Dealing with Racism in Genre Writing

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I’ve recently been reading The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane by Robert E. Howard.

They were recommended to me by a friend after I mentioned enjoying other sword & sorcery stories such as “Conan”, “Kull”, and Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane books.

The recommendation came with a caveat that some of the stories contained racist language and imagery. I’m not easily offended as a reader, so I felt fully prepared for it.

I was unprepared.

“The Moon of Skulls”, in particular, was a story I could barely finish. I forced myself to read it entirely, but I was completely disconnected from it once all the deeply racist imagery and description appeared. This was similar to certain stories I’ve read by H.P. Lovecraft, who, in addition to being a brilliant writer, was unfortunately a terrible xenophobe and bigot.

This post isn’t meant to be an examination of their beliefs. The guys were racist and wrong. Full stop.

What I want to understand is why the racist imagery struck me so hard, versus other books I’ve read like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huck Finn.

I believe it is because those stories were consumed as Literature (with a capital L) and in a scholastic setting. There was discussion and analysis that framed the reading of the books, and the “language of the time” was part of that larger critical discussion. That Howard and company were “genre” authors shouldn’t diminish their stories or the impact of their language, but I it feels more jarring in writing intended primarily for “entertainment”.

I’m a firm believer that genre stories can tackle tough subject matter, including social issues and politics. That said, outlets like Weird Tales and other pulp magazines were very much intended as entertainment during their heyday around the 1920’s. The very concept of “pulps” identified that this was not literature or high-brow stuff. It is writing as pure escapism, and I often read it because I want to escape the depressing and nasty things delivered by the media in a seemingly never-ending stream these days. So for it to appear in my escapist pleasure reading, I was angry and turned off.

I’m interested to know how the rest of you handle language that is offensive or distressing to you when you come across it.

Do you continue reading and try to “separate the art from the artist”? Do you stop reading it and find something else? Do you throw the book across the room and recoil in terror? Although I finished that initial story, I skipped later ones where I saw racist text, since I knew I wouldn’t enjoy the stories.

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Book Review: “Kind Nepenthe” by Matthew V. Brockmeyer

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I haven’t picked up a thriller in a while.

I snagged a copy of Kind Nepenthe after checking out some reviews and having a quick back-and-forth with author Matthew V. Brockmeyer on Twitter. I was interested in the idea of a supernatural horror story that is based in part on true events.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Kind Nepenthe follows the story of Rebecca, a California post-hippy, who lives in a remote Northern California mountain town along with her daughter Megan and boyfriend Calendula. The three of them are roped into running a marijuana growing operation “off the grid” for an unscrupulous drug dealer named Coyote. This particular area is named “Homicide Hill” which is a not-so-subtle reference to some terrible events in its checkered past.

On another part of the mountain, a meth dealer named “Diesel Dan” is trying to straighten his life out while expecting his first grandchild. Circumstances involving his son DJ, and DJ’s girlfriend Katie, make this more difficult than he’d like though.

Throughout the story, there are strands of the supernatural at play. Brockmeyer teases visions and interactions with ghosts, so the characters aren’t sure if the place is haunted or whether they are going crazy from isolation and drugs.

Kind Nepenthe is a slow burn. It’s plot unfolds at a very leisurely pace, and gives you a large amount of backstory for almost the entire cast. While this is great for character development and realism, I can see some readers being put off by the lack of consistent action. The real meat of the conflict is in the third act, but it takes a while to get there. Plus, the first two acts imply a major conflict between the two casts of characters, which ultimately never happens, as the ending veers off into a different and unexpected direction.

Kind Nepenthe is well written tale of horror and suspense, with a very interesting setting. If you enjoyed The Shining or Mr. Splitfoot then you should probably check it out.

What I Liked:

  • Strong character development
  • Interesting setting and backdrop
  • Some well-placed literary horror references

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Pacing could have been better
  • No major conflict between the main characters seemed like a missed opportunity
  • The ending is very quick and relies on Epilogue

Book Review: “Popsickle Heart” by J. Peter W.

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Popsickle Heart is bizarro fiction.

If you’re not familiar with the genre, here is Wikipedia’s definition. It’s important to grasp what bizarro is to give you a frame of reference for this review.

I’ve read numerous bizarro books and stories, and some of my own work has even been classified as “bizarro” by editors. I had seen some buzz about Popsickle Heart on Twitter and decided to check it out. While not without problems, I enjoyed the book.

Like most bizarro books, I’d classify Popsickle Heart as a novella. It’s brief and can be finished in one or two sittings. I enjoy novellas because they tend to strip away a lot of the extra fluff and get right to the point, which is especially important when you’re dealing with strange subject matter. So if you dig short reads, that is already a bonus.

Popsickle Heart is a story about Edgar the clown. He meets a girl, The Wheelchair Spot, and immediately falls for her. When he finds out she has lost her heart, Edgar undertakes a quest to retrieve it. Weirdness ensues.

The surreal suburban/carnival fantasy that J. Peter W. lays out is wonderful. Edgar drives a crappy old ice cream truck, with perpetually peeling paint, around a town full of skinless and eyeless people. Children torment him, demanding ice cream from a van with empty freezers. His home has been assaulted by some kind of weird ooze and a bunch of cigarette smoking toughs that have been hired to box up and move all his belongings with seemingly no explanation. Even his candy peg-legged neighbor Rod doesn’t know anything about it.

Along for this insane ride is Edgar’s sock puppet, Lumbee. Easily my favorite part of the book, Lumbee is a brilliant character. He is angry, brash, and well personified. The dialogue between Edgar and Lumbee is great, and you often forget it is a crazy clown talking to himself…or is it?

Edgar and Lumbee find themselves transported into a parallel dimension of sorts, the Carn-Evil, where cardboard clown cut outs and statue people wage war against each other over cupcake eyeballs. Yes, you just read that correctly.

He meets a mysterious Pink Woman who will lead him further into this realm of strangeness, and ultimately to what he seeks.

I don’t want to go into more plot detail as it would spoil what is a fairly short book, so lets talk a little bit about mechanics.

J. Peter W. does a solid job with characterization in just a few pages. Edgar, Lumbee, and Rod are standouts that probably get the most detail. Some of the other characters a a bit flat, literally and figuratively. His prose is great, and often poetic in some free-flowing sentences. However, I had one major gripe. He repeatedly ended a number of paragraphs with similes and metaphors. Some of the worked, while others were just way too strange and nonsensical, and seemed “weird for the sake of weird” which pulled me out of the story.

I will recommend Popsickle Heart to anyone who enjoys bizarro fiction, or absurdist/surrealist works. It is a quick and fun read, and the relationship between Edgar and Lumbee elevate it beyond its flaws.

What I Liked:

  •  The strange plot, juxtaposing banal suburbs with an insane carnival
  • The existential horror of eyeless children demanding ice cream
  • Lumbee

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Repeated similes and metaphors that fell flat
  • Some characters needed to be fleshed out just a little more
  • The book could have been about 20 pages longer and explored more of the Carn-Evil

Book Review: “Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe” by Thomas Ligotti

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It isn’t often I finish a book and list it as a “favorite”, but Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti are now amongst my favorite collections of short stories.

I received the combined volume, released as part of the “Penguin Classics” series, as a gift. I’ve been working my way through it over the past few months and I can finally sit down to pen a review. Now if only I can figure out where to start…

Everything about these books is dense. Dense prose, dense concepts, even a dense foreward by Jeff VanderMeer. His description of Ligotti’s work is both praise, and a warning to the reader. I only came to understand it after finishing the books.

At a fundamental level, Ligotti’s writing is weird horror. By “weird” I mean the style of horror that invokes nihilistic cosmic dread, in the Lovecraftian vein. Light on gore and overt scares, it leaves you with a disturbed sense of uneasiness and disillusion. Recurring themes of puppets, dreams, clowns, and inescapable fate are threaded through both books, as are images of strange worlds that exist just behind the facade of our own reality.

Ligotti’s prose is exquisite and intimidating. He’s not afraid to use fifteen words when he only needs three. Between this and the themes of raw existential horror that permeate his work , I call this “literature”.download (2)

I’d put up this collection as proof the horror genre can transcend pulp stories, and be considered actual literature. Tales like “The Last Feast of Harlequin” and “The Shadow at The Bottom of The World” are masterwork short stories. These aren’t monsters and aliens like Stephen King or Dean Koontz provide to you. There is something fundamentally unnerving about Ligotti’s tales that gets to the core of human existence, in all of its absurd horror. Decayed urban landscapes, inevitable death, and bizarre untrustworthy narrators abound.

Of the two books, Grimscribe is the stronger and more even-handed. I enjoyed a number of the stories in Songs… but they were of varying quality. Grimscribe feels much more confident and uniform. His use of dark, ironic humor is also better honed in this second collection.

downloadI would recommend Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe to readers who normally don’t like horror, but enjoy traditional literature. However, I would NOT recommend it to horror fans who enjoy a more straightforward, tangible, “pulpy” genre style. These stories are literally tiring. Every new page greets you with a wall of words, and very little white space. They demand full attention, and the thought provoking concepts they present take time to mull over and unpack. It’s no wonder it took me almost three months to get through roughly 450 pages.

That said, these stories are worth the investment for anyone who enjoys tales of dread and existential horror. They’re the kind that stick with you and rattle around in your head for days after you read them.

What I Liked

  • Beautifully crafted, poetic prose
  • Thoughtful explorations of high-concept horror
  • Really creepy puppets and clowns

What I Didn’t Like

  • Uneven quality of stories in the first collection
  • Stories were almost exclusively written in 1st person POV, which got repetitive at times
  • Reading it was such a mental exercise, it took a long time to finish

Writing in Your Books is Good Fun

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image credit: LitReactor.com

If his soul could cast a reflection so brilliant, and so intensely sweet, he might beg God to make such use of him. But that would be too simple. But that would be too childish. The actual sphere is not clear like this, but turbulent, angry. A vast human action is going on. Death watches. So if you have some happiness, conceal it. And when your heart is full, keep your mouth shut also.

It’s Friday, and I’m ripping this incredibly controversial topic straight from the headlines.

It’s a dispute that can destroy relationships, families, and book clubs.

The question at hand?

IS IT OK TO WRITE IN YOUR BOOKS?????

My answer?

YES.

I actually like to look back over highlighted passages that spoke to me, as well as jot little notes in the margins of stories to capture my in-the-moment thoughts on them. I use the “highlight passage” feature on my Kindle regularly.

Plus, when I purchase a used paperback, I actually like finding highlights and notes from the previous owner. In a way it makes me feel like that particular copy is more special and has a bit more to tell than it’s mass-pressed brothers and sisters.

David Cranmer over on LitReactor agrees with me.

Change our minds.