My Faith in Writers is Still Devout

Or is it?

Sometimes I read about some writer who’s motivated, it seems, only by cupidity and fame and the salacious trilogy, and I wonder what’s the matter with me.

Sure, the money would be welcome with a book deal, but all I’m hoping for is enough to live off, and if that’s not enough, then I’ll slim down my expectations or my living. Just get more frugal and Occupy a life that is both generous and imaginative and hopefully inspiring on some level to another person. But to have money hound you and drive the ambition? Just doesn’t slip between my spine enough to make the writing interesting. And that’s where it matters for me: to be daring and dangerous in the writing.

Truthfully I find writing easy and living terribly difficult. So trying to figure out how to make tons of cash from the thing I love, well, it just complicates the passion.

And the fame aspect. Well, I suppose we all deserve our 15 minutes of fame, however it comes — even if it’s writing about the Warhol legacy. But to write and nurse celebrity under your crooked arm? Seems a bit like robbing the cradle.

And the trilogy equation is now like some default setting. What ever happened to cycles (like Dune or Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood) or quartets (like Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria one)?

I’m not sure why I’m obsessing about this. Each writer makes his or her own bed and then lies in it — because we are all so good at fabrication.

It just seems to me that more and more I seem to read or hear about writers who bang these big gongs, announcing to all the young writers that, hey, here’s the path for you to follow as a writer: write a blockbuster, zero-in on the money, do the derivative dance, write it quick, sell it off, upgrade from writer to author in no time.

I guess I’m sick of this spectacle. Partly because I don’t know if I have it in me to write some bestselling book and land loads of dough. And why should this be lauded as the only goal, which it  does so often. Why must the avatar of wealth and greed be the commodity of choice, especially when it comes to writing. I mean, is this the goal for all writers now, is this what is expected of us? Is a book just another “For Sale” item, a commodity? Is a writer simply a worker in a book factory?

I suppose it comes down to the question of what is more valuable: a world of excessive greed and financial success with the bizarre tautology of “value for money,” or the intrinsic value of books, written not to promote this way of life, but to challenge it, change it.

I know where I would like to stand on this.

There Is No Five O’Clock Hero In My House

Maybe I just missed the work ethic rally as a kid, but when did the misconstrued idea come about that a person should enjoy his or her job?

Now let me be clear. So out comes the Mr. Clean & Shine. I’m talking about those jobs that supplement a writer’s life the way an appetizer gets the taste buds excited. Those jobs that play the role of butler to the lord of the manor.

I think back to the coal-black, ancestral roots of my nation. I’m talking about Welsh miners who descended into the bowels of the earth to make a living wage. I can’t imagine any of them loved the work, but they did it because, okay, yes, they had no other choice, but they also did it to stand up to life, face it square on and not let life break them into just more fuel for the fire.

It can be argued now, by any high-school debater, that contemporary culture gives us more choices, it is a meritocracy for the highly mobile and deliciously ambitious. It’s a fast-attainment paradise for anyone who can sprint or text or surf the Web. In fact, none of us really need rouse from our endless-possibility stupor because there is a vista of opportunity and personal flexibility just seeping out like jam from the daily bread of life.

That’s fine if you can work it. Some of us just can’t be complicit in this restless activity of work that hides a paralysis of imagination. Maybe because we either have a radical vision which is at odds with society’s great expectations of the citizen or else we are damaged in some way and just don’t fit into a bland consensual culture.

I know what I love. But right now I must exist as an amphibian until I can learn to entirely breath the thing I love: writing.

Basically, what this says about me is that I can only be faithful to my true love. I have a monogamous nature. I’m not interested in extra-marital affairs of the working kind.

So the work I have to do, is, well, simply the work I have to do. It’s manual labour of the finest kind, of course, but it’s still the heavy lifting before the sitting for the rest of eternity in a chair and writing.

So, I ain’t about to be noncommittal, honey!

And I certainly don’t have to enjoy all this screwing around while I court my beloved. It’s just part of the job after all.

The Great God Pan

An “ incoherent nightmare of sex,” is how Arthur Machen’s novella The Great God Pan (Watchmaker Publishing, Seaside, Oregon; 59 pages; $4.95) was described when it was first let loose on an unsuspecting, civilized, Edwardian society. But the up-tight, stuffy Edwardians gobbled up the Welshman’s mystical tale of horror.

In our modern-day hive of sexual arousal, Machen’s “sex” is more boudoir than Internet porn. But his “incoherent nightmare” epithet could easily give contemporary English writer J. G. Ballard a roll in the dystopian mud.

The Great God Pan is incoherent: if by that we mean it doesn’t follow a direct and appropriate narrative arc or a formal, linear plot. It plays with time and space. (The perfect form for a pre-Christian, pagan mystic like Machen.) Machen switches back and forth in time, creating fragments of a story, unlimiting himself, drifting from the opening scene of the wealthy benefactor Dr. Raymond and the innocent Mr. Clarke to several other characters who pop up like the chorus from a Greek play to indoctrinate a reader’s fear and loathing in fin-de-siècle London.

And the sex is no Sex in the City! This is wild, metaphysical Eros. A shapeless, shifting act, the way Eve in the biblical tale is never sexual, but all sin. Machen’s sex is prurient without being lecherous because he restrains himself; he doesn’t give into the physical. His “sex” is a voracious avatar of seduction, the offspring of a diabolical experiment in brain surgery, and an amorphous deity of nature. So it’s a bit of surprise to find out that she is a woman, and a beautiful one at that. But Machen isn’t crude enough to be so materialistic, or even gender specific. Yes she is a woman named Helen Vaughan, but at the heart of the novel, she is a force of nature, a pagan spirit born to a new life.

The story begins naturally enough with an interaction between a Dr. Raymond and his witness, a Mr. Clarke, in a lovely bucolic setting. But it doesn’t take long for the Gothic, phantasmagoric elements to rip apart this tenuous reality. Mr. Clarke says to Dr. Raymond: “We are standing on the brink of a strange world, Raymond, if what you say is true. I suppose the knife is absolutely necessary?”

The knife turns out to be a scalpel that the doctor wields to cut a lesion in a working-class waif’s grey matter. The woman is named Mary and was saved by the good doctor from a life of misfortune and is now his guinea pig in a fantastic experiment: “Yes, the knife is necessary; but think what that knife will effect. It will level utterly the solid wall of sense, and probably, for the first time since man was made, a spirit will gaze on a spirit-world. Clarke, Mary will see the god Pan!”

She does — and becomes a drooling imbecile. “Yes it is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot. However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan.”

As a reader, it’s not impossible to believe that seeing the pagan god Pan will have its price. But Machen wants you to see more; he wants you to cleanse the doors of perception, William Blake-style. So if you expect the rest of the book to be easy, think again. There’s cleansing going on, and you can’t get redemption in a Gothic tale without getting a lot of metaphysical evil and mayhem out of the way first.

Enter Helen Vaughan, the daughter of Mary, who is never physically described. She simply flits like some macabre succubus leaving a trail of bodies through fashionable London. And when she is described, it is vague, alluring, confusing, haunting: “She would be called very handsome, I suppose, and yet there is something about her face…. The features are exquisite, but the expression is strange.”

Strange, indeed, for a Victorian woman to have such power over men, infuriating, frustrating, alluring, seducing, and then killing them. She is a woman of the haute bourgeoisie, married to a Mr. Herbert, who now wanders the streets of London in rags and who says his wife corrupted him body and soul. And then there are the dead bodies. Mysterious deaths around which a certain Mrs. Beaumont, the toast of society, is associated. Men who are either struck down by sheer terror or else hang themselves.

Murder, madness, and a malevolent spirit. Who can it be, seducing and, like the god Pan, striking terror into mortal man?

It’s Helen Vaughan, daughter of Mary and the offspring of the nature spirit and cloven-hoofed god Pan. Helen is on one hand a rampant symbol of pagan nature let loose on civilized London with its enlightened ideas of science and its obsessive reliance on the material. Her terror-gaze nothing more than the mirror that the real Medusa, London society, holds up to itself. But this is perhaps relying too heavily on symbolic suggestion and reading too much into Arthur Machen’s own predilections with the world around him that had forgotten its pagan past, its spiritual inheritance, and was so easily squandering it to the gods of science and industry.

This could be a moral tale, but it’s far more enjoyable as a supernatural thriller that produces, even now in our contemporary world, bursts of horripilation for Helen Vaughan, the pagan temptress of chaos, a nameless apparition from a wild wood on the borders of Wales, the vengeful spirit who is cast out as an orphan to make her way in a cold, heartless world of men. Pan’s child,  “changing and melting from woman to man, from man to beast, and from beast to worse than beast.”

And it is as if Helen Vaughan knows she’s cursed because at the end of the book, through the machinations of Villiers and Austin, both bent on discovering the identity of this mysterious woman who is followed by death, Villiers sends her the “best hempen cord.”

The perennial power of Arthur Machen’s story of unleashed, pagan terror is the fragmentary way in which he presents information to a reader. He is sly, much like the woodland god, slowly giving snippets of the fantastic until everything is revealed at the end. The full circle of horror is complete as we return to the doctor, the progenitor of the unleashed terror, the man who held he knife, that made the incision, that lifted the veil. “I have played with energies which I do not understand,” Dr. Raymond admits at the end of the novel. And he reveals the truth about Helen Vaughan. “I knew what I had done the moment the child was born, and when it was scarcely five years old, I surprised it with a playmate. You may guess of what kind.”

But who, you may wonder, has the more seductive powers? The great god Pan or the great Welsh writer of the macabre, Arthur Machen?

Possessed

Henry Miller wrote: “A writer shouldn’t think much.”

And I don’t when I sit down to write. The only thing I like to keep in mind is that I’m getting as close as I can come to Lewis Carroll writing sheer nonsense. But I’m never mindful of this — it just wanders like a mendicant throughout my body. And I never, anyway, reach that absurd beauty. But how I strive for it!

You could say I write as if I’m taking dictation. I never seem to know just exactly what is going to happen. Which is not to say that I don’t know what I want to write about, because I do. I’m just not all that hypnotized by how to say it. And a lot of the time it happens like this. Words spilling out and I am just a medium. Which is not to say I’m a mannequin sitting in his chair, empty but for the grace of words. No. I’m alive, present, actively engaged in the words that are coming and turning them at the last second, you could say, into the words I want. I am the hook that catches the fish, and the fish is scales and fins and blood and gills and yet at the time of its landing, I have given it a name.

When I am done, I am amazed at what I’ve written. Not in the sense of, wow, look at what I can do, but more along the lines of: I never knew I had that in me. It’s more a humbling feeling than an arrogant one, which would feel wrong, any way. There is no arrogance when writing, it’s always a surprise one word at a time. Arrogance as a writer completely spoils the work, much like too much spice destroys taste.

I suppose I approach writing the same way I approach reading: I’m always looking for that writer to lift me out of myself, free me from taboos, pluck me free of the mundane and drop me, sometimes kicking and flailing, into the unknown, which is always the most unprofitable side of creation, but always the richest.

“Taboos after all are only hangovers, the product of diseased minds, you might say, of fearsome people who hadn’t the courage to live and who under the guise of morality and religion have imposed these things upon us.” Henry Miller

“The artist is lagging behind, his imagination is not keeping pace with the men of science.” Henry Miller

What Is the Fairest of Them All?

You know those thoughts that leave craters in the skull? I’ve got one.

What’s more important as a writer?

1. To write books as a lifestyle choice

2. To purely make money

3. To write for vanity reasons

4. To write to make even a small difference in the world

5. To write a book as a cultural intervention

6. To write a bourgeois fashion accessory

7. Communicate something new

8. Sharing egalitarian imagination

9. Challenge a reader and myself to risk something, anything

10. Reanimate the ghost town that is called contemporary fiction

11. Breed like a fucking rabbit new life into old ideas

12. Silence the damn foghorn that publishing is in decline, books are dead

13. Prove that social change is not passé or an academic pursuit

14. Spark discussion

15. A passionate appeal to mind and body

16. Avoid facile populism

17. Bet on readers’ intelligence

18. Be at once lucid as well as conceptually dense

19. To make the writing one’s own, not some slogan to the lord of derivative

20. Have a sexy selling point

21. Write a book that makes something happen emotionally or intellectually

22. Create honesty through fiction

23. Love it

24. Confuse the senses

25. Deliver a vision no matter how warped

26. A longing for that elusive intimacy with the other

27. To share a gift

28. Satisfy the mad ego

29. To usurp the competition

30. To prove to all the naysayers; agitate all the naysayers

31. To be the other

32. To do it no matter what

33. To sell out

34. To never, ever give in

35. To never compromise, even when your back’s against the wall and even the wall has gone

36. To prove that a person can live their own life in their way

37. Make combat, not love

38. Make love, not combat

39. Create the dissenting voice, any voice other than the endless drone

40. Fling apart the world atom by atom and build it anew

41. Refuse to write the low mimetic

42. Kick realism in the imaginary balls

43. Fight for your right to be heard in the din, but not as more noise

44. Because nobody else will write that book for you

I wonder if I ever have to choose?

“If people are writing books as a lifestyle choice or purely to make money or out of personal vanity then obviously people will stop caring eventually, because literature has become indistinguishable from wine or wrapping paper or jewelry or lingerie or any other consumer product.” Alex Niven, Zer0 Books

Deep Faith, Ardent Doubts

If you opened me up like a fridge, you’d find a lot of bottles full of the cream of human confidence at the door. But if you moved these bottles aside, you’d find an empty jar shoved in the corner. It would be chipped and its contents long gone and unrecognisable.

This pretty wells sums up how I feel about myself as a writer.

There are days when the faith in what I do goes so deep, I’m giddy over the possibilities. And then there are days when the doubts fly like bullets and I’m on a stretcher and even the nurse is damn ugly and wants me to suffer.

Why this anchor that at times can ground me to the writing life and at other times bury me under the ground?

I suppose all writers go through this no rhyme, no reason of the ancient kind.

Schisms of the writing life. Perhaps it forces me to be a better writer. If you swing between such polarities, then maybe the chances for improvement are much better.

Whatever the case, I prefer the deep faith. But I realize it could be the ardent doubts that keep me writing.

In A Dark Wood

“I found myself in a dark wood,” wrote Dante. Ancient, mysterious woods are an eldritch power that have enchanted, frightened, and inspired humanity since the dawn of time. In Robert Holdstock’s award-winning book Mythago Wood, it is the titular wild woodland of Celtic and English folklore that is at the centre of this dark and disturbing novel.

But there is more than forest spirits and shadows that haunt Holdstock’s primal forest. The woods are alive with ancient and limitless archetypes of myth that are transformed into flesh and blood. Heroic kings and brave outlaws; beautiful noblewomen and savage huntsmen; and the Urscumug, who “decks himself with woods and leaves, on top of animal hides. Face seems smeared with white clay, forming a mask upon exaggerated features below.”

The wood is Rhyope, and it has been the obsession of George Huxley for many years. With a febrile mind, he has kept notebooks that are filled with both the beautiful and deadly mythago creatures he has encountered in the woods.

Weary and wounded from the global conflict of World War II, George’s son, Steven, returns home to Oak Lodge, his family home in Herefordshire. His father is dead from an illness that has inflicted him for years and Steven’s brother, Christian, is master of the old estate.

But Christian has been delving into his father’s notebooks. And he has fallen in love with one of the mythagos, Guiwenneth, who “had lived a thousand times, and never lived at all.” Steven finds his brother becoming as obsessed about Rhyope as their father, returning back to it time after time and returning home with the “air of the primitive about him… reeking of sweat and vegetation, as if he had spent the days away buried in compost.” It is only when Steven finds the buried body of Guiwenneth in the back garden that he begins to understand that there is a brutal, disturbing, unknowable, pre-Christian consciousness at work at the heart of this primal wood.

The narrative is told through the tight first-person of Steven. It’s the perfect choice as the plot unfolds and the primal personas emerge from the wild wood to entice Steven into their mystery. Like his brother Christian, Steven, too, soon discovers his father’s notebooks and begins to be at once attracted and repulsed by the brutal and primitive spirit of the wood. He also falls in love with a reincarnation of the mythagos Guiwenneth. But this is a tale of star-crossed lovers because Christian returns from the wild wood, having gone “native” like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The bewitching power of the wood has transformed Christian into a savage leader of a band of even more bloodthirsty warriors called Hawks and he has come to snatch Guiwenneth away.

And now begins a gripping, outlandish quest as Steven and his friend Keeton decide to venture into the woods, forging their way to the heart of the wood and being aided by a host of myths: Saxons, Roman, pre-Christian Celts, and Neolithic clans, tribes out of fable, and even older legends that time has forgotten. Steven is on the trail of his brother, now known as the “outsider” in the fabled wood, his name passing into lore and legend the further he goes into the wood, the more he kills and menaces the mythagos within the wild wood.

Throughout it all, Rhyope Wood is a fantastical character in this novel. Holdstock weaves its own dark psychology on all who enter.  The wood is febrile, unreal, visceral, deadly, and beautifully brutal. It contains its horror, its secrets, and yet so freely unleashes it on all those who wander in.

In fact, Holdstock’s novel is remarkably original and avant-garde for its time. It is so strangely and wonderfully at odds with the ever-pervading idea that the world-building of fantasy must be feudal, sometimes even sentimental. In Mythago Wood it is pagan, brutal with a shamanistic subconscious; a bewildering mixture of a lost pre-historic world where the lost instinctual energies of animal and human spirits are alive and hungry.

Robert Holdstock more than most writers can rightfully assert: “I found myself in a dark wood.”