Month: January 2016

Unreliable

If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing from the hearth and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet. This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa, where black stars hang in the heavens, where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the Lake of Hali, and my mind will bear forever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth — a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow.

The unreliable narrator. What a great driver for a piece of fiction!

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because of extensive pondering of Robert Chambers’s story “The Repairer of Reputations” (quoted from above), especially after also reading (and looking at) I.N.J. Culbard’s graphic take on it. I think it’s the best story in the collection entitled The King in Yellow, first published in 1895. I recently rediscovered that book, and found (to my surprise) that Culbard’s graphic novel adaptation made this story a vivid and striking experience. Disturbing, too.

Here are the elements of the story:

A futuristic setting (1920), in which America is a militaristic, grandiose empire that has just repealed the law forbidding suicide, and has inaugurated the first Lethal Chamber in New York City.

The narrator is a young man (Hildred Castaigne) whose head injury four years earlier led to confinement in an asylum for the insane. He believes that to have been a mistake and intends to be revenged on Dr. Archer, whose error it was. He has read the notorious play called “The King in Yellow,” which is reputed to drive its readers (note, readers) insane.

A young cavalry officer (Louis Castaigne), who is Hildred’s cousin. He’s courting Constance Hawberk, the daughter of an armourer (with a singularly apt surname). Hildred frequents Hawberk’s shop, not because of Constance, but because he is delighted by the sound of hammer on metal and the scintillation of light that strikes it. He is also a friend of the eccentric who lives upstairs…

Mr. Wilde, short and grotesque, with a mutilated hand, wax ears and a streak of masochism he exercises by provoking his cat to attack him savagely. He is the Repairer of Reputations, a kind of blackmailer who supposedly employs hundreds of men to supply him with information. He is also the keeper of documents proving that Louis and Hildred are members of the Imperial Dynasty of America and heirs to its vacant throne. Hildred, whose injury changed him from a fun-loving man-about-town to a brooding scholar, has ambitions to displace his cousin and claim the throne. Both Hawberk and Louis believe Mr. Wilde to be insane (and have doubts about Hildred as well).

Things come to a head when Louis announces his impending marriage to Constance. Hildred sees this as an obstacle to his ambitions and asks Louis to renounce the throne and not marry. Louis agrees to renounce (clearly humouring his crazy cousin), but draws the line at not marrying. Things happen pretty fast after that, and end less than happily for Hildred, Mr. Wilde and his cat.

Weird, eh?

The whole thing gets weirder the longer I brood upon it, which is a point in its favour. Stories that end cleanly and neatly, with no unanswered questions, fade quickly from the memory. This one does not.

The real question is: How unreliable is this narrator? The story begins with an observation on life in 1920s America — except the book was published in the 1800s, so this is a futuristic projection. The Wikipedia article about this story suggests the action doesn’t take place in 1920 at all; that is part of Hildred’s delusions. Which leads one swiftly to the conclusion that the entire narrative is the ravings of a madman. Which flattens everything out and makes it — for me, anyway — less interesting. I prefer to toy with the idea that at least some of Hildred’s statements are true. The very strange Mr. Wilde knows where the missing bits of a famous suit of armour can be found. Mr. Hawberk is disturbed by Wilde’s declaration that he (Hawberk) is actually the Marquis of Avonshire. Hildred is totally aware that others look at him with tolerant pity — but he also knows he will be king.

Behind the onward-and-upward facade of a fascist America, something else is going on.

One interpretation might be that the shadowy, yellow-garbed King (whom emperors have served) is taking control of susceptible individuals (artists and the head-injured) as they read the perilous play, and eventually he will gain the ascendance. But given the outcome of this particular episode, it could take a while.

One thing every unreliable narrator needs is the sympathy of the reader. If the narrator is presented as completely deluded and evil, the reader regards him or her as “someone not like me” — the Other. It’s easy to give up on that person and leave them to their fate. But if the character snares the reader’s sympathy, even a little; if the reader involuntarily identifies with him, the situation instantly becomes complex and fascinating. So it is with the unfortunate Hildred Castaigne. If I think about him too much I might find myself writing a piece of fan fiction that turns into a series of novels. Oh, wait — I’ve already done that — with H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West.

A fascinating book club style discussion of “The Repairer of Reputations” may be found here. I would advise reading the story itself first.

Prepping the Phoenix

I’m preparing to publish Hunting the Phoenix, the fourth and final book of the Herbert West Series, in print. Having gone through this three times already, I know it can be a bit of a slog:

  1. Reading the ebook on my ereader and making notes. I’m 2/3 of the way through. About 80% of the changes consist of deleting the word “that.” As in: “I made my way over to him, telling myself that I wasn’t all that tipsy.” See what I mean? So far I have 22 ereader pages of notes.
  2. Making the noted changes in the ebook’s base Word document.
  3. Copying that document and formatting it for print. I’ve blogged about that process already.
  4. Writing a brief plot description for the back cover.
  5. Ordering the print cover image from my cover designer once I know the final page number.
  6. Uploading the interior file and cover image to CreateSpace.
  7. Proofing, both online and by reading a printed proof copy.
  8. Making post-proofing corrections. (It would be great if this step wasn’t needed, but let’s be realistic).
  9. Re-proofing. By this stage the online options should be enough.
  10. Making final corrections, if necessary (better not be!) and re-uploading.
  11. Publishing.
  12. Copying all the changes into the Kindle ebook base document.
  13. Uploading the corrected ebook docs to Smashwords and KDP.

There is a bit of fun stuff this time around:

  1. I’ve used good old Microsoft Paint to draw a number of alchemical symbols, which I’m hoping to use as glyphs on the interior title pages of Hunting the Phoenix. Glyphs are cool.
  2. There will be a small (but significant) adjustment to the cover image. Look for a cover reveal in a few weeks!

By the way, I recently ran across something interesting by another WordPress blogger — a history of Herbert West, from his creation by H.P. Lovecraft to recent adaptations. Can you believe a musical version of the Re-Animator movie? Truth! The post also includes a mention of my novel The Friendship of Mortals, complete with (for me) thrill-inducing comments.

Herbert West lives!

Credit for the image (Herbert and the unnamed narrator) goes to Tealin.

The State of the Garden(er)

Once again, I’ve become disengaged from my garden. Haven’t done anything much out there since leaf-raking time. But now it’s January — stock-taking time — and spring is lurking just below the horizon. A few days ago, I walked around and looked things over. No gloves on my hands, no tools in them. I had no intention of doing anything, just looking and seeing.

The garden is going along without me. Leaves are rotting, fallen branches accumulating. Lots of pond-side rocks rolled into the pond by raccoons. Holes dug all over the place by same. Lawn grass creeping into the beds (probably fleeing the dog pee, which is destroying it over wide areas). Early bulbs starting to sprout, some clematises also. Winter honeysuckle is in full bloom, wafting a delicious lemon scent in the evenings. The days are getting longer.

Conclusion: the garden is doing fine. Life and death processes are present. Nature doesn’t care about looks.

The gardener?

Having fits over the rotting leaves and fallen branches everywhere. Annoyed by raccoon damage. Distressed by the damaged lawns and fuzzy edges, resenting the dog. Making plans for edging, pruning, raking. Anticipating more fits. Envisioning better fences to contain the dog. Rejoicing at the sight of sprouting bulbs and budding clematises, gentians, etc. Heartened by the sight of what look like viable Meconopsis crowns. Feeling nostalgia induced by perfume of winter honeysuckle. Looking forward to retiring from The Job at the end of March and re-engaging with this patch of earth.

Maybe someday it will look like this again…

The Back Garden, May 2010

…minus those plastic chairs, of course.

Slim and Trim: the “Compact Edition”

Those who haven’t abandoned their New Year’s resolutions to lose weight may actually have lost a few pounds by now, but I am thrilled to report that I have already achieved my goal, a 30% reduction in weight and… bulk. Well, not my personal weight, but that of the first book of my Herbert West Series, The Friendship of Mortals. It lost 168 pages and close to half a pound.

When I first published this book, in 2014, I set the line spacing too wide, resulting in a 554-page monster. It’s an impressive tome and is supremely readable, but because of that bulk, the price was unappealing. Now it’s a mere 386 pages, similar to Books 2 and 3 of the series.

Line spacing. See the difference? Book 1 is on the left, Book 2 on the right.

Line spacing. See the difference? Book 1 is on the left, Book 2 on the right.

Reformatting the Word document and republishing was surprisingly easy. I did, however, have to pay my cover designer to adjust the spine width.

I don’t as yet have a copy of the “compact edition,” because I finalized it on CreateSpace just this afternoon. Now I’m in the throes of preparing Book 4 (Hunting the Phoenix) for print publication. Once that’s done, and I have all four books completed, I’ll take a picture of them, sort of like a family portrait. Until then, this picture makes it clear why I made this particular resolution. The size difference suggests that The Friendship of Mortals is much longer than the other two, when in reality the word counts aren’t that different.

 

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Gatecrash: Liberating creativity in the age of boilerplate fiction

Here’s the first of a series of posts about creativity vs. formula in fiction writing. I’m looking forward to the rest. And the comments are worth reading too.

WHAT THE HELL

chainlink

Last March I developed a long essay on the state of fiction these days, as I see it — particularly the fiction we associate with the indie market. It’s probably thought of mainly as genre fiction, though there’s a mixed bag of material out there, available predominantly as ebooks from Amazon.com. It struck me — still strikes me, in fact — that the tools offered by online publishing present an enormous opportunity that’s not being taken advantage of by writers, artistic freedom being the biggest elephant in the room.

I had planned on publishing the essay as a standalone ebook, but over the course of the year I realized that hawking my novels is hard enough. I’ve decided instead to post it in eleven parts here on the blog, offering it at the end as a free pdf download. Each part will run about a thousand words so it’s easily…

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Story Bundle

There’s something appealing about this concept. Even those of us without treadmills might want to try something like this. In the meantime, here are some books to discover!

mishaburnett

I’ve mentioned Jefferson Smith’s Immerse Or Die Report before.

The concept is brutal in its simplicity.  Every morning he takes a self-published novel or story collection and gets on his treadmill for forty minutes. When he runs across something that breaks immersion–unclear syntax, wooden dialogue, boring exposition, pretty much anything that makes him look away from the page–the work gets one strike.  Three strikes, and it’s out.  The ones that make it past the forty minute mark without collecting three strikes are considered survivors.

EDITED TO ADD:  I was reminded that Jefferson Smith is joined by David Higgins in the “test to destruction” review process.  Dave’s no pushover, either.

It’s a tough standard–kind of a Gobi torture test for literature.

Of the two hundred and five novels that he put through the mill in 2015,he chose nine survivors to be included in the 2015 Immerse Or Die Story Bundle.

As…

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Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?

Well, OK, not that yellow sign.

Most of us have seen many yellow signs, but only one has elicited shudders since 1895, when Robert W. Chambers’s book The King in Yellow was published. It has become a classic among readers of weird fiction, and influenced H.P. Lovecraft and his literary successors.

I first read The King in Yellow more than 30 years ago, but lost touch with it after I inadvertently left my copy at the train station in Regina, Saskatchewan in 1984. Recently I acquired an ebook copy and proceeded to read all nine stories in short order.

I found that 99% of the book’s content had been expunged from my memory — all except for the words of the title and the phrase “the Yellow Sign,” along with a few other key words or phrases — the Pallid Mask, the Lake of Hali — and the name Cassilda. Also that the Yellow King’s garments were, for some mysterious reason, tattered. Everything else was as though brand new in my recent re-reading.

All the stories have these elements in common: the protagonists are young American artists, as Chambers was before he turned from art to writing. The locales in which the stories play out are New York City or Paris, with one tale set in Brittany. Descriptions of bohemian life (American style) in Paris are delicious — sights, sounds, smells, plants, flowers, clothing, birds and even insects, all are all rendered in detail and imbued with nostalgia. I think some of these stories, “The Street of our Lady of the Fields” and “Rue Barree” in particular, are thinly fictionalized reminiscences of youthful hijinks that seem charmingly quaint when read in our cynical times. However charming, these tales boil down to relationships between the young Americans and Parisian ‘working girls.’ Little perfumed notes about rendezvous at various cafes and clubs are mentioned, but the word ‘prostitute’ or any of its synonyms is never to be seen, and yet the point is made that the young ladies, however delightful, are not to be fallen in love with, for one could never contemplate presenting them to Mother back home.

An exception among the Parisian stories is one titled “The Street of the First Shell.” It paints a vivid and disturbing picture of life during the Siege of Paris in 1870-71. The characters are, as usual, young American artists, but they are shown dealing with starvation, betrayal, and the despair of a population pushed to its limits. It’s worth reading as an introduction to an episode in history that is not well known to many now.

The fifth story — a bridge between those that mention the King in Yellow and those about Americans in Paris — is called “The Demoiselle d’Ys.” It is a well-wrought tale, something between ghost story and fantasy, with a bonus of a lot of information about the art of falconry.

But what about the King in Yellow? Well, that reference is to be found in the first four stories — “The Repairer of Reputations,” “The Mask,” “In the Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign.”

“The Repairer of Reputations” is set in a weirdly dystopian New York City in 1920 (remember, the book was published in 1895). The protagonist is a seriously unreliable narrator, but it takes a while for that realization to emerge.

“The Mask” combines chemistry and art with something of the romanticism of the later stories. It would play beautifully as a graphic novel rendered in the Art Nouveau style of Aubrey Beardsley, an exact contemporary.

“In the Court of the Dragon” takes place in a church. Churches appear often in these stories, and Chambers has some of his protagonists reveal that they are Catholics. This story features a sinister organist who is a harbinger of doom to the narrator, who had been reading the forbidden play entitled The King in Yellow. He hopes the church will be a safe haven in which to recover, but that is not to be.

In “The Yellow Sign” we are once again in New York City. This time the artist protagonist is a man of experience, filled with regret about someone in Brittany by the name of Sylvia, but the story concerns his relationship with his young model, Tessie. It’s all quite innocent until the grotesque figure of a cemetery watchman appears. Things become really complicated when Tessie reads The King in Yellow.

The thing about all these stories is that the action is quite independent of the yellow-clad king and his world. Only at the very end of “In the Court of the Dragon” does the King emerge from the shadows and speak. In the other stories, “The King in Yellow” is a play, reputed to cause madness and terror in those who read it. Bits of text from the play introduce the stories, such as this from “The Repairer of Reputations”: Strange is the night where black stars rise, And strange moons circle through the skies But stranger still is Lost Carcosa. Songs that the Hyades shall sing, Where flap the tatters of the King, Must die unheard in dim Carcosa.

So who is the King in Yellow? That is never explained. He is a representative of a world that is hinted at, that hovers unseen behind our world, that may break through and destroy those who read the dreadful play. This world and its inhabitants are utterly alien and unknown to us. Only in this do these stories resemble those of H.P. Lovecraft, whom they are thought to have influenced. Otherwise, Chambers’s stories are concerned with the thoughts and emotions of their human characters. The King — whose garments are said to have “scolloped tatters” — is somewhat reminiscent of Lovecraft’s Nylarlathotep or possibly Azathoth. The lack of descriptions of him — only a few fascinating details — is what gives these stories their weird power.

The King in Yellow is definitely worth a read, not only by those who are interested in early weird fiction, but by anyone who would enjoy a vicarious visit to Paris as it was in the 1880s or 1890s.