Saturday, July 10, 2010

Glimmer Train Stories 70 (Spring 2009)

Glimmer Train Stories 70, Spring 2009

Glimmer Train webite.

Not just a publisher of literary works, Glimmer Train Press, the flagship that is responsible for the elegant quarterly Glimmer Train Stories, is an industry. Based in Portland, Oregon, the journal was launched in 1990 by sisters Linda B. Swanson-Davies and Susan Burmeister-Brown, a duo that made enough of a fortune in the software industry to leave work and begin their literary venture. With the success of Glimmer Train Stories they began a second quarterly, a journal on writing titled Writer's Ask. The venture has been a great success though the journal itself garners mixed reviews: while it pays its writers generously, frequently publishes first-time or developing authors and is a very high quality and physically attractive publication, it regularly promotes generic, bland writing. Glimmer Train Stories prefers internal philosophizing with a backdrop of some medical tragedy or alarming event. Narrators must make some kind of realization, and life goes on.

The journal's structure and operation is incredibly consistent and well organized. They solicit work not only from the general public, but they also offer different contests at predetermined times of the year, from a general Fiction Open contest to one for new writers, a "Very Short Fiction Award" and something called Family Matters, which seek stories dealing with family. Each of these contests requires a reading fee of $15, or $20 for the Fiction Open. Seeing as contest entries number in the hundreds, these proceeds likely help the editors/publishers in offering such high cash prizes to the contest winners and two runners-up. The Fiction Open award is valued at $2,000, plus publication and twenty copies of the issue their story will be featured in. Rather generous and appealing for established and new writers. I am personally not opposed to reading fees for contests since it is a lot of work and external readers are often hired to help with the submission load (though according to their site the two editors read everything themselves--all 40,000 submissions), and twenty bucks is a good investment toward a literary journal.

Among Glimmer Train's best feature is its website. An attractive, user-friendly site that is as well organized as the rest of the publication. So well designed that it is not difficult to believe that the two ladies behind Glimmer Train worked in the software industry.

I am unaware of the journal's early format, or even if they have gone through many changes (though I've searched for back issues in different second hand shops I know), but the current format seems not to have changed much over the last number of years. The journal features stories of varying length (they are open to publishing those awkwardly longer pieces that often have difficulty finding a home), an author interview, brief article and photographs of the editors and their contributors: childhood photos face each story's opening page, while other family-oriented photos grace the last few pages, a section under the heading "The Last Pages." Each of these photos contains a caption, and some of these cations by the authors themselves are more entertaining than their actual stories.

I subscribe regularly to different journals mostly in order to help them out; it is unfortunate that many of these periodicals, some quite excellent, are not more widely read. In 2009 I decided to subscribe for a year to see what Glimmer Train was all about, and with high expectations plunged myself into the first gorgeous glossy issue I received, Glimmer Train 70 (Spring 2009).

This particular issue features eight short stories, an author interview and a brief essay, and I was immediately impressed with the first story, Stephanie Dickinson's "A Hole in the Soup." The story deals with a young woman trapped in a hospital in New Orleans immediately following the flood. Not only does the story have a spectacular title, but the prose is solid and the situation more than gripping. Not just the strongest piece in the issue, Dickinson also provides the best entry among "The Last Pages," with a great photo of her dad and a genuinely touching caption. "A Hole in the Soup" proved to be by far the strongest piece in the issue, and really only one of two worth reading. The second is the following piece, Lauren Groff's "Delicate Edible Birds." It is a good story but drags a little at times and the protagonist can be somewhat uninteresting; it nonetheless has some strong moments and is well written.

The rest of the stories are forgettable.

There is a first-time published writer here, Joshua Canipe, whose "Preacher Stories" is dry, the prose generic and the characters uninvolved. Canipe's caption for his photo is the best in the collection among childhood photos; unfortunately someone screwed up and the photo that was supposed to appear with his caption in "The Last Pages" was omitted. Ed Allen's "Krakenhaus" is familiar and too self-involved. Mirian Novogrodsky's "Just Enough Food to Remember" is one of the two weakest of the bunch, as it tries to structure itself around a series of oddly-titled vignettes, a trope that is more irritating than neat, and does little more than distract from (yet another) self-involved piece. Scott Nadelson's "Aftermath" is the longest story though among the quickest to read. It is written in a clear style and is not a bad story. It deals with a married couple agreeing to a "trial separation," told through the point of view of the man. While it has some nice moments and interesting character relationships, it is too long and the protagonist is a little whiny to be sympathetic. This is followed by "Blind Spots" by Erica Johnson Debeljak, a story with some interesting ideas strung together with some dull writing. This is unfortunate because the concept here is interesting, about a boy who can only see peripherally, told through the point of view of his mother. The point of view weakens the story as it becomes about the mother and her own struggles and grief, victimizing her, rather than being about the boy himself. David Allan Cates's "The Rubber Boy" is the other weaker piece. It is a catalog of a man's life, asking why do I endure, which is followed a single event that gives him reason to endure. The last story, "Toward a Theory of Blindness" by Beth Aria Sloss, is uneven yet interesting at certain points.

This issue of Glimmer Train contains little variety. Most stories are in first person and most with unenlightened characters trying to philosophize about their place in the universe. Whether concerned about a sick child or a sick country, the bulk of the stories centre on a narrator attempting to come to grips with their place in the world or with what the universe has provided them, and each of them through some form of deus ex machina end up accepting that lot. In essence, notions of free will and independence are inherently dispelled, as characters learn to accept rather than make better, or different, the state of their selves or their immediate world. There is nothing challenging in the interpretations of the universe, nor of the self.

This issue features both an author interview and a short article. The interview in this issue is with author Will Allison, conducted by Andrew Scott. It is a fairly generic author interview, but a better read than many of the stories, and though I have never heard of Allison before reading the interview, I am curious about his novel and took note of it. One thing that bothered me about the interview is that, when quoting Allison on authors he read in college, the text reads "Nathaniel West," when his name is actually spelled Nathanael West. We are not told how the interview was conducted, oral or email, so I won't speculate as to who erred, but the editors really should have caught this blunder.

The essay is an all-too-brief account of Iranian author Yaghoub Yadali who was being persecuted for a novel he wrote about a couple involved in an extra-marital affair. The article is well written though wholly introductory.

I am uncertain as to the fate of my three remaining issues of Glimmer Train. They are still in their original plastic packaging so perhaps they will one day be worth more than the cover price. I was speculating on reading the first two stories of each issue, the photo captions and even the author interview, which I do like. The lack of free will in the Glimmer Train universe prevents me from over-speculating, because what I end up doing is likely predetermined. In the meantime each issue will look handsome on the bottom shelf of the little brown bookshelf beside my desk.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Dean R. Koontz, Twilight Eyes (1987)

Koontz, Dean. Twilight Eyes. New York: Berkley Books, 1987

Publication note: A "slightly different version" (as per the copyright page) of Part One was originally published in a limited hardcover edition by The Land of Enchantment in November 1985. It was illustrated in both black and white by Phil Parks, and was originally sold for $32.00 US. There were apparently some signed copies as well, that likely sold for considerably more.

Twilight Eyes at ISFdb
Twilight Eyes at Goodreads
Twilight Eyes at IBList

Rating:     1/10

(This review is spoiler free, though so little occurs in the 451 pages that it really doesn't make any difference.)

I am a firm believer in literacy, and have in the past argued that all genre has merit since, if nothing else, a "trashy" book nonetheless encourages people to read. Yet some books arguably serve no purpose. By this I mean books that are not only dull (which is essentially a subjective judgement), but so poorly written that the author should be ashamed for having brought it into the world. One of these books is the Dean R. Koontz novel Twilight Eyes, which is in competition with the Maurice Gagnon Montreal-based pseudo-mystery By Hate Possessed for the honour of The Worst Novel I Have Ever Read.

Twilight Eyes fails on every level: conception, plot, character, development, character development, setting delineation and writing. Even the title is weak: a misplaced 1980s pop tune. The novel focuses on a seventeen year-old boy who has the inexplicable natural ability to see through the disguises of certain "people" and recognize them for what they truly are: porcine creatures bent on exterminating the human race, driven by their predisposed hatred of humankind. The boy, Slim MacKenzie (as he has aliased himself), is on a journey to destroy these evil creatures which he randomly refers to as "goblins." The novel opens with Slim sneaking onto the closed lot of a travelling carnival, which is the setting for the first half of the novel. The second half of the novel is set in a small town that has become a hive for these monsters.

The narrator of his own story, Slim MacKenzie is a seventeen year-old drifter from Oregon, who is athletic, sensitive, morally upright and older than his years, traits that we are constantly being reminded of as though Koontz is trying hard to convince us of their accuracy. But as Slim sees through the goblin mask, I can see through Koontz and am blatantly aware that Slim is instead uninteresting and unbelievable, as flat as his prose and with less charm than the ink that was wasted in printing the text. The narration itself is immediately marred by the fact that the narrator is ageless, seventeen or a hundred and two, leading me to suspect that it is not Slim himself narrating but someone pretending to be him, and I am left with the notion that Koontz has merely immersed himself in what is essentially a juvenile male-driven fantasy.

Throughout my reading I kept wondering about narrator Slim's vantage point and his motive in telling the story. The events occur in 1963, but it is unclear at what stage in his life Slim is currently in and how distanced he has become from the events he is relating. The voice is ageless and remote, trance-like and devoid of personality, not seventeen but neither forty, which is likely what impels Koontz to keep reminding the reader that Slim is only seventeen. Koontz takes it for granted that this is even an issue, but while we don't require actual details of Slim's present circumstances, we do need to be somewhat grounded with narrator and narrative. The story should have been written in the third person. This would have eliminated the need for the grounding that Koontz is unable to deliver, and would have made Slim so much more interesting. I believe Koontz chose to write the story in the first person in order to allow for some dull moralizing that weighs the book down as heavily as a building would sink a rubber dinghy.

With such an elusive narrator we can only guess as to what inspired Slim to tell his story. The reader is expected to believe the narrator's every word; Slim doesn't even attempt to convince us that these goblins are real, and he proceeds with the presumption that we automatically believe him. Moreover, he is not trying to warn us of the danger of these hell-bent goblins, as he tells his story in a fairly casual way, withholding key pieces of information and revealing them at seemingly random points of the narrative. Slim is not even focused on these goblins and their threat to humanity, as he wades in a swamp of unimportant particulars. The emphasis on the most personal details of his sexual relationship with lover Rya Raines leads me to question his sensitive and moral nature, for he ends up coming off as an immature and overly-sexed man-child, bragging about giving Rya two orgasms before he even enters her, gushing embarrassingly over her perfectly rounded breasts, and then describing in odd detail his own orgasms: "through the medium of my sperm I passed my own heartbeat into her, the two now thumping as one." (p. 143) Perhaps this description is supposed to contrast the "spurting" blood of the goblins in the following paragraph, with "its thick warm jets of thick crimson serum," the serum in contrast with the semen, one giving life while the other steals it away (though this fails not only because of awful execution, but because Rya cannot have children and hence the life-giving aspect is moot). I don't believe any contrasts are attempted here; it is all part of a juvenile male fantasy.

Story-wise very little happens. Over the course of 451 pages we are given very little in the way of story and plot, with a rambling narrative that lacks direction. Instead of story we have naïve Christian moralizing and philosophizing (I don't mean that Christian moralizing and philosophizing itself is naïve, just that Koontz's own practice of it is less than insightful). Throughout the narrative Koontz/Slim reminds us that some people are good, while others are bad. Some are so bad that they may as well be evil "goblins," though overall humankind is filled with more good than bad and we should not harm the good because there is some bad in the flock. Destroy bad and maintain good; such is the purpose of life. Koontz tries to add ambiguity by illustrating extreme scenarios of "real" humans who act as though they are goblins, trying to drown us with the notion that the creatures may have a valid point in their desire to destroy humanity.

Furthermore, just like these goblins some "real" humans act friendly but are manifestations of evil and wear their friendliness as a disguise to allow them to perpetrate more acts of evil. These attempts at uniting story with base morality fall flat, as though Koontz was desperate to add some other dimension to the text in order to save it from its inherent uselessness. Amid this mess Koontz repeatedly uses Christian imagery or reference in everything from his similes and metaphors to the moralizing itself. Slim hears a scream that sounds like the voice of God (is it not sinful to assume that a mere man can imagine the voice of God?), and my personal favourite, Slim's statement near the end of Part One that love is the cross on which he was crucified. Each page is seemingly filled with such allusions that the practice is quickly tiring, and eventually more than irritating.

The novel is written with an agonizingly grating stream of repetition. Not only do scenes repeat themselves, but descriptions from death to sex are essentially reformatted every few chapters. We are plagued by constant repetition of how evil these "goblins" are, beaten over the head with overused adjectives such as "evil," "dark," and so forth, and are told over and over when and where Slim and Rya make love, and just how his semen intermingles with Rya's inner self, or some such nonsense.

This repetition is not reserved for descriptions and scenes, but the narrative is approached with a single, lackluster technique. Koontz begins each scene with a statement, either an idea, the introduction of a character or a single event, and he then proceeds to analyze that statement, however mundane. Koontz sticks to this pattern so avidly that I was able to survive the final hundred and fifty pages by reading only the first sentence of each paragraph, while reading in full those few scenes that manage to progress the limited plot. Perhaps aware of the repetitive structure, Koontz breaks off once in a while to gives us a series of brief sentences that are supposed to heighten tension, but that come across as dry and lazy.

One night last week as I lay awake in bed on a hot day in Granada, Spain, I decided to write a brief parody of Koontz's technique and content. I am presenting it here:

"Hello," Rya said.
She was greeting me as she did every morning, only this morning I noticed that her greeting was different. My senses told me that last night meant a lot to her, and that maybe she did not feel as alone as she was when I first stared at her silhouette while she sat in the darkness of her trailer. I was sure her greeting was sincere, so I decided to respond.
"Hi," I said. My own greeting was also sincere. I was beginning to look forward to seeing her in the mornings, to seeing that beautiful long blond hair and that perfect body clothed in jeans and a loose shirt that succeeded nonetheless in emphasizing her amazonian shape. I had to pull my own shirt down to cover my erection. She was smiling, but I am sure she did not notice the bulge, or was too polite and understanding to hint at it. I had the strong feeling that she wanted to ask me something, and knew that if I waited for a minute, or maybe a minute and a half, she would ask her question, and I was right.
"How are you?" she asked.
I don't know exactly how but I could sense that she wanted to know how I was. She wasn't asking just to make conversation, the way most people do, but because she really wanted to know. This made her unique and made me feel a stronger attachment to her, since I had the feeling that she felt that I liked sincerity when it came to questions. But I also knew that there was more: she wanted me to ask her how she was.
"Fine," I said, and I wasn't lying. Even though I spent an almost completely sleepless night, goaded by horrible nightmares that I spent the previous chapter relating in full ten-page detail, about being chased and chasing someone in a dark and evil graveyard, wanting to kill but not knowing why, until I awoke moaning and in a shiver of cold sweat. Despite these nightmares, the chasing and the graveyard and even despite the cold sweat, I felt fine because I was standing here admiring Rya in her blue jeans and loose flannel shirt. Though the world was being threatened by the evil goblins, I felt comfortable with the outcasts of this carnival because I too was an outcast, a freak with twilight eyes, but most especially I felt, for the first time in my life, my short seventeen years, utterly comfortable in the presence of this beautiful-breasted amazon.
She smiled.
I looked at her breasts.
They were nice.
I had an erection.
I was blushing.
I looked away.
I was only seventeen.
"How are you?" I asked. I knew that dark and evil things would come between us, but not on that day, I felt certain, but soon, very soon. At least by Friday. Or maybe by page 386. How was I supposed to know? I was only seventeen!

Truth be told, this is the third Koontz novel I have read, and likely the last. While I suffered through Twilight Eyes I also loathed The Funhouse (1980). I did somewhat enjoy Midnight (1989) despite the bad writing and uninteresting characters; there was something creepy about that novel, a level of authorial focus that was utterly missing in Twilight Eyes. And it was a good idea. Despite having liked Midnight, two terrible novels from a single, overly-prolific writer is far too many, and I doubt I will be reading any more from Mr. Koontz.

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