Wednesday, February 16, 2011

February Reading / The Sick Thrill of Bad Writing

OK first things first. Billy has asked for a picture of the skull mug, & I have finally found my digital camera cable, so here goes.

I call it Still Life With February Reading Pile and Breakfast

As you can infer from the picture, I've fallen into my usual trap of reading several books at once.

That's not even all of them. I'm 50 pages into a novel called The Graphologist's Apprentice, I'm skimming a couple of scriptwriting references, &... um, that actually is all of them, if you count those.

Sean raises a really interesting point (in his comment on the Kindle post), which I'd like take up – as much as I trashed Darkness on the Edge of Town, as much as it deserved to be trashed, there is a certain pleasure to be found in reading through a bad book, & feeling “smugly superior & kind of dirty” afterwards.

Partially this is the phenomenon of the throw-away book, discussed previously.

Partially this is the feel-good factor, as a writer, of reading something inherently flawed. Skimming back over the past couple months' reading, I mean OK I haven't been churning through great, lofty works of literature, but books like The Book of Skulls, The Remains of the Day & Double Indemnity are stone-cold classics of their genres. I take a lot of inspiration from good fiction, but it's also daunting.

I know that Silverberg, Ishiguro & Cain didn't appear out of nowhere, riding a sea shell across the Mediterranean. Silverberg probably wrote a ton of hack sci fi, Ishiguro probably wrote awkward & self-important lit student stuff (maybe he even wrote some student poetry!). Cain probably worked as a journalist & wrestled alligators for decade or two – actually wait, I know what Cain did, he was a mostly-unproduced Hollywood screenwriter. Ha ha ha. Awesome.

Having said that, when you read something that's widely seen as a masterpiece, & rightly so, it can be kind of depressing. The distance between your own abilities & those of the guys you're reading seems huge. Insurmountable.

You can use all sorts of strategies to talk yourself out of this funk. You can think: Shit, these guys get paid to work on their writing full-time, year after year. Once/if I make it, I'll have the freedom to concentrate on my work like they do.
Don't kid yourself, man. Knut Hamsun is and will always be the voice of the streets.
Or: I have my own thing going on. I bet Knut fucking Hamsun would have more trouble writing my stuff, than I'd have writing his. I'm REAL. I'm the... the voice of the streets!

Or: Maybe I AM this good, & I just don't REALISE it! I should call up a well-meaning friend & bully some compliments out of them.

Or, most poisonously: Well, I'm not as good, but that's OK. Maybe I don't need to be that good to get by.

One of the simplest & most persuasive strategies is to read some bad writing, i.e. someone who's worse than you. The ideal characteristics, for me, of a feel-good bad book are:
- it's been published & has sold well
- it's a genre or field that I write in, or would like to
- it's actually bad. Which is to say it's not The Da Vinci Code bad, where it's very stupid but also slickly written, but it's proper actual “I don't know what I'm doing here” bad.

But the all time best feel-good bad book is the one that's:
- written by one of your favourite authors.

I cannot describe the joy I felt when I read Interzone, which is a collection of early (pre-Junkie) writing by William S. Burroughs. It wasn't a terrible book, but it was kind of off-kilter and trying too hard. It felt like something a friend might have brought to my writer's group back in the day – like something I might have brought along. I almost cried. 'Cos, like, I really do want to be Burroughs when I grow up (except straight & better-adjusted).

So I'll re-formulate my verdict on Darkness on the Edge of Town as follows: if you're not interested in horror, this will confirm everything you suspected about the genre. If you are interested in horror, like if you write horror, then give this a quick read. This guy actually won the Bram Stoker Award, though admittedly not for this book. Wow. It also clarifies the amount of skill that goes into those cheesy King stories like "The Mist" or Needful Things, where an entire town gets attacked or destroyed by something. It's not as easy as it looks, apparently.

If anyone else can recommend some terrible works by great authors let me know. I'm particularly interested in terrible early works by great authors.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


I've heard horror people say good things about Brian Keene, like he's one of the best of the new crop of writers, he's Stephen King with a brain, etc. I like to keep in touch with the horror genre. Plus I wanted to test drive the Kindle, & this was one of the 182 books Emma sorted me out with. So I ended up reading this turkey.

There is a town, and on the edge, itg is dark

Darkness on the Edge of Town. OK. You don't need to be a music scholar to identify the Doors quote the title is borrowed from. & this is literally a story about a town which wakes up surrounded by darkness,
& everyone who goes into it disappears
& the darkness is evil
& it infects people's thoughts
& turns them evil
& holy fucking shit can I even be bothered reviewing this book?

Let's pause for a moment to consider this last question.

It is Wednesday afternoon. A grey day, but mild. Looks like we've beaten the worst of the Scottish winter. I'm drinking Scarecrow Ale from a pint glass shaped like a human skull. My room is messy & probably could do with a clean.

Elsewhere in the world all sorts of things are happening – world leaders are in meetings deciding the fate of the economy, the fate of developing nations, the fate of the human race. Mothers are collecting their children from sports practice, or watching their children at piano recitals. Police are interviewing suspects in a burglary case, or preparing to smash in the door of a meth lab somewhere. Rob Zombie is on world tour.

This photo is substantially more frightening than anything which happens in Darkness on the Edge of Town, and not just because they're hugging Berlusconi.

Someone give the Super Beast a fucking medal.

Whereas I'm sitting here, having read Darkness on the Edge of Town, and wondering if I need to review it.

The issue here is that this book is so... it's not even poorly written, it's barely written, you can tell the author could have done better, but just couldn't quite rouse himself to the task.

The amount of references to pot there are in this book is telling. When I'm writing a big project I tend to chain smoke, & because of this I have smoking on my mind so everyone in the story I'm writing turns out to be a smoker, or an ex-smoker, or a lapsed ex-smoker, or just a random someone who wants to talk about cigarettes. I think Brian Keene was stoned when wrote this. The whole time. I think that would explain the cataclysmic lack of effort on display here.

Sorry. I don't want to diss marijuana, I know a lot of people enjoy the stuff & find it a comforting & enjoyable way to unwind at the end of the day. I'm just baffled by this book, & wondering how it could have come to pass. I'm grasping at straws.

Can I be bothered reviewing this book?

Pfft. I dunno. Probably not. I have already expended more effort in considering it than Brian Keene has done over the course of writing this Stephen King rip-off which, given the fact our culture already has King's The Mist, James Herbert's (bad, but better than this) The Dark, & Peter Straub's so-so Floating Dragon, didn't actually need to be written. It's a misbegotten book. Someone capable (but cheesy) like King would have used this as an excuse to look at small town human nature through a range of character stereotypes. Keene either doesn't understand human nature or can't be bothered climbing this hill, so instead you get these 3-4... God I don't know if you could even call them “people”, they're worse than stock movie characters... & it doesn't really have a plot. The “darkness on the edge of town” situation has already started by the time the book opens, it's still going by the time the book ends, & nothing of any importance happens in between. The protagonist has a dumb plan he acknowledges comes from The Mist – this comes across as embarrassingly lazy rather than post-modern – it doesn't work, nothing happens, people get killed, the prot can't even be bothered feeling guilty about it afterwards... & oh God damn it the epigraphs, that same old Lovecraft quote, but with no relevance to the...

...can I be...

No I cannot be bothered reviewing this book.


FILE UNDER... “could try harder”. Some of the online reviews come down heavy on this one too, in fact I found a couple of people wondering whether this was actually Brian Keene's writing, since it seems so much poorer than his other stuff. (!!!) Maybe he knocked it off in a week to pay a debt.

WOULD GO WELL WITH... Something better.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Something New

I just finished up at my office, after two years working there. The plan is to bum around Edinburgh for a couple months working on writing projects, then set off and see the world. Backpacking, doing volunteer work on farms, etc. So yay, probably more time for reading.

But! But! Check this out. Check out what they gave me for my leaving present!

This is not my actual Kindle, this is an image from the net. Can't find my digital camera cable.  Grumble grumble.

Aww. Yeah. The Kindle Mk III. This is coming at a good time, actually. Firstly because I'm travelling, so I was already stressing about how many books I could fit in my tramping pack. Secondly because, ever so gradually, I'd been coming round to the idea of e-readers.

I say “coming round to the idea” because initially I hated the thought of these things. The book is a classic, functional and friendly format. They're colourful & they feel good to hold. Don't fix something that isn't broken. & also there's a certain pleasure from having a plenitude of books around you, all the different sizes & covers & the design on their spines, sitting there on the bookshelf. I-Pods have already more or less ruined the experience of shopping for music, so now something has to ruin the experience of shopping for books!?

On the other hand, there is the mounting guilt I feel at being a person who collects too much stuff. There was a time when this was a cool & sexy way to be, but everyone's freaking out about the waste we're creating and the planet is going down the tubes so maybe converting things to data is a good idea, I don't know. Also I don't want to be a person who has to hire a fleet of vans every time he shifts house. I live a very transitory life at the moment, I shouldn't be loading myself down with tons of little objects.

I am still conflicted about the whole thing, & I don't think anything will ever take away my love for A5 glossy paperbacks from little indie publishers (hi Dover!), but I have to admit this device is handy. Through various means I have already loaded the Kindle with 182 books – all kinds of shit. Didn't cost me anything, & there is space for much more. Hurray.

For anyone who's interested I will now give you a quick run down of its functionality.

It has wi-fi, but only to access the “Kindle Store”, which is Amazon, where e-books are mostly a huge rip-off, although many classics are available for free since they're out of copyright. Books from Amazon come in some specialised format they've developed for the Kindle. However you can plug it into a computer's USB port, then drag & drop pretty much anything onto it. It reads RTF and PDF files for instance, although in the latter case it's hard to resize the document to fit the screen.

The screen is weird. When I first unpacked the Kindle from its box I thought it had a decal sticker on the screen telling me how to switch it on, since the thing was obviously off and uncharged, but it turned out the message was actually the factory pre-set. Duh. Because it's magnetically charged ink or something. So what you have is a black and grey display which has the same qualities as a page. It doesn't reflect glare, it isn't backlit, etc. It's quite easy on the eye while reading.

One interesting feature is that you can re-size the text. The default setting packs slightly less text on the screen than you'd get on one page of a paperback novel, but you can increase the font size to get less words on the page. This is weirdly soothing, like reading a large print book – you don't need to squint so much while you read (but you're shuttling through the “pages” like crazy). “Pages” turn one at a time, so it's annoying when you're flipping back 20 screens or more to re-check some detail or other, but most books have an interactive table of contents you can use to jump into other chapters.

Perhaps the most endearing feature of the thing is that when it goes to sleep, it comes up with a screensaver which is either a portrait of a “great author” (so far I've had Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, etc) or some old calligraphy illumination, or some weird, antiquated woodcut of people doing something book-related. It's kind of cool. Or gimmicky. Not sure.

I've already test driven the thing, reading a trashy novel (more on that later), & yeah it has the obvious “new toy” appeal. A strange experience. I guess I enjoyed it. Afterwards I switched back to reading a paperback, and felt mild relief at being back in my comfort zone.

I'll let you know how I get on with this thing.

Has anyone else used one of these, or a rival device?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


What is it like, inside a James M Cain?  It is a strange.

It smokes the cigarette and it writes the crime fiction or it gets the hose
I’m talking from limited experience – the only other Cain I’ve read is Serenade – so someone correct me if I err or overstep the mark.
Inside a James M Cain it is always Los Angeles.  It is always the 30s.  & you can trust no-one, & you know this, because it is always hard boiled.  HARD!  BOILED!
My detractors will say: “Of course it’s hard boiled, it’s crime fiction.” 
& OK I acknowledge this.  In such stories you have hard boiled detectives uneasily working alongside the hard boiled cops while sleeping with hard boiled society dames.  The mechanics are hard boiled, the cigarette girls are hard boiled.  The sports journalists are particularly hard boiled.  OK.  Yes. It's noiry, noiry crime.
In a James M Cain the insurance agents are hard boiled.  Their secretaries too.  The teenage girls are hard boiled, & their boyfriends who are studying to be industrial chemists are hard boiled.  Hell, in Serenade the opera singers were MEGA hard boiled, and don’t even ask about the orchestra conductors. 
In a James M Cain babies sit in their cots, look up at their mothers, and think:
I was through with her.  I needed out – out as in out, out as in now.  But any way I figured it, she had the milk.  Nothing was going to change that.  And then there was the problem of the bars, of not having learnt to walk.  Yeah I’d been fixed, and good.
The hard boiled baby is thinking in the first person past tense

Everyone knows the story – an insurance agent falls for a rich housewife, & together they plot to murder the husband, make it look like an accident, & collect on the life insurance. It's a well-worn story, except not so much when Cain wrote it. Cain is one of the guys who got the ball rolling on this kind of book. & there are a lot of beautiful things going on in Double Indemnity. The language and narration – hard boiled though it may be – is fantastic. Cain doesn't waste time describing anything he doesn't need to, or telling us anything we already know. His occasional passages of description, when they do come, are clipped to the point of awesomeness:

Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts

That's the sexy dame. Or try this:

There's nothing so dark as a railroad track in the middle of the night.

That's the crime scene. It's just awesome. It's inspirational.

Because of this the story moves at incredible speed; the book is only 140 pages long, but has the complexity of something much longer. The famous (& good) Billy Wilder film covers, to my memory, something like 60% of the plot of the book.

One major difference from book to screen is the housewife, the be-all & end-all of femme fatales, the incredibly named Phyllis Nirdlinger.

“...But there's something in me, I don't know what. Maybe I'm crazy. But there's something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I'm so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness...”

In the film adaptation, co-written by Raymond Chandler, you get a lot about how the husband's a drunk & he's awful to her, & he won't give her a divorce. You get a lot of dancing around the subject of murder before our “hero” Walter decides to commit. In Cain's original, Walter doesn't need much talking around. Under Phyllis' pajamas she has a shape to set a man nuts, & as for Phyllis herself, she's a one-woman Death cult. I can see why Wilder & Chandler made Walter more of a "normal guy" & cut the macabre stuff out of the script – who knows how it would have played with an audience – but to me Cain's version rings true. "Normal guys" are capable of all kinds of shit. A cold blooded femme who's probably killed before, & is prepared to kill again, isn't just heartless. She's motherfucking crazy! It makes her much more dangerous, & much more interesting.

& Jesus Christ you should see how all the Death stuff plays out by the end of the book.

I love these old pulp covers.  Check out how the dame is seething with evil-ness

After two books – Serenade was brilliant too, by the way – I'm converted to Cain. I'd never read crime fiction until about two years ago, when a friend (hi Steve) suggested that as a sometime screenwriter I might benefit from the stark, pared-down plots. I'm not much for detectives & murder mysteries, but novels like this, where you're right in with the action & watching the whole sordid mess play out, are a hell of a lot of fun. It's a shadow-version of the world, where anyone's capable of anything, a much bleaker take on human nature than you'll find in most other writing.

GOOD? Yes. Very good. It'll take you two hours to read, you'll most likely love it.

FILE UNDER: crime, the Evil that Men Do, Will They Get Away With It, macabre Death worship, insurance is really interesting when you think about it.

WOULD GO WELL WITH: The Getaway by Jim Thomson. It'd be hard to say which writer has a more pessimistic take on humanity, & both books have much weirder endings than their corresponding films.