“a ride home and a couple days of sleep…”

So I’ve been writing recently about the impacts and memories of specific books from my teenage years, in particular the various paperbacks I tended to read a lot that were borrowed or swiped from my parents and other older family members. It’s odd though because, as someone mentioned online recently in a casual question, it made me think about why I’m choosing those books at all. A lot of them are not that great, or I just haven’t read in a long time and honestly don’t know if I ever will.

The question I saw floating online was what was one of the first books to truly make you fall in love with reading and…I can’t say. I honestly don’t remember, and I don’t know if it’s just because my brain can’t stretch that far back, or if it’s because I don’t think there was one book that “made” me a reader. I’ve always been a reader, and I think it’s because of narratives. In particular, it was about how I saw my own “narrative.”

We tend to view our personal narratives as the stories of our lives, but in a way we’re also thinking about how we make decisions and end up with experiences in those narratives. Our narratives are so intensely personal, but also heavily molded by our experiences, creating this symbiotic relationship where we test the limits of our control of that narrative, compared to the subconscious influences on it from outside forces.

Honestly, I don’t think I ever felt that as a kid.

I don’t think that, as a young kid and later on as a teenager, that I actually had any sort of control of my narrative. I had friends but not a lot of them, and mostly in a casual way, I had interests but not ones that made me “me” in any way (except probably for punk rock, which is more of a thing of seeking out your tribe, but who wants to hear another white guy talk about that over and over although I’ve been reminded that since I’ve been thinking about him again, Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned is the best expression that I’ve been able to relate to), and I felt like I was a constant state of anxious uncertainty in terms of what I could do, what I couldn’t do, what I couldn’t bring myself to do, and where I was even going. There’s a very specific memory of being 16 or so and realizing that the low-grade gut pain that I associated with uncertainty was gone and that I couldn’t remember when I’d last felt it but that I’d somehow been feeling it for years almost constantly.

Being 16 was an interesting year.

Books though? Books already had a pre-defined narrative. It was a narrative that I could immerse myself in and, temporarily, not have to worry about my own. I didn’t have to lament about the state of my own direction because I was so heavily invested in the direction of someone else, a whole cast of other people at times. Maybe it was some sort of early pre-aware appreciation for metaphor and symbolism in literature, but more likely, it was just what I tend to tell people when we talk about the love of reading;

As a kid, I read to escape. I didn’t seek or particularly appreciate work that had to do with people similar to me (young adult work, books about teens aimed at teens, etc) because I already knew, deep down, about stuff like that, even if I wasn’t particularly aware of the minutiae of my parents worrying about work and bills, about bullying being symptomatic of other things, of what my own struggles with fitting in meant. Hence my immersion in fantasy, science fiction, and horror, to get to stories that addressed things that could take me away from my own lack of control over my own story.

In reading, I knew that I didn’t have to worry about my own anxiety and awkwardness about figuring out what I needed to do in order to not come across like a weirdo desperate for friends and peer approval. I was both above that in being the viewer of the narrative, but also had that-preset awareness by following the protagonist, written by someone with (to my mind) far better expressive capacity and also, better social skills.

I’m sure this isn’t a unique feeling, but until recently I don’t think I’ve ever been able to really articulate it before, a problem I’ve noticed when it comes to trying to talk and write about WHY certain things resonate for me. This tends to make me oddly-cranky when coming across others’ explanations for why they like or connect with the same things I do, and finding that their connections either don’t make any sense to me, or just seem to be trite and too-perfectly framed in their explanation, even though thinking that just makes that uncertainty and anxiety flare up again, a fear that I’m just too hard on others who are expressing their love for things in far more eloquent ways than me. After all, a lovely side-effect of this fear surrounding your own narrative is imposter syndrome.

“Surely they can express themselves better in their love of books because they’re better writers, they’re better educators, they’re more into it and truly love it, I’m just some dumb asshole who stumbled into this and perpetually lives on the benevolent blindness of others to not recognize my fraudulence”…or something like that. And while I tend to go through this cycle every couple of months when it comes to my job (“imposter syndrome” is fairly common in academia), it’s a weird feeling to have it rear its face when it comes to just expressing why I love to read.

Ultimately, in my mid-30’s nowadays I’m far more confident in my personal narrative in general, so this is just a collection of passing thoughts about how people seem to express their own influences and inspirations these days. This idea that there are singular moments or items/experiences that trigger these changes in personality surrounding media is just such an odd one for me, because in my experience and in the experiences of people around me, it’s both far bigger and far more opaque and hazy.

Every start of something in my life that’s made me me is a haze. A haze of books and reading experiences made me a reader, a haze of friends and musical exposure made me love punk music, a haze of so many things made me a fan of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy…it’s all a haze of mixed experiences in my narrative. Sometimes those hazes can be good things, and we just look back on them and figure out how to express it as best we can.

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No Paperback Paradise, issue 3; THE CHAMBER by John Grisham

Who the hell let me read this book?md20482718725

Yet another “claimed from my parents” read, this was my first exposure to Grisham (I ended up working my way backwards into his body of work from this point) and it’s still a really odd work. Ignoring the kinda ridiculous movie that came out of it with Gene Hackman, The Chamber by John Grisham is an incredibly dark path to let a 14-year-old brain down.

Basically a young and naive lawyer who just graduated from law school allows himself to get drawn into the last-ditch appeals of a KKK member on death row, about to be executed for the deaths of several young children during a church bombing at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Grisham was, at the time to an impressionable young reader, incredibly good at capturing what I thought the South would be like (and my limited exposure has sort of reinforced) of being incredibly hot and intensely slow in a metaphorical and spiritual sense (in that the hectic thrum that I, a garbage northerner from New York, consider the standard of energy for a metropolitan area is far too much and all wrong in how one conducts oneself).

There’s the obligatory horrific family secrets and some level of odd closure about broken families you expect from sad books like this, there’s some action, crooked politicians, and what I identified as something Grisham held in a unique regard, lots of drinking.

Alcohol is so pervasive in this book in my mind. Everyone drinks constantly, and for some reason I associated it with being a lawyer, that the stress of this righteous job would make you dive into the sacred blur of alcohol to escape the harsh world you deigned throw yourself into willingly. Of course nowadays I can look back on those memories of reading that and realized it was just Grisham’s reinforcement of the white Southern moneyed “good ol’boys club” mentality where alcohol and complaining are the standards of behavior, rather than legitimate coping mechanisms.

Still, I’m pretty sure this was the summer I first tried alcohol. To get drunk, that is.

I’m the grandchild of immigrants, part of a large extended family with heavy roots in Eastern Europe. Alcohol’s a huge part of the culture, and letting small kids nip from the dinner table during celebrations is pretty standard. Summertime when you’ve got a family background like mine is basically being cut loose for the most part all day and most of the evenings, which means that young teenage Costa first started to experiment with getting drunk.

Honestly, there’s a lot I don’t remember, and not in a “ha ha I was so drunk” way. I just…don’t remember stuff, or remember it poorly (it’s partially why I’m so hesitant to do more personal essays). There’s a nice chunk between 14 and 16 that’s mostly a blur, honestly. It’s a lot of introduction to punk rock, reading books because I didn’t have a lot of friends, experimenting with drinking, and occasionally bursting into fights with other kids (fights I usually lost) because I kept constantly stuffing rage inward over dumb stuff I couldn’t tell what it was now. It’s strange to think about how some people can mine their pasts with such regular clarity and confidence in those memories. I honestly don’t know why I just can’t seem to remember certain times beyond just the vague impressions they left on me. Dates elude me, and the cloud of personal prejudices and perspectives also make me terrified that I’ll just never tell the “right” version of a story and be obviously corrected by someone. It’s honestly easier to just work on fiction sometimes, to write my own The Chamber rather than try to remember that specific summer I spent reading this book.

But I remember stealing beers at family events, and I remember a big public thing while visiting family in Greece for a whole village by the ocean, being drunk on the beach thinking everything was super-fucking funny. Who knows what I was thinking about? Maybe it was this book, and thinking in some way, that me being drunk and waxing poetic on the two or three beers I’d downed (I was a super-small kid and a skinny teenager so I was a real lightweight) made me just as deep as I thought the protagonist of this book was in that one scene where he thinks deep thoughts about his messed-up family or whatever was going on in the book or that particular scene. Southern gothic novels feel like they’re full of nothing but messed-up families and lots of drinking, so it’s possible that in his own way, Grisham was continuing the tradition?

Probably not. If anything, it’s probably just what I thought, the reflection of his own upbringing and his own background work- and social-wise as a liberal Southerner who worked in law but was still heavily-immersed in his own boy’s club world. Which isn’t to say Grisham is necessarily a bad person (from what I understand he’s fairly liberal, involved with stuff like The Innocence Project, workers’ rights, and calls for prison reform), but the characters in his books, in particular the legal thriller ones, clearly reflect his previous lives working in politics and law and the privilege that comes with those kinds of lives.

Still, for a teenager looking to try and bridge that weird wobbly bridge between being a kid and being an adult and really only had books to guide him, I have a weird place in my heart for Grisham’s books. This book and his previous work, A Time To Kill, are rife with racism, the history of post-Reconstruction Southern states, and the overarching theme of how dangerous but necessary things like digging up the past and pushing past the uncomfortable to get to the truth can be.

It’s odd to think that depressing legal thrillers read during sun-drenched summer afternoons about the legacy of the Klan are such a huge part of my youth. If anything though, I managed to learn a lot about how the death penalty worked in the US thanks to this book, which made me a big hit with punk girls at parties and outdoor stoops bumming cigarettes, trying to impress each other.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 2; “Mind Prey” by John Sandford

[UNSET]

You bet I’ve got more of these. I was one of those annoying kids who raided their parents’ book stashes, after all.

I liked doing the last one of these because saying it out loud (or rather, typing it) makes me realize how bizarre so many of these kinda books really were, and how reading them as a teenager instead of whatever YA books my parents periodically got me, like Where The Red Fern Grows or whatever (which is a great book, but not the point here).

This book is kinda fucked up, the more I think about it.

John Sandford is actually writer/journalist John Camp, writing under a pseudonym. He’s another one of those glossy paperback mystery/cop thriller writers I picked up from my parents’ stashes of books. I carted this one back to New York from overseas to finish school in America. Or maybe I found it among my dad’s leftovers in my grandma’s house. It’s one in a series involving Sandford’s police detective character of Lucas Davenport (portrayed on TV by both Eriq La Salle and Mark Harmon, respectively), another one of the gimmicky Holmes-esque badasses that populate these sort of novels. Davenport is a gun collector, a crack shot, a scarred badass with a bevy of sexual conquests, and is somehow ALSO independently wealthy because he makes RPGs and runs a video game company (and from what I remember, Sandford/Camp actually did his research is knowing how to describe the terminology and mechanics of how stuff works). Davenport’s basically every nerd’s wet dream rolled up with the standard hardass cop of these types of books.

Liberal but not valueless in that way that neocons and people with pro-cop bumper stickers disdain, he’s a man of action. His vices are masculine and coded as cool. He represents law and order, but also bucks the system to both overcome bureaucratic red tape AND corruption (a prevailing theme in a lot of these sorta books). Yeah he makes video games and isn’t a raging racist, but his tolerance and empathy is limited because of the near-vigilantism that he tends to embody (that most fictional law enforcement tends to, in general), skirting with breaking the law because sometimes laws and social niceties just “get in the way”.

You know exactly what kind of literary character I’m talking about. While the root is older, the 80’s and 90’s are rife with these types, part of what’s now obviously a weird shift in how we depicted law enforcement in fiction to foster a positive “lone wolf” sort of vibe, making it “cool.” In a way, Sanford, like a lot of other guys, took Robert Parker’s Spenser to the next seemingly-natural stage (at least to me). Davenport is, for a large chunk of the books, a bachelor, and even in the author’s own words is kind of a sociopath with few real connections to the world around him other than the job. That is, in reality, not a good person, and definitely not the kind of person you really ant as an actual cop. In fiction, on the other hand? Especially escapist detective/neo-noir/suspense paperbacks?

Anyway this book, Mind Prey, is actually one of the first times I think I read a book that was really explicit in depictions of sexual violence (it’s about a serial rapist/killer kidnapping a woman and her daughter) and, thinking back on it, it’s kind of jarring and disturbing (though a lot of these books, not just Sandford’s, thinking back on it, cover a lot of horrific and very brutal crimes…William Diehl comes to mind). And what’s even weirder is that somehow, I ended up doing a report on this book in high school for my 11th-grade English class on “classic detective novels”.

The teacher for that class was the personification of the “cool high school English teacher” trope. His class was fun (I read Sherlock Holmes in his classroom), we got to laugh and joke but also do work that we (or at least I remember) liked. He was one of the chaperones for the senior prom (which I went to for some reason, and was miserable at, but that’s another story) and the common belief was that since he (and several other teachers) had been there for a couple of hours before students showed up, he was mostly drunk as shit (he acted it). He was a “cool teacher” (something my school had a bit of a problem with but…again, another story) For our final project, let us do weird reports about readings from class or that we’d found on our own. I, being a dweeb, used Mind Prey. I did some faux-profile of the antagonist and compared him to some other characters from some other readings we’d done in class. It wasn’t the best assignment honestly, and to this day I think I got by mostly because I picked a reading that wasn’t one of the in-class ones, which counts for a lot.

I wonder sometimes what happened to him. I occasionally have a dread feeling about trying to look up teachers I admired in high school, because there’s a part of me that is definitely thinking “shit, if it turns out he was some kind of abusive or predatory weirdo I’m gonna be sad”. I saw him once wandering around my old neighborhood near the school when I was 19 or 20, and was briefly tempted to yell out a hi, but of course, awkwardness and that perpetual fear he didn’t remember who I was kicked in. Sometimes too, I think about just how “cool” a teacher he was, and if it was just a mask for something worse that my privilege protected me from. I know that’s a pretty bleak outlook to have, but really, I feel like deep down it’s not an unfair assumption to have as a possible scenario.

A cursory Google search shows me that this teacher isn’t at that school anymore, and I don’t have a yearbook or anything laying around to get his first name and do a more thorough look (they, like a lot of my stuff from high school, is scattered around my parents’ house on bookshelves and in boxes). I still think about that class and that book though, and doing this half-ass project on a fucked-up detective book involving a cop who also made video games.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 1; William Heffernan’s “Ritual”

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So I’ve talked before about being the kid who read a lot of mass-market paperbacks because A) I just read a lot and B) they were all we had around. I’ve been thinking back on those books as I’ve been browsing Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell, a humorous look at paperback horror novels through the past decades.

It’s a weird art form/subgenre that (I think rightfully) has started to again garner a bit of a spotlight in pop culture (not necessarily for the right reasons but whatever) again, but to me, Hendrix’s work is just one part of a much larger tapestry that I distinctly remember being a part of as a kid. I joke that I’m a book hoarder and the son of book hoarders, but my parents both read voraciously, and used to have tons of books of all sorts all over whatever home we lived in. Even now, with them wanting to have less and less stuff around, I know that in the attack are just crates of old paperbacks, waiting for a new life cycled out of there onto the bookshelves in the house proper for a tour of duty.

I think I found this book (Ritual by crime writer William Heffernan) during the period when my family lived overseas and I was basically grabbing and consuming any and every English-language novel I could see to satisfy a desire for something. I must have been about 13 or so, I remember reading and re-reading it one summer, my usual habit since I didn’t speak Greek that well at the time, didn’t have many friends, and there was no TV or radio, so I had to ration the batteries for stuff like a Discman (and later, a Gameboy). It was my first exposure to Heffernan, just one of however many my parents had accumulated, being book hoarders themselves (especially my dad). Also, I was (and still am probably) one of those types who was really into weapons, like the budding sociopath I was.

As a kid I was fascinated with swords and axes and bows and arrows, so a book with a weird knife and crazy title on the front (I’m gonna say I read Relic by Preston & Child about the same time so the cool one-word titles were a thing) was almost custom-made to draw my attention in. Did it have some kind of fantasy elements to it? Was it scary? It gave it a sense of fantastic to the book, clashing (on the cover) with the policeman’s shield/badge. A lot of the Signet books (an imprint of NAL, the New American Library publishing company) had designs like this. It might have even been partially-raised, giving a cool texture feel to the cover too, I don’t remember exactly.

Why did we have so many of these kinds of books? My parents are not necessarily the types of people to seem like they’d be obsessed with mostly just crime-slash-mystery novels, they’re fairly run-of-the-mill middle-class types, the children of immigrants. Then again, you never really know about that, about what is going to appeal to people, or why it does.

Also, it’s entirely possible that as a family that travelled a lot at times, these types of train station/airport novels just turned out to be the perfect thing for travelers/commuters to grab and read regularly, and save because they were cheap and fun escapes to come back to once in a while. I’ve read a lot about the crime/mystery market and the whole subculture of straight-to-paperback airport novels, and how they’re a pretty natural evolution of dimestore spinner-rack cheap pulps. I’ve never not paused in a bookstore (even if I know I’m not gonna buy anything) in an airport or a bus/train station, unless I’m in a rush. The desire for a quick fun slab of entertainment with a semi-predicatable but still enjoyable twist is a strong one, maybe moreso than any sort of apparent higher literary calling. They’re so intensely American to me (while I do know the tradition isn’t rooted necessarily in anything uniquely American, it just feels like that), a literary field completely devoid of pretension and desire for anything other than wide readership so that the checks coming in can buy the fancy whiskeys.

Anyway, this is obsensibly a Heffernan book about his character Paul Devlin, but Devlin’s a secondary character compared to the Holmesian Stanislaus Rolk (at least he’s Holmesian in my imagination, I haven’t read this book in like twenty years). I think I really loved it because (SPOILER ALERT FOR A BOOK THAT CAME OUT IN 1990) Rolk turns out to have been the killer all along, and his tough partner Devlin has to be the one to bring him down. It was also gruesome as all fuck and moderately titillating, involving naked human sacrifices, decapitation with an obsidian knife, and the wearing of human skin like a cape. The intellectual detective let his dark side overtake him through his curiosity, delving more and more into obscure Toltec rituals and beliefs (this book is probably the only time the Toltec people were ever mentioned in pop culture), ultimately becoming the obsidian knife-wielding spree slayer. I don’t remember much else about the story, how it ends, how the twists and turns go. Part of me wants to find a cheap copy of this and re-read it, or maybe see if my local library can get me a copy, but part of me recognizes too that a lot of these books from that time of my life were probably not that great for a variety of reasons.

I read a bunch more Heffernan after this book, he’s incredibly prolific as a writer, my parents had a ton of them stashed around our home. A year or so ago When I got my short story “Hit The Till” published through Akashic Books, I found out that Akashic had also published some of Heffernan’s work and I almost hit the fucking ceiling. Those books, with their slick and raised covers, cheap paper pages fat in the glued paperback binding, with the ads and mail-order catalogues in the back, were some of my earliest connections to crime writing/mystery novels, and…yeah, it was wild to, in a tiny and very roundabout way, have my little short mystery story now in the same spider’s-web of publication as his.

Random aside to this whole thing; Looking for a picture/scan of this book’s cover, the cover I remember as a kid is pretty much the main one that comes up, compared to the searching I had to do for other books to find the covers of the editions I remember. It makes me think I wasn’t the only one who loved this cover and was drawn into the book solely because of it. Makes me think maybe I wasn’t as weird a kid as I thought.

Abracadaver, 2017!

So it’s December.

I’ve got a little more to do before Christmas, but for all intents and purposes I’m done for the year work-wise, which means time to do what I’ve been planning for a while…play a lot of DESTINY 2.

WHAT 2017 WAS LIKE
1. A trash fire, politically – No shit, huh? I mean I know (and say) that only naive idiots or absolute monsters run for public office, but this year’s definitely driven that point home. Still, there have been some hard-won fights that we (collectively as a people dedicated to decency, leftism, and walking tall) won. You survived. I survived. We’re gonna keep on surviving, and refusing to let the lines be constantly redrawn when it comes to how things work. Unless we’re redrawing them for the better, that is. Always doing it for the better.

2. A raging tire fire, socially – These fucking people and their stupid fucking opinions. It’s a weird social tide shift regardless, feels like, where the mouth of awful decided that regardless of what was going on it was going to start to vomit a lot more into the public consciousness louder than usual. Again though, I feel like we’re not just building up the barricades, but girding ourselves to go over the top to push craven cowardness and petty stupidity back. Don’t give them any ground, and take back what they took inch by inch.

3. Not…personally terrible – I hate to say it because so many people really did not feel that good this year, but it wasn’t a terrible year for me, on a personal note. I wrote a lot, got work published, survived a lot of teaching. 2017 feels like what 2014 was, a weird crucible work-wise that I came out of having learned a lot about myself and my work for the better. 2018 is also shaping up to be a decent year personally, and while I kinda feel bad about it, I also take it as a personal victory and something to lord over assholes.

GOALS FOR 2018
1. Don’t die – You’d think this would be some kind of given, but hey, good to say it out loud.
2. Academic irons in the fire – I’ve been tentatively thinking and talking about a few teaching things I’d like to maybe get going in this upcoming year.
3. Get married – Oh yeah, I got engaged last year so I guess I’m getting married in 2018. Gonna throw a party.
4. Write – Goes without saying, yeah? I got a bunch of work “accepted” between late 2017 and into 2017 but only two pieces actually showed up, so I figure one to three pieces a year’s a good rate to aim for in the upcoming year. Oh, and a few bigger things should get started, but we’ll see.

I don’t really have much to say honestly, I’m trying to not push myself into writing when I don’t want to, and enjoy down time when I have it, so that’s balancing with the desire to be productive and just stare at the computer screen all day and type. It’s been a wild year. What’s that curse, may you live in interesting times?

As the saying goes, be brave enough to be kind. See you on the other side in 2018, people, keep those knives sharp and hearts open.

Swords, Sorrows, Satire

ByChanceOrProvidence-1I love fantasy novels and comics. I talk about them a lot, probably not as much as I talk about horror or crime writing or punk rock, but I love it. It’s such a deep-rooted part of me, back to the beginnings of my love of reading. As I’ve said, before punk rock and horror, fantasy was there, and it’s always stuck around in some way in my life.

It’s kinda weird to find any these days though to me that I can genuinely enjoy because of how a lot of it, to me, comes across. So much of modern fantasy fiction seems to fall into one of two extreme camps these days, either being “A Game Of Thrones” grimdark or satirizing the genre in a humorous way, which bothers me. Here’s this great genre wish so much flexibility and muscle in it treated as either a bad video game or a joke about DnD.

I know that the good stuff, the groundbreaking work is coming out as we get new and fresh voices more and more unafraid to push boundaries (I’m trying hard to get to that work and get back in the loop), but I feel like signal-to-noise when it comes to what I grew up on VS what doesn’t interest me is overwhelming.

Maybe I just don’t look hard enough?

Which is…fine. It’s fine. I mean, a genre should be flexible, should be reaching to far ends of the spectrum its on in terms of attitudes and whatnot. To be bound to the absolute middle of the whole thing is a dangerous precedent that creates the limited and arguably conservative mindset that can ruin a literary genre and make it an unfunny and unfriendly sort of place. Fantasy (like a lot of genre work) already can be an unfriendly and conservative sort of place, so the pushing of those boundaries outwards is welcome.

Still (and I say this primarily as a person who knows the privileges of representation in his fiction and all that entails when he talks about enjoying more “classic” or traditional genre fiction), sometimes the work I see in fantasy these days is JUST at those two ends, with the middle being almost immediately dismissed as too conventional or conservative (something I’d wholeheartedly disagree with). There’s such a huge range that fantasy can and pull from (re-reading Raymond E. Feist’s “Serpentwar Saga” recently definitely made me think about fantasy fiction being used to discuss the impacts of war on non-“special hero” types and surrogate families coming together in really interesting ways), and that includes horror. Real deep bone-hungry horror, something from the edges of the world that you barely even knew one stalked the land you now lived in. So much fantasy is set in pre-industrial and historically-influenced settings, and I think those sorts of things can have amazing approaches to scary stories. It’s frustrating

Part of it is probably the critical  literary desire to say that great work rises above the genre it’s in when in fact saying shit like that does a disservice to the work and to the genre itself. After all to act like something is “too good” for the conventions of genre (horror has the same issues) basically spits on the genre as well as making a lot of assumptions about the work of the author.

Anyway when I was in Canada a few weeks ago I bought this and recently got to read it finally. I read Becky Cloonan’s collection By Chance Or Providence, collecting her haunting and emotional historical fantasy comic shorts like “Wolves” and they’re so amazing while still easily-recognizable as “fantasy fiction”. Ancient gods and swords, but also the sweat of a man in a horror story, of a woman at the end of an unholy bargain. It’s horror, but also drama and doomed romance. And yet, those are all things that can be in the overall umbrella of “fantasy” and I don’t really know just how rare this is in fantasy. Arguably, a lot of Tolkien is almost Lovecraftian horror (his elves are eternal eldritch beings of frightening nightmares, no matter what anyone says about ethereal beauty and all that), but most of the time when horror and fantasy cross it tends to, again, go back to that “grimdark” viewpoint of horror (the literary equivalent of gorefests or torture porn, I guess), Cloonan’s work is more haunting that scary, in that it’s trying to evoke a sense of low constant dread.

Also, the balance of outright fantastical and grounded in her work, which yeah, feels very manga-influenced but is also working hard to humanize flawed and malleable characters (they feel like the flesh they’re made of, rather than the adamant we feel these types of characters sometimes seem to be), with dirty armor, notched sword blades, and fatalistic attitudes that don’t rely on heavy-handed and nihilistic life outlooks. There’s a weight to the world, to the stories, but it’s not an overbearing one.

A thing from my childhood that I loved, Marvel’s big black and white THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN THE BARBARIAN (hell, most Conan stories, actually) touched on something from fantasy that I don’t think, post-Tolkien, we really use much, which is the idea of worlds with no real overarching “mythology.” That is to say, places where there is no larger-scale of deities or curses or belief structures or myths tying it all together, simply a chaotic world full of monstrosities and nightmares held at bay, barely, by walls. Though the stories in this are obviously drawing on folklore and myth, the fact is that in the worlds where they happen, they JUST happen without too much (or really any) insistence on creating an elaborate and intricate mythology, is something I appreciate.

It’s very Howard-esque, basically, which is metal as all hell and very much up my alley. Despite Howard’s hack-heavy and hamfisted takes on writing (at times, arguably), his work and his impact on fantasy has always fascinated me, caring less about the complexity of the world’s mechanics and more on an immediate experience surrounding whatever the conflict or adventure he came up with for that particular point. Tolkien’s work is creation story, epic saga. Howard’s work is all forward action and motion, one immediate foot after another, sword or axe always at the ready to hack your way through a confusing and dangerous world that doesn’t care what you want to do, it just wants to kill you and eat you.

By Chance or Providence is a lot like that, in this overarching reminder that the world was ancient before we got here, and that under the surface of civilization, it’ll be here and ancient after we’re long-gone.

 

Welcome To Point Pleasant (Check out my short story “Devils Moths Owls”)

I wrote this short for a horror-themed publication but I recently discovered thanks to my paranoia (long story) that said pub actually went under, so I reached out to them and officially told ’em I was taking it back from them in case they somehow wanted to come back from the dead. I wrote it specifically for that pub/project (a ‘zine basically), so I don’t have the inclination to shop it around to anyone/anywhere else (also it’s relatively short). Anyway, here it is with a slightly-more polished ending, enjoy.

“Devils Moths Owls” by Costa Koutsoutis

“Ahhh, ladies and gentlemen, this is your driver, just letting you know I spoke to one of the officers from the accident up ahead and we should be mov…”

Ty woke with a start, wiping drool from his chin, the old man next to him on the bus still knocked out. The bus was dark, unmoving, and he looked at his watch, groaning.

They’d been on the road for hours trying, and he was already half a day late getting to his parents’ house in south Jersey. They’d left upstate New York hours ago, and were barely a third of the way there, somewhere on the Jersey Turnpike barely out of New York, in the dark in deadlocked traffic. He turned to look out the bus window, into the darkness of the trees on the other side of the turnpike barrier, a blackness darker than the dark of the sky.

Something red blinked at him from within the trees, wide and oval, like a squashed stoplight. And another, and another…another, another.

There was a cluster of them, red pairs, occasionally blinking, watching the bus through from the darkness of inside those woods, the masses on the sides of the Jersey turnpike that no one ever looked into, looked at, thought about, the spaces between townships, lining the roads, the highways, the state. No one else on the bus seemed to see them, just Ty, the bunching almost directly across from his window as the bus sat there, unmoving, unable to drive past this one dark spot.

Ty stared, rubbing his eyes. This couldn’t be right. “What the hell?” he muttered softly in the dark of the bus, looking right at the cluster of red, as one pair after another blinked periodically. It didn’t seem real, but they had to be. Could it be some signs? Some kind of red light that was for sensing speed or something? No, it couldn’t, they were in the middle of nowhere.

One set of the red eyes disappeared, and the tops of the trees, darker against dark, seemed to shake and shudder. Ty looked up, his face pressed against the bus window, seeing…something, emerge from the tops of the trees. It was hard to tell, some kind of tall bulky body with no head, just a fat bump, shoulders bulky..no, not shoulders.

Wings.

Giant, feathery…maybe, feathery? Not like, dragon wings, but, bird wings. Giant bird wings.

The rest of the eyes, red and periodically blinking in the cluster of the center of the darker-on-dark of the trees still stared out at him, and even through the distance and the window of the bus, Ty shivered. It wasn’t something stupid like the Jersey Devil or whatever, more like, like a bird. Like an owl or something, an owl nest, just a trick of the light. He looked back up at the treetops, at the one…owl…that was up there now, an owl, just looking bigger because of the night, the lack of sleep, with the fat round head and giant wings…and long torso and humanlike legs.

No. No, that’s not right. He stared harder, at this point face directly against the glass, his breath fogging the window, at the tall headless figure with the bright red eyes and massive wings perched on impossibly-long legs on the treetops, looking like it was switching between preening its wings and staring down at the bus, staring at him, a headless man with large folded-back wings and red glowing eyes from a face in that broad chest, just like the clutch of eyes from within that darkness below from the trees.

It was some kind of giant owl, an owl-man, maybe, Ty thought, groping for his phone in his pocket, afraid to look away but knowing he had to, had to look it up, look up something that was tickling at the back of his brain along with that other thing, the old fear. The impulse to hide from a predator that prey feel, an automatic chemical thing that humans had long ago lost. His fingers worked without his eyes breaking away from the window as the giant at the top of the trees stretched out those large wings, spreading wide and blacker-on-black against the sky.

The bus started to move suddenly, a jump forward shifting into an accelerating glide forward, and the view began to shift. Ty turned, as much as he could, backwards to look back at the eyes, watching them continue to slowly blink out of existence in the dark of the side of the highway, the one last pair, the largest, up on the top of the trees, continuing to watch like red pinpricks against the darker-on-dark of the woods by the side of the turnpike.

Ty slumped against this bus seat, realizing he was drenched in cold sweat, like he’d just avoided something, unspeakable, horrible. He looked down at his phone, hands automatically having typed something in, the search results for “giant owl red eyes” loading, ready to be seen just by scrolling the down the phone’s screen.

The bus rolled on, and the whole time, his hands rested on the phone, never looking down, preferring instead, he thought, closing his eyes as the darkness out the windows was replaced by the artificial brightness of street lights and restaurant windows, a comforting shield against whatever was behind those eyes.

Rattle Antlers Rattle Bones

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One of the classes that I teach is titled “Masterworks of World Literature,” and it’s meant to be a broad coverage of a variety of older canonical work that very loosely encompasses the start of what we now know as Western literature. It’s not necessarily the most fun stuff to read, although everyone gets a kick out of “Lysistrata” and “The Tale of the Wife of Bath” from The Canterbury Tales. It tends to be a small group though, and since it’s an elective class, people tend to take it because they want an English/literature elective that sounds vaguely interesting (Also I’ve apparently begun to get a bit of a reputation as a “good” teacher according to one of the current students in the group, so I guess people also take it because they hear I’m good, or whatever). I try to make it an interesting class with mostly discussion and essay responses, and try to maybe incorporate some media in there to make things interesting. I show clips from 1999’s The 13th Warrior and 2007’s Beowulf when we read the original “Beowulf” poem…in the best (i.e. easiest) translation I can find, that is.

It used to be (the first time I did it) a book course, with a range of short novels. We did, among others, Things Fall Apart, Crime and Punishment, and Dracula. However, the second time I got it, the new syllabus asked me to rely on open-sourced readings, which made for some interesting choices. I rely a lot on Project Gutenberg, for example, and now have a collection of shorter works that can be grabbed for free online to make a fairly comprehensive collection of stuff for this class. Since it’s a “Masterworks” class, the most recent work we actually have is the Atlantic’s publication of a lost Shirley Jackson short story and “Dracula’s Guest” (the short that’s some kind of prequel/early draft of Stoker’s novel). This term though, to give an example of the wide range of where literature has gone since the earliest examples we see in “Lysistrata” and “Beowulf,” I introduced a fairly short and new piece in the reading list. We actually looked at “So We Beat On, Antlers Against The Current” by Aaron Burch (published in the only literary magazine Whiskey Paper, at whiskeypaper.com).

Brando yelling Stella, Robin Williams’ barbaric yawp. I used to think no one had heard anything so equal parts frightening and inspiring, so full of both terror and joy, in real life and so had to go to pop culture for comparison. Now I wonder if everyone hasn’t heard their own version of that yell but it’s too personal to share; they go to movies and songs so as to not have to cut themselves open for me, to compare our insides.

It’s a weird read.

However, it’s interesting to read because it’s so weird. It’s a completely-nonsensical situation that, when my students read it, caused nothing but delighted confusion as they struggled to figure out exactly WHAT was going on. It is also probably the peak of what I like to teach, though there are threads in my other work stuff. Last year I taught Gabriel Garcia Marquez and “magical realism,” (I’ll probably do it again this term) the forefather of what we’d probably call “weird fiction” nowadays but to me just reads like regular speculative fiction (the broad umbrella of genre as far as I’m concerned), and that’s initially what Burch reminded me of, though that’s not really the point here.

Rather, it’s the whole point of realism and the role it can ultimately offer, especially when it comes to what I actually read for. It’s surreal fiction that both manages to exist in the real world and also have an air of fantasy (or science, because all good sci-fi is just another facet of fantasy) and the blasé acceptance of it into the fabric of the “realism” gives it enough absurdity to be able to stand out from what would get labeled “literary fiction.”

It’s been…a rough year, for obvious sociopolitical reasons, and while my personal life has been on the uptick, it’s been a lot of work that has kept my brain sort of on a perpetual upswing/downswing, trying to be aware and conscious and active but not wanting to always be mad. So I’ve been throwing myself back into reading more and more (something I’ve fallen shamefully behind on), and trying to find the comfort in reading that I used to with ease. It’s coming back to me though

So far, it’s been working honestly. Mostly because I’ve been trying to read less “realism,” letting myself just read more and more stuff that is not necessarily grounded in anything realistic (which includes nonfiction). It’s a weird thing because I feel incredibly guilty in some ways, but in others, it’s also part of that whole “taking care of yourself” thing, and I take care of myself by reading to distract myself. Still, wanting to find some level of relateability at times in my reading is why “weird/speculative” stuff like Burch’s story hits a note with me. It’s that mix of realism and tragedy as well as the bonkers escapist elements of fantasy/scifi/”speculative” (fuck I hate that word for some reason) that allows you to recognize another world in the pages/on the screen.

I know I’ve talked about it before but I tend to read to escape and distract myself, rather than seek out any sort of connection or similarities. Admittedly as a white guy that’s a VERY privileged thing I’m able to do (because so much literature revolves around Guys Like Me, white men with no real life skills and terrible sense of humor), but honestly, I consider it a privilege to use to be able to maintain some level of sanity and relaxation. Reading was always my thing, my one thing, even as I got older. I still remember reading at a punk show once, when I should have been working the door and watching the money…don’t worry, I didn’t let anyone steal it. Jeez.

I’m looking forward to teaching this short story again next semester.

 

Some Kinda Darkness

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Gary Oldman as the eponymous character in 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, arguably the best page-by-page adaptation of the Stoker book 

I recently finished my more-or-less-yearly reread of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, something I like to do mostly because I still think it’s fascinating the impact this book has had. Also, there’s the usual “I discover something new every time” thing. It’s such a dense read, that I feel like every time something new sticks out to me.

Usually I can point to “We want no proofs. We ask none to believe us!” as one of my go-to great lines from the book, though, to go back to the idea of new things hitting you with each re-read, this time, Renfield’s casual and quiet warning to Dr. Seward right before the horrific events leading up to the attack on Mina, saying that he hopes the doctor remembers Renfield trying to warn them all to flee…reading that this time for some reason gave me a shudder, however slight, that I still went “Huh” at.

What I tend to find myself usually really fascinated with though for the most part about Dracula is what’s ultimately come out of it. Post-grad school it’s always seemed to actually be a work all about the dangers of hypersexual foreigners and solitary, predatory strangers who exist outside of the post-Enlightenment western European barriers considered the edges of acceptable behavior. That’s why the post-Anne Rice post-Vampire: The Masquerade world that has spun out of Stoker’s book is so strange to me, although weirdly a lot of Rice’s work is much more heavily-tied to Stoker when it comes to certain things.

Even though I’ve consumed a lot of horror, like zombies, vampires were never a horror thing I really enjoyed as much as say werewolves or other kinds of monsters (I am an early-in-life and perpetual fan of the Gill-Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon). I’ve seen a ton of vampire movies, especially Sir Christopher Lee in the golden age-Hammer Horror “Dracula” movies, and I’ve read a bunch of Anne Rice stuff (I’ve read a lot of horror books about vampires, actually). I never played V:TM, though I knew of it and the heavy gothic underpinnings of it. It was later on that I realized how much of it heavily influenced that weird “coven” element of meatspace vampire subculture that sees it as an intensely-romantic thing with large groups coming together as sub-communities, in direct comparison to the Stoker aspects that emphasized the lone nature and non-communal elements of the vampire as predator. Yes, Dracula has a connection to pack animals like wolves, but unlike wolves, he’s an unholy creature who craves singular domination and power, so a large “coven” (a word that didn’t actually appear in the English language until like 1921-22 and is arguably a variation of “covin,” or “deception” as well as related to the verb “convene”) just…it just doesn’t make sense.

Considering the xenophobic elements surrounding Dracula as a pervasive and infectious element (a singular one that is a metaphor for larger groups), to view him as a representation of just repressed sexuality kind of takes away the rest of the things that he can potentially represent. He’s a holdover of pre-Enlightenment/pre-age of revolution Europe (something that Stoker touches on and that Jeanne Kalogridis addresses as well in her books), believing in absolute rule, serfdom, and divine right. The vampire arguably does “adapt” to blend in (in the manner of a conqueror or a stalking predator, as Van Helsing notes in the book) but only as a means to an end. There is no “coven” or community to build, only servants to make.

Anne Rice started her stuff in the 70’s, V:TM came out first in 1991 (as did the pre-Twilight teen novel series “The Vampire Diaries”), so a lot of that definitely explains the root of the 80’s/90’s interpretations of the sexual and social aspects of Dracula. I feel stupid thinking about a lot of them though, because yes, even though I do know that technically any interpretation with the right evidence is a good one, and yes, a lot of the more modern academic readings of Stoker’s life indicate he was working through a  lot of repressed sexual issues in his own life through his writing. Does that mean that my own readings of Dracula are tainted, that I can’t recognize what seems to be just an internet joke, that the book is about a vampire who wanted a threesome with a husband and wife?

Ultimately, it’s probably just because I hate nerds and weird fandoms that make these immense connections based on tenuous, almost nonexistent threads and use those threads as the root structure for something huge to lean their lives against entirely. It’s not necessarily bad per se (one of these days I’ll write about learning how punk rock scenes were bullshit as the root of learning to always criticize fandom and subcultures), but man can it get fucking annoying.

Anyway, I still like re-reading Dracula.

 

Happy Halloween 2017!

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Hey, it’s my favorite day of the year, so here’s a list of all the spooky/weird stuff I’ve written!