In the olden days—maybe no further back than the sixties and seventies—writers used to brag about never having to revise. “First drafts are final” was the saying. Which made sense only a little further back in time during the pulp era when you were trying to make a living writing for 50+ different pulp magazines at a penny a word. Spend too much time revising and you’d spend the rest starving. I imagine a lot of that attitude was a holdover from those halcyon days but, as a more recent wisdom has it “Writing is revising.” Also not completely true on the face of it. Without a first draft, there is no revising. It’s more accurate to say writing begins with the first draft, it just doesn’t end there. It’s called “first draft” for a reason. Continue reading
A Natural History of Hell: Stories by Jeffrey Ford, Small Beer Press, 2016
It’s more than a bit awkward at this point, wanting to get on with the review and wondering if I should first introduce the author, Jeffrey Ford, knowing all the while I shouldn’t have to do anything of the sort. Ford is, no exaggeration, one of the finest writers working in the field he’s chosen to be associated with. Or the field that chose him, since in our culture the kind of thing he tends to do has no real framework outside that of the fabulist. If he’d been born in South America he’d probably be considered a magical realist instead. No matter. It’s all pigeonholes and ways of talking about a thing, rather than the thing itself.
Did I just say all that? My apologies. But that’s what Ford’s work tends to do—send the reader off on tangents of thought and realms hitherto unexplored. After the story ends, of course. Until that moment, the story pretty much has you where it wants you.
There are thirteen stories in this collection, and all of recent vintage. Here you will find modern fairy tales, metafictions where a character named Jeff Ford is part of the story, biting commentaries on modern politics and insanity—lately almost one and the same thing–, observations on wealth and class, and none of the above. What you will really find, excusing the short-hand descriptive phrases attempting to categorize them, are stories. That’s what they are, first and foremost. The words attempting to categorize them above are cheerful failures. The stories are not. Nor are they cheerful.
Seriously. With a title like “A Natural History of Hell,” you were expecting sweetness and light? Oh, you’ll get that, too, but sparingly. There’s a dark, unflinching heart at the center of these stories. It looks in humanity’s mirror and describes what it sees, with neither fear nor pity to hinder it. There’s “The Thyme Fiend,” where only a cup of tea brewed from the herb of the title keeps the horrors at bay, until the time comes when they simply must be let in. Or “Blood Drive,” when an insane premise is logically followed to its insane conclusion and the world turns merrily on. One of my personal favorites, “The Angel Seems,” where common sense humanity shows that it has learned the proper way to treat a god.
Quibbles? Okay, fine. One or two of the endings did not quite come together for me. I only mention this at all because those cases were one of the few times I was forced out of the story into a consideration of plot, which normally you don’t even notice in a Ford story, even though it’s always there. Whatever strangeness is going on, you just go with it. If, for an instant, you can’t, it is noticeable. Fortunately, it is also very rare.
As much as I enjoyed this book, I do confess to being slightly put out by one story. We tend to get that way when we read a story someone else has written and sigh, “Damn. Why didn’t I think of that?” This happened in the centerpiece story, “A Terror,” where Emily Dickinson takes that famed carriage ride with Death. That line from HS English –“Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me” is all it takes to set it off. Not that my complaint matters. If I had written a story on this premise, it would not have been like this. Ford did it his own way, which now seems to me the only way, and he owns it.
He owns all of it. Thirteen stories only Jeffrey Ford could have written. Fortunately for us, he was around to do it. May he write many more.
Which is the title of my retelling of the Perseus and Medusa myth. It would have been the last story I published in Realms of Fantasy, only they folded before that happened. I decided to put it out there myself, since we don’t have a magazine that fills that niche any more. So try to imagine what it would have been like to read it there, with something like the illustration I chose for it. Good times.
Right at this moment I’m beginning to wonder if this blog post is going to get written today, or if it is, posted. Suffering from a wonky internet connection. We—okay, I—have gotten so dependent on this ephemeral flow of electrons that I now find it hard, creation-wise, to function without them.
Case in point, the illustration to the left. That is Skelos #1, a new magazine of dark and weird fiction from Skelos Press. I ordered a copy when I first heard about it, and I admit this was mostly from nostalgia. See, when I was first entering the field, there were no online magazines like Lightspeed or Beneath Ceaseless Skies. In fact, there was no “online.” There were personal computers of various sorts, and something called a BBS, which was basically a bunch of users clinging to one central computer via analog modem. Yes, I am THAT old. Regardless, magazines like Skelos were almost the only game in town if you wanted to write and sell(?) fantasy fiction. Pro level magazines did pop up from time to time. Most didn’t last long. Pro magazines like Weird Tales or Fantasy & Science Fiction were the exceptions, not the rule. There were a lot more pure SF magazines around, but they wouldn’t touch a fantasy story with a ten-foot cattle prod. So it was the amateur and semi-pro magazines that filled the gap. Most were shoestring affairs, everything from perfect bound presentation pieces to saddle-stitched fanzine level crap, published only as long as the creator’s energy and money held out. Names like Copper Toadstool, Fantasy Macabre, Whispers, Weirdbook, Space & Time. Some of those names you may know, since Weirdbook and Space & Time have resurfaced in new incarnations. I would have included Weird Tales in that, but it has apparently died yet again. Continue reading
Whenever a thought occurs before posting, said thought being along the lines of “Who can I annoy today?” it’s probably a bad time to be posting anything. Yet I’m going to do both now and again, so best to get on with it.
I’ve been thinking of the short story again as it relates to novels, since I’ve had more than enough reason to consider both lately. I know we’ve been over this before, yet I can’t say that my basic position has changed. Which is: If you want to write novels, write novels. If you want to write short stories, write short stories. If you want to do both, well, come sit next to me and we can compare notes. I’ve also noted some discussion here and there on the idea of the “natural” novelist as opposed to the “natural” short story writer, the theory being that your brain’s wiring tends to push you in one direction or the other. I think it’s true up to a point. I know we can all think of examples of the brilliant short fiction writer who can’t do novels, and some novelists that wouldn’t recognize a short story if it bit their ankles. Yet I wonder how much of this is based in biology and how much is training and craft.
There was a time when whatever notice I’d gotten as a writer was for short stories. Then the Yamada Monogatari series transformed into a novel series and I haven’t published an original short story in two years. That has to change, or at least balance out a bit. I love short stories. I love to write them and (when I get the chance) to read them. Yet I’ve also loved a novel or two in my time and one of the very earliest pieces of writing I ever did turned out to be a novel. And I don’t claim to be a “natural” anything. It took me a lot of time and work to reach professional level at short fiction. Novels were no different. Like writing anything, it’s a learning curve and we learn by doing.
Some people still think that they should write short stories first because they’re stepping stones to novels. Like many cliches, there’s a grain of truth in it. Short stories can be a way to get your name in front of the readers. Also, there’s nothing like getting paid for something you’ve written to make one think, perhaps, you’re on the right track. You might even get the attention of book editors. Heaven knows it has happened before. But it’s just as likely you’ll publish short stories that vanish, as we’ve oft noted, “like rose petals in the Grand Canyon.” You’ll have spent months, years, perhaps decades doing something other than what you really want to do and be no closer to achieving it.
Still can’t think of that as a good idea.