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The Perils of Publisheen

My life in the Bush of Books Part 4

The Agony Column for October 8, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


The end of the Evolutionary Line. This is what happens if Publisheen can't get off the tracks. By the way, that's recycling, not trash. He is being recycled, isn't he?

I'm all for whatever gets people to read. Since I enjoy reading more than the Average Bear, and since what I enjoy usually hangs out on the fringes of what sells massively, I want to see a healthy publishing environment. The works I enjoy can survive in the rich cash soup cast off by the bestsellers. There's a lot to be thrilled about out there. There are even works smack dab in the middle of the shapeless blob of mainstream publishing that are pretty damn great.

But the publishing world is a for-profit deal. As such, it's subject to the whims and terrors that can be inflicted on it by the economy at large. Right now, it looks like Snidely Whiplash has Publisheen tied to the train track, ready to be flattened out by the evolutionary forces of free market capitalism. But -- hold that thought. First the good news. I'm going to tell some tales from the In Box.

Hidden behind art direction to die from are six tales of vampires by fantastic writers, including the latest Kim Newman 'Anno Dracula' novella.

Readers of this column know that I'm not one to flog anything remotely resembling a vampire novel. So here I am flogging what looks to be a very hot and very missable paperback collection titled 'The Vampire Sextet'. Edited by Martin Kaye, available from Ace books 'Dark Fantasy' (Don't say "Horror"!) imprint, it has a cover capable of embarrassing Larry Flynt. Ghostly, ghastly white-clad women, a red V. I'm trying not to think about it. But inside, Mr. Kaye has done readers the fantastic favor of gathering some of the best names in horror -- yes, damn it, these writers all used to write horror back in the 1980's when it was OK to write horror -- and give them an assignment to write a novella. What that boils down to is a new 'Anno Dracula' story from Kim Newman, 92 pages of Orson Welles, 'The Dude' from 'The Big Lebowski', Buffy the vampire slayer and Welles' version of 'Dracula' shot in the 1980's. You've got the cover price covered right there. But wait -- there's more. Brian Stableford introduces the readers to 'Sheena', a Goth Rocker. Since Stableford wrote one of the best vampire novels, 'The Empire of Fear' back when today's Goths were wearing black diapers, I expect great results. He even includes a glossary of English-American translations. S. P. Somtow offers a taste of 'Vanilla Blood'. Those who have read 'Vampire Junction' and 'Moon Dance' know that he is capable of great things. Nancy Collins, whose Sonja Blue novels seemed likely to overtake Anne Rice back in the day, resurrects her favorite heroine in a bad-gal versus worse-gal track and trap story. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Tanya Huff round out the proceedings. I enjoyed the CQY Comte Germaine novels I read back in the day; I've never read Tanya Huff, but here's a setting where it might very well happen. All this for seven bucks? Sounds like a deal to me.

Jonathan Carroll's latest novel is being published by noted SF house Tor. This is a smart move for this publisher, though genre classification may offer some challenges for booksellers trying to place the work.

Also out recently, with nary a bit of the fanfare it deserves, is Jonathan Carroll's latest, 'White Apples'. I don't believe that I've got up on the soapbox about Mr. Carroll yet, but once I get through this novel, be assured that I'll be ranting as breathlessly as any CNN commentator. I've got to admit it, though. Carroll's novels don't sound promising in summary. In fact, to hear them summarized in the dust jacket or in book reviews, they sound pretty, well, dumb. Carroll's novels are primarily a reading experience. Once readers hear that direct, wonderful, witty voice, they're not going back to any other part of the bookstore than the part that has the Jonathan Carroll books. Trouble is, you never know what part of the store that might be. Sometimes he is classed with horror, if the store has a horror classification. Sometimes, his stuff shows up in the literature section, which is probably the most appropriate place. Sometimes, it will hang out with the mysteries. Now that Carroll is with Tor, presumably, it will be the science fiction slot, though his novels have nothing resembling science fiction in them. I found my copy at the venerable Bookshop Santa Cruz stacked between the David Weber and Lois McMaster Bujold titles. That's like finding a Magritte hanging on the wall between a Frazetta and a Vallejo. If you've never read Carroll, take the time to find 'The Land of Laughs' right now. Then, read the rest of books, in the order they were published. You'll enjoy them more if you do. Email me your thanks.

Watch out -- Dan Simmons' latest novel is out. He gets about twice as many books per year as the average author. No wait -- this is his third book this year.

John Connolly's novels were recommended to me by a reader who suggests we all try and read them in publishing order. Thus, I'll be buying and reading two before I get to his latest American release.

Two thrillers are sitting in the in-Box and waiting patiently for my attention. Dan Simmons 'Hard Freeze' the second Joe Kurtz novel promises a satisfying slam and bang, no frills, all thrills and lots of kills. Readers who want hardcore mystery action, stripped down an almost existential level need look no further, though they must, I repeat must read 'Hardcase' first. Simmons also has a new SF novel on the horizon, 'Ilium', about which I know zippo, zero, zilch, nada, nil, nothing. I plan to preserve that saintly ignorance until I turn to page 1, thankyouverymuch. Also sitting next to the hand-crank Imac is 'The Killing Kind', John Connolly's third novel of Charlie Parker. After writing my column on Phil Rickman, a reader wrote me to alert me to these fine novels. Having not read a single one, I can't attest personally for them. But the plan is to get 'Every Dead Thing' and 'Dark Hollow', and read them in order, as I am told that this is the best way to experience the novels. There's an increasing element of the supernatural as the novels progress. Interestingly enough, 'The Killing Kind' deals with the mass suicide of a religious cult, something I've read recently in Chuck Palahniuk's 'Survivor'.

This novel looks to be a bit more over-the-top than you might expect a literary novel to be.

On the other hand, this novel looks to be a bit more literary than you'd expect an over-the-top novel to be.

The literary segment of the reading business looks to be pretty healthy as well. Nick Tosches' 'In the Hand of Dante' promises to conflate thrillers and high literature, as the author himself becomes a character in search of a Dante manuscript. For those who must read a literary novel with a Hollywood movie tie-in, there's Irvine Welsh's 'Porno', which picks up the story of the characters from 'Trainspotting'. Now they're directing and producing a porno film. To this reader that sounds like good clean fun. Welsh comes highly recommended by Chuck Palahniuk in his interview.

Typically, I'm rather wary of books that feel they have to wear a literary pin on their lapel. If a book has to tell me that it's literary, I begin suspect that's going to translate to 'not a lot of fun to read'. Mind you, I don't expect every reading experience to be fun. But if someone advertises a lack thereof, combined with a self-seriousness that can often border on parody, then I'm usually going to take a pass. So you wouldn't expect me to suggesting that you run out and pick up the next issue of McSweeny's magazine, would you? But that's exactly what I'm going to suggest. Now, I'm happy to see a literary empire form entirely outside the huge publishing houses, and I congratulate Dave Eggers on his amazing success. The fact is, however, that I suspect in the matrix between the expectation of my readers, my own inclinations and the amount of time I actually have to read, I won't be reading a lot of the McSweeny's stable particularly soon. But in his interview, Glen David Gold gave me a heads up for all the Agony Column readers. The next issue of McSweeney's is going to be a Genre issue. Gold told me that at first, his desire was to write a ghost story. As he's the author of the incredibly wonderful 'Carter Beats the Devil', I was of course thrilled. But, he said, he relented when Eggers told him that he would be joining Stephen King, who was also contributing a ghost story. Instead, Gold told me that he's going to write something that involves serial killing and elephants, based on a true story. I can hardly wait. And I suspect that readers of The Agony Column should be lining up to buy the next issue of McSweeney's. I can hardly believe that I'm writing that.

Yes, the image is dark. The collection is titled 'Gods in Darkness', isn't it?

For a brief bit of interest, check out the TTA web site for M. John Harrison's reaction to my review of 'Light'.

If things look good over at the big presses, then they also look pretty swinging over at the small presses. Jeremy and Jason over at NightShade are on-target to become a huge force in the publishing industry. Their Karl Edward Wagner collection of three Kane novels, 'Gods in Darkness' is a beautiful book with proven content. Think of Howard's Conan, then twist up the darkness controls a notch or two. Yep, darker than Robert E. Howard. Then buy the book. Likewise, those looking for a companion to M. John Harrison's 'Light' need to get 'Things That Never Happen'. Quoting from the cover, "With An Introduction by Chine Mieville", and 24 pieces of Harrison's best fiction, you're assured the perfect nightstand collection. The pieces are good enough that it won't last that long on the nightstand, but you can console yourself with NightShade's monumental William Hope Hodgson collection.

Bob Eggleton's glorious cover gives a good glimpse at what's inside Alastair Reynolds' 'Turquoise Days'.

Golden Gryphon have launched a new series of novellas, and if 'Turquoise Days', Alastair Reynolds' entry is any indication, it's going to be stunning. The wonderful Bob Eggleton cover is actually outstripped by Reynolds' writing. He crams more into his 78 pages than most authors will get in 300. It's beautiful, moving, weird and exciting. It's something you'd won't see from any big publisher, either.

Peter Crowther and Cemetery Dance enter the YA speculative fiction field. My son has told me this book is quite good, and rather gory.

In the few spare moments you have, you can fill yourself up with new work from Cemetery Dance. If the limited edition Stephen King and the new John Shirley aren't enough, there's the wonderful but slightly ominous Peter Crowther novel, 'Darkness Darkness: Forever Twilight, Book One'. It's Crowther's entertaining, intelligent and fairly gory start to a YA series. And this is precisely the point where we realize that Publisheen is tied to the train tracks, held captive by Snidely Whiplash as the train rushes towards her.

Who wants to be a multi-millionaire author? Let J. K. Rowling show you the way to an easy life of riches, the writing way! Whether it's music, movies or writing, the business end of the equation never seems to understand that when masses of buyers select a work of art that is different, it's not only because they like the specific content. It's the DIFFERENCE, stupid!

Yes, it is heartening to see a bloom in the work that reaches out towards Young Adults while keeping an eye on material that's interesting and sophisticated enough for adults. An excellent bet in this regard is Lian Hearn's 'Across the Nightingale Floor'. Set in a heavily researched feudal Japan, this novel tells the story of the coming of age of a young man possessed of supernatural powers. I haven't read it so I can't personally attest to the quality -- yet, but it's in the short stack and better yet, it's a short novel. It might actually get read.

What makes the adult versions of these books adults is often extraneous and embarrassing sex. How many effective mysteries have you read that had to stop and observe the main characters having sex in details that most readers would rather experience than read about? Simply by dropping this material out of the narrative you can often make a YA title that will appeal to adults. On the other hand, there's an alarming train, er trend happening here.

Clive Barker blazed the trail but didn't break the bank.

No trail blazing here, but some serious bank breaking. Supposedly good reading as well.

Now, we all should know that Clive Barker pioneered this trend with his novel 'The Thief of Always'. It was the novel that convinced by now-16 year old son that reading was actually pretty fun. It was a novel I greatly enjoyed. So, in the follow-up to Rowling, should we be surprised to see Barker back at the YA game with 'Arabat'? Tied, of course (for my friend who reads only literature tied to movies) to a four-movie deal with Disney and enough money to buy an island. I'm looking forward to 'Arabat', no doubt. But wait --there's more.

Neil Gaiman's well reviewed 'Coraline' lowers the bar to 8 years old. Now these must be some pretty sophisticated 8 year olds.

Neil Gaiman's latest novel, 'Coraline' lowers the bar -- it's available for ages 8 and up. Now in my book, that's not young adult. That's a kid's book, and yes, I'm expecting to enjoy it. But I'm worried. As much as I like these particular books, I don't like where the trend is headed in an evolutionary sense, in a marketplace sense.


The ultimate endpoint of the literary evolution currently taking place.

You see, it's possible for an adult to enjoy a very, very simple book. But I don't want all books to be that simple. A great book for those with very, very young kids may in fact be the endpoint of this literary evolution. Now, I came to Lane Smith's 'The Happy Hockey Family' when the boys were very small. We'd bought and greatly enjoyed Jon Scieszka's 'The Stinky Cheese Man', and loved both the narrative and the illustrations. It took me about two seconds in the bookstore to decide that 'The Happy Hockey Family' was well worth the purchase. Let's call it a collection of short stories. I'm going to run a couple of pages here -- one whole short story -- to sell you this book.


This fantastic book is the template for all books 20 years from now.

This is only one of many short stories in Lane Smith's collection.

Yes, this is a wonderful book. It gets better. The illustrations are lovely, the text is bracing. As much as I enjoy this book, I don't want all books to be like this book. Someone needs to rescue Publisheen from this train track. The gate is getting lower. The rewards are getting higher. Someone needs to start reading adult books, with complicated plots right now. That would be you. Go buy an adult book today. Enjoy it, and tell me what it is if I haven't heard about it. Then I might buy it as well. Each of our dollars goes to Snidely Whiplash, to help convince him that Publisheen should not be tied to this particular track.




Rick Kleffel