Monday, February 20, 2006

Kelly Link and Gavin Grant in North Carolina

Early last week I received an invitation from my friend Dale Bailey, a professor at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, NC (and an excellent writer), to attend last Thursday night's public reading of "Monster" by Kelly Link, this semester's writer-in-residence. I'd met Kelly and her husband Gavin very briefly at the World Fantasy Convention in D.C. a couple of years ago, and I was eager to get a chance to make a more durable connection. More than that, though, I wanted to see Dale again; I'd last seen him at that very same convention, and although we'd emailed sporadically in the meantime, I looked forward to a chance to sit down and talk face to face again.

Dale and I were roommates at Clarion (1992, I think), and hit it off pretty well; although we see each other rarely, it always seems as though very little time has elapsed. We seem not to have to expend any effort reacquainting ourselves with one another, falling into the old comfortable patterns pretty easily. Now that I'm living in North Carolina again, I hope to maintain much more frequent contact with him.

Kelly and Gavin are wonderful people, as you might imagine. If you've read their writing (and if not: who are you? what are you doing here?), you know that it's intelligent, layered, and suffused with good humor. They are much the same way in person. For a writer who has been called "the future of American fiction," Kelly is refreshingly down to earth. Gavin is both affable and witty, though I got the impression his humor can be extremely cutting when he wants it to be. Despite being virtually buried by obligations (from what I could gather, one or both are immediately engaged in: teaching two classes at the college; working on the fantasy overview essay for the nineteenth volume of The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror; editing a manuscript for a Small Beer Press collection of Alan DeNiro's short fiction; and keeping up with the regular chores inherent in running both the Small Beer Press and their 'zine, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet), they spent the afternoon with Dale and me, and hosted the two of us -- along with a few of Dale's students -- for some beer and shoptalk in their apartment after Kelly's reading.

I took two things away from this meeting, both of which I'm going to have to mull over for a bit before I write much about them here. One came from a brief exchange with Kelly. I was orating tediously about my decision to abandon the genre in the mid-nineties, shortly after making my first professional sale ("She Found Heaven" to F&SF). I mentioned that the writing I had done for a while afterward had been mainstream. Kelly asked me if I'd felt that I had to consciously keep the fantasy out of the stories, and without hesitation I said, "Yes." It occurred to me almost immediately afterward that that wasn't true. I had conditioned myself to accept it as truth, which is why the answer came so readily; but it didn't feel right. My hang-ups with genre are long past; but I realized then that I'm kidding myself if I believe that the overtly fantastic is a natural part of my idea process. I have some thoughts on this, which bear directly on the pieces I'm working on now ... but give me another couple of days before I try to write them down.

The other thing came from an exchange with Gavin about horror fiction. Gavin makes no secret his general distaste for horror. When I questioned him about this, he challenged me to come up with examples of good horror writers who do not conform to genre norms (I don't think he doubted their existence; I think he just wanted me to give some solid basis to my viewpoint). I was stunned to find myself at a loss for ready names. I came up with Conrad Williams and Peter Straub then, but I found myself utterly incapable of mounting a credible challenge to his apathy. Now that I've had time to think about it, I could come up with a few more names for him -- Laird Barron is an obvious one, as well as Glen Hirshberg and Michael Marshall Smith -- but precious few. Damnably few, actually. And that recalled to me a long-standing, rather amorphous discomfort I've had with the idea of horror as a genre. One could come up with excellent reasons to exclude most of those names from a straight-up "horror" tag. I've blathered on vaguely about this in the past, to little practical effect, so that's another one to think about for a few days.

So: more to come.


At 12:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In addition to yourself (don't forget that I took "You Go Where it Takes You" for my horror half of YBFH) and the writers you mention, there are plenty of other writers who write horror short storise not using genre conventions (whatever that means) I'd just say they write great horror:
Elizabeth Hand
Elizabeth Bear
Nicholas Royle
Lucius Shepard
Stephen Gallagher
Terry Dowling
Margo Lanagan
Joyce Carol Oates
Dan Chaon
Jack Dann( although not lately)
some of Dan Simmons
and many others

Ellen Datlow

At 12:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, and
Laird Barron
John Langan
Marc Laidlaw

give me some more time and I'll add about 20 others :-) but I shouldn't as I'm finishing up my choices for YBFH#19.

At 12:53 AM, Blogger Nathan said...

Thanks, Ellen. About half those names occurred to me, too; and the rest, now that I read them, seem obvious to me now. I think that mass market paperbacks have occluded most people's idea of what horror fiction is, or can be. Of those who can look beyond King and Koontz, I suspect you'd find more people who read Richard Laymon than Stephen Gallagher, unfortunately. I hope to put together something approximating a coherent thought in the coming days. :)

At 1:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sure you're correct. But since short stories are my interest those are the writers I pay more attention to.

At 9:04 AM, Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

I like horror fiction myself, as long as it's told well, same subjective requirement I have for all writing I suppose. I'd agree with most of Ellen's list, and also with the idea that it's hard to find good horror at novel length.

I would also include some of Kelly's stories in the horror genre too. But my sense of horror is really elastic. If it's got a ghost in it, and is mostly a chilling ending instead of a funny end, I can call it horror, which several of Kelly's stories are for me.

It's too bad. I think we have lots of things to be scared of right now, but it isn't being documented very well because there's so much confusion politically and socially. Or perhaps someone is writing this all down and we'll see it at some latter date.

At 11:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh yes, of course Kelly--I thought Nathan had mentioned her at the first...

At 2:03 PM, Anonymous Ann V. said...

It IS hard to find good horror at novel length, but I think that may be because so many are looking in all the wrong places. Most of the best horror is not called that nor is it in the horror section of the bookstore. Most of it is being published in the mainstream. Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves is a perfect example from years past.

As a judge for the International Horror Guild it is my job to seek out the best wherever I can find it. And it's there, if you look for it.

At 2:26 PM, Blogger Gone said...

What's meant by genre norms? Vampires and zombies and such, or something else?

At 5:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you completely. I find what I consider the most interesting horror novels but cruising through publishing catalogs.

I'm not sure what Nathan means, but I was assuming he meant mediocre blood & guts "inspired" by slasher films. I think vampires are also a rich sub-genre to mine, although most vampire stories are way too obvious and trite. Zombies are more difficult, although Kelly Link has written at least one story with zombies who are totally different from what a horror reader might consider a zombie (in "The Hortlak") and Susan Palwick wrote an excellent sf/political zombie story that I published on SCIFICTION.
Ellen Datlow

At 8:50 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

Well, this is what I get for posting half-formed thoughts! I agree with you, Ann, and I think what you say gets pretty close to the heart of what I'm thinking. Specifically, that I have a problem with horror as a marketing category, or at least with the kind of work that it encourages (or enables, if you'll allow me the pop-psychology term). There is certainly a lot of vibrant work appearing which can be called horror; most of it, I think, appears in short form, and is therefore hard to track down for the common reader. That, in turn, makes it difficult for people to associate an identity with "horror" other than what's being offered by the novels.

Which makes annual compendiums like Ellen's and Stephen Jones's all the more valuable.

At 4:51 PM, Blogger Gone said...

Okay Ellen, if that's whe

At 1:46 AM, Blogger Maura37 said...

I have to sign up to have my own blog just to post on yours?! Anyways, I just bought two of your friend Dale's books from Amazon's "used and new" collection - both for under $3 each. I bought The Fallen and House of Bones - who could refuse, at that price! Plus, let me add to the blog that I got to read a few drafts of "You Go Where It Takes You" before it was ever published. And that on Nate's last "recommended reading" list to me, Elizabeth Hand and Lucius Shepard were both mentioned.


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