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Goliath Gets a Clue

The Agony Column for June 12, 2003

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


You've heard me say it about ten thousand times it seems. 'Those darn Big US Publishers.' [We'll call them BUSPs.] 'They don't have a clue compared to the folks in the small press. Here, the BUSPs have all the money to do anything they want and they put out one shoddy piece of crap after another, with a few decent authors' great works released to the public like dead fish thrown to barking seals.'

'BUT THE SMALL PRESS - the small press rules, and the BUSPs will never, ever learn.'

The small press still rules -- make no mistake. But the BUSPs have begun to learn by the age old process ape-faced, monkey-like imitation. And the small press has begun wising up as well. The upshot of all this foofaraw is more books, better books, slightly cheaper books, and most importantly more available books for the average reader.

Remember the web page about Entrances to Hell? Maybe I should submit this.

Think of the Glory Days of trash publishing, exemplified by Crown Bookstores. You could go into just about any Crown bookstore and your hair would stand on end. The harsh fluorescent lighting would perfectly complement crappy piles of shoddy books, sticker priced to SELL SELL SELL! The scuffed linoleum floors practically sang of deep commercial evil. You could feel the souls of the authors whose artistic endeavors had been sacrificed and buried in the bowels beneath the store. The buzzing of those bargain lighting fixtures set your teeth into self-grating mode. The BLUE LIGHT SPECIAL seemed just around the corner. Sure, self respecting book buyers weren't supposed to be in these heathen bins of doom, but the bins nonetheless made a bit of money for some poor suit. And the undiscriminating book buyers - the non-addicts - could easily get the idea that buying books was NOT a religious experience, but one the soiled your soul and stained your life.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and upscale coffee huts.

As EVIL as the Borders of this world might be, at least they're slightly more pleasant than their predecessors. So if the average book buyer goes to buy the latest Stephen King hardcover like a good mouse, well, at least they're not feeling like they have to wash their hands and shampoo their hair after doing so. Yes, there's a soul taint that you get from dealing with the Devil. But at least the Devil has learned to dress nicely. Contrary to what one author might want you to think, the Devil hasn't always had the best designers. First, ol' Scratch had to build up a bit of capital in Crowns of this world, and learn from the enlightened independents whose establishments cleanse and enrich the souls and lives of their customers.

These super coffee-hutches now at least favor their unfortunate customers with a smattering of selections from the small press. You can score a Don Grant Stephen King there, with a little luck. And you can score a NightShade copy of the Lovecraft poetry omnibus, 'The Old Track' say, or hopefully, 'The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases'. You'd better be able to score of the latter there - do you HEAR ME?

But before I got myself all lathered up about my glory days wandering around the Kmart of bookstores, I was frothing about something more important. That would be the fact that the BUSPs have apparently learned their lesson, The Bodysnatcher Way.

Not your father's Change of Hobbit, but all that's left of a good thing. On Shattuck Street in beautiful Berkeley.

But before we get to that story, there's another side trip I have to take. I'm taking the Way Back Machine to 1982, and of course, I'm visiting the Change of Hobbit on Santa Monica Boulevard. There, piled up on the floor is a pyramid of books by a little known author named Stephen King. They're expensive as all get-out, and they're wrapped in plastic. Now what's up with that? I guess it has to do with the expensive part.

From 1982, Stephen King, Michael Whelan, Donald Grant,Change of Hobbit.

But the cover of this book is mighty promising because it shows a cowboy rescuing a kid from a group of clutching monsters. That tells me that we have a book with guaranteed monsters. I had previously made a trip to Change of Hobbit in the original "Harlan Ellison wrote a story in the window" location of to buy hardcover H. P. Lovecraft books1.

1 [That was also the trip where I bought my first Edward Whittemore book.]

The first volume claims to be revised and expanded; it's 231 versus 224 of the Grant,

Nice CG cover graphics for the new set of books.

Meanwhile, back in the Seat of BUSP Evil, here's what happened. Apparently, someone at Penguin Putnam put one of those infamous seed pods right next some of those Donald Grant books and the result may be faux but it's undeniably beautiful. Well, actually what happened is rather unprecedented -- Viking,Scribner and small-press publisher Donald M. Grant have combined forces to launch the end of the Dark Tower series. On June 23, 2003, you can pack it down to your local bookstore and pick the first four novels in Stephen King's 'The Dark Tower' series in beautiful hardcover editions with very nice and only lightly blasphemous CGI cover art (a la George Lucas' retro-digitized versions of 'Star Wars'). The paper is not quite as heavy duty as that first Donald Grant books, but it's still heavier than usual. The books come with all the illustrations intact, they're nicely uniform with numbered spines, they have the same cover inlays as the originals and they all sport identical new introductions wherein Stephen King talks about being nineteen and liking hobbits.

Spinal Tap Stephen King-style.

So the folks at Penguin aren't simply being generous to the readers, though that's certainly a side effect. No, they see hobbits and Stephen King together and immediately strip off their clothes and start rolling around in hundred dollar bills. Happy days. But as a result, any reader can bop down to their local chain bookstore and gut those latte serving drones who are forced to front for evil suits by purchasing that loss-leading Stephen King set. Now I recommend buying from an independent, but there are scores of readers who will miss this column, that advice and still get some good books out of the deal. Penguin has done themselves proud. These are fine volumes that will allows the millions who were not hanging out in Santa Monica bookstores in 1976 to get a nice set of books without busting a gut. Sure, those guts may need busting, but reading ain't gonna do that, no matter where you buy the book.

It's illustrated within as well.

On the same day that these lovely Stephen King books arrived, I also took shipment on another bonnet bee book from last year that shows some very nice production as well. The 2002 Australian Knopf edition of Chloe Hooper's 'A Child's Book of True Crime' has some outstanding production work as well, the kind that would make it easy to think that it's a small press edition. It's not. But it's definitely worth searching out, though you'll have to suffer the torments of not buying it last year when Legends Books owner Michael DeSarno said to. Oh well. It'll fit in nicely with an upcoming column that I may actually get round to writing., once I actually get round to reading the book.

Chuck Palahniuk is inspired by Ira Levin's finest novels.

But while I sing the praises of the big guys for their ability to observe the obvious, let me not forget that they're also putting out some rather chancy exciting books in the upcoming months. I've got two of the biggest sitting right next to me now. First came Chuck Palahniuk's 'Diary'. Reader's who are curious can hear Chuck himself discuss this book in the interview I did with him last year. Here's what the publicity blurb has to say; stop reading now and skip to the next paragraph if you wish to remain a total virgin. I think there may a bit more than the DJ material here, and I'll try to be sparing, but you want to know, don't you?

"The once venerable Wayansea Island, home to families dating back to the Mayflower, is overwrought with "summer people" bringing with the dregs of mainland culture: corporate logos, trash and crowds. ...Misty Wilmot, an art school drop out, has been living on the Island with her husband Peter and daughter Tabbie, working as a hotel maid. Peter, now in a coma after a failed suicide attempt, runs a remodeling firm and has been scrawling vile warnings on the walls of summer peoples' houses....Chuck Palahniuk examines the dark relationship between art and suffering in his trademark, brutal manner..."

OK, well I couldn't bring myself to tell you more. I'll save that for a spoiler-free review, coming all too soon, since the book itself isn't due out till September. But that's coming faster than you might think.

The Great American Novel of this year.

It will have been four years since we saw Jonathan Lethem's last novel, the wonderful 'Motherless Brooklyn' when his new novel, 'The Fortress of Solitude' comes out in September. Foolishly, when I read 'Motherless Brooklyn', I'd foolishly, it turns out, hoped he'd turn it into a series about his Tourette's syndrome detective. It's a wonderful book for language lovers, and that should have been my clue that Lethem would get himself up to something considerably more ambitious. That appears to be the case with 'The Fortress of Solitude'. Weighing in at a lengthy 470 pages, I'm getting the feel that this is his Great American Novel, though any of his previous entries might qualify as well. Fortunately, though there's more to the book there's a lot less to the blurb:

"An epic story that weaves friendship, race, graffiti, gentrification, the rise of hip hop and the fall of disco, the crack epidemic, the prison population" [paging Eric Schlosser; Eric Schlosser, please pick up the white courtesy telephone] "and the comic book superheroes who people all of our childhood imaginations into one daring, raucous novel pulsating with life and music. THE FORTRESS OF SOLUTIDE is, simply put, stunning."


Don't you wish you'd bought the earliest incarnations of the Lambshead Guide from NightShade Books?

But in all this hubbub, don't forget what's important; NightShade, Cemetery Dance, the late great Scream/Press, Donald Grant, they were all here first and most of them are still around. Check out their websites, where, for example, you can pick up killer re-issues of actually forgotten and hard-to-find stuff, like the William Hope Hodgson series that Night Shade is doing. But the BUSPs at least aren't just ejecting Danielle Steele bullets. There's something else in the mix. It may not be that way for long, but while it is, get them while you can. Life's too short to pass up a great book, no matter who publishes it.




Rick Kleffel