What I’m reading: the Weird

Weird fiction is a genre that’s potentially going through a golden age of sorts, with lots of stories out there to thrill and disturb. More and more writers who may have once been classified as horror or magic realism are producing stories and novels that are dark, subtly suggestive, occasionally visceral, and always beautifully written. Weird fiction encapsulates what I love about horror (the gloom and the dust, and the unflinching examination of things that make us uncomfortable), written in elevated, literary prose that puts more emphasis on the human experience and existential terror. And I’m lucky to be awash in the stuff lately–I’ve so much to read I can hardly keep up with it.

I’ve just finished The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 2, a collection of highly lyrical stories of the strange, which I can say I enjoyed nearly all. The previous volume of the Year’s Best Weird was heavy in that Laird Barron type of cosmic horror, which is super fun, but I’m thrilled to see this volume exploring the more magic realism sides of the genre, softer and stranger at the same time. The narrative of many of the stories broaches on experimental, which works for a lot of readers like myself who want to see the world turned on its side in their fiction. The most memorable stories were, for me, Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Atlas of Hell” and K.M. Ferebee’s “The Earth and Everything Under,” but that’s not to say virtually all the stories in this volume I loved.

I’m also tearing through the Feb 2016 issue of The Dark that, like earlier issues, is so far a fantastic read. The stories the editors usually select for the magazine seem to lean toward dark fantasy and traditional horror, but such highly literary versions of those genres that I think the publication fits well with fans of the weird. Stories like Amber van Dyk’s “And the Woods are Silent” represent what I love about this publication–rich with imagery and feeling, both beautiful and macabre. Not to mention, signing up for the newsletter nets a reader a bunch of their back issues, which is fantastic, so I’ll be enjoying those for some time.

Finally, I’ve been a reader of The Weird Fiction Review online for awhile, as it is a great place to discover and rediscover writers of the weird. Recently they’ve began a novel serialization of Richard A. Kirk’s “The Lost Machine”, which I actually can’t wait to read the end of. This is an exciting development for me, as I thought I’d entirely lost my patience for novels–apparently all I needed was to break one up into pieces. It helps that Kirk’s story is really strange, full of images that grab the reader and refuse to explain the dark forces toiling behind them. The world that slowly knits together in this story is wild, with a flavor of post-apocalypse, gloomy, and quietly dangerous, and I’ll be sitting at the edge of my seat for the next installment to come out.


What I’m Reading from the Vegas Valley Book Festival

To be fair, Levi and I went to the Vegas Valley Book Festival yesterday knowing I was going to spend too much money. And I did–I got a pile of books, many of which were super cheap (the Scholastic tent had everything on sale half off!) and some of which were a little pricey. (Imagine my heartbreak when I buy $10 novels from emerging writers at a table, only to find out their books are priced on Amazon at $8. Shame on you, emerging authors. You’re supposed to be expanding your audience, not fleecing them.) Anyway, when we got back home, we sat around and read a good chunk out everything we’d bought and had a great time doing it. Here are a few of my favorite buys from Las Vegas locals:

I found a few spectacular stories in a copy of Witness magazine, edited by Maile Chapman at UNLV. I never got the chance to work with Professor Chapman, but I read her book, and it is chock full of gorgeous neo-gothic imagery and spooky undertones. The copy of Witness I picked up was the “ghosts” issue, which of course was not as supernatural as I’d like, but I knew that going in. Still, these stories give me what I want when I read lit: rich imagery and atmosphere, intricate sentence structure, implications about what it means to be alive.

Also in terms of lit, I picked up a print copy of Helen: A Literary Magazine, and found it to be as full of great art and photography as it was full of fiction. I’d been excited about them for awhile, as from their pdf issues they appeared to be a local magazine with great visual design, high production values, and vivid prose and poetry. I emphasize this because (full disclosure) I got an acceptance from them a while ago that made me super tickled pink. It is a production I am really honored to be apart of, and being able to read a print copy as opposed to the pdf copies I already have makes the reading experience more palpable.

Finally, Levi and I also picked up a collection of short comics from local authors, published by Pop! Goes the Icon boutique publishing house. These comics were written and illustrated by people with boots on the ground here in Vegas, or at least on the ground on Fremont street, which is where all the cool kids hang out. (Admittedly, I’ve been thinking more and more about setting up the family in a place downtown–it’s just so rough-around-the-edges charming!–and that’s when I realize I am a filthy hipster just like the rest of them.) Anyway, the comics could be construed as similar to the environment that lent to their creation; rough-around-the-edges and charming.

Next year, I’m going to plan on spending a bit more time hanging out at the book festival, as I wasn’t able to actually attend any of the talks, which was irksome. But still, it was an awesome time, and I met a bunch of awesome people. And now I’ve got a heap of awesome stuff to read.

“Spooky” Things I’ve Learned About Myself Lately.

I’ve come across a grand and highly important realization about myself lately: I love cheap gothic horror sleepypants.

In fact, I would go so far as to say cheap gothic horror sleepypants are representative of a vital aspect of my personality.

My family and I were recently meandering through a Wal-Mart (don’t judge) and came across the seasonal halloween-themed cheap clothes section, in which was a pair of gothic-themed sleeping pants. (Or, pants one wears when sleepy.) This pair of pants was, surprisingly enough, beautifully designed–not in the construction of the pants themselves but the images printed on the pants. Wal-Mart has done this for a few years now: somehow put really nice-looking horror themed art on crap clothes. (Somewhere, somehow, there’s probably an intern with really good eye tasked to select prints.)

This particular pair of sleepypants had black and white line drawings of spooky things, from skulls to crows and creepy Frankenstein-esque medical equipment, in that scratchy high-brow style one might find in a Victorian journal (or a modern knock-off). Very 19th century Dracula.(I’d put a picture up, but it’s a lazy Sunday here at home and I’m writing this in the interest of being lazy; getting up to take a photo would be too much work.) Interspersed between those images in scrawling red cursive are words–“Spooky,” “Horror,” “Bones,” that kind of thing. It’s actually kind of like Dada, or the sort of beat poetry that doesn’t have to build a narrative and instead just spams one’s brain with associations. Spooky. Bones. Whoooo.

When I spotted these in the store, they immediately reminded me of the gothic horror sleepypants that I’d become deeply emotionally connected to back before I met my husband. Those “spooky” “horror!” pants had fallen apart around the time I’d gained a heap of quit-smoking weight after getting pregnant. Those sleepypants too had been cheap, but I loved them well enough that they lasted a good six years. They, too, had silly gothic images interspersed with random associative words–“horror,” “darkness,” “watch out!” Cheesy–it was always cheesy–but strangely comforting.

And this is where I realized that I large part of my love for horror is not so much the emotion it evokes. When I get scared, I am super awkward and somewhat uncomfortable. This leads to a bad time in haunted houses–I squeal like a little girl, which just makes the actors chase me around more, which in turn makes me squeal louder, which draws more actors, rinse repeat… And the modern draw towards torture porn and body horror with no heart to it (pun intended) are things that do not thrill me. (I am a kind, reasonable person, after all. Who likes to see people get hurt?) But the imagery of horror, the gothicism and dust, bat wings and poison goblets, practically everything in those Spirit of Halloween stores–it’s all so pretty!

Overall, I’ve got a longer post in me about how my love of gothic horror imagery is actually about my interest in entropy and confronting the realities of my inevitable death, despite the subconscious narrative in my Western Capitalistic society that states I can live forever if I just buy the right products–but all that’s too academic for a person standing in Wal-Mart, getting ready to buy $10 pajama pants. Ultimately, I did buy them, because I was overwhelmed by how much I liked them, despite of (and perhaps because of) their cheesiness.

So, I’m here to confess to all the world: I bought gothic sleepypants. I like gothic sleepypants. I perhaps am gothic sleepypants.

And now, I have an overwhelming urge to go listen to Vincent Price reciting The Raven. Yay, Halloween season!

A Short Meditation on Gratefulness.

My life, I’ve been thinking lately, is pretty cool.

I hesitate to say that I’m #blessed. In general, it gets on my nerves when people say that they’re blessed in order to express how awesome their life is (or how happy they are that they spent 6 bucks on a caffeinated sugar-drink). The term “blessed” naturally designates a karma-like quality, as if the individual with the awesome life somehow did something to deserve that awesomeness. I think the prevailing Western concept that people get what they deserve is, in part, an old Calvinist hold-over1, back from the days when one had grace or didn’t have grace purely depending on some distant god’s arbitrary will. (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” left an impression on me.) I mean, deservedness of course also has roots in other places–Genesis, the Code of Hammurabi, the general belief in justice inherent in a society based on laws–but still. It’s crappy to say god loves you because you had the cash to buy a latte.

I also hesitate to say that I’m lucky. That, too, gets on my nerves when people say it. The term has too much of a random quality to it (at least in the Western sense. I think the Eastern concept of luck may be more karma-like, closer to the Western perception of deservedness). To reduce the sum of the cosmos to just an assortment of random stuff is the height of arrogance. Observable phenomena can only go so far for us, and to say that the good things my life happen purely because of luck undermines so much of the universe that we can’t see. Not to mention, it completely discounts any contribution of the individual. I think it’s important to respect the great mysteries of life, the inter-connectedness of things, and the small decisions I may have made or someone else might have made that helped my life be awesome. So I can’t say simply I’m lucky.

What I will say is that I am grateful. I’ve heard the term “gratefulness” described as not just a sense of thankfulness, but a sense of joy tinged with awe. When I look at my life I am immensely thankful, a bit joyful–and kind of amazed things have gone so well so far. I’ve gotten the chance to finish my education, even while juggling a smart, healthy and pretty good-looking kid. My husband backs me up and gets my jokes (not to mention, he’s pretty sezzy). We’ve got enough money to put a few worries away (as long as we stay in our crappy 850 square foot apartment that’s in the neighborhood we love). I’ve even got health insurance! (Say what you will about Obamacare, but $150 a month to not suffer utter financial ruin if you’re in a car wreck is not too shabby.) Plus, I got work. Despite all my moaning about finishing school, my jobs currently pay me a little more than what I was making before I went back to school, and with fancier titles. I am totes successful. I have a gorgeous family, and I’ve gained positions of labor with some modicum of prestige (however arbitrary)! …It amazing me when I think I might be one of those women who have it all.

Of course, there are things I lack. I miss my friends and family, and it’s been tough finding time to hang with new friends in Vegas. I’m a helicopter mom; babysitters frighten me, particularly when I’m interviewing them and they can’t articulate what steps they may take during an emergency. (Like, just tell me you’ll call 911; don’t just stare at me like a stunned fish.) For this reason, Levi and I don’t get much time off from parenting. Remi only gets token exposure to his grandparents, even though my Mom flies out once or twice a year and sends bunches of books. And, economically, I’d have to go grad school for something excruciatingly practical, computer science or marketing, if I wanted any hope of a full time job that paid me more than $25,000 a year. Grad school would suck lemons. And Levi gives me papers to proofread in Chicago style, which is a bit like rubbing my eyes over filthy concrete (despite his elegant and precise writing style.It’s those damned footnotes that get to me 3.) So, y’know, I got my problems.

But I’m also keenly aware of how small my problems are. When I sit back and take stock, I find that my kid is healthy and happy, my husband is healthy and awesome (even if a bit stressed out and subjected to Chicago), our 15-year-old car runs great, our neighbors are nice, and I have friends and family to miss. I even got to write a little fiction this weekend! Anytime that happens, its a win. At the end of the day, my good things outweigh the bad, and for that I am super grateful.
1 – There’s some intricacies to my thoughts on this Calvinist business that methinks I didn’t communicate very well here. I might write a post about it more in depth later, but trust when I say I don’t actually have Calvinism bass-ackwards as this sentence may suggest.

2 – His sentences are too long, though.

3 – I’m being hilarious here. Can you tell I’m being hilarious here? Cuz I totally am.

Stories for Remington: The Ghost with No Place to Sit

So, my darling three-year-old tried to convince me to let him sleep on the couch last night. I insisted he could not, not only because his father and I wanted to occupy the couch in a few blessed child-free hours before passing out, but also because…the ghost would have no place to sit. This occurred to me last minute and, even though we have no ghost, Remi seemed to accept this. However, he would not go to sleep without an extra story (beyond what I’d already read him, a book about pirates), so I made up this story. Remi liked it enough to giggle all the way through it, so I thought it might be good enough to share here.

The Ghost with No Place to Sit

Once, there was a Ghost, and all he wanted was a place to sit.

He went to the graveyard, but all the other ghosts had taken all the benches. The Ghost asked, “Is there a place for me to sit?” and the other ghosts said, “No! Go away!”

So, the Ghost went to the church, but there all the other ghosts had taken up all the room in the pews. The Ghost asked, “Is there a place for me to sit?” and the other ghosts said, “No! Go away!”

Then, the Ghost went to the school, and there are the little kid ghosts had taken up all the chairs. he Ghost asked, “Is there a place for me to sit?” and the other little kid ghosts said, [high pitched voice] “No! Go away!”

Finally, the Ghost came to a house, and there he found a little boy sleeping on the couch. And the Ghost lightly tapped the little boy on the shoulder and asked, “Is there a place for me to sit?” and the little boy said, “Sure! You can sit here!” And the little boy got up from the couch and went to sleep in his bedroom.

“Thank you!” the Ghost said. And he sat down, feeling very happy.

Here’s to hoping everybody’s ghosts can find a nice place to sit tonight.

Things I’ve been reading this summer

So, not being buried in a pile of literary homework makes for a lot of time to read. While low in volume, I think my most recent list is high in quality, especially since I ditched that whole speed-reading thing and have begun spending more time with the words dancing across the page. So briefly, here’s a short smattering of the works I have slowly devoured since June.

First thing, I accidentally found a copy of Peter S. Beagle’s classic The Last Unicorn at a local thrift store. (Looking at the way I just wrote that, it occurs to me that The Last Unicorn at the Local Thrift Store would be an awesome title.) I’m not what one might call a swords-and-sorcery fan (not since I was fourteen, at least), but this book is pretty transcendent. I read it when I was younger and it was, frankly, life changing. One of those books that whisper secrets about how to live a full life without actually coming out and telling you how to live. It is utterly brilliant, and I’m so happy the universe dropped it in my lap. It was life changing again, I’m happy to report.

I also read a theory text I’d been wanting to go through for a long time: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands. This is a really profound book that builds a compelling argument for mental and cultural hybridity, inclusivity, and ambiguity–something that I personally think will be the surviving perspective in a constantly changing world. Plus, it’s magic realism, flavored like Castaneda (except, y’know, not a bald-faced lie like ol’ Carlos), and full of vivid, compelling imagery. I was going to read the book’s poetry component La Frontera, but after a few poems I realized I like Lorna Dee Cervantes better.

What else? I picked up my husband’s copy of Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things but George Lakoff, cuz I love me some cognitive science and linguistics. While the book is fascinating, it’s been slow going, largely because I’ve been distracted by an Elmore Leonard novel I picked up, the old classic Out of Sight. I adore Leonard’s narrative style, and I’m very sweet on hard-boiled crime stories (not so much police procedurals–there’s definitely a difference), so reading this has been a ton of fun.

Oh, and also in the fun department, I re-read editor Ellen Datlow’s Fearful Symmetries anthology, with all of its wonderfully rich and immersive dark short stories. This time, I noticed in the back was a listing of all the backers who helped fund the project–and my name was there! My name is in an Ellen Datlow anthology! …I’m more tickled by this than I really should be.

I think that’s it. Should I remember anything else, I’ll be sure to record it (for posterity, of course, for I’m sure everyone is at the edge of their seats in anticipation for what I could possibly be putting in my brain next. Har-har.) Although it occurs to me I could just update my Goodreads profile–that would probably be easier. Well, then–off to update Goodreads!

On Forgetting How to Speed Read

So I was trying to slog through William Gibson’s newest book this week, and I realized that college has nearly ruined my ability to read.

I kept flipping the pages quickly, one after another, in the manner in which I have become accustomed to in the last few years. With every page I got more and more frustrated. I couldn’t understand a thing. Not a thing! The narrative had bizarre commas and abundant fragments, exposition-free jargon and terse descriptions—certainly not the long-winded run-ons I was used to. I wanted to throw the book at the wall. I was vexed. Gibson used to be so good—what could have possibly happened?

After some moping over this, I tried doing something I have not done in years: I read every word on the page.

Apparently, the haphazard speed reading style I’d developed in college is not conducive to immersive reading. Imagine that! For the last two years, I’d perfected the art of the “close skim,” in which I would basically run my eyes over the page quickly, looking for clumps of words I could read at once or glancing at every other sentence. Mostly, I just snatched up enough information to grasp the overall thesis of the work. This works surprisingly well with those ridiculously big Norton anthologies, as the text is cram-packed on the page in 8.5 font, tiny single space. It is perfectly easy to read five words at once with 8.5 font. After so much reading, you get to recognize patterns of words more than the words themselves. And I have a 4.0 GPA for my last 60 hours of college, which would suggest my comprehension with this tactic wasn’t too shabby.

But my Gibson book (or rather, my husband’s book; he still buys hardbacks for some bizarre reason) is printed in standard 1.5 spaced lines with 12 point font. Freakin’ gigantic! After reading books with so many tiny words crammed together, this book’s formatting is like slogging through mud, full of jerks and stops. The words were so big, I couldn’t see clumps of several words at a time. One word filled my whole eyespace. And with Gibson’s particular style, one part technical manual and one part hardboiled dime novel, there were patterns of words that were unrecognizable. I read pages quickly without grasping a single thing. I wanted to cry. I wanted to strangle William Gibson.

So, I tried slowing down. I reminded myself that I did not have to get the whole thing read by tomorrow in time for class. I let my eyes rest for a fraction of a second on. Every. Word. One. After. Another.

It was excruciating at first. I felt like a sprinter with lead weights strapped to my ankles.

But, slowly, I realized the text was beginning to make sense. At least, make sense in that sci fi kind of way where you don’t know the denotation of every word but that’s okay because you can still see the scene unfold in the mind’s eye. I was getting those brain pictures again, something I was sorely lacking, because my form of “close skim” works for intellectual engagement with the text but doesn’t allow those immersive mind pictures to pop up. Reading slowly, I was there, in the scene. I was enjoying myself.

It was magical.

So I have been practicing this skill of actual reading, and it’s been a lot of fun. I did not finish the book in an afternoon, but I actually feel like I’m there. I’m immersed. And that feeling of immersion is what encouraged me to go into college to study literature in the first place—quite the commentary on modern academia that intense study in one’s particular field is commonly what spoils one’s joy in that field. I am not the first person to have made this observation, either.

But now, I am free. I almost forgot how to read, but with practice I should remember the skill again. Maybe I’ll even get good at it. It doesn’t matter that I have to slog through the words on the page—my paper on this book is due on “never,” and that is freakin’ awesome.