Nightstand VI

Books from the Duncan book sale
Books from the Duncan book sale

Twice a year, the Friends of the Duncan Library have a book sale; the last two hours of the last day of the sale are $5 per bag. I ask you, what breathing soul could resist such an opportunity?

Jacques Le Goff. Medieval civilization, 400–1500. Let’s all denounce the disparagement of the so-called Dark Ages. It’s a lie! These years were one of the most fertile and inventive periods of European culture — but the Enlightenment needed an enemy to denounce (and that era was another incredible time of reinvention and innovation), so Dark it had to be.

Iona Opie and Moira Tatem. A dictionary of superstitions. Fascinating! People will believe the darnedest nonsense, won’t they? The ones documented here (the book consists almost entirely of quotations, with the occasional commentary) are all European superstitions, and indeed mostly British.

Peter Ackroyd. Dickens. Let me confess here that I actually enjoy Ackroyd’s nonfiction more than his fiction. And, even in his fiction, it’s the parts the he didn’t invent himself that I like best.

Adrienne Mayor. The poison king: The life and legend of Mithradates, Rome’s deadliest enemy. I’d already read a library copy of this, but it costs me nothing to pop it into the bag. Great stuff, this!

Phyllis Grosskurth. Byron: The flawed angel. Perhaps the first international celebrity in the modern mold — he practically invented celebrity single-handed. His wit still bites as sharply as ever. It draws blood.

John Keegan. The face of battle. His A history of warfare is excellent and notable for its unusual sensibility. He neither celebrates nor condemns warfare; he documents its craft.

Georgette Heyer. Powder and patch. I will not call her Regency novels a guilty pleasure. They are all pleasure, unadulterated.

Brad Warner. Hardcore zen: Punk rock, monster movies and the truth about reality. I forget how I came across his blog but I’ve been reading it for years now. To me, one of Zen’s most admirable qualities is its plain pragmatism, and Warner exhibits that same practical lack of pretense in every sentence.

Anne Wroe. Pontius Pilate. I recall reading good reviews of this book when it came out. Also, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could spin a book-length biography out of a few sentences in Josephus and the gospels, a handful of ancient coins, and a fragmentary inscription or two.

Philip Kapleau. Zen: The merging of east and west. I found his The three pillars of Zen to be informative and admonitory, even though it seemed to be cobbled together out of odds and ends. This volume is also not so much a book as a congeries, but it extends and enlarges many of the themes of the earlier one.

C.V. Wedgwood. Thomas Wentworth, first Earl of Strafford, 1533–1641: A revaluation. It’s written by Ms. Wedgwood. What more do you need to know? Of course you have to read any book by that most concisely evocative of historians.

William Gates. An outline of dictionary of Maya glyphs. As scholarship, this is hideously outdated. But it’s chockfull of detailed renderings of perhaps the most peculiar and beautiful writing system ever devised.

PLUS! Extra bonus photo!

A big stack of Dumas's Jefferson biography
A big stack of Dumas’s Jefferson biography

I snapped up four of the six volumes of Malone Dumas’s magisterial biography of Jefferson at the Duncan book sale. I found the two missing volumes (four and five, as it happens) at the Book Bank, the local used book store, where folks actually care about books instead of treating them as product to move, like so much shampoo or jumbo bags of dog biscuits. I now have about $6 of store credit left from this summer’s grand clearing-out of books that (let’s face it) I was never going to glance at again. What I did with the rest of the store credit is perhaps evident elsewhere here.

Nightstand V

Stacks of books are everywhere in the house.
Stacks of books are everywhere in the house.

Books, books, beautiful books. From bottom to top:

Peter T. Leeson. The invisible hook: The hidden economics of pirates. The thesis is that pirate crews were organized as they were (his focus is on the 18th century Caribbean) because economic forces made them so. I believe that “economic forces” are as real as fairy tales, but the arguments here are worthwhile.

Orhan Pamuk. My name is Red. I am trying this again solely on the strength of Helen Dewitt‘s regard for it.

Samuel R. Delany. About writing: Seven essays, four letters, and five interviews. I am, slowly, expensively, acquiring a reading copy of every Delany title. The chance to speak with him was the highlight of Readercon earlier this month.

David Mitchell. The bone clocks. Borrowed from the library; too slight an achievement to want to own. I enjoyed it — although the swamp of exposition (and it’s exposition that relies more on Portentous Capitalization than story or even logic) in part five nearly drowned me. But the plain, clear humanity of part six redeemed the tale for me.

John Clute. Pardon this intrusion: Fantastika in the world storm. Another purchase at Readercon, another fine talk from the author there.

Tom McCarthy. C. I picked this up at a friends-of-the-library sale. I haven’t read it yet, but the first page and the flap blurb make it appealing.

Samuel R. Delany. Phallos. Wesleyan University Press had a table in the dealers’ room at Readercon, with special discounts. My cash was limited, or I would have filled my suitcase.

Kenneth Barrett. 22 walks in Bangkok: Exploring the city’s historic back lanes and byways. One of the best ways to learn a culture is just to walk around.

Greer Gilman. Cry murder! in a small voice. My final Readercon splurge. A novella chapbook about — a murder mystery starring Ben Jonson! Truly, I ask you, who could resist?

Nightstand IV

More books on a chair.
More books on a chair.

John S. Farmer. A dictionary of slang: An alphabetical history of colloquial, unorthodox, underground and vulgar English. (1980 reprint of Slang and its analogues, 1890). Mostly eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century slang, with an emphasis on the London underworld. In two fat volumes! As great for browsing as it is for reference (“tip us your flipper” = give me your hand: vital information for all time travelers). My only complaint is that the organization is eccentric. Words are gathered together by subject, under a headword that the editor judged to be, I suppose, the most common term — so that, for example, all terms for the female pudenda are listed under Monosyllable (!). Copious cross-references could have cured this defect, but they are sparse.

Malcolm Balen. The secret history of the South Sea bubble: The world’s first great financial scandal. I don’t know how secret any of this actually is, but it’s fascinating to see all the threads gathered together and laid out plainly.

Lapham’s quarterly, volume 5, number 3: Magic shows. At a recent Friends of the Library book sale, I saw a box under the table with a nearly complete run of this fine publication, many of them still in shrink-wrap. Naturally, I snapped them up; at $5 a bag (it was the last day), how can you go wrong?

James Tiptree, Jr. Her smoke rose up forever. I recently read Julie Phillips’s fine biography, James Tiptree, Jr.: The double life of Alice B. Sheldon. Rereading the stories now, there’s an eerie sensation of seeing through the surface of the fiction and catching elusive glimpses of something else lurking there, something darker, sadder, more desperate, more painful than any possible endurance.


And the reviews are in

Some readers have been kind enough to post their reactions to my story in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

First up is a short notice from Michelle Ristuccia at Tangent Online. Thanks, Michelle!

Then we have Charles Payseur at his site Quick Sip Reviews. I appreciate your kind words, Charles.

And the latest is from the estimable Lois Tilton at Locus Online. And hey, she likes it! She really likes it! Enough to give it one of the two “recommended” tags allotted in this batch of eighteen stories. Thank you, Lois. I am beyond thrilled.

Where do stories come from?

Where do stories come from? Of course, the real answer is: You don’t want to know. But in this case I’m going to tell you anyway.

One morning, towards dawn, I was lying abed half asleep when these sentences began circulating in my head:

Ryan North was no magistrate. Why, he was not even a lawman. If people were free to come to him with a dispute, he was just as free to offer an opinion; and if they chose to act on it, that was their own business.


Why does this happen? I don’t know; it just does, more often in the shower than in bed, but usually when I’m not fully and lucidly awake. I’ve always assumed that everyone encounters these insistent prose attacks (or, more rarely, spells of verse), but I could be mistaken. In any case, after a while I got up and wrote them down.

But who was this Ryan North? When I was actually awake, I recognized him as the author of the brilliant Dinosaur Comics, so I renamed him after an ancestor I’d been researching.

Marguerite Yourcenar, speaking in an interview about her novel The Abyss (L’oeuvre au noir), said:

To begin with, I was interested in the histories of the families and towns in the area where I had grown up. Then I realized that these histories might be combined so as to recreate a microcosm.

One of my discoveries was a book from my father’s family library entitled Mémoires anonymes sur les troubles des Pays-Bas, a nineteenth-century reprint of a work written in Old French. […] At that time I also examined certain genealogical documents, some of which I still have while others were lost in 1944 or 1945. In these documents I ran across a person named Zeno, another named Vinine, and still another named Jacqueline Bell. These names, which were not uncommon in Flanders at that time, started me dreaming, but what I had in mind at that point seems to have been a series of character portraits spanning several generations; this would have included sketches of men and women who came and went quietly from this earth, the sort of people to whom Barrès used to refer to as “cemetery fodder,” as well as people who developed their gifts to the full.



In my case, I seemed to have conceived then of Stutley as more like the character who eventually became J.E. Chambers. He was to have been a sort of freelance inquirer into weird events — ghosts and ghouls and creepy critters — that troubled the empty landscapes of early nineteenth century New York and Pennsylvania. I have these notes scribbled down right under the opening sentences:

When would 2nd great awake have reached this area?
Prophets & charlatans — [what year was lake monster hoax?]
It was a time of prophets and charlatans, of great migrations of peoples and the long + peculiar work of becoming Americans.
What year was phalanstery constructed? Brook Farm?
Shakers must have passed though this area ==> map of villages? Ohio + NY certainly
Perhaps he is a graduate of Brown College — ? He is from Providence/North Providence/Kingstowne/Little Rest in any case.


Stories have a habit of insisting on taking their own turns and meanders independently of my own feeble wishes for them.

This one did too.

I don’t recall where I first read of Jemima Wilkinson, but right away I found her fascinating. I also don’t recall how she found her way into this story, although an inkling of it is plain enough in the notes transcribed above. More remarkable, though, is Nebuchadnezzar/Amos Walker/Jonah Northup. One evening, I sat down at the computer and typed: He calls himself Jonah now, and the whole last movement of the story unreeled almost on its own, although it also required some research about artificial lighting, pens and inks, agricultural prices, underground railway activity in western Pennsylvania, and quotations from the you-know-what, which took a little while.

Before this spate of ventriloquism, he had been more of a prop than a character, and now his story echoed backwards, as it were, through the draft, transforming the resolution of the Northup-Chambers story, which at that point just dwindled away more than it ended, and also requiring more material on Stutley’s childhood and his first encounter with the visitor (at that time still a plural visitors), as well as numerous other, smaller adjustments. Here I pass over without comment many hours of drafting and revising.

After a few of the usual form-letter rejections, Scott Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies — a market I’d never submitted to before — rejected it with a very perceptive note, adding that he’d like to see it again it I did end up revising it.

His remarks brought into focus a vague dissatisfaction — and so I rearranged some passages, amputated some others, added new sentences and paragraphs, and pruned away, here and there, some excess rhetorical flourishes. I also corrected some lighting technology anachronisms (ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance), and set right certain idiocies concerning the handling of rowboats (what could I have been thinking?). Despite the many additions, the cuts brought the word count down by nearly a thousand. This took about a week; I set it aside for three weeks, then looked at it again; I made some more changes (mostly cuts).

I sent it back.

Notes & sources (I)

Little Hope

Maybe you’ve read the story “Sinseerly A Friend & Yr. Obed’t” and maybe you wondered how much was fiction, how much was fact, and how much was some messy mixture — also known as conjecture.

I wanted to append a short note on sources to the story, but the editor persuaded me not to. Here, then, is the long version of the dreaded Author’s Note:

Little Hope, Pennsylvania, was a real place, although it hardly exists today, and in Greenfield Cemetery you can find the gravestone of Stutley Northup (died 10 April 1860). He did find his way to Erie County from Rhode Island via central New York, but it is very unlikely that either he or his father were followers of Jemima Wilkinson — who was nevertheless also quite real, as was her New Jerusalem settlement. I do not know if he attended Brown College (I doubt it). Nor do I have any documentation that he was accessory in the flight of fugitive slaves (I doubt that too). Many of his descendants were dairy farmers, so it seemed reasonable to suppose that he may have been too. Of course the Dark Day really did happen, and Stukely’s war service was as outlined (drawn from War Department records), and the names of his children are recorded in census records, and there was a mysterious giant wave on Lake Erie in July 1881, and J.E. Chambers was Justice of the Peace in Harbor Creek Township in 1838 (although his commission was not recorded until December).


The Dusseau brothers did encounter a giant sea-snake in Lake Erie, or so they claimed, but I have moved the event fifty years earlier and fifty miles east. The newspaper accounts are only slightly modified from those of the Stark County (Ohio) Democrat and the New York Times. (The Phoenix-Mirror is a real newspaper that was publishing in Erie at the time of the story.)

Nebuchadnezzar/Amos Walker/Jonah Northup is based — very loosely — on Joseph Taper. Taper did pass through this region of Pennsylvania on his route to Canada, but the resemblance ends there. Jonah’s internal monolog is partly made out of scraps and quotes of a letter of Taper’s preserved in the papers of Joseph Long at Duke University.

Jemima Wilkinson’s ideas about the Dark Day are adapted from Samuel Williams’s account in The analytical review, or history of literature, domestic and foreign, on an enlarged plan, volume II (1788).

The description of watercourses at the beginning of III is adapted from History of Erie County, Pennsylvania, containing a history of the county; its townships, towns, villages, schools, churches, industries, etc., as is the report of the singleton wave in XI.

I have also benefited from:

Martin Billingsley, The pens excellencie: or, the secretaries delighte for descriptions of the manufacture of quill pens.

Tom Calarco, et al., Places of the underground railroad: A geographical guide for information about fugitives in Erie and vicinity.

Charles Cassady, Paranormal Great Lakes for tales of sea monsters in the lake.

Stafford Cleveland, History and directory of Yates County, containing a sketch of its original settlement by the Publick Universal Friend for a history of Jemima Wilkinson’s New Jerusalem.

Nelson’s biographical directory and historical reference book of Erie County, Pennsylvania for all that I know about J.E. Chambers.

Antoon Oudemans, The great sea-serpent. An historical and critical treatise for inspiration and of course the epigraph at the head of VI.

Herbert Wisbey Jr., Pioneer prophetess for biographical details of Jemima Wilkinson.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

I am delighted — thrilled and tickled and various other intermediate states — to be able to say that my story “Sinseerly A Friend & Yr. Obed’t” will be published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies on April 16. No doubt you, O hypothetical reader, will want to go read it right now. But you can’t. You have to wait until April 16. But by all means go visit the site now and read the other stories, browse the archives, contribute to this admirable undertaking, or, if you are the gabbulous sort, leave a comment.

Many thanks to Scott Andrews, for seeing a glimmer in the mud and prodding me to pick it up and make it better — cleaner, smaller, brighter.

I have more to say (oh no!) but I’ll say it later.

Nightstand III

Another stack of books.
Another stack of books.

David Hackett Fischer. Albion’s seed: four British folkways in America. A brilliant work of scholarship. Fascinating, persuasive, informative. I borrowed it from the library, but found it so valuable in both overview and detail that I had to have my own copy.

Michael Swanwick. Griffin’s egg. Haven’t started on this one yet. Part of my program to read all of his books.

Michael Swanwick. Cigar box Faust and other miniatures. I like the term miniature so much better than flash. I’m going to use it from now on.

John Dickson Carr. The case of the constant suicides. Doesn’t everybody love a good clockwork plot?

John Dickson Carr. Til death do us part. See above.

Dan Cruickshank. The secret history of Georgian London: how the wages of sin shaped the capital. That is to say, how sex (or more exactly the sex trade) influenced Georgian culture and in particular architecture.

Mark Twain. The adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Rereading. “Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!”

A. Roger Ekirch. At day’s close: night in times past. We who live in the present (that is, everybody) assume that the past was in most ways mostly similar to the present. It wasn’t. Not even sleeping was the same.

Hugh Ross Williamson. Who was the man in the iron mask? and other historical mysteries. Little nooks and crannies and oddments, the sort of thing that serious historians prefer to ignore.

Iain McCalman. The last alchemist: Count Cagliostro, master of magic in the age of reason. A charismatic fraud, a type that is ever the same, especially now. Only the names have changed.

Of notebooks

I always carry a little notebook in a pocket, whenever I leave the house, and a fountain pen clipped to my sweater’s v-neck. (When I’m home, the little notebook is poised on the corner of the desk.)

I tried making voice memos on my phone, but the user interface is awkward, I was always tapping the wrong button. And besides, I had to transcribe the notes once I got back home, so why not just write them down in the first place? And there’s all the background noise in the recording — sometimes I couldn’t make out what I’d said.

I tried Evernote and Simplenote and something else, I forget, on the phone, but plinking out text on the tiny screen keyboard was tedious and I frequently had forgotten the end of the sentence I had in mind by the time I got to it. Worse than useless! And besides, I eventually abandoned the phone as too expensive — nearly $100 a month after all those fees and taxes and surcharges and whatnot get piled on top of what seemed, a first blush, a reasonable rate. That’s a thousand dollars a year! And it’s not as if I ever use the phone to make calls.

So the issue was settled when I stopped carrying a phone. Paper it was. But this opened a whole new realm of choices.

It needed to be thin — no bulk. It needed to be small — to fit in any pocket. Or I would end up not carrying it.

I started with a little Moleskine bound in kraft paper. The price was right. (Mais le vrai Moleskine n’existe plus.) I liked the sewn binding, and the perforations on the last few pages, and the little pocket at the back. It worked well with pencil, but with a fountain pen, there was too much bleed-through, the paper was not opaque enough. And I’d grown to dislike carrying pencils. They either poke you in the fingertips, or through the bottom seam of your pocket, and in either case quickly grow too dull to write crisply, unless you carry a sharpener with you, and, for me, that was just one thing too many. I don’t like ballpoints of any kind, they write too smoothly, I need a bit of drag against the paper to write legibly — probably because I’m used to pencils. A fountain pen (a cheap one) feels just right. But then there was the bleed-through issue. I couldn’t read my own notes!

I’ve turned to Field Notes notebooks. They use staples and I hate that, but the paper is better than Moleskine’s. And I have to confess that I love their Colors series. (I’ve subscribed!) Four times a year they ship you a bunch of little notebooks with some eccentric, gimmicky design conceit. Those who have read more than one of these miniature essays may have gathered that I adore eccentricity, gimmicks, and conceits. Oh yes. Let us not be ashamed. Wood covers! Constellations! Beer! Gilt! And so on.

Still, I remain open to conversion.

I’ve yet to find the perfect pocket notebook. Perhaps it does not exist. But I do like my little Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen with Namiki cartridges (it comes with a converter for using bottled ink, but I’ve been afraid of leaks). It’s the perfect size for my hand and has just the right amount of friction against the page. It’s a delight, and one must never frown at delightful things.

Nightstand II

It’s always nice to have things easily to hand. From bottom to top again:

Yogi Kondo et al. Interstellar Travel and Multi-generation Space Ships. This seems to be papers presented at an AAAS symposium with the same title as the book. In other words, some serious looks at a few of the technical issues such an undertaking raises.

Jacqueline Koyanagi. Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel. Kameron Hurley’s blurb promises us “…badass women running around doing badass things….” Both this and the book above were in the swag bag at Capclave 2014. I’ve barely glanced at either. But (hey!) free books — what’s not to like?

John Clute. Scores: Reviews 1993–2003. Speaking of Capclave, here’s the first of my loot from the dealers’ room. Clute is one of the best critics writing today, but this book’s typography is absolutely appalling: pale, spindly, too tight, and littered with errors.

George R. Stewart. Names on the Land. The classic study of American toponyms.

Henry Mayhew. London Labour and the London Poor, Volume II: The London Street-Folk (continued). Another classic study, in the Dover facsimile reprint. This is the place to go if you want to learn about, say, rag-pickers. And who doesn’t want to learn about rag-pickers?

John Clute. Canary Fever: Reviews. Further Capclave loot. More of the same from Mr. Clute: perceptive writing, rendered painful to read by incompetent typography. It’s set slightly larger than Scores — but such sloppy proofreading! such stingy margins! such horrendous spacing!

John Clute. Look at the Evidence: Essays and Reviews. Ah! What a pleasure this one is (yet more Capclave loot). Here the craft of the physical book is at a level with the writing in the book. Clever apercus! Proper small caps! Insightful critiques! Even typographic color! And — something amazing for a book at this price — a sewn binding!

Avram Davidson. The Island Under the Earth. The last of my Capclave purchases: a pristine Ace paperback of a fine story by a criminally neglected genius. I am making progress towards my goal of acquiring a copy of every word the man ever published.