Friday, October 30, 2009

Death Sees Your Fortune

Halloween is here, and in that spirit I thought I'd put out another piece from Carnival of Vulgarities, one that has its origins planted firmly in the holiday. You see, several years ago, I had a great idea to go out on Halloween as Death. All black, black cape, black faceless hood, Y'know, Death. It wasn't the most original costume on the surface but, in this case, it's what I did with it that made it special. Instead of a scythe I carried around a bag of skulls, thirty of them, the kind you put candy in. Inside each one was a piece of paper printed on one side with the image of a tarot card (Death, the thirteenth card) and written on the other with a message from the Grim Reaper himself. I took these fortune skulls out on the street on Halloween night and passed them out randomly to anyone that wanted one. I never stopped to watch anyone read them; it would have spoiled the effect and ruined the privacy of their moment. Death Sees Your Fortune is an assemblage of all of the messages that were in those skulls. Every one of them found someone, or someone found them. As you read them I hope you'll remember the holiday, that it's not just about the costumes, the candy, the parties, and the pranks; it's about the skull beneath the skin, the end before the beginning, and that one thing that we all do alone. Trick 'r Treat!


Manufactured 1933

by the Santa Monica Vending Machine Co.

of Detroit, Michigan

One fortune, two pennies

No Refunds

No Exceptions

13. You who read this, tonight I have passed you by. Did you feel
the cold wind on your spine? Do not think you
have escaped, do not think it. All come to me in time,
none get by.

13. Do not behave as if tomorrow is yours. Tomorrow you will be

13. I am the water that filled Shelley’s lungs. I am the gutter that
held Poe like a cradle. I am the little metal pellets of Hemingway’s
most desperate hour.

13. One man, when I came for him, sought to run away. When he
found he could not escape he said, “Take my brother instead. He is
old and sick and life gives him no joy.” “I will take him tomorrow,”
I replied. “Today is your day.”

13. From the moment you are born you belong to me.

13. How many books have I interrupted half done? How many
paintings sit incomplete? How many songs have I stilled in mid

13. A man offered up his wife to me that he might not die. “For she
is young and passionate and more beautiful than any who has yet
lived,” he said. “What you say is true,” I answered, “but I will take
her when she is old and tired and a wrinkled-up hag. It is the same
to me.”

13. My house is of bone. My kingdom a mountain of skulls.

13. I am a blessing to the sick, a curse to the healthy, and a terror
to those in fear of hell.

13. Drink up, drink up, from my poisoned cup.

13. Those who do not fear me still cannot deny me.

13. Many have gone before you. The rest will surely follow in your

13. There is no sleep for me. There is no escape for you.

13. Your future is this: For certain you will die.

13. Do not occupy yourself with banal concerns. In the end you
will rot like a discarded piece of fruit.

13. None are so important that they may refuse my invitation to

13. My voice is a rattle deep inside your own body.

13. If you see my face, your time is come.

13. Your ancestors knew me well, for I visited them often.

13. Once I came for a miserly old woman who cared for nothing
but collecting money. Though in the end she offered it all, she
could not buy even one more minute, and her fortune was left for
her heirs to plunder.

13. Your unfinished business is nothing to me.

13. There was a woman who pretended I didn’t exist. She did it so
well that she fooled herself in time. When I came for her at last she
asked, “Who are you?” “An old lost friend,” I said. “Good,” she
replied as we went away. “I am tired and lonely and a friend is
what I need.”

13. While you race against the clock, look over your shoulder and
see me catching up.

13. Know me by the company I keep: Crows and Jackals and
Vultures and Hyenas.

13. I hold the keys to the world beyond.

13. I am the edge that breaks the last thread, the final exhalation of
the spoken word, the cold ash of the spent fire.

13. Warfare is my bread and butter.

13. I often wonder, when my work is done, who will come for me?

13. Your fear does not profit me, nor cause me sadness.

13. There is always time to die.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Long and the Short of It

I don't believe in the long novel. It's a subjective opinion, I know, but it's the truth and there's no use denying it. At this point in my life as a writer, I don't have anything worth saying that can't be said to good effect in two hundred pages or less.

Of course, I don't really think about page count when I'm writing. When the needs of the story are fulfilled then the work is done. There's nothing I hate more than reading a great book and hitting a flat spot, usually fifty to a hundred pages long, that just kills the momentum of the novel. It happens so often that I don't even bother to slog through them anymore. I just pinch a cluster of pages (usually about fifty) between my thumb and forefinger and turn them in one go. Then I repeat as necessary.

This isn't to say that I'm incapable or unwilling to read a great big doorstop of a book. In fact, the last two books I read were 800+ and 1000+ pages , and I enjoyed every word of each of them. But these were exceptions for me, and I believe by and large that most writers think they have much more to say than they actually do, and their novels often suffer for it. I would love to hear others' opinions on this, so please feel free to post a comment.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Short Appreciation of a Very Great Work

It's taken me twenty years to be ready for Mervyn Peake, and now that I've read his Gormenghast books (They are not a trilogy)- Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone- I feel as if I belong to some sort of secret conspiracy of magnificence. The end of Mervyn Peake's life was a tragedy of illness and under-appreciated genius, and it was only through the diligence of a few well-placed friends and admirers that his body of work has thrived rather than faded into obscurity.

According to Quentin Crisp, Peake once said of his work, "I believe in doing what I like. I set about selling it afterward." It is an attitude that appears to have cost him in his own too-short lifetime, but one that has rewarded readers immeasurably since his death. It is an attitude that I also hold dear, though if I could manifest even a thousandth of that man's talent and originality I would consider my job as a writer fulfilled. He was an accomplished artist, a poet, playwright, and a writer whose ability to paint with prose has had few equals in the English language. If you are a writer and you haven't read him, do it. It will make you better and it will humble you. As a reader, you must be patient. Traveling with Peake is a long journey in a vague direction with no particular destination, but the sights you will see and the company you'll keep will mark your psyche for the rest of your reading life. - Peake's official site
An Excellence of Peake by Michael Moorcock

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Writer's Toybox 2

The Writer's Toybox (link)

Welcome to the second part of what I hope (and my wife surely dreads) will become an ongoing chronicle of my chief writerly vice, an addiction to toys. Some I've found, some I've modified, but all of the ones I pick for this blog will have some sort of basis in books, writing, and my relationship to the two.
Today I give you:

Sumo! Yes Sumo Smash, by the same people who created Strollin' Bowlin', that portable game with the wind up bowling ball with orange shoes. I found this on sale at a bookstore which will remain unnamed and snatched it up. It is exactly as fun as it looks, which is very. Adjust their arms, wind them up, and let them bash each other out of the dohyo (ring). Grunt.

Now, it's all well and good that this little bit o' neatness came from a bookstore, but what the heck does it have to do with me as a writer? The answer, dear reader, is research. In the course of reading in preparation for a sequel to Ghost of Iga (available here, here, and here) I came across two books: Grand Sumo by Lora Sharnoff and Sumo: From Rite to Sport by Patricia Cuyler. The second book, which traced the religious and historical roots of Sumo, was more useful than the first, which is solely about modern Sumo, but both were fascinating reads. I think they're both out of print, but they're easy enough to get online. As for Sumo Smash, it's wind up, it's portable, and it's Sumo. Win to the 3rd power.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Nob-ody gives a snowball in H-el Prize (for Literature)

This was going to be The Writer's Toybox 2,but I guess that can wait. After all, the fate of the literary world is at stake, right? The Nobel Prize for Literature, the big daddy of lit awards, given to an obscure German from Romania. Well, as a minuscule contributor to the world body of literature (by its loosest definition, it's true) I have something to say to my fellow writers and book connoisseurs: Get over it because no one cares.

Really. No one cares. The Nobel Prize is the biggest non-event in the perfect storm of irrelevance that gave birth to the literary award. Oprah has more relevance to the written word. Why? Because people actually read the books she picks. Why anyone should care about a tiny group of Swedish academics hovering over Alfred Nobel's blood money like a five-headed curmudgeonly dragon is a mystery to me. Most writer's write to be read, perhaps to be paid, but seldom if at all for a worthless accolade. So writers, keep writing, and readers, go out and pick up your favorite author, critics and awards be damned. Just enjoy a good read and forget this nonsense.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Nevermore Forevermore: 1809-1849

In this, the bicentennial year of Edgar Allan Poe's birth, as we approach the 160th anniversary of his death, I am still amazed by the power of the man as a myth. There is enough historical evidence available to support a reasonable speculation on the facts of Poe's life and death, but the real fact is that the morbid power of his stories has had the almost supernatural effect of transforming his biography into the final, posthumous tale in his canon. I myself can think of no finer tribute for a writer. Here then is my contribution to the mythology of Poe's end, from my book, Carnival of Vulgarities:


Me and Pestis and Rattus on ending our travels
dropped down in the ditch where lay E. Allan Poe
While we stood there a moment assessing the poet
mesmerized at the bounties ill fortune can bring
Rattus’ eyes spied a shine that he fancied a ring

The writer reclined half in filth and in water
He acknowledged us not save to droop his dry lid
and breathed bubbles and rattles of pain and disorder
that when burst in the air loosed a piteous sound
Rattus, finding no ring, took to snuffling around

Pestis stirred from his perch in my gut and did wander
to the soul that now stewed in that vile urban brew
“It’s an honor, dear sir, one I’ll always remember.
Though you’ll pardon good Rattus, he’s helplessly nosy.”
Rattus bit of poor Poe, left a wound red and rosy

“Virginia!” Poe croaked, less a breath than a spasm
“Baltimore,” answered Pestis, to mock or to sooth
Yet the poet said nothing, not a word of rebuke
His left eye showed white in its half-lidded socket
and Rattus, still hopeful, nosed around in his pocket

“Look at him,” said Pestis, “they’ve run him to ground.
Picked him clean of his finery and clothed him in rags,
cast his soul to the spirits Regret and Despair,
till it’s fallen so far that it’s scarce fit to cull.”
Rattus dug in the pouch till it covered him full

Did the man not then shake and his face flush with anger?
Or was it a trick of the gaslight’s dim glow?
No words did he strain but his arm bent behind him
and he rolled on his back as to make himself cozy
Rattus hid in his coat like a corpse in the posies

“You despise us,” said Pestis. “Our nature offends,
knowing naught of compassion or mercy or love,
and you fancy us fleeting and grim apparitions.
But we’ll still be around when the sky groans and crashes
and Rattus will play in your bones and your ashes.

“For you wrong us, dear writer, to think that we come
as a torment to harry your vanishing soul.
We’re pilgrims, we three, not crusaders nor reavers.
Thus we’ve journeyed this far from the sands of the Pashas
to bask in the flame of a life burned to ashes.

“It is well you might ask, and as well I might tell you,
who we are to have traveled so hardy and long.
Though in truth we have died many times in our passing
we are Legion like Father, split after the Fall,
and the nature of one is the nature of all.”

Still the poet spoke not, only moaned incoherent
and wallowed in garbage beyond hope or pain
If he cared for the tidings of glory we brought him
it showed through the mask of his face not at all
Rattus poked out his head, said “I heard a foot’s fall.”

“By your leave,” Pestis bowed to the poet in reverence,
“we’ll depart you in peace and we’ll not meet again.
Though you die you will live in the rumors and stories—”
Here a cry cut him short as the body was found
Rattus sprang for a hole and we followed him down.