Kickstarting Miskatonic University

Broken Eye Books is running a kickstarter for an anthology of fiction that takes place in HP Lovecraft’s fictional Miskatonic University at Arkham, an institution central to the Lovecraft mythos. I was excited to see the original call for stories, since Lovecraft’s world is particularly suited to academic satire, something I enjoy. I ended up submitting a story about research and ambition, though instead of dealing with eldritch horrors in the basement or Antarctica, it’s mostly about a summer seminar in MU’s English grad program, populated by ambitious theory heads full of academic machismo, and one in particularly who suffers through a constant, aching sense of his own intellectual inadequacy. It also ties into a story that came out in Capricious back in 2015, which is also academic satire, since Emmet Wright– the main character– uses Gabriel Ross’s Index Arethusa in his research.

It’s exciting to think of the story finding a home in this anthology, especially considering how beautiful BEB’s earlier Lovecraft Mythos books have been… but it has to be funded first! If you’re interested in Lovecraft, pretty books, academic satire, or squid hats, you should look at the campaign.

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Have Some Obstetrical Horror Fiction for 2018

New year, new story, and this in a magazine I have long coveted publication. When I started reading contemporary SF/F/H again a few years ago, two of the first magazines I encountered were Shimmer and Clarkesworld and here it is–my first Shimmer story! It has the longest title I’ve so far come up with: “An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or, Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita.”

I wrote the story last spring, conceived and drafted during the second trimester of my pregnancy, though completed during the third.

Pregnancy is miraculous and terrifying and cool and weird. You grow a new organ. Your senses of taste and smell change. Your emotions. Your centre of gravity. I thought a lot about the peculiar subjectivity of pregnancy, in which you are once yourself and not at all yourself. In which the idea of a distinction between self, brain, body, and mind seems increasingly ridiculous, since your body undertakes actions beyond your control, and rewires your perceptions and your brain. Of course, this is always true of the mind/body relationship– but pregnancy foregrounds it.

The Curious Case of Mary Toft

Mary Toft and her rabbits

I came across the story of Mary Toft a few years ago, and it so horrified me I couldn’t pursue it in fiction, though I wanted to. I returned to her in those strange months midway through my pregnancy, and I began to seek out other reproductive marvels: mooncalves, and headless children, and maternal impression, and hens that give birth to prophecy-eggs.  Several times I encountered the image of a reversed birth, of children returned—forcibly—to their mother, and felt a deep, visceral horror at the image.

So what do I do with all those feelings? I collect them, and watch the images play against one another, and try to imagine what sort of era produces this deeply awful image of reversal, of wrongness, a disorder so profound it unsettles the forward momentum of reproduction itself. This is probably why Mary Toft’s story speaks to me so viscerally: it is unnatural in a deep way, and witnesses a stealthy, awful sort of violence that is at once intimate and public.

Finally, a note on attribution: I borrowed two lines of poetry in one of the story’s subtitles, which reads “where children thus are born with hairy coats / heaven’s wrath on the kingdom it denotes” which is, as far as I can tell, from an anonymous seventeenth-century work attributed to Aristotle.

My First Eligibility Post, or, Stuff I Published in 2017

I have in the past avoided eligibility posts, mostly because I assumed people who wanted to read my work would find it via either the magazines that published it or my earlier posts. But then I saw ACWise collecting 2017 eligibility lists on twitter, and talking about why they’re valuable. She’s right. There’s so much fiction being published now it’s very easy to lose stories. I certainly need the reminder of what I’ve read, so I’m assuming other people do, as well.

So here’s my list, and my contribution to keeping track of 2017 in SF/F. All three of these are Hugo/Nebula/Aurora eligible, and fall into the short fiction category in each case:

“Lares Familiar, 1981” appeared in Liminal Stories back in May. It’s about the Cowichan Valley and the logging industry and a family with an uncomfortable relationship to both. It’s another of my attempts to capture the uneasy feeling that certain legends give me– those stories about strange encounters that never quite resolve, but leave you with a sense of how how huge and complicated and strange the world really is.

“On Highway 18” (this takes you to an interview about the story and includes some buy links if you’re interested) appeared in the September/October issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Another one about strangeness on Vancouver Island, and about violence and the intensity of adolescent friendship.

“The Fall of the Mundaneum” appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in September. It’s very close to my heart, and I used the story to organize and process a lot of thoughts about the First World War and how the world ends, about the beauty and frustration and vulnerability of archives. I love Oskar (the main character) who is smart and naive and resilient. I love the world, which is full of pre-FWW optimism and utopianism as it falls to the Guns of August.

And that’s my literary 2017: the rainy Pacific coast of Canada; strange meetings; genius loci; mal d’archive; our relationship with history both personal and political; memory; early 20th century optimism and early 20th century violence colliding in the First World War.

 

 

Missing Gord: Three Moments

(Gordon Downie, jr, lead singer & songwriter for the Tragically Hip, Canadian icon. 1964 – 2017)

It’s August 2016 and I’m in Kansas City for MidAmeriCon II. It’s the last day and I’m both happy and exhausted, that enervated feeling you get when you’ve been talking to so many wonderful people for so long you have run out of words. In my moments alone, walking from panel to panel in the convention centre, I listen to the Tragically Hip, thinking about how they’ve been a constant soundtrack, a commentary running in the background of our lives for decades. As I walk through the big glass doors at the corner of 13th and Central, among the writers and fans and boba fetts, I hear “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken.” One line sticks in my head: the ferget yer skates dream. I think about what that dream might be: anxiety and memory and childhood.

The next day, at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, I read an email from a friend who watched the last concert– the one livestreamed by the CBC– in a bar in Nanaimo, and cried with strangers over the impending loss. While I walked around the convention centre, and probably while I was at the Hugos, 11.7 million strangers & friends watched the last Tragically Hip gig.

I missed it. I missed it and I am surprised by how much this hurts me. It’s a good life (if you don’t weaken).

It’s October 1999 and I’m in the bar in Muenster, Saskatchewan. It’s walking distance from St Pete’s College, where I am staying for three weeks of poetry workshop, so we go there a lot. I’m playing pool with Robert Kroetsch. I’m a terrible terrible pool player, but Robert is forgiving, and digs into his pocket for a handful of quarters and tells me to go put something on the juke box. That something is always– that night and other nights– “Bobycaygeon.”

“Bobcaygeon” while we drink cheap beer and watch the northern lights and talk about poetry.

It’s June 1993 and I’m at Western Speedway, just outside of Victoria, for Another Roadside Attraction: Pere Ubu, The Hot House Flowers, Midnight Oil, and the Tragically Hip. Only I’m not with a group of Hip fans, so we leave after Midnight Oil because our ride wants to get out before the traffic gets crazy. I am sad to leave them behind, because secretly I love “Courage” though for adolescent reasons I cannot remember, it is uncool at that moment to love “Courage.”

As we walk out across the parking lot, I hear them playing it, distorted by distance, bouncing over the walls of the speedway and over the asphalt and the cars and the bodies in the moshpit up front.  I can hear the crowd, too, from whom I am separated and who sing along, Gord’s voice over them all:

courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time.

#metoo. But it’s easier to write about it in Fiction

So social media is full of #metoo. Or, as one friend put it, “of course #metoo” and as many others have asked: is this any kind of a surprise?

A couple of years ago (at Clarion West) I wrote a story called “On Highway 18.” It’s about small towns and girls and cars and hitchhiking and the constant, pervasive, numbing threat of violence, which touches everyone directly or indirectly. It grew from my own experiences as a young woman, and I borrowed a few from other people as well.

It’s much easier to write fiction about this kind of pervasive, low-grade anxiety because in relating each lived example, I tend to downplay the hurt. They seem slight in retrospect, even if my skin crawled at the time, or prickled with anxious sweat, or I sprinted from the scene with my heart beating in my throat. If I described the facts of these sorts of events, I might add, I know other people have experienced much worse, or but you know I’m fine, or it wasn’t that bad… was it?

In fiction, though, I can try and capture the immediate, subjective experience, independent of whether the encounter was “bad enough” to count as trauma. In fiction there’s room for evocation and impressionism, to describe the way each encounter taught me something about what it means to be a woman, and the amount of power men had to define me, to tell me to smile, to demand my attention. To touch me. “On Highway 18” was therapeutic from that perspective, a whole catalogue of experiences that aren’t “that bad,” but nevertheless accumulate into a feeling of dread and smallness. At least, for one of the characters. Other characters aren’t so “lucky.”

I’m posting this paragraph, which is reportage:

Not that it was the first time someone had asked if she worked. It starts early. Fourteen on the sidewalk after the movie let out, waiting for Petra’s mom. A car pulled up close and the driver—some guy with a scrubby moustache and the ubiquitous baseball cap.

“You girls want to party?”

Jen giggled, and Petra said something like, Um. I don’t know? Her voice weak-sounding, the way it rose at the end. The guy pulled away without saying anything else.

Worse has happened since, and worse is happening this very moment, but I still hate that I didn’t know– as a fourteen year old– how to answer his question more powerfully.

(if you want to read it, it’s the Sept/Oct issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science FictionI also did a brief interview for the F&SF website)

The Fall of the Mundaneum

 

The Universal Bibliographic Repertory which became the Mundaneum (according to the NYT)

ETA: The podcast is now available, for those who prefer audio.

I have a story in the current issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It’s called “The Fall of the Mundaneum” and it takes place in Belgium, in August 1914.

I’ve written a lot about the appeal of the archive and library: ”Water Logic” over at Capricious, and The Paradise Engine describe my own experience as a researcher, and the confusing and frustrating labour by which we make meaning out of things left behind. They’re my attempts to capture the pleasure and anxiety of archive fever.

“The Fall of the Mundaneum” is part of the same impulse. I started thinking about it when I first read about Paul Otlet and his Mundaneum, which was a kind of world catalogue, infinitely extendable, and designed to—eventually—take in all human knowledge. It was part of a huge and ambitious project, and an international movement, parallel to (and at odds with) the European arms race that led to the First World War.

Francois Schuiten’s Mundaneum, ca 1998.

My Mundaneum is quite different: it’s a museum and a junk-drawer and a wunderkammer as well as a catalogue; it’s a temple to the utopian dreams of Europe before 1914; it’s a physical wiki-binge. My story follows a young man left in charge of the Mundaneum  just as the Imperial German Army crosses the Belgian border, transforming the world in ways he cannot yet imagine.

There’s a peculiar effect that archives have on you when you’re immersed in them, one that produces both insight and disorientation. You want, desperately, to know, but there’s always far more information than you can manage, even after years of practice. That’s the illness of the archive, an obsession with organizing what you see, making it into something accessible like argument or narrative. But the larger the archive grows, the less likely you are to find a unifying theory for its contents.

le Corbusier’s design for the Mundaneum, commissioned (but never built) in 1929.

“The Fall of the Mundaneum” is about that preoccupation with order at the moment of its destruction, since it’s also about the chaos of the twentieth century smashing into a fantasy of total human knowledge. My narrator is a man trained to organize information and culture, and we watch him collide with mechanized warfare, which is ineffable, and which by its nature disorders the world, despite the rationality of mass troop movements and industrial military production.

In the end, war leaves behind its own archive: one constituted in bodies and objects half-destroyed and unstuck from their provenance, like the very substance of meaninglessness overflowing into the golden summer of 1914, and the beautiful dream of the Mundaneum.

Lares Familiares, 1981.

New story in Liminal 3. It’s about logging, the economic downturn of the early 1980s, and the Cowichan Valley. And the smell of Grand Fir. And a family with a peculiar relationship to the woods.

Like a lot of kids, I grew reading legends and myths. The ones I loved best were about encounters with gods and strangers (the not-quite-human kind):

I couldn’t find the mid-century paperback version that I read as a kid, but this cover is pretty. This is where I first read about Baucis & Philemon.

…Baucis and Philemon meet two strangers and share their meager supper.

…The villagers of Woolpit meet two green children, who say they have come from a world underground and who speak no familiar human language.

…A human midwife attends a fairy birth, and accidentally touches an ointment that allows her to see through fairy charms. This ends badly for her eyes.

…Mark Antony hears an invisible procession leaving the city of Alexandria, and knows that Dionysos has abandoned him to his fate.

When you encounter these narratives in the stripped-down language of a legend, they are often a little disjointed. They lack the final revelation of what’s really been going on that we seem to require in fiction, but which is absent from the urban myth or the weird anecdote.

I like these stories best when they’re bare and conversational, the kind of story someone might tell you at a bus stop, or in a bar… one time, I met this guy who… Something weird happens, but the story ends before the weirdness resolves into something we can properly grasp, leaving us– the listener– unsettled not only by the events described, but by their incomprehensibility. The best versions of these stories provide no explanation but accident and the arbitrary rules of a universe we don’t actually understand. In the world of these stories, you might do nothing wrong and still end up transformed forever. You might just be walking in the woods at twilight, and find yourself making a life-or-death decision as you meet a fairy host. You might catch the eye of a god or a monster and be punished for your presence in no way you could ever plan.

Wool Pit Sign. 1977. Those are the two green children on the left, though you can’t see their colour in this photo.

I learned two things from these stories: first, that it’s not a good thing to be noticed by powerful, inhuman creatures, no matter what CS Lewis and Tolkien might tell me; second, that stories can give the reader an unsettled feeling by what they leave out. Most often, the why of an encounter. At their very best, M.R. James, Daphne Du Maurier, and Robert Aickman write about that place between revelation and mystery, where no human knowledge is complete, and all one can do is observe the strange encounter and hope to survive it.

I’ve been trying to write in this mode for a while—much of The Paradise Engine was driven by my love for those unsettling, incomplete tales. “Lares Familiares, 1981” is from my latest experiments in capturing that texture of unknowing. I also have a story forthcoming in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that fits the genre, too.

These stories are about that strange sense of a dislocation on an otherwise ordinary day. An encounter for which one cannot prepare, and which might  redirect one’s life entirely by accident.