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This Just In...News From The Agony Column


05-23-08: Chuck Palahniuk Tour in SF ; Agony Column Podcast News Report

Save the Date

Worth 1003 words?

Chuck Palahniuk's on tour for his new novel, 'Snuff', which you know, given that it's about a porn star who has sex with 600 men (and a fate suggested by the title), is not exactly an easy sell in happy-wappy America. Palahnik's fans are certainly going to line up, and for a guy who writes way, way, over the edge, there are more promotional products for this book than for a teen-age movie featuring instantly and easily toyifiable cars or robots. Dont believe me? Check out his website, where you can find them all, including clips from Cassie Wright's old movies. Our world cannot grow stranger!

Can you hear the guitar?

But at least we're lucky enough to have someone who really gets it out there, and if you doubt what I say, do check out those Cassie Wright clips. From the chukka-chukka guitar riffs to the saturated colors to the stilted line readings, to the actually show-nothing sex-scenes, these are such pitch perfect re-creations of bad 1970's porno that you might be tempted to wish there was more there there. Chances are, however, that this particular wish might fall under the "be careful what you wish for" umbrella.

Science friction from Chuck Palahniuk.

As part of the 20098 'Snuff' tour, Chuck Palahniuk is going to appear at the Sundance Kabuki Theater in San Francisco on May 28, at 7:30. I'll be interviewing him on stage, and trying like heck not to get between his fans and their food. Having seen the rest of the program, I can attest that this is going to be a lot of fun, and as his readers know, it's not going to be rated PG-13. Save the date – and keep an eye on the shelves of your local toy store. No not those kind of toys. Remember the Yes Men and their Barbie art piece? Though I asserted above that our world cannot grow stranger, I could be wrong.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Daniel Marcus at SF in SF : Binding Energies

Ties that bind.

I was a bit more prepared for Daniel Marcus, author of the short story collection 'Binding Energy', than I might otherwise have been by virtue of the fact that Agony Column reviewer Mario Guslandi has been showering the work of Elastic Press with praise as he's reviewed, for example, Andrew Humphries 'Other Voices'. Still, as usual, I found myself caught a bit off guard as well. Marcus, like a close friend, had spent more than a few years during the Reagan era doing classified work for an aerospace company. Not surprising then, that Carter Scholz, author of 'Radiance' – which covers that era with the proper mix of surrealism and super-realism, was among the attendees that night. I asked Marcus about the story he read at SF in SF, 'Binding Energy', which not surprisingly, put his collection at the top of my to-buy (or beg for) list. You can hear about Marcus' adventures in black-ops projects here. Nothing's been redacted, however, and in order to protect your security, we may have to have you sent to a secret prison where you can be interrogated using waterboarding techniques. All in the name of your own safety, you see. To quote the famous LA punk band The Germs, what we do is secret.


05-22-08: Slipstreaming Away With Small Beer Press ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Johnny Strike at SF in SF

Kessel and Rosenbaum

Dames, dudes and Emerald.
Toss away the labels and expectations; clear out some time and take a few minutes to just stare out the window while these book await you. Immerse yourself in grounded reality, because everything you read will begin to melt in a matter of minutres. Yes, you've stepped in the SlipStream with Small Beer Press; please note I use the Genre affiliation without shame or hesitation to accurately, I feel describe 'The Baum Plan for Financial Independence' (Small Beer Press ; April 1, 2008 ; $16) by John Kessel and 'The Ant King and Other Stories' (Small Beer Press ; August, 2008 ; $16 TPB / $24 HC) by Benjamin Rosenbaum. Readers who enjoy Aimee Bender had best go directly to the Small Beer website, so your books can begin their journey while you read the rest of this article. In point of fact, you can download the Kessel for free to get an idea of what you're in for. But I know you'll want the book itself, because, well, as much as we like free downloads, they just dont replace the fully mature technology of paper-and-pages books.

We'll start with John Kessel, because it's the correct alphabetical order and just because I can never think about Kessel without immediately thinking hearing in my mind the title of his novel 'Corrupting Dr. Nice', a time travel romp that readers of Connie Willis and Kage Baker should definitely check out. 'The Baum Plan for Financial Independence' collects a variety of stories including "A Lunar Quartet," four novellas (novelettes? I dont have the word count, ask the SFWA!) that pretty much add up to a short novel. I havent talked to Kessel, but it seems to me that he might have taken his inspiration for these stories – about a matriarchal moon colony – from the title and content of Heinlein's 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress'. For readers who like longish fiction (like me), its like buying a short story collection and getting a free novel. Other stories trend much more to the metafictional, including the title track, so to speak, in which some break-in artists find themselves breaking out of reality as most of us know it. Kessel plays his surreal cards pretty close to his chest. You start out in places that seem very familiar and end up somewhere you have never imagined. There's a bit of grit and grain in his work that will I think, help more mainstream readers ease their way into the weirdness.

In 'The Ant King and Other Stories', Benjamin Rosenbaum takes another approach:

"Sheila split open and the air was filled with gumballs. Yellow gumballs. This was awful for Sam, just awful. He had loved Sheila for a long time, fought for her heart, believed in their love until finally she had come around. They were about to kiss for the first time, and then this: yellow gumballs.

Stan went to a group to try to accept that Sheila was gone. It was a group for people whose unrequited love had ended in some kind of surrealist moment. There was a group for everything in California."

It's not crooked and blurry, it's surreal.
Rosenbaum is an acclaimed short story writer with a McSweeney's pedigree and a fairly straightforward bent for the surreal. Well, as straightforward as one can be when one is subverting reality from the get-go. You've got to be willing to take the full E-Ticket ride with Rosenbaum, but if you are, then it's well worth the price. Rosenbaum summons the exact sort of clarity that is required to make surreal and slipstreamy stuff work. Paradoxically, when you want to write something really strange, you've got to be really precise, low-key, and transparent. Of course, these are the virtues of lots of great writing, and Rosenbaum is up to the difficult task he sets for himself; to fundamentally redefine reality in fiction with the result that one's own perceptions of the world around one are pleasantly altered.

It's fascinating to see how the lay of the literary landscape is changing with these releases from Small Beer Press. What as once mere "genre fiction" is now something quite different. Its as if the story of Small Beer Press were itself being written by Kessel or Rosenbaum; and once you buy in, you too are part of that story. Dreaming while youre wide awake has never been easier.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Johnny Strike at SF in SF : A Loud Humming Noise

Johnny Strike (left) and Frankie Fix (according to Mr. Strike himself) "hank rank aka henry rosenthal" partners in Crime. Heyday.

I got a lot of fantastic audio at the latest version of SF in SF, on Saturday, May 18. The guests for the show were John Shirley and Daniel Marcus, moderated by the inimitable Terry Bisson. I know John fairly well, having interviewed him a couple of times, so when I saw him speaking to a patron I went up to say hello. Shirley suggested I interview his friend, singer/songwriter and writer Johnny Strike, from the seminal SF punk band Crime.

Crime pays off in literature.s

Strike has a new collection of stories out, ' A Loud Humming Sound Came From Above', with illustrations by Richard Salas. I asked Strike about his musical and written inspirations, and he cited William Burroughs from whom he took a class in, well – I'll let him tell the story. Of course, this is one of the great reasons to attend SF in SF, as you go to see one great writer and end up meeting one or two more.


05-21-08: Jeffrey E. Barlough Drops 'Anchorwick' : The Sun Rises Again on the Western Lights ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Jerad Walters of Centipede Press : Bringing Back the Best

The Sun Rises Again on the Western Lights

Two Men Contemplating the Moon c.1819-20, by Caspar David Friedrich.

The reason I started this website so long ago was because I thought there were a fair number of books that might not get the notice they deserved in the hurly-burly rush of bookstores and book sites to push and promote bestsellers. One of my early favorites in this regard was Jeffrey E. Barlough's self-descriptive 'Dark Sleeper', a wonderfully inventive fantasy – or alternate history – or horror novel – or science fiction – or supernatural Dickensian epic – or; well, I hope you get the idea. The very first edition of that first book in the series was originally published by "Western Lights" publishers, and I have the intuition that it may have been self-published. Whatever the case it's simply unavailable now. Ace published the first edition I now own, a trade paperback with a somewhat cheesy cover design. I probably have a couple of these rattling around somewhere; when I see one, I buy it. The same is true for the first sequel, 'The House in the High Wood', and the third book in the series, 'Strange Cargo'. That latter did sport an incredibly nice cover, and the continued good reviews these book received beyond the confines of this site might have lead one to hope that Ace would step up and continue to publish these wonderful books.

That wasn't to be the case, but readers could take heart when publisher Gresham & Doyle released last year's 'Bertram of Butter Cross'. A quick glance at Bookfinder shows me that copies of this trade paperback are now going for as much as $84+. On the other hand, Amazon still claims to have firsts for the cover price. Whatever the case may be, there's no reason to wait when 'Anchorwick' (Gresham & Doyle ; OPctober 31, 2008 ; $14.95) becomes available. While you're at it, snap up any copies of any of Barlough's other books. Even if you own them, to my mind it's not possible to have too many. Gresham and Doyle have taken to using gorgeous galley paintings for the covers, and I like the result. It gives the books the air of class that they deserve.

But let's get back to 'Anchorwick', which, as it happens, might not be a bad place for readers new to the series to start. 'Anchorwick' begins with the arrival Eugene Stanley in ancient Salthead, the setting for 'Dark Sleeper' – some thirty years prior to the events in that novel. Eugene's an "'out-of-college' man" who finds himself in world of strange occurrences and inexplicable events; inexplicable that is, until the best minds of Salthead try to determine the source of the strange graffiti scrawled in the windows of Antrobus College, or the ghostly figure that appears to Eugene in the turret room.

Barlough's books might be described as the possible work you could expect had H. P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick conspired to have Charles Dickens produce a novel based on their collaborative outline. Make no mistake about it, Barlough's writing style is full-on Gothic Victorian, delightfully verbose and chatty even as it describes eldritch horrors summoned from dimensions best left unexplored. The prose style is giddily ornate and immersive. Once you start reading Barlough, you're going to start speaking like his characters. It also helps make his surreal and fantastic interventions all the more realistic; there's a certain distanced, entertainingly pedantic quality to the writing. Barlough's plots are labyrinthine and satisfyingly complex. He knows how to leave an edge of mystery and the unexplained to cast a shadow larger than life.

'Anchorwick' is not likely, alas, to be stacked in piles at the front of your local Odors or Barns and Global megastores. It's certainly good enough, but Gresham & Doyle are not likely to have he payola required for such promotion. So once again, dear readers, it's up to you to seek out this fine title. Barlough is doing something that no other author is doing, though if you like for example, Naomi Novik's Temeraire books, Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell', or Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle you're likely to enjoy these. They all share a unique combination of the history, mystery, the fantastic and the Victorian. But they're also all one of a kind. Barlough was there with 'Dark Sleeper' before any of the others tread this ground, however, and now he's winding back even further, to before the before-time. Readers new and old can start anew, with the decidedly, deliberately old fashioned 'Anchorwick'. The world is ever awry; if the sun rises with the Western Lights, the shadows cast shall speak and whisper, compel you to step closer to the abyss.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Jerad Walters of Centipede Press : Centipede and Millipede

All hail Harry O. Morris!

I just got off the phone with Jerad Walters of Centipede and Millipede Press, and damn! Readers, run don't walk to get their books; if ever there were an Agony Column audience-perfect publisher, it's Jerad. Like many of you and certainly me, Jerad started his book obsessions with Arkham House and Scream/Press. You can hear our trip down memory lane and forward into the future via this link. We talked about the titles they chose and how they went about getting the rights to reprint classics by authors like Frederic Brown and Thomas Tryon. This is the reason we're here folks, listen up! Millipede has 'The Autopsy' by Michael Shea such an outstanding classic that you must buy it now if you've never read it.


05-20-08: Nicholas Pekearo's 'The Wolfman' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR First Books Series, Isamu Fukui

Rough & Ready First Novel

Cast a dark shadow.

What's most important here is that 'The Wolfman' (Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates ; May 13, 2008 ; $23.95) by Nicholas Pekearo is a gripping, raw, well-written first novel. Marlowe Higgins has been hollowed out; he died in Vietnam and in his stead, a man wrapped around a monster returned. Every full moon, that monster gets a night out with one purpose that will not be denied; to kill a human being. Marlowe Higgins is a classic, conflicted Universal Studios Wolfman who walks on two legs, is covered with coarse fur and who lives to see others die. It dont make life no easier. But it makes for one hell of a novel as told in Marlowe's scorching, powerful first-person prose. "Let me paint a picture for you," the novel begins. We meet Bill Parker, not even a first-class loser. He's third tier at best, but that isnt going to last long. He's about to make the acquaintance of Marlowe Higgins. "Over the hum of the motor, Parker could hear the thing breathing. Deep, seething breaths. Like he owed the thing money."

That's a debt that will be marked paid in full, with interest and a penalty. Pekearo's prose voice is the star here, and it's a wonder. It's all rough edges and unpolished power, dirty, gritty and kind of disturbing in that the reader senses a fury within the writer seeking to escape, a fury just as terrorizing as the monster he creates. Pekearo's casual tone and penchant for over-the-top violence combine to create a real unpredictability. As readers, we're never sure just how far the writer will go, and that makes this exciting stuff. It also makes it insightful. 'The Wolfman' does have a supernatural angle, but it plays out more as a violent revenge noir than a horror novel, which ultimately makes the supernatural seem more realistic. For all that is wraps around an element of the fantastic, 'The Wolfman' takes more from the world of police procedurals than it does from monster movies. Make no mistake, it is horrifying, but in the manner of a senseless murder for a handful of dollar bills. Clutched in blood.

Nicholas Pekearo knows the hero; he was one, an unarmed Auxiliary Police Officer in New York who was killed in the line of duty on March 14, 2007. This novel, which was to be the first in a series, makes quite clear the extent of that tragedy. According to his press materials, Pekearo had finished three novels, and it's my hope we'll be able to read them all. This is a unique, powerful, unchecked prose voice. Listen; read.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR First Books Series, Isamu Fukui : Truancy

Today's podcast is a high-quality WAV file of my report on Isamu Fukui (please go to the second link and email that page to help this website) and his novel 'Truancy'. Credit as always must be attributed first to Isamu himself, who wrote the book, and to his agent (Matt Bialer) and editor (Susan Chang) all of whom were helpful in allowing me to speak with them at length. And of course to the crew at Weekend Edition Sunday and my ever-patient editor. Heres the link. Its almost summer. Time to queue up the Alice Cooper classics.


05-19-08: A 2008 Interview with James D. Houston and Tom Killion

'Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea'

From the Pogonip to the ocean. Art by Tom Killion.

Where we live colors much of our lives – and the literature that comes from the writers who live there. I'm lucky enough to live in Santa Cruz, a place "Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea," according to both Jim Houston and Tom Killion. Houston is the author of 'Snow Mountain Passage' and 'Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea'; Killion is a former student of Houston's who now has his own books, including 'The Coast of California', an incredible collection of prints he gave me after I spoke with the two of them in Houston's house, a short walk from one of Santa Cruz's most iconic location, Twin Lakes State Beach. We talked about the power of landscapes, from Houston's family home of West Texas to the plains of Eritrea, where Killion worked in a relief effort. We also talked about the history of Santa Cruz's bookstores, from the Hip Pocket and the Merry Pranksters to Neal Coonerty and the total destruction of Bookshop Santa Cruz in the Loma Prieta Earthquake. It's quite a journey. But as both Killion and Houston emphasize, any landscape offers us rewards. Any landscape that surrounds us shapes the landscapes within.


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