For anyone interested in horror writing, this is a list published about a decade ago by the Horror Writers Association of must-reads in order to familiarize oneself with the genre. I must admit I have only read about a third of this list. It’s subjective, of course. I would definitely add Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Peter Straub and others. Shirley Jackson definitely belongs here, particularly and most egregiously since the list features only one woman, albeit in the most important, lead-off position. Hope this is stimulating, at least.
The Writers Studio is the renowned creative writing program founded in 1987 in New York by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Schulz. With its branches in NYC, San Francisco, Tucson, Hudson Valley as well as its online and “Kids Write” components, Writers Studio has been helping poets and fiction writers reach their potential for 30 years.
Through my work with Writers Studio as a student and now as a teacher, I’ve become more confident at developing strong narrative voices that take command of my creative material. Using effective narrators that help guide the reader through a satisfactory literary experience has helped me publish multiple short pieces and make progress on a novel, a first draft of which I hope to complete later this year.
To celebrate its three decades of helping writers develop their craft, Writers Studio is releasing a 500-page 30th anniversary anthology, featuring nearly 100 hundred authors. The publisher is Epiphany Editions.
The Writers Studio at 30 features work by Writers Studio advisory board members Jennifer Egan, Robert Pinsky, Edward Hirsch, Grace Schulman, Matthew Klam, Carl Dennis, and Jill Bialosky, as well as 30 years of students and teachers from its creative writing classes.
I’m proud to be one of the authors featured, with a short fiction piece titled “Probably Last Meeting of the Bluebell Ridge II Homeowners Association.” It was previously published in The Airgonaut.
A celebratory reading will be held in New York on May 6 at the Strand Bookstore to mark the occasion. Wish I could be there, but traveling to NY is not in my budget right now.
The Writers Studio at 30 Anthology should be a great resource for anyone interested in enjoying a smorgasbord of strong narrative voices used in service to poems and stories containing wildly divergent subject matter.
Until May 6, you can pre-order the anthology at a discounted price of $20.
Robert McCammon’s 1991 novel Boy’s Life (not to be confused with Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life: A Memoir) is a richly imagined, episodic, and often sentimental 1991 tale with horror/fantasy shadings about a white 12-year-old boy growing up in a racially segregated town in the south during the 60s. It’s an odd, rich soup, in which incidents involving good-old-boy townsfolk doing KKK stuff sit alongside fantastic bits like a stegosaurus getting loose from a circus van and then charging out of the woods to attack cars on the highway, mistaking them for rival dinosaurs.
In between, there are loads of Bradburian reminiscences from the perspective of our boy narrator, Cory. They are magical memories of small town growing up, awash in a romantic nostalgic afterglow. Tales of bullies, baseball, camping trips and nascent encounters with the mysterious species known as girls, as well as portraits of oddball locals like the rich guy’s grown son who walks around town stark naked. (Everyone in town is used to it.) There are also vignettes involving faithful dogs and a seemingly-enchanted bicycle with a personality all its own.
Along the way, we’re treated to danger, death and a mystery involving a murder victim submerged in a car in a lake, an incident witnessed by Cory and his dad. In particular, it’s Cory’s dad who’s haunted by the horror of not being able to help the bound, sinking victim. The quest for a solution to this mystery (no spoilers here), and the peace of mind it would bring to Cory’s dad, becomes the main unifying narrative thread, but dozens of others are woven in between.
Perhaps best to think of the book as a phantasmagorical tapestry with dollops of sociological/historical observations of the period. From a narrative perspective, the author unapologetically violates the perspective of his first-person narrator (Cory), cutting away to incidents that Cory did not witness. Whether this is a faux pas or an act of supreme authorial confidence is something the reader must decide.
I enjoyed the Boy’s Life a lot, although the episodic structure made forward narrative momentum sag in places, and its extremely fond and nostalgic perspective on growing up is a bit sweet for my taste. But the author cannot be faulted for lack of imagination or invention. This is a richly baked cake of the warm, wondrous, adventure-packed boyhood we all deserved but didn’t get.
Join Writers Studio Tucson for a special event on Sept. 9. For details, visit:
Eleanor Kedney’s poems constantly surprise the reader with flashes of sheer intelligence and attention to language. While her spirited work no doubt engages the intellect, these are also poems of the body and the voice; this book never disappoints. The sensuality of The Offering is unavoidable and ultimately joyous. There is a music here that sings and rings and lingers in the mind.
—Juliet Patterson, winner of the Nightboat Books Prize
“Anything great and bold must be brought about in secrecy and silence, or it perishes and falls away, and the fire that was awakened dies.”
That’s a wonderful quote from the New York Times Book Review article I’m linking to below, which makes some trenchant points about the wisdom of thinking less about meeting the needs of a perceived marketplace … and thinking instead about doing something that nobody else is doing.
I’ve been thinking about that, because in the literary fiction book group I belong to, our next discussion book is the extraordinarily successful space survival adventure, “The Martian,” by Andrew Weir.
Since the focus in our group is largely on literary writing, this book is a slight departure for us … and one of the questions asked in advance is: “How does one go about writing a best-seller?”
I kind of think that’s the wrong question.
I don’t know what Andrew Weir set out to do. I’m going to guess he wasn’t primarily taking a strategic approach to the marketplace, even though his miraculous success might make you think so. I think instead he allowed himself to write about subjects he loves … technology, survival, space and problem-solving. He found a story with which to play with those ideas, and then he let himself have fun writing it.
Ray Bradbury said: “Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”
Check out the essay below, which is good food for thought about freeing oneself from all the marketing considerations, and instead writing what you love, and letting your enthusiasm for the subject matter infuse your work. Hopefully, your reader will be infected by your enthusiasm and willingly come along for the ride.
Is it really possible to be free as a writer? Free from an immediate need for money, free from the need to be praised, free from the concern of how those close to you will respond to what you write, free from the political implications, free from your publisher’s eagerness for a book that looks like the last, or worse still, like whatever the latest fashion might be?
Feeling annoyed ….
Today Turner Classic Movies is showing films based on books by great southern writers. Author John Grisham was roped in to help TCM host Robert Osborne do intros and outros for the films, presumably because Grisham is considered a modern southern writer.
I just watched Grisham’s comments about one of my favorite oddball movies from the 70s, “Wiseblood” directed by the great John Houston, and based on the novel (mistakenly referred to by Grisham as a short story) by the great Flannery O’Connor.
After the movie finished, Osborne asked Grisham why he was grumbling … yes grumbling … during the screening, and Grisham went on to complain about the film having too much religion (a little like blaming Moby Dick for having too much whale) and then talked in a dismissive way about the proclivity of old time southern writers to deal too much with religion. He had nothing to say about O’Connor herself, whose short stories command respect for her peerless mastery of the form.
“Wiseblood” is admittedly a difficult and troubling movie, based on a difficult and troubling book. But both book and movie shine with brilliance and are deserving of greater respect from Grisham, and TCM.
Grisham, I understand, is a religious man. Wikipedia cites him referring to his conversion to Christianity as “the most important event” in his life.
Flannery O’Connor was very devout as well. She was also not afraid to write about religion. In fact, the subject permeates her work. She was a Catholic, although her writing is predominantly about the lives and fates of southern Protestants. I’m not sure if O’Connor focused on religion so extensively because it was of tremendous personal importance to her … or because she recognized religion’s shaping influence across the southern states and thought that was something worth writing about. Perhaps both. In any case, why is Grisham, a self-proclaimed religious fellow, not in greater sympathy with O’Connor’s writing?
The fact is, O’Connor’s religious south is far from a comforting place. It’s not full of genteel homilies out of Sunday school. It’s a fairly savage landscape, populated by often grotesque characters who are severely challenged with regard to such cardinal virtues as compassion and concern for others. They are often ignorant and self-satisfied. Racism is taken as a given.
So is violence. This is from her classic story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”:
“She would have been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
In O’Connor’s world, life is short and stupid, but salvation, oddly enough, is around any corner. It comes at her characters like freight trains crashing through front parlor walls, taking them off guard, crushing them out of earthly existence, but bestowing that most valuable gift of enlightenment and grace, just when it is least expected.
O’Connor does not make religion, or the south, seem cozy or safe. Perhaps that’s what John Grisham doesn’t cotton to.
Said O’Connor about “Wiseblood”:
“It is a comic novel about a Christian malgre lui (in spite of himself), and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”
Not only did Grisham pass over O’Conner’s huge significance in 20th century literature, he also showed scant interest in the film’s director, John Houston, a monumental filmmaker who adapted Joyce and Melville and O’Connor and other literary heavyweights, with varying success. It seems unlikely Houston would have been interested in dramatizing one of Grisham’s potboilers.
But then, John Grisham has had 8 or 9 films made from his work, and Flannery O’Connor only one. I guess he gets the last laugh.
I’m just not sure TCM should have recruited him as an expert on great southern writers. Let’s just say, if you ask me what is next in this sequence … William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, _________ … my answer wouldn’t be: John Grisham.
Very excited … I recently submitted a story to the Writer Studio Tucson’s first “Write to Read” Contest. My entry,”Most of Us Are From Someplace Else,” was chosen as one of the winners. That means I get to read my story in its entirety at a public event tomorrow night here in Tucson.
I’m grateful to the teachers at Writers Studio Tucson for helping me grow as a writer and for spearheading this contest and hosting the reading. Also, thanks to local author Adrienne Celt for creating the writing prompt for the contest, which reflected structural elements in her fine novel, “The Daughters,” available on Amazon.
Looking forward to seeing many fellow writers and other friends at the reading tomorrow.
You can read the contest announcement below:
FROM WRITER STUDIOS TUCSON:
The Writers Studio Tucson teachers are excited to announce our first ever Write-to-Read contest, featuring guest judge Adrienne Celt, whose debut novel The Daughters was published in 2015.
Join us for a reading of the three winning stories! Lisa Harris reading “Spilled Milk”; Phil Ivory “Most of Us Are From Someplace Else”; and Jenny Hedger reading “Threads.”
“It came from the woods. Most strange things do.”
— from “Through the Woods” by Emily Carroll
As someone who likes moody gothic horror, I was drawn to Emily Carroll’s graphic novel “Through the Woods,” which offers five beautifully, gloomily illustrated tales.
These deliciously doom-laden confections are united by a preoccupation with the shadowy, often predatory and unwholesome things that come out of … and sometimes venture into … that most primordial and archetypal of locales: the woods. The pictorial style is pastoral, vaguely 19th century, sometimes rich with color; sometimes a subdued monochrome scene is enlivened by jarring swathes of red, as if an artery had opened out of the black ink of the page.
As a side note, I’m not a voracious reader of graphic novels. I dip into them occasionally. I’ve read a few significant ones such as Art Spiegelman’s unforgettable memoir of Holocaust survival, “Maus,” but I’m far from an expert.
I know that reviewing a graphic novel means you can’t approach it purely on a literary basis. You have to look at it as a package, a literary and visual experience in which the words and pictures go hand in hand, often with the pictorial component staking the greatest claim for our admiration and attention.
This might sound obvious, but I put it in writing as a reminder to myself: Don’t just talk about the words. Talk about the pictures! (In college, I got an A minus on a paper written for a music appreciation class about Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” The “A” part was because the teacher said my paper was well written. The minus was because I stayed in my comfort zone and wrote almost exclusively about the narrative elements. The teacher, whose grading was perhaps generous considering it was indeed a music course, commented: “You hardly said anything about the music.”)
“It was a tall man in a wide-brimmed hat, with a smile that showed all his teeth.
Back to “Through the Woods.” It begins with a tale, “Our Neighbor’s House,” about three sisters left to fend for themselves in an isolated house when their father goes off hunting. An ominous visitor, a tall man in a wide-brimmed hat “with a smile that showed all his teeth,” comes calling in the night, seeking out each of the sisters in turn.
A riff on the “Beauty and the Beast” motif follows in the form of “A Lady’s Hands are Cold.” (Carroll has a gift for titles that put a chill in the atmosphere from the start.) A young bride. A magnificent, lonely castle. A brooding mysterious groom, cold, handsome and remote. And a grisly secret hidden in the walls that suggests this young bride is not the first young beauty to grace this imposing home, and not the first to be wed to its master.
“She told her of the man-shaped thing that lurked in the cellar of her childhood home. How its bone-white face, with its piano key teeth and burnt-out eyes, would peer up from the bottom of the steps.”
“His Face All Red” is a story about brothers. One is shy, retiring, lacking in confidence. The other is handsome outgoing, blessed with a splendid cottage, a comely wife, and the respect and admiration of all in the village. Together, the two hunt the beast that is terrorizing the village. But what really happens? And why, afterward, is the popular brother glimpsed hanging out at the village pub … when he is supposed to be dead?
“My Friend Janna” is a young lady with, seemingly, a psychic gift … but her loyal companion Yvonne is the one who can really see spirits. Is the one she sees hovering over Janna a blessing … or a deadly curse?
In “The Nesting Place,” Bell, grieving for her mother, comes to live with her brother and his bride, a tall and elegant beauty named Rebecca. But Rebecca is not all she seems … or perhaps she is something more. Her secret has to do with things that squirm and crawl in a cave in the woods. Things that Bell overhears Rebecca talking lovingly to.
“There are wolves circling in the dark.”
The stories are united by themes of jealousy, distrust, familial loss and bitterness. All paths lead to and from the woods. There, wreathed in the fetid damps of the tree-choked forest, Carroll unveils the darkness of the human heart.
Carroll’s gift for character delineation is impressive. Sometimes they are dashing, full of life. More often, they are sulky, lumpy and non-prepossessing. Our attention is arrested by odd, disquieting details. Why does Bell walk with a brace? (Well, why shouldn’t she?) All of these characters are unique, living, breathing individuals. None will be deterred from the grim little journey destiny has mapped out for him/her.
Is this a novel, or a series of horror comics tied together with a thematic bow? The endings are not as twisty and pungent as the best of “The Twilight Zone,” certainly not assumption altering like “The Sixth Sense.” Rather than lean strongly on a sense of narrative resolution, they leave us feeling uncertain, haunted by questions and disquieting visuals that gnaw at the memory.
The images linger on. A grinning white face peering from a cellar’s dark recesses. Three sisters stretched out in a stuporous languor on a living room rug. A woman’s face transformed into … or is it revealed to be? … a sea of red spaghetti-like strands and teeth. Disembodied lupine eyes and fangs hovering in darkness outside the frame of a child’s window.
The woods, with its wicked secrets, awaits your pleasure.