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.