got boysenberry.

I'm against store-bought blackberries.

I'm for home-grown tomatoes. Why else would you want a yard?

I'm for M.F.K. Fisher.

I'm against Danielle Steele.

I'm for that crazy lady who posts reviews of classic fiction on Amazon that say there's no such thing as good or bad in fiction and it's all a matter of taste and she likes Danielle Steele so she's gonna put the boot to Dostoevsky.

I am for most hangovers.

I am against the rest of them.

I am for pet rats.

I am against pet guinea pigs. (As a friend of my mom's once said, "Zoey, you're the only person in the world who would pay twenty bucks for a rock that shits.")

I am against cleaning shit off of everything all the time. How did this wind up being my responsibility?

I am for science.

I am against people who believe that makes me a tool of the devil.

I am for the kind of music I've never heard before.

I'm against the kind of music the neighbors play.

I am for good old-fashioned beer-guzzling nut-scratching pussy-talking, ass-kicking, thick-fingered scar-coated greasy masculinity and fuck you all.

I'm against the idea that any other kind of masculinity is suspect.

I am for brilliant, funny, creative, driven people.

I am against the fact that nine-tenths of those folks are bugfucking crazy and will break your heart and leave you frightened for their well-being every so often.

I'm for the crappy genre fiction I read and the trashy movies I watch.

I'm against the crappy genre fiction you read (Eeeww, you read cozy mysteries?) and the trashy movies you watch.

I'm for pretension.

I'm against ostentatiously reglar folks who are proud to be half-witted livestock and who think that 'common sense' trumps expertise.

I'm for blue-collar types.

I'm against cars.

I'm for boats.

I'm against watching sports.

I'm for playing sports.

And hey. If you've read this far? Thanks, pal. Agree with me or not, I'm for you.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I Finished!

Today I finished the last major revision of the novel. I'm going to run it through the Homework Club for line edits and then start marketing it. Four years, and they have been a crazy four years. Of course, this is just the first volume of three...

So here's a taste of today's work. To fill you in, the Deacon from the last post has given Matt a gun that might be able to take out the ghost in Matt's house, and Matt's buddy Willy peer-pressured him into trying smokeable speed. Nothing like an armed lunatic on crank, is there? (Again, all rights reserved, copyright Sean Craven, and do I really strike you as the kind of guy you'd want to plagiarize?)

I turned the knob of the door and stepped into the entry hall. I could see the white of the walls, the tobacco-spit brown of the ratty shag carpet and the patterned yellow floor of the kitchen.

“Jeff!” I said. “Here I am!”

I held the gun up, barrel pointed at the ceiling, and stepped into the living room. I stood under the broken fixture and screamed at the stubs of the burst light bulbs.

“You want me? You want to get me? Here I am!”

I pointed the gun at the fixture and almost pulled the trigger; impatience snagged at me and I went to the kitchen and stood under the milk-glass dome of the overhead light and tipped my head back, exposed my throat.

“Come on! Fuck you, fuck you, FUCK YOU COME ON!”

The natural rage born of my body and mind swept past the speed and overwhelmed it and my muscles locked and froze. I stood there, arms spread, gun in hand, head tipped back. All of a sudden my pose made me think of Christ on the cross and I felt ridiculous, which made me madder. I stomped hard and fast into James and Dierdre’s room.

My left hand thumped rhythmic dents in the plasterboard of the hallway as I went. I hesitated for a moment at the door – it’s not my room – then stepped in and pulled the hamper to one side and lay on the floor and screamed into the socket that had powered the alarm clock.

“Are you fucking scared of me? Get out here, you fucking chickenshit get out here get out here get out!”

Inside me I felt chains and gears locked and running, ready to cut, and I tasted blood in my mouth. I jerked back and forth and kicked at the floor, rage filling me to overflowing. I wanted to feel something give way and my flesh was all I had.

I slammed my hand into the wall by the outlet and hit a stud. The whole house shook. I punched the other side and put a hole in the wallboard, then gnawed the tatters off my skinned knuckles.

Then, just like in the kitchen, I saw myself. Rolling around on the floor, punching holes in the walls, cutting myself from the inside. Throwing a tantrum. Pitching a fit.

This ridiculous petulant creature was me.

The energy drained out of me like water from a sieve and I lay on the floor, weak and twitching and helpless. I couldn’t stay here; it wasn’t my place. I was the intruder in this room. I rolled over and crawled until I could stand, then set the hamper back where it belonged. I got up and walked out and shut the door, the weight of the gun dragging my arm down. I went into my room and lay down on my waterbed.

As I lay on the soft, yielding surface the initial bob and slowly dying waves were followed by stillness.

I wanted a bong hit; I wanted a million bong hits. I knew this wasn’t the time.

The feeling of water beneath me brought me back to my time floating in the pool. If I was there I would be forgiven. The thought made my throat ache and my eyes water; I hate to cry. It hurts and it’s ugly and it makes me feel weak.

In the silence I heard the bullets singing. This wasn’t all about me. I wasn’t the center of the world. I took the gun and slipped the catch and opened it, tilted the chamber and let the bullet fall on my chest.

I dropped the gun to the side of me and held the bullet to my ear and listened. It made me think of the story of the ants and the grasshopper; this would be the last song the grasshopper played as the snow came down. Whoever this had been had led a small life and the Deacon thought that…

It wasn’t my place to judge the Deacon. He had to fight monsters with what he had and I couldn’t know what brought him to do what he did.

But I knew that I could not take someone whose weakness and misfortunes had led them to become a soft, helpless monster and use them, destroy them to destroy something else.

I was no better than they were. But if I tried, if I worked hard, I might be able to avoid being worse.

I remembered the last words Jeff had said when he and Arnie came into my room that first time in the Limbus. “Don’t do it, Arnie.” The words I’d heard from him just now. “I can’t find Arnie.” It had been bad having Jeff in the house but what had he done to me, really?

I pulled the other bullets out of my pocket and lined them all up on my chest.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

I hoped Jeff could hear me.

What was I going to do? What was I…

And that’s when it hit me. When a problem is more than you can handle you have to break it down into smaller parts and deal with them one at a time. What was I going to do was really two questions.

What kind of man do I want to be?

And what would he do?