The Devil’s Workshop
Well, The Devil’s Workshop has been published. I feel it’s a weight off my shoulders. I had to publish it independently because the publishing business is brain dead and wanted nothing to do with it. I sent query letters to sixty or seventy agents and not a single one wanted to read it. I don’t think it’s my cluelessness at crafting a query that was at fault, but a first novel of 155,000 words – no thanks. I had the delusion that somewhere or other there might be some agent or publisher who would at least read it, but I was mistaken. I don’t hold any animus against the publishing business. I think publishing professionals have been driven insane by the sheer amount of bullshit they get barraged with every day. If you take a look at Inkitt or sites like that, you can get an idea of the stuff that’s being submitted. But it’s too bad they seem to have crumpled under the weight of all that dreck, and have given up even the notion of trying to publish something that might matter to an intelligent adult. What they are looking for is professional fiction. I know what that is and I don’t really enjoy reading it. I’m glad to say my book is not written in a very professional way. Throughout my life I’ve read constantly and very widely and have developed a taste for what literature can do. I hadn’t been having much success finding anything to read, so I finally decided I should write something myself. I knew just the sort of book I wanted. I’d never written a novel before, but once I got going I found I knew my way around the business of creating one.
I’ve written things sporadically on and off all my life. I’m very grateful that the plays and stories I’ve written and sent out have been practically universally rejected. It has allowed me the chance to grow and mature at my own rate and I have not fallen prey to the publishing business. Once I realized that no matter what I did nothing I wrote was ever going to be accepted I was freed from having to write like a pro, from ‘honing my craft,’ and set loose to be an artist. I wrote for the sheer joy of writing. It was completely play, not work. But wasn’t I sloppy and self-indulgent, you ask? Sloppy, no. I was very hard on myself, much harder than on the works of others I’d meet in writing groups. I didn’t let myself get away with anything. And self-indulgent? Why did I think that was a problem? Oh, and by the way, I think the grapes actually are sour.
When I started this book, I had no plan what I was going to write, but I felt inspired and I gave it a beginning I thought was a good hook: two men burying a body in the woods in the middle of the night. Then I wrote my scene of lovers parting, which set up the premise of the book: the lovers were going to have to come back together. But I knew that wouldn’t be happening till about chapter twenty-eight or somewhere around there, and I needed something to fill up all the chapters in between. So I gave myself three subplots: the pirates, the Indians and the slaves. Right there, I made a mistake a pro would never make. A main plot and three interlaced subplots? Who would give himself such a challenge? I had no idea so I just went about doing it.
My idea about the three different groups was based on something I’d read in Montesquieu about three types of government. The pirates were a tyranny ruled by fear. The Indians were an aristocracy ruled by honor. And the slaves were a democracy ruled by the will of the people. I thought it would be fun to see how these groups worked in action. So then I just kicked off my plots and found my way from there.
I didn’t really get my legs underneath me till I came to write chapter six. Sometime around this point I discovered a guy sitting in the back of my head whom I called the author. And I was starting to let the author call the shots. I realized he was made from all the writers I’d ever read and loved. He had the humor of Cervantes, the plotting skills of Fielding, the lunatic digressiveness of Sterne, the savage wit of Swift, the majesty of Melville, the spiritual wisdom of Tolstoy and the psychological insight of Dostoyevsky. Of course I was just a stupid writer and I had none of that, but this guy had already told all the stories in the world and he remembered how he’d done it. So I left things up to him. When it came to chapter six he told me the chapter should end with Tom falling off the boat. I had no idea what was going to happen to my leading man, but I did what the author said. Of course it all worked out because then I discovered the leviathan, and inside the leviathan was Colophus, and I was off and running.
That was it really. After that point I felt like I was in good hands. It felt like the author was remembering this awesome tale and I was just writing it down. Every now and then it seemed there was a bit the author couldn’t remember, so sometimes I had to step in and make some stuff up, but those passages always ended up getting cut in revision.
Things went along smoothly till I came to chapter twenty. When I started the book I decided to set it in a made up land so I wouldn’t have to do any research. But here I knew I was going to have to describe a battle in a forest, and I had no clue how to do that. So I had to do some research. I did research on the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. I’d read some about it in Tacitus and it seemed to fit, so I modeled my battle on it. But for the first time, the writing was feeling like work, not play. I wrote an enormous battle scene, using all my research. I later went back and took out eight pages of it, leaving only the crucial information. But at the end, having written that, I was feeling tired and just for a whim I decided I’d write something really fantastical that the author wouldn’t be able to work into the plot. So, knowing I was always free to cross it all out, I wrote the scene of Lieutenant Lovejoy’s wild ride into some mystical place where snow was falling. Like I said, I was certain I’d just be crossing all that out later, because there was no way it could fit in. But then it did, and I was able to bring together all the Son of Light business, which I’d never felt really comfortable about from the start, and finish that off.
And then I was left with finishing the book. I think it had no choice but to end the way it did. No spoilers here, but I wrote the scene with Tavish and May to see if it could possibly end differently, but it couldn’t. That scene just ended up reenacting in summary the whole story of Tavish and Katie.
So I was done. It had been two years, but it had been an intoxicating, exhilarating two years, living in this story. I spent six months in revision and I was ready to send it off. And that’s when I encountered the publishing business, as described at the beginning. The book had its hooks in me at this point, and it wasn’t going to let me go without getting it published. During this space of time I also retired from my job, had back surgery, sold my house and moved to Florida, but all of that stuff somehow doesn’t seem as real to me as the goings on on the Coast.
I was very fortunate to find Dario Ciriello, who was my Virgil through the Inferno of getting it published. I realized I was going to need an editor, someone with some experience to guide me. I looked at several editors. I found Dario because I liked a blog post he’d written and sensed a fellow spirit. I hired him to read the book and he was the first (apart from myself) to think there was something in it. He helped me along and kept me on the path a couple of times when I might have stumbled and given up. I needed a graphic artist to do the cover and the map and found one literally across the street. Candace April Lee was the daughter of the couple who lived opposite my house on Brookstone Circle. I could remember when she’d been born and I’d seen her growing up. She is now a young graphic artist. I looked at some work she’d done and thought it was very good. So I had her to create the brilliant cover.
Anyway, it’s been a long haul and I’m glad it’s worked out the way it has. I hope you all enjoy the book.
One of the most prominent features of poorly written SF is the information dump, in which the author will leave the narrative hanging while he tells the reader certain significant expository information. Sometimes this is done as an authorial aside, or sometimes by having a character tell another character the pertinent information. One of the signs of a skillful writer in the genre is the ability to impart this exposition without letting the reader catch him in the act. Gene Wolfe has brought this skill to an absolute peak. He is so determined not to appear clumsy in the imparting of crucial information that many of his works become elaborate puzzles, in which the reader must tease out what is really happening because it has been hidden far beneath the surface. Peace may be Wolfe’s most elaborate puzzle.
On the surface it appears to be a mainstream novel in which the character Alden Dennis Weer relives various events of his life. The attentive reader, however, will learn that Weer is a ghost. How can he know this? The first sentence is “The elm tree planted by Eleanor Bold, the judge’s daughter, fell last night.” Why is this so important that the novel starts with the falling of this tree? At one point it’s mentioned that Eleanor Bold married and became Mrs. Porter. At one point during a conversation in the fourth chapter, Weer casually says, “Mrs. Porter? You heard her – she wants to plant a tree on my grave when I’m gone.” So the tree that fell in the first sentence was the one planted on his grave, and it has released his ghost, who is now telling his stories. Why is the ghost restlessly reliving his past life? This is a bit of speculation, but it seems he is in Purgatory and must atone for his crimes before he can be released to move on to Heaven. What crimes? On the surface there is nothing particularly bad he has done. Once again, the attentive reader can assemble a few clues, however, since his life is not told in chronological order (at one point Weer is passing time in a waiting room and says, “There is (as a matter of fact) a whole pile of Lifes before me, and I play the old game of trying to arrange them chronologically without looking at the dates, and lose.") and nothing is ever explicitly stated, much of it must be guesswork, although the clues, once assembled, are pretty convincing. Early in his life he meets Margaret Lorn, and at one point says that the two of them were meant to be together. However, they aren’t. Why not? Probably because Weer was a poor young man with no prospects. And why was that? Because he was the one who played a prank by locking another worker in the coldroom at the plant and then left him to die. Weer himself tells this story in the last chapter of the book. The first time I finished reading this book I had a feeling of anticlimax at the end, as though nothing has been resolved, but after repeated readings I came to realize the importance of this event, which shaped much of his later life. Of course this is a perfect example of how what is learned at the end forces a reader to reevaluate everything that has gone before.
And what of his relationship with Lois Arbuthnot? The two meet and take an interest in one another. Lois is trying to buy a diary for the library from the bookdealer Gold. Eventually, with Weer’s financial assistance she is able to make the purchase for $75. She reads in the book about a fortune in gold supposedly buried nearby by the Civil War raider Quantrill. She attempts to seduce Weer, inviting him to her apartment, getting drunk and letting him take off her bra before passing out, in order to enlist his assistance in digging up the gold. Weer’s assessment of her body as she lies half-naked on the couch is remarkably clinical, evaluating her as having a very good bust for a woman her age without imparting the slightest hint of eroticism. Anyway, the result is the two of them take a shovel and go to where the gold is supposedly buried and try to dig it up. Late at night, the shovel hits something that sounds like metal and Weer sees that Lois has a pistol. He never reveals what happens after that moment. However, he does say that there was no gold and that Lois has abruptly left. He confronts Gold accusing him of fraudulently writing the book himself in order to get $75 from the library. Gold acknowledges the fraud, but defends himself by saying that his frauds bring the people who purchase them happiness. Gold’s daughter comes to sleep with Weer (this time the seduction is successful) in order to convince him not to go to the police and in the process feels beneath his pillow and finds the pistol Lois was carrying. What are we to make of this? Maybe Lois just left town, leaving her pistol with Weer, although it is most likely that he shot her (perhaps in a struggle to take possession of the gun) and buried her body in the hole they’d dug. This is a story of great poignancy and emotional impact; no one except Wolfe would have chosen to tell it in this fashion, omitting the climactic moment and not allowing more than the barest hint of emotion. I might add that this story contains the only moment in the novel where I think I can catch the author in the act of deliberately dropping a hint, since it strikes me as out of character for Weer to keep the pistol under his pillow. Surely he would not have risked himself by keeping such a clue, and would have buried the gun with Lois’ body. But who knows, maybe Lois just gave him the gun and then left town. To quote his observation about a teapot Margaret Lorn shows him early in the book, “the artist's rendering of Jesus and the apostles as Chinese philosophers ... and his running together the various scenes ... resulted in a confusion that, though charming, was nearly impenetrable.”
There are many stories embedded in the book, most of which are left unfinished. These stories are told by a variety of voices and contain much very entertaining detail. They also tend to comment on the main action of the book. One of them is the story of a ceramic Chinese pillow in which a young man has a large debt he is unable to pay and is consequently very pessimistic about his future. He meets an old man who tells him many people are much worse off and then lends him a Chinese pillow, telling him it will fulfill the wishes of anybody who sleeps on it. The young man sleeps on it and proceeds on his way. The rest of his life is an uninterrupted series of triumphs. He spends forty happy years as a highly ranked officer of the army and then retires. One day he is hunting a wolf and gets lost. He meets an old man and tells the story of how he slept on the ceramic pillow, saying "If I could live only that one day again--". The old man is the same one who lent him the pillow, and he replies, "Fool! ... I have granted your heart's desire, and for it I receive your ingratitude!" The soldier runs out of the cave, but finds the cave is actually the ceramic pillow, and he is again a young man in the hostel. This story is referenced by the next to last sentence in the book: “It is time, I think, that I see the enchanted headrest of the Chinese philosopher looming behind me, and I wait its coming.” The implication is that he must begin reliving his life once again, and that he is trapped in an endless cycle. This is what makes it seem as though he is in Purgatory, and so long as he continues to evade repentance for the things he has done he will never be able to move on. Also, is it significant that his middle name backwards spells ‘sinned’?
The Deep is written in a spare style that packs a considerable punch. The struggle between the Blacks and the Reds is based to a degree on the Wars of the Roses: the Blacks are the House of Lancaster, Little Black is Henry VI, his Queen is Margaret; the Reds are the House of York, Red Senlin is Richard Plantagenet, Sennred is Richard III, Red Senlin’s Son should be Edward IV, but instead seems to be modeled on Edward II. So the correspondences exist, but they are not too close, and they’re seemingly just a starting point. Crowley is not intent on telling the story of the Wars of the Roses, he has his own story to tell.
Unlike Stableford’s adaptation of Homer, in which like most heroic fantasy, the heroes are heroic, if flawed, and their greatness as fighting men is made much of, Crowley’s adaptation of English history stresses his characters’ overwhelming selfishness and deceitfulness. Redhand and his wife are the only ones with any sense of decency or nobility. Throughout the book we are given a feeling of cyclical inevitability, that the struggle being waged is one that has gone on forever and is destined never to change. The Grays are the holders of Learning, and are uncovering an image that depicts a senseless round of brutality, one king succeeding another in unending succession:
“Crowned men with red tears running from their eyes held hands as children’s cutouts do, but each twisted in a different attitude, of joy or pain he couldn’t tell, for of course they all smiled with teeth. Behind and around them, gripping them like lovers, were black figures, obscure, demons or ghosts. Each crown had burning within it a fire, and the grinning black things tore tongue and organs from this king and with them fed the fire burning in the crown of that one, tore that one’s body to feed the fire burning in this one’s crown, and so on around, demon and king, like a tortured circle dance.”
Into this world comes the Visitor. He arrives damaged, with no clear idea of what his mission is. During the course of the novel he learns the history of this land and uncovers the reason he was sent. The world was created by a God-like entity only identified as the brother of Leviathan. He found men who worshipped him and he brought them to this world and gave them what he thought they wanted most. Apparently they wanted immortality, and what he gave them was not exactly that; what he gave them was changelessness. They exist in a world that is maintained in such fashion that nothing ever changes: there is never any progress, and the population never grows. This is done by sending visitors from time to time to lead the world into mayhem, death and destruction in order to keep the population down. However, this time the Visitor departs without fulfilling this purpose and Nod, who was with the Visitor when he learned the truth, has recorded what he learned, and at the end it looks like the world, which up till now has existed outside of time, is going to break out of the deadly circle it has been in.
This is a subtle and well-crafted novel. Crowley manages, by virtue of the very sparseness of his prose, to convey a certain amount of empathy with even his most unlikable characters. Most of them die simple, unglamorous deaths, which serve to underline the chaos of battle and the needlessness of human suffering.
The Fifth Head of Cerberus
Like so much of Gene Wolfe’s writing, this book is a puzzle in which the author uses ambiguity to make the reader question everything he thinks he knows about the world of the book as he is reading it. It is set in a colonial environment; on the surface, the difference between the dominant colonial culture and the subservient aboriginal culture seems to be clear cut. However, the author very craftily undermines the dichotomies of colonizer / colonized, civilized / primitive, advanced / retarded, human / bestial, teacher / pupil, parent / child and doctor / patient (not to mention father / son).
The colonial context would appear to signal that this is a political work, but I feel Wolfe is primarily interested in this context as a way of exploring philosophical concerns, namely the nature of identity and what it means to be human. In the first part, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” the concept of cloning is used to ask the question: what is an individual? Are Number 5, his father and Mr. Million all the same person? The anthropologist John V. Marsch, who makes an appearance, seems to think so, although all three behave differently. The second part, “”A Story,” by John V. Marsch” is a retelling of an aboriginal myth which has been passed down orally for two centuries. In this story natural clones (identical twins) are separated at birth and raised in different cultures. The story shows the efforts they make to distinguish themselves. This story was apparently written by John V. Marsch, after he had been replaced by an aboriginal (Victor Trenchard) and must have been part of the package the officer examines in the third part, “V. R. T.”. “V. R. T.” asks the question, who is human? Is it the original human John V. Marsch, or the aboriginal shape-shifter who takes his place? The replacement is in many ways more humane than the original. Also, he is certainly a better anthropologist. He is able to ground himself in the culture of the prison and communicate with other inmates, things the original, as depicted, would have been highly unlikely to accomplish. The irony is that it is this most human of all the characters in the book that is incarcerated and cut off from human society.
Much of Wolfe’s work is written in the first person, and Wolfe’s first person narrators are always unreliable. This not only adds a level of ambiguity, it’s an accurate reflection of the way people are. In the first person narratives of our lives that we all construct, none of us are reliable. Or perhaps I should say we are all reliably unreliable. Also, Wolfe never says anything about his characters directly. This is very different from the way Stableford in Dies Irae was constantly putting the narrative on hold so he could tell the reader about his characters. When reading Wolfe the reader must always look for subtle hints and be prepared to draw conclusions on the basis of what has been left out. This and Wolfe’s haunting use of language are two of the main factors that distinguish him from other writers. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is an excellent illustration of his great skill and accomplished story-telling. He manages to comment on meaningful subjects while creating real characters who do and say interesting things, and at the same time the three parts of the book intertwine to tell a coherent story. Not an easy stunt to pull off.
This is a series of three books: The Days of Glory, In the Kingdom of the Beasts and Day of Wrath. The Days of Glory retells the story of the Iliad and In the Kingdom of the Beasts retells Books V – XII of the Odyssey. Day of Wrath is pure Stableford. Actually, although the events and characters are based on Homer’s epics, Stableford is intent on telling his own story.
Here is a partial list of the main characters I can match with Homeric characters:
It is remarkable how this ancient epic has been constantly retold and reinterpreted throughout history. Perhaps the Book of Genesis is the only narrative with an equal claim to being the foundation myth of our culture. Its characters and events have been used time and again in the service of almost every artistic aim imaginable. In Stableford’s hands, the events make up, more than anything else, a strong and thrilling adventure. Stableford tells a story of the clash between two types of civilization. One is founded on stability – life is above all safe, but some find it stagnant. The other is built on individualism – on the danger that can result from the friction between individualists -- and is constantly on the edge of destruction. One character (Darkscar – there is no Homeric analogue) has traveled back in time in order to shape a galaxy that suits him better than the one he was born into. This forces the galaxy to react and protect itself by creating various temporal and spatial distortions. The philosophical underpinnings of all this are a bit jejune and the discussion of them tends to veer into the kind of sophomoric ‘cosmic significance’ so common to much inferior SF. (Although there is an interesting discussion in the second book about sentience, which draws a distinction between life and thought and proposes that intelligence, mind, etc. are essentially matters of communication. This appealed to the side of me that takes an interest in cognitive psychology). However, Stableford is much better in the many very violent scenes of battle and death, with limbs being severed and faces burned away and so forth. The action hardly ever flags; Stableford manages not to let metaphysical enlightenment get in the way of an exciting, wild ride.
These books can be recommended for their language, which does not rise to any great heights, but which is constantly literate and lucid -- more than most authors today can manage. Occasionally one gets the feeling that as Stableford was writing he was pushing his speed limit, metaphorically, and there are passages that could benefit from careful revision, but overall the trilogy is well organized, coherent and a good deal of fun.
This novel, like A Fine and Private Place (q.v.), features two interlaced love stories.The story of Li̒r and the Unicorn parallels that of Michael and Laura, while that of Schmendrick and Molly Grue parallels that of Rebeck and Klapper.The unicorn punctures Lír’s pretensions and he grows as a result, which is similar to Michael.Also, their love is destined to be impossible and it must come to an end.It may be a bit of a stretch to call Schmendrick and Molly’s relationship a love story, perhaps a friendship story would be closer, but I think the feeling of love is definitely there (and the love story between Rebeck and Klapper is more of a friendship also).Just as in the earlier novel, in this one the woman takes a childish man and helps him realize his potential.Beagle seems to offer a few hints that the books are meant to be seen in parallel (such as the fact that both have fourteen chapters).
The writing in this book is much more assured and flows more freely.Also, I like very much the poems and songs, some of which are actually quite good.For example:
Who has choices need not choose.
We must, who have none.
We can love but what we lose –
What is gone is gone.
Also, a number of the metaphors and similes are quite striking.The story is a classic fairy tale, with a unicorn (of course), a bold prince who performs heroic quests and has a wicked king for a father, a beautiful maiden who must be rescued, a wizard, etc., and Beagle frequently points out to the reader that it is a fairy tale and possesses all the standard fairy tale tropes by references to Robin Hood and the like (even going so far as to mention Francis James Child, the well known collector of English ballads).He pulls off the difficult trick of telling a fairy tale while at the same time winking at the reader without seeming coy or ironical.
Also worth noting in this connection are the many Shakespearian tags.In fact, it might almost be a prequel to King Lear, since Prince Lír becomes king in the end, and the difficulties children can present their father is one of the themes of the work (notice the inhabitants of Hagsgate who are afraid to bear children since they will bring about an end to their prosperity).
My favorite scene in the novel is the Midnight Carnival, with its echoes of The Circus of Dr. Lao.I especially like the creepy harpy.The whole novel is something of a tour de force: well drawn characters, a plot that surprises while being just right, and good writing.
By the way, Schmendrick does not mention why he chooses the name Amalthea for the young woman the unicorn is turned into.Amalthea was the goat that nursed the infant Zeus.While still a child, Zeus broke off one of Amalthea’s horns and this became the cornucopia, so in addition to being the last unicorn, Amalthea was also the first.
This novel contains some interesting speculation on the nature of existence. Rebeck, who is able to see ghosts, aligns himself with Bishop Berkeley:
“Man searches constantly for his identity . . . He has no real proof of his existence except for the reaction of other people to the fact. So he listens very closely to what people say to one another about him, whether it’s good or bad, because it indicates that he lives in the same world they do, and that all his fears about being invisible, impotent, lacking some mysterious dimension that other people have, are groundless.”
Like Buster Keaton in Beckett’s Film, Rebeck is attempting to prevent himself from existing, by avoiding being seen. In the end, however, he cannot avoid being seen by his own consciousness (which, in the novel, is personified by Klapper).
The ghosts attempt to exist by being seen. They are able to see themselves and also see one another. However, the personas they display are based on their recollections of how they behaved. They can’t act naturally – since they don’t have bodies – so they try to walk and stand and in general behave like they think they behaved when alive. In the world of Beagle’s novel, they will slowly lose this awareness, or stop caring about it, and eventually disappear.
The growing love between Michael Morgan and Laura Durand parallels the growing affection between Rebeck and Klapper that will eventually lead Rebeck to leave the cemetery. Rebeck has lived there for nineteen years, which is significant since Beagle was nineteen years old at the time he wrote the book. Beagle’s use of the love stories makes the case that it is love that leads Rebeck to return to the world, i.e., that causes him to exist again. I am certain that for this reason this book mattered a great deal to Beagle, and that is why – as is evident – he put so much effort and artistry into it, because it was his way of telling himself that at the age of nineteen it was time to enter the world and begin existing.
From a technical point of view, the dialogue goes on a little too long. Beagle makes the same mistake many authors make when writing dialogue in fiction – as opposed to in a play – of thinking that since he doesn’t have the physical presence of the actors to put a point across he needs to stress it verbally. This is a mistake. In fact, what he is demonstrating is that he can’t tell when enough has been said because he can’t hear the actors having to speak his words.
This is a book that touched me deeply on account of its air of wistful melancholy, and the tart humor that appears unexpectedly from time to time (mostly from the raven).
At one time, SF was the place to find the best, most cutting edge and literarily adventurous writing. That has all changed. The current environment is hostile to originality and imagination, favoring 30 volume series that repeat the same book ad nauseam to books that make an effort to challenge the reader. In the current scene the writer is nothing more than a craftsman whose job is to manufacture product, and the major publishing houses push this dreck down the throats of the reading public. If you are ready for something completely different, you have come to the right spot.
My novel has been turned down by approximately 60 different agents and 10 different publishing houses that accept unagented submissions. The gate-keepers, of course, were doing what they are supposed to do: they were rejecting the work of a non-professional. I am glad to say I am not a professional writer. My only goal in writing is to amuse myself. However, having produced a work which in my opinion has some merit, I have made so bold as to publish it independently.
I intend to use this blog to write about some of the works that formed my literary sensibility. Till I can do so, I refer you to the free story I am offering to give you some idea of how writing is (can be?) taught.