Riding Shotgun: Read or Die

It’s kind of self-explanatory, really.

There’s a saying that declares all good writers to be good readers, and I suppose this is probably true. And while my stature as a writer is up for debate, I am quite confident in my capacity as a reader. I’m a damned good one.

Yeah, I spend way too much time slumped down in my seat in darkened movie theaters, and the most anticipated part of September for me is the new seasons of my favorite television shows, but I still read. A lot, in fact.

Actually, I can’t conceive of a life without books. When somebody tells me, “Oh, I’m not a reader,” I think to myself, “Well, learn how to, you lazy bastard.”

I can’t imagine anyone that can read and not want to. I can understand a person working long hours to support a family having little time for something as comparatively trivial as recreational reading, but if you’ve got the time, why don’t you?

“I’m not a reader.”

What the fuck is wrong with these people? Are their lives so filled with excitement, adventure and intrigue that the tales told between the pages would serve only as an anticlimax to their own personal reality?

I’ve met these people. I know them. Unless they have a secret life where they put on costumes and go fight crime in the after-hours, than the answer is decidedly “No.”

Buy a freakin’ book.

And here — as if you didn’t see this coming — are some suggestions.

As I’ve mentioned before in this column, I’m a big fan of horror and fantasy. If it deals with the dark, supernatural underbelly of our bland little universe, I’m willing to give it a shot. Fiction can bend whatever laws it wants, so why not stray a little farther from the path?

Now, like all genres, dark fiction has its share of pulp. In fact, it might have a little more than most. The legion of hardcore fans the genre has can support a lot of crap. But, even some of the mediocre work surpasses the more acclaimed period dramas and romance novels you’ll find on the shelf.

So, here are three authors to take a look at. Picked, in my opinion, from the cream of the crop, they are the best of the best of the — well, you get the idea.

I mentioned Brit Neil Gaiman in this column before when I was discussing comic books. Best known for his DC Comics cult hit, Sandman, he has cemented himself as a bright light in an industry dealing with dark themes.

Sandman, which made its run in the early to mid-90′s, tells the story of Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams. Peopling his world with characters drawn from every culture and myth imaginable, the comic became an adult reader’s dream, mixing imagination and intellectualism in equal parts.

The series garnered Gaiman the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award for best writer four years running. Sandman #19 took the World Fantasy Award for best short story, making it the first comic to win a literary award.

With the title of “smartest man in comics” firmly in place, he ended Sandman with issue #75 and went on to conquer the literary world as a whole.

Angels and Visitations, a collection of his short fiction and essays released in 1993, went through six printings by the small press, DreamHaven. Good Omens, a novel written with British literary absurdist Terry Pratchett, deals with the complications of planning an apocalypse and has become an international bestseller.

His collection of short fiction, Smoke and Mirrors, was released by Avon in 1998 and was quickly snatched up by his fans from the comic world. It paved the way for his most recent and most successful novel, American Gods.

If gods cannot exist without the belief from their followers, what happens when those believers are thinned out? That’s the question that American Gods asks and answers.

America is, after all, a melting pot of cultures. If immigrants brought their gods with them on the journey to the States, and have since disregarded them, where are they now? American Gods tells the tale of those surviving deities and the forces that would seek to replace them.

Like in Sandman, Gaiman draws from a multitude of cultural resources, from the well known to the ridiculously obscure. It’s smart, funny and as entertaining as popular fiction can get.

Gaiman has spread the wealth around by donating his time, sweat and money for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, an organization dedicated to fighting for the First Amendment rights of comic artists and retailers. In 1997, the fund awarded Gaiman its Defender of Liberty award for his efforts.

If the mythological realm of contemporary fantasy seem a little soft for your tastes, here’s a writer with so many sharp edges you’re likely to come away from one of her books with bloody hands.

Poppy Z. Brite might not be a name the general public is familiar with, but she has been forging a path through the realm of alternative fiction for the last decade.

I was introduced to her work in 1997 when I picked up a copy of her first short story collection Swamp Foetus, later reprinted under the title Wormwood. Originally marketed under the narrow pigeonhole of “splatterpunk,” Brite, a long-term resident of New Orleans, has since gone on to eschew any kind of categorization, and deservedly so.

Her stories manage to have the feel of poetic prose without losing the rough edges that make the work so appealing. Wormwood still ranks as my favorite collection of short stories, and the tales therein are the sort that leave bruises on the soul.

The collection’s masterpiece, “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves,” takes place in a George Romero world where the dead feast on the living in a land where the difference between the two is razor-thin.

I referred to her work as “alternative fiction,” and I do so with a great deal of trepidation, not wanting to form categories of my own. Many of her characters, you see, are male, gay and walk in the shadows of society that good civilized folk don’t even want to think about.

Her novels, Lost Souls and Drawing Blood, are several notches above her contemporaries, but don’t quite live up to her shorter work. Her third mainstream novel — if you can call any of her work “mainstream” — was Exquisite Corpse, and it is certainly the most controversial. Two of the main characters are serial killers, and the rest are hardly seemly. Dealing with subjects like rough, homosexual sex, necrophilia and cannibalism, it took a while before a publisher would even think about picking it up.

It’s one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever read. It still gives me stomach cramps after multiple readings. And that’s the best compliment I can give.

You can find those works, as well as her last short-story collection, Are You Loathsome Tonight? and the novel, The Crow: The Lazarus Heart, at national booksellers.

Some of her selection is printed through Subterranean Press, a small press that does most of its business online. I was in New Orleans over the summer and managed to find a copy of her collected essays, Guilty But Insane. In one piece, she fantasizes about sodomizing the corpse of William Burroughs.

That’s good shit.

I’ve saved the biggest name — and I use the word “biggest” loosely — for last.

To call Harlan Ellison big, after all, is just a little funny for anyone who’s met him.

I had the pleasure a couple of years ago at the I-CON sci-fi fantasy convention at Stoneybrook University on Long Island. He was signing books with another author, and I stood in line for a half-hour.

Admittedly, I had never read one of his novels, and couldn’t name a single one of his short stories. I just knew he was big, having seen his name listed as editor on countless anthologies. I decided that his autograph was worth waiting for, and picked up a cheap paperback copy of one of his short story collections. As the line grew impatient, a little man — not too much taller than five feet with silver-gray hair and a manic look in his eyes — ran up and began telling people to come forward and form a separate line if all they wanted was Ellison’s autograph.

He was excitable to the point of bouncing around, and when he got a sizeable group moving forward with myself included, he sat down and continued signing.

That was my first experience with Harlan Ellison. My second was when I got home with my cheap, yet signed, paperback. Titled The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, it held some of his most praised and prized stories.

Imaginative, cynical and somehow ruthless, I caught on pretty quickly why he was once referred to as “the angry young man of science fiction.” The stories were, like the man himself, manic and unapologetic.

And he doesn’t stop with written fiction. He’s penned countless movie scripts, essays, reviews and newspaper columns. His essays “The Glass Teat” and “The Other Glass Teat” are still a staple of media classes.

Born in 1934, his career in writing is about to hit the half-century mark. An honest to goodness Brooklyn gang member and juvenile delinquent in his youth, he’s consistently gone against the grain, challenging the beliefs held dear by American society.

The best adjectives I can use for him are “rabid” and “absofuckinlutely brilliant.” But, that’s just me.

If you want to find out for yourself, the best way is to pick up The Essential Ellison, a massive compendium of his work. Some of his better known collections include Deathbird Stories, Strange Wine, Angry Candy and what is probably my favorite title of any book ever, Love is Just Another Word for Sex Misspelled.

Some people love writers who would be the centerpiece of conversation at a good dinner party. I love writers who would piss on the hors d’oeuvres and throw salad forks down the hostess’s cleavage.

Again, that’s just me.

Feel that joining me in literary deviancy? Check out the above-mentioned authors at their respective web sites: neilgaiman.com, poppyzbrite.com, and harlanellison.com.

And happy reading. Or happy whatever it is you “I’m not a reader” fuckers do. Pick up a book, for god’s sake. It does an unconscious urge to delve into the root causes of man’s psychological turmoil good.

Pass it on.

Article © 2002 by Steve Spotswood