Wednesday, August 8, 2012

ReaderCon: Meeting Straub & Crowley

Dear readers, in this post we pick up after the second installment of the ReaderCon report series, which had just departed a panel discussion of "The Works of Shirley Jackson" panel.

Now, a glutton for literary punishment, I traipsed right over to "The Works of Peter Straub." As I may have mentioned before, Straub was one of the Guests of Honor of the ReaderCon 2012 convention. The panel was no less distinguished than the author himself, featuring the talents of Mike Allen, CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan, John Langan, Henry Wessells (leader), and Gary K. Wolfe.
One of the first items that came up in the discussion was the connection between what panel members called the “Tim Underhill novels.” What are the Tim Underhill novels? The character of Vietnam War veteran Timothy Underhill first appears in Koko, which I am reading currently (in part because of this panel discussion). He pops up again in The Throat, Lost Boy, Lost Girl, and In the Night Room, as well as being mentioned in Mystery. He reappears in the short story "The Ghost Village," which was published in the short story collection Magic Terror.

The Underhill novels illustrate one of the points made early in the panel discussion. The 'braiding' of Peter Straub's tales, as in the Underhill novels, is not so much a form of continuity as a filling in here and there of left-out details, a re-focus of the lens, another facet of the story, each time with a difference from what came before in earlier books and stories.

John Langan made the very good point that with Straub, "the story is not allowing you to JUST be terrified." With Straub, there is something more, an element that holds you to the tale, an air of mystery that makes you want to know more. Straub's horror is not slash and burn horror, shell-shocking the reader to death. He wants you to live to inquire further into the matter, and to be glad you did (mostly!). Horror rarely walks alone in Straub's books.

I think it was also Langan who talked about how A Dark Matter returns again to the theme of the guru, the corrupt or bankrupt teacher, who somehow enlightens and endangers his young student, very similar to Straub's earlier novel Shadowland and John Fowles' The Magus.

The panel members referred frequently to the characters of Mr. Club and Mr. Cuff, leaving me feeling very neglectful for never having read their story, which appears at the end of Magic Terror. [Yes, kind readers, pity me for my behind-ness in reading Straub’s other books beyond my already-favorites. I have been missing out on so much! I have started with Koko and am working my way through EVERYTHING as of now.]

The panel compared Straub's multi-layered storytelling approach to the use of the "secret house" -- the house-within-a-house. There is the house that everyone sees, and then there is the OTHER house that exists simultaneously.

Another intriguing mention by the panel went to the Lovecraft trope in Straub’s novel “Mr. X,” now also on my to-read-soon list. Mr. X himself, one of the main characters in the book, is fully convinced that the fictitious Cthulhu Mythos of H. P. Lovecraft is real, and he sets about his work to bring the triumphal earthly return of the Elder Gods to fruition. This, of course, is only on aspect of the story – there are other major characters in the play, adding their ingredients to the mix.

As a little FYI, panel leader Henry Wessells mentioned the excellent Victorian era Lock & Key mystery series, edited by Julian Hawthorne (son of the famous Nathaniel). This series is mentioned in Lovecraft’s Library: A Catalogue, by S. T. Joshi. This little 10 volume set was a huge influence on Lovecraft’s reading, and is a terrific addition to the library of anyone who enjoys intriguing fiction with a mysterious bent to it. To read Wessell’s review of Lovecraft’s Library, click here:

"What is a book but the struggle of a story to tell itself?" -- Henry Wessells

In the panel quote above, Wessells speaks to the tendency of Straub’s books to be dynamic, mysterious cauldrons of seemingly organic activity, where the readers themselves are sleuthing their way through the changing story at the same time as they are experiencing its events, examining each character’s perceptions and memories for clues as to the true natures of the story. What is really going on? And without the reader, what happens to the story?

The Straub panel finished up at 9:00pm, and I happily had my photo taken with the man himself, and took my friend Jeff Pert's photo with him too to commemorate the happy occasion. Mr. Straub was as pleasant and charming as I could have wished him to be. One always worries on meeting ones respected idols that they will turn out to be ... well, less than expected, to put it mildly. I was not disappointed, in fact I was delighted.
That would have been enough to settle my first day at ReaderCon on a plentifully positive note, but the night was not over yet -- I still had the John Crowley reading to go to just down the hall. I had no idea what to expect -- and once again was met with nothing but good surprises.

John Crowley, author of one of my all-time favorite books, "Little, Big," read to us for almost an hour from the preparatory chapters he has been building for his upcoming book, Ka. The book is told from the viewpoint of one crow, Dar Oakley, as he watches his fellow crows move through the world, and at the same time watches the other creatures, such as the humans, make their way across the face of the land too, with their peculiar and inexplicable ways. I'm always a little leery of animal point-of-view tales, but I have been surprised before (Felidae by Akif Pirincci, Tad Williams' Tailchaser's Song), and I found myself surprised by the freshness of Dar's voice and the keen illustrations of the world through an unmistakably crow-true perspective.

I'm looking forward to the book's release. After the reading Mr. Crowley very graciously signed my ancient and cat-chewed paperback copy of Little, Big and let me take our photo together. All in all, a night of fantastic experiences I couldn't have had if I didn't go to ReaderCon. And this is just the end of the first day!

Parts 1&2 of my ReaderCon report are here if you missed them:

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