My 2014 in Books

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not usually one to keep a list of everything I read or watch, but in 2014 I kept a list of books I had read, in part because I was conscious that I wasn’t reading as much as I used to. Although the number this year is relatively small, I’d say the mixture of non-fiction and genre fiction is fairly typical of my reading in the last few years. The list includes some graphic novels and collections of comics, but not single comic book issues (which I’ve also fallen way behind on). It’s also influenced by subjects I was writing about; however, it only includes books I read from cover to cover, not those I dipped into for reference. Finally, all but one was a first-time read, although I had read parts of some of them in the past.

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January
Batman: Odyssey, Neal Adams
King City, Brandon Graham

February
The Look of the Old West, William Foster-Harris

March
Inventing Kindergarten, Norman Brosterman
Great American Folklore, Kemp P. Battle

April
The Old Patagonian Express, Paul Theroux
The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury, Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut

May
Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial, Alan G. Barbour
Misery, Stephen King

June
The Lost Worlds of Power Vol. 0, ed. Philip J. Reed

July
Showcase Presents The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights, various

August
The American Book of the Dead, Stephen Billias (reread)

September
The Bloodhounds of Broadway, Damon Runyon
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, Jacques Tardi

October
Showcase Presents Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew, various
All The Wrong Questions: “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”, Lemony Snicket
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett

December
The Lost Worlds of Power, ed. Philip J. Reed
All the Wrong Questions: “When Did You See Her Last?”, Lemony Snicket
Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie, Chris Nashawaty

Much of my thinking on what I read this year has already been included in the articles to which they are linked, and since most of what I read was published before 2014 and is in a diverse range of genres, ranking them seems pointless. I am struck, however, by how long ago some of the books I read in the spring seem to me; I might not have remembered that I read them this year at all without this list, instead consigning them to a hazy, indistinct “past,” even though I enjoyed many of them. To tell the truth, even September seems a long time ago from this vantage point. Such is the telescoping effect of the end-of-year holidays, I guess.

It strikes me, however, that I began and ended my year with two very different books that explored the rush of unbridled creativity in different formats. (Sorry, Batman: Odyssey, I don’t mean you, although you were memorable in many ways.) Brandon Graham’s King City is a graphic novel set in the futuristic metropolis of the title; its central character is a young man returning to his old stomping grounds after training with a mysterious group that uses multi-talented cats as weapons (yes, it is quite strange, but that description doesn’t even scratch the surface). In Graham’s notes (which I am paraphrasing, as I borrowed the book from the library and don’t have it in front of me), he said that King City‘s plot was guided by his desire to only draw things that were exciting to him: to not bore himself. Such an impulse could have led to disaster, but tied to a strong sense of craft, it makes for an immersive, invigorating read, with its weaponized cats, ultra-violent gangs, sexy girls, and graffiti-filled urban vistas that are part Moebius and part Mad magazine.

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At the other end (and just finished today, in fact) was Chris Nashawaty’s pictorial/oral history of influential director/producer Roger Corman’s career, from his days cranking out cheapies for the drive-in market to his nurturing of young (and affordable) talent, to his eventual recognition as a Hollywood elder statesman. The book includes reminiscences from such graduates of “Corman University” as Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, and James Cameron, to name only a few. I was somewhat familiar with Corman’s career and working methods, and of course many of his films; Corman, and “mavericks” like him, continue to inspire because of their perseverance and determination to create in the face of low budgets, limited time, and (in many cases) lack of prestige. Corman and his crew made a virtue of such limitations, but the many anecdotes about making films show the value of committing to do one’s best work, whether on a pointed political statement like The Intruder or on the many monster, biker, and women-in-prison movies that Corman made on an assembly-line basis.

Tomorrow, I look back on the movies I watched this year.

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I Stood in Line for an Hour to Watch Stephen King on Television

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Like something straight out of the hit film The Lawnmower Man, a futuristic digital simulacrum of author Stephen King manifested in one of the “overflow rooms” of the Hughes Metroplex at Wichita State University on Friday. King visited Wichita as part of the tour supporting his newest novel, Revival, and while I arrived early to hear him speak, I didn’t arrive quite early enough. The event (a reading from the new book, some prepared remarks, and a Q&A) was to start at 6 pm; having secured my ticket before they quickly sold out last month, I thought I’d head over to the Metroplex at about 5, giving myself plenty of time for travel and parking. Around 4:30, my wife noticed a Facebook post from a friend who was already there: the line was three quarters of the way around the building already. I hopped in the car and left, just barely finding a place to park. The line was fully around the building by this time (about 5), and many more people got in line after me. It took an hour for the line to wind back around, an hour of standing in near-freezing weather; at least it wasn’t raining or snowing. Quite a few people gave up and left, or didn’t bother queuing up when they saw the size of the crowd.

To make matters worse, the event was oversold: only the first 1700 ticket holders would be seated in the auditorium, and to get in the auditorium you had to have a wristband, which they started issuing at 4 pm. This information was on the event’s website, but not printed on the ticket:

Seating at the event is general admission. Once the Lowe Auditorium is full, the remaining attendees will be seated in overflow rooms with excellent, live audio / visual feed to Mr. King’s presentation.

So perhaps I was naive not to expect something like this, but based on the number of people who gave up, and the backlash mentioned in the Wichita Eagle‘s coverage of the event, I wasn’t the only one unpleasantly surprised. Needless to say, I was in the “overflow.”

But enough bitching. How was the presentation? It was fine: although King protested that he was terrified of large crowds and implied that he was at best a reluctant public speaker (supported by the fact that the Revival tour would only have six stops), he had an easy-going, conversational tone and was engaging and relaxed. A slight cold didn’t noticeably slow him down: he promised us it wasn’t ebola, and on that note observed that every time a new flu strain hit the news, sales of The Stand spiked. He sounded much like he writes, at least his non-fiction: I never once heard him use the word “fuckeroo” (although the sample he read from Revival did include “whoremaster,” another King standby).

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I’m more interested in King’s creative process than his books these days. That’s not to say I won’t read Revival, a copy of which was included with the ticket price. But even King’s diehard fans tend to take his books as they come these days, cherishing the good ones and shrugging off the disappointments as part of the cost of being a fan of this most prolific of authors. King is like a baseball player, grinding out a season’s worth of games, day in and day out, and even the Hall of Famers don’t hit home runs every time they go up to the plate.

The unevenness of King’s work has a lot to do with his intuitive approach and (reported) two thousand words a day: early on, King observed that he is “not an organized writer,” to which I responded “NO SHIT” in my notes. King said that every story begins with an image, and the process of writing is one of exploring the implications of that image and asking what happens next. He compared it to pulling a thread from a mouse hole: sometimes the thread is as short as a few pages’ worth of story, and sometimes it’s as long as a novel. And since King doesn’t know where it’s leading any more than the reader does, there’s always the possibility that the ending won’t be satisfying, or that it won’t be what he thought it would be when he began. Sometimes characters turn out to be stronger than he expected (he cited ‘Salem’s Lot, saying that his original plan was for the vampires to win), and sometimes they don’t make it. “I love a happy ending as much as anyone,” he said; “it’s just not always possible.”

I was aware of his general approach from his writing already: in addition to his memoir/handbook On Writing, King has often included writing and storytelling (and discussions of same) in his fiction, to the point that stories about writers are a significant subset of King’s work. As I wrote last summer, Misery, in addition to being a gripping story of suspense, is also something of a master class in writing as King surrogate Paul Sheldon thinks his way through the book that will preserve his life as a captive of his “biggest fan,” Annie Wilkes. Much of the imagery King uses to describe his process, such as seeing the story through a hole or window, is present in Misery and was still part of King’s discussion on Friday.

I suspect this is one reason King continues to fascinate long after his ideas are not only no longer shocking, but even familiar: his willingness to allow readers into his thought process, to show his tricks, to let them come along as if he needed their help in telling the story, is endearing. It’s also as much of a pose as that of the author who reveals nothing (such as John Irving, whom King said told him that he doesn’t begin a book until he knows what the last sentence will be, to which King responded, “Jeez Louise”), and I’m not naive enough to believe that King has completely laid it all on the table for his audience. Still, the sense that King’s personality comes through his writing is palpable, and longtime fans accept him as they accept old friends or family members, foibles and all.

One of the more interesting moments came during the Q&A: an audience member asked if King still slept with the light on, as he once claimed in an interview. King appeared to search for a memory of having said that, gave up, and finally said, “I’m a big boy now.” The audience laughed, and King segued into a bit that he had likely delivered before and clearly relished, drawing the audience into one of his stories: he pointed out that of all the people at the Metroplex, some of us had probably forgotten to lock our cars, and “anybody could climb into the back seat. And when you’re driving home and you look in the rear-view mirror”–he mimed a figure rising from the back seat–“‘objects may be closer than they appear.’ . . . But that probably won’t happen.” He continued, “And when you get home, and your house is all dark, you’ll go into the bathroom and see the shower curtain closed, and you’ll tell yourself, ‘I left it like that.’ . . . There probably won’t be anybody there.” We all laughed, and King laughed, too. “We’re all laughing,” he said, “but these things have a time release. Because some time tonight, you’re going to be alone, and it’s going to be dark, and then it won’t seem so funny.”

Stephen Billias’ The American Book of the Dead: An Old Favorite Revisited

Nucleomitophobia is an exaggerated fear of being blown to bits by nuclear weapons. Bertie Rupp has it, and it’s driving him crazy. He’s tried meditation, yoga, vegetarianism, and The Society for the Preservation of Mankind. Nothing works, until he hears about The American Book of the Dead, a Zen guide to surviving the nuclear holocaust. Convinced that he must find The Book and learn its secrets if the human race is to endure, Bertie sets out on a desperate search that will take him to Las Vegas and back . . . and involve him in the lives of an ex-nun from Kansas who truly loves him, an old tailor who survived the Nazi holocaust, and a mysterious representative from The Society for the Preservation of Outer Space. It is an odyssey that will lead him through the darkness of impending nuclear war and beyond . . . to Enlightenment.

That back-cover summary (combined with the cover illustration of a slack-jawed hippie gaping at a tiny “bonsai sequoia” tree, surrounded by approving monks) convinced me that I needed to read Stephen Billias’ 1987 novel The American Book of the Dead when I found it in the bookstore at age fourteen. I’ve written about my own nuclear fears, and while they had peaked a few years earlier, I still felt that I could relate to this Bertie Rupp character. I was similarly intrigued by his spiritual search for peace and Enlightenment with a capital E, as I was in the midst of a comparative study of different religions and sorting out many of life’s questions for myself (if I come up with a definitive answer, I’ll let you know).

Popular Library edition, 1987. Cover illustration by Gary Ruddell.

Popular Library edition, 1987. Cover illustration by Gary Ruddell.

At that age, I was reading science fiction and fantasy paperbacks pretty regularly, and I recognized the publisher, Questar (an imprint of Warner’s Popular Library), having read and enjoyed some of their other genre-stretching offerings already. A front-cover blurb from Harlan Ellison describing TABOTD (as I will henceforth abbreviate it) as “wonderfully bizarre” sealed the deal.

It turned out to be the perfect book for me at the moment; I read it and reread it several times. I thrust it into the hands of friends to read; my dad read it; even some of my teachers read it. Everyone I gave it to seemed to enjoy it. Since then, however, I’ve never met anyone else that read or remembered it. It had only a single printing, as far as I know. Twenty-five years later, I doubted myself: perhaps in my youth I overestimated its quality or originality; perhaps it was too timely, predicated as it was on Cold War nuclear anxiety; maybe it simply wasn’t as good as I remembered.

So, this past week I reread it, and while I can’t deny the possibility that my judgment is compromised by nostalgia, I still found it an imaginative, compassionate, and frequently beautiful book. At the same time, it’s now easier for me to put it into a literary context and make some useful comparisons to other books that are likely to be more familiar to readers.

The first thing that might not be clear from the summary above is that, while Bertie’s experiences are framed as a contemporary version of the Buddha’s journey, TABOTD is an often funny book. The Zen koan, or joke which startles and leads to wisdom, is built into the text of The Book within the book, a mixture of spiritual teaching and modern commercial jargon (“CHANGELESS CHANGE, PRIMORDIAL ESSENCE OF THE GREAT PRIMAL BEGINNING: NEW, IMPROVED, LONGER LASTING” reads one aphorism). The story takes detours which are absurd on the surface but feed into the main plot. Billias makes wry observations on the foibles of humanity, both through his characters and as an omniscient narrator. The tone—whimsical, digressive, drily aware of mortal folly—is strongly indebted to Douglas Adams.

However, whereas The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with the end of the world, TABOTD builds toward it (it’s not a spoiler to reveal that Bertie’s worst fears come true—they are foreshadowed from the beginning). Adams’ protagonist, Arthur Dent, spends about one page grieving after the earth is blown up by aliens, but it’s clear he didn’t leave much behind and the focus is squarely on his adventures. Bertie Rupp, by contrast, is intensely aware of the suffering of the world, human and non-human alike: it is not only for his own sake that he fears the coming war. It’s somewhat more like Adams’ later work, as enamored with the wonders that can be found on earth as with the spaced-out products of his imagination.

If I had to assign a genre to TABOTD, I’d call it magical realism rather than any kind of science fiction: animals talk, there are signs and premonitions, and eventually the gods of mythology are brought into the mix. (One of the main characters is Monkey—the Monkey from the classic novel Journey to the West—an immortal, talking primate whose goals and prankish sense of humor are often at odds with the seriousness of Bertie’s spiritual undertaking.) There’s some pseudo-scientific rationalization (think Chariots of the Gods), but the result is a narrative world where anything can happen, and as society, racing toward Armageddon, unravels, things get increasingly freaky.

There’s also a strain of hidden history and conspiracy which, combined with the novel’s antic tone, owes something to Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy. The main antagonist is a corporate mogul described as “a government employee, at the Cabinet level, who had returned to private business after a change of administration.” His name is redacted throughout the book, so he appears as “_______ _______.” Does he represent a real person? I don’t know, but it’s not hard to think of possibilities; such figures are always timely. A grasping, scheming super-capitalist, ______ ______ is one of the few elements of the book that seems even more contemporary now than it did then; he and his fellow businessmen personify what Matt Taibbi memorably described as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

Early in TABOTD, _______ _______ chooses Bertie, a temp worker, to drive him to “Big Boys Camp,” a top-secret gathering of powerful CEOs and politicians in the manner of a Boy Scout jamboree. Invited to participate, Bertie joins the “campers” for a weekend of canoeing, three-legged races, and weenie roasts under the watchful eye of a camp director. It is at Big Boys Camp that Bertie first encounters Monkey, held captive by _______ _______ and his fellow businessmen and brought out in a cage to terrify them with scary stories.

Bertie let out his breath with a gasp. A monkey was telling the creation story to American capitalists in the fantasy camp of their lost childhoods. Bertie was in dire danger of losing his perspective.

(As sometimes happens, I thought of Big Boys Camp as a surreal invention, of a piece with the talking animals and spacecraft in the rest of the book; it wasn’t until several years later that I heard about the high-powered gatherings at Bohemian Grove and experienced the weird feeling that comes from imagined fiction crashing into reality.)

For a fairly short novel, TABOTD is quite shaggy, with dozens of characters and an episodic form; some elements of it are dated, and not in a good way (Rufus, a black security guard who befriends and protects Bertie, speaks in an exaggerated “sho ‘nuff” dialect that probably wouldn’t get past an editor today). It gets a lot of mileage, however, from the steadily increasing tension of the situation, as Bertie’s travails are intercut with examples of the Strangelove-like madness that leads to war and the mania of a collapsing society. It helps, too, that Billias generates empathy for all the characters, even the villains: _______ _______ isn’t exactly redeemed, but he is a compelling presence, and honest readers will be able to see something of themselves in his self-interested calculations even if they wouldn’t take his actions. (______ ______ is also pretty dynamic: as a character defined by his fear, his will to power, and his aggressive avarice, he balances out the more passive Bertie, who is gradually letting go of all those things.)

According to what little biographical information I’ve found, Billias was in his late 30s when The American Book of the Dead was published; the melancholy tone, the sorrow for the challenges awaiting coming generations, and the sense of how precarious life is speak to me now where they went over my head as a teenager. I don’t doubt that it’s more than a little autobiographical.

If this write-up sounds vague, that’s deliberate: while I usually try to provide some analysis, in this case I’m straight-up promoting, and I don’t want to give too much away. I hope you’ll seek out this book and form your own opinion. After all these years, this is a book that I still believe deserves to be read, to be part of the conversation.

My Library, Such As It Is

I’m not really the kind of book collector who fusses about rare items or first editions; it’s nice to find those sorts of things, and I can appreciate a beautifully-bound book as a work of art in itself, but I mostly think of collecting books as building a library for reference or enjoyment.  When I was younger, and mostly reading science fiction and other genre material, I would pursue books and authors that connected with one another in some way: the Cthulhu Mythos and the Weird Tales school; or the books listed by Gary Gygax as influences on Dungeons & Dragons; and, later on, steampunk and the nineteenth-century authors who influenced it.  When I became a graduate student and teacher, my library of music books–theory, history, and other kinds of reference–burgeoned. Along the way, I’ve picked up books of art, criticism, and aesthetics that caught my interest.

Space is always an issue, of course, for the private library as much as the public (even if it’s on a smaller scale).  Although my rate of accumulation has slowed a great deal over the last several years–I no longer have the time, space, or funds to simply buy anything of interest that I come across–I still have more books than the shelf space to accommodate them, and choices must be made.  I have tried to prioritize books that I expect to refer to, or which I haven’t read yet but would like to, but one never really knows. That’s part of the point of keeping a library, isn’t it?  (I’ve never been able to keep a strict reading list and stick to it, simply because most of the books I read suggest the next book to me: I don’t know what it will be until I’ve finished the last one.)

In one house I lived in, I had a bookshelf in the living room full of classics, some of which I had read and others I hoped to get to, lumped together by the single commonality of their supposed importance.  In the guest bedroom, however, were the books I really read, the Stephen King and Philip K. Dick, the reprints from the pulp era and the books on UFOs and unexplained mysteries.  The house I’m in now I’ve been in a little more than a year, and while the display of my books is a little less showy and two-faced, it’s still the result of practical compromises, so while much of my library looks like this:

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. . . a lot of it looks like this:

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. . . and even more of it looks like this:

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There are different motivations for collecting, and my motivations have changed over the years.  One of the first impulses is simply to have a collection as a form of mastery: the completist urge, to have a matched set, to have at your fingertips anything you might want to experience or refer to.  This notably affects record collectors in particular, but any kind of collector can fall prey to the need to fill in gaps, to have a satisfyingly whole body of work to dive into or simply stand back and regard.

Not unrelated is what we might call the scholarly impulse: as I’ve been discovering over the last ten months, since I started writing this blog, you can only write off the top of your head for so long before you need to pull in an apposite quote or factoid for support.  In my case, I’m blessed with a decent memory, good enough to recall something I read years or decades ago that bears on my present topic, but cursed in that it isn’t a photographic memory, and if I want to get a quote right I have to remember where I read it and dig up a copy to refresh my memory and ensure accuracy.  The internet and the public and university libraries have all helped, of course, and I’m not too proud to admit that more than once I’ve borrowed a book from the library that I already owned because it was faster to do that than hunt down my own copy.

Lately, I’ve been digging into those boxes more frequently in search of specific books that I know I’ve got, if I can just remember which box I packed it in.  Doing so makes me feel less like a librarian and more like a hoarder, but it’s vindicating when I find what I was looking for, especially when it’s something I remember not by name but by the picture on the cover, or by a general sense of “I’ll know it when I find it.”

Henry Petroski’s absorbing book The Book on the Bookshelf (which, ironically enough, I don’t have at my fingertips right now) goes into both the history and methodology of organizing books and discusses the problems I’ve alluded to here. In addition to such well-known systems as the Dewey Decimal and alphabetization by author’s last name, Petroski points out that there are many other ways of ordering libraries, some of which sound far-fetched but aren’t that crazy, at least for private collections. While we don’t organize public library books by size or color, for example, my own searches indicate those are just as useful for finding half-remembered books as titles or authors (books that are packed in boxes are often packed together based on size and shape rather than complementary subject matter!).

All of this comes to mind after another round of shifting and unpacking boxes to find a few supplementary books for my ongoing series on motion picture serials, but I went through something similar last fall when writing a series on anthologies of different kinds (both are listed on my Series page, for those wanting to catch up).  I’ll probably never have everything I own all out in the open, at least not until such time as I’m able to move into a house with shelves on every wall.  It doesn’t help that I’m not a specialist, limiting my work to a core collection of volumes on a single subject.  For now, at least, I’ll make due with a rotating collection, following my fickle muse.

The Pleasures of Anthology, Part Two

Read Part One here.

As you can probably tell from the previous examples, my own preferences lean toward science fiction and fantasy.  Of my favorite authors, New England horror writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) has had by the far the greatest influence on me, and his connections to other writers (by letters and acquaintance, or by the coincidences of publication) have been a constant thread in searching for stories.

Referring to Lovecraft as a “horror” writer can be a bit misleading: although he considered the cultivation of a frightening atmosphere his primary goal, he mostly eschewed “the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.”  Rather, he was a practitioner of “weird fiction,” a catch-all label for nascent science fiction, fantasy, and horror before those genres had clearly defined markets.  Most of Lovecraft’s work cultivated a sense of ancient, alien forces intruding into the present day, and although he borrowed a great many elements from the gothic horror of the previous century—books full of suppressed secrets, crumbling old houses, ominous supernatural signs—he married them to a scientific outlook, in which the most frightening truths were not to be found in the evil actions of men but in the indifference of a hostile, uncaring universe.  As he wrote in his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, “The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule.”

I didn’t know much about Lovecraft’s outlook when I started looking for his stories.  All I knew was that his reputed blend of science fiction concepts, ooky tentacled monsters and dreamlike air of mystery appealed strongly to me as a budding reader of fantastic fiction.  As hard as it may be to believe now, Lovecraft’s work wasn’t easy for me to track down when I was young, even though his name (and that of his creation, “Cthulhu”) was known to me.  He was almost mythical, and I think he would have enjoyed the aura surrounding his work, had he still been alive; I knew that his “Cthulhu Mythos” had been included in the first printing of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons book Deities & Demigods, but was removed from later printings due to a copyright dispute—or is that what they wanted me to think?* Every detail fueled my interest, until I was finally able to read his work for myself; fortunately, he more than lived up to the hype, at least in my experience.  My being at the “golden age” of twelve or thirteen surely didn’t hurt.

My first tastes of his elaborate mythology came from anthologies, a single story by him (or one of his imitators**) included here or there.  For a long time, even after I had read all of Lovecraft’s fiction (down to the dire posthumous “collaborations” by his executor August Derleth), I would search tables of contents for his name, not in hopes of finding something new but as a sign that the editor recognized the good stuff and that the rest of the book might be in the same vein.  Similarly, anything connected to the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales, in which Lovecraft published most of his work, was a must-have.

That’s how I acquired Weird Tales: 32 Unearthed Terrors, edited by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg.  This collection includes one story from each year the magazine was published (in its original incarnation; it has since been revived), from 1923 to 1954.  There are some terrific opportunities for juxtaposition: you can leap from the brooding, necrophilia-themed “The Loved Dead” of C. M. Eddy (1924’s entry) to the sophisticated modern ghost story “Legal Rites” by Isaac Asimov and a pseudonymous Frederik Pohl (1950, the pair’s only publication in Weird Tales), or from space opera (Nictzin Dyalhis’ “When the Green Star Waned,” 1925) to sword and sorcery (Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom,” 1929) to occult detective (Seabury Quinn’s long-running character Jules de Grandin in “Satan’s Stepson,” 1931).  There’s also plenty of the “mundanely gruesome,” to be sure: the pulps were known for their often lurid content, and Weird Tales, Lovecraft’s opinions aside, was no exception.

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In any case, Lovecraft is included, represented by his novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, originally published posthumously over two issues in 1941.  Covering, as it does, such a wide range of time and variety of authors (including, in addition to those mentioned above, future luminaries such as Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch) gives it the character of history, sampler and tribute all in one, a sort of “This is Your Life” for a long-gone but fondly remembered magazine.

I’ve returned to many of the authors in this anthology over the years and read more of their work when I could find it.  Some of the stories I enjoyed, however, have effectively been dead ends until recently: for example, Arthur J. Burks’ 1936 story “The Room of Shadows,” a creepy story about a hotel room haunted by its previous occupant, a “Eurasian” vampire whose conquests are turned into vicious miniature “sleeve-dogs.”  It’s the kind of thing that sounds ridiculous when summarized, but that’s true of many fantasy and horror stories, and Burks excels at capturing the main character’s confusion and mounting fear, along with some PG sensuality in the form of a mysterious femme fatale.  The editors cite “The Room of Shadows” as “an example of how a talented author uses staple pulp characters and situations to rise above cliché,” and it left me wanting more.  Burks published a collection of stories, Black Medicine, in 1966, long out-of-print, expensive, and unavailable.  Now, however, a number of his stories are available in e-book editions.  I prefer hard copy, but when it comes to hard-to-find stuff like this, I’ll take it in any form I can find it.

A different animal altogether is H. P. Lovecraft’s Book of Horror; it’s edited by Stephen Jones and Dave Carson, but as the cover states, it’s really Lovecraft’s book, compiling Supernatural Horror in Literature along with a number of the stories Lovecraft cited as examples and influences on his own work.  Both the essay and the stories are in the public domain and are available in multiple formats, but it’s convenient to have them in one place, and the editors provide a smattering of commentary.  Still, it doesn’t hold the place in my heart that 32 Unearthed Terrors does.

Lovecraft

In both books, the diversity of styles and concepts is striking: there is room for all of the genres listed above and more; the very concept of the “weird tale” was nebulous enough to allow a variety of approaches, as long as there was something out of the ordinary.  Weird Tales was billed as “The Unique Magazine,” and as Robert Bloch writes in his introduction to 32 Unearthed Terrors, “There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ Weird Tales writer, nor is there a ‘typical’ Weird Tales story.”  Yet, the stories are often conservative on the individual level, in the sense that there are generally not more than one or two supernatural elements at play, especially in those set in the modern world.  Even those set in the far future, the mythic past, or a “lost world” often feature a single driving narrative to which all the world-building and window-dressing are subordinate.  The stories are short, and economy of means is key: pulp writers were paid by the word, not the idea.

The great thing about this tendency is that, whether reading an issue of the magazine or a latter-day anthology, while the reader may be dazzled with the sheer variety of ideas on display, each story is allowed to be itself, undiluted, and allows the reader to observe many of the building blocks of modern fantasy when they were still emerging.  Just as Lovecraft and his fellow Weird Tales authors influenced modern writers, so did they draw from previous authors, synthesizing their influences into personal styles, a process that still continues today.

In Part Three, I’ll look at anthologies in a different medium: comics!

* My experience with role-playing games and my search for the “Cthulhu Mythos” printing of Deities & Demigods are subjects for another post.

** I believe the first true Mythos stories I was able to find were by “Conan the Barbarian” creator Robert E. Howard.  Lovecraftians will know that the “Cthulhu Mythos” took hold in large part because Lovecraft encouraged his writer friends to make use of his creations in their stories, and he borrowed freely from theirs, creating a “shared world” (at best a collection of themes and premises rather than a tightly-knit continuity) before such things became au courant.

The Pleasures of Anthology, Part One

Maybe it starts with being a bookhound: from a young age I grew up in a house piled high with books, the collection of my college professor father and classical musician mother.  It’s no surprise that the collecting bug bit me early, and books are a natural item to accumulate: they’re mostly cheap; they can be status symbols, external signs of one’s intellectual achievement (unlike, say, comic books, which I have also collected, but which even now seem to demand a certain amount of explanation to the uninitiated); and they provide more entertainment or useful information for their price and weight than almost anything else.  I was accustomed to having old things around from a young age, so that didn’t bother me either.  As much as I enjoy brand new books and the big, luxurious bookstores that have (mostly) disappeared from the landscape, used bookstores and book sales are more interesting to me, because of that chance of being surprised by something rare, weird, or simply new to me.  I like to browse new books to see what’s out there, but I’m rarely moved to buy something I could get anywhere; but for an old, possibly out-of-print book, who knows if I’ll find it again?  I could go on about the smell of old books, or the thrill of the hunt, or the prospect of finding something really valuable, but to tell the truth those aren’t really motivating factors for me. (Seriously: for every old book you find that has that ideal scent of rich, old paper, there’s another one that smells of mildew or cigarette smoke. Gross.)

No, what fascinates me the most when scouring stacks of old books is the chance to fill in gaps in my knowledge, make connections between things I might not expect, and appreciate the many different kinds of publications (the styles of writing, the topics, and genres that were once popular, not to mention trends in printing, binding, and cover art) that can open windows to the past.

In many ways, a good anthology can offer the same pleasures in microcosm.  Reading a collection of stories or articles by a good editor is like being guided through a used book market by an expert hand, someone who knows where the good stuff is hidden, and is ideally a sympathetic soul able to handpick just the sort of thing you’re looking for.  Such a guide can offer a balanced combination of the familiar but well-loved, a few new items that continue in a straight line from where the familiar leaves off, and maybe something really mind-bending or challenging, something you didn’t know you needed to read until you found it.

If you read enough, the name of the editor alone might be enough to pique your interest, and these come in several flavors: many of the editors whose names I learned were publishing-industry lifers like Peter Haining and Martin H. Greenberg (compiler of an astounding 1,298 anthologies!).  Sometimes the editor is a well-known writer in their own right, their choices reflecting their influences, early favorites that inspired their own writing or informed their stylistic choices.  The book might be a chance to promote their friends’ work or expose readers to like-minded authors who are part of the same scene as the editor but not as widely known.  Or it could be an opportunity for the established writer to shine a light on up and coming talent, putting their seal of approval on the young writers’ work.

Sometimes, however, one gets the impression the famous writer’s name is simply on the cover to sell books, as when they are hired to write a short introduction and the name of the actual (less well-known) editor is in smaller type. If the word “presents” is in the title, chances are the famous author is a figurehead (as in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, a series Hubbard never actually edited and that has carried on under his name long after his death).  I don’t mean to be cynical: it’s the quality of the stories inside that count, and I’ve been known to purchase and keep books with stories I already have copies of for the sake of the insights in the introduction (which are sometimes sizeable essays in their own right).

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A subgenre is the anthology of the “best of” the previous year, selections either made from published work (as is the case for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American series), contest winners (the aforementioned L. Ron Hubbard Presents), or editorial fiat.  The Best American series has been published continuously since 1915, first as a showcase for short stories, expanded in recent decades to include topics such as mystery stories, sports writing, and even comics (since 2006).  One of the most popular titles in the series has been The Best American Nonrequired Reading, edited since its introduction in 2002 by Dave Eggers.  Filled with lists, humor, and random nuggets culled from real life (“Best American Lawsuits,” for example), it injects the McSweeney’s founder’s “clever . . . too clever” aesthetic into the hoary old “bathroom reader” format, like Harper’s Index on steroids.

In retrospect, these annual volumes can provide perspective on both the individual authors included in them and the genre (whatever it may be) as a whole.  It is interesting, for example, to see the name Stephen Baxter (for the story “Gossamer”) in David G. Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF, a 1996 anthology (and beginning of an ongoing series) published with the goal of supporting actual science fiction (“Not fantasy.  Not science fantasy,” according to Hartwell’s introduction).  Baxter had garnered praise for his 1995 novel The Time Ships, an authorized sequel to H. G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine, but was as yet a new enough name that Hartwell felt the need to introduce him as a writer “in the hard science mode of Hal Clement and Robert L. Forward.”  Since then, he has won numerous awards and collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke; it’s unlikely a science fiction audience would be unfamiliar with him.

In contrast, one can examine volumes of the Best SF series edited by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss from 1967 to 1975 to see the rising tide of confrontational, psychedelic “New Wave” science fiction championed by J. G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock.  Even allowing for the difference in time, no one would confuse this series with Hartwell’s!

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One finds connections everywhere: one can read Sam Moskowitz’s biographical sketch of editor Alden H. Norton in the latter’s Award Science Fiction Reader, and immediately turn to Norton’s introduction to his own Horror Times Ten, wherein he recounts,

At lunch with an old friend, Sam Moskowitz, I happened to mention my problem [a paucity of decent horror stories for his planned anthology] and said: “Too bad you’re not an authority on the horror and terror tale as you are on science fiction.  If you were, you might be of some help to me.”  He choked a moment, wiped some sauce from eggplant parmigiana from his lips with a napkin, swallowed a glass of water, and finally managed to come up: “Oh, but I am!”

Not only did the authors and editors know each other, they could make their readers feel like one of the club by letting them in on these backstage dramas in introductory notes, in the letters pages of magazines, and in the newsletters and fanzines put together by amateur press associations and fan clubs.  An anthology could be much more than just the stories!

In Part Two, I’ll look more closely at one of my favorite anthologies, and the legacy of the magazine Weird Tales.