Friday, March 29, 2013

Multitude of Favorites 3: So-Called Literary

I don't know where that line is, the one that separates plain old shabby fiction from literary fiction. Honestly, I try not to think about it, as it's fairly pointless anyway and I have chores to do. But there are some writers I love who are generally referred to as "literary". Okay, fine. If that's what we've all agreed on, so be it. Here are my six favorite "literary" writers.

(You'll notice, maybe, that there are no modern literary writers on this list. That's because, in my experience, modern literary stuff has almost zero focus on story, and I loathe that. The writers here could always be counted on for delivering great stories).

Fyodor Dostoevsky. This crazy Russian bastard spoke my language (not literally, man, I don't speak Russian). His novels and stories are dark, exploring the depths of human misery, offering very little in the way of redemption. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND and THE IDIOT are favorites.

Albert Camus. He didn't really come up with anything new in exploring Existentialism, but he definitely presented it more entertainingly and clearly than his miserable French contemporaries. THE STRANGER, THE FALL and THE PLAGUE all tell terrific stories about protagonists gripped by despair at lack of meaning, and still managed to feel life-affirming, in their way, in the end. THE STRANGER, in particular, is a book I wish everyone would read.

Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, as a stylist, had a tremendous impact on me. The spare prose, the lack of sentimentality, the deep emotional pulse that strained just under the surface, are all qualities that earn him his rank as, perhaps, the most important writer of the 20th century. His short stories, in particular, tear me up. Favorites: THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES, A FAREWELL TO ARMS, and A MOVABLE FEAST.

Flannery O'Connor. Her novel WISE BLOOD affected me in ways that are hard to explain. It was funny and dark and important, probing at the concept of faith and loss of faith and the terrible toll of each. I've written about it elsewhere (the excellent Eva Dolan's blog, right here), so I won't reiterate, but I'd also recommend A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND and EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE.

John Steinbeck. The end of THE GRAPES OF WRATH moved me to tears the first time I read it, and that's something that never happens to me. The way Steinbeck alternated chapters between lush, descriptive prose and the harsh Dust Bowel-era experiences of the Joads keep you invested and aware of the huge canvas the story takes place on. He understood humanity, Steinbeck did, and the transformative power of love and sacrifice. You also see it in OF MICE AND MEN, and to a lesser degree in CANNERY ROW.

Harper Lee. Yeah, it's all about one book with Harper Lee, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. How a writer can come right out of the gate with a masterpiece, out of nowhere, still boggles the mind. And to never follow it up with anything else? Lee was an enigma, but her novel about racial prejudice and coming of age still speaks strongly to every generation that reads it, and in a lovely and direct style.

That's it for me. I give you the floor, readers.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Multitude of Favorites 2: Speculative Fiction

"Speculative fiction" is pretty dodgy. It's hard to define exactly what it means. It's not sci-fi, really, although sometimes there are sci-fi elements, and it's not fantasy or horror, although there's sometimes some horrific stuff involved and there's always some fantastical element. It's that Other Genre, basically. It's full of glorious and/or creepy possibilities. It can uplifting or it can be downright chilling.

Here's my four favorite "speculative fiction" writers:

Neil Gaiman. Most of us first heard of him when he was writing the critically-acclaimed Vertigo series THE SANDMAN, but he went on to pen some of the most imaginative and lovely novels and short stories of the modern age. Stephen King called him a treasure trove of stories (or something to that effect). It's true. His novels AMERICAN GODS and NEVERWHERE are absolutely brilliant, and his short story collections, like SMOKE & MIRRORS and FRAGILE THINGS are beautiful, scary, and moving.

George Saunders. Reading CIVILWARLAND IN BAD DECLINE was like being taken by the shoulders and shook, hard, for me. It opened my eyes in a lot of ways to what it's possible to do with the short story format. Saunders has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut, but I don't think that's quite accurate. Yes, he's a brilliant and cutting satirist, but his stories are loaded with a kind of darkly funny surrealism that Vonnegut never embraced. He's being noticed lately because of his latest release, TENTH OF DECEMBER, but if you've never read him, you should check out IN PERSUASION NATION, PASTORALIA, THE BRIEF AND FRIGHTENING REIGN OF PHIL, and THE VERY PERSISTENT GAPPERS OF FRIP. He also wrote a brilliant collection of essays on popular culture called THE BRAINDEAD MEGAPHONE.

Tim Powers. ON STRANGER TIDES is one of the most exciting and original novels I've ever read, a terrific hybrid of dark fantasy, pirate adventure and alternate history. All of Powers books are well-researched and chockful of bizarre ideas. "Delightful" is a goofy word and not one I use lightly, but that's what Powers does. He's a writer who's not afraid to experiment with some pulp ideas, translated into some kind of high art. I'd also recommend EARTHQUAKE WEATHER, THE ANUBIS GATES (one of my favorites!), LAST CALL, and EXPIRATION DATE. The only thing I haven't read of his yet is THREE DAYS TO NEVER-- I keep putting it off because he's not super-prolific and I hate the thought of not having any more Powers to read.

James Morrow. First thing I read from Morrow was a brilliant novel called CITY OF TRUTH, about a place where lying was illegal, and the hero had to learn to lie in order to save the life of his son. After that, I jumped right into BIBLE STORIES FOR ADULTS, a cheeky collection of Biblically-inspired fables. He's mostly known, however, for the "Godhead Trilogy", TOWING JEHOVAH, BLAMELESS IN ABADDON, and THE ETERNAL FOOTMAN, chronicling the death of God and how the world deals with it, post-mortem. Morrow's books are challenging and funny  and deeply human.

Monday, March 25, 2013

LEE available at Amazon

LEE, the anthology of fictional tales featuring Lee Marvin-- the "epitome of masculine cool" as Andrew Nette so aptly puts it-- has been out for a few days at the Crime Factory site. But as of yesterday, it's now available at Amazon as well. I'm excited to have a story in it, along with the likes of:

Scott Philips
Roger Smith
Johnny Shaw
Jenna Bass
Adrian McKinty
Jake Hinkson
Ray Banks
James Hopwood
Erik Lundy
Eric Beetner
Luke Preston
Nigel Bird
Ryan K. Lindsay
Cameron Ashley
Jimmy Callaway
and the afore-mentioned Andrew Nette.

Terrific line-up of talent, all penning stories about one of the baddest of bad-asses in the history of film.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Multitude of Favorites 1: Horror

My first literary love is dark crime fiction-- 'noir', for lack of a better word. But like most of you I read (and write) in many genres, some of which get short shrift here at the blog. My next few posts are aimed at telling you about some of my favorite writers in other genres.

I was a teen and young adult in the '80's, during the so-called Horror boom, and so there was no shortage of  stuff to read for a gorehound. And I read a LOT of it, man. I was more than a little obsessive, in fact. My favorite horror, ultimately, turned out to be in the short story category. There's something about a solid horror story that lends itself well to short tales. The horror writers who have stood the test of time for me are:

Stephen King. Sort of obvious, I guess, but reading THE SHINING at sixteen years old had a profound impact on me, and led me to search out the other writers on this list. I haven't kept up with King's novels in recent years, but whenever he puts out a short story collection, I'm ALL over it. I especially like EVERYTHING'S EVENTUAL, FULL DARK NO STARS, and SKELETON CREW.

Shirley Jackson. For pure mood and atmosphere, for that creeping sense of uneasiness, for sheer psychological terror, Ms. Jackson can't be touched. Her novels THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE are brilliant, but I've re-read THE LOTTERY AND OTHERS more often.

Manly Wade Wellman. My admiration for Wellman is based on one book, really-- WHO FEARS THE DEVIL? The strange adventures of John the Balladeer as he roams the Appalachians with his silver-stringed guitar thrilled me to no end as a young reader. I re-read my copy about three years ago and the stories in it stand up remarkably well.

Richard Matheson. One of the greatest short story writers of all time, in any genre. He wrote the teleplays for countless episodes of The Twilight Zone, as well as novels like THE SHRINKING MAN, I AM LEGEND, WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, and HELL HOUSE. But again, it was his short stories that really rocked my world. Some of his best can be found in NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET. Back in the mid-60's, some insightful publisher put out a terrific three volumes in paperback, SHOCK 1, 2, and 3. I had an opportunity to buy them recently, and let the chance slip by. Been kicking myself about it ever since.

So there's my top four horror scribes for you. Who are some of your favorites?

Next post, I'll blather on about my favorite "speculative fiction" writers.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

That Damned Coyote Hill free

Since "Bad Sanctuary" is coming out soon, Beat to a Pulp has put the first Hawthorne story "That Damned Coyote Hill" out for free on Kindle for a day or so. If you haven't already read it, now's your chance to hop on.

Click here: That Damned Coyote Hill.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Philosophy of Hawthorne

I just wrapped up the fourth Hawthorne tale, "Bad Sanctuary", in which I drop some major hints about the origin story (which is coming soon) and so have cause to think a little about the character's motivations.

I get a great deal of pleasure from writing about Hawthorne. There are things about him and the type of stories he inhabits that are immensely satisfying to me.

For those who don't know, Hawthorne is the protagonist of a series of short Weird Western stories, horror/adventure/action tales that take place in a mythological West. Hawthorne himself is a man especially suited to the world he stalks through. Some readers have assumed he's a bounty hunter-- he's not. But he IS a character driven by a dark, almost holy (or unholy) conviction. He rarely speaks. He is all action. He has no life or interests outside his bloody work. If he ever knew love in some distant past, that emotion was burned away and his heart is stone.

Or so it seems. In "Bad Sanctuary", I hint at his tragic motivations a bit, the circumstances that led him to ride the Vengeance Trail, and show that he may not be the sociopathic beast he seems to be.

For the time being, though, I'm happy to have him remain a cold, dark riddle.

So about the philosophy I adhere to while writing Hawthorne's strange adventures: it's a nihilistic one, basically. I'm no nihilist myself, but have in the past skirted along the cusp of that Dark Hole, have taken a peek or two down into the black, and I think I understand it. Hawthorne not only understands it, he inhabits it. That Dark Hole is where he lives.

He's dedicated to vengeance. Justice doesn't come into it, and neither does mercy. He doesn't think he's making a difference, but he keeps on meting out punishment (to evil both natural and supernatural) because it's what lends meaning to his existence after everything else has ceased to have meaning.

It's his singular dedication to his what he does and his complete lack of interest in anything else that make him so damn fun to write about. Hopefully, he's HALF as fun to read about.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Rapist, by Les Edgerton

I haven't done many book reviews here lately, and that's more or less by design. But I'm making an exception at the moment for an exceptional novel, Les Edgerton's THE RAPIST. It's a stunning piece of work by one of our best unsung novelists, and I very highly recommend it. Les asked me to do a blurb shortly before the novel came out, which I was happy to do. Here it is.

"With THE RAPIST, Les Edgerton has written the most bone-chilling, evocative, depraved and insightful novel of the year. Forget "hard-boiled", forget "noir", forget everything you think you know about what a genre story is supposed to be. THE RAPIST brushes all of that aside with a disdainful sneer and instead presents something that aspires to far more than any single genre can provide. More than anything else, this novel occupies the same uneasy space that Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground" rests in-- a controlled testament of misanthropy and delusion. But whereas the great Russian's protagonist was fueled by rage, Edgerton's narrator is fueled by a sharp, ugly narcissism, and a beastly inhuman nature that peeks like a stalker through his eloquent language and high-minded ideas. Not so much a plot-driven novel as a narrative, Edgerton guides us into the mind of his narrator and leaves us there alone to fend for ourselves and make our own way back from the darkness. How much of what Truman says can we dismiss as the ravings of a damaged mind? And how much must we stop and listen to, hunting for a glimmer of truth?

THE RAPIST is a challenging novel, not for the squeamish, and definitely not for anyone who dis-likes being pulled out of their comfort zone. It quite simply blew me away. Destined to be a classic."