Friday, December 30, 2022

October Hauntings: Ghost Tales in my Book Collection originally posted Oct 1-31 2022: The Second Five

 The following brief responses to some of the ghost fiction in my book collection were posted on Facebook between Oct 1 and 31, 2022. I didn’t post every day though I tried to post as many days as possible. The original Facebook posts contained photos of the books.

Second Five

Kingsley Amis, The Green Man (1969)

This book has a better reputation than it deserves, I think, and the same might be said of its author Kingsley Amis and even his son, novelist Martin Amis. Still, the horror and haunting elements of The Green Man are very effective and suggestively extreme. I wish I could say the same about the dated sex romp satire portions regarding a group of bored families of the suburban British middle class.Those sections take up more than half of the book and are tedious to get through and I found myself skipping chunks of them. Bonus points for the very funny characterization of a parson who tells his congregation at an afternoon drinking party that they need to get beyond the mythological elements of Christianity, but demerits because the novel seems to suggest that he’s wrong. This book is an interesting lesson in the potential dangers of trying to write slipstream fiction: The supposedly trashy horror elements are much better (and classier!) than the actually trashy and supposedly more important human relationship elements that have led this book to be considered a significant work of literary fiction.

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Collected Ghost Stories (1974)

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) was an American writer of primarily realist fiction set in New England. She is most known for her feminist perspective in creating strong, often independent women who stood out at the time from more standard late 19th century portrayals of women in American fiction. Her stories have a firm grounding in culture and place. Her precision and insight in connecting character and environment carries over to these quite well done, understated ghost and horror stories. In fact she didn’t draw a hard line between ghost and horror stories and her other writing; although she did publish one book of ghost stories during her lifetime, others of her ghost stories were published in other books alongside her realist stories. Collected Ghost Stories is a posthumous publication from 1974.

Peter Straub, If You Could See Me Now (1977)

Peter Straub claimed that this was one of his favorite books, and I understand why. It might be my favorite of his too. His horror scenarios are often mixed with mystery, action, and adventure, and sometimes take place on an epic scale, but If You Could See Me Now always feels intimate (not to mention occasionally cosmic), an intimacy no one could possibly want. Also, in most of his books, Straub usually goes for subtle, often effectively understated horror. While the story here still works through understatement, it’s probably his most viscerally frightening book, with a number of really scary moments. One scene in it is, for me, one of a handful of the most memorably frightening moments in all of horror literature. Yes, like other early books of his, this is a ghost book. And this ghost is not messing around.

Jean Ray, Malpertuis (1943)

What do you get if you cross gothic narrative, surrealist dream lunacy, plenty of ghosts, and high energy pulp-style trashy writing from the first half of the 20th century that just keeps coming and coming? Jean Ray’s Malpertuis, of course, and there’s nothing like it except for other writing by Jean Ray. 

Susan Hill, The Woman in Black (1983)

The 2012 film version of The Woman In Black is at least energetic and entertaining. However, the 1989 British ITV version is terrifying, one of the best film adaptations of a classic ghost story ever. The ITV version was hard to come by for some years, but it now seems to be available again.

Really, though, the 1983 book (published in 1986 in the U.S.) is the place to start. It was written as a consciously retro version of a 19th century British ghost story, and it outdoes almost all its predecessors. Mood, shadows, tension, menace, chills, and many truly terrifying moments. For anyone interested in the history of the ghost story, The Woman In Black is essential reading, by far the best 19th century ghost story written in the 20th or 21st centuries that I’ve come across (and yes, many others have tried). The version of the book I have has some fun illustrations too.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

October Hauntings: Ghost Tales in my Book Collection originally posted Oct 1-31 2022: The First Five

 The following brief responses to some of the ghost fiction in my book collection were posted on Facebook between Oct 1 and 31, 2022. I didn’t post every day though I tried to post as many days as possible. The original Facebook posts contained photos of the books.

First Five

The Lost Stradivarius (1895), J. Meade Falkner

One of the great ghost novels of the 19th century and in fact of any century. One of the best stories about a sustained haunting that I can think of. The novel is also as much a classic gothic as it is a ghost story and succeeds at being both. The moral smugness of the British characters, probably shared by the author, might turn off some contemporary readers, but seemed to me to contribute to the power of the haunting and of the incomprehension of conventional morality in the face of it.

There aren't many ghost stories I like better.

The Collected Ghost Stories of Mrs. J.H. Riddell (Dover 1977)

These are tightly crafted, subtle ghost stories. A bit on the gentle side compared to the genre as a whole, calm and with a clear (overly clear for later standards) sense of right and wrong. Pleasant and comforting (mostly) and eerie fireside ghost reads. E.F. Bleiler, who probably read and wrote about more ghost stories than any other scholar, says of her that “apart from J.S. LeFanu, no other writer of the Victorian period could handle better the emergence of the supernormal.” I can’t think of any reason to disagree.

Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain (1776)

This book is often called the first collection of ghost and supernatural stories ever published. More or less all ghost stories are based in folk tales, part of what in western culture have often been the low or populist traditions of writing as opposed to the traditions of high literature. I’m not informed enough to know whether the placing of folk literature in the category of the low rather than the high also exists in Japanese literature (I suspect it might), but I do know that the folk tale quality of these stories will be clear to readers in English. These stories have a familiar weird fairy tale quality but the structures and motivations of these folk-based ghost tales are quite different from English-language folk tales. Still, folk tales from both contexts share a similar rejection of the real vs. the unreal dichotomy that dominates much western literature. Strange and alienating and pleasurable reading.

H.R. Wakefield, The Best Ghost Stories of H. Russell Wakefield (1978)

H.R. Wakefield (1888-1964) didn't always like people very much, and his ghosts don’t either, and that makes them just a bit more vindictive than the ghosts in your standard British ghost story. And if he’s sometimes sentimental, well, it’s not usually human beings that he’s sentimental about.

Wakefield had a bad reputation among some writers and critics of the ghost story, like M.R. James, but that seems to have been partly because Wakefield was much more politically left-wing than most of the relatively conservative writers of British ghost stories during his time. His perspectives on war and animals in particular would have marked him as an outsider to many writers of this kind of work.

This book collects most of the best-known stories of his maybe five or six books of ghost tales and is well worth reading. There are good stories not in it. Luckily, Wakefield’s other books are now available in ebook format after decades of little availability.

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

Consider how rare it is that a book offers the most exact definition of a book of its kind while also being the best book of its kind; I’m talking specifically about haunted house novels. Also, note that most haunted house novels are really about a person (dead of course) who haunts a house, but in this book, the house itself does the haunting. Maybe. I’ve gone through a number of editions of this novel; this is the one I taught from most recently. It’s also possible that The Haunting of Hill House is not even Jackon’s best book, although it remains my personal favorite.

My Night With Alex Chilton


(This essay was originally published in the online magazine Celebrity Brush in February 2014. It no longer seems to be available online so I’m reprinting it here.)

Alex Chilton was appearing at the 9:30 Club in D.C. and I had to go.

A year or two earlier I had discovered Chilton’s music by finding a record called Big Star’s Third (known now usually by its originally intended title, Sister Lovers) in one of the many record stores I frequented in the mid-80s. I had never heard of him but the record had a mysterious dark blue cover with a drawing of Chilton’s face in moody silhouette. The back cover chatter about a “lost classic” hooked me. The record had somehow escaped being picked out of a bin at a time when all the Big Star records (The Velvet Underground records too) were out of print. It was an era when there really were lost classics.

Other friends of mine turned out to own the other two Big Star records and soon a lot of us were Big Star fans. In 1985 and 86 Chilton released two new EP’s. Several of the new songs, “Lost My Job,” and “No Sex,” were tightly distilled examples of later-Reagan-years dead end malaise. Between working a couple jobs I couldn’t stand, getting out of a relationship with a girlfriend who had a drinking and cocaine problem, and building a drinking problem of my own, I had plenty of malaise. I was a writer but didn’t know anyone in any writing communities yet. Nothing was happening. I was developing a public patter of sardonic morbid bitterness that I had translated into occasional short stories and failed novels.

Only one friend, my housemate at the time, Ginette (she was a Chilton fan too), went with me to the show. I’m sure it must have been on an early-in-the-week weeknight. There were maybe twenty people in the audience. This was the old, smaller 9:30 Club on F Street with its not large main stage and only one tiny back bar, but it was still painfully empty. Chilton was a rock and roll legend, but that night it seemed he was a secret. Ginette and I didn’t mind. Chilton and his two other band members played a solidly rocking show for the few of us milling around, a set in which his onstage grumpiness chimed well with the cynicism of his best recent songs.

When the show was over and Chilton had disappeared from stage, Ginette said, “Let’s go talk to him.”

I was startled and asked her what made her think he’d want to talk to us. She shrugged. “There’s nobody here. He’s not likely to be talking to anybody else.”

I doubt I was persuaded, but I went along with it. We walked downstairs to where the musicians were. A few people were packing up equipment. Chilton was sitting on a bench, and we walked up to him. Ginette started talking.

Chilton was laconic in speech and languid in motion, very Southern, very unlike our own DC mile-a-minute pacing. His face was acne-scarred and pockmarked. He was happy to talk to Ginette. That was no surprise, it occurred to me quickly. Most guys I knew wanted to talk to Ginette. She was half European (Swiss, I think) and half South American (Brazilian, I think, but this many years later that’s just a guess). She was a guitarist who knew a lot about music and who could talk about books and politics and who liked a good party. She was small and shapely and had constantly curious eyes that seemed always to be asking everyone, “Just who are you?”

The absent part of all this is that I don’t remember much of what we talked about. It wasn’t that memorable. Almost everybody had cleared out by the time Ginette said, “Want to get stoned with us?”

Chilton did indeed want to get stoned with Ginette, and if I was part of the bargain, that was okay.

The pot, however, was back in Ginette’s room at our group house. We had gone to the show on the Metro but it was closed by then. Chilton offered to drive us home.

And boy did he ever have an old, shitty fake-wood-paneled station wagon. He had been driving it on tour but said he didn’t expect it would last long. In the car, we talked about places he had been eating on the tour and how dull the traveling had been. He talked a bit about how at 17 in 1967 he had gotten rich from the Box Tops’ “The Letter” but was out of money by 1970.

And that’s how I ended up at my own house, spending as few hours drinking beer and smoking pot with Alex Chilton.

I don’t remember much about the conversation there either; places he had traveled, guitar equipment, musicians he knew. What has stuck with me is not anything he said but who he was; a relaxed, vaguely grim guy in a flannel shirt, jeans, and boots, who liked to play music but had gotten tired of touring, who had car trouble and was often bored and was happy to drink and smoke dope with strangers a dozen years younger. An unremarkable, cynical man in his mid-thirties who had been the driving genius behind three of the best albums in rock and roll history. Those albums were out of print and he had just played a show for twenty people.

I ought to have found the situation depressing, but I didn’t. Someone could do something artistically essential yet still be wandering around in the evening looking for whatever was happening, like I was. As if being an artist or musician or writer wasn’t this glamorous other thing for special people but was something anybody—even me—could do. I didn’t mind the idea that you could do something great and it wouldn’t change much about the way you lived.

Chilton left eventually, and I went to bed. Except that he was Alex Chilton and had taught me, indirectly, a crucial lesson about what it meant to be an artist, there was nothing about the evening any different than many nights I went to shows and ended up with people at my house. The fact that the evening was so perversely ordinary has remained for me its main fascination.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Tom Hibbard (1947-2022) and The Songs of Divine Love


Tom Hibbard sent me many of his small press and self-published little books over many years. I liked all of them, but one of them, The Songs of Divine Love, had a powerful effect on my work. The poems in it were tight, imagistic, paratactic, aware of social conditions, vivid in what they said and refused to say. They were experimental and approachable. They taught me something important about how a poem could be brief and still be contemporary, how it was possible to write poems when one had little time for writing. I borrowed some elements of his formal constraints for my collection Belief Is Impossible, which has never been published as a book although most of the poems have appeared in literary magazines. It was a form I returned to more than 15 years later for The End of America, Book 11.

News of Tom’s passing on December 15, age 75, from a perforated ulcer, reached me over the Internet just today (Dec 28).

Tom and I corresponded and traded work over many years. I met him only once in person, in fall 2010, when I gave a reading in Racine, Wisconsin, only the second time in my life I’d ever been in Wisconsin (I haven’t been again since). Tom missed my reading but greeted me outside afterwards. He had, curiously and surprisingly yet also characteristically, been out around town because he was running for office, trying to get elected as (I believe) a Wisconsin state assemblyman, a self-financed campaign he was never going to win but still undertook with his always present combination of generosity and sincerity with very visible touches of irony. I think I still have his “Tom Hibbard for Wisconsin” button somewhere.

Tom was one of an often connected group of midwestern and southern experimental poets first appearing in the 70s and 80s and operating hopelessly outside the narrow worlds of the mainstream poetry of their regions. But like many of those poets, Tom was far from hopeless. He believed in the value of outsider art and poetry, of connecting to others through DIY literary practice. He was friendly and warm yet willing to make insightful criticisms. In reviewing my book Haze, he wanted to see more specific cultural and historical references, a criticism I disagreed with but found slowly seeping into my later writing.

In recent years I’d been having a lot of small scale social media correspondence with Tom. In what will now be “the last few days before his death,” he’d been writing posts that were brief photo essays of moments in the holiday-season behavior of the people around him. As usual, he saw people both generously and sharply, accepting as he was of foibles and eccentricity but not of cruelty or the crueler forms of idiocy.

Somebody should reprint The Songs of Divine Love. It is, I think, brilliant, and stands as unique in the experimental writing environment of its time and place. Its effect on me endures; I have picked it up to read it again and again over many years.

Here is his poem “land of yesterday”:

One child loudly supported nationalism.
One child died of diabetes.
One child was a dock worker.

Injustice manufactures new virtue.
Each insight made is, in turn, covered up.
One only becomes a perpendicular distance
By pretending life is something it is not.
The Fourth of July holiday is again approaching.

And here is “time wound”:

I present proof of my success:
My severed finger to wear on your key chain.
You will wear it when you say goodbye.
They give the impression of knowing what you know.
Inaccuracy of emotion is quite common.
Pickerel is a fish of the Pike family.

I will miss him.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

The End of America 8 now available for pre-order


My new book, The End of America, Book 8, is now available for pre-order, on sale, from Bookshop.

Orders coming mid-January on Bookshop and on Amazon.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

The Snake Tree by Uwe Timm


Translated from German and published by New Directions in 1989, Uwe Timm’s The Snake Tree is a book in which pretty much every sentence is tense with anxiety and foreboding. The story does not either let up or let go. It belongs to that category of novels, like the books of Paul and Jane Bowles and Alejo Carpentier, or Peter Mathiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, in which Europeans or Americans find themselves in remote third world contexts. Both the people and the physical conditions of that context are simply not subject to Western thought-control and machine-control, however much that control harms them.

The main character Wagner, “an all-efficient German engineer,” finds himself in a place, whether on his worksite or off, whose logic escapes him and whose people he can’t fathom. Even more so than books by the other authors I’ve mentioned, The Snake Tree presents an increasing spiral of terror and goes both differently and farther than readers might expect (even readers of this kind of fiction). It’s also an especially good example of showing how wrong bureaucracy can go and how much it can make bad problems worse.

Reading up on Timm, I find that he’s still alive as of summer 2022 and has been a tremendously popular writer in Germany. The book reads like an excellent blend of streamlined narrative and complex and sophisticated literature that would never be popular in the United States. It’s simply too good at what it’s trying to do.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

My Washington, DC meeting with Jeremy Stewart


So if you live in San Diego, like I do, and you’re having great conversations online with someone who lives in British Columbia north of Vancouver, where do you meet? In Washington, DC, of course. When I was there back in June, I had the pleasure of having lunch with Jeremy Stewart, a poet, essayist, scholar, and musician. He was in DC for a conference on Jacques Derrida (who knew they had those in DC?) and headed on to other stages of a journey, the next of which I think was Boston. We’ve been having conversations online since 2017, when he wrote me about publishing some of my poems in his magazine Dreamland.

Jeremy’s most recent book, In Singing, He Composed a Song, published by the University of Calgary Press, concerns alienated youth in a British Columbia town and the way music and their friends and hanging out and drinking and taking drugs (usually not too serious ones) gets them through a difficult growing up but can also land them in trouble with schools, the police, and even hospitals. It’s a novel (loosely) comprised of poems, photographs, prose narrative sections, and interviews (fake or real: they seemed so true that I couldn’t tell the difference). The story centers on one young guy and how trading a cigarette for a poster about a poetry reading while on school grounds can land someone in a lot more trouble than they ever expected.

Oh, and by the way, Jeremy told me he was doing some academic job interviews too. Given his wide array of talents, someone ought to hire him and quick. They won’t regret it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The Changeling by Joy Williams

Talk about an ambivalent reaction to a book. There were so many things about Joy Williams’ The Changeling that I loved and quite a few that I didn’t like at all.

Fabulous imagery, often very disjointed and yet logical in its odd associations, a psychological weirdness that reminded me of Shirley Jackson. A still quite contemporary-seeming American surrealism that was often deeply convincing.
Propulsive, unforgettable sentences with a relentless drive.
An interest in psychological perverseness and the fringes of human complexity.
A vivid collapsing of the boundaries between the human and the animal.

A lack of narrative energy and focus, despite the intense energy of the sentences. Events in the book meander more than develop, and at times the momentum of the narrative comes nearly to a complete stop while the powerful sentences just kept going. There are significant stretches of the book that feel like the story is going nowhere.
Unconvincing portrayals of the real, especially when it comes to the nature of events. The “real world” in the book is at times at odds with the “dream world” and at times seems to blend with it. While that’s interesting when I put it that way, in practice the passages that seemed to be taking place in reality were often not convincing and relied boringly on coincidence and the unlikely. “Maybe it’s all a dream” is both unconvincing in terms of the narrative and also a boring cliché.

I also had mixed feelings about the stream of consciousness passages, which had a sort of “look what I can do” showiness that felt imitative and not essential.

Add it all up, I guess, and there’s a mix of less convincing story and narrative elements with fascinating writing and world view.

Sometimes I read the reviews on Amazon of ordinary people who write responses to an author or book, and I found all sorts of people saying things not all that different from what I’m saying about not only this book but others of hers as well: brilliant writing and strange thinking but unfocused stories that people lose interest in.

So my conclusion: at best, brilliant. At other times, an unconvincing pile of words that’s not headed anywhere. And no, I’m not saying something here that’s anti-experimental fiction. Experimental fiction still usually has narrative drive, and this book isn’t especially experimental anyway. The introduction to the 30th Anniversary Edition comes from Rick Moody; Williams’ work seems most connected to the context of later 20th century American realism even while the realism of this book is very thin.

Anyway, if you’re a fan, help me understand what you like about Joy Williams’ work.

Friday, July 8, 2022

The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart (my Goodreads review)

This book is a fun, energetic, easy read, of no huge distinction until you realize that it was published in 1908, a dozen years before Agatha Christie’s first book. What that means is that the things it seems like it might have in common with Christie’s work (a big rural house, untrustworthy servants, most people as possible suspects, etc.) are not things that Rinehart, an American author, borrowed from Christie.

Otto Penzler’s introduction identifies Rinehart as the leader of a loose school of “Had I only known!” authors. While I don’t think I’ll be following that particular lead any further, it’s interesting to note that Rinehart’s curious overuse of this foreshadowing technique was seen by others as a good way to build suspense. If Rinehart is hardly the first American woman writer of detective fiction, she seems like a big player too in the history of the cozy mystery concept. Nothing in the book is ever really shocking, no matter how often the narrator, Rachel Innes, is shocked, and the book feels entirely light and easy-going.

Miss Innes, as she is usually called by others, is not the official detective, although she certainly does plenty of sleuthing. She’s someone who wants to maintain order and happiness among her family and the others she cares about and is determined to do so. She’s curious sometimes, and sometimes not, but she’s always protective. It’s interesting to think of her amateur detective status, and that of a few other amateur women detectives, as preceding the creation of Christie’s Miss Marple.

One serious caveat about these books: the class and race attitudes, although gentle in expression, are pretty appalling not only by contemporary standards but probably even by those of the progressive political era of American history in which the books appeared. Servants are invariably silly and superstitious, and if they’re black they’re especially superstitious even if they might otherwise be portrayed as thoughtful and sensitive. There’s only one line, late in the book, that’s aggressively offensive, but the light-hearted class and race humor doesn’t fare well now, and people who want old works of pop literature to offer present-day standards should consider themselves warned.

There’s nothing great about this book, and nothing about it is remotely convincing, but it moves along at a highly energetic pace for a book more than a hundred years old, and I enjoyed it. I think the book will mostly be of interest to people who want to know more about the history of detective fiction and the history of detective fiction by and about women particularly.

This review can be found also on my Goodreads page:

Monday, July 4, 2022

What Happened to the Confederate Press?


I’ve been looking for an adequate answer to this question for awhile and never found it before reading Harold Holzer’s Lincoln and the Power of the Press. What role did newspapers and government intervention into newspapers play in the role of the Confederacy? In contrast to the rambunctious, contentious Northern press, which produced viewpoints of all kinds, why was the Confederate press so limited and controlled?

Holzer’s book isn’t just about Lincoln and the press but about the development of newspapers in the United States from the 1830s through the end of the Civil War. Yes, Holzer looks at Lincoln’s deep involvement in the world of newspapers over the whole of his life and political career, but the book is more broadly about the connection between newspapers and politics in American life during the years leading up to the Civil War. Holzer shows not so much how changes in American newspapers affected the ways people saw the war, but how newspaper men actively intervened in and shaped and sometimes controlled Northern response, often including official response, to the war.

One of Holzer’s basic points is that far from creating comments that came from outside the world of U.S. politics, the U.S. newspaper industry was directly connected to the U.S. political industry, with many people going back and forth between roles at newspapers and official government roles as politicians. As his key opening example of this interconnection, Holzer gives details regarding the fact that in 1859, Abraham Lincoln purchased and subsequently ran a German-language newspaper operating out of his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, although very few people even then knew about it. Lincoln’s investment (financial as well as political) in the world of newspapers was one of his most key and successful political practices.

Holzer’s 566-page book devotes only five of its pages to the history of Confederate newspapers. What’s surprising is that those few pages are all that’s really needed to answer the question of what the Confederate press was and what became of it.

Why did the Confederate press not keep its citizens as widely informed as the Northern press? Why was there so little information, why was it so controlled, and why did the Confederate press play such a very small role in the life of people in the South, offering them poor information, late information, and often enough no information at all?

For context, it’s important to understand that during the Civil War, in the North there was in no simple sense freedom of the press, although there was equally no simple censorship. Instead there were newspapers presenting all perspectives, including pro-slavery and pro-southern ones, and including newspapers whose owners and editors were accused of being, and sometimes were, traitors secretly supporting Confederate armies. It was often forbidden to report on the specific movements of troops, reports which might reach Confederate armies. The question of what ideas might be forbidden, under a national government that officially supported freedom of the press, depended on who you asked.

Who might do the forbidding was also a key issue, and the answer was different in different cases. Censorship was sometimes enacted on specific newspapers, editors, or reporters by Union army generals and other military and political representatives stationed in the local environments of the press in question. It was just often enacted unofficially by citizens who would attack press buildings or the operatives of those presses, including reporters, when those presses or reporters were seen as pro-Confederacy. If censorship was never a broad and clear political policy in the North, it was never absent either.

Lincoln’s response to all of this was, as Holzer shows, yet another example of Lincoln’s political savvy.

Lincoln said very little publicly on the subject beyond supporting general concepts of freedom of the press and denying that one had the right to tacitly or explicitly be a traitor. In practice he often said nothing when local officials shut down or destroyed an anti-Union press, although he sometimes chastised generals for going too far (especially if they weren’t generals who had won important battles). He also helped some Democratic presses and journalists (that is, those that might be pro-slavery and anti-war but not traitorous) return to production, although only after stern warnings. So Lincoln never said a lot publicly in favor of censorship while being willing to see it happen, encouraging or discouraging it in some cases.

So what was the Confederate Press like during the Civil War and why does it get only four pages in Holzer’s extremely detailed book? The answer turns out to be both simple and startling.

During the Civil War, in the South, Holzer writes, “a once robust two-party political culture vanished” (457). There was increasingly over the years of the Civil War no Confederate press at all.

Holzer lists a couple of key reasons why the Confederate Press vanished. One of them is not a lack of readers. People living in and under the Confederacy were often desperate for news, and just as often they couldn’t get it.

The first reason Holzer gives for the vanishing of the Confederate press was “near-universal white conscription.” Nearly all white males roughly ages 16-65 were required to join the Confederate army and fight, which left very few white men able to run a press or be a reporter. How the men who were exceptions came to be exceptions is something that Holzer’s book doesn’t discuss.

Another key element is that what Southern presses did remain were shut down quickly by the Union Army whenever a city was successfully invaded. The Union knew very well the role that Southern newspapers had played, often through false and outrageous stories, in creating the war in the first place, and so the army shut them down and also helped pro-Union papers in the South get started. As early as 1862, there were pro-Union papers in parts of the Carolinas, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia.

Lastly, and this reason was the most surprising to me: as the Civil War went on, the Confederacy and its supporters increasingly had little or no paper. And so, obviously, they had nothing to create a newspaper on. As Holzer points out, “The South boasted only a fraction of the nation’s paper mills before the war began, and fewer still once Union forces began occupying significant portions of its territory” (458). Given this extreme shortage of paper, newspapers had to cut back publication and increasingly just ceased. In some cases, they continued for a while publishing small, often even one-page editions. During the siege of Vicksburg, an extreme case obviously, the one remaining newspaper in town published a few small editions on the backs of former bits of wallpaper from (I’m guessing here) buildings abandoned in Vicksburg when the citizens left their homes during the bombardment to live in caves.

A few Confederate newspapers, like the Charleston Courier, held on longer than others, and surprisingly a few new periodicals Confederate periodicals opened (temporarily), but editions were small both in terms of numbers of pages and sizes of print runs and they could reach no more than a few people. Obviously, such papers had only limited information to offer and presented only pro-Confederacy perspectives.

A few years ago, a friend of mine said when I was talking with him about differences in the news and newspaper cultures of the North and South that he had probably assumed, without thinking about it, that news in the North and the South operated on relatively similar principles. As it turns out, not only was what could and couldn’t be said very different (not to mention what was and wasn’t said), what was even more different was the material and social conditions under which newspapers could say anything at all.

In the North, wildly energetic press activity tried to present a huge range of perspectives, including those of not just pro-slavery and pro-war voices but of acting traitors to the Union cause. It ran up against equally loose and fractious censorship activity, sometimes military and government, sometimes unofficial groups of angry citizens, activity that for the most part Lincoln quietly supported or condemned from a distance.

In the South, the one-party Confederacy had, over time, fewer and fewer newspapers to publish its perspectives, fewer reporters to write them, and ultimately no paper on which those perspectives could be written.

I’ll conclude this essay with one final thought: in the days of the Internet, any individual or group no longer needs paper to produce large scale editions of their perspectives that can be distributed widely. A post-paper, Internet news future is one in which the mechanics of reaching people has profoundly changed. It’s a change that will affect the future of war, rebellion, and revolution in ways we are only now beginning to see.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Shudder Folk Horror Movies Thumbnail Reviews Batch Two

I’m not sure how much longer the Folk Horror collection on Shudder will be available, since Shudder rotates its titles fairly frequently. In any case I’ve enjoyed watching all these movies, even the ones I didn’t like much. It was a fun project. The term “folk horror” feels pretty broad at times as a descriptor for all these films, but nothing I watched seem to fall outside the concept, which ultimately makes it pretty effective as a term for thinking about the subject matter and themes of these films.

The Wicker Man, British, 1973 (5 stars): Still often called the best British horror movie ever made, and I’ve not seen anything that makes me disagree. I have a DVD box set of this movie. Nearly every moment is beautiful; nearly every moment is eerie and disquieting, and the pervasive discomfort just keeps building. As a viewer, you always know something’s wrong, but the film is so surprising and original that you never know what it is. By the way, the hugely popular 2019 film Midsommar borrows tons from this movie and I haven’t seen anybody else note that. And I can say this and viewers still won’t know what to expect from this movie.

Il Demonio, Italian, 1963 (4 ½ stars): Surprisingly and effectively, this movie splits the difference between an Italian neorealist film and a horror movie. Set in a convincingly disturbing rural environment, the movie depends on Daliah Lavi’s outrageous and compelling portrayal of a out-of-control character who often turns out to be less disturbing than the more ordinary people around her. The movie’s not scary really, but it sure is disconcerting. Also, there’s a scene in it that’s the basis of an infamous scene in the director’s cut of The Exorcist. The scene was probably cut from The Exorcist for good reason, but the original in Il Demonio is riveting.

Kill List, British, 2011 (4 stars): This movie is even more brutal than its brutal trailer would lead you to believe. But it’s also a much better movie than the brutality might lead anyone to suspect. The situation is off-kilter and disturbing, the characterizations are effective, and even if one has a general sense of what way the mysterious elements of this film are going, I myself didn’t really see the ultimate turns coming. There’s more than a little Tarantino influence here, but this movie is really doing its own thing. I’m not kidding about the brutality though, so consider yourself warned.

The Blood on Satan’s Claw, British, 1971 (3 ½ stars): The term “folk horror” was originally used by reviewer Rod Cooper in describing this movie. It’s quite enjoyable although much of the story is ridiculous and the psychology of it paper thin. Good atmospherics and tone carry the day so that the action doesn’t become too ludicrous to bear. The atmospherics of this movie are quite foundational in terms of many horror movies that follow it, including The Wicker Man, so it’s an essential folk horror watch despite moments that might make you laugh derisively.

La Llorona, Guatemalan, 2020 (3 stars): There are some things to like about this movie and a lot not to like so much. Director Jayro Bustamante borrows heavily from Guillermo Del Toro, but as much as I like the idea of setting a horror movie in a rich historical and political context, the movie takes the worst part of Del Toro (and the reason I’m not a fan of Pan’s Labyrinth): a heavy-handed political moralizing that precludes much surprise. At every moment, this movie tells us exactly who is bad and for what reason and in what degree and then proceeds to sledgehammer its agenda into place. There’s a good sense of mood, good acting, and some memorable and at times chilling visuals, and those things help lift it above its dull and obvious moral lecture.

Dark in August, American, 1976 (3 stars): The first hour of this movie is quite good, a four star effort that establishes intriguing characters and a striking rural setting. J.J. Barry is an original presence as the main character. But then there’s the rest of the movie.

Clear Cut, Canadian, 1971 (2 ½ stars): Graham Greene is such a compellingly watchable actor that he almost pulls off the two-dimensional character he plays He also overwhelms the mediocre performances by the other actors. The plot, about a land struggle between white Canadians and indigenous people, has all of the expected features but not much more. I like it when horror gets political, but that like anything else needs to be done well. The film is supposedly controversial because of the stand it takes that sometimes violence might just be the best response to oppression, but I didn’t care enough about the white characters to be concerned at how badly they were beating treated. Don’t more conventional slashers also suggest that it’s tremendous fun to see stupid arrogant assholes get sliced and diced and that the world is a better place when they’re gone?

Tilbury, Icelandic, 1987 (2 ½ stars): The flat acting and lack of convincing action were on some level an important part of this odd little film, which tries to combine the presence of an ancient horror with a historical drama of World War II Iceland during a period of occupation by supposedly friendly British and American troops. The disjointedness made the action difficult to care about, so this movie survives on its weirdness mostly, and it was often weirder than I was expecting, with some scenes that are surrealist not in a loose sense but truly.

Roh, Malaysian, 2019 (2 stars): Sigh. I was rooting for this movie when I started watching it. But the story was verging on absent, and the mythology was general and vapid: bad things happen to bad people, and even the possible twist that everyone might be bad couldn’t save the slow scenes, the barely comprehensible narrative turns, and the lack of strong atmosphere. A lot of the story revolves around a mother failing her children, or supposedly failing her children, but I’ll be darned if I could ever figure out what it was she was supposed to have done. Apparently she became a bad mother right when her husband died, or was being accused of being one from that moment, not that the story ever resolved or even really approached an answer to what had created the problem.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Last Time I Saw These Copies of Thomas Pynchon


These rank among the most life-changing books for me. Now that these copies are falling apart, I wanted to photo them and comment on them before the copies (not the books themselves) exit my life.

I first found out about Thomas Pynchon in a graduate class taught by William Spanos (RIP) on Postmodern Fiction at SUNY-Binghamton. We really did read Gravity’s Rainbow, over at least two weeks if I recall, although I don’t recall, not entirely. Other books we read in that class included Calvino’s On A Winter Night a Traveler, Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and Borges’ Labyrinths. I loved most of the books in that class, but right now I don’t remember the others.

But Pynchon, wow. Gravity’s Rainbow sent me into another universe of possibility entirely. The politics, the open-ended quality, the nearly impossible combination of humor and seriousness, the huge geographical and historical worldview. Not long after, I published my first work of fiction on the graduate level (I had published some stories in undergraduate magazines). It was called “The Last Time I Saw Thomas Pynchon,” a series of vignettes in which I as narrator encountered Pynchon as character in a series of absurd, urban, postpunk environments (I was very much a postpunk at the time) and he told me things I needed to know.

I picked up and soon read V and The Crying of Lot 49 as well. At that time, Pynchon hadn’t published a new novel in more than 15 years, so this was the era when these three books, and the short story collection Slow Learner, were all the available Pynchon fiction there was, the later avalanche still unforeseen. He was sometimes referred to in print as a 60s satirist whose half-earned moment of fame was long gone.

Anyway, I’m wishing these near-pulp editions goodbye. They have long since pulped themselves. I suppose, human or book, sooner or later we all pulp ourselves, although some pulp gets under our skin a lot deeper than others. In fact it’s just as I write this that I remember one scene from my now lost story “The Last Time I Saw Thomas Pynchon”: he as character and me as narrator met at a garbage dump, where he told me that I could learn more about people’s lives by going through their garbage than by looking at the objects they kept in their houses.

To prove his point, here’s some garbage of mine.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

The Folk Horror Collection on Shudder


Photograph from Psychomania

I’ve been enjoying the Folk Horror collection of movies on Shudder with its fun mix of national and international pictures. Here are my thumbnail reviews on a five-star scale of the ones I’ve seen so far (will maybe add to this list and post it again at a later time)in the order of my preferences.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre, American, 1973 (5 stars)
Still one of a small handful of the best and most terrifying horror movies ever made.

Lake Mungo, Australian, 2008 (4 stars).
Easily the best of the movies I’d never seen before. Tense, creepy, surprising, and subtle, and because of the subtlety, the moments that are not subtle are very effective. Some underdeveloped or missing psychological elements bring this one down just a little.

Psychomania (also known as The Death Wheelers), British, 1985 (4 stars). There are few horrors movies this fun and this ridiculous and this unique. It’s not great except for the fact that it’s so great. “The greatest British zombie biker ever made”: for once, the hype is true.

Black Sunday, Italian, 1960 (4 stars). Mario Bava’s first horror film is legendary for a reason. I can’t say that this movie is great, exactly, but it’s very very satisfying horror, a mix of British and Italian elements and starring Barbara Steele, who’s just as good at this sort of movie as everybody says.

Black Sabbath, Italian, 1963 (3 ½ stars). This three-part horror anthology follow-up meant to capitalize on Black Sunday isn’t as great as that one, but it has Boris Karloff in it and the action is a lot of fun if not particularly scary. The effects are ludicrous but only make the movie more of a pleasure.

Wake Wood, Irish and English, 2009 (4 stars). This movie has a lot of great moments and others that aren’t as great as they could have been. Still, it’s the best of the recent horror movies from Ireland that I’ve seen.

Impetigore, Indonesian, 2019 (3 ½ stars). The first 30 to 45 minutes of this movie: wow. As frightening as any recent horror movie I’ve seen. After that, some of the key characters start becoming really dumb, which means that when the horror effects come on full bore it mostly seems like the idiots are getting what they deserve.

Alison’s Birthday, Australian, 1981 (3 ½ stars). The acting and effects are very B movie but they also work in the favor of this surprisingly enjoyable movie. Good claustrophobic tension. The characterizations are no more than expected but still fun. The action is often ridiculous but somehow still both fun and tense.

Rawhead Rex, British, 1986 (3 ½ stars). Sure, the special effects are exactly as terrible as everyone says, but for me at least that didn’t take away from the enjoyment I felt at this movie. I may be biased because it’s based on a Clive Barker short story and because its premise is basically that of classic M.R. James ghost stories: an ancient, pagan evil is lurking in a graveyard. It’s not slow, and there are some great surprises, some of them very unpleasant.

Pyewacket, Canadian 2017 (3 stars). The characterizations aren’t subtle yet this portrayal of a distressed teenager stuck in her relationship with her nasty mom does have some good scenes and good tension. As many reviews say, the movie is as much character study as horror, and while both elements show some promise, the movie doesn’t do as much with them as it might.

A Dark Song, English, 2016 (3 stars). This movie has an effectively tense pace at the start, with interesting characterizations and surprising scenes, but like so many horror movies it doesn’t always know what to do with its premise or the complexities it wishes to set in motion but can’t.

The Hallow, Irish and English, 2015 (3 stars). Essentially, this movie is the same story as Wake Wood with some small differences. Strong atmospherics at the start, and surprisingly interesting dialogue. At a certain point the characters get stuck in a permanent state of non-development and the well done but standard visuals take over with very little surprise.

Lake of the Dead, Norwegian, 1958 (3 stars). A historical curiosity, this black and white, low budget movie has some engaging characters and dialogue (some of it tense) and benefits from its rural setting. The mystery being uncovered is worth it, although the characters are much more frightened than viewers will be.

Children of the Corn, American, 1984 (3 stars) No, I didn’t bother to watch it again. Not the best Stephen King-based movie by any means, and not the worst either. This movie is not as bad as the people who think it’s bad like to think, but it’s also not as good as people think when they try to argue for it as underrated.

Lokis, Polish, 1970 (3 stars). A bit long and rambling, this movie has good atmosphere and tension and some surprises. As much a character study as horror, this movie’s main draw for me is that it’s based on a 1869 French gothic novel by Prosper Mérimée. The pace of the movie is slow so prepare to settle in.

Jug Face, American, 2016 (3 stars). Another of the movies in this collection whose opening parts are the best ones, this movie has some intriguing performances by women but, women-centered or not, it doesn’t do all that much beyond the expected with its dangerous backcountry hick premise.

Eyes of Fire, British, 1983 (2 ½ stars). This one has some moments of genuine strangeness and effective gore. Decent characterizations. The effects are goofy but sometimes enjoyable. Ultimately it settles for flatness and dreamy vagueness instead of really developing its core conflicts and concepts.

Viy, Russian, 1967 (2 ½ stars). Based on a novella by Nikolai Gogol, the main reason to watch this movie is that it’s billed as the first horror movie ever made in Russia. It’s a horror comedy that’s not scary and barely funny except when it’s most trying not to be. The visual effects as the movie goes on are really quite enjoyably strange, but this movie is mostly of historical interest only. Sidepoint: Russians probably don’t need a horror film tradition because their own history gives them all the horror anyone could want.

Messiah of Evil, American, 1973 (2 ½ stars). This is a standard low budget American horror of its era. A few compelling moments, but none of it is ever any better than it looks like it’s going to be. B movie fans might find a lot to enjoy.
Dark Waters, filmed in Ukraine, 1993 (2 stars). Great scenery, and at moments some of the characters are truly weird, but mostly the story is boring and obvious and never frightening or much of anything else, although Louise Salter as the main character is fun to watch.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Publishing and Book Availability (Part two of a conversation that began on Facebook)


I wasn’t expecting quite so lively a discussion regarding my suggestion on Facebook that more small presses might try producing print-on-demand books, but since I got it, the responses made me realize I had more to say.

What everyone on that thread probably knows is that the publishing world continues to change, inevitably, and what was true 20-30 years ago has become something else now. Of course, it’s easier to know something than to understand the implications of knowing it.

When I was first aware of it, what was great about Small Press Distribution was that it was unlike nearly everything else: a great online bookstore of otherwise hard to find small press books. 20-30 years ago, it was already true that there weren’t many on-the-street bookstores where one could find a range of interesting small press literature. In Buffalo when I lived there I had Talking Leaves nearby, and when I lived in D.C. I had Bridge Street Books.

I relied less on SPD than other people might who lived in towns or cities where finding a range of books was difficult or impossible, and even then SPD had things hard for me to get elsewhere. SPD was an early online book goldmine. It served an alternative literary culture that was spreading out to more and more places and becoming less defined solely by people in the few major urban areas in the U.S. that had a thriving literary scene and lots of local readers of literature.

Having physically limited spaces, bookstores have never stocked everything. They’ve always had to choose what is relevant to give space to. An online distribution store like SPD still needs to have a warehouse and so has space and employee limitations as well. In any case, no one distributor can possibly distribute everything and so decisions have to be made about what to include and why.

What we see now is an age of the internet very different than 2002. There are more small presses, and smaller presses (“micropresses,” if you think providing micro labels will help) than ever. They have an internet presence and are capable of making well-produced books using online production methods (sorry, don’t know what else to call them) much more sophisticated than in the past. Some people buy directly from these small presses through their websites, while these presses often still want and need other options for distribution.

We also live in an environment of overwhelmingly large online corporate entities that provide more distribution than an organization like SPD can and can cause serious harm to the very concept of an independent press or bookstore even while providing useful distribution services. Obviously, these corporate behemoths have made the survival of great independent local bookstores more difficult, even in the urban environments that used to support them, and they threaten the independence of an organization like SPD as well.

What I think is often difficult for everybody is learning how to handle an evolving situation (which of course is what all situations are, says a voice in my head). Newer small presses need new outlets, older small presses also may need new outlets but also feel new pressures threatening the degree of independence they fought hard for in the past and are still fighting for now. And readers want to be able to get books.

Evolving publication realities combine with an ever-increasing diffusion of literary cultures which are oddly enough both more localized and more homogenized at the same time. People anywhere are now more easily in touch with people anywhere else, and an urban literary scene defining itself in relative isolation so that “schools of poetry” develop is becoming more and more a thing of the past. We don’t even have to imagine what would happen now if if there was a group of surrealists trying to decide stridently who’s in and who’s out, because we can see it all around: they would be criticized instantly and precisely for their exclusivity on the grounds of race / class / gender / culture and various other aspects of their lack of equal access.

I don’t know any more than anyone else about how this publishing environment will continue to evolve. New presses and publishing options will keep arising and some will stick around longer than others. Massive corporate conglomerates will keep trying to own all that can be owned and to turn every existing possibility into something ownable. There will continue to be writers and presses and bookstores and even distributors resisting corporatizing and homogenizing forces. Some things will work better and longer than others, and that includes the vicious ones. Books in whatever form will continue to be produced. The specifics are beyond me, obviously. “You can’t step in the same river twice” wasn’t created as an advertising slogan.

I’m posting this on Facebook though I know it’s long, and putting it on my blog too so it won’t disappear (vain hope, huh?) quite so quickly. I remember when live literary conversations had to happen in person or over the phone and when the most interesting (to me) published conversations were happening in publications that existed only in a few hundred copies.

Then conversations like that moved to email and then to listservs and online group discussions and then to blogs where individuals had more control and then to social media and probably through some available formats I never even noticed. With increased opportunity comes increased ephemerality. At the same time, more books covering those conversations continued and continue to be published, calling into further question the idea that it’s even possible to be fully informed about a conversation.

By the moment anybody stops talking, the situation they were talking about has already changed.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

I have poems in the March 2022 issue of the Brooklyn Rail and will be reading a few on March 11, 2022


I’m pleased to have some poems in the March 2022 of The Brooklyn Rail. Thanks to Anselm Berrigan and the other editors and workers who do such a great job with that publication. Here’s the link.

Also, I’m reading a few minutes of poetry this Friday March 11 around 11:10 or 11:15 a.m. Pacific Time for The Brooklyn Rail at the conclusion of an discussion roundtable on the art of Ad Reinhardt. The event is free although you do need to sign up beforehand. The discussion begins at 10 a.m. Pacific Time. Scroll to the bottom of the event page to sign up.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Brief Review: Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya


Tatyana Tolstaya’s collection of short stories Aetherial Worlds (in translation, published 2018) contains some of the most interesting new fiction I’ve read in a while. It twists along on the boundaries between realism and fantasy, between more conventional narrative and postmodern-like narrative surprises.

The stories are set mostly in Russia but sometimes take place in the U.S. The lives of the characters are as intriguingly mixed as all the other elements of the stories; they are usually women living their lives in believable combinations of more traditional, contemporary and feminist ways. The situations are often both ludicrous and frightening and the characterizations are complex and convincing. The terror and absurdity of insitutions seems both very Modernist and very right now. The style is high energy, funny, sarcastic, serious.

I can see the connections between the stories while each one is not much like the one before. This book will have a lot of appeal both for people who like innovation and for those who like a good story. There’s not much work out recently in any literary genre that I like as much as Aetherial Worlds.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Doomsday (a synoptic novel)


Here’s one of my pieces that explores the concept of doom, and I thought I would make it available because of the big response (positive, negative, and mixed) currently happening to the Netflix blockbuster Don’t Look Up.

"Doomsday" is from my 2009 manuscript of short fictions called The Measure Everything Machine and Other Stories. It has never been published as a collection, although a number of the pieces appeared in various literary magazines (like Madhatter’s Review and Joyland) and even more ephemeral publications as well as being pieces I have read many times at public readings.

The pieces in The Measure Everything Machine are more what Hazel Smith and others have called “synoptic novels” rather than simply flash fictions generally. The goal is to present something in only a few lines that features the narrative stretch of a novel, something in theory very long that has been compressed into something very short.


When the populace of an obscure planet believes that Doomsday for the planet is at hand, arguments begin in earnest about what has caused it. Some blame this or that system of government; others blame the enemies or decay of this or that system of government. Some say deadly investment practices are the cause and blame investment in A; others agree that investment is the problem, but argue that more investment in A will save the planet and instead blame investment in B. Still others point out that governments and money can’t really end the world; since the world is ending, it has to be because people have destroyed the planet’s environment. Others say people haven’t really done that much to damage the planet; if the planet is being destroyed, the cause must be physical celestial forces far beyond control. Some say destruction is being visited on people because of their empty, soulless lives and point to the lack of religion; others say destruction is coming because of people’s empty, soulless lives and point to the meaningless fantasy of religion. For every cause of Doomsday that someone proposes, someone else proposes a countercause, and another countercause is proposed after that and so on.

When Doomsday does arrive, a few people’s theories are proved right, but they have little time or reason to congratulate themselves, and none at all to berate or convince anybody else, who wouldn’t have believed them anyway. On the day of destruction, the claims and counterclaims continue to go back and forth until the last possible moment and would have done so unceasingly had the planet not been destroyed and life on it ended.

The other conclusion to this story is suggested by other people on another obscure planet. They say that actually Doomsday never did arrive for the populace on that first planet. According to this story, the populace of the first planet continues to this day endlessly debating a Doomsday that they expect to arrive any moment. As the story goes, they do very little to notice the rest of the Universe. And as if turnabout really is fair play, in this story the Universe does similarly little to notice them.