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"A Certain Slant of Light..."
Christopher Conlon's Blog
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Today I'm happy to announce my ongoing collaboration with painter Joe Bucciano! The Bucciano/Conlon Project features my brand-new stories that respond to Joe's wonderful art as well as his brand-new paintings responding to my writing. It's all available absolutely free on Joe's website, right here: http://joebucciano.com/bucciano-conlon-project.htm

If you like what you see at the Project, please check back from time to time--we'll be putting up new stories and new paintings just as soon as they're ready!

Balconies
"Balconies" by Joe Bucciano. My story based on this painting is available at the Bucciano/Conlon Project!

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George Clayton Johnson, who died on Christmas Day, was my friend.

If his name doesn’t register, most likely you’re not particularly a fan of science fiction or vintage television. If you were, you’d know that George was the co-author of the novel Logan’s Run (with William F. Nolan), that he wrote the first broadcast episode of the original Star Trek, and that he created several of the most memorable segments of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. He also co-wrote the original story for Ocean’s 11, which became a Sinatra Rat Pack classic that has since been remade by Brad Pitt and Co.—with two sequels to boot.

George, who I first met through correspondence in the late ’90s and then in person in Los Angeles in 2002, was unlike any writer I’ve ever encountered. But then, he was unlike any person I’ve ever encountered. Warm, witty, and completely without the kind of ego one might expect of someone so celebrated, he was utterly down-to-earth—even as his high-flown philosophical musings could seem at times to have been beamed in from some other galaxy. Part sage and part crackpot—sometimes both in the same sentence!—he never failed to beguile me, whether in multi-hour telephone conversations or on the single unforgettable afternoon I spent interviewing him in his little house in Pacoima, where he had bright Christmas lights blinking everywhere inside in the middle of August. I was proud to be chosen to introduce him as the keynote speaker at the Twilight Zone Convention in 2002, prouder still to have been given the opportunity to write the introduction to his wonderful collection All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories, and perhaps proudest of all to have gotten this marvelously talented man—who wrote little in his last years—to pen an original short story for my anthology Poe’s Lighthouse.

George was never prolific, which partly accounts for his not being as famous as some of his contemporaries such as Ray Bradbury or Richard Matheson. But make no mistake: at his best he was fully their equal. If you doubt me, look up his classic Twilight Zone episodes “Nothing in the Dark,” starring a very young Robert Redford as Mr. Death, or “Kick the Can,” a beautifully evocative story of old age written when George was in his early thirties.

When Steven Spielberg decided to remake one episode of the series for the ’80s Twilight Zone: The Movie, he had 156 to choose from. The one he chose was George’s “Kick the Can.” That’s how good George Clayton Johnson was.

In later years, regrettably, George and I mostly fell out of touch. The last time I heard from him was a telephone call around 2008 in which he told me he wouldn’t be able to contribute to my Richard Matheson tribute anthology He Is Legend. I didn’t ask him about it; he was nearly eighty by then, and I didn’t want to pry. We chatted for a while, just everyday things, and that was it. Over the next few years I thought of picking up the phone to call him now and then, or dropping him a letter, but I didn’t. I heard through mutual friends that his health was failing, which made me sad—but also that at conventions he attended he had been praising my collection Thundershowers at Dusk: Gothic Stories, which made me feel roughly ten feet tall.

And then came the news, on Christmas Day.


George Clayton Johnson was one of my heroes. He always will be.

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Dweller in a Different Darkness:
Reconsidering August Derleth

Originally published at RA for All: Horror
http://raforallhorror.blogspot.com/
Oct. 14, 2015

Copyright © 2015 by Christopher Conlon

Once upon a time August Derleth wasn’t particularly controversial. Growing up in the 1970s, I remember getting his paperback genre anthologies from the library—Beyond Time and Space, The Other Side of the Moon, Dark Things—and at some point my mind made the connection between the editor of those books and the name that occasionally popped up in the “Based on a Story by” credits of the horror-show reruns I liked. I vaguely realized that Derleth was the author of the “Solar Pons” Sherlock Holmes pastiches that appeared in mystery magazines here and there, and that he was somehow associated with H.P. Lovecraft as well. That was about all—just a lesser light in my mental collection of People Whose Names Appeared on the Covers of Books.

Prolific and protean, Derleth—who died in 1971—was quite a significant figure in the American literary scene of his time. Author of something like 150 titles, Derleth wrote everything from mainstream fiction set in his native Wisconsin to nature journals to well-regarded poetry to biographies of Emerson and Thoreau to horror stories set in Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos” (a term he coined, by the way).

Today, however, Derleth’s name is mud, at least in terms of the horror fiction by which he is best remembered. All aspects of his association with Lovecraft (commonly called “HPL”), for whom he served as a de facto literary executor after the latter’s death in 1937, have been thrown into question—his handling of Lovecraft’s manuscripts, his copyrights, his very literary legacy. Though Derleth founded Arkham House with Donald Wandrei in 1939 for the specific purpose of keeping Lovecraft’s work in print, Derleth’s editions of Lovecraft’s stories were discovered to have been riddled with all kinds of errors. A fervent band of Lovecraft aficionados has spent the last couple of decades setting things right and publishing new, corrected editions of the Master’s works. That’s certainly a good thing.

What has not been so good, however, is the trashing August Derleth’s reputation has undergone as a result. Although it’s indisputable that he had more to do with Lovecraft’s remaining in print and available to the reading public than anyone else in the first several decades after the author’s death, many of today’s Lovecraftians actively despise Derleth, referring to him in their books and monographs (to say nothing of Internet postings) in the most savagely splenetic terms.

To be sure, some of Derleth’s behavior surrounding HPL’s estate was ethically dubious. Perhaps the main bone of contention has been Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft, stories ostensibly based on HPL’s notes and outlines and published with a collaborative byline but discovered long afterward to have been mostly—often solely—the work of August Derleth. This is unfortunate, and impossible to defend.

But the truth is that Lovecraft was never more than a minor part of August Derleth’s extraordinary publishing career. Despite his regard for Lovecraft the man, whom he knew through correspondence, he never took the Cthulhu Mythos very seriously, claiming that HPL wrote the stories only “as pure entertainment, no more” and seemingly taking the same attitude when writing his own tales set within the Lovecraft universe (some published as collaborations, others under Derleth’s solo byline). He was far busier writing huge numbers of important novels in his Sac Prairie Saga along with deep meditations on nature and community in his small corner of Wisconsin—books he considered his major work. Despite the importance of Arkham House to him (he sometimes kept it afloat with his own money), writing Lovecraftian fiction was never more than a lucrative sideline for August Derleth.

Yet today, more than four decades after his death, the attacks on Derleth from within the Lovecraft community are constant and unending. He resides in a kind of Index Expurgatorius at least as fearsome and forbidden as the Necronomicon—one reads that Derleth was “a hack,” “talentless,” “a very bad writer,” “incompetent,” and many much less temperately expressed things.

In truth, a number of his Lovecraftian tales are excellent—the novella “The Dweller in Darkness” comes immediately to mind. But the unsuspecting reader would never know it when one of the best-known and most respected of Lovecraft scholars dismisses all of these widely-read, much-reprinted stories with magisterial disdain as “a mass of sub-literary rubbish.”

It’s time for the unique and important writer who was August Derleth to be rediscovered. Much of his work is now commercially out of print, but a lot of it is available exclusively through the August Derleth Society, which publishes its own handsome editions obtainable directly through their website (derleth.org).

Here then are three titles that an enterprising librarian might choose to begin building an August Derleth collection.

The Watchers Out of Time and Other Stories (Del Rey), credited to H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth, is the main compilation of the so-called posthumous collaborations, and it is surely the place to start. All of these tales are worthwhile, and some are excellent. “The Fisherman at Falcon Point” is surprisingly lyrical, “The Dark Brotherhood” great fun (multiple Edgar Allan Poes invade a small town!), and “The Shuttered Room”—often reprinted, twice filmed—surely qualifies as one of the most famous pieces ever to appear with Lovecraft’s byline attached. Whatever their provenance, these tales are guaranteed to be of interest to the Lovecraft fan who has already read everything published under the Master’s solo byline and is ready to branch out into other aspects of the Cthulhu Mythos.

For the reader who enjoys The Watchers Out of Time and is curious to find more horror works by August Derleth, the obvious choice is Who Shall I Say Is Calling? and Other Stories edited by Robert Weinberg and Stefan Dziemianowicz (Batteted Silicon Dispatch Box, available through the Derleth Society). This wonderful collection was put together specifically by the editors in order to provide an easy one-volume “best of” for Derleth’s weird fiction, and many of these stories deserve the name “classic”; they represent great old-fashioned spooky storytelling at its finest. As a bonus, fans of the vintage TV shows Night Gallery and Thriller will enjoy finding the originals of several episodes here, including Gallery’s “The Dark Boy” and “Logoda’s Heads” and Thriller’s “The Return of Andrew Bentley,” “A Wig for Miss Devore,” and the wonderfully pulpy “Colonel Markesan.”

Yet to give a proper representation of Derleth, something in addition to the weird tale is needed. To that end, the creative librarian should consider adding one more title, Village Year (Derleth Society), to the collection. Village Year consists of several years’ worth of journal entries (along with the occasional poem) by Derleth, mostly on the subjects of nature and small-town life in his beloved Sac Prairie, Wisconsin. Here is the opening paragraph:

“Walking through a gentle fall of snow tonight to grandfather Derleth’s, and knowing grandmother to be dying, I could not help thinking of change, and all the aspects of change eternally taking place, some clearly obvious, and so many secret, but no less eventually plain to the eye and heart: the eternal flux—and I thought: It is more than just birth and death, more than a tree gone, a house risen: the slow, inexorable changing of a way of life, the difference between youth and age, in final analysis always the gulf between generations. Snow came down with a faint whispering, and in the melancholy of my occupation with grandmother’s slow dying, I thought of these flakes as voices all around me in the still, windless air, the voices of those people and things long gone, the remote pulse of life gone by.”

Village Year is a beautiful book, one ripe for re-discovery—a journal that deserves to be ranked alongside Walden for its use of evocative detail to conjure a now vanished world, in this case a pre-World War II rural America.

Such writing proves that those who dismiss August Derleth as “talentless” and “a hack” have never read much August Derleth. But because of the decades of hostility and abuse aimed at him by overzealous fans of H.P. Lovecraft, Derleth has become, to appropriate the title of one of his best stories, a kind of “dweller in darkness” himself—a different kind of darkness. Too many readers don’t bother to try his work because of what they’ve heard, and since so many people claim it so loudly, it must be true—mustn’t it?

It isn’t. The literary worlds of the brilliant August Derleth are well worth exploring, and returning his books to the nation’s library shelves would be a great place to start.

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4th-Sep-2015 02:25 pm - The Tell-Tale Soul - My New Book
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Now available from Richard A. Lupoff's Surinam Turtle Press, an imprint of Ramble House...

TWO REMARKABLE WORLDS

In this pair of brand-new, beautifully written novellas, Christopher Conlon--author of the critically acclaimed 'Savaging the Dark' and editor of the Stoker Award-winning 'He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson'--tells two stories of two very different imagined American pasts. First up is the title piece, a vividly inventive play on Edgar Allan Poe in which we learn that 'The Tell-Tale Heart' told only part of the story--perhaps not even the most important part. Then comes 'Beyond the Silver Horizon,' in which Eugene O'Neill's 'Beyond the Horizon' is reimagined as the heart-wrenching story of a rural boy's realization that his beloved brother is something other than what he'd believed--something other than completely human....

This edition features a special introduction by John Pelan, author of 'The Colour Out of Space' and editor of 'The Century's Best Horror Fiction' and 'The Darker Side: Generations of Horror.'


http://www.amazon.com/Tell-Tale-Soul-Christopher-Conlon/dp/160543860X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1441390584&sr=1-1&keywords=tell-tale+soul

http://www.ramblehouse.com/telltalesoul.htm

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Savaging the Dark is included in the new issue of Booklist as one of their Top Ten Horror Novels published in the past year. Check it out!

http://www.booklistonline.com/ProductInfo.aspx?pid=7530019&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1

The list, in brief:

David Cronenberg: Consumed (Scribner)
Jonathan Maberry: Fall of Night (St. Martin’s/Griffin)
Adam Nevill: The House of Small Shadows (St. Martin’s)
John Scalzi: Lock In (Tor)
Marcus Sedgwick: A Love Like Blood (Pegasus)
Glen Hirshberg: Motherless Child (Tor)
David Wellington: Positive (Harper/Voyager)
Stephen King: Revival (Scribner)
Stephen Lloyd Jones: The String Diaries (Little, Brown/Mulholland)

And, of course…

Christopher Conlon: Savaging the Dark (Evil Jester)

http://www.amazon.com/Savaging-Dark-Christopher-Conlon-ebook/dp/B00KEZJXVS/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1432567942&sr=1-1&keywords=conlon+savaging

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26th-Jan-2015 04:19 pm - My New Old Book - Now Available
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Available now, for the first time....



http://www.amazon.com/Unspoken-Lost-Novel-Christopher-Conlon/dp/1503183378/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1422307050&sr=8-1&keywords=unspoken+conlon&pebp=1422307052025&peasin=1503183378

“Even though Christopher Conlon’s The Unspoken is the author’s coming-of-age novel, it is written with a mastery of style that a writer twice his age might envy. He has painted his characters, especially Robin Withers and Heather Seabright, with such luminous strokes that we are drawn to them as they move through the riveting twists and turns of this fascinating story. Conlon, a writer in full command of his craft, has a lyrical style that illuminates these characters and makes them come alive. Christopher Conlon is an extraordinary talent and a storyteller of enviable perception and sensitivity. There is little doubt we’ll have many more fine novels from this exceptionally gifted writer.”

                                                           —Aldo P. Magi, Editor Emeritus,
                                                               The Thomas Wolfe Review (1995)
6th-Sep-2014 11:02 am - New Collection Now Available
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 From the back cover...

Wild Tracks: Uncollected Writings 1985-2014 reprints the best of Christopher Conlon’s fiction, nonfiction, and verse not available in the author’s earlier books. Published over the past three decades in a wide variety of markets—from obscure, long-defunct poetry journals to national magazines such as Poets & Writers and America—many of these writings have been out of print and unavailable for years. This volume presents Christopher Conlon’s work at its finest, offering further evidence that, as Mort Castle (New Moon on the Water) asserts, “Conlon is one of the best of our time and of the times to come. He is one hell of a writer.”

Wild Tracks: Uncollected Writings 1985-2014
Mango Biscuit Press
September 2014
ISBN 9780692251799

Available from Amazon.com in trade paperback and Kindle formats.

http://www.amazon.com/Wild-Tracks-Uncollected-Writings-1985-2014/dp/0692251790/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1410015550&sr=1-1

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I’m happy to announce that my new novel from Evil Jester Press, Savaging the Dark, is now available from Amazon.com.

http://www.amazon.com/Savaging-Dark-Christopher-Conlon-ebook/dp/B00KEZJXVS/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1401997150&sr=1-1&keywords=savaging+the+dark

Mona Straw has it all—beautiful daughter, caring husband, lovely home, fulfilling job as a middle-school teacher. But one day a new man enters Mona’s life and turns it upside down, their passionate affair tilting her mind to the edge of madness—and murder.
Her lover’s name is Connor. He’s got blonde hair, green eyes…and he’s eleven years old.

ADVANCE PRAISE FOR SAVAGING THE DARK
“If there’s a single author working in the horror genre who deserves wider notice, it might be Conlon, whose astonishing A MATRIX OF ANGELS (2011) is the most wrenching serial-killer novel of the past decade. This follow-up button-pusher would pair perfectly with Alissa Nutting’s controversial TAMPA (2013), if not for the opening scene: a terrified 11-year-old boy gagged and handcuffed to a bed while our narrator, sixth-grade English teacher Mona Straw, licks the dirt from his feet. From there, we backtrack to learn of Mona’s evolving infatuation with student Connor Blue, a kid as average and unremarkable as his teacher. Connor soon graduates from extra study lessons to yard work to an overwhelming sexual relationship, with every step utterly believable as Mona cycles through giddy elation, mordant depression, and, most of all, tortured self-justifications of her actions: ‘The top buttons are undone on the blouse but that’s because I’m just casually hanging around the house, no other reason.’ Conlon’s prose is so sturdy that Mona’s impaired viewpoint (for example, her concern that the power of their relationship is shifting to Connor) almost makes sense before it plunges them both into unavoidable disaster. Conlon writes with literary depth and commercial aplomb; his days of too-little recognition seem numbered.” — Daniel Kraus, BOOKLIST (starred review)

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When They Came Back-360x360

It’s winter 1899 in Hardgrove, Nebraska—a lonely little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing ever happens in Hardgrove; farmers farm, shopkeepers tend to their shops, men gather at Mr. Henry’s Tavern to drink and discuss crop prices.

But things are about to change. It begins with a mysterious rain—an oily black rain that falls from peculiar green clouds and burns the skin. Then, one after another…the people return.

People who are supposed to be dead.

When They Came Back marks the first collaboration between writer Christopher Conlon, “one of the preeminent names in contemporary literary horror” (Booklist), and visionary art photographer Roberta Lannes-Sealey. It’s a story of the living dead told in words and photographs that’s unlike any you’ve ever encountered.

When They Came Back is available in trade paperback for $14.95 from BearManor Media (they also offer a .pdf, if you'd prefer): http://www.bearmanormedia.com/index.php?route=product/product&filter_name=Conlon&product_id=702

It's also available (paperback only) from Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/When-They-Came-Christopher-Conlon/dp/1593933940/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1388694629&sr=1-1&keywords=when+they+came+back+conlon

And from Barnes & Noble:
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/when-they-came-back-christopher-conlon/1117672429?ean=9781593933944

Happy new year!

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Book-wise, 2013 was a happy year. Not only did I have a new fiction collection released—The Oblivion Room: Stories of Violation, Evil Jester Press—but I read lots of worthwhile tomes of various types, including some brand-new 2013 releases. (I’m also counting very late 2012 releases here.) As I’ve done for the past several years, now that we’re close to year’s end I’ll list my top favorites among the new books here—with the usual disclaimer that I never make any attempt to read a representative sampling of anything. These are simply the new titles that most impressed me of the many that came under my jaded eyes in the past year. At the end of the list appears my single Favorite Read of 2013. (For the record, my previous #1 Favorite Reads have been Wild Nights! by Joyce Carol Oates [2008]; Endpoint and Other Poems by John Updike [2009]; The Longman Anthology of Gothic Verse edited by Caroline Franklin [2010]; the art book To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America [2011]; and Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram [2012].)

In some ways my list surprises me. In general I read more fiction than anything else, and I perused plenty this year—literary fiction, science fiction, some thrillers  and horror—and yet when I look at the list I see that only two novels made it, and no collections of short stories at all. At the same time, my reading of poetry fell off sharply this year—yet there are three poetry titles here. And movie books feel overrepresented to me; I don’t really read that many, or at least I thought that I didn’t. Maybe I do? My list would seem to suggest so.

Anyway, in a kind of free-associational order, here’s my list of Favorite Reads of 2013.

Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 by Thomas Doherty (Columbia University Press) is an excellent study of how in the 1930s the (mostly Jewish) Hollywood moguls attempted to appease Hitler in their desire to hold onto Germany as a lucrative foreign market for their films. Doherty describes early forgotten attempts of American filmmakers to express an anti-Nazi point of view, including the fascinating-sounding I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany (I’d love to find a copy of this), and details the bold efforts of Warner Brothers, the only studio to stand up against Hitler through the messages of its movies. (Confessions of a Nazi Spy was the movie that finally broke the blockade and allowed other studios to join the anti-Hitler bandwagon.) This is a fairly academic text, and not what I would call a breezy read, but it does recapture a lost bit of American cultural history. Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 is certainly a must-read for students of Hollywood in the 1930s.

Henry Jaglom’s My Lunches With Orson (Metropolitan Books) provides what is in some ways the final missing piece of the puzzle that was, and still is, Orson Welles. These conversations, recorded late in Welles’s life over meals at his favorite Los Angeles restaurant, are the antithesis of the fine extended interviews collected in Peter Bogdanovich’s This Is Orson Welles, where the Great Man was very aware that he was speaking for posterity. The Jaglom volume consists of more casual encounters, and over time it appears that Welles mostly forgot he was being recorded (he insisted that the recorder be hidden). As a result we get Orson with the bark off, sharing his candid opinions of many a Hollywood figure as well as his general views on life. Since this is quite uncensored, a few of the views may strike contemporary readers as slightly racist or homophobic, but that’s the value here: This is the real Orson Welles. With this volume, together with his daughter Chris’s memoir, My Father Orson Welles, we’re finally able to get a deeper look into the private side of this most astonishingly public of men.

William Friedkin’s career has long been something of a mystery to me. Director of two of the seminal classics of ’70s cinema, The Exorcist and The French Connection, he failed to thrive in later decades, never becoming the Scorsese or Spielberg he might have been—but he has continued making movies, not flaming out and vanishing from the industry like some of his colleagues (Michael Cimino of The Deer Hunter comes to mind). In The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir (HarperCollins) the filmmaker discusses the ups and downs of his career with unusual candor, placing much of the blame for his semi-downfall squarely on his own shoulders—specifically, on his feelings of invulnerability after the twin triumphs of Exorcist and Connection. The section on his doomed follow-up to that pair of masterworks, a misbegotten remake of Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear misleadingly titled Sorcerer, is especially gripping. This is a first-rate Hollywood memoir by someone who’s seen it all, and lived to tell the tale.

I discovered Aunt Ada’s Diary: A Life in 1918 Washington, D.C. by Ada Hume Williams (edited by Bonnie Coe, published by CreateSpace) almost by accident, through a brief feature in the Style section of the Washington Post. To a longtime resident of the D.C. area and former D.C. Public Schools teacher such as myself, the book sounded intriguing. It’s the actual diary from the year 1918 of a schoolteacher who lived here. Ada Hume Williams was no great literary stylist, and the diary (written at the rate of a page a day, every day, for one year) offers little insight into Ms. Williams’s psyche. But what it does offer is an absolutely fascinating glimpse into how one working woman in her early 30s lived her life nearly a hundred years ago, in a place only a few miles from where I sit typing this. The daily detail is remarkable—she tells us what happens at school that day, what she eats, whether or not she receives a letter from her “soldier boy.” (Interestingly, Solider Boy was a former student of hers, and much younger than she—yet there is no hint that this relationship caused any kind of scandal. After the war they married.) The diarist frequently visits an elderly neighbor to read to her, in this era before radios were commonly found in people’s homes. But most of all, she goes to “plays”—by which she usually means photoplays, which we call movies. She’s enamored of a now-forgotten silent star, Jack Pickford (brother of Mary), and tells us in detail what films she sees and where. Many of the pictures she attends are now lost—I nearly started drooling when, on May 23, she reports having seen Theda Bara’s Cleopatra (“The production was splendid but I didn’t think she had any real conception of the part”). I was sufficiently intrigued by her description of Mary Pickford’s Stella Maris, in which Mary plays a dual role, that I looked it up—turns out it still exists, it’s on DVD, and Netflix has it, so of course I rented it…and it turned out to be a terrific movie, just as Mrs. Williams said it was. (I’d still rather have Cleopatra, though.) I also read two strong novels by the now-forgotten Ernest Poole, America’s first winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, of whose work Mrs. Williams was also a fan. This diary provides an invaluable window into a long-lost time.

At first The Doors Unhinged by Jim Densmore (Percussive Press) may seem like a wholly unnecessary work. Twenty years ago Densmore, drummer for the 1960s rock band The Doors, penned the definitive biography of the group; titled Riders on the Storm, the book was deservedly a bestseller, and remains in print today. It’s about as good a book as any ever written about the world of rock music in that era, so what is there left to say? Plenty, as it turns out. Densmore’s new book details, depressingly, the various legal shenanigans brought to bear in his fellow band members’ attempts to wrest control of the name “the Doors” from singer Jim Morrison’s estate and Densmore himself. Much of the book is taken up with actual trial testimony, and nothing in the volume paints a pleasant picture of the other two Doors—especially late keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who is portrayed as a man completely out of touch with the original artistic vision of the group and instead focused merely on an unending hunt for ways to milk the name and music for “a few more million.” Throughout this, Densmore comes off as a likable, idealistic guy who never got the memo announcing that the values of the ’60s are now considered hopelessly naïve and passé. He’s still a believer—and that makes his account of the pathetic postscript to one of rock’s brighter legacies strangely inspiring.

In its original 1970s edition, Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection by Francis Nevins (Perfect Crime Books) was the first book of literary criticism I ever read. As a young teen I was enamored of the 1975-6 Ellery Queen TV series (still am), and it led me to the many Queen mystery novels, some of which I loved (still do). I found the Nevins book at the library—it was titled Royal Bloodline—and was immediately fascinated: a book about books? It was a new concept to me. Over three decades later Nevins has now given us this revision, and it reminds me of why I responded so strongly to the original (which I haven’t seen since the ’70s). Nevins offers the definitive overview of Ellery Queen’s career, with detailed analyses of every novel and many of the short stories and films. It’s possible to question Nevins’s critical approach at times: he has a tendency to look at the novels almost entirely as puzzles, rarely giving more than cursory consideration to such issues as style or characterization, and occasionally his judgment is so far off as to be baffling—he dismisses as a “mess” the 1930s Queen movie The Mandarin Mystery, when it’s actually a witty and delightful film. But as Francis Nevins himself taught me back in the 1970s, arguing with the critic is one of the delights of reading any book of criticism. This is without question the definitive book on Ellery Queen.

Ten years ago Gauntlet Press and editor Tony Albarella inaugurated a wildly, even recklessly ambitious publishing event: to print every single one of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone television scripts (there are ninety-two of them). The ten-volume series As Timeless as Infinity: The Twilight Zone Scripts of Rod Serling was the result. Appearing annually, the last volume was finally published at the beginning of 2013. (Full disclosure: I helped proofread the first few of the books.) These are large-format hardcovers loaded with extras (photos, production notes, corrections in Serling’s own hand, introductions by various celebrity writers and actors)—and as a result, they’re not cheap. But for the Twilight Zone junkie, Albarella’s volumes are absolutely required reading. From early script drafts to Serling’s private correspondence, everything the TZ nut could want is here, beautifully printed and bound—further evidence of Twilight Zone’s continuing cultural relevance, more than fifty years after its premiere. Tony Albarella has performed a great service in rescuing this material from the obscurity of library collections and dusty personal files. Taken as a whole, As Timeless as Infinity may represent the greatest act of preservation ever bestowed on the written work of any program from television’s infancy.

A major publishing event this year was the appearance from Counterpoint of two volumes, New Collected Poems and This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems by Wendell Berry, which together—and they are really all one big book, hence my combining them here—comprise almost all of Berry’s poetry from his illustrious forty-year career. Many people think of Wendell Berry first as an environmental essayist or as a novelist of rural themes, but for me he is primarily a poet, and these two books confirm his status as a significant one. In a world filled with endless noise and distractions, the poems of Wendell Berry provide a quiet space for reflection and for reconnecting, if only through memory and imagination, with the natural world. His publisher’s claim that the poems represent “one of the greatest contributions ever made to American literature” is a bit much—Berry is too limited in both subject matter and technical skill to be a major poet in the sense of, say, Whitman or Dickinson—and, truth to tell, both of these books are best read in small doses: a few pages each night, say, before bed. Any more than that and the writing invariably begins to grow repetitive. That said, however, as a poet Berry does have a fundamental seriousness that’s lacking in much American verse today (or maybe it’s always been lacking?), and at his best his poems have a kind of meditative profundity—he teaches us the world, and so teaches us our own selves. In one poem, “The Silence,” Berry asks: “What must a man do to be at home in the world?” I would suggest that reading the poetry of Wendell Berry is a good place to start.

In Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (Random House), Billy Collins proves that he still has it. The most popular American poet since Robert Frost, Collins has made a spectacular career out of his companionable, witty verses—the kind of poetry that poetry people often find suspicious, since it’s easy to understand and can be read by any reasonably literate individual without need of footnotes, essays of explanation, or an advanced degree in Literature. To read a Collins poem is to feel that you have the most agreeable possible friend at your side, a charming conversationalist who’ll keep you smiling (and sometimes laughing out loud), yet whose observations about the world can have an unexpectedly sharp bite too. I’ll confess I was dubious when I saw that one of the new poems in the book, “The Names,” was on the topic of 9/11—could the urbane Mr. Collins, whose best poems generally evoke chuckles, really address an event of that kind of seriousness? But he brings it off masterfully, creating what’s surely one of the most moving works to come out of that tragedy. (“Names lifted from a hat / Or balanced on the tip of the tongue. / Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory. / So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.”)  I already own most of the work in this volume, but the “new poems” section is really a book unto itself, the selection is so generous (fifty-one poems, over eighty pages), and so it’s still well worth the quite reasonable purchase price. For anyone who believes that American verse has become impenetrable, incomprehensible to anyone but degreed specialists, I would say: “I agree with you, to a point—but you need to try Billy Collins.”

If Billy Collins is poetry’s version of your amiable, amusing, always-charming best friend, Franz Wright is at the exact opposite end of the spectrum: the guy you love like a brother but who will try you to your wit’s end, the guy who borrows your car and wrecks it, who never repays loans, the one who calls you in the middle of the night to talk him down from the window ledge or to bail him out of jail. In F: Poems (Knopf), Wright continues his unique poetic quest into his own psyche, giving us verse that can be both breathtakingly beautiful and breathtakingly downbeat—often in the same poem, sometimes in the same line. (The odd title of this book? Wright refers to it in one poem as his “grade in life.”) This is a writer who never shies away from discussing his own personal demons in his work, and as a result his poems can be painful to read—“Stay” opens with the lines, “The clouds were pretending to be clouds / when in fact they were overheard comments / regarding his recent behavior,” and finishes with “He could tell they were friends / by the marked improvement in their mood / when his was at its most truly desolate.” Yikes. And yet there is great power here, never more so than in the central long poem, “Entries of the Cell,” which may come to be considered Wright’s masterpiece—and in which he asserts, “the soul is a stranger in this world.” Certainly in these works Wright’s soul seems to be.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was my mother’s favorite novel—she re-read it once a year, and I can clearly remember her tattered tan-covered book club edition. Someone by Alice McDermott (FSG) limns some of the same territory of Betty Smith’s great classic, and I have a feeling Mom would have loved it. Our main character, Marie Commeford, remembers her life growing up Irish Catholic in a Brooklyn tenement. The story is told non-sequentially, and, in truth, nothing really happens—nothing exceptional, that is, nothing beyond the typical events of anyone’s life. But this is a novel which takes its strength from its precise rendering of the everyday, the quotidian. Spending time with Marie, listening to her remembrances, has the effect of making her very nearly as real as someone we know in our own lives. Here is the opening paragraph of this beautiful novel: “Pegeen Chehab walked up from the subway in the evening light. Her good spring coat was powder blue; her shoes were black and covered the insteps of her long feet. Her hat was beige with something dark along the crown, a feather or two. There was a certain asymmetry to her shoulders. She had, always, a bit of black hair along her cheek, straggling to her shoulder, her bun coming undone. She carried her purse in the lightest clasp of her fingers, down along the side of her leg, which made her seem listless and weary even as she covered the distance quickly enough, the gray sidewalk from subway to parlor floor and basement of the house next door.” This is, in essence, a one-paragraph master class in the delineation of character and environment in fiction, told with faultless word choice and rhythm. Someone was the best-written new novel I read this year.

Although some of my favorite science fiction writers published books in 2013, including Kim Stanley Robinson and Stephen Baxter, my far-and-away favorite SF novel this year was Transcendental by James Gunn (Tor). The story follows a motley group of creatures from different worlds—including a couple of humans from Earth—as they travel on the interstellar ship Geoffrey toward a mysterious planet said to house something called the Transcendental Machine. The novel itself is structured as a take on The Canterbury Tales (note the name of the ship), with each of our characters getting a chance to narrate his/her/its story in turn. Gunn’s story reminded me in some odd way of Fritz Leiber’s classic short novel The Big Time, in the sense that it’s also a galaxy-spanning tale with huge implications told in a highly intimate way, with a limited setting and very small cast of characters. The twists and turns of this saga are extremely well-handled; as for what happens when they finally reach the target world (I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to tell you that they do reach it)—well, I’ll leave it to you to find out. This novel has had a strange reception online, one which brings to mind the reception of Peter Straub’s marvelous A Dark Matter a few years ago: the professional reviews have mostly been hosannas, with many stating directly that this is surely Gunn’s masterpiece (it is), while many bloggers and customer reviewers seem baffled by the book—and take out their bafflement by writing angry, sarcastic reviews which illustrate little except for the fact that they didn’t understand it. Gunn’s novel is grown-up SF, and yes, a familiarity with The Canterbury Tales might help some readers understand why the book is put together as it is. But make no mistake: Gunn’s novel is an instant classic, one of the most powerful and profound works to come out of the SF field in a generation. That an author now in his 90s could produce such a book is an occasion for nothing but unbridled joy. Renowned SF writer and critic Paul DiFilippo says that Transcendental earns “a permanent rank in the extended canon of our genre.” He couldn’t be more right.

AND NOW (DRUM ROLL, PLEASE)…CONLON’S FAVORITE READ OF 2013…

This was a really tough choice this year, and I seriously considered several books on my list for the coveted Favorite Read slot (especially Transcendental). But in the end I decided to go with the book which gave me the most simple, unalloyed delight from page to page, the greatest amount of sheer fun, and the deepest insight into something—or rather someone—I though I already knew all about.

And that book is Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B Movie by Chris Nashawaty (Abrams). This lusciously illustrated tome is more than a coffee table book, though it is that too. In 250 full-color, large-format pages editor Nashawatay gives us not only a vast visual portfolio of the career of B-movie mogul Roger Corman—everything from 1954’s Monster on the Ocean Floor to 2010’s Sharktopus, with original poster art, publicity stills, and behind-the-scenes images—but he also offers a comprehensive George Plimpton-style oral biography of the man and his movies. The interviewees, all graduates of the so-called University of Corman (having gotten their starts with him), reads like a virtual Who’s Who of Hollywood in the past fifty years: Jack Nicholson, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Dennis Hopper, Joe Dante, Pam Grier, Diane Ladd, Peter Bogdanovich, John Landis, Richard Matheson, Bruce Dern, John Sayles, Martin Scorsese, Penelope Spheeris, William Shatner, Robert Towne, Sylvester Stallone…and the list, believe me, goes on.
Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses makes a case for Corman not as a great filmmaker himself—he was not, though he managed some highly memorable films from time to time (The Intruder, X—The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, the Vincent Price/Edgar Allan Poe series)—but rather as a brilliant conduit for talented people who otherwise might not have gotten their collective feet in the door of mainstream Hollywood. The stories these celebrated individuals have to tell about their former boss are always engaging, and frequently hilarious. Just as importantly, they all—every single man and woman among them—speak highly of Corman and clearly understand the role he played in their lives and careers. Director Joe Dante says, “There are two kinds of people who work for Roger: the people who went on to something else and are grateful about it, and the people who didn’t go anywhere because they felt that the work was beneath them.” This book collects the words of those who went on to something else and are grateful about it. Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses is a wonderful celebration of the good, the bad, and the straight-up crazy of Roger Corman’s career, and it’s a book for which every movie fan will feel grateful.

It’s my Favorite Read of 2013.

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