Playlists for the Herbert West Series

I thought this was a goofy idea when it first came to me, but recently I heard two of the authors from this year’s “Canada Reads” competition talking about playlists for their books — Joseph Boyden about The Orenda and Kathleen Winter about Annabel. What’s OK for these Can-Lit stalwarts is OK for me.

Certain pieces of music inspired me while I was writing the four novels of my Herbert West Series and some made their way into the plots of these books. Novels should create mind-movies for their readers, and these musical works could be the soundtracks.

While writing The Friendship of Mortals in the fall of 2000, I listened to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations — the two well-known recordings by Glenn Gould (1955 and 1981) and one by Murray Perahia from 2000. I had also discovered a version of this work transcribed for string trio by Dmitri Sitkovetsky and performed by a group called Triskelion. This is the version that found its way into the book. Charles, Alma and Herbert hear it at a concert at Miskatonic University in the spring of 1911, at the very beginning of their complex three-cornered relationship. Charles also describes his impressions of a mass by Palestrina. (I have thought at times that music reached its peak in Renaissance polyphony and has been on a downhill course ever since).

As Herbert’s experiments begin to have dire consequences, and Charles begins to suspect what might be demanded of him in his role as Herbert’s friend and confidant, the gorgeous Miserere of Gregorio Allegri seemed like the perfect accompaniment for his dilemma, especially as I’m sure I read somewhere that the 51st Psalm is considered suitable for the funeral service of a suicide.

By the time I reached the climax and resolution of the story, I was listening repeatedly to Loreena McKennit’s CD The Mask and Mirror, especially her treatment of “The Dark Night of the Soul” by the mystic St. John of the Cross. It had a distinct effect on my outlook on Herbert and Charles and the denouement of their friendship.

Islands of the Gulf began life as one book in four parts, but ended up split into two volumes, now subtitled The Journey and The Treasure. Three musical works are associated with this book. In Volume 1, The Journey, while Francis Dexter and Margaret Bellgarde sail from Victoria to Bellefleur Island, Margaret mentions that Francis at one point sings “an old folk ballad about a false love and a deep-laden ship.” This, of course, is the song known as “The Water is Wide” or “O Waly, Waly.” The performance I was taken with at the time is by the wonderful Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor.

Islands of the Gulf is set on the west coast of Canada, specifically the Gulf Islands and Victoria. There are frequent references to boats and sailing. Part of a tone poem entitled Through the Lions’ Gate, written by Michael Conway Baker to celebrate the city of Vancouver, was a perfect accompaniment for the sailing scenes, especially those where Francis and Julian take off on adventures in Julian’s sailboat, the Flying Star. (Never mind that this section is called “The Mountains”).

Islands of the Gulf was actually written for the climactic scene (of Volume 2, The Treasure) inspired by the 40-part motet Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis. This complex and glorious work employs eight choirs of five voices, and may have been intended for performance in a circular space. Listening to this music, I perceive a circular movement, like a storm growing in power and effecting a transformation. The transformation, of course, is that of the amoral rationalist Herbert West into Francis Dexter, who carries a healing power over which he has no control. The text of Spem in Alium is from the Book of Judith and, like that of Allegri’s Miserere, expresses a desire for absolution for sin, but with hope of attaining it.

I wrote the final book of the series, Hunting the Phoenix, because I felt I owed something to Alma Halsey, who was Charles’s romantic interest in The Friendship of Mortals. I wanted her out of the way while I dealt with Charles and Herbert, so I packed her off to Europe during World War I and left her there. That seemed rather shabby in retrospect, so I decided to make her the narrator of the final book. Once the three characters are reunited in Providence, R.I., they experience a good deal of music. There is a concert that corresponds to the one in the first book. It takes place on Midsummer’s Eve (actually the summer solstice), featuring (of course) the overture to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony Number 2, which to me sounds like an ocean voyage. Brahms’s violin concerto is also on the program and leads to a significant moment in the narrative. But the central music of this book is the Jazz Suite No. 2 by Shostakovich. I heard it on the radio driving home from work one day and instantly had a vision of the “waltz to the end of the world” scene in Chapter 29. The book had to include this scene. Now when I look at the lovely cover image designed for the book by Alisha at, I hear that music again.

Hunting the PhoenixD3_Ebook


Blue and Gold and Pink and Bronze

I think of April as the blue and gold month in my garden, as bluebells, forget-me-nots and the last of the rosemary blooms combine with gold tints of emerging foliage.

April 18, 2014

Fiddleheads behind Rosemary blooms

Fiddleheads behind Rosemary blooms

And pink and bronze? That delicious combination is found in the ornamental cherries planted as street trees nearby.

April 19, 2014


Lessons Re-Learned

Epimedium "Frohnleiten"

Epimedium “Frohnleiten”

Today was my first full day of gardening since last fall (not counting the pruning session in March). While generally happy with things in my little plot, I was reminded of a few truths for those who garden in small spaces (anything less than half an acre).

1. Never plant any shrub that suckers, no matter what sentimental associations it may have, or that it’s a native plant, or that some garden writer you admire spoke highly of it. This includes Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) and the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris). It also includes the woody perennial (not quite a shrub) Phygelius (also known as Cape figwort). I have all of these, and spend several unpleasant hours every year yanking, snipping and sawing their adventurous shoots. It’s an especially unrewarding task because I know most of the shoots will re-sprout and new ones will join them. It’s too late to remedy my unfortunate plant selection decisions, however, since the original shrubs, now huge and deeply rooted, would require immense labour or dynamite (or both) to dislodge them. Beware of rampaging groundcovers as well, such as ivy and Vinca major. Even the deceptively dainty-looking Vinca minor has thuggish tendencies.

2. If your garden looks like a hopeless mess at this time of the year, do three things before you give up on it:  mow the lawn, edge the beds and cut down last year’s old stalks. This will instantly impart the look of a managed garden and motivate you to make further improvements by weeding, loosening the soil, introducing new plants and mulching. Even if the plants occupying the beds are nothing special, this treatment will make them look better. (This applies to perennial and mixed ornamental beds; vegetable gardens are another thing altogether).

3. If your garden is mainly one of tough, drought- and tree-root-tolerant perennials and shrubs along with various bulbs, don’t expect plants with more exacting requirements to do well or even survive without a lot of special attention. They are already having to put up with less than ideal growing conditions and will be no match against tough, colonizing plants such as peach-leaf bellflower, lamb’s ears, toadflax and rose campion. If you can’t provide them with a separate bed, keep an eye out for their early spring growth and make sure they aren’t overwhelmed by their robust, faster-growing companions. I say this after rescuing Thalictrum delavayi “Hewitt’s Double” and even Geum chiloense “Mrs. Bradshaw” (which isn’t generally considered a delicate thing, but is treated like one in my rooty patch). As for my blue poppies (Meconopsis), they have their own slender slice of earth to dwell in, but I wonder if it’s too close to a rather hefty magnolia. They have sprouted out quite well, all seventeen of them, so I have hopes.

Henry Mitchell said, “The life so short, the craft so long to learn. This was said about literature, but it really fits gardening better.” Very true.

Fiddleheads of Dryopteris filix-mas

Fiddleheads of Dryopteris filix-mas

Garden Notes

I’ve kept a garden notebook for years. It contains monthly precipitation figures, comments on how well (or badly) things are going in the garden, a record of watering from June to September (so I can be sure of watering all areas equally) and lists of things to do. Turning to the notes written last summer or fall, I find: “Important Notes for 2014″ in all caps and underlined. The first note is a list of plants to be netted against deer by certain points in the growing season, starting with bergenias and tulips, progressing to hostas, roses and sedums (yes, sedums, specifically the big ones such as “Autumn Joy”).

Well, so far this year I haven’t had to take any anti-deer measures. Either deer no longer find my place interesting, or there aren’t as many of them around. Of course, the tulips are pretty much gone as a result of their visits in 2012 and 2013, but bergenia blooms were untouched this spring. Last year they barely had time to sprout bloom stalks before they were nipped. I’m wondering if enough gardeners around here have fenced off their plants that the deer no longer find it worthwhile to visit the area. (In the meantime, the municipality is still entertaining the idea of a “cull”).

Note #2 says:  Introduce chicory to that patch of miserable lawn on the far side of the driveway. This is sort of interesting. I’ve observed this plant, with flowers about the size and shape of dandelion blooms, but a gorgeous sky blue, growing without any care at all on roadsides. It grows to 3 feet if left alone, but if mowed it blooms practically at ground level, much as dandelions do. I think it would be cool to see it in the scraggly lawn, looking like a bright blue dandelion, weedy but wonderful. So far, though, all I have is one seedling in a pot and seeds scattered in the lawn’s bare spots.

Notes #3 and #4 contain lists of plants to be pruned, both perennials and shrubs. Some perennials can be made to grow shorter and bloom later than they are inclined to by cutting them back halfway earlier in the season — asters, for example, and others such as Echinacea, fennel and sedums. Yes, those same tall sedums that got deer-nipped a couple of years ago. (Which makes me think — too bad deer can’t be employed as plant management experts, the way herds of goats are. But no — they’re too unreliable. Didn’t even show up this year).

As for shrubs — photinia, barberry, spirea and cotoneaster are all on the “to be pruned” list, and some of them can actually be crossed off. The photinia is done (totally — just bare stubs 3 weeks later). I whacked the cotoneaster back a couple of months ago, but decided to cancel the barberry job after I found a bushtit’s nest in it last fall, in case the birds decided to refurbish the nest this spring. I thought I was too late with the spirea, but Peter McHoy’s Pruning : a practical guide recommends “early to mid-spring,” which is where we are right now. Trouble is, the spirea is sprouting out with new little amber-coloured leaves, which makes it hard for me to even think about cutting it back. Well, maybe next year.

There’s always something else that needs to be done. Time to make a new list.


The Writing Process Blog Hop

Yesterday I found I’ve been tagged by Michelle Proulx in a blog hop about the writing process. Many thanks to Michelle for an enthusiastic endorsement of my novel The Friendship of Mortals.

But yikes! What’s a blog hop? What do I need to do? (Is it like a chain letter? If I don’t carry it on, does my blog get nuked?) On the other hand, writing process is an interesting and vital topic to writers. Every writer has one, whether they know it or not.

So here goes –

1) What are you working on?

After a few years (yes, years!) of no major new writing projects, I feel that one of my idea-seeds is about to sprout. (After all, it’s spring, and all kinds of seeds are sprouting in my garden). A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post called “I Need to Move to Another Planet,” when I was in a state of annoyance with the world as it is. Then I wrote a story set in what I envisioned as a better world, about a young man trying to create a blue rose. These threads twisted themselves together in my imagination, but nothing much else happened until a few weeks ago, when I found myself writing notes about plot details and characters. Then I actually wrote an outline for a 24 chapter, 72,000 word novel. Now all I have to do is write it.

That’s the only project that’s even come close to taking shape so far. Another that remains in the idea-seed stage is a spin-off from my now-concluded Herbert West Series, combining Egyptology and a bit of magic. Trouble is, I have to read The Egyptian Book of the Dead first, to charge up my imagination. That might take a while.

2) How does your work differ from others in the genre?

Well, this one’s easy, because my work doesn’t fit into a well-defined genre. Mostly I describe it in terms of what it’s not: not horror, not fantasy, not science fiction or historical or paranormal, but with elements of all of these, rolled into a thing that might be described as “supernatural literary speculative fiction.” Lumpy, but there it is. The Herbert West Series is rooted in a horror story by H.P. Lovecraft, but I was more interested in the characters and their personal monsters than in discrete evil entities.

3) Why do you write what you write?

My first answer — I have no idea. After thinking about it, though, I suspect it’s an effort to create situations in which individuals find a way to access magic. I have been fascinated by alchemy since I read Mircea Eliade’s writings about it in university, and more recently discovered Carl Jung’s Alchemical Studies and Psychology and Alchemy. When I felt compelled to expand upon H.P. Lovecraft’s amoral, corpse-animating doctor, Herbert West, I decided he had to undergo a series of transformations such as those in alchemy, to create excellence from base matter.

4) How does your writing process work?

Well, it starts with one of those idea-seeds. I know it’s viable once I find my brain working on it in the background, throwing out little ideas that I must write down immediately. Those ideas are pretty fleeting, and if I don’t nail them down right away they depart forever. Eventually I start thinking in terms of scenes or chapters and once there are enough of those, if I’m lucky I actually sit down and write something. All my first drafts so far have been in longhand — pen on paper. When I come back to the work, the first thing I see is the spot where I left off, not the beginning. I like watching the pile of manuscript pages fatten up as the days pass, and because my scribble is harder to read than the mercilessly legible text of a Word document, I’m not tempted to fiddle with what I’ve already put down, but  press on to the end. Once I reach it, I transcribe the whole thing into Word, editing on the fly. After that, I add stuff, delete stuff and move stuff around until I feel the work is ready to be seen by my critique group. beta readers, etc.

OK, that’s it. Now for tagging four other bloggers who will (I hope) be delighted to talk about their writing process just because I thought they might.

Edeana Malcolm is a member of my novelists’ critique group. She has read all my novels and suggested improvements. She has published a quartet of novels herself, based on the history of her family. Her blog is called My Writing Eden.

Sever Bronny is a fellow Victorian. He is about to release his debut fantasy-adventure novel and has created an awesomely thorough marketing plan.

Cole Davidson is one of the best WordPress bloggers I know. (He’s been Freshly Pressed!) His posts display strong opinions eloquently expressed and more often than not contain links to music, with lyrics appended. I’m pretty sure he did Nanowrimo last year, so he must have a fiction writing process.

Christian Tanner is a writer of short stories worth reading. (How could I ignore a blog called Weird Short Stories by Christian, with the motto “Stay weird”?)


The Herbert West Series Is Now On Amazon

Nearly four years after publishing The Friendship of Mortals, the first book of the Herbert West Series, I have made the entire series available as Kindle ebooks on Amazon. So if that’s your preferred place to buy ebooks, go here.

The Herbert West Series_final


Pruning Again — More Agony

I hate pruning. Well, not all pruning. A bit of genteel snipping is fine, but I hate sawing and lopping perfectly healthy limbs from perfectly healthy plants, turning them into skeletal remains, like this:

March 20, 2014

The sad fact is that this Photinia (which I grew from a piece trimmed from someone’s hedge), got a lot bigger than I expected — almost 20 feet tall. It would probably have been nearly as wide if not for semiannual efforts with a saw. Even so, it grew into a huge presence, hulking over a corner of the front garden. OK, planting it there was a mistake, but having admitted that, I still had to do something. I decided on hard pruning, a process that reduces a leafy shrub to a set of bare stumps. The idea is that with the springtime rush of growth, new sprouts will emerge and eventually the plant will look full and leafy again, just not as big.

This is more than a matter of faith. My next-door neighbour has a photinia that was subjected to exactly this treatment because it was muscling into the driveway. Five years ago — a set of bare stumps. Now it looks almost as big as it was before. Moreover, the Royal Horticultural Society says that photinias respond well to hard pruning. So that’s what we did. It has certainly changed the view in that direction.

March 20, 2014

I have mentioned in other posts a helpful practice in the municipality I call home to haul away “garden waste” once a year. Friday, March 21st is our day, so this week the garden has been a beehive of activity with saws, loppers and secateurs. In addition to the unfortunate photinia, a smoke bush has been trimmed (a nice easy job) and some frighteningly vigorous hollies have been barely held in check. (Hollies are horrible to prune. Nothing genteel there; a kevlar suit is in order). As a finale, three drooping branches were removed from a fir in the back garden. That spot has been opened up, prompting hopes that my never-blooming Chinese witch hazel may actually manage a few blooms next winter.

March 21, 2014

Awaiting pickup tomorrow is this rather formidable pile of “garden waste.”

Brush pile almost as big as the Land Cruiser!

Brush pile almost as big as the Land Cruiser!

My Open Source Low Budget Self Publishing Author Marketing Campaign

Audrey Driscoll:

Here is a detailed and ambitious self-publishing plan from Sever Bronny, an author I met when I participated in a program about self-publishing at the Greater Victoria Public Library. Sever provides links to some interesting ideas — I especially like the one on Slow Blogging. Have I done anything like this? Only a fraction, and right now I’m busy bringing out the Herbert West Series on Amazon. Publishing through Smashwords was very useful preparation and I hope the two platforms will complement each other.

Originally posted on Sever Bronny:

I’m fine-tuning a low budget marketing campaign for Arcane , my debut fantasy-adventure novel from The Arinthian Line series . The aim is rather simple: gather 50 core people that enjoy the book enough to talk about it.

This is a fluid list as I come up with more / better ideas, and will take into account suggestions from others.

What I have so far, in order:

  1. Cover + blurb reveal on kboards (with release date?)
  2. Cover + blurb reveal on facebook / twitter / myspace / my music website / this blog / my email list (with release date?)
  3. Post a 50 page sample (at end of sample give link to buy rest of book – if logistically possible, give discount for buyer)
  4. Announce release date on all relevant social media (and update gravitar / widgets / connect blog to google+, etc. The key is uniformity of message.)
  5. Respectfully…

View original 577 more words

The Winter That Was

It has been definitely spring-like here this week, after a winter that was rather unusual in some ways. I thought I would look through my weather records and get an overview of it — recognizing, of course, that compared to the cold, harsh conditions other parts of the country experienced, we on the west coast have little to complain about.

Apologies for not providing the Fahrenheit equivalents for temperatures and inches for precipitation amounts. Just keep in mind that 0 C equals 32 F and 25 mm. is an inch.

November was pretty moderate. Temperatures ranged from a high of 12 C to a low of -2 C. Winds were light to moderate most days, and rain was delivered in modest shots of no more than 10 mm. at a time, adding up to 67.5 mm., which is rather low. This was the beginning of a dry period of several months which caused some anxiety about reservoir levels and next summer’s growing season.

Early in December, a cold snap began, which did not end until the 14th. On December 8, we had a low of -9 C. Though cold, this period was clear and sunny. Clouds returned as temperatures rose to normal values, dispelling hopes of a white Christmas. December 15, which has in former years been a dramatic weather day (windstorms and/or heavy rain), was quite temperate — 6 C to 10 C, with 2 mm. of rain followed by bright moonlight. The first snowdrops were in bloom on the 31st.

January temperatures were pretty typical — ranging from -2 C (on the 4th) to a high of 10 on the 24th, which was a brief preview of spring. There were no major rain events; in fact the “winter drought” continued. Ski resorts on Vancouver Island feared for their season. I registered 89.5 mm. at my place, which was better than the 60 in January 2013, but followed two relatively dry months in November and December.

February began with another cold period. On the 5th and 6th, temperatures stayed below freezing, with a low of -6 C on the 6th. I find a note from February 9th: “Garden looks beaten down.” The big Corsican hellebores looked deflated, and the frozen state of the ground (surface only!) gave the whole scene a desiccated look. Snow would have been welcome, if only in an aesthetic sense. Crocuses and Iris unguicularis began to bloom despite the dismal scene, but the flowers looked slightly nibbled, as though by slugs, leaving tattered fragments on the ground. I never saw the culprits, preferring to stay inside wondering what kind of insect would be out in such inhospitable conditions. Finally the rains typical of winter began, delivering 125 mm. by the end of the month. February 22 through 24 was a period of truly miserable weather — mixed rain and snow with a wind that made it seem colder than 0 to 4 C, but by the end of the month things were brightening up and spring seemed a distinct possibility.

And now it looks like it has arrived…

March 9, 2014


March 9, 2014

Hypocrisy Part II: The Introvert’s Dilemma

I am an introvert. It feels strange to admit that, as though it’s a shameful secret.

One-third of us, supposedly, are introverts, so why has this not unusual personality type been considered a disorder by some?

I’ve seen advice (mostly in self-help books) that boils down to, “It’s OK to be an introvert, but here are ten things you can do to make yourself look like an extrovert, because you need to do that to succeed.”

To me, this is exactly analogous to telling a gay or lesbian person that all they need to do is find the right person of the opposite sex.  This advice is, essentially, “Be a hypocrite. Forever.”

I’ve spent too much of my life considering myself to be socially broken and in need of repair, regularly facing dilemmas such as, “Go to the party and feel like a misfit or stay home and feel like a failure?” With age comes wisdom, and in the last few years I’ve given up any intentions to fix myself, at first with resignation, recently with delight. It really is OK to be what I am, and don’t bother offering me tools to break out of my shell. I like my shell; it has windows and a door and I look out and come out when I please.

Other introverts have begun to speak out, notably Susan Cain, with her book Quiet : the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. Amazing — introverts credited with power, rather than diagnosed with a disorder! I admit I haven’t read it yet, but this item makes me hopeful. Almost all of the 23 things apply to me, and the most surprising one is #8: “Giving a talk in front of 500 people is less stressful than having to mingle with those people afterwards.” Labelled “shy” as a child, I’ve wondered why I can, in fact, speak to groups  when I have something to say and know what I’m talking about. While speaking, my role is defined — I talk, the others listen. But to me, a free-floating crowd where everyone is yakkng away is an alien, energy-sucking environment.

And then there’s #22 in the list: “You’re a writer.” Need I say more?


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