Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dust Off Your Classics!

When my kids were still in school (so very long ago), I would mention to them from time to time to be sure to read books of their own choosing, and to judge books on their own merits using their own judgement. I also told them occasionally not to let other people (i.e., teachers) make decisions for them; the corollary to that, of course, is: "Don't be put off any book just because a teacher tells you that it is good or great, and definitely do not let the term classic be the kiss of death for an author whose greatest sin is trying to tell you a good story." I think that's really good advice for us all, and now Diamond Cronen, of the Dee's Reads book blog, and Bookish Trish, of the Between the Lines blog, have issued a challenge to all readers -- "Dust Off Your Classics!"

Dee's Reads
Between the Lines
So, why should you add a single classic to your to-be-read list, much less the six that the challenge calls for? That's not really as complicated as you might think, at least from my point of view. To me, you read a so-called "classic" for the same reason you would any other book -- to be a better person (literate people are not ignorant or uninteresting), and because we all love a good story. But exactly what six books are you going to choose to as your answer to the challenge...now, that is complicated, for one person's classic is another person's potboiler, which is exactly what some of the books now considered classics were called (or worse) when first published. I'm going to list my choices below, and perhaps you'd like to share your own preferences; by the way, if you are an insatiable reader and are not registered with Good Reads, what's wrong with you?

Yes, you can count, and so can I. The 2013 Dust Off Your Classics Reading Challenge from Dee and Trish call for six, and I've listed seven. Sorry, I don't like even numbers.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sherlock Holmes & The Coils of Time (Redux)

Back in 2005, Gryphon Books of Brooklyn, N.Y., published my book Sherlock Holmes in The Coils of Time, in which the Great Detective, just risen from his supposed death at the Reichenbach Fall three years previously, teams with H.G. Wells' Time Traveller to save Victorian London (and us modern folk) from an invasion by the cannibalistic Morlocks of the distant future. Since I've already written something about the joy and trial of collaborating with Wells and Conan Doyle. we need not rehash that here, nor the success the story had in Germany and Croatia. But I do want to tell you about how the Gryphon Books edition had a tragic intersection with Hurricane Sandy (AKA "Superstorm Sandy") in 2012.

Gary Lovisi, owner of Gryphon Books, and I have known each other for 30+ years, ever since he published my first modest Sherlock Holmes opus, Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Ancient Gods, in which an elderly Holmes meets fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft at the height of his creative powers and becomes involved with the highly destructive cosmic creatures of the so-called Cthulhu Mythos. We did not know it at the time, but what seemed a quite logical variation on the usual pastiche (logical to us anyway) had never been done before, but that was then, and we want to move toward to when Gary published the Sherlock Holmes/Time Traveller pastiche. As with all the books published by Gryphon Books, copies of The Coils of Time were stored in the basement of Gary's house, a place that had never been flooded in all the history of Brooklyn. All that changed, however, when Hurricane Sandy came to town. His basement became a surging maelstrom of water and mud an event Gary relates quite poignantly in the news section of his website.

While the Federal government is more than willing to dole out money lavishly to labor unions and political cronies, a small press institution does not fall into that category; and I suppose New Englanders trying to get money from their insurance companies and the tight-fisted FEMA would have some stories to tell as well. Of course, no amount of money can make a disaster, even a minor one, "like it never happened," despite the trite and patronizing slogan of a well-known insurance company. And that's especially true when it comes to decades of publishing and collecting. So, with just about everything lost (including my books) Gryphon Books is looking forward, but not back...i.e., I'm out of print.

Had it not been for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which I wrote about late last year, I probably would have just sighed about the loss of The Coils of Time and the other books, and figured, "Well, that's that." However, in November 2012, as part of NaNoWriMo, I wrote Paws & Claws: A Three Dog Mystery, a trio of real Scoobies, and by completing that month of "literary abandon" I came into contact with Create Space, a POD business run by Amazon, through which I published my thoroughly uncommercial (and apparently very popular) tale of detective doggies. So, I decided to take a second plunge into the waters and bring The Coils of Time back from the dead.

However, I wanted to more than just re-print that old 2005 story. Needless to say, I planned on correcting any flubs that made it into the old book and of course revising the text to make it flow better and be more logical, but I wanted to do more. I wanted it to be a whole new reading experience, which meant writing new stories to go with the old one, so I did what I often do when I have ideas but no plots...I jotted down titles, and after I oodles of them, I whittled them down to a half-dozen and commenced to write.
  • "The Long-Suffering Landlady" -- Having Sherlock Holmes as a lodger could not have been an easy matter, especially back in the Victorian and Edwardian Eras when a landlady was actually more like a servant who collected rent. In about a thousand words, I referenced more than twenty Holmes stories and also fitted in nods to HPL and Professor Challenger.
  • "An Incident in the Night" -- Originally, this was supposed to be "Doctor Watson's Afghanistan Adventure," but when a title comes to you too quickly and sounds too good (just as in the naming of a character), check it out. A similar title was already in use, and though my story would have been nothing like that which was already published, I decided to take a different tack, setting my story on the HMS Orontes, during Watson's long voyage back to London in 1880.
  • "Lestrade and the Lost River Pirates" -- the odd thing about this little tale of Inspector Lestrade's attempt to solve a series of seemingly impossible crimes is that as soon as I had the title I had the plot, probably because I have long been interested in London's "lost rivers." But there are always surprises, even with tales that spring forth like Athena from the brow of Zeus, and that came in the form of the highly eccentric and possibly dotty character Miss Eliza Cookwell of Lower Westbourne Court, London, and her basement filled with the effluvia of empires.
  • "The Man Who Was Not Sherlock Holmes" -- In this story, I descended into comedy. While some of the other stories are decidedly light-hearted, I wanted this tale of actor Reginald Sterling, who just got the sack after playing the lead in the 1950s BBC series Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street for three years, to bring at least a smile to readers' lips, and perhaps even a chuckle or two.
  • "The Adventure of the Counterfeit Martian" -- This take on Sherlock Holmes during the War of the Worlds invasion (Manly Wade Wellman previously [1975] wrote on the same theme) went very well as far as plotting, but neither Holmes nor the Martians helped at all when it came to keeping the tale true to my original title, "The Adventure of the Martian Eye." So I did what authors always do when faced with mutinying characters...I surrendered. And, so, instead of encountering cosmic vistas of horror, Holmes learns to walk like a Martian.
  • "The Dog Who Loved Sherlock Holmes" -- Levi, the Dachshund-mix detective from Paws & Claws, helped me out with this one. Given his fondness for the Great Detective, it did not take much effort to convince him to channel his inner Sherlock Holmes in this poignant tale of love, courage and detection.
  • "Sherlock, HPL, Gary & Me" -- Not a story, this one, but an essay about the Sherlock Holmes pastiches I wrote for Gryphon Books. Nowadays, people who were in the small press movement of the 1970's - 1990's are being asked for their memories; now that most of all that has gone away, scholars are beginning to set down histories, and the publications that have survived, all those magazines of limited circulation and duration, only tell a fraction of the story, and many of the people from then are no longer with us. I wanted to chronicle what we did in our little corner of the publishing universe.
So, in March 2013, Sherlock Holmes: The Coils of Time & Other Stories was published under the Dog in the Night Books imprint. And since it is inscribed in servers and hard drives, not just recorded on paper, it will not be susceptible to the vagaries of an angry planet, and will remain in print until the lights go out in the world for the last time.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Anthology Hounds

Novels sell very well, and most commercial fiction (i.e., it pays the bills) is in the novel format. Collections of short stories by established writers do not sell as well, but they are bought by fans. Anthologies generally do not sell very well at all, and when they appear they are usually targeted to a specific sliver of the reading public -- Sherlock Holmes fans, Lovecraft fans, ghost story fans, locked-room murder mystery fans, and the like; anthologies not ensconced in a specific genre are aimed at academic and library audiences. Despite the relative poor sales figures for anthologies, they are still edited and published for an ever-dwindling audience that yet appreciates the short story, endangered species of the literary world. I always wondered what to call those of us who still like diving into anthologies, and finally got an answer a few weeks ago when reading Bennett Cerf's introduction to his 1945 Modern American Short Stories anthology:
The cheering knowledge that this book is intended solely to provide amusement for the reader, and that there is no thought whatever of providing a textbook or pretentious "survey of the short story in America," permitted the editor to range as far afield as he liked in his choice of contents. This will explain at one time the inclusion of certain stories that are decidedly unorthodox and the omission of a few trusty warhorses reprinted so often that inveterate anthology hounds can recite them in their sleep.
Anthology Hounds? I think that's a pretty apt description of our literary mentality. If you know anything about the dog world (if you don't like dogs, you might as well tell me you don't like books either so I can shun you with a clear conscience), you know the hound holds a special place among breeds in that they "track or chase the quarry sought," and they do not give up until they find what they are looking for, whether it's a duck, a raccoon or an escaped convict trying to lose a posse in the bayou. On the other hand, Coonhounds and Bloodhounds may not be quite as tenacious as Anthology Hounds.

I find myself reading anthologies quite often, but I rarely list them among the books I read and review for GoodReads.com. Except for certain anthologies (Steampunk and The Great Detective: His Further Adventures were the last two), I rarely read them all the way through. I'm in for three or four stories, then on to something else, but I always know I'll be back, over and over. But even finishing an anthology means little, for a good Anthology Hound will always return.

It would be a fool's task to make any kind of a "best anthology" list. A hundred people assembling a list of the top ten anthologies would quickly discover they had a hundred different top-ten lists, no prospect of compromise, and fights to the death would quickly break out. However, I want share some anthologies that I've truly enjoyed; maybe you could do the same.

I recall quite distinctly buying Healy & MacComas' Adventures in Time and Space in 1962 at the National City Swap Meet. It was one of several dozen used books on a rickety wire spinner (do you recall those?) and I got it for a dime. It was a hot clear blue day but as I sat at one of the tables where food was sold and started reading, the sky darkened and became full of stars, a rocket ship dropped out of space, and its descent was watched keenly by the last surviving member of a race that had hunted all other life on the planet to extinction. It's an amazing collection of stories, which I have now in hardcover and which I still delve into from time to time. First published in 1946, it collected the best of the science fiction published up to that time, stories which still remain as relevant now as they were back then. All of the stories made something of an impact on me back then (and most still have that power) but several stand out. There is "Black Destroyer" by A.E. van Vogt, the story referred to above, "The Sands of Time" by P. Schuyler Miller in which time comes around and we end up chasing ourselves, "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov in which a planet that has never known night experiences starlight for the first time, Harry Bates' "Farewell to the Master" which was filmed as the less effective The Day the Earth Stood Still, van Vogt's amazing "The Weapon Shop," and Lewis Padgett's menacingly humorous "The Twonky." Despite the passage of time and innumerable anthologies published since then, it remains a colossal achievement. I might even go as far as to say it's the best SF anthology ever...but I don't want people to throw things at me.

Both these great Treasury of... anthologies (each a 2-volume set) came to me through book clubs, the Science Fiction Book Club and the Mystery Book Club.  Back in those days, to get the introductory offer you listed your choices, taped your dime to the response card, mailed it, and got your swag in a couple weeks. The clubs still work much the same way as they did, but, as you might guess, the dime is history. Although the genres are different the anthologies were produced at about the same time, cover the same period of American & British writing, and have similar formats -- a mix of short stories and novel-length tales, an advantage of being spread over two volumes. That there is some genre crossover between the two anthologies is hardly surprising as mystery and science fiction have always been kissing cousins.

For years and years, I bought each volume of the annual F&SF best-of anthology, even though I was a long-time subscriber and had all the stories already. While I did not always agree with the editor (who does?) the stories were always of the highest quality. F&SF was hardly the only magazine to issue annual best-of collections, for in those days the newsstand was packed with digest-sized (sometimes larger) fiction magazines, and many could be counted on for collections, if not annually, then at least once before they went to magazine heaven. Some that stick with me are Galaxy's and Analog's several books, the If Science Fiction Reader, the annual collections from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (not to be confused with the anthologies edited by Alfred Hitchcock himself), the Amazing Stories anthology, and Fantastic Magazine's. All the magazines (even those not producing anthologies) were fertile breeding grounds for stories to be later found in one or more of the many best-of-the-genre collections issued every year, and some of my favorite series were The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Star Science Fiction Series, The Annual World's Best SF and Year's Best SF.  The mystery genre also had its best-of collections, such as the annual Edgar anthologies issued by the MWA, which were always unusual because they rarely restricted themselves to a single year. Genre magazines are now, unfortunately, almost gone and no longer play a major role in filling the two remaining best-of mystery and science fiction anthologies. If you look through the copyright pages (I always do) of Otto Penzler's Best American Mystery Short Stories or Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction, you will note that the inclusions come from just about everywhere except genre magazines.

As the magazines began to die off, we saw a rise in anthologies containing fiction written specifically for the particular series (for example Universe), usually at the invitation of the editor. While there were several original-fiction anthologies in the 60s and 70s (and almost all genre anthologies are now comprised of nothing but original fiction), the one that has to stand out in everyone's mind, not just because of the quality of the stories but also the  attendant controversies, is Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions (1967)

As many people have said over the years, "The table of contents reads like a Who's Who of science fiction in the 1960s," and it's a statement no one can reasonably deny. None of the 33 stories in the book had ever appeared in a magazine, but many of them never could have been published in a magazine of the time. It may have been Endless Summer and Free Love in society, but magazines of the time still clung to boys clubs and twin beds -- if you read science fiction magazines, you could become reasonably proficient in time travel, faster-than-light spaceships, alien psychology and particle physics, but the birds and the bees would have just been terrestrial animals. Though time has dimmed the impact of some of these tales, I still remember quite fondly Fritz Leiber's "Gonna Roll the Bones" and Ellison's "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World." Ellison published  the sequel Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972, containing even more stories that could never have been published anywhere else...though of course they were published elsewhere because the anthologies had broken down the barriers. Ellison planned for the ultimate shout at the world in The Last Dangerous Visions, but it is likely destined to become the most famous anthology never published.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, everybody has a favorite anthology, a different list of best-of anthologies and justifications for the choices, sometimes having to do with the quality of the stories, the literary importance of the anthology, or the prestige of the writers included. But sometimes the reasons are personal and even peculiar. For example, I like Invaders of Earth, one of Groff Conklin's numerous anthologies, not just because the stories are great and I like alien-invasion tales, but because it saved me from drowning in a pond in the heartland of America. I'm sure you have similar stories.