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There are all kinds of reasons I might read a short fiction anthology. Maybe it's the only place to find new work by some of my favorite writers. Some anthologies serve to introduce readers to unfamiliar writers, either total unknowns, or familiar names I've somehow not yet gotten around to reading. Many readers are motivated by an anthology's theme -- "Oh, I love zombies, and here's another zombie anthology so of course I'll buy it" -- but I usually don't. I didn't buy this because it had to do with vampirism. In fact, I imagine any reader who purchased this hoping for a bunch of straightforward vampire stories would be disappointed. There's not so much "blood" here as there are "other cravings."

I've given some consideration to the overall shape of multi-author anthologies, a subject which interests me to the extent it's similar to the way I've put together various-artists CD collections in the past. Generally it seems editors load the best stories end up at the beginning and the end, and this is no exception. Among the middle stories, the only one I found noteworthy was Melanie Tem's very odd "Keeping Corky," about an enigmatic female character, notable for her mental abnormalities including both strengths and deficiencies, misses the child she was forced to give up for adoption.

Of the early stories, Kaaron Warren's lead-off "All You Can Do is Breathe" is wonderfully creepy and understated. Elizabeth Bear's "Needles" is not so much a story as a well-drawn and entertaining "day in the (undead) life," vividly written but maybe in need of fleshing-out. And Reggie Oliver's amusing yet dark story of a theatrical hotel overrun by very small tenants convinced me to check out more of this writer's work.

The best of this collection comes later. "First Breath" by a new-ish writer, Nicole J. LeBoeuf, is an interesting exploration of a sort of transference of life through breath. And I always love Kathe Koja and Carol Emshwiller, whose contributions here (Emshwiller's is one of only two reprints) are good.

The final four stories alone justify the price of the anthology.

Michael Cisco's "Bread and Water" tells of a captive vampire trying to cope with his appetites, as well as an incapacity to consume what he desires. The creature's gradual transformation, told in Cisco's uniquely intense prose, evokes in the reader an effect like delirium. More than anything else in the book, "Bread and Water" inspired me to seek out more by this writer. That's not to say it was the best story overall, but the best by an author I've previously overlooked.

Margo Lanagan's "The Mulberry Boys" is told like a fable or second-world fantasy more than a horror story, but what's actually happening here has quite a nasty edge. Through some bizarre process of surgery and altered diet, humans or human-like creatures are transformed into passive silk factories. I love the way this story is told. Very effective.

"The Third Always Beside You" by John Langan reminds me a little of Peter Straub's recent novel A Dark Matter in its exploration of a male character trying to piece together disturbing past events. Here a brother and sister discuss their long-held perception that their father might have been unfaithful to their mother, and whether any truth might lie behind this. The fantastic elements along the way are of the subtle "thought I heard a sound, and looked, but nobody was there" variety, yet the story conveys a mysterious and even dreadful sense of secrecy. I own two of Langan's books which I haven't read yet, but this story convinced me to nudge these upward in my "must read soon" list.

The last contribution is by Laird Barron, recently the most consistently excellent writer of horror and dark fantasy novellas and novelettes. "The Siphon" includes elements which may seem familiar to readers of Barron's earlier stories, but this comes across not as repetition, but a fleshing-out of a fictional world which increasingly cross-connects between one story and another. None of the characters, so far as I can determine, appear in prior Barron tales, yet the template of bored, wealthy decadents tantalized by forbidden or occult knowledge is reminiscent of such stories as "Strappado" and "The Forest." Such is Barron's skill that even when he's not trying something entirely new for him (as I believe he did in "The Men From Porlock" and "Blackwood's Baby" which appear in other recent anthologies), the work nonetheless functions at such a high level as to stand clearly apart.

By the end of a relatively mixed collection, it's tempting to think mostly of the more satisfying later stories, but the quality dropped off enough in places that I'd give the collection four rather than five stars. At the same time, I'd recommend the book as worthy of purchase for the better stories at the beginning and especially the end.

Back To It

Oct. 13th, 2010 04:50 pm
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I've been busy with music/Hypnos, my dad's visit to Portland, writing, and all the rest of life. Funny, when I blog regularly I find it easy to keep on blogging regularly, and once I stop it's very easy to STAY stopped. So many things are like this, especially exercise and creative activities. Running every single day is easy. Taking a week off running, and then starting to run again that first time is much harder.

I still write six days a week, exercise six days a week, work my day job five days a week, listen to tons of music, watch lots of movies with my wife, and don't get enough sleep.

Lately I'm working on a lot of stories simultaneously, even more than usual for me, and the stories are all over the map. I'm writing an SF story about a group of robotic domestic helpers left behind by their humans on an Earth-like colony, a horror-tinged SF story about some weird stuff lurking in the bottom of a deep mine (not started in response to the major news story about miners in Chile), finishing up a dark fantasy or horror bit about a family vacationing at a lake house and coming under the influence of some local entities. I have another odd, dark bit about a married couple who retreat to a cabin out in the wilderness near Mt. Hood and begin to lose all connection to the world they left behind.

I'm also continuing heavy cuts on my two "salvage project" stories I mentioned before... mega-long stories that needed to lose 2/3 of their length before I could even assess how to turn them into something interesting. They're down from 14,000 words to 5,500 and from 11,000 words to 5,300 so they're getting close to where I can see what they need to be. This has been a really useful and interesting test or experiment, but I don't know that I'd do it again. I could have easily rewritten these stories from scratch in less time, and with better result, but then again that wasn't really the point.

I've got the same nine final drafts still circulating among various markets. My two longest-pending submissions are both Writers of the Future, for 2010-q3 (June-ending quarter) and q4 (Sept-ending). Jeez, sending those guys a story means keeping it from other markets for about six months, it appears. I realize they get a lot of submissions but it seems they could finish one quarter's reading before opening it up to the next quarter... and then the one after that. They just announced q2 results, and they're reading stories for q3, q4, and 2011 q1 (quarter ending December) all at once. Sheesh, talk about slush pile.

Reading notes...

I'm still reading Laird Barron's Occultation, an absolutely top-notch collection. Seriously, some of the best strange/dark short fiction I can remember reading, not just recently, but ever. When I get through that last story and a half (I'm reading other stuff in parallel so it's taking a while) I'll write a real review.

Just finished The City & The City by China Mieville, and I'm very impressed. I knew it would be good, based on all the reviews and awards, and interviews I've read with the author. I can tell he's just a super-sharp guy and I've owned copies of several of his books for a while and intended to get to them... but finally dived into one of his newest. Before I move on to Kraken I'll probably jump back to Perdido Street Station since that's been on the "must read soon" list since, you know, a really long time ago.

Lessee, I think I mentioned finishing Old Man's War, which was really good, and not as lightweight or pastiche-y as I expected. I'm on to Charles Stross's Singularity Sky, which is fully of SF-nal goodness, and pretty well written, though at times a little too heavy on the political & military detail. I'm not far into it so I'll reserve judgement.

I did mean to blog a bit more about the HP Lovecraft Film Festival, which was a lot of fun and quite memorable. But this is a "rust buster" blog so I'll wrap it up, and leave stuff to blog about later this week.
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Kottke recently linked to a video of Kurt Vonnegut, the great writer-character, and he talked about the semicolon. I love this quote:

"Don't use semicolons. They stand for absolutely nothing. They are transvestite hermaphrodites. They are just a way of showing off. To show that you have been to college."

The semicolon has drifted out of contemporary usage, and I feel generally where a semicolon is used, a period or a comma might work better. I find the semicolon has an archaic feel, and those writers for whom the semicolon works well tend to be dead and buried, or else taking on an intentionally ornate, old-fashioned, or throwback style.

Elmore Leonard is handy with them, and uses them a lot, but the guy was writing and publishing novels before my parents were born.

Stephen King uses a ton of semicolons, but he also does a lot of nonstandard technical stuff. He's a big-time Elmore Leonard worshipper.

I'll give the writer the benefit of the doubt with semicolons if their voice is strong and their prose is unusual. I'm halfway through Laird Barron's collection Occultation (fantastic work, review forthcoming) and he's got a slew of 'em in there. His writing also includes all manner of unorthodox technical stuff, though -- dialog set off not by opening and closing quotes but by an emdash at the beginning, or short paragraphs containing dialog by multiple, different speakers.

Generally I'd say the semicolon bothers me less when the writer shows a confident, slightly experimental, maybe even baroque approach to stringing words together. In the middle of plain vanilla prose, however, the semicolon stands out in just the way Vonnegut describes. Beginning writers, stick with the comma and the period. It's easy enough to remember what those guys do, roughly corresponding to the yellow and the red traffic lights, respectively.


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