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07-02-04: Join 'The Inner Circle'; Choosing 'The Third Alternative'

TC Boyle's Intimate Look at those in Orbit Around Dr. Alfred Kinsey

..from the Inner Circle to the Outer Limits of human sexuality.
If you've had a chance to listen to the interview I did with TC Boyle earlier this year, then you'll recall that he mentioned his new novel, 'The Inner Circle'. I just pulled in an advance copy of this book, and like the rest of Boyle's work, it draws the reader helplessly in from the first words on the first page. It's a high-gravity reading object, a black hole for the reader's attention. Once you've been sucked in, there's no hope of escape.

Boyle tells the story in the first person this time around, from the point of view of John Milk, your average American college boy in the year 1949. When I talked to Boyle, he was relishing the decision to return to the first person, and I can see why. This book seems to flow without pause, without effort directly into the reader's mind. It's a fascinating conversation in which the reader is invited to enjoy the prose of a powerful, intelligent writer as he takes on the voice of an uncertain (as the novel begins) young man first exploring a world that is to the culture in which the novel takes place, virgin territory.

For while we live in a world saturated with sex, it wasn't always so. Some of us -- including the author -- have seen the changes creep into our culture. The impact of Kinsey and his cohorts caused the first cracks that eventually fractured the solid Victorian austerity of post-World War II America. Boyle gets us in on the ground floor. We're standing there as Kinsey and company pickaxe the pretensions that kept our emotions -- and how they played out in the flesh -- from view. Best of all, we get to experience the demolition from the point of view of a relative innocent, a young man who, from what I can discern, manages to preserve a sort of fragile purity even in the face of what was once seen as sordid, excessive sexuality.

It's easy to see why Boyle, our premiere historical novelist, was drawn to those in orbit about Kinsey. The best novels are not about things, or events, but people. Those are the works that touch us the most, that move us the most, and that entertain us the most. By focusing on events that devolve solely out of human contact at its most intimate, viewed as if they were remote and distant, Boyle can fine tune his sense of the absurd across an emotional harp, and play the reader a tune so fine, a song so sweet, words so strong, one can't help but be moved.

But forget all the yucky, cloying versions of "moved." This is about being moved by humanity and laughter. Be assured that Boyle finds the same understated humor with his examination of America the Beautiful sex machine as with America the Beautiful freedom machine in 'Drop City'. Boyle's sense of humor is masterfully controlled and evoked with a sort of naturalistic, documentary eye. Seeing clearly, taking off the blinders allows us to see the contradictions, the complications, the delicious irony of everything we do and see.

'The Inner Circle' is slated for nationwide release on September 13, and I hope to have an in-depth look at this novel as it arrives. But for Boyle, reviews are somewhat superfluous. And while all his novels -- indeed, in a sense, all novels -- are historical novels -- Boyle manages the unique trick of capturing a voice from the past with his own timelessly clear prose that peels away the layers; what we present ourselves to be, what we know ourselves to be, what we hope to become. None of them the same, none of them staying the same, we shift, we change, and we never change at all.

Joel Lane In the Minotaur's Maze, Graham Joyce in the Guest Editor's Hotseat

"Mommy, make daddy put away that creepy-looking magazine!"

You do have another choice; there is always 'The Third Alternative'. There hasn't always been a third alternative. We're two issues away from ten years. But given the opportunity, readers would be unwise to let it pass by. The fact that it has not been a constant in our lives means that we should not take the gift for granted, we should make the best of what we have.

This time around, Graham Joyce gets the Guest editor's chair. With a bit of verse, and an eye for the perverse, he takes a very nice swipe at the latest pigeonhole to come down the pike, "The New Weird." Joyce knows whereof he speaks, having written some of the most powerful works of uncategorizable fiction I've ever read, including 'Smoking Poppy' and the incredible novel 'The Facts of Life'. Like Joyce, I was brought up on the Old Peculiar, but only because a liquor store and British deli in Newport Beach served both the big-mouthed bottles of dark, sweet porter and little meat pies that they'd drench in Bisto gravy. I lived for four years on those two food groups. I read Herman Melville and H. P. Lovecraft, Charles Dickens and Philip K. Dick. I lacked the rigid training to drop them all into little trays, much to the dismay of my TA's at UC Irvine, when I took classes from Oakley Hall and the tennis-racket-swinging poet-laureate Mark Strand. Whatever the hell I learned, it got me a fine career in IT, and the willingness to lump together TC Boyle, M. John Harrison, Howard Waldrop, Carl Hiassen, Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna Ferber, Edna St. Vincent Millay and even Edna Stumpf, who once told the great Ramsey Campbell that he'd have to "wring the Lovecraft out of his typewriter" before he'd be a good writer. While it's all just one lump to me -- good writing worth reading, I must admit that:

a) I have lots of books by Ramsey Campbell and none at all by Edna Stumpf.

b) My willingness to dilute the purity of so-called genre fiction and the purity of so-called literary fiction and the so-called purity of non-fiction has kept me reliably in great reading for many years.

So I'll stop the pontificating and bring on the The Third Alternative. In this case, the magazine is the usual mix of great artwork, I mean stupendously beautiful layouts and illustrations, by the likes of Mike Dubisch, Vincent Chong, Robert Dunn, Edward Noon, and Chris 'Jigsaw Men' Nurse. Jonathan Lethem and Lindsay Clarke are interviewed by Iain Emsley, while Russell Hoban is interviewed by Andrew Hedgecock. Christopher Fowler talks about the films of Joe Orton, recent horror re-makes and The Passion of the Christ, which itself is a recent horror remake.

Of course, we buy TTA for the fiction. In this case, Daniel Kasen, Damian Kilby, Jeremy Minton, Al Robertson and Joel Lane provide short stories. I've long been a fan of Joel Lane, ever since I managed to lay hands on 'The Earth Wire', a wonderfully dislocating collection of stories. Lane's story here, 'Facing the Wall' starts out a dark police procedural, but once the lights are extinguished, Lane again manages to conjure that timeless sense of displacement that made 'The Earth Wire' such a powerful, if often utterly depressing, work. John Grant provides the opening novelette. Grant, who worked with John Clute on his iconic Genre Fiction oh-my-gawd! Encyclopedias, is a savage, nasty guy in print. Like any brute, he can grab you by the throat with a sentence and pound your head against the wall until it leaves a spot.

'The Third Alternative' is a large format, lays-flat-while-you-eat-your-steak-sandwich-at-the-pub magazine. It's perfect for lunch reading, that is; you can get in a story and one of the columns if you let yourself have a brew. Try to go to a pub that serves Old Peculiar. I can tell you from personal experience, they just love it at the local pub when I bring in a book or magazine to read. And no, I don't know what the hell is the matter with me, reading in a pub like that. I do know that there's no cure, either sought after or served up.

07-01-04: Follow 'The Course of the Heart' into the Heart of Darkness

Night Shade Books Re-Issues an M. John Harrison Classic

Night Shade Books' US hardcover debut of Harrison's classic novel.
Writer M. John Harrison is probably best known for 'Virconium', his novel and cycle of stories set in and around the mythical city of the title. It's part of UK publisher Victor Gollancz's great 'Fantasy MasterWorks' series. He's also well known for 'Climbers', a novel about, well, mountain climbers. 'The Centauri Device', a sort of cyberpunk space opera, is part of the Victor Gollancz 'SF Masterworks' series. Most recently, his surreal science fiction novel of serial murder and faster-than-'Light'-travel, was easily one of the best novels of 2002. It's pretty clear that Harrison is a versatile writer, or perhaps more accurately, an idiosyncratic writer, who simply chooses a subject and then explodes it from within, creating dense, intense works of poetic power. Last year, Night Shade Books brought out a collection of his short stories and novellas titled 'Things That Never Happen'.

But for all the science fiction, fantasy and non-fiction fame that Harrison has attracted, I first knew him as a writer of quite surreal horror. Sitting in my shelves and actually findable is a signed hardcover copy of 'The Course of the Heart'. I'll cop that it took me about a half hour to find a book that was only a couple of feet away. But at least I did find it. It's a 1992 hardcover edition from Victor Gollancz, and get this -- I even found the charming 1992 postcard/bookmark from bookseller Mark V. Ziesing proclaiming "Mark V. Ziesing sells spooky books."

Advance proof from Night Shade.
Dave McKean's 1992 vision.
'The Course of the Heart' is a very memorable and very intense novel, just like all of Harrison's other books. The unnamed narrator is one of three students at Cambridge who carry out an occult ritual with the help of their mentor, Yaxley. What that ritual is, what it does, is revealed only in the deleterious effects it has on all who participate. Yaxley slips deeper into sex, perversion and magic, while Pam Stuyvesant and Lucas Medlar try to lose themselves in one another. The narrator questions himself and his sanity. But when they read a mysterious "post-War autobiography" of the travel writer Michael Ashman, something is stirred within them. For he speaks of a country called the Coeur, which emerges within the shifting borders of Europe only under special conditions -- and was lost towards the end of the fifteenth century. The Coeur is where they may be able to cleanse themselves of their actions, to understand and encompass them. If only they can find it, if only they can again create or discover the conditions under which it might come into being.

Harrison's prose is as gorgeous as ever in this early novel. It's a dark, surreal story of romance -- think Shelley, Byron and Keats -- and the supernatural. Harrison's vision of the human heart and the heart of a continent is as precise as his prose. But that doesn't mean simple. Harrison's fiction encompasses the complexity of life, the many chambers of the heart. If you follow 'The Course of the Heart', you will find many answers -- and even more questions.

One of those questions of course would be, "Where can I get this book?" Well, not in the United States, or at least, not until this month, when Night Shade Books will release a new edition for American audiences. The original Gollancz version features cover art by no less than Dave McKean, who has since gone on to a serious collaboration with Neil Gaiman. The Night Shade edition will be available as a reasonably priced trade hardcover -- $25.00 for a well-built book, and a signed, limited edition at $45.00. That's actually quite cheap, considering the care that Night Shade puts into their products. But most importantly, it puts a great book in front of a whole new world of readers in a finely wrought version. It's nice to know that one will no longer have to search through the borders of a mystical country to find the book -- as compelling as such a search may be.

06-30-04: At Last the Story Can Be Told; Carl Hiassen, No Prequel Required

'A Better World's In Birth' from Howard Waldrop

"Workers of the World -- What, me Worry?"

Every writer works at his or her own pace. At his peak, Philip K. Dick was dashing off five or six novels per year. True, this was done under financial duress, and readers might wish he'd been able to take more time to perfect his art. Still,he cranked out one classic novel after another in those years. At the other end of the spectrum, we have Howard Waldrop. His latest novella from Golden Gryphon, which is number 2 in their "chapbook" series, is titled 'A Better World's In Birth', and took a mere 21 years from concept to finished product. If you like, it can join you at the local pub for a tankard of ale.

Let me mention that the Golden Gryphon Chapbooks are more like trade paperbacks than the typical chapbook. I love this format; signed, limited and very reasonably priced. When you start out a series with a novella by Alastair Reynolds -- 'Turquoise Days', which I thought to be easily one of the best books of 2002 -- then you've got a good run going. So Waldrop's second in a line that you'll want every title from.

As anyone remotely familiar with Waldrop's work might guess, Howard is once again monkeying around with history. This novel kicks off from a Robert Aickman quote: "Every great civilization -- Greek, Roman, Renaissance, Chinese, Babylonian -- has given us a great ghost story -- except one, and that one is the Communist." So Howard tells us in the 'Afterword'. That's another thing about Howard's stories; the story of the story is usually pretty damn entertaining in its own right. Though it won't be able to buy you a beer.

Commies and ghosts in combination are bound to be funny, aren't they? We can expect Waldrop's usual synthesis of sophisticated research, insightful characters and wacky-to-this-world situations. Waldrop speaks best for himself, so I'm going to hand him the megaphone:

"In the writings of one of the lesser-known of the original revolutionaries, I came across the following:

Of course revolutions are fun! You can drop a piano from a fourth floor window onto some poor conscript -- caught between shooting at you and being shot for not shooting at you -- and watch him pop like a tomato."

The great question is whether or not this is a real bit of research unearthed by the vigilant researcher Howard Waldrop or a bit of fun from the wicked humorist Howard Waldrop. It's one of the reasons we love reading his work, as he stimulates the imagination in utterly original ways. And he offers up gems in his Afterwords, in this case, the story of a statue of Lenin that made it to Seattle in the mid 1990's. Howard again: "One afternoon someone hung a sign around old Ulyanov's neck. It read: Workers of the World! -- Sorry….Which is pretty much the way I feel."

And that's pretty much the way I feel. OK, 'A Better World's In Birth'. The next round is on me.

'Skinny Dip' Off the Coast of Florida

A sexy cartoon for adults.
I always knew I'd end up reading Carl Hiassen. I like a good funny book as well as the next guy, probably better. A number of my reading buddies had recommended his work to me. I've got to admit that I let about fifteen minutes of that there movie go into my eyeballs, and I thought -- "Hallelujah! I'm cured, brother, cured!" After all, as a regular visitor to the NYT bestseller list and a sort of hard-to-avoid author, there was no reason for me to read his books. Seems that plenty of others were handling that task for me.

Well, no other reason than the fact that I might actually ENJOY them. After all, I'm a huge fan of Christopher Brookmyre. He's regularly called "The Scottish Carl Hiassen" or some other similar blurb-worthy appellation. And damn, he's is one fine writer; his comedic skills are to my mind unmatched. Well, Joe R. Lansdale has a similar way with words, and a similar bent attitude. And these two were writers I had almost grown up with.

But now I'll be in the position to offer up a unique blurb for Mr. Hiassen's publicists: "Carl Hiassen is the American Christopher Brookmyre!" I hope they like that there blurb, because, hell, I love Brookmyre and anyone who can be called the American version of this fine writer must himself be a fine writer. I suspect that's a tautology, but you can easily get away such-like when you're writing about humorists. You're laughing with them, they're laughing with you, nobody's embarrassed, and the grave's a fine a private place, but none do there, I think embrace. Because humor just works a whole lot better if it's informed by a shred or two of badness. The badder, the better.

Fortunately for me, Hiassen has pursued a strictly standalone, non-serial policy on his novels; or at least on this novel. Joey Perrone, the buxom blonde on the cover, is tossed from an ocean liner by her no-good husband. But she doesn't die. No, she lives and rather than getting her hubby tossed in the clink, she decides to torment him from the Great Beyond-Your-Immediate-Vision. I don't know as I'd be quite so slow to keep the long arm of the law from doing its job, but then, I'm no buxom blonde. In any event, hi-jinks ensue, as we in BlurbWorld are fond of saying. Those hi-jinks include a quick conversion to Christianity and a firm decision to vote Republican in the fall election. Wait, this is Carl Hiassen, not Karl Rove! And it's too early for election hi-jinks, isn’t it? Well, I for one can't wait to hear what Hiassen does with the now au-courant phrase "hanging chad" in this novel. And if he chooses not to, then I'm certain of one thing: hi-jinks will ensue.

06-29-04: 24 Hour Party Girls of the 1920's

'Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin' by Marion Meade

Party Girls of the Roaring Twenties.

Fitzgerald's version.
Everybody likes a good party girl. Especially if she's smart, literate and unimaginably famous. Such girls may be in short supply today, but in 'Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin' Marion Meade takes us back to the wild times of New York in the 1920's when Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edna Ferber ruled the roost and were the Talk of the Town. It sounds quite a treat; a delightfully organized look into the disorganized mayhem and wild-eyed fun.

The organization of the book strikes me as novelistic rather than documentarian. It starts in 1920 and each of eleven chapters takes us through one year of a decade of decadence, parties, literature, sex, drugs and convention-flaunting women who helped break a mold while setting a new one. Within the years, each woman is brought to ever-expanding life.

Edna Ferber
Zelda Fitzgerald
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Dorothy Parker
While the name Edna Ferber might not immediately ring any bells, give yourself a chance; she wrote the novel upon which the movie 'Giant' is based, as well as the novel upon which the movie and musical 'Showboat' were based. She was the kind of gal we'd call a wunderkind today; her first play, 'Our Mrs. McChesney', was produced in 1915, starring Ethel Barrymore. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1924 for 'So Big', the story of a woman raising a child on a truck farm outside of Chicago.

Zelda Fitzgerald was the Helen of Troy of her day; she helped launch a thousand novels, and is featured in works by her husband and Hemingway. She married Scott in 1920, and he surely coined the word "flappers" to describe her -- "girls with an extraordinary talent for living." Trips to Paris, accusations of homosexual affairs with Ernest Hemingway, a penchant for ballet, and a few trips to the asylum complete the picture of an "It Girl" for the Roaring Twenties.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was a graduate of Vassar who wrote for Vanity Fair in the 1920's. In 1923 Millay was honored as the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She traveled in Europe and had one affair after another, with men like critic Edmund Wilson and poet Witter Bynner. She's well known for her ardent protest of the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian born anarchists and labor agitators who were accused -- many thought falsely -- of the murder of two payroll guards in Massachusetts. She was jailed for her efforts.

Of course, Dorothy Parker is the best known of these women. Her wit and the social swirl she managed to stir ensured that she's still making headlines. What more could one ask for than a book about a quartet of women such as these. You must love a woman who can write a tidy little poem about suicide;

"Razors pain you; Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful; Nooses give;
Gas smells awful; You might as well live."

Apparently, they knew how to deal with fame, wealth and notoriety quite well back then. It's one of the Timeless Sciences. In point of fact, H. G. Wells, who wrote 'The Time Machine' shows up in this book and showed up back then. Chances are he might have picked up a few pointers on how wild the future could be by simply enjoying how wild were the women with whom he found himself surrounded.

06-28-04: The Secret of the Silver Screen Behind 'The Arcanum'

Lovecraft, Doyle and Houdini Duke It Out With the Men Behind the Curtain

Don't pay attention to the angel behind the curtain.
This novel is yet another reason why we should pay very close attention to those in the publishing business who are kind enough to talk to us. It must have been some six months ago, or more, that a very kind editor wrote me to tell me about this and other novels forthcoming from the Bantam family. Of course, it all went by me in a whoosh and I utterly forgot what my kind informant said, even after the novel itself came out and I heard about it and said to myself, "Hmmm -- this sounds like Rick novel."

Suffice it to say that I did say that, and did get the novel, then went back and to my chagrin found out that I'd been told I'd like it months before it came out. Well, better late than never, a lesson that may apply to the novel itself. Because it comes hot on the heels of books like William Hjortberg's 'Nevermore', Richard Lupoff's wonderful Arkham House title 'Lovecraft's Book' and Mark Frost's fine and damnably unfinished series that began with 'The List of Seven' and was followed up by 'The Six Messiahs'. Of course those books came out between twenty and ten years ago, so "hot on the heels" is perhaps something of an overstatement.

Still, never too late for an addition to the "fiction about Lovecraft" genre.

In this case, Lovecraft and Doyle, along with Houdini and famed real-life voodoo priestess Marie Laveau are members of The Arcanum, a secretive group dedicated to maintaining order in the face of chaos, which becomes quite a bit harder when the founder of the group, one Konstantin Duvall is murdered. One bad murder deserves another. And one good conspiracy deserves a bad one to counterbalance it.

Now, as to the author, Thomas Wheeler, don't hate him because he's beautiful. Maybe just a little because he "sold his first screenplay at age twenty two." And he's got a television series about ancient Rome next year called Empire. But clearly the guy's got his writing chops lined up, and it should surprise nobody that this book has been described by others as "cinematic." To my mind, if you're the kind of person to take a hardcover book to the beach, and I am that kind of person, then you might want to get in line to pick this book up. Sleek, slick and admirably short, 'The Arcanum' is the kind of novel that could lead to a wonderful series -- but wait, he's already doing a TV series. I'll give this one a whirl and see if he should punt the TV series and pursue this. Alas, there's probably more money to be had in a single episode of prime-time TV than in a single novel. So we'll have to be thankful for what we've got, and take to heart the fact that if Wheeler took time out of his busy Hollowood schedule to write a novel, he must have had a particularly scary bee in his bonnet. That's a good bee. It's a bee we should pay attention to, and will the next time it buzzes in our general direction.