Archive for July, 2007

Garden of Unearthly Delights

July 23rd, 2007 7 comments

<![CDATA[by Jeffrey Thomas

Whenever I fear I’m imitating myself as a writer, returning too often to territory I’ve worked before, I always remind myself of Monet and his water lilies, a series he painted over the last twenty-seven years of his life. Sometimes I worry that I’m being lazy or unimaginative, not pushing myself far enough or hard enough when I return to old themes and ideas. But Monet wasn’t being lazy; his subject matter was an obsession, a very intentional and intensely focused pursuit of the myriad compositions of form to be isolated in his water garden at Giverny, the countless ways ephemeral light can interrelate with physical matter. One painting could not have expressed all that he needed to capture and convey.

I had read Lovecraft’s story AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS (1931) before reading his shorter but still eerily effective THE NAMELESS CITY (1921), which despite its reptilian mummies in place of frozen carrot monsters, still feels a bit like a sketch for that later piece. The same can be said of Nabokov’s THE ENCHANTER (1939), a precursor to the longer and more brilliant LOLITA (1955), but still a worthy work in its own right. In the case of Lovecraft, I think he was merely revisiting a certain kind of atmosphere or environment because he enjoyed his first visit there, the way we might return to a city or museum or theme park that we didn’t entirely cover the first time around. Lovecraft wanted to explore this sort of situation more at length, to descend into its caverns and vaults more extensively to see what else he might mine from them. With Nabokov, I feel it had more to do with him being dissatisfied with the earlier work, needing to tackle it again from the start. Both these reasons for returning to one’s earlier literary stamping grounds seem legitimate enough to me. But I still find I have to justify my own repeat journeys to myself, nevertheless.

Now I’m not talking about Punktown, here. This of course is my long-running series of novels and short stories (among them, DEADSTOCK, PUNKTOWN, MONSTROCITY, EVERYBODY SCREAM! and the forthcoming BLUE WAR from Solaris Books) set in a nightmarish future city called Punktown. Writing a series, whether it be about Harry Potter or Arkady Renko, John Carter’s Mars or the Land of Oz, is another matter. In a connected series, you are not reworking an earlier concept but working further within that same space. Or is it so dissimilar? Why establish a series (besides the consideration of a plump paycheck?) unless, again, there is more you want to map of its world, more of that world's characters to introduce to your readers – why, unless you are not satisfied with leaving your own water garden behind? I ask myself again and again, "Are you going back to Punktown out of laziness?" But such is Punktown, fortunately, that anything can happen there. I can, and have, written Punktown horror stories, romances, detective stories, social satires, humorous stories, though mostly in combinations of these genres. Punktown’s like our own world that way, but cranked to volume 11. No one’s holding a Darwin .55 loaded with flesh-dissolving plasma rounds to my head, forcing me to only write Punktown stories, but if they did – well, I could live with that. I also set stories in my version of Hell (LETTERS FROM HADES and the upcoming VOICES FROM HADES, etc.) and there are plenty of one-offs...but yeah, okay, don’t shoot. I could do it. I think I could live the rest of my literary life in Punktown and keep it fresh.

When I get even more uncertain, though, is when I return to working within Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. That’s when I feel like Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER PART 3 (a series that, for the most part, Coppola would have been better off not revisiting that third time around), when he bellows that every time he tries to get out, they pull him...back...IN! I keep swearing that I’ve written my last Lovecraftian story. And then I write DEADSTOCK, which like MONSTROCITY combines both Punktown and the Cthulhu Mythos. Not that I regret this decision at all; I’m proud as hell of DEADSTOCK. But for BLUE WAR, which features the same protagonist, Jeremy Stake (a series within a series!), I stuck by my oath and kept all manner of Lovecraftan beasties out of it. (Oh, there are beasties, but the "benders" and "snipes" are my own babies.) I never would have written so many Mythos-type stories in the past, though (most of the short pieces having been collected in UNHOLY DIMENSIONS), had I not thought I was bringing something at least a little different and idiosyncratic to Lovecraft’s world each time. In DEADSTOCK, for instance, a child’s cute pet turns out to be a larval Cthulhu, whom I hope is one of the novel’s most sympathetic (and at the same time, ominous) characters. But whenever I do allow myself to be slimily sucked back into the world of shoggoths and the Great Old Ones, I always wonder now if I’m relying too much not only on my own past ideas, but even worse, the past ideas of another writer. Sure, Lovecraft encouraged his friends to share in his creations, and everyone from Ramsey Campbell to Stephen King has done so, but maybe now I should really, for real, put away my dog-eared copy of the Necronomicon for good. There are so many other books to read – and to write!

There’s another well I dip into frequently, and that’s love. But cut me some slack here, cuz that’s a damn deep well. And is it a lack of imagination on my part, or an overabundance of imagination, that makes me view romance again and again through a fantasist’s distorting lens, so that the object of love is often otherworldly? Sure, I create the occasional female protagonist who falls for a demon or alien or what have you, but usually it’s a male protagonist, for the obvious reasons. Check it out. MONSTROCITY: man falls in love with a gray-skinned alien woman. EVERYBODY SCREAM!: secondary character loves a woman with a parasitic twin; this also takes place in my short story THE SISTER. LETTERS FROM HADES and BEAUTIFUL HELL: men in love with demons. DEADSTOCK and BLUE WAR: man in love with a blue-skinned alien woman. In the short story I MARRIED A SHOGGOTH, man in love with a shoggoth (!) that takes on the form of women; DUST, man in love with his mom’s ghost as resurrected by an alien force (!!); incestuous tension between man and his dead mom in ADORATION, too. In REFLECTIONS OF GHOSTS, man in love with a cloned, female version of himself (!!!); in PALE FRUIT, man in love with a "tulpa" thought form; in THE SCHISM, man in love with a semi-human extradimensional version of his wife; not to mention the assorted vampiress, and so on. Whew! That's a whole lotta monster lovin'!

So am I just being redundant, here? And why the heck do I even do it? Does making the object of love other than human heighten the differences between the two characters and hence pump up the drama, make the passion more disorienting and feverish? I’ve wondered if in my personal life I’ve been copying these characters of mine for the past few years (instead of the other way around!), by becoming involved with a Chinese woman, an African woman, and three Vietnamese women (the last of whom I’ve married); hell, even my first wife was of a culture "alien" to mine, being deaf. Is it something in my personality, my need to crank up the exciting differentness between men and women to that volume 11, both in my writing and in real life? It would be only too easy for me to fall in love with a real alien woman. Well, if she had a nice rack. (Humor!) Now, where was I going with this? Again, beyond the fact that as a fantasy writer I view things in a fantastical way – am attracted to the exotic, the excitingly different – there are things I need to examine and express again and again, whether because it’s simply rewarding as a writer or because it helps me digest the reality that lies in my own water garden. It isn’t so much that I feel I didn]

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