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Wish You Were Here

July 24th, 2005 8 comments

Greetings from Bien Hoa, Vietnam!

I’m writing from the living room of my in-laws, and frankly, trying to determine what I should talk about this month. But there is no shortage of things to say about this, my second visit to Vietnam – it’s more a matter of what specifically to do with all that raw material. And this reminds me of my first Storytellers Unplugged essay, having to do with the subject of writing of what you know. I’m overflowing with images and impressions of Vietnam, just aching to find their way into a nice fat novel…but that novel hasn’t formed yet, despite several stillborn (and sometimes near lunatic) possibilities. With a Vietnamese wife, and more trips to visit the in-laws in my future, that novel is an inevitability. But for now, my impressions of things Vietnamese have been limited to shorter works like the forthcoming novellas THE SEA OF FLESH and CLOSE ENOUGH – and presently, to this essay.

It’s unfortunate and unfair to think of Vietnam solely as the location of an American war, since it’s a country with a history that long precedes it (try to search out anything about Bien Hoa on the internet and you’ll pretty much find yourself limited to war-related sites), but the horror writer in me can’t help but rub its hands together in glee at those things we Westerners might find strange, exotic and grotesque. For instance, my in-laws do not live in squalor, but one must accustom oneself to showering with geckos clinging to the bathroom walls (hey, they eat the bugs), chattering and flicking their tails at each other in reptilian morse code. This week I was nearly run over by a motorbike when crossing a street (city streets swarm with bazillions of them), and nearly mauled by a deceptively cute black bear that reached imploringly to me through a hole in its cage; luckily its sudden swipe was ill-timed, launched a second before it could sucker a lame-brained tourist into stroking its formidably-clawed paw. But what is exotic to one man is mundane to another. Vietnamese don’t look twice at the hordes of dragonflies constantly swimming in the air above the heads of bathers on the shore of the South China Sea, and think nothing of handling live prawns as big as small lobsters, with long blue arms and pincers that can grip your finger pretty damn hard (yes, it’s terrible seeing them cooked live, but no worse than what we do to the aforementioned lobsters). Commonplace or not, it’s all pretty magical to me. I don’t doubt at all that I would have conceived my city of Punktown (featured in books I’ve written like, oh, PUNKTOWN) in quite a different way had I been exposed to cities like Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Dalat, Bien Hoa, or Seoul, Korea for that matter, before constructing it in my mind, based more on my impressions of Worcester and Boston, Massachusetts. And however fantastical I have tried to make that imaginary city…well, it sounds trite but it’s true that reality is often more bizarre and fascinating than the strangest things we try to dream up in our imaginations. Real cities are built brick by brick from the imaginations of millions; a lone, humble fantasist can’t compete with that.

There has been one blatantly horrific attraction I’ve experienced, designed to be so. At a place called Suoi Tien Resort, which is more of a surreal theme park, one part historical and three parts breath-takingly tacky, my wife Hong and I ventured into the equivalent of a Vietnamese walk-through ghost train ride, situated inside an immense dragon head, from which reverberated an eerie and, to me, indecipherable voice. Inside, we witnessed a kind of trial by mannequin, with the soon-to-be-damned kneeling before glowering judges or demons. Descending into the bowels of Hell, Hong clinging to my arm (heh heh), we encountered day-glow skeletons and tombstones, and scene after scene of the damned in their torments. As in a movie like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the low production values only made the terrors more effective; a week before coming to Vietnam I took my son to Disney World, and the admittedly wonderful technology behind the Haunted Mansion just doesn’t have the same unnerving effect as seeing these figures in their blood-splashed white pajamas, each one’s face obscured ala THE RING in long black hair, undergoing tortures that are hard to make out, inflicted by demons even harder to make out (though I vividly recall one demon dipping a figure in and out of a vat of sizzling fire, and another using a tremendous saw to split a man’s head down the middle).

Well, this isn’t the only intentionally horrific attraction I’ve been to in Vietnam, but I was trying not to get into the war. Still, it’s hard to shake images from the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, where one can see fetuses deformed by Agent Orange preserved in bottles…blown-up photos like that of an American soldier holding up in one hand the upper half of a tattered corpse, a big grin on his face as if he’s displaying a prize-winning trout…and a gun-toting (and also smirking) mannequin of a US soldier, rather comically exaggerated with his large pointed nose and the cigarette butt hanging out of his mouth as a hut burns in the background (I’ll bet he used that butt to start the fire). My outrage at the horrors of war (inflicted by BOTH sides) didn’t prevent me, however, from eagerly paying extra to fire live rounds from an AK-47 and M-16 on the grounds of the famous Cu Chi Tunnels (and if you want to experience horror, try subjecting your big American body to five minutes crawling through one of those!). It’s pretty crass and ironic that you can come out of the exhibits at the War Remnants Museum and buy souvenirs made from rifle shells, but hey, people have to eat. At this museum last October, I bought a Vietnamese/English dictionary from a guy who’d lost multiple limbs (he offered me a stump to shake) and an eye to an American land mine; talk about a guilt trip.

And getting back to eating — can I scare you with some of the things I’ve consumed? No, not dog, though the washed-out mongrels here don’t look so furtive and distrusting for nothing. I’ve drunk rice wine from a bottle in which a dead cobra was preserved (good for the libido, I’m told) and a cool drink made from the saliva of birds (they use it to hold their nests together). Squid, deer, pig tongues…mmm. Actually, Vietnamese food is fantastic, and my stomach has pretty much behaved itself — but the horror to top all horrors is to rush into a bathroom and realize there’s no toilet paper to be had, though you might get lucky and see some scraps of newspaper wrapped around the dispenser’s roll (as elsewhere in the world, the Vietnamese use water instead, but it’s a bit disconcerting to have to resort to).

Ah yes…earlier this month, Disney World, and now Vietnam. The brain reels from the input. In a hallucinatory fusion of the two, in the four days Hong and I stayed in beautiful Dalat, I would see a garbage truck coming around that announced itself to citizens with trash to dispose of by playing, without cease, “It’s a Small World”. It is, indeed! That in itself might keep people from visiting Vietnam…but I am made of stronger stuff. Ahem.

I’ve filled notebooks with these experiences, and taken countless photos. It’s all so vivid. It’s all waiting to be put into service…

Will the inevitable novel, hefty enough a box to contain this treasure of souvenirs, be gratuitous in its detail, actually overburdened with my impressions — a travelogue masquerading as a fiction? I hope not. I hope, instead, that my enthusiasm for the subject, the locale, will be translated into an exciting STORY, first and foremost. But I hope that my enthusiasm will become infectious. That it will make the reader feel they too have whipped down a Saigon street on the back of a motorbike, or walked across the red volcanic soil of a Vietnamese forest. Behind me, my nephews (who take pleasure in saying “hello” to me in English several milli

on times a day) have been playing with clay, modeling sword-wielding figures and menacing snakes. Now, the clay is in my hands, so to speak. Waiting for the shaping to begin.

– Jeffrey Thomas

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"Short Novels Got No Reason to Live."

July 7th, 2005 15 comments

Last week, one of my regular customers had seen a posting of mine somewhere that I was eager to read John Wyndham’s “Midwich Cuckoos,” as I had never read it before despite reading countless books which undoubtedly used “Midwich” as their inspiration. Being a kind and wonderful soul, the customer dropped me a used paperback of it.

While the book only took me all of 4 hours to read, it blew me away. Clocking in at a lean, mean 180 pages, “Midwich Cuckoos” basically had its hooks in me within 10 pages of the start, and didn’t let go for even an instant until the final words.

As I put the well-worn paperback on my bookshelf, I noticed how many of my very favorite horror novels come in at under 200 pages, and many times a lot lower. Given how today’s horror paperbacks all seem to use 300 pages as a bare minimum, it makes me wonder how many classics may never have made it to publication. Books that include:

  • John Wyndham’s “The Day of the Triffids”
  • Ira Levin’s “The Stepford Wives”
  • Robert Bloch’s “Psycho”
  • Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″
  • William Peter Blatty’s “The Ninth Configuration”
  • Thomas Disch’s “The Genocides”
  • Jack Finney’s “The Body Snatchers”
  • Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”
  • Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”
  • William March’s “The Bad Seed”

There’s also countless truly fast, fun joyrides of novels that, while they may not be considered classics, pack a ton of horror punch into less than 200 pages. On the bookshelf in front of me right now are such thin under-200 page volumes as:

  • Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Drive-In”
  • Ed Gorman’s “Nightmare Child”
  • Stephen Gilbert’s “Willard”
  • Charles L. Grant’s “the Dark Cry of the Moon”
  • Tanith Lee’s “Sabella”
  • Thomas Tessier’s “The Nightwalker”
  • Bernard Taylor’s “Moorstone”
  • Guy N. Smith’s “Crabs”
  • Al Sarrantonio’s “Campbell Wood” and “The Worms”

You get the idea.

So when did mass market paperback publishers decide that horror readers didn’t want to pay $5 for a short novel? I’ve heard the arguments made that it’s not economical to publish short books — and yet, you often find under-200-page books in the romance, western, and young adult genres. (In fact, the world would be a much worse place if Robert Cormier’s countless works of genius never got published because they rarely crack 200 pages).

If the United States has 15 or 20 million people willing to shell out $5-$10 to see “The Ring” in the theater for 90 minutes, are we so sure we can’t get even 1 out of every 500 of them (a 40,000 copy seller) to shell out $5 for a killer horror book?

I’m not suggesting that authors chop down works to make them shorter. I’m not suggesting that books are too long. Or even that people don’t enjoy long books.

But I AM suggesting that some works just naturally fall perfectly into the short range, and just because it provides 4 hours of reading instead of 6 or 7 hours of reading doesn’t necessarily mean readers will reject it.

And they may be more eager to embrace it specifically BECAUSE of the short length.

I LOVE paperback books that are slim enough to fit in the back of my jeans pocket (remember when most books could do this?) I love picking up a book where I know that for better or worse, I’m going to be in the thick of the action within a half hour of reading. Sometimes you WANT a short but breakneck stomach-turning, spine-shaking roller-coaster ride. We don’t pay less money at the movie theater to see a 90 minute zombie movie than a 180 minute war movie.

My suggestion? Some New York publisher needs to take a little money — not a ton — and experiment. Try a line of short horror novels and advertise them as such. Advertise them as a roller-coaster ride of horror that fits in your back pocket. Charge a buck or two less than usual to get the ball rolling.

Leisure’s done an admirable job of finding creative ways to get some modern horror novellas out there. Douglas Clegg’s phenomenal “Purity” (possibly the best horror novella written in the past decade) was a bonus added to the paperback release of “Nightmare HOuse.” Leisure released a collection of Tim Lebbon’s novellas called “Fears Unnamed.” They got Jack Ketchum’s stunning short novel “Red” into print with a bonus novella tacked on to thicken out the book a little.

But why not release these books on their own? Let’s acknowledge that I’m probably not the ONLY one with a short attention span. Let’s just try it in the mass market and see if it’s something people have been waiting for.

The small press has been doing an amazing job with novellas and short novels. The past decade alone has seen Cemetery Dance, Subterranean Press, Bloodletting Press, Necessary Evil Press, and more produce profitable, critically-acclaimed novella lines. Go after some of those works by authors like Douglas Clegg, Gary Braunbeck, Ray Garton, Edward Lee, Mark Morris, Lucy Taylor, Nancy Collins, Poppy Brite, Thomas Tessier, Tom Piccirilli, Jeffrey Thomas, Kealan Patrick Burke, Patrick Lestewka and more, and get them into the mainstream. Give it a creative, targeted ad-campaign PROMOTING the short-shock factor and see what happens.

The risk factor is small. And the upside may be huge. These are great, great works — modern classics every bit as deserving to become household names like “Stepford Wives” or “Body Snatchers.”

It’s fun to dream what you would do if you ever won the lottery. One of my dreams (and this will tell you just how particularly sad my own fantasy life is) is to start a mass market paperback line focusing on modern classics of horror between 100 and 225 pages.

I want to be able to go to some of today’s underrated, incredibly talented authors and say “You know that mind-fucking terrifying novella you wrote that you can’t find a market for? That market has arrived.”

The short horror novel — it’s an art form I’d hate to see go by the waysides simply because publishers fell into a habit of assuming that readers only wanted longer books.

Here’s hoping I win the lottery. But just in case that doesn’t happen, here’s hoping a New York publisher picks up the slack. Either way, the horror world will be a much better place for it. And my guess is that, ultimately, whatever publisher tries it first will have a much better bottom line to show for it as well.

– Matt Schwartz

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