I hate pruning.
For a gardener, that’s a dangerous admission. Gardeners are always pruning, or at least always cutting. (“Pruning” usually refers to operations on woody plants such as trees and shrubs, with the artistic intention to shape and train). We are always cutting down old stalks, bushwhacking overgrown or unwanted vegetation, or “pinching” young plants to make them bushier and fuller. The garden tool I use more than any other is a set of secateurs, otherwise known as pruners or clippers. On any inspection trip around the garden it takes only a minute or two before I spot a job that requires this tool.
So what’s the problem?
Yesterday, for example, I finally got around to cutting down last year’s fern foliage before the new fiddleheads start unfurling.
I wasn’t quite so prompt with Epimedium x perralchicum “Frohnleiten.” The durable foliage of this useful plant lasts all winter, but should be removed so the dainty flowers and beautiful new leaves may be seen and admired. By the time I got around to doing that yesterday, tender bloom stalks with their yellow flowers had already unfolded, with others still bent over but preparing to rise.
Rather than the quick clip that would have been fine a few weeks ago, I had to do careful, stalk-by-stalk cuts. Accidentally cutting off new growth is sickening and guaranteed to make one feel like a Bad Gardener.
That’s what I hate about pruning — cutting off healthy growth. In the case of the Epimedium, it’s not desirable and happens only as a result of clumsiness or haste. But pruning, done by the book, often requires removal of new, leafy plant material. Many types of clematis require that the plant be cut to the ground every spring. Easy but brutal, because often there is visible new growth all over the old vines. The gardener must steel herself and snip, suppressing the thought that the plant will have to replace all that mass, not just pick up where it left off last fall. (And yes, I know that if you leave the old growth, in a few years you end up with a woody tangle and fewer blooms).
The healthiest and most vigorous growth on roses is at the very ends of the branches — and if you prune as directed, you cut it off, leaving stumps from which you hope and believe better new growth will come. At the plant’s lower height, you will be able to see and appreciate the flowers. That’s a good reason for pruning, but right after making the cut — reducing a lush mass of fresh, red-tinged leaves to a bare stub — I feel like like a vandal.
I’ve been gardening for more than 30 years, and I still have trouble cutting off healthy-looking growth, even when I know it will (eventually) improve the looks and performance of the plant. Even now, there are occasions when I simply don’t do it, which means the plant gets leggy or woody, needing more drastic treatment (including total removal) down the road.
“Strength follows the knife.” I mutter this gardening maxim as I stand in front of a plant, secateurs in hand, contemplating amputation. It’s what I think of as the Pruning Paradox — the weaker the plant, the harder you are advised to prune it, because pruning stimulates new growth. Like many maxims, it’s not 100%: once a plant is really weak, my advice would be simply to save yourself the effort of hard pruning its measly little limbs. The result will probably be the same, in the end. Once a plant is dead, there is no hesitation before cutting it down.
Some great suggestions here by Charles. I especially like that he doesn’t ignore the negative aspects of writing and getting your stuff out there. It is tough. I see that with my series of 4 books I seriously broke Charles’s first suggestion. Each book has a different narrator, speaking in a different voice. Many readers possibly don’t like that, which would explain a few things. :-) It’s good to know others struggle with these issues, and very good to have access to the community of writers.
Originally posted on Nicholas C. Rossis:
You probably remember author Charles E. Yallowitz, who’s become a regular visitor to this blog and fast friend. He graciously agreed to a guest post on the things he has learned since self-publishing his first book of his Legends of Windemere series. Take it, Charles!
Stuff I’ve learned since publishing my first book
Beginning of a Hero (CLICK FOR AMAZON SITE) Cover Art by Jason Pedersen
So, Nicholas and I were talking a while back and I said something that caught his attention. It was a simple comment about stuff I learned since I published my first book of Legends of Windemere back in February of 2013.
I’m gearing up for the 7th book of the series, Sleeper of the Wildwood Fugue, and Nicholas suggested I write about what I’ve learned over the last two years — that happen to feel like a decade.
Though I’ve learned a lot…
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I’m halfway through reading Nick Cutter’s The Deep, having heard a feverishly enthusiastic endorsement of it by a local radio commentator. For the most part I can’t argue with his opinion — the book has all the right stuff for a can’t-put-it-down horror/thriller: a research station at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a mad scientist and a crazed one, a lurking evil, and a couple of people who descend from the surface to find out what’s going on. And some experimental subjects — specifically two dogs.
So far, I’ve met only one of the dogs — a skinny, anxious chocolate Lab. Don’t know what’s happened to the other one, but I’ll bet it’s something bad. And I have a bad feeling about the ultimate fate of both dogs and all the humans. This can’t end well. It’s that kind of book.
Here’s the thing: suspecting a bad end for those dogs gets in the way of enjoying the story. I’m fine with the scientists going crazy, with the humans encountering everything from claustrophobia to terrors behind closed hatches to depth-induced nightmares. That’s the whole point of reading a book like this — experiencing terrible things vicariously while reclining on your couch with your favourite cat and a bag of snacks. But expecting to share the experience of an already frightened dog suffering and dying is too real to be enjoyable. When I get to that part, I will skip over it, or just close the book and put it down.
Weird, isn’t it? In a world where millions of factory-farmed animals die every day, where small children endure terrible conditions in refugee camps, I can’t bear to read about the suffering of fictitious dogs (or, even worse, cats). Maybe it’s because I’ve witnessed the illness and deaths of three cats in the past 20 years. Maybe because unlike humans, animals don’t have any concept of hope for the future or self-sacrifice for a good cause. They are simply swept up in humanity’s projects and become unheeded debris along the road to… whatever. (But then, so are those kids in the refugee camps).
Conclusion? Horrors are great to read about, as long as they aren’t too real. As long as reading about them doesn’t bring us to a place where we don’t want to be, reminding us of the sadness and tragedy inherent in our mortal lives. Which is why many readers simply avoid the horror genre altogether, and some of us read it with relish only if we know no animals will be harmed in making the mind-movie.
I’ve been contemplating a post about indie authors giving away books for free, but Nicholas has put forth some very good points here.
Originally posted on Nicholas C. Rossis:
The very sweet Toni Betzner asked me for a guest post for her blog, My Write of Passage. Having noticed how I do a lot of giveaways and offers, she suggested I discuss the benefits of free.
This got me thinking. I keep reading contradictory information on this. Jack Eason complains that it attracts trolls. Effrosyni Moschoudi – and many others – have told me that free doesn’t work – in the sense that it fails to generate subsequent sales.
Also, this is a question that has troubled me a lot lately, As you all know, I’ve decided to keep Runaway Smile available in its entirety for blog visitors, wishing to both thank my followers and gain reviews.
So, does free work?
Quick answer: yes and no. It does as part of an overall strategy, and it can do wonders to put a new author on…
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Readers may have noticed an absence of garden-related posts recently. Well OK, it’s been winter, but here on the Fortunate Coast you could have been fooled into thinking spring came very early — or winter cancelled itself soon after Christmas. For the past three weeks I have been checking for emerging blue poppies (looks like 10 or 11 of the 16 plants have survived) and pruning shrubs. The cotoneaster, ceanothus, one of the barberries and the magnolia have undergone well-intended amputations. I’ve cut down old perennial stalks left over from last summer and pulled up some of the invasive grass from the perennial bed that is slowly being taken over by it.
But I feel disengaged from the garden and I’m not ready to embrace spring. Part of me would be happy enough to have a couple more months of winter. The reasons for this are clear — some challenging family issues and the presence of The Dog. I have less time and energy for the garden. Moreover, I’m still coming to terms with sharing the space with a large, bouncy puppy who chews sticks and fallen branches and occasionally does some unauthorized digging. Fences around the beds protect the plants but are visually jarring.
I have no ambitious plans for the coming season. Maintaining the status quo will be the name of the game, and I’ll be quite pleased if things don’t deteriorate. No new beds will be dug (except by Nelly), no exciting plants introduced. I may even skip the long-established ritual of growing tomatoes. The fewer pot-confined plants I’ll have to water every day or two in the dry months (May or June through September), the better.
This is one of the dark secrets that garden writers don’t reveal — a garden can’t be put on “pause” while the gardener takes a time out, unlike a hobby using inert materials. Plants will grow and seed and die quite happily on their own, unsupervised by the gardener. But many of the features the gardener values will be lost or diminished — integrity of plantings, clear edges around beds, and survival of delicate or fussy plants. One reads of the disheveled charm of abandoned gardens, but it’s different when the garden is your own and you get to witness the dishevelment creeping in.
So I hope the 2015 gardening season isn’t one where chaos reigns and the gardener (that’s me) throws in the trowel.
Blue is the colour of hope.
For the seventh year running, Smashwords is participating in Read An Ebook Week. Authors who have published through Smashwords can offer their books at discounts from 25% to 100% (i.e. free) on the Smashwords site. The discounted books are featured in a separate catalogue from March 1st (12 a.m. Pacific Standard Time) until March 7th (12 p.m. PST).
What are you waiting for?
While writing my post about Pete Rawlik’s novel Reanimators, I started thinking about Lovecraftian writing in general. You see the term everywhere these days, in blogs, book reviews and descriptions. What does it mean, anyway?
What is a Lovecraftian novel or story, and how does it differ from other types of weird fiction, science fiction or horror fiction?
Tentacles? Surely more than that!
First of all, who was Howard Phillips Lovecraft? He was a writer of weird fiction who lived almost his entire life (1890-1937) in Providence, Rhode Island. Almost unknown during his relatively short life, he achieved enduring fame after his writings caught the popular fancy. Lovecraft’s friends and fellow writers August Derleth and Donald Wandrei are credited with bringing public attention to his work by publishing it posthumously under the Arkham House imprint.
Fiction dubbed “Lovecraftian” covers a wide range:
1. Rewritings or expansions of HPL’s stories. Examples include Pete Rawlik’s Reanimators and my own The Friendship of Mortals, both of which use Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator” as a starting point.
2. Original stories with HPL’s settings, entities and situations, but with new plots and characters. The body of such writings is sometimes described as the “Cthulhu Mythos.” Authors include August Derleth and Brian Lumley, among others.
3. Original stories with new themes similar to those of HPL, often referencing his works. Colin Wilson’s story “The Return of the Lloigor” is an example. Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft is another.
4. Original stories that mention HPL or elements from his fiction but with plots that go beyond his characteristic settings and situations . Many present-day writers in horror and the paranormal give a nod or pay tribute to Lovecraft in varying degrees. Stephen King, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell and many others — too many to name, really. Kiernan’s novel The Red Tree, which I recently finished reading, is a perfect example.
I think that to be truly Lovecraftian, a story or novel must include certain qualities and plot elements, such as references to ancient books, other dimensions and displacements in time, but especially the idea that we and our Earth are not the culmination of anything, merely a small blip in the cosmos. The horror, when revealed, must be enormous and incomprehensible, on a cosmic scale.
Fiction of the “classic Lovecraftian” type would include some or all of these:
1. A New England setting.
2. Old houses or other buildings, or subterranean places.
3. Ancient books or manuscripts of secret lore.
4. Concerns with ancestry.
5. Connection with a university or with researchers.
6. No sex and almost no female characters.
7. An earnest, scholarly narrative style.
8. Accidental discovery of shocking secrets by a character (always a man, of a scholarly, solitary type) engaged in genealogical or other research.
9. No magic; presumably all manifestations are natural phenomena, even though some violate the laws of physics as we know them.
10. The idea that the earth, solar system, galaxy and universe have a history independent of any connection to humanity, involving life forms or vast entities that, while indifferent to humans, may pose deadly threats to them, either directly or by actions of worshippers or minions of these entities.
This brings me to religion and magic. Lovecraft’s atheism and scientific rationalism are reflected in his fiction. Magic appears only in Lovecraft’s fantasies, for example The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Even there it is somewhat limited, being part of that fictional world — for example, cats that can fly to the dark side of the moon. As for religion, it’s human beings who worship and act in the name of the Great Old Ones such as Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth. The entities themselves appear to be indifferent to humanity.
Personally I think the term “Lovecraftian” is being applied rather too freely these days, as a synonym for weird fiction generally. In a straight-up Lovecraftian story, their main characters may not necessarily be male, but should definitely be unattached and engaged in some sort of scholarly enterprise or genealogical research, rather than sex. Characters with active sex lives are not Lovecraftian in the strict sense, no matter what weird things happen to them.
In fact, I would argue that many of the works in my fourth category of types above aren’t really Lovecraftian at all. They may have been inspired by HPL’s writings or contain references to them, but it takes more than that to be “Lovecraftian fiction.” It’s a subset of weird fiction, not a synonym for it. Writers and reviewers owe it to H.P. Lovecraft and his admirers to be familiar with his outlook and style before applying the term to a piece of writing.
Several weeks ago I read an interview with author Pete Rawlik on the Lovecraft eZine blog, in which Rawlik referred to his novel Reanimators. I had not heard of this work before so of course rushed to read it. Given my connection with HPL’s character Herbert West, I couldn’t wait to see what another writer had done with him.
Hence this review.
The plot? I was going to say “The plot in brief,” but it’s hard to summarize this novel. It’s a composite of many stories, each based on or involving characters from other stories by Lovecraft. In a way this maintains the spirit of “Herbert West, Reanimator,” which was published as a six-part serial. The main character and narrator (for the most part) is Stuart Hartwell, a fellow student of Herbert West and Daniel Cain (a name from the 1985 movie Re-Animator; the narrator of HPL’s story is unnamed). West and Cain’s early experiments result in the violent deaths of Hartwell’s parents, inducing a desire for revenge that waxes and wanes over many years. During these years, Hartwell practices medicine in Arkham but also pursues research into reanimation, achieving better results than West and Cain, who turn out to be bunglers. Hartwell manages to conceal his research from the authorities while becoming involved with a host of characters including Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee (from HPL’s “The Shadow Out of Time”), Dr. Munoz (from “Cool Air”) and — wait for it — Charlie Chan! Every now and then Hartwell sneaks into Herbert West’s secret laboratory, reads his notes and sabotages his experiments. Eventually, he begins his own grand experiment, with the population of Arkham as unwitting subjects. He also takes a trip into the country around Arkham, meets Lavinia Whately and her father, and witnesses a momentous event near Dunwich. Some time after this, on a visit to Sefton Asylum, Hartwell meets a Russian doctor who had spent some time in Dunwich and examined an amazing boy named Wilbur Whately. In 1914 Dr. Hartwell, like Dr. West, goes to war, where his reanimating reagent proves singularly useful, in a terrifying way. After the war, Hartwell swears off pursuing his reanimation research, but to no avail. Despite his good intentions, his reagent has a bizarre role in the worldwide devastation brought about by the so-called Spanish influenza. This episode is followed by a rather sparse reprise of the concluding chapter of HPL’s “Herbert West, Reanimator,” except it’s Stuart Hartwell who drives the truck that delivers a gang of reanimated dudes and a big square box to West’s house. After this, Hartwell takes a time-out, and the narrative is continued by Daniel Cain, by way of a document discovered among Hartwell’s papers at a later date. Cain relates how he and Herbert West spent part of WWI — in the crumbling Chateau d’Erlette, which is inhabited by a lady and her exceedingly strange son, a talented violist whose name is Erik, nicknamed “Zann” by his mother. ‘Nuff said. West and Cain make a reappearance in Arkham, moving in mere doors away from Hartwell, who is exceedingly annoyed by this proximity, but makes use of it by spying on his (former?) enemies. Combat with syringes and pistol ensues. Hartwell gets involved with rural medicine in the Miskatonic Valley and, along with Lake and Dyer (“At the Mountains of Madness” and Wilmarth (“The Whisperer in Darkness”) witnesses bizarre activities in a village called Quirk. He returns unscathed to his practice, and in 1927 participates in the investigation of strange goings-on in Innsmouth. About this time, Wilbur Whately arrives in the Library of Miskatonic University. Thanks to Dr. Hartwell’s efforts, Henry Armitage (the librarian), is in fine form and plays a heroic role, but soon after this Mrs. Armitage dies. Her deathbed is attended by one Frank Elwood (“The Dreams in the Witch-House”). Elwood gives Hartwell a document he has written, outlining the true story of Keziah Mason and the death of Walter Gilman. Said history is pretty colourful — Keziah Mason was a prodigy and had two twin sisters, and they were all midwives and… Enough, already. Another set of triplets, this time boys from Kingsport, precipitate the final horror, in which a convergence of ancestral follies and scientific travesties plays out, sealing the fate of Stuart Hartwell.
My review: I have to give Rawlik full marks for weaving together characters and plot bits from a dozen or so Lovecraft stories, combining them with actual events from history. The prose is vivid in spots, even a little feverish. Rawlik maintains most of the necessary characteristics of a Lovecraftian story — a main character who is a single, unattached male, narration with little dialogue, and no sex. Scientific details are added with authority and reasonable plausibility. Some of the plot elements created to provide background — for example Dr. Munoz’s and Keziah Mason’s backstories — show ingenuity and imagination. Aficionados of HPL would certainly find this novel a gold mine of allusions and expansions on the work of the master. As an homage to H.P. Lovecraft, Reanimators is admirable.
Now the elements that aren’t so good, first among them the fact that a reader unacquainted with the work of Lovecraft would probably find this book incomprehensible. In order to incorporate characters and plot elements from a number of stories, Rawlik sacrifices overall plot integrity. His adoption of Lovecraft’s style — old-fashioned, sometimes pedantic and wordy — becomes tedious at times, and is not helped by the paucity of dialogue. (In the few places where dialogue is used, it has a distinctly livening effect). Most of Lovecraft’s works are short — stories and a couple of novellas. Adopting his style for a novel of more than 300 pages risks straining the patience of readers used to contemporary fast-paced fiction. Like most of Lovecraft’s main characters, Rawlik’s Hartwell doesn’t have much personality. Apart from token chest-beating about his role in some of the disasters that occur, he doesn’t do much self-examination or undergo any development. His function is to tell what happens, but he does not engage the reader. What kept me reading wasn’t sympathy for Hartwell, but merely a desire to find out what happened next.
Finally, I was quite disappointed to find that despite the title of the book, which references “Herbert West, Reanimator,” Herbert West is almost invisible in Reanimators. Creating Hartwell to play the role of a rival and enemy of West was a good idea, but Rawlik sends Hartwell off on side trips in order to bring in all those other HPL plots and people, breaking the original plot thread in the process. There is almost no interaction between Hartwell and West. I wish the author had stayed focused on reanimation and examined different motives for and methods of accomplishing it, ending with a showdown between West and Hartwell. Anyone looking for that won’t find it in Reanimators.
(But something of the sort may be found in a book entitled The Friendship of Mortals, by one A. Driscoll).
Among the books and stories I have read, the prize for “most terrifying” goes to… “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood!
Published in 1907, this novella was noted by H.P. Lovecraft in his treatise Supernatural Horror in Literature as a superior example of the terror tale. The story certainly terrified me when I first read it at age 12, and even now, decades later, certain passages from it can bring back a feeling of profound and irredeemable fear. Inducing such fear, of course, is the whole point of horror or weird fiction.
Let’s just have a look at the necessary qualities of this fiction genre. First of all, the author must achieve a feeling of fundamental wrongness in the environment of the main character, or in that character him- or herself. This wrongness must reach out and envelope the reader, who then shares the dislocation of reality and experiences vicariously the state of having no clue as to how to change the situation — a situation which ultimately threatens the well-being or the very existence of the character.
The wrongness or strangeness may be intriguing at first, beguiling even, but eventually it becomes threatening, dangerous, terrifying. We (the fictitious character and the reader) recognize a deadly danger, without knowing what it is or how to deal with it. The result is a fundamental dislocation and isolation.
“The Willows” meets all these criteria to perfection, which is why it is surely one of the most terrifying stories I have ever read. Two friends — young men of the type encountered in English fiction of the early 20th century — are on a canoeing and camping trip on the Danube River. Somewhere beyond Austria, where the river passes through what is now the borderland between Slovakia and Hungary, they enter a region of shifting sandbars and temporary islands overgrown with willows. They camp on one of the islands, and experience a series of minor mishaps and odd occurrences that keep them there an additional night.
At first the narrator feels a strange charm in their physical surroundings — the remoteness, the strong “personality” of the river whose every mood they have come to know, representing wild nature at its finest — and especially the overwhelming presence of the willows. With time, an inexplicable unease develops, but he keeps it to himself because he thinks his companion (known only as “the Swede”) is too unimaginative to appreciate subtle emotions. This has the effect of isolating the narrator with his fears and increasing the tension.
The individual events the campers experience while on the island are not particularly shocking — the sight of a man in a boat making warning signs and crossing himself before vanishing in the distance, a swimming otter that seems to look at them strangely, a missing canoe paddle and a tear in the bottom of their canoe that must be repaired before they can continue their journey, foodstuffs and supplies that seem oddly diminished — but as they add up, the feeling of wrongness becomes undeniable. It builds up gradually while the narrator keeps his fears to himself, but bursts out into terror on the second night, when the two men begin to share their perceptions. By that time, the narrator has seen something inexplicable during the previous night, and has also begun to hear an unaccountable ringing or humming sound that comes and goes.
During the conversation within the safe circle of light cast by the campfire, one of the characters utters sentences that still make me shiver: “All my life,” he said, “I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another region — not far removed from our own world in one sense, yet wholly different in kind — where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which earthly affairs … are all as dust in the balance — vast purposes, I mean, that deal directly with the soul…” Just typing this out, more than forty years since I first read it, brings back the acute fear I felt then.
And another sentence that has never left me: “To name is to reveal.”
So I won’t say how the story ends, but I must point out the characteristic that makes this tale so disturbing: at no time is the source of terror made explicit. From start to finish it remains amorphous and veiled. To me, this is crucial. The moment the horror is revealed, no matter how evil, grotesque or huge, it loses a great deal of its power. Once you see the tentacles, the thing-to-be-feared changes from an unknown, possibly unknowable it-could-be-anything to… a thing with tentacles. Which may be terrifying, but it’s a terrifying something.