Sunday, June 26, 2011
Intro to Fantastic Fiction, satisfaction as fan/creator, feeding and preserving your imagination
Beware of tangents straying away from text fiction in this first section. Skip this if you only want to read about the guides.
With “The Fantastic” I think there is a greater weight of expectations than other types of stories more firmly rooted in real life, even if it is as far fetched as a blockbuster action movie. When I was a child I looked at a rental advert sheet with the Tobe Hooper version of Salem’s Lot and it said “don’t watch this alone”, at the time, I thought this was a real health and safety warning and thought people might actually die if they watched it alone! When I was maybe 9 or 10 I saw the start of Twins of Evil, when the twin girls were speculating on what terrible things go on in the dark castle viewed from their window, I was preparing myself for the worst, often hiding my eyes expecting something that was so horrible it might ruin my life forever, it didn’t take long for me to turn it off. Also watching the start of Evil Dead 2, the melancholy dark skies suggested to me this oncoming maelstrom of terror that would be too much for me, I stopped watching that even quicker.
Then that leads into a series of hopes, disappointments and too brief pleasures that led me in my late teens to finding it difficult to expect anything of even modest power anymore from films in the fantastic manner. But remembering these expectations (even the expectations of anything at all in life that gets your imagination going, however small or brief it might have been, like a song that didn’t live up to it’s title or opening movements; places or people that weren’t what you thought they might be) are an enormous resource for creating your own things, hoping to live up to the warnings/promises you have seen your whole life. Horror comic and magazine covers, adverts, rave reviews from easily scared people and the threats from your parents about getting nightmares. Everyone knows horror stories give you nightmares, apart from people who actually try to get the nightmares they were promised, except for rare and lucky occasions.
I also like to hear about other peoples expectations to feed my imagination. Mario Bava was said to check under his bed for his whole life before he went to sleep because he was so scared. When Ramsey Campbell watched Disney’s Snow White, he was terrified of the darkness outside the open window of the dwarfs’ house.
I think science fiction, fantasy and horror should always be astonishing and powerful, because that is what it is there for in the first place. It’s tough to live up to but I think that is just the nature of dealing with this sort of fiction, preferable to downgrading your expectations to be pleased with mediocrity, praising mediocrity, so everyone thinks it is okay to keep feeding us mediocrity. The way of the fanboy: killing the thing they love, killing the thing I love. I don’t think there will ever be a major improvement in this area of art/entertainment until the death of the fanboy. So if you want to be dazzled by “The Fantastic”, I think you have a responsibility to uphold critical standards, this might sound like I’m encouraging elitism, but I’m not. Elitism has its own harmful consequences, like ignoring genre fiction altogether and pretending all genre writers don’t create with the same impulses as old classic writers and poets who used fantastical subject matter. Both fanboyism and elitism are a refusal to see things as complicated as they really are, so they can easily file things under the categories convenient to their peace of mind.
My lifetime expectations of books are pretty heavy too. Always having heard books are for smart people, books are more effective at horror than any other form and there is a very long history of master writers. My childhood self pictures all these writers as serious grumpy looking men and women with beards touching their toes, infallible writers. I only came to books because so many other things failed me (in general but not as a whole, with respect due to those films, comics and videogames that did thrill me to a fine degree) and I had no choice left but to read them to get my satisfaction. Music and visual art have often fulfilled my wishes in their own ways (sometimes physically overwhelming) and with far more frequency than films and comics. I think text fiction holds a credible promise to get me a frequently high level of fulfillment.
Annoyingly, I have OCD with text fiction (not any other sort of text, because I want to immerse myself in stories, that importance makes the savouring of it an obsessive problem) that makes me re-check I have read things constantly. I used to only be able to read 1 and a half pages an hour, now I read 3 to 5 pages an hour, which is very frustrating because I want to read so much. I’ve only read about 4000 pages of text fiction, with over 200 unread books in my room.
What I have read so far is both promising and discouraging. The general level of quality is lower than I expected, I always heard there was lots of trash, but even the power of a lot of the better writers is greatly exaggerated. Lovecraft’s reputation is a bit too huge and mythical for him to live up to; although he can be very powerful and his ideas/approach are deservedly influential and lasting, his bad habits don’t fit in with his old master image that gets into Lovecraftian art with him depicted as this immortal figure. The use of words “blasphemous”, “unmentionable” and “nameless” until they become ineffective and self-parodying. Some early work of Clive Barker and Poppy Z Brite is not nearly as shocking as the reputations made them out.
I was always afraid of never being able to find anything good, afraid of getting lost in the trash, which is why I read all these guides I’m reviewing here. I’m a bit baffled by the situation of never having had any ambitions to be smart or well-read, but then finding myself harder to please than most, some people finding me elitist, but I’m just looking for the thrills and nourishment I need and being honest about feeling often underwhelmed. It is creatively liberating to stand honest with your dissatisfaction; because you will easier see what you deeply want to create if you don’t downgrade your expectations and if you don’t force yourself to be satisfied with what has underwhelmed you. If you do slide into being satisfied just because you wanted to be, your imagination will suffer for it. High expectations are connected to powerful imaginings.
Of course, you can’t dismiss something purely for not being what you wanted it to be, especially when it turns out to be something entirely different from what you thought. You have to see a piece of work for what it is rather than what you wanted it to be (but always remember those expectations if they were juicily imaginative). You could make a case for saying it is unfair to have pre-conceived ideas of what something should be, but with imaginative stories with those titles, covers, adverts and hype, it is impossible for a person not to have a type of feeling and images enter their head. Great God Pan by Machen was completely different from what I wanted, but it was better than what I wanted, but I still like to remember what I wanted for creative purposes. The level of quality being matched is more important than specific details you wanted to be matched.
It is not the fault of the writers for being portrayed as gods by fans. Something that really bothers me about the big reputations is how some writers place Poe and Lovecraft in a high place that cannot be reached, as if they are willing themselves never to be that good, as if they feel threatened by the idea of anyone new ever getting that good. Poe’s stories or the stories of any other literary giant did not sprout out of him like vegetables from the ground. He was a human who made creative choices and worked on his stories like anyone else (but some would say the circumstances of those writers created their work as much as the skill, but I wont get into that). It is really hard to imagine another human ever topping Da Vinci and Shakespeare in terms of invention and influence but thinking it is impossible will make it all the more impossible for you. The necessity for this invention can be found in needing your work to be more powerful than most creators ever dream their work could be. You will invent things if you know the familiar formulas are not going to work for your ambitions. But I think lasting power is more important than innovation. If you can find flaws and lack of specific elements you would like to see in stories (or something else), then there is obviously plenty of room to innovate.
This is not about wanting to be considered a giant to surpass all other giants or innovation and influence for their own sake, but about your fulfilment as a creator. Placing your heroes distinctly above you is a creative boundary.
Being addicted to the giddy squirming wriggly euphoria of taking your art as far as you can, you will find it increasingly difficult to fit into long established ways/fomulas of working.
Even in keeping high expectations, I still don’t know how my early expectation of horror stories being terrifyingly nightmarish on every page would work in text. But I still like to believe art could do just about anything. Remembering your expectations and initial encounters is also useful so you can keep an outsiders perspective instead of fully integrating, adjusting yourself into a genre. Even if an outsider attacks a genre you love, they might have some truthful points they can see but you cant if you have so fully integrated that you become blind to those insights.
I could have been a metal fan in my youth, but I’m glad I came to it later at a time when I was less likely to fully accept all its usual traits. I’ve never really liked leather and spikes, motorbikes and animals made of steel (among other overly familiar things) even if I can enjoy the actual sound of Judas Priest. But my younger self would have forced me to adapt my tastes, as I did with superheroes. Now I have distanced myself from superhero comics, I think I can see their virtues and weaknesses better than I ever could. I can now see what appealed to me at the start.
The metal and superhero fans/creators who fully integrate themselves, lose the outsider perspective that could have them knowing what the essential elements that attracted them to the genre were but also knowing what elements they would rather subtract and what new things they could bring in to make it more personal and fulfilling. Of course there are genre elements that grow on you for reasons nothing to do with your conforming your tastes, but a real deepening insight and appreciation.
In the past half year, I have found it incredible how much bad cover art there is, even some of my favourite artists have done a number of covers that would put me off a book. Science Fiction books rarely have good covers. Some really good writers get some really stinking covers. I’ve heard a lot of horror covers are made to look like paranormal romance covers just because the writers are women.
How did it get to be like this? Are restrictive editors scaring away all the good artists? It doesn’t add up. It makes sense when big writers whose names can sell books have extremely vague cover art that readers barely notice, so the stories do all the work and there are no conflicts between cover and contents, but I still always want some interesting art.
I have been tempted many times this year to try do cover art and interiors for a living, because with ebooks there is a lot of demand for art as well as printed books. I thought of it as doing my bit to try and make this type of fiction sell, do it like a soldier with a mission. But I decided against it because I don’t think I could produce work that could satisfy me on a regular basis, I’d probably be wrestling with the ideas I was given to work on, unable to get the most obvious images out of my head and fly free to do something original and personal yet true to the text. Once you get clichéd images and associations in your head, it can be incredibly tough to get away from them.
The other worry is adapting to restrictions too much, like the amount of nudity you can show on covers and the shape and size an editor might want the pictures to be. I’d be scared I would begin to think of everything I did within those restrictions and have trouble getting out of that.
When I hear some comic artists say “I get to do what I love for a living”, I don’t often believe them, because most of these artists evolve and adjust with the intention of fitting into the probable restrictions they will face. I don’t trust all these people to really know what they love because so many have moulded themselves to fit the fanboy mentality too. It’s not very good to have your mode of expression defined by restrictions. All those shortcuts most comic artists need to take make the art less convincing and immersive.
I hate seeing promising artists repress their evolution to fit the routine of a professional and gradually let their talents degrade because their industry needs them to feed itself but keeps squandering talent across long periods of time when so many amazing things could have been done.
I understand it would not be easy for a company stay alive if they let everyone do exactly what they want, taking as much time as they needed to execute it; but I think comics in general would sell better if there was a general model of letting people do what they are good at. Being a comic creator should not be like an exhausting timed sport.
I keep thinking about the countless people across the world that have a big imagination but don’t have any tools to create with. I wish there was some sort of worldwide operation to give people what they need to create and give them something more to live for. There might be some incredible results. Probably an impossible dream.
Horror: 100 Best Books(1988) and Horror: Another 100 Best Books(2005) by Jones & Newman
These were the first books I bought of this type and they are by far my favourites. The difference with these guides and all the others is that in each of the two installments Jones and Newman found 100 writers to talk about a favourite book. I once read a complaint that due to having 200 people (if you buy both books) giving their opinion on a book each, you cant ever know the real value of their opinions the way you would if it was one author discussing the entire genre. He or she had a point, but I think the enthusiasm, differing views and unpredictable choices of 200 authors is far better than one author. Some very odd choices in there.
My only problem with these books is there is the occasional painfully contrary entry trying to say that depressing morbid explorations of the human condition are naturally superior to traditional approaches to horror. I like all approaches when done well, but there is nothing “mere” about spiritual terror. Spiritual terror is the main reason I want to read horror. I think writing something that makes people afraid to look out their windows, leave their rooms, switch off the lights or switch on the lights, put their limbs near the edge of the bed, scared to open or close their eyes, with the hair standing on end, the beautiful tingling waves moving under their skin, spinechilling and eyes watering in terrified euphoria is a magical accomplishment that should not be talked down. See the Mark Samuels piece below.
They are both incredibly fun books and they have extensive lists for further reading at the back, which you have to go on the quality of the book titles and your recognition of the authors.
The second book helpfully keeps all the bios of each contributor at the end of each entry, unlike the first book when you had to go to the back and find the bio of each author after you read their piece. Amazingly, I saw someone complain about this sensible change.
Book Of Lists: Horror(2008)
This book is not solely devoted to books but to all types of horror. There are some fascinating lists about horror in music, theatre and visual art. Unfortunately most of the book is devoted to fanboyish gushing about movies (some of it interesting, most of it not), I would have liked the book section to be much larger but it is substantial enough to buy as a book guide.
Several writers make lists of books unlikely to be considered part of the horror genre, but which contain elements that satisfy horror readers. Lots of writers list their favourite novels and short stories. Bentley Little lists novels by writers who only had one go at horror writing. Thomas Ligotti lists his favourite horror poetry. Karl Edward Wagner has 3 lists: his favourite science fiction horror, realist horror and supernatural horror. There is also a list devoted to obscure gothic novels with absurd plots.
Science Fiction: 100 Best Novels(1985) by David Pringle
I think this is by far the most outstanding of these guides written by a single author. Pringle knows science fiction inside-out and he makes convincing controversial statements about sacred cows. Moorcock in his introduction to the book laments on how little short story collections are in the book, which he feels are too important to lose sight of (something all these guides are guilty of except for the horror guides, where short stories are acknowledged as generally being the better form for horror) but in his own intro Pringle felt each book had to be a focused effort towards something specific and also explains why he kept the time frame of the books after H G Wells and Olaf Stapledon.
Science Fiction is my least favourite of the three types of fantastic fiction, but this made me want to buy a lot. I previously never knew anything about the tension between the right wing pulp magazine authors and the New Worlds wave of progressive writers.
100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels(2006) by Rennison & Andrews
These Bloomsbury “Must-Read” guides have been coming out for all sorts of genres and eventually there will be a horror edition, which I’m looking forward to. These have extensive notes for further reading on certain authors, subjects and sub-genres. My main problem with these Bloomsbury guides is how much they talk about the plot. I think telling the plot extensively is rarely the best way to sell a book, unless it has an unusually interesting plot (which is not essential to even a masterpiece, it is in the way the story is told). I’d prefer being told about the essential qualities of the books, tell me how they might make me feel.
Since this book came out Ted Chiang has been the biggest new(ish) science fiction author mentioned in none of these guides. Massive hype around him.
Wizardry & Wild Romance(1987/2004) by Michael Moorcock
This is the only guide here that is not made of lists. Moorcock wrote it as an encouragement for people to read and write better fantasy. He is not easy to please or going along with the general preferences of fantasy fans. He ridicules Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, A. A. Milne, Richard Adams, John Norman and Lin Carter. He praises Gene Wolfe, M John Harrison, Robert Holdstock, Mervyn Peake and quite a few others. He much prefers Clark Ashton Smith and William Hope Hodgson to Lovecraft.
I don’t always agree with what he feels is the right way to do fantasy, but I was never sure if he was only talking about epic fantasy novels or fantasy as a whole in any form. He is very funny and I found some of his opinions about the fundamental need for and strengths of romanticism and fantasy inspiring and helpful. He also suggests several realist authors he feels are important for developing writers to know about.
My main frustration with this book is how many names of authors, poets, critics, journals and historic mythical stories it expects you to know. I wish he had made a list of books of the influential romantic fantastical poems he talks about. But this had me researching a lot, like the other books but more than the other books, it encourages you to seek the variants of fantasy (magic realism, fabulation and slipstream). None of these guides could be called insular; they all have springboards into the wider worlds of fiction. That is why my reading lists are so enormous now.
Make sure you buy the updated version of this book; it has reviews of modern fantasy writers and his opinions about the developments since the first version of the book. You cant help but feel this book probably had an influence on the developments. Jeff VanderMeer in his afterward briefly but gratifyingly talks about how the dominant literary priority of character driven stories has robbed some people of different sorts of pleasures you can only find in books with other priorities. That has been on my mind a lot: holding some priorities too important robs you of things other people get to enjoy and you never will unless you accept your priorities need not be universal values.
Fantasy: 100 Best Books(1988) by James Cawthorn
Of all the books, this has the most needlessly extensive plot outlines, but it has lots of interesting observations, background info and choices of bizarre books like Exploits Of Englebrecht that the other books don’t. This book incorporates supernatural horror more than the other fantasy guides. Moorcock contributes a few entries, but I really can’t tell which ones they were.
Modern Fantasy: Hundred Best Novels(1988) by David Pringle
In this book, not quite as good as his science fiction guide, he avoids the early roots of fantasy and starts around the time of Peake and Tolkien. I should also mention that both Pringle books include only books that were originally written in English.
100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels(2009) by Rennison & Andrews
Much the same as the science fiction guide from the same team, but I was more suspicious of the choices in here because they admit that some of the books are Tolkien clones but say they are still worth reading. The difference between this guide and the fantasy guides is how much they try to avoid supernatural horror, keeping that for their upcoming guide.
Read this short Mark Samuels statement, it is one of the best things I’ve read about the true merits of weird fiction. Very satisfying...
Michael Moorcock interview with some interesting things about approach to genre...
25 authors pick their favourite science fiction books...
A horror/fantasy/SF list from The Guardian...
Someone made a really amazing gigantic diagram of fantastic fiction movements...
An encyclopaedia of fantastic fiction. Great for finding specific stories and all the books they have been printed in.
Another encyclopaedia, but this one is better for finding cover art and on the page of each author, it shows you all the blurbs they have done for other peoples books...
All horror fans have to read “Supernatural Horror In Literature” by H P Lovecraft, it is available on lots of websites and numerous printings of books...
An advantage to this type of fiction not doing so well commercially is that a lot of the best writers are quite easy to find talking on forums and easy to contact by email. I think a lot of paperbacks are cheap for this reason too, I was able to buy enormous stacks of the annual Best New/Year’s Best genre anthologies for dirt cheap, which I recommend to anyone trying to keep up with any genre.
It can also be incredibly expensive buying hardcover books of rare supernatural stories from excellent publishers like Tartarus and Ash Tree.
The Wordsworth horror line is the best bargain in this type of fiction, you can own a massive library of old horror, much of it previously rare for a very small price...
...I don’t want to kill business for Tartarus, but the price of the Wordsworth version of Ghost Stories Of Edith Wharton is a small fraction of the Tartarus version with all the same stories. If these genres sold better, I’m sure the hardback publishers would make them cheaper.
Gollancz has a great line of SF and Fantasy Masterworks, but for some silly reason, there is no proper online listing of them all. Here partial listing of them...
...They also have been doing a line of enormous black books. So far there has been 5, collecting Jack Vance, Robert E Howard and H P Lovecraft.
Happy reading, I hope you read faster than I do.