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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

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Books

So, I’m reading Red Mars (1993)…….

……..by Kim Stanley Robinson, in part because I love good science fiction, like Dune by Frank Herbert or Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh. I’m also reading it because Mars is starting to look like a nice place to live.

I speak sarcastically. Sort of.

Science fiction is best when speaking to us about our social issues through the prism of the future and technologies that far surpass ours. Star Trek is famous for touching on politics, racism, sexism, war, and religion, among other things. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, regarded as the first science fiction novel, dealt with the humanity of the Other.

Set in the (not so distant) future of 2026, Red Mars and its companion books deal with the early days of terra-forming the red planet. Unlike the Genesis Project, which would take minutes as proposed in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, transforming Mars into a hospitable planet would take decades, if not centuries. Against this backdrop of traveling for nine months to Mars and creating a new home on a hostile planet, there are a cast of characters from various countries. Some of these countries are political enemies of each other.

English is the Standard language, which everyone speaks. This is also a hindrance to the American crew if they do not speak another language (1), which then creates another layer of tension. Suspicions arise if a conversation is going on and you don’t know what’s being said. I’m about sixty pages in and, given the enclosed space aboard their ship, the limited number of people and the long voyage out (no cryogenic sleep), pairings, jealousies and intrigue are already creating problems.

That’s where things get interesting. Historically speaking, people pretty much behave the same way, regardless of the time. Science fiction explores the now from the time frame of the future (or the past). Sometimes that’s the most effective way of starting and maintaining a dialogue about social or political issues. If you’re already open to listening to a fictional story, then you’re also receptive to the ideas and perspectives presented.

Sometimes the best way to learn about a new idea or gain a new perspective is to come at sideways.

Image source: 8screensavers.com
Image source: 8screensavers.com

(1) Learning a foreign language is helpful in many ways – it could lead to job opportunities you might not ordinarily find and it is very good for the brain. Also, it will help you navigate should you choose to travel the world.

Recommended:
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
Survival by Julie E. Czerneda

So, it’s Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday…..

……..and he’s still sending chills up our spines with his haunting tales. His life was as strange and unhappy as his fiction and the circumstances surrounding his death is still a mystery. I’m not sure what his reaction would have been had he known that his work would live on the way it has, but I’d like to think he would be pleased. Morose, drunk and writing about walled up people, black cats and quoting ravens, but pleased.

Of all my favorite Poe stories and poems, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven rank high on my list of go-to re-reads. His prose is suffocating, relying heavily on descriptions of the senses (sight, sound, etc.). I feel anxious when reading his work, even though I know it’s only a story. I want to reach in and stop the Narrator from killing the old man in The Tell-Tale Heart. I want to prevent the tragedy in The Fall of the House of Usher and keep the Narrator in The Pit and the Pendulum from suffering at the hands of his captors. I’m having a bit of anxiety just writing this post and recalling my experiences in reading Poe.

If one can pick up a regional dialect by reading aloud the written word, then I suppose one could also pick up on the author’s emotional state at the time a particular story was written. Of all the contemporary authors in the horror and supernatural genre, Shirley Jackson comes closest to capturing that suffocating and claustrophobic element in her writing. At least, she does to me – I get agitated reading her stories in the same way I do when reading Poe’s.

In honor of his birthday, I pulled out my copy of his collected works and am planning to read some of my favorites. His influence can be felt in the works of Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, HP Lovecraft, and many others.

If you haven’t read any of Edgar Allan Poe‘s stories, you’re missing out some excellent reading and an insight into another century.

Edgar Allan Poe (writer, adventurer, action figure) standing next to a collection of his work.
Edgar Allan Poe (writer, adventurer, action figure) standing next to his collected works.

 

 

So, many years ago, I read Good Night, Mr. Holmes…..

…….a novel by Carole Nelson Douglas. It’s a re-telling of A Scandal in Bohemia, told from the point of view of Irene Adler’s companion, Penelope ‘Nell’ Huxleigh. Of all the novels written by various authors set in the Holmes-ian universe, I found these to be closest in spirit and tone to the original stories, while having its own voice and sense of humor.

There are eight titles in the series, of which I only have five (I know, a serious oversight that I am working to correct). Of these novels, two are closely related to the original story, A Scandal in Bohemia – Good Night, Mr. Holmes and Irene’s Last Waltz (it was later re-issued as Another Scandal in Bohemia in 1994).

Narrated by Nell in the same way as Holmes’ adventures are told by Doctor Watson, we follow Irene, Nell and their companions as they travel. Along the way, they meeting significant people of the time, such as Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker (the latter two of whom were contemporaries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

Irene and company also find themselves involved in cases that remain a mystery today. In Chapel Noir and Castle Rouge, gruesome murders in Paris echo similar crimes that had occurred only months earlier in London, raising concerns that perhaps Jack the Ripper wasn’t finished. Nellie Bly, who helped Irene hunt down Jack the Ripper in those novels, later involves her in a case that delves deep into Irene Adler’s past.

It always seemed right that ‘The Woman’ would have her own mystery series, with Sherlock Holmes as a minor character. With the great detective enjoying a continued popularity in film, television and novels, it’s refreshing to step into that world and view it and him through the eyes of a villain, a friend, a nemesis, or a respected equal.

If you come across them, snatch them up and read. You’re truly in for a fun and exciting read.

The Irene Adler series, by Carole Nelson Douglas.
The Irene Adler series, by Carole Nelson Douglas.

Recommended:
Good Night, Mr. Holmes by Carole Nelson Douglas
Good Morning, Irene by Carole Nelson Douglas
Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminisit (A Biography) by Brooke Kroeger

Author website: Carole Nelson Douglas

So, when I was ten years old…….

………I read Oliver Twist for the first time. It was a paperback Signet edition, with tiny print and no illustrations. It’s probably an intense book for someone so young – certainly, the themes of child abuse, murder, gangs and orphanages would be enough to deter some.

I loved it.

I loved Fagin and the Artful Dodger and, despite the perils of their life choices, I wanted to be a part of that gang. It seemed wildly romantic and fun, even if it was dangerous. Then again, I was also ten years old, so what did I know? But I was frightened of Bill Sykes and I desperately wanted Nancy to escape and be happy in a different life.

I don’t remember a lot about Oliver himself, though, which is weird, because it is his story. Even though it was told in third person, he should have made more of an impact on me, but when I think about him as I write this, all I can come up with is a colorless character. Then again, he is the avatar through which the reader experiences the story, the emotional roller coaster, so I guess that’s why he didn’t make much of an impression on me.

I even loved the musical (Food, Glorious Food is quite catchy) – not the movie so much, but the stage version really captured my imagination. I would listen to the soundtrack and re-read Oliver Twist many times through high school. I attempted to read some of Charles Dickens’ other work, especially The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but they didn’t quite capture me the same way that Oliver Twist did.

At some point during my twenties, I gathered up a bag of books to take over to my local used bookstore, where they do trade – bring in some books, get store credit to use at a future time. My copy of Oliver Twist went with it. I figured it was time, I hadn’t read it in years, so may as well let someone else enjoy and get something out of it.

About ten years later, I went to that same bookstore and was browsing through their classic literature section. I happened upon a copy of Oliver Twist that greatly resembled the copy I had given up. I remember thinking, Well, I don’t have mine anymore, and I did like it and I should probably read it again.

Then I opened the front cover – there, on the first page, giving the short biography of Charles Dickens, was my name, scrawled in a ten year old’s handwriting.

Of course, I bought it. You don’t send a book out into the world and not take it back when it shows up again.

Recommended:
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
Drood by Dan Simmons

My copy of Oliver Twist. The characters on the cover are the Artful Dodger, Fagin and Oliver.
My copy of Oliver Twist. The characters on the cover are the Artful Dodger, Fagin and Oliver.

So, I’m re-reading Stephen King’s IT……

……..which is one of my favorite novels by King, ranking right up there with The Stand‘Salem’s Lot, and the Dark Tower series. At one time, I had nine copies of this particular title. I know, that’s quite a bit. But two copies are in Spanish, one’s a British publication and the rest were various American printings, including the one with the cover of the TV movie, featuring the fabulous Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown.

I weeded them down – I kept the Spanish copies, the British copy, the American hardcover and one of the paperbacks, which I refer to as my expendable copy. Expendable, because it is so well-read and battered that some of it is being held together by tape. This one I am not afraid to read while in the tub or on a trip – it’s already worn out, so what’s the worst that could happen to it now?

In any case, I hadn’t read IT in a long while before picking it up a few days ago. It was like slipping on a comfortable sweater or pair of shoes – worn, familiar, loved. I know every word of this massive tome. In fact, I’ve read it so many times, that I will skip my least favorite parts in order to devour my favorite ones. Because I know IT so well, I don’t miss much. Sometimes I focus and read every single word that King put down in this tome.

Derry, Maine is a small town like any other with its secrets, its routines, its people. I grew up in a small town not so different from Derry, although located some three thousand miles away to the west. My childhood friends are now my grown-up friends and they resemble, to some degree, the Losers Club of 1958. Although we did not face off with any killer clown from outer space, we had our share of adventures. That sense of familiarity creeps up on you, much like the thin wisps of fog that creeps inland from the sea.

The attention to detail that King puts into this novel pays off in ways that still hold up, no matter how many times you read it. I read IT for the first time when I was 17 and I haven’t stopped, nearly thirty years later. In spite of the many times I’ve read IT, I am always caught by surprise by a phrase or event. On some level, I’m even willing some things to change, even though I know it will always turn out the way it had before.

And I never fail to cry at the last line written before closing the book.

Clockwise from top: American HC edition, British HC edition, travel copy, Spanish edition.
Clockwise from top: My copies of ‘IT’: American HC edition, British HC edition, expendable copy, Spanish edition.

Recommended:
IT by Stephen King
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
On Writing by Stephen King
Danse Macabre by Stephen King

So, one of the most unsettling writers of the 20th Century…..

……would have celebrated her centennial birthday last week, on December 14, had she not passed away in 1965. Cited as an important influence by Stephen King, Joanne Harris, Neil Gaiman and many others, Shirley Jackson wrote story upon story that left her readers unsettled and haunted with the ambiguity within her words.

I’ve been reading her work from an early age, most notably The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which ranks as my personal favorite of her fiction, topping We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), The Lottery (1948), and Hangsaman (1951). Her non-fiction, Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages recounts life at home, her children and the various ‘adventures’ they encounter. Her deliciously dark wit and humor are in full display in those tomes, and I highly recommend reading them.

Reading her fiction is a fascinating experience – for me, I start to notice a physiological reaction to her prose. In reading Hangsaman, I felt a low level anxiety in following Natalie’s thoughts and interactions as she left home for college. There was also that sense of foreboding, the shadow of unknown dynamics at play, and feeling suffocated by Natalie’s fellow students. There is the sense that she is at the bottom of the totem pole in the social hierarchy.

Every time I read The Haunting of Hill House, I root for Eleanor to overcome her insecurities, to let go of her guilt and to embrace her newfound freedom, both from her family and from Hill House itself. I feel her anxieties and hurts and indignations as if they were my own. But the story never changes, no matter how many times I read it and wish otherwise – Eleanor’s fate is already written and acted out, before one even picks up the book.

Shirley Jackson knew how to invite one in to her stories, knew exactly how to hook and keep you in it until the last word. She allowed the story to envelope you, insinuate itself into your imagination, haunting you long after you had shut the book and put it down. Her prose is quiet and engaging, simple, yet complex.

She is, for me, one of the writers I wish most to emulate, using my own voice and skills to strike that same haunting and sparse tone.

On the year of her one hundredth birthday, I join the ranks of writers who find inspiration in her work. I continually marvel at her ability to bring the darkness of every day life into the light and the suffocating spiral of ambiguity and uncertainty infused in her characters.

 

Opening paragraph to The Haunting of Hill House (1959).
Opening paragraph to The Haunting of Hill House (1959).

Recommended:
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Lottery & Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

So, I was reading my favorite Shirley Jackson novel…..

…….the terrifying, subversive ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House, while waiting for a friend at my local wine bar. I was finishing up my dinner and was completely engrossed with Jackson’s prose.

“Hello!” came a voice at my elbow and I jumped with a yell, that immediately turned to giggles from both of us. I love scary stories, but don’t often get spooked by them.

This startled reaction was a first for me, as any and all who know me know that I am a lover of horror and supernatural fiction and non-fiction. It also reminded me of how Robert Wise had a similar action while reading the book.

In the audio commentary of the The Haunting (1963), Wise recounts how he was reading the book in his office. He had just gotten to a particularly tense scene when writer Nelson Gidding (who was working in the office next door) burst into the room. Robert Wise “jumped about three feet off the chair” (1) and realized that if the book could inspire such a reaction, then it should make a fine picture.

True horror doesn’t come from gross out imagery that is shoved into our faces – granted, it makes for a squeamish, shocking effect, but it’s also desensitizing. Horror comes from fear of the unknown, that which hides in the shadows and cannot be fully seen. What we can’t see is far more frightening than what is seen.

Shirley Jackson knew this – in reading The Haunting of Hill House, one is never entirely sure if the house is actually haunted or if it is Eleanor who is the haunting. This ambiguity is what lingers in our minds, why we can’t let go of it and why it haunts us. It’s also why some stories, like Jackson’s novel, take on a life of their own and become part of our language.

IMG_20160227_115204-2-2-2

(1) quote from the audio commentary by Robert Wise

Recommended Reading:

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
A Head Full of Ghosts – Peter Tremblay
‘Salem’s Lot – Stephen King
Hell House – Richard Matheson
Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

So, I have this book habit……

……where I walk into a bookstore, intent on buying one (one, I say!) particular title from one particular author.

What happens is, I will walk out with five books, by at least three different authors.

It never fails.

I don’t suppose for a minute I’m the only one who does this, and not just as a writerly type, either. I am a known bookworm, among my circle.

(No one has ever seen me without a book in my backpack. Or two. Sometimes three. Currently, I have five books in the back seat of my car. Yes, two of them are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They are not my only copies. Don’t ask.)

I will spend a lot of time considering the title, feel the weight of the book in one hand, the texture of the pages or the binding, then look at the content. If I’m not interested, I will put it back, but some days, I weaken, the book is bought and ends up on my shelf, along with many other titles, waiting patiently for their turn at bat.

I may never read it. I have more books piled on my bookcase and nightstand to be read than I have read. It will take more than two lifetimes to simply catch up. I am aware, as I stand in the aisle of any given bookstore, that I need to simply put the book down and walk away.

I also know that I need to weed out the books I already have. I’ve done that, on numerous occasions. I have forty boxes of books in my garage. Some were read, some are still waiting with baited breath to have my attention.

And still, I will buy books.

I regret nothing.

So, one of the things I like to do…….

……when writing in a particular genre is to read as much of what’s been written before I decide to try my hand at it. It helps me to get a sense of style and word choice within a specific setting (one’s characters are not going to be speaking 21st Century slang in 31st Century society. Or 11th Century BCE society, either). It’s also helpful in seeing how other authors develop mood, setting and location, as well as character.

This goes for every genre, from the Western to the Mystery to Historical to Erotica, a genre that relies heavily on evoking a wide variety of sensations and emotions that lead to a specific….well, climax.

There is the argument floating around that reading works by others in the genre you want to write in is harmful in that it may ‘influence’ your own work. This is true, but not in the way you’d think. Reading the newspaper influences you. Reading poetry, or historical non-fiction, or biographies or archaeology or whatever you pick up to read is going to influence what you write. The more you read, the more  you learn about language, about style, about story and character and development.

Not reading the genre you want to write in only hurts your own work. Why? Well, in addition to not seeing what’s out there, you’d also fail to learn what works for you and what doesn’t. You’d never know how, with your own unique perspective, you could approach the Epic Quest Fantasy. Or the Space Opera. Or find a new twist on the Western or Mystery.

If you read enough (and I highly recommend reading everything you can get your hands on), you can see how similar the genres actually are. What makes them different is the emphasis – a mystery with a dash of romance could be the inverse of a romance with a dash of mystery. A historical novel set in real place could be, with just a few changes and a splash of magic, an epic fantasy. A Western is just an adventure on horseback, whereas Science Fiction is an adventure on a spaceship.

So read. Read the Ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, pulp fiction, genres you love and the ones you don’t like, authors you despise as well as the ones you admire. Read history and biographies and true crime, to learn how real people behaved and real events played out.

When you read, always seek to be entertained, but be conscious of how language, story and characters are handled.

What book and/or author was your greatest influence? Was it more than one? A specific genre?

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