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The Agony Column for February 21, 2002

My Life in the Bush of Books, Part One

Commentary by Rick Kleffel

With all the reviews going up here -- just a fraction of what I have written, and those just a fraction of what I've read -- I suspect most folks might understand that I am often in a drifting state, staring at a huge heap of books on the table and wondering what to read next. These heaps follow me around the house, and the decisions about what to read next can haunt me for days. Yes, I try for a sort of program of rotating genres, but, alas, I often fall down and succumb to the attraction of a particularly interesting or hot new title, or the allure of a brand new "page turner" by some familiar name, or even one blurbed by a familiar name. In my great generosity -- not to mention the desperate search for something to say as often as I've scheduled myself to say it -- I've decided to introduce readers to the phenomenon of the moving stacks. How many are there in my house today? What's in them, and why? What about the "new release" shelf I once tried to establish? Furthermore, why should you care? I can answer the last question the easiest. As for the others -- I'll have to start manufacturing something.

Books to the left of me...and a suspicious catalag below

The closest stack right now is the 'American Cheese' pile. That would be the books I just scanned in to replenish the images from my 'American Cheese' column, which really seemed to annoy some talk-bots in the masters of Terror chat rooms ('The Cellar'). It's a pretty diverse stack, topped by an old Simon Clark paperback, and bottomed out with a William Schoell paperback. The Clark novel was mentioned in a Mark. V. Zeising catalogue, and recommended to me as something I would like because my taste is usually seen as running to the red. Now, actually, my taste is all over the map, but that aside, I was really underwhelmed with the Clark novel. I think that I might like it more now -- I've come to enjoy Clark's gut-spilling page-turners -- but there was a kind of Spielbergian sentiment to the 'Nailed by the Heart' that annoyed me. Alas, I should have listened to my wise bookseller, because then I'd have the entire run of Clark hardcovers, and if I wasn't attached to them, they'd be worth a pretty penny. Sigh.

William Schoell, on the other hand is a cheese-meister that I really like. Now look, nobody is going to give him a Booker prize. But 'The Dragon' is so much fun, I'm tempted to read it again, with it's huge maggot monsters and pregnant (with maggot monsters) men running about the Arizona desert. It's like some delirious Roger Corman movie.

In between in this stack, I've got a couple of versions of Dennis Etchison's 'California Gothic', another MZ catalogue item, 'By the Balls', which I will now fully admit I bought because of the retro cheese cover, and am unlikely to get around reading until I retire. For those who might say that I've already retired, I would offer that I'm just "on sabbatical". Oh, and next to the Clark is my ancient Lovecraft paperback, still bearing the Rick Kleffel Inc. Signature I used to put in books in my adolescence. Or at least earlier in my adolescence.

Books to the right of me..

On top of the scanner there's something I'm going to jam in a column I wrote last week -- 'Meddling With Ghosts', edited by Ramsey Campbell. Yes, I'm actually going to update my 'Ghosts of Henry/MR James' piece, because this collection of stories in the M. R. James tradition is an absolutely perfect fit with 'A Pleasing Terror'. It's from the British Library and covers the whole spectrum from Le Fanu through Campbell himself. Definitely a must for those entranced by antiquarian English ghost stories. You know who you are. (And who I am, for that matter.) Above it, Daniel Gower's 'The Orpheus Process', one of the less successful Abyss experiments; less successful because it was less experimental, to my mind. And beneath, William Hjortsberg's excellent 'Nevermore', rather ahead of it's time with the historical mystery-horror schtick.

Books behind me...

From the other end of the dining table we have the 'stays near where I sit and read' pile. I like to read sitting up in a straight, slightly padded old dining chair from my grandmother's old dining set. This group includes the latest Graham Joyce, Damon Knight's biography of Charles Fort, a local used bookstore find, Grimwood's recently mentioned 'Pashazade'.

Beneath it are the paperback versions of the two newest PS Publishing releases, 'The Human Front', by Ken Macleod, and 'Park Polar' by Adam Roberts. You can be certain there will be a column devoted to this wonderful publishing concern, the brainchild of the talented Peter Crowther. He's a writer, he's an editor, he's a publisher. He's got a series coming out from Cemetery Dance books. He's a busy guy.

It also contains the newest Shirley novel from Night Shade books, -- a hot contender for the next in line to get read. Beneath that note a signed version of the George R. R. Martin deal from NESFA Press, 'Quartet'. These guys have been real busy putting out some great but forgotten authors. Now with his popularity reaching new heights due to his 'Song of Ice and Fire' series, I must admit that Martin's hardly forgotten. But NESFA has just issued some incredible Zenna Henderson and William Tenn collections. These writers really are forgotten by most of today's readers. If only I had to the money to shell out for these books. Alas, these days I can see the bottom scraping the financial hull of my book budget. 'Quartet', the book in question offers up three novellas and one screenplay. None of those are 'Nightflyers'. I'm sure Mr. Martin had a hand in that choice.

And finally, yes, I'm balancing the whole shebang on a new Penguin Putnam paperback from Ed Gorman, 'Rituals'. Ed's a dependable author of thrillers, and sure to get plucked eventually. And beneath that, an unpublished manuscript of immediate interest, keeping last month's Keyboard magazine from flying away.

Rick Approved© Books for the wife and kids.

Next we journey the miles across a brief spot of uncluttered carpet (about 4 square feet is uncluttered), to find the 'ready reading for kids and wife' pile. 'Daniel's Walk' is the current book of choice for the 12 year old, while the 16 year old is making a go at 'The Gun Seller'. As it happens, everyone should read the 'The Gun Seller'. It is without doubt one of the funniest books I've read in quite some time, and the innumerable people who have borrowed it have agreed. In case 'The Gun Seller' gets 'misplaced', we have 'Ghost Train', by the ever lovable Stephen Laws. He's one of those guys that I can't comprehend not getting published in the US. I know that 'Ghost Train' made it across to the states, and perhaps his second novel 'Spectre'. But his other novels, from 'Darkfall' though the superb 'Macabre', 'Daemonic' and 'Chasm' have never made the leap, and it's a damn shame. It seems to me that he'd really appeal to the legions of Dean Koontz fans, and his stuff easily transcends any 'too British' problems, at least for me. Beneath that, two books for the wife, Ursula K. Leguin and the latest Reginald Hill. Hill is a solid author of excellent British mysteries. Le Guin is a giant from whose shoulders we can see the future.

A very important stack is the 'to be covered' stack. I long ago gave up the Brodart covers for rolls of Demco Superfold. Before anything gets read, it gets covered. I've saved a few books that way. So in the lineup to get covered:

To be covered and what they'll be covered with...

Robert Metzger's 'Picoverse', a hard SF novel about some folks who create a universe. 'Picoverse' may be the next in line to read, since the 'hard SF' angle is pretty much the opposite of the squishy sociological Celtic fantasy of Robert Holdstock ('Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'). [On the other hand, Holdstock packs just about as much real information into his novel as any hard SF guru. I'm really enjoying this latest work in the Mythago series, enough so that I'm going to scour the shelves for the hardocver of the original. I expect that a Holdstock stack will be created in the process.]

Beneath that is the second Phil Rickman as Will Kingdom trade paperback. I'm really up for that book, but I've got to read 'The Cold Calling', and in any event, I don't want to immediately exhaust the supply of Rickman. So it may go to the 'in a while' pile. Beneath that, two collections from Golden Gryphon press, Paul De Fillipo's 'Strange Trades' and Geoffrey Landis' 'Impact Parameter'. These guys have found a nice and they're filling it admirably. They put out very nice anthologies of high-quality (but not rock star popular) authors. It's very tempting to just put them on auto-order at the bookseller.

And there's Graham Joyce again, a second copy, signed, ready to be put in suspecded animation for when Peter Weir makes a mega-hit movie from one of his novels. If I'm not mistaken, 'Dark Sister' has entered some development hell stage, but who knows if Charon will let Joyce's novel make it across the River Styx, and how it will be changed in the Nether Regions.

I'm only going to show you two shelves. One is sort of new releases, including a host from CD ('Darkness Demands' kicks ass), the Sean McMullen trilogy (I prefer all the books to be out before I start a series, having been burned by huge waits for cliffhanger novels).

Old new releases. Check out the VHS tape of Peter Weir's nail-biting tterrorizing thriller 'The Plumber'.

And then there's the presumptive new releases row on my desk, where I'm supposed to be able to read. Instead, it's a perfect place for more clutter! There is an Ash Tree Steve Rasnic Tem collection hiding in there, and an original novel from Golden Gryphon, going against the grain. 'The Wild Boy' by Warren Rochelle looks like a solid bit of sociological SF. Otherwise, this shelf is older stuff just hanging out and looking nice. Philiip K. Dick stories to read when the time slows. What more could I ask for?

What a mess! It's all part of the life of a book addict^H^H^H^H^H^Hreviewer. Yes, I've been known to make rude noises -- with synthesziers!

No I guess I'll answer that question -- why should you care? In theory, all of the above tells you just a bit where I'm coming from, and that should give you a bit better idea how to get your own take on the books I review. You might decide that if I like it, you'll hate it. Or, you might decide you don't have enough piles of books in your house.

Periodically, I'll take you again into my life in the bush of books. It is a jungle in here. I'm lobbying for more hours in the day.




Rick Kleffel