Archive for the ‘Interviews + Features’ Category

Weird Tales #356 Is Here!

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Weird Tales celebrates the eerily sensuous in its summer the UNCANNY BEAUTY issue. Subscribers and stores should be getting magazines soon. (Report of sighting.)

  • “Secretario” by Catherynne M. Valente
  • “A Concise & Ready Guide” by Ian R. MacLeod
  • “Beauty & Disapperance” by Kat Howard
  • “One Minute Weird Tale” by Lauren Beukes
  • “Sisters Under the Skin” by L.L. Hannett
  • “How Bria Died” by Mike Arnovitz
  • “The Wakened Image” by Natania Barron


  • Strange Faces - nonfiction by Theodora Goss
  • Le Tarot de Gaga - feature by Amal El-Mohtar
  • Sirens & Gargoyles - art by Callie Badorrek
  • Our Queen, Our Mother Our Margaret - nonfiction by Paula Guran
  • Galactic Tomboy to Sci-Fi Pinup Girl (and Back Again) - nonfiction by Rae Bryant
  • Lost in Lovecraft: To Pnatkotus & Beyond - column - Kenneth H. Hite

    …AND MORE!
    Weird Tales #356/Summer2010

Ann VanderMeer on NPR

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Listen to WT fiction editor Ann VanderMeer, with husband Jeff, discuss the reality behind fantasy fiction on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday!

Growing Up Poe: Alethea Kontis

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe would be celebrating his 200th birthday this year. He cast an epic shadow across American fiction; he inspired every last horror writer who came after him; and his fans founded this very magazine. Weird Tales wondered if Poe still has the same impact today — so in our latest issue, we asked a bevy of dark fantasists (including Cherie Priest, whose essay we’ve already published online) how much the Grandpa of the Gothic loomed in their tender years. The answer: a whole freakin’ lot. Here’s what geek princess Alethea Kontis has to say about it:

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GROWING UP POE: Teen Angel, Dark
by Alethea Kontis

copyright © 2009 / May not be reproduced without permission

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Fourteen: the age of nihilistic fervor. The pinnacle of those egocentric, life-altering years where no one suffered as much as me. In a million years no one could possibly have understood the ineffable quagmire of emotions in which I flailed, a lone gull crying out over the empty seas of my tears.

To make matters worse (because matters could always be worse, and usually were), the innocence of youth had left me with the tiniest flicker of hope, and a dream that the brooding prince of a tiny, heretofore-unknown kingdom (who, coincidentally, happened to be my One True Love) would come galloping by on his horse at any moment to save me from the hell that was my life. He would see through the physical mess I had become and know the Real Me, the beautiful, shining beacon of soul held hostage by my own darkness. But alas! the newly-forged, freshly-jaded adult side of my Mini-Wheat knew that there was no such prince. No one was coming for me. Hope was futile. I was doomed to be left behind by the world, forever alone, a small, forgotten puddle of disappointment, darkness, and despair.

Enter Poe. And The Cure.

Life had a soundtrack in those days. The radio played songs chock-full of hidden messages, battered symphonies of secrets whispered only for my tortured ears. Volumes could be read into mixtapes that were as personal as journal entries, telling the story of my duality, my constant struggle between darkness and light. I wore my heart on my sleeve, freely dripping blood down hallways and hoping someone would notice. (That brooding prince, maybe.) I had been writing poetry since I was ten—almost a third of my life. I was in love with the power of words, the ability to say so much with so little. It was a gift—I had a gift—and I would not squander it.

Music was the logical next step in poetry’s evolution, but I was not a lyricist. Sure, I had walked around the house singing nonsense tunes as a child, but I lacked the genius code in my DNA attributed to such luminaries as Rodgers & Hammerstein, Gilbert & Sullivan, and the virtuoso that was Cole Porter. I would never be a songwriter. That didn’t mean, however, that I couldn’t lie corpse-like on my bed in a room soaked in dusk (and wallpapered in movie posters) and appreciate the talents of Robert Smith or Peter Cetera or Bryan Adams. I was that small-town girl in her lonely world, bags packed for that midnight train to anywhere (preferably an equally small, heretofore-unknown kingdom). My hurt didn’t show, but the pain still grew. Me & Charles Manson liked the same ice cream. I was a strange angel, an angel of music, and the Phantom of the Opera was there, inside my mind.

Any member of the Spring Valley Players worth his or her salt knew all the words to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s production of Phantom (though I was the only one who could sing Christine’s part). Memorization is what we did in those days. After all, if I was going to be Lights Mistress, I had to know every line of See How They Run in order to hit all my cues. Every line . . . including the first verse of “If,” by Rudyard Kipling. And when I found the rest of the poem in a set of Kipling’s works at my grandmother’s house that summer, I soaked it up. I was a sponge that could not be saturated. It was the beginning of the end.

I started memorizing all sorts of poetry after that, starting with the poems that had any excuse to be in one of our plays (“The Jabberwocky”). I memorized fun stuff with my little sister as a game — Shel Silverstein, of course, and the often-quoted-but-rarely-attributed Ogden Nash, of whom we were both great fans at a very young age (we liked mustard, even on custard). But the best part about memorizing poetry was when I got to play the role of the overachieving student. (There’s nothing like having fun and getting extra credit for it!) Shakespeare? No problem. Sonnets, Friends, Romans, Countrymen, and star-crossed lovers separated by only a balcony. Byron, anyone? Oh, the sappier the better.

Unfortunately, two of my favorite poems — “The Highwayman” and “The Raven” — were both far too long, and I would not be a complete person (as complete as I could be, imperfect soul though I was) without some Poe in my repertoire. There must be something else in my literature book. And there, buried deep in the back, I met Annabel Lee.

Known as Poe’s Last Poem, “Annabel Lee” was beautiful and sad, true and tragic. It spoke to me, telling me a tale of a love that was more (more!) than love, a love that made even heaven jealous, the one love that lasts a lifetime . . . albeit a very, very short lifetime. Obviously, the only kind of love I could possibly be destined to have, and currently, um, did not. I was covetous alongside those angels, craving such pure, rare, unprecedented, unadulterated feeling and dying a little inside their immortal souls to know they could not let it exist on the mortal plane. I read the first line out loud to myself, “It was many and many a year ago,” Poe’s Once Upon a Time. And suddenly the strangest thing happened: the poem began singing itself to me in my head.

I had never before composed a song (and likely never will again), but the words of that ballad of true love, tempests, and tragedy had an unmistakable melody that I remember to this day. It was as if Poe Himself sat at the foot of his bride’s tomb and sang to me a song only I could hear, a tune that traveled beyond time. It was sad, that song; I belted it out full voice in empty rooms, a nightingale calling in the night-tide. Perhaps many and many a year ago I had been Annabel Lee, the maiden from a tiny, heretofore-unknown kingdom by the sea, and Poe was my brooding prince. Because of the intensity of our love we could never again cohabit the mortal plane (as all men know). But he could send me the tale of our love through the bond that would always remain between our souls, and I would always carry in my heart this song we made together.

Or not.

Now that I’m grown, I chalk all that up to the silliness of youth, the alien angst we all go through. But I’d be lying if I said that part of me—a very, very small part—didn’t still pine a bit for the Poe I never knew. But I still have our song.

Growing Up Poe: Cherie Priest

Monday, January 19th, 2009

Poe. It all goes back to Poe, doesn’t it? Heck, Weird Tales exists in the first place because this kid Jacob Henneberger discovered Poe in high school and became a huge fan. Since it was around 1910, there was no way to express his fannishness right then and there on the Internet: no chatrooms full of fellow Poe lovers, no poignant animated avatars of Annabel Lee, no LOLravens. Jacob had to take the long approach — which meant that he grew up, went into journalism, and after years of newspaper work finally started his own pulp-fiction magazine dedicated to following in Poe’s literary footsteps. So during this, the 200th birthday year of Edgar Allan Poe, Weird Tales will be periodically bringing you the true life stories of modern-day horror and fantasy writers who similarly grew up loving Poe. First up, on Edgar’s birthday itself: Cherie Priest, author of the Eden Moore trilogy, the new apocalyptic monster-thriller Fathom, and the forthcoming steampunk zombie adventure Boneshaker.

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GROWING UP POE: The Virtues of the Dead
by Cherie Priest

copyright © 2009 / May not be reproduced without permission

* * *

My father says that my mother wasn’t always the Evangelical weirdo I grew up with, but I don’t have any proof to the contrary so it’s difficult for me to imagine. All I know for certain is that by the time I was old enough to read, fiction was a dangerous gamble — because Mom’s guidelines for acceptable reading were fluid, odd, and sometimes arbitrary.

For example, during the 1980s there was a trend in Christian fiction toward stories of white pioneer women getting raped and creatively mutilated by filthy godless Indians on the prairie. As far as my mother was concerned, those stories were just dandy. She owned scores of them. And since, in the end, Jesus always triumphed and the good guys went to heaven, these books fell into the category of Perfectly Wholesome Reading Material for Third-Graders.

But the Nancy Drew stories I brought home from the library were thrown in the trash, to be paid for out of my own meager allowance. Apparently I should have known better than to invite the presence of Satan into our home. I’d like to pretend I’m kidding, and that she didn’t say this out loud in front of God, the librarians, and everybody, but alas.

I’m not, and she did.

As I grew older and better able to hide books, my leisure reading became a battleground where my by-then-divorced parents could fight without bloodshed. Dad figured out that I was a big fan of mysteries, ghosts, and monsters; Mom figured it out too, and she subsequently became hyper-vigilant of my bookbag, lest I introduce any of this heathen nonsense into her austere Protestant temple.

But there was an escape clause: Dead authors were okay.

(Does this make any sense? No, no it does not. But my mother also believed that men who could do the splits were likely in league with the devil, and that doesn’t make any sense either. Many things in my childhood can therefore be taken with a grain of salt.)

My dad got crafty, and one Christmas I received a Complete Tales and Works of Edgar Allan Poe. I was ten years old, and it was the single largest book I, personally, had ever owned. It could’ve sunk a canoe. I could barely lift it, so I mostly read it lying down — on my bed, chin in hands and feet flapping happily while I pored through some of the coolest, bleakest, darkest, most engaging stories I’d ever encountered.

Oh, I still loved Nancy Drew — and I still snuck the small yellow hardbacks home from the library, sometimes down my pants, if necessary; but I had a new Most Important Writer in my life. He was a sad-eyed man wearing old clothes and a sour mustache, and he wrote about beautiful women with supernatural wasting diseases, and talking birds who foretold doom. He told stories about peril and tragedy, and addiction and loss. He wrote elaborately and thickly, and passionately and profoundly, and I adored him from the bottom of my black little heart.

Poe was my first introduction to truly strange secular literature.

He was the first author who ever told me that it was okay to tell dark, sad little stories and take them seriously — and furthermore, that this was the only way to write them. I took heart from his insistence all through high school, when I doodled scary tales in notebooks that nobody saw; I leaned on it at the private Christian college I attended, where horror and fantasy were not so much encouraged; and I clung to it in graduate school, where I was told that genre fiction of all kinds was trash, and no one should ever bother with it, least of all me and certainly not in a respectable workshop filled with upstanding students who damn well knew better than to write such drivel.

So thank you, Edgar. Thank you for refusing to apologize, and for the pride you took in your work — critics be damned. You set a great example for me, and you’ll always have a soft spot in my heart, and on my bookshelf.

Recurring Dream: The Sandman Vol. X — The Wake

Friday, January 16th, 2009

It’s the 20th anniversary of Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking dark fantasy comic The Sandman, and Weird Tales correspondent Eric San Juan is revisiting the series book by book. (Day 10 of 10.)

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t yet read this final volume of the series, you may wish to do so before reading our review.

What is a wake but a time to remember and reflect? A wake is an ending. A closing of a chapter. It’s also the start of a new chapter, the beginning of a time after the person being honored. Of a life without them in it.

This is The Wake, the final chapter of the core Sandman narrative. It’s a look back at who and what Morpheus the Dream King was; at the people and beings he came in contact with; and, tantalizingly, at the world ahead without the Dream we knew. Interestingly, in death Sandman is brought to life by the lushest art of the series, richly drawn by Michael Zulli and highlighted with washed-out colors that look as if the life has been bled out of the vibrant and colorful world we just left.

It’s not an action-packed arc. It’s not a particularly dramatic arc. It’s an epilogue. A reflection. We rotate through characters quickly, getting their thoughts and observations as they remember the Dream who has passed and welcome the Dream who has arrived. We even catch vague glimpses of DC Comics icons like Superman, Batman, Martian Manhunter, and Darkseid. Gaiman mostly distanced Sandman from the mainstream comic universe, so we’re quick to forget that the series is even part of it, but these appearances serve as a reminder that Dream was woven into a much larger tapestry. The heart of these sequences is Matthew the raven: again, the human element in a very supernatural setting. He’s not happy about welcoming the new Dream. He does not want to accept him as his master. Most others take this new development as a matter of course, as the natural changing of the guard, but to Matthew it feels wrong, as if Dream’s memory is somehow being tarnished by embracing this new personification.

Even the new Dream is unsure of his place in the order of things. He shows flashes of confidence (notably untainted by the arrogance of the previous Dream), yet he’s awkward and hesitant at times — especially when it comes to dealing with his siblings, the Endless. He will need time to grow into his role.

This is, after all, just as much a beginning as it is an end.

It’s a wonderfully somber set of stories — perhaps too lacking in happenings for some, but to me a perfect way to spend just a little more time with these characters before they’re gone. It’s not unlike the extended coda of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in that respect: The Ring is destroyed, Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor, and yet we’ve still got 100 pages of goodbyes and farewells and so longs to go.

We, the reader, don’t want to leave. And clearly neither does the author.

The story arc, proper, finishes with one last visit with Hob Gadling, Dream’s undying human friend. During a trip to a modern-day Renaissance Faire, Gadling complains about the lack of realism, the theme park-ish misrepresentation of the past. He drinks and complains some more, dwelling on what was. Confronted by Death, he’s given a chance to finally close the door on his centuries-long life — but ultimately chooses not to, deciding to embrace what’s ahead rather than what lay behind. It’s as if Gaiman is telling us not to look back and mourn the end of the series, not to think about what was, but rather to look ahead and see the potential of the blank slate. To think about what could be.

Two one-shot stories close things out. “Exiles” is a fine enough journey back to the “soft places” between dreams, something of a sequel to an earlier short story. Some might question why this story is here; it doesn’t do or reveal much, after all, and has little connection to the overall narrative. But if there is a message to be taken away, it’s woven into the story subtly: here Dream is dead, yet Dream still lives in the soft places between stories and dreams and reality. He is both alive and dead, living and gone.

The message is simple: The Sandman story may be over, but these characters still exist somewhere. They still linger in places unconnected to the “real,” and maybe, if the wind blows right or our paths lead us off the expected road, we might encounter them again some day. (And we did, first with Sandman: The Dream Hunters and then with Sandman: Endless Nights).

The final tale returns us to William Shakespeare, who is struggling through his final play, The Tempest. It is the second of two plays commissioned by Dream, and Dream is awaiting his payment. Shakespeare struggles with the story, the characters, his approach.

It’s one last look at stories. Storytelling. And storytellers.

And then the door is closed.

And Sandman is no more.

But stories? Stories are forever.

Eric San Juan is the coauthor of A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks With the Master of Suspense, forthcoming in April 2009 from Scarecrow Press. His Weird Tales debut was last year’s “Whispers of the Old Hag.”

Recurring Dream: The Sandman Vol. IX — The Kindly Ones

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

It’s the 20th anniversary of Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking dark fantasy comic The Sandman, and Weird Tales correspondent Eric San Juan is revisiting the series book by book. (Day 9 of 10.)

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t yet read this climactic volume of the series, you may wish to do so before reading our review.

We make choices. With those choices come consequences. Some unforeseen, some inevitable, some just, some unjust. The fates do not care about human concerns of “justice,” and destiny is no more predictable than my cat’s moods.

Morpheus, the King of Dreams … he made choices. Consumed with a profound sense of duty and pride and, to some extent, even an aloof sense of arrogance, he did the things he thought he had to do. His ends were not necessarily noble, but nor were they evil. They just were.

Yet we’ve all got to face the consequences of our actions, even Dream of the Endless. So it is that all roads led him to The Kindly Ones, a tale in which Dream’s choices bring pain, death, and ultimately the change in himself he could neither admit to nor accept in Brief Lives. He resisted it. Denied it. Brushed aside his brother’s comments. But Dream was changing. It all comes to roost here.

In Season of Mists, Dream made the mistake of letting Loki, God of Lies, go free. Loki, ever a maker of mischief, steals the child of Hippolyta Hall, whose husband Dream killed in The Doll’s House. Hurt, angry and on the verge of lunacy, she seeks out the Furies of Greek myth, who are empowered to take revenge upon anyone who has spilled family blood. Dream, of course, did exactly that in Brief Lives. All this is complicated by the interference of the witch Thessaly (from A Game of You), who protects Hippolyta Hall from Dream, thus preventing him from breaking the cycle of violence the Furies bring upon the Dreaming. We initially assume Thessaly is simply bitter about Dream’s curt treatment of her in A Game of You, but we later learn (in The Wake) that Thessaly was, in fact, the unnamed lover who had scorned Dream just prior to the start of Brief Lives. She had not forgiven him for being so cold.

No matter our intentions, our choices can come back to destroy us. And when lives are as complicated as Dream’s, many are the opportunities for things to go ill.

If The Kindly Ones is the largest and slowest moving Sandman arc — and it is undeniably both — it’s easy to understand why. It serves as the culmination of all that has come before. A trial of sorts. A purging by fire. An ending. In addition to the stories cited above, we also see the continuation of Puck’s tale (Dream Country), the culmination of Nuala’s story (the faerie who was gifted to Dream in Season of Mists) as well as her brother, Cluracan’s (from the same arc and also from World’s End), along with Rose Walker (The Doll’s House), Lucifer and Mazikeen (a tale that spins off into Mike Carey’s acclaimed series, Lucifer), and others.

Most of all, The Kindly Ones serves to bring into focus just how much we’ve come to like the characters who reside in the Dreaming. Fiddler’s Green, better known to us as Gilbert. Mervyn, the pumpkin with an attitude. And most of all Matthew the raven, who is the heart and soul of this tale and, to a greater extent, of The Wake. He is the human element of these otherworldly tales. As we watch the chaos brought upon them, we can’t help but feel as if we never spent enough time with these “people.”

As the Furies tear apart Dream’s realm and lay to waste all he has created, Dream himself is strangely calm. To the end, he remains near emotionless. By now, though, we know much of that distant demeanor is a lie. Not a lie to us as much as it is to himself. So married to the idea of his responsibilities is he, so driven by the notion of being the aloof Lord of Dreams, he cannot allow himself to do as he truly wants. To despair of the pain being caused. To desire a different end. To destroy those who attack him. To seek refuge in delirium. To bring death to the Furies. To change his own destiny.

He is Dream. And even if it means the destruction of all he is and all he created, he will be Dream until the end. Stubborn. Resolved. Proud.

And so he accepts his fate, knowing he cannot change it, knowing what is done is done and that the choices he made he would make again. And maybe somewhere in his heart he also knew he was not strong enough to accept the changes he must undergo, and so he allowed them to be forced upon him by the only means possible.

Dream dies.

And Dream is reborn.

I can still remember that mix of being stunned and relieved and befuddled and more when I first read the end of this tale. To kill off your main character is a bold move, especially when the death isn’t predicated on shock value but is instead the natural place the story needed to go. At the time I also wondered if maybe Neil Gaiman wasn’t trying to have it both ways; if giving birth to a new personification of Dream wasn’t something of a cop-out. That old comic-book trick: “He’s dead. Wait, just kidding!”

But no, it’s not a cop-out. It is the end Sandman was fated to have. Sandman is layered with themes; among them is that of change, of transformation. The unchanging and the changing: the ceaseless tides of lives come and gone; the way in which people’s choices dictate who they are and who they can be. How even the most unmoving stone can be worn away over the course of long years by the soft kiss of wind and water. The Kindly Ones is the culmination of that theme, the slowest to take root and flower of all the themes Sandman gives us.

But then, the most important changes do not happen overnight.

Eric San Juan is the coauthor of A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks With the Master of Suspense, forthcoming in April 2009 from Scarecrow Press. His Weird Tales debut was last year’s “Whispers of the Old Hag.”

Recurring Dream: The Sandman Vol. VIII — World’s End

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

It’s the 20th anniversary of Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking dark fantasy comic The Sandman, and Weird Tales correspondent Eric San Juan is revisiting the series book by book. (Day 8 of 10.)

Stories, storytelling, and storytellers. What is dreaming but an elaborate, unconscious means of storytelling, one in which we are the storyteller weaving tales we could never imagine while conscious? Stories and the people who tell them have been a recurrent theme in Sandman, a vital part of the essence of what Neil Gaiman constructed. World’s End, the last of the series’ three short-story collections, takes the idea of telling stories to its logical extreme.

Unlike the two earlier collections (Dream Country and Fables & Reflections), this one uses a framing device to hold the stories together as if they are all one narrative. World’s End deposits us in an inn of the same name, a place that exists outside of time and reality. A pair of ordinary people find themselves eating and drinking with all manner of strange beings — faeries and centaurs and others — and to pass time they tell one another stories. So, essentially, we’ve got stories within a story.

If he didn’t do it so damn well, I’d almost be inclined to accuse Gaiman of showing off here. See, he’s not content to stop with mere stories within stories, or even stories within stories within stories. No, at times he takes it to an extreme, building a stack of stories atop one another almost, but never quite, to the point of toppling. Shades of One Thousand and One Nights — better known as Arabian Nights and almost certainly one of Gaiman’s influences, seeing that “Ramadan” was completed shortly before these narratives. At one point we’ve got a guy in the inn telling a story about some folks conducting a funeral, who in turn tell a story about a visit from Destruction of the Endless, who himself tells a story about the creation of a city. Throughout this collection, tales are nestled inside other tales, brief dramas curled up warm and cozy under the wings of their larger mother story, and all of them set inside a larger tale that serves as a harbinger of what is to come in the tragic The Kindly Ones.

But the thing is — and this is what impressed me so much, especially now that I’m more attuned to examining how stories are put together — it’s not just showing off. These are good stories. Stories worth telling. Stories with thematic and narrative elements that play off one another. Some are old stories, tales far more ancient than either the author or the medium of comic books. Gaiman has never been shy about wearing his inspirations and influences on his sleeve, though, and nearly every element he appropriates from other sources, he makes his own. “Hob’s Leviathon,” for instance, is an age-old tale about a woman posing as a man in order to serve on a sailing vessel, and seeing a massive serpent while out at sea. To make it his own, Gaiman weaves Hob Gadling, Dream’s undying human friend from early in the series, into the scenario, and uses the fable to make points about truth, secrets, identity, and desire.

The tales here aren’t as consistently great as the previous two collections. “Cluracan’s Tale” is an unmemorable adventure featuring one of Sandman’s least enjoyable characters, and “The Golden Boy” is a bizarre attempt to make a morality play out of an ill-conceived, short-lived 1970s comic series called Prez, about an idealistic teen who becomes President of the United States. Yet it’s hard to complain when the same collection gives us the wonder of a dreaming city, a bizarre look at a city of gaunt funeral directors, and a dozen other little gems.

The thing that makes World’s End most worth reading is the moving finish to it all. One did not have to be paying terribly close attention during Brief Lives to know that the story of Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, would not bring a happy ending. Brief Lives was merely the dark horizon before the storm; a faint rumble before the lightning and thunder begins. In this volume, the final episode is devoted to the Sandman story itself when the sky fills with a vision: a haunting, moving glimpse at what is to come for Dream. (As we learn later, World’s End takes place concurrently with The Kindly Ones, and climaxes during The Wake.)

There is something more subtle at work here. Whether intended or not, World’s End is something of an extended commentary of the future of the series and its characters. Its stories are about endings and new beginnings; deaths and rebirths; about being ensnared and coming away a different person. Taken as a whole, these serve as a companion piece to the themes of Brief Lives, The Kindly Ones, and The Wake, adding to the already rich fabric of Gaiman’s world.

Of Sandman’s short-story collections, World’s End is the one about which I had the fondest memories. I now remember why. The framing device feels like a fable as old as the hills (it is) and the stories are consistently inventive, but more than that, World’s End is a celebration of storytelling. And what better place to celebrate storytelling than in the pages of Sandman, which itself has been a celebration of the form?

Eric San Juan is the coauthor of A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks With the Master of Suspense, forthcoming in April 2009 from Scarecrow Press. His Weird Tales debut was last year’s “Whispers of the Old Hag.”

Recurring Dream: The Sandman Vol. VII — Brief Lives

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

It’s the 20th anniversary of Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking dark fantasy comic The Sandman, and Weird Tales correspondent Eric San Juan is revisiting the series book by book. (Day 7 of 10.)

With all the gods and demons and twisted mythology of Sandman, it’s easy to forget how warm and inviting Neil Gaiman’s work can be. In the years since my last reading, I had certainly forgotten.

Brief Lives is a cute, tragic, utterly human tale that might stand as the very best story arc of this magnificent series. Gaiman’s writing certainly accounts for a big part of that, but a huge chunk of the credit has to go to artist Jill Thompson. By and large, the artists of this series are well matched with their respective stories, but none more so than here, as Thompson brings the whimsy of Delirium to life like no artist before or since. Thanks to her work, it’s impossible not to fall in love with the youngest of the Endless. Unceasingly inquisitive and forever existing on the edge of confusion, Delirium twists and turns and smiles and enthuses her way in your heart like no other character in this series. It would be easy for a character like this to become annoying, but she never crosses that line; she is the heart and soul of Brief Lives, and it is Thompson’s “acting” with the pencil that makes us love her.

But if Delirium is endearingly cute, Brief Lives as a whole is not. It’s a bittersweet story about choices and consequences, family and responsibility. Destruction, the missing brother of the Endless, chose to leave behind his cosmic chores for a simple hermit’s life spent painting, cooking, and dodging insults from his wisecracking dog, Barnabas. Delirium is intent on finding him, but Destruction does not want to be found. Mankind does a fine job destroying things without him, he explains late in the story. Why does he need to oversee it all? It’s something that calls into question the very purpose of the Endless. After all, if they need not do their duties, to what end do they continue?

None of this matters to Delirium, who only wants her family to return to the way it was in the good old days … but, of course, that’s not to be. Destruction cannot help observing that Dream has changed. Ever stubborn, Dream denies this. He can’t see the changes he has undergone — but we can. From the moment he agrees to journey with his deranged sister, we know he is not quite the same cold, heartless entity he was. Behind those dark eyes and the unsmiling face he is developing a heart.

Ultimately, the great tragedy of Brief Lives — and the event with consequences to the entire series — is the resolution of Dream’s relationship with his son, Orpheus. The two finally come to terms with one another, but there is a cost to both. And unlike some of Dream’s past relationship choices — such as the time he doomed a lover to torment in Hell — this time he is driven not by a wounded ego, but by compassion. The stubborn, bull-headed Dream we met at Sandman’s outset would never have agreed to the request Orpheus makes of him here, but now he does, and it leaves him spent and emotionally broken, forced to confront feelings long suppressed. He returns to the Dreaming a changed man (or being, or entity, or god), unable to wash away the memory of the mistakes both he and his son have made.

So, the Brief Lives of the title? Those are our own: the small time even those who are Endless have to spend with those they love, and the awareness that, aside from our responsibility to others, enjoying our time on this Earth is the most important job we have.

Most affecting here, and the thing that makes this the most enjoyable and effective Sandman arc, is the mixing of tragedy with humor. We get a hint at what is to come early. At the end of an awkward dinner, Delirium walks away from her sweets, a pair of chocolate people—and we see the food has been inadvertently given a fleeting taste of life through her transcendent touch. As the Endless brother and sister turn their backs, unaware, Gaiman writes: “Touched by her fingers, the two surviving chocolate people copulate desperately, losing themselves in a melting frenzy of lust, spending the last of their brief borrowed lives in a spasm of raspberry cream and fear.” Aside from being a wonderful line, the humor tinged with sincere pathos is a microcosm of Brief Lives as a whole. We are given time. Not much of it. So we’d better love one another before Hell comes crashing down on us, because life is equal parts joyful, absurd, and awful.

It’s really impossible to overstate how much I love this story. More than any other Sandman story, more than even the brilliant Season of Mists, it is filled with memorable scene after memorable scene. The sadness we feel for Despair, who desperately misses her brother. The dinner scene. Delirium’s antics in the travel agency. The death dance of Ishtar. Pretty much every conversation Destruction has with Barnabas. Dream’s return to the Dreaming after parting with his son. And so many more.

It’s a tall order, standing out among the brilliance of Sandman, but Brief Lives manages the trick. In the roughly 16 years since this arc was first published, it still manages to stand head and shoulders above all but the elite of the comics medium.

We say that now on the 20th anniversary of Sandman’s first issue. I imagine we’ll still be saying much the same when the 40th comes around.

Eric San Juan is the coauthor of A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks With the Master of Suspense, forthcoming in April 2009 from Scarecrow Press. His Weird Tales debut was last year’s “Whispers of the Old Hag.”

Recurring Dream: The Sandman Vol. VI — Fables & Reflections

Monday, January 12th, 2009

It’s the 20th anniversary of Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking dark fantasy comic The Sandman, and Weird Tales correspondent Eric San Juan is revisiting the series book by book. (Day 6 of 10.)

The second of Sandman’s three short story collections, Fables and Reflections, is arguably the most eclectic of the bunch. It may not be the most instantly accessible (that one is Dream Country), or the most focused (World’s End), but it’s probably the most essential.

As in Season of Mists, the nature of wielding responsibility — whether over people, things, or cultures — is a prominent theme here. Rulers grapple with sustaining a culture’s golden age. A troubled man takes responsibility for the fractured remnants of his life and finds solace in insanity. Emperors are pained by the decisions they cannot avoid. And ultimately, many of these people must face the consequences of their choices: a theme utterly essential to Sandman as a whole.

This is best displayed in the story “Orpheus,” an unusual standalone short story in that it’s vital to the series-spanning story arc. “Orpheus” transforms the Greek myth into a Sandman story: Here, Orpheus is Dream’s son, and his tragic mistake — when trying to lead his deceased bride out of the Underworld, he looks upon her before it is permitted, thus losing her forever — is underscored by the involvement of the Endless. In seeking to rejoin his love, Orpheus is given eternal life, yet this is a curse, not a blessing; when he’s torn to shreds by vile creatures seeking revenge upon him for a slight, his head remains very much alive.

Most tragic of all is Dream’s treatment of his son. As ever, Dream is distant and cold, seemingly incapable of real love or compassion. (His own brother will comment on this lack of empathy and emotion in Brief Lives.) Disappointed in the choices his son has made and suffering from a hurt pride, Dream chooses to walk away from him forever. It’s not just a heartless act, it’s yet another moment during which Dream comes across like a petulant child, his wounded ego driving him down an ill-chosen path. Ultimately, these events have a deep, deep impact on the series. (Such a deep impact, this story arguably ought to have been collected in Brief Lives instead of here.)

If the most important story to the Sandman narrative here is “Orpheus,” the most impressive tale in this collection is certainly “Ramadan,” which showcases a gloriously luxuriant city in the midst of its golden age. The presentation, the art, the writing, even the unusual way it was created: all come together for one of the most respected single issues of the series. “Ramadan” is interesting not just because of its poetic beauty — and it has that in spades — but also for the way in which it turns the tables on the usual dream vs. reality fable. Rather than dream becoming reality, reality becomes dream. Wonderful.

The best of the book, though, is the charming “Three Septembers and a January,” which looks at the real life Joshua Norton through the eyes of the Endless. Norton was an insane, albeit harmless, 19th-century San Franciscan who thought he was the Emperor of the United States, and people around town loved him. Here, Dream, Desire, and Despair have a contest of sorts over which of them holds dominion over Norton. The story, equal parts cute and tragic, also manages to be an inspiring look at how we shape our own reality. Happiness and contentment come from within; our hearts, our fates, our hopes and dreams are in our own hands. They are driven by modesty, and by acceptance, and by understanding that greed, desire, and consumption are not the road to inner peace. A simple message — dare I say, quaint — yet handled with warmth and humanity, and yet another example of the multitudinous creative directions this series takes.

Other tales are equally all over the map. We visit werewolves in love, meet a young Marco Polo lost in the desert, and spend more time with Orpheus, who’s being protected by an ancestor of John Constantine (of Hellblazer fame). “August,” one of my favorites in this collection, takes a look at the nature of power and responsibility through the eyes of two men: a dwarf and Emperor Augustus of Rome.

Dream and the Endless are minor players in this volume, mere apparitions that drift in and back out again. Like passing shadows or, more appropriately, dreams. They are not the focus of these tales; rather, they provide the framework around which Gaiman explores the world inside our head, in these stories that examine universal truths and ask very human questions.

Collections like this one illustrate what a shrewd decision it was to conceive and structure Sandmanin such a way that the series could go anywhere and be anything. Gaiman himself called this the best choice he could possibly have made, and that’s the truth. While my heart resides most closely with the saga’s central tale, these short stories are each gems of their own — jewels in the crown that is one of comics’ greatest creative achievements.

Eric San Juan is the coauthor of A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks With the Master of Suspense, forthcoming in April 2009 from Scarecrow Press. His Weird Tales debut was last year’s “Whispers of the Old Hag.”

Recurring Dream: The Sandman Vol. V — A Game of You

Friday, January 9th, 2009

It’s the 20th anniversary of Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking dark fantasy comic The Sandman, and Weird Tales correspondent Eric San Juan is revisiting the series book by book. (Day 5 of 10.)

Small breasts. A seemingly minor thing, yet in reality rather important. But more on that later.

A Game of You was not my favorite story arc when I first read Sandman, nor does it leap to the front of the pack here, re-reading it many years later. Oh, it’s a fine story, a kind of nightmarish fairy tale plucked from the things we leave behind in childhood and draped in the garb of a directionless adult who doesn’t know what she wants to be. But it doesn’t sing to me the way the vast majority of Neil Gaiman’s 2,000-page epic does.

Not that there isn’t a lot to like here. There is. A Game of You focuses on Barbie, the painfully plastic blonde from The Doll’s House. She left Ken and now lives in an apartment building populated by an assortment of semi-misfits. Sound familiar? Yes, we walked this ground a few story arcs ago — but the approach this time is much different. Further, to cement the idea that nothing exists in a vacuum in Sandman, some of these characters also have ties to Preludes and Nocturnes, specifically the young lady featured in the episode inside the diner. The references are fleeting and subtle — one of Gaiman’s great strengths is trusting the reader to put the pieces of his puzzles together — but they serve to connect this vast world of seemingly disjointed stories.

And playing with childhood toys in an adult, often sinister way? Sure, it’s been done before. Yet few have managed to make it seem so perfectly sensible.

Barbie is worth discussing for a moment. By the end we come to realize that it’s Wanda, not Barbie, who is the central figure of A Game of You’s thematic core: that of identity. Wanda is a transgender character, a pre-op born male and living as a woman, and her struggles with who she is serve to underpin everything the story is about. But Barbie is more interesting to me — not just because we discover that she’s more than the one-note gag we see in The Doll’s House, but because what we find is a woman without any real sense of who she is or what she wants. The way she paints her face; the way those masks are barriers between her and the world, a kind of very extroverted security blanket scrawled onto a very introverted person. That’s really strong stuff.

So if this is the one arc that doesn’t speak to me on the same level as, say, Brief Lives, I beg your forgiveness. It’s not a matter of not recognizing its strengths, it’s simply one of taste. We spend six issues in this world when it feels like three or four would have better suited the story. Despite the rich thematic material around which she is built, we’re not nearly as invested in Barbie as we are in her neighbors (Wanda and Hazel especially), so our time with her seems overlong. Further, once the initial oddness of the fairy tale characters wears off — this by the end of the first issue — so, too, does their novelty. The story overstays its welcome.

That said, small breasts.

No, I’m not having a fit of Tourette’s. One of the most noteworthy achievements of Gaiman’s Sandman was crossing the gender line. Comic books are a medium that, in the United States, has been decidedly dominated by males. Over the years, the adolescent power fantasies of superhero comics all but bullied other genres out of the mix, leaving caped, muscle-bound men and empty-headed, big-breasted women to rule the roost. (Yes, the real history of American comics is more complex than that, especially the impact Seduction of the Innocent had on the popular medium, but for simplicity’s sake the point stands.) These days, the rise of manga, graphic novels, and concerted efforts by some publishers has meant growth in female readership — yet even with this in mind, the comics world remains a boy’s playground. And in 1989, when The Sandman first began publication? Forget about it. Women were nowhere to be seen.

But Sandman did a lot to chip away at the testosterone wall built between women and comics. Gaiman tapped into something important for readers: His women were not male fantasies. They weren’t models or hourglasses or one-dimensional stereotypes — which, by and large, had been pretty much the extent of female comic characters. I mean, let’s face it, most male comic book writers can’t write nuanced, believable characters of their own gender, much less the other.

So here comes Gaiman and his cast of female characters: real people with real depth and real character and real thoughts, feelings and emotion. They are painfully naive about sex and accidentally get pregnant and have foolish prejudices and neuroses. Of course, comics, being the visual (and historically shallow) medium they often are, draw our attention to how things look. Visual clues tell us a lot. Thus, the small breasts we see here. These women are sometimes chubby and frumpy, and sometimes thin and flat-chested, and sometimes awkward and unattractive, and yes, sometimes quite gorgeous. In other words, they’re women. Not alien species, not unobtainable trophies — just women. They’re people as varied and different as our friends and mothers and selves. Even better, none of these factors are special story elements shoved in our face with clumsy, show-off writing, they just … are.

It’s hard to overestimate how big a factor this was in Sandman’s wide appeal and longevity. My wife devoured it. Lots of wives and girlfriends devoured it. Sandman proved to many people that comics didn’t have to be adolescent power trips; that they could feature characters — female characters — as complex and real as those in any work of literature. We longtime comic readers may have suspected this all along, but the general public didn’t. For most, comics were disposable rubbish with the worst sort of one-dimensional characters, ESPECIALLY with regard to women. Sandman, along with some other notable works, kicked at those barriers. A Game of You is a good example of how and why.

No, it’s not my favorite story arc in the series, but when a series features material as strong as Season of Mists, Brief Lives and World’s End, that’s hardly an insult. And yeah, favorite or not, there’s obviously a broader message to take from this arc, and a pretty important one at that.

Eric San Juan is the coauthor of A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks With the Master of Suspense, forthcoming in April 2009 from Scarecrow Press. His Weird Tales debut was last year’s “Whispers of the Old Hag.”