Without Fear

Ryan K Lindsay – Writer

Category: books

CICADA – Sublime Social Discourse, Y’know, For Kids

There is so much contained within this book, and like a cicada, it’s just waiting to burst out from beneath the surface. You need this book in your homes, in your classrooms, and in your hearts.

Shaun Tan is a wild genius, and sometimes he does it with a lot – glorious words, hyper-detailed and strange art – and here he does it with so little. The art is still beautiful, and what words there are sing off the page, but it’s his mastery of control and surreal commentary that make this a modern masterpiece about modern culture as we live in it.

The story is about a cicada that works as an office drone, is unappreciated by the humans in whose world he lives, and it’s all very bleak and subdued. From here, Tan comments on modern capitalist society, and how downright boring it is, and why we should abhor such an existence, and he does it so effectively that I’m hard pressed to think of a better literary burn on what a waste most of what we consider “modern living” is. The final words would be haunting, if not for the fact they made me laugh so much.

This is a book with heady themes present, and every adult will connect on a very real level, but kids should be exposed to this kind of thinking. They should have it unpacked for them.

S P O I L E R S

Cicada is about whether we’re getting busy living, or getting busy dying. It’s about city living versus getting back to nature. It’s about putting the goals of necessity before our happiness. It’s about how we’re getting it all wrong.

The titular cicada is completely downtrodden, ignored, bullied, and cast aside. It’s horrible. But doesn’t this happen to us all when you really think about it? It might not be obvious, or explicit, but most of the time it doesn’t hurt to consider if we’re making any difference, and if that impact has any real staying power. Or do we live, consume, die, and the world turns on?

It sounds horrible, and it really kinda is, so the story offers a solution of sorts.

The cicada, retired, already forgotten, walks to the roof of the building in which it lives as well as works and it splits open. A blade of red light appears, and the true cicada form emerges, naked of the business attire, and it returns back out to nature where it started. More importantly, where it belongs.

The theme of the story is that we should be doing what we are meant to be doing. We should be connecting with nature, we should be living and working within our means, we should be putting happiness ahead of…I don’t know, progress, bland citizenship, money.

It’s better to live as a cicada in the wild, happy, than grind through an endless life in the city and be a millionnaire.

The book leaves us with the cicada’s blistering assessment – it has left the city, to return to its kind, and sometimes they think about the humans, and they laugh.

This stopped me, and I had to laugh, but I was stopped nonetheless. Yes, they laugh, at our ludicrous existence, and Tan hits the nail on the head.

We’ve got it all wrong.

But this book is a step in the right direction, in a way. It’s a book to share, to come together for, to discuss, to open our minds and hearts, and to change our futures.

We should be doing what we’re supposed to be doing, not what we’re told we should be doing, or what we’ve told ourselves to believe we should be doing.

Weighed down by all of t h i s ? Then shed your skin and let’s get started.


CICADA by Shaun Tan is no doubt available at every good book store near you. Google one and find it and support your local bookseller.

 

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THE FIREMAN – A Study in the Modern Insanity

THE FIREMAN by Joe Hill is an astonishing novel that’ll completely engulf you.

I love Joe Hill, I’m a complete mark for his work, and this book is definitely one of my absolute favourites of his stuff. It’s a great premise, handled well in the narrative line it chooses, the characters lure you in, and by the end you’re exhausted in all the right ways.

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On the ISLAND OF THE LIZARD KING’s Cover

For as long as I can remember, I always dug playing the Fighting Fantasy books.

My brothers had copies of these strewn around the house, and I don’t even know at what age I picked them up, but I can vividly remember playing them when I was about 7, half laying under our coffee table, and half poking out with a cushion under me, to roll the dice, to battle the pages, and to make my own adventure sheets in an art pad.

I loved the adventure, the nerdy mathematical/chance aspect of it all, and the scenarios and art were wild. These were infinitely better than the Choose Your Own Adventure books – these were the Horror Section of your old VHS emporium compared to the Kids Rental Section of your safe old library.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but these were the METAL interactive story/game pages of my youth.

We owned many of these books, and I played the all, and while many hold a dear place in my heart, it is always this cover that fires up my imagination. behold, the ISLAND OF THE LIZARD KING!

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What Is Best In Life? – 2017 Edition

I love a good year end list. And this list is very much about me, and my year, and what works for me. If you dig what I usually dig, then seek these things out.

Oh, and this just means things *I* did/imbibed in 2017, not necessarily things *from* 2017 because I’m crazy behind on things all the time.

Okay, roll the thing!

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University of Canberra FIRST: Voyages Book Launch Keynote 2017

I was honoured to be asked to attend the launch of UC’s FIRST: Voyages anthology book – a place for uni students to get their first publication. The book was a ripper, so many great examples of emotion and truth on the page, so I was happy to speak to the crowd and give away whatever small amount of wisdom I have.

Below is my speech, typed, but I’m not a TED presenter, and I notoriously tangent, so this isn’t 100% exact what people heard on the night, but it’s as close as the history books will ever get. I hope you enjoy.

Hi, I have to start by saying:

Thank you to every person who contributed to this book. Thank you for stepping up, for putting yourself into ink, and firing yourself off into the world as yet another book of blood, because as Clive Barker says, that’s what we are, and wherever we’re opened, you better believe we’re red.

It is a heartbreaking and delightful and insane and passionate thing we do to put our words into the world, and it makes our lives better and worse than others, but it also means we are truly living our lives. So thank you, can we give everyone in this book a round of applause, please? :]

It’s invigorating to submerge into an anthology so rich full of passion and erudition. You don’t start a journey over mountains and through the shattered dust of stars by tiptoeing forward. No, you dive, man, you just have to because if you pause, you’re DOA. Writing is a passion, it’s a drug, and it’s a monkey on your back for the rest of your life. And you either learn what your monkey likes and you placate it forevermore, or you invest in good gardening equipment and you bury its body in various locations to live a very free, though much more mundane, life. These are your options.

Which is why I want to tell you to please keep writing. I mean, you’re obviously off to such an amazing start, why stop, right?

But know that writing isn’t going to ever get easier. Writing isn’t going to do what you planned. Writing is one big problem you keep in your skull most of your life, and sometimes it aches, and sometimes it itches, and sometimes it stops – which can be the most scary of all the symptoms. But writing will complete you. I know it will, because I see the talent in you. I know that fever, and I know the soothing balm of seeing your words in print. I know it feels good – even while it kinda feels terrifying, right?

I won’t ask for hands up, but I guarantee at least one contributor already hates their work, and others would love another pass to juuuust get it right. Someone has looked at someone else’s story and now violently hates them because they see how good that person’s story is – don’t be afraid of competition, it’ll make you sick, but it’ll also make you better, I promise. I know this, and I know it’s stupid. You’ll know it soon, too, but knowing isn’t a cure. I’m sorry.

You are all now officially writers, and the only way is up. Up, up, up, because, technically, even a 1 degree incline is up. And you have to stay the course, even when it feels like a downhill tumble. You have to write through the blizzards, and the afterparties, and droughts, and the mazes. You have to write, because you are writers, you know this, you’ve stated it right here in the book.

I declared I’d be a writer in Year 3. I wrote my first 2 short stories that year. The joy of completing them was wild. The thrill of reading them to my class was exhilarating. The shame of looking back years later and realising how bad they were: priceless.

Honestly, one was called Volcano and it was about a guy who decides to climb a volcano. So he packs his bag – I go into full list mode to detail all the muesli bars and snacks he takes with him, it’s like half a page. Then he starts walking. And keeps walking. And keeps walking. Then he sees a wolf. He says, “Hey, there’s a wolf.” To no one in particular, and hopefully not the wolf, unless I was writing existential animal identity crises back in 1990. Sorry, where was the story, oh, yeah, he keeps walking. Then he gets to the top. He looks in. He sees some lava. Then he walks home.

He doesn’t even touch a single goddamn preciously bagged snack from his bag in the entire story. Maddening.

And when people tell you that your first writing will suck, it’s easy to point to those juvenile words and say they were your formative years, as if I wrote anything of greatness when I was 18. Or 22. Or 25. Or last week.

So much crap over the years. But the common theme was I kept writing. Brian K Vaughan once wrote that you have to get 10,000 pages of utter shit out of your system before you start getting good. That’s when you start getting just good.

So keep writing. Because I went from writing fanfic to really awesome break up poetry to four novels of questionable quality to online comics journalism to hot takes on twitter in 2009 before the Nazis and the trolls occupied the underside of every bridge and then I went and I got my first publication out into the world and then started getting good. Just good. And it still wasn’t as good as what you’ve done here.

But I kept at it. I wrote a baker’s dozen of short stories, I wrote about 60 issues of various comic projects that never went anywhere. I wrote so much, and finally the tide started to shift. Soon I was signing my first publication deal with a publisher in the States for my first comic miniseries. Then I was winning the Aurealis Award and Ledger Bronze Award for my comic about suicide and emotion eating monsters. I was selected in a group of 8 people out of 1500 people to be in a comic writing class run by DC comics.

I’m currently sitting on 3 comic book deals with a US publisher, and in the midst of my sixth successful comic Kickstarter campaign, and I’m writing every damn night. I’ll go home and write tonight. Because not only is that what it takes, but that’s what I want. That’s what I need. I’m a writer, it’s no shock I go home to write.

So, please, write. That’s the obvious lesson everyone imparts. But let me gift you two more horses and you can elect to look in their mouths or not.

You will fail. A story will suddenly dry up. Or a story will not find an audience. Or a story will suuuuuck. Or you’ll have the chance to finally pitch the Ninja Turtles and you’ll drop the ball…or y’know, some other vague possibility not ripped from the headlines inside my brain.

You will think you’re crap – which is just as dangerous as the family members who tell you you’re amazing – and sometimes you will be crap, and you won’t know sometimes, and you’ll have doubt, and you’ll worry and overthink, and stress, and miss parties, and learn what a sore neck really feels like. Writing is going to add some hardship to your life.

But a real writer finds the greatest hardship to be not writing. So…yeah, I don’t have any great solution to that, sorry, welcome to the club, it’s gonna kill ya :]

Each failure in the club is there to teach you a lesson. Whether it’s story structure, or humility, or taking editorial notes, or swinging for the bleachers, or selling out – learn why the failure happened, and factor it into the new 2.0 version of yourself, the true Writing Intelligence Supreme of 2020.

Just remember why you write – because it’s a way to take the truth you know, and marinade it, and make something more out of it.

I’ll tell you about two of the best things I ever wrote. One was in Year 10, it was a recount of the morning we found my father’s dead body. Looking back it was the sort of bunt hit an angsty teenager writes because he knows it’ll get him on base, but I also wrote it because this was a truth I’d lived with for a decade and I needed a way to get it out of my head. So I did, and my teacher loved it, and wanted it for the school’s annual magazine, and I politely declined. Because it was out of my head, but I didn’t need it into the heads of others. Not yet, anyway.

But nearly two decades after that, I wrote a story about a writer who sits down to write his suicide note and gets writer’s block. Which is a pretty shit thing to do to a character, but it’s great narrative fuel. And this was me tackling the same themes I’d sophomorically slapped on the page in Year 10, but now I had a way to use my truth as an ingredient, and not as the recipe and whole dish. I’d mastered subtext and theme and subtlety, and so I explored my feelings about suicide again, also with added decades of reflection to even better understand it.

I truly believe that’s why NEGATIVE SPACE sold so well, and won awards, and became my entry into what modest limelight I’ve afforded myself. It’s a book with truth in it. A truth only I could write.

You’ll no doubt have already heard that you should “write what you know.” Which I always took to mean, well, Stephen King writes alcoholic teachers-cum-writers, and John Grisham writes lawyers, and Dan Brown writes intellectual middle aged white dudes absolutely sizzling in turtleneck sweaters. I thought it meant write what you know how to do, which is essentially writing who you are.

This is not what that advice means.

Write what you know should focus on the word KNOW – what you know is your truth – you need to write your truth. Which is why fiction is so amazing – every person has their own truth. One person can know and believe the world is a wonderful place while another person can believe the world sucks and will most definitely try to smash you into pieces. Both of those truths can exist, because they stem from experience.

Your job is to find your truth, by living a life, by doing dumb things, by avoiding those now discovered dumb things and choosing the smarter things. A life lived, is a brain informed, is a writer with something to say. And if you can say it in a way no one has read before, then you’re gonna be fine. You have to work out how to make your truth palatable.

Which I know you can do because so many of you mastered this in the book.

The truth of what a railway line means in the many stations you stop in through your life. The truth that you’re only gonna get better, and that knowledge can’t be applied retroactively – not even with time travel. The truth that your wits will keep you alive, but only if you let your wits navigate for you as well as react for you, even centuries ago on a sinking ship. The truth that the devil’s right, even if only about the fact his opposition is wrong. The truth that souls are precious and need rescuing, but you can only ever do what you can. The truth that the ocean represents all we should fear in this world, and yet we dive back into it constantly. The truth that it only takes one person to do absolutely everything they possibly can for humanity to be saved. The truth that your tolerance will always be met with intolerance and sometimes you see what happens when an unstoppable force collides with an immovable object. The truth that the world is constantly twisted up in sex and shame and stupidity and all you can do is accept your place in it and hope you get better at it all.

Those were some of the amazing truths I took away from this book and they floored me, each one, each time. A fabulous way to read a book, so thank you.

I do want to highlight 3 specific stories that really stuck with me, and all because they offered a truth, and in a different way. One with clarity, one through obfuscation, and one through a warped sense of acceptance. These three stories are everything I love to read, on personal and technical levels, and I want to call each person up to receive a gift voucher as a small token of appreciation for sharing these words with us.

DAD was an utterly amazing gutpunch, so can Jasmine Braybrooks please come up.

This illustration of a parent changed is done with such honesty and humanity that it never feels brutal, nor salacious. This is a spirit laid bare on the page and I kept thinking that these intimate nothings etched out in careful words are going to give Michael Chabon a run for his money one day. Thank you for letting us all read this.

READ RECEIPT REQUESTED was a gripping and funny and ultimately horrifying story, so can Susie Ellis please come up.

This story feels funny, and genuinely is funny, and I was entranced from the first word to the last. Your style and pacing are near-flawless as you toe the Hitchcockian line of absurdity and tension. But, in the end, this story is horrifying because beyond the cute charm, it’s a story about society, about how easy it is for idiotic men to rule on a whim, and about how easy it is for women to disappear. It’s the best kind of statement, in that it never states it at all. But it’s there, and that’s a gift, so thank you for sharing it with us all.

And the final story I want to mention is ANNIE & I, a short pitstop into a mentality of strange acceptance by Jerzy Beaumont.

It would be easy to write this story off as a mere twist reveal at the end, were it not for how amazingly acute and true it is in every line. The twist unpacks a whole new narrative and once you know who Annie is, the line “and when we make love we do it like iron maidens; the nails are in-side.” becomes this haunting and harrowing and yet still somewhat hopeful proclamation.

I hope a million people read this story because it’s the sort of thing that shows you how to access your truth, and how to manage it, and how to touch it fondly and often until you no longer have any fear in what it can hold or do. This story is the kind of thing that will stick with readers for a lifetime and beyond, and that’s the greatest outcome any fiction can ever aim for, so thank you so much for creating a better world with this story in it.

Please join me in giving applause to all three recipients of these gift cards tonight.

Now, I want to leave you with one last piece of wisdom, so I’m actually going to steal it from one of you.

Write every day, about things that matter to you, across all genres. They say every statue is in the marble waiting to be unearthed, and the same is true of every story around us. You job is to go out, touch, observe, carve, polish, stand back and think, start again, and discover the world so you might best synthesise it. There’s a lot of stuff out there, to write about, to ignore, to immerse yourself in, to know, and forget, and you’re all just the right age to do it all and use it later in your next great works.

Or, better put by Lara Hazel Thompson as she muses on how you, writers, might see the world moving forward – “These people, my friends, recently became really fucking boring, so I’ve taken to details.”

Take to every detail you can find, you’ll find a story for all of them eventually, I promise.

Thank you.

NOIRVEMBER 2015 ebook coming!

My series of NOIRVEMBER posts from Noirvember last year will be available as an ebook on the 19th of January for 99c on Smash Words from Four Colour Ray Gun. You can pre-order it now, if’n you like. It’s in multiple formats and represents nearly 40k of my thoughts and words and misconceptions about life and art.

PREORDER NOIRVEMBER 2015 – ESSAYS AND RAMBLINGS EBOOK NOW! – LINK

I’ve tidied up the posts a touch, and added a CURRICULUM ADDENDUM section at the end of each chapter to give you the boring deets I didn’t want to didactically drop into the essays – plus sometimes some links to scripts and rad pdfs and other cool stuff.

It also features this ace cover from Christopher Kosek!

noirvember2015_v2

If you want, all the posts are still right here [LINK] but there’s something cool about being able to have this on your tablet, just waiting for you, or maybe you just buy a copy to share with friends. Or maybe you have that site-to-pdf Chrome extension. Or maybe I die destitute and alone.

NOIRVEMBER, the ebook, coming January 19th – tell your friends [who don’t already read this site, follow my twitter, like me] – [LINK] for the preorder, or the order if you are accessing this post post-Jan 19.

What is Best in Life? – 2015 Edition

2015, I believed.

BEST COMIC

DEADLY CLASS by Wes Craig and Rick Remender

Just loved every single panel in this crazy messed up book. It’s a wild idea, wrapped up by a wide array of intriguing characters, in a $10 intro trade, with some of the most nuanced and superb comic making I’ve seen in a while. Just an utter joy to behold – well, in a sense of how it is made…most of the actual narrative is as bleak as leftover coffee the next morning.

BEST TV

HANNIBAL

Just the best in show for everything, really. This year was S3 and it closed out the show and did it so masterfully that I’m still in awe. This is one of the few things I just keep bringing up to people and gushing to them about. It’s a show I want to share because it represents so many things about storytelling I love, and I wish I could do.

I’d love more seasons but I also love how tight and wonderfully this is all stitched up. This year, everything else paled in comparison.

BEST MOVIE

INSIDE OUT

And I mean hands down, best flick of the year. I crazy loved the idea but the execution was better. With a simple narrative throughline, they then explore emotions in such a deliberate and delightful way that my 5yo man dug it but I was floored by it. I cried twice in the damn flick and then when I got home and tried to explain it to the wife I started tearing up again. She thought I must’ve had a stroke. So good, and who knew we needed HERMAN’S HEAD the kid adaptation so bad?

BEST MUSIC

NEW BLASKOOOO!

Yes, a new Sarah Blasko album dropped and she’s still amazing. ETERNAL RETURN has fuelled some words in the last few months.

BEST PODCAST

COMIXLAUNCH

Every time I listen to this podcast about using Kickstarter for making comics it inspires me to make some more comics. I just get the fire in the gut again. You need to have that fire, and stoke it, and shift it, and kick it, if you’re going to survive this stupid ride we repeat again and again making comics.

The ComixLaunch podcast is just gasoline all up in my bonfire of life. I was also on an ep, dig it, it’s all about kickstarting DEER EDITOR and doing a digital only campaign from Australia [LINK]

BEST BOOK

ELEKTROGRAD: RUSTED BLOOD by Warren Ellis

This ebook was like two bucks or something stupid and it was a tight, short, very interesting read. And I’m finding it hard to hang on to novels because they are taking me crazy amounts of time to get through so short novella stuff is just right and this book was aces [LINK]

Are there other best things from this year I should be considering? No app jumped out at me this year, and no way could I single out all the cool art I’ve been able to scope in my travels with collaborators, so I think this is it.

2015 was a building block year, and it built in me patience. Hopefully I can use it to calmly slaughter 2016.

NOIRVEMBER 023 ~ PKD

Philip K Dick knew from noir. He thought he was living in one. Conspiracy, drugs, self-hatred [though maybe that’s just all writers but he certainly didn’t always seem to think the most of himself, though he did respect himself in some ways], and an early demise.

PKD lived as he wrote, and wrote about how he lived. Interreality noir.

FullSizeRender

– my personal PKD shelf –

The first PKD book I ever read was A MAZE OF DEATH. I had these rad local flea markets in a shopping centre carpark every Sunday morning and I used to religiously ride in and just wander, eat some insanely good hot jam donuts, and peruse all the people selling old paperbacks out of last week’s broccoli bins. And this was the age where old sci fi pulps got the price they deserve: between 50c and maybe two bucks if they were superfly.

I was about 12 and had read enough Stephen King and Clive Barker and Star Wars books – and I’m talking SPLINTER OF THE MIND’S EYE and the Han Solo trilogy, not that later extended universe stuff – to know it was time to branch out. I started shifting this weird stuff around, because all the other horror authors didn’t interest me and I found myself digging more and more sci fi flicks [ALIEN/S, BLADE RUNNER, THE ABYSS, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE OMEGA MAN, PLANET OF THE APES, etc], and it was getting late in the morning. All this stuff looked the same, a whole mess of Heinlein, lotta Donaldson and some Bradbury, there was plenty I wanted but nothing I could choose. Nothing worth the two bucks. But then I picked up A MAZE OF DEATH and it sounded half decent, I had no idea about the author, but the price was slashed in half from a buck to 50c. It was worth the gamble. I picked it up and my future path was set.

a-maze-of-death

I read A MAZE OF DEATH and while it’s not PKD’s finest, it is lean, and harsh, and the end stuck with me like tar to your shoe. The story looks at a spaceship crew who go through the story all either being murdered or killing themselves and in the end we reset to find out they’re actually just using virtual reality to kill time as they orbit a dead star and are waiting to die. That kicker, that they’ll no doubt just go through all of this again, such anguish, such empty human rage, was something that hit me in the guts. Looking back, it’s like a recursive noir loop set in deep space. It’s insanely dark and brilliant and a very bloody good hook on which to hang yourself as an intro to PKD.

I was about to become a teenager and embark on a quest for more that I am still on.

In the early days, it was hard to find PKD books but when they arose, they were cheap. It felt like a worthy adventure. I go to a lot of secondhand book shops so in every one the first thing I still do is go to the sci fi shelves and scan for D, which means Gordon R. Dickson, with his middle initial and very very similar last name has become my nemesis for the fact he bloats these shelves and always kills me with false hope. Because now, PKD books are rare. I blame flicks like MINORITY REPORT and maybe PAYCHECK for jacking up the price because for a long while PKD pulps remained cheap but suddenly they’d be asking $20 a copy, and the worst thing was the bastards would sell. So you’d either put up or get shut out. The game is suddenly dark and sharp. But, still I look and my shelf grows.

Often times I think of my journey procuring and slowly reading PKD books as a noir where I’ll die before reading them all, though I’ll probably get them all, because that’ll make the final sting all that much worse. As the life ebbs, I can probably see the shelf, the titles smirking back at me, the one found in that gargantuan warehouse of a store, the one the eccentric shopkeeper held for me, the trio I sniped on eBay back before people knew how to snipe on eBay, they’d look down and judge me for not having imbibed them all and I’d look up and whisper out to them, and my family would hate me for looking at the books when they were gathered around.

Then I’d wake to find it was all a virtual reality test to see how I’d fare in my final moments, and I’d be left wanting, my family would leave, and the books would be empty, filled with the vast works of Gordon R. Goddamn Dickson. Because if I’m going to go down, I want PKD writing my end.

And that’s what PKD did best, he messed with your reality so your happily never after chased you through space and time. His brand of sci fi isn’t about intergalactic discovery and exploration as much as it is a synthesis of how far we can see into ourselves wrapped in a metaphor of the crushing dark that surrounds us, as well as fills us. He saw beauty and horror in everything, his dichotomy of life was to fear and then fearlessly bound forward anyway. It’s the sort of thing they don’t teach you in class.

Looking through the works of PKD, you see bleak horizons laid out in his final pages all the time. A SCANNER DARKLY is a terrible piece of drug noir, and one of his finest works. It looks into the future at a narc who goes undercover into a drug house, and one he’s already also an active member of and in during his out of work hours. But due to a scramble suit which hides the identity of all narcs, this clash is not discovered, neither by the occupants of the house nor his superiors.

A Scanner Darkly

So we have a man spying on himself while imbibing hallucinogens and of course this is a problem. It’s a fascinating read into paranoia, and the system that lords over the street, and how interpersonal relationships open you up to salvation as well as damnation. By story’s end, we find our protagonist trapped in a loop of rehab where he’s being made to harvest the drug in the facility, and he’s seemingly gone from the top rung to the bottom and regardless of more movement the actual problem is there’s little hope he’ll ever get off the wheel.

Dick’s wife at the time, Tessa, said she found him weeping by his typewriter after particularly harrowing nights of writing this story. It is clear PKD was putting his life and his soul into his work.

THE ZAP GUN is a deliciously morose slice of consumerism noir as we follow weapon makers who come up with their ideas in fugue states only to have their designs turned into completely useless and random household artifacts. As an alien invasion looms, they struggle to team up and design a salvation for Earth.

the zap gun

The way this story plays out, everyone ends up in a black hole of their own reality of redundancy. People have their ideas handed across time, people have their own ideas turned on them, people have their own ideas nullified, and nearly all ideas are in service to fight oppositional ideas that are fabricated. Your life’s purpose is a lie. Even the way the book was birthed, the publisher wanted a story to match this title they had, is insane. They brought very little to the table and PKD obliged. That idea of ideas becoming larger ideas is right there.

There’s a great through line where a board game is constructed and in it a small character wanders aimlessly in a seemingly futile experiment. As you play, you connect with the playing piece until eventually you replace it, and you look up, and there is no hope. It’s barely subtle but it’s a visceral thing as it plays upon your feelings of empathy, and how many crosses you’ll die on, and the fact the world is out to slowly draw you in and stop you, entrap you, claim you, absorb you.

THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH, a novel PKD wrote amongst many as he struggled to make ends meet supporting a wife and four daughters, from whom he was estranged during his writing periods, wandering away from the homestead and down into a small shack that would get so cold the ink would freeze in his typewriter ribbon. If there was ever a confluence of events to create a noir masterpiece, this was it.

three stigmata of palmer eldritch

PKD had been spending every day isolated in this shack, every day inside his head with these wild ideas, and it took its toll. One day, he saw a vision in the sky above the horizon. It was the face of evil, and it was God, and this was the worst possible thing to consider. Which means that as the face continued to appear over a month, PKD processed it inside and the output was this magnificently sour and majestic novel.

It is certainly one of the most bleak PKD tales as it looks into the concept of seeing/meeting/becoming god through drug use and how dangerous a line any of that is. The book strongly treads into the territory of Gnosticism – the fact that God may be real but that doesn’t mean in any way that they are a nice or even sane deity. When man loses his higher power, or discovers that power is corrupt, well that means there’s nowhere left to fall because we all suddenly live on the grainy rock bottom.

In the end of the story, after many twists and turns, the kicker is that our lead man never knows if he’s escaped his hallucinatory nightmare, if he’s still in it, and whether he’s right or powerful if either of those scenarios prove true. Once you know there’s been a hallucination, how can you ever know you truly came out of it? And even if you did, if thoughts plague you that you didn’t will you ever be fulfilled? That noir of uncertainty and doubt that will mock you and haunt you for eternity is a scarier prospect than any actual definitive answer that will at least stop you hunting for clues or signs or ideas. This thin possibility means you are a ball spinning in a hoop that will never fall.

You can see the layers of eXistenZ and INCEPTION presented in this idea and it’s scary because the moment you apply it to your own life, you could be up all night chasing loops. Once your concept of reality is shattered, there is no recovery.

Philip K Dick didn’t seem to believe in happy endings, and if he gave you one, he wanted you to know it was perilous. He wanted you to question it because as soon as you did, it puffed away in blue smoke. That aspect of storytelling as a thing offered, and a thing taken away, and a thing unknown to which you can only guess is something that’s inspired me for decades now. As I continue to write, and have PKD paperbacks yet to read, may I die happy and certain, if he allows it.

pkd quote

NOIRVEMBER 015 ~ The Vengeful Virgin

I’d never heard of Gil Brewer before. I found the Hard Case Crime copy of THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN in a discount bin for $5 and snapped it up mostly on the quality of the publisher, as well as a little on the title. Salacious pulp titles are better than Cards Against Humanity every single time.

The Vengeful Virgin (Gil Brewer, 1958)

The cover copy told me Brewer had also written “SATAN IS A WOMAN,” and a quote from Anthony Boucher, from The New York Times, informed me what I held in my hands was “A Cainlike story of greed, sex and murder, culminating in retributive horror worthy of Jim Thompson.” Bold words and so it was on tipping point to reach apex of my ‘to read’ pile and Bill Pronzini’s quote slid the nail in my coffin with ease as he said “[Brewer] produced some of the most compelling noir softcover originals of the 1950s.”

Yes, I was excited. And, yes, the book completely lives up to all of this hype.

The book opens with Jack Ruxton meeting Shirley Angela as he comes to perform some repairs and alterations to the house she lives in where she cares for her flagging stepfather. Naturally, a plan is hatched to dispatch of the old man and abscond with his bountiful dollars. Because that’s what two pretty young things consider when the passion and the fury takes over. They think they sniff a happily ever after because the lust fuels a whiff of satisfaction right now. They cannot keep their hands off each other and yet Ruxton still thinks, “I knew I’d never get enough of her. She was straight out of hell.”

He’s letting himself be led down, and why not? A short fall is better than the long flat most people face for their whole life.

So the plan is set but the execution takes a long time. They have too much time to think and worry and ponder. The tension builds, the opportunities to bail out mount. But neither stirs. They are dedicated to the path, this is premeditated murder in the first degree. Even when a nosey neighbour and Ruxton’s jealous and drunk ex stick their heads in the way, they find them pummeled back. There is no stopping this plan, there is no hesitancy in their desire. There is no hurdle too complex even when it’s more murder.

In the hustle of a possible discovery, Shirley stabs the neighbour, Mayda, in the back, killing her. They’re in for a penny, so they’re in for a pound, but weaseling out of this trap proves the kind of mental undoing that would destroy lesser people on the spot. Ruxton takes the body and decides to dispose of it in some nearby water. Ruxton enters into the messy business of staging her alleged death by driving her car around at night in the hopes it’ll be seen, and then slamming it into the canal. This sets up a car crash/drowning, but to account for the knife wound, he turns it into an accident wound by busting off a piece of the convertible soft-top housing and jamming the steel into the open wound. It’s gruesome business and the kind that doesn’t sell your soul so much as shred it up and feed it to the dogs. The three-headed kind who are waiting for you at your next stop.

Once you’ve gone that extra step, you don’t deserve any kind of happily ever after you were aiming for. And Ruxton certainly doesn’t get it. The deed is done but things begin to go shaky, his resolve is wobbly, the paranoia sets in. He diverts, steals a gun, he’s making all the wrong moves, and well knows it, but doesn’t really know how else to play it. He’s made big moves but in this world he’s not a big mover, he’s a guy who installs electronic equipment. He’s a nobody with delusions of money, promised him by some girl he barely knows, and which legally may be problematic even before then [due to obscure inheritance laws and rules, or so he’s told]. It all looks sour.

What follows is a frantic conversation between these blood cross’d lovers. He’s panicking, she’s a little fawny and clueless, and between them the errors and tension are thicker than a bank vault wall. The volleyed dialogue tears you through the pages and your heart starts to race with them. Brewer certainly knows how to make people yap and have it mirror the tone of the narrative at that point – seductive, frantic, suspicious.

The most fascinating aspect of the whole book is not that killing an old man is a risky move, or covering up another woman’s murder is a bold and terrible thing to do, it’s that these things are not Ruxton’s downfall. He’s lost from the very first line of the book because that’s when he meets Shirley. She is a girl with passion, a girl who draws you in, but ultimately she’s a girl who draws you down because she’s considerably unhinged due to this abundance of passion.

Ruxton knows this all along but he sweeps it away, partly for the lust, mostly for the money. But in the end, this decision is his undoing as Shirley becomes fixated on Ruxton’s previous girl, Grace, who hounds Ruxton and so Shirley starts imagining how he is playing her under the guidance of another woman. Shirley gets bad ideas in her head and cannot shake them. In fact, she inflates them constantly and in the final sequence of the book she gets loaded on whiskey and expands her problem big enough to engulf them both.

Brewer illustrates an image of Shirley, wielding Ruxton’s gun [because it was his choice to introduce a weapon to this venture and so naturally it will come right back in his face], stark naked in front of a fireplace. A raging fireplace. A scene of over $340,000 in bills going up in smoke. She stands there and she screams insanity at Ruxton and then she shoots him dead. Dropping to kneel next to him, she then takes her own life.

Only Ruxton doesn’t die, and he’s stuck, almost paralysed, watching her commit suicide, the money turning to ash before him, and then watching as the police do eventually track him down and take him in. He wishes he was dead, it would all be easier, but it’s more painful if he’s left to go to trial, to wait it out, and to eventually burn at the hands of others. It’s a fait accompli but he has to feel the dread anticipation, he can’t escape it. When you think it would’ve just been easier to die, you know you are below rock bottom. And he knows he has no one else to blame.

Gil Brewer writes a phenomenally on point description to start a chapter and it summarises Ruxton’s core problem, as well as standing as a lovely way to describe noir in its entirety.

“Doom. You recognize Doom easily. It’s a feeling and a taste, and it’s black, and it’s very heavy.”

NOIRVEMBER 008 ~ The Shining

The first rule of THE SHINING is: forget the movie.

Yes, Kubrick made a horror masterpiece. The tone and timbre of that flick is intensely on point. Kubrick is a weird case in that he spent his career bouncing from genre to genre, defining them and mic dropping but he was never able to make THE definitive flick of those genres because his pieces were always more style over character substance. There are moments where this isn’t the case but on the whole people remember HAL before they can name more than one astronaut on the Discovery One, and before those men they probably remember the man-apes from the opening sequence.

And when it is that Kubrick makes a truly iconic character, it is because of their hollow nature. R. Lee Ermy’s Gunnery Sergeant in FULL METAL JACKET, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s married couple in EYES WIDE SHUT, and Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. These are all fantastic monuments of the silver screen but when they meet their downfall, if they even do, it doesn’t sting as much because they kinda feel like they started on rock bottom. Which is the mammoth problem with Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s greatest novel – Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance as insane from the start [or at least quite unhinged] so his drop to murderous father isn’t a fall so much as it is a restrained mental patient finally laying back under their restraints and accepting the darkness inside. It’s a lateral move, not downward.

the shining

The book however is a downfall as epic as any you will find, and it’s so utterly tragic because it is real. It’s a father always worrying he’s on the edge, sometimes nudging a toe over the line, but he wants to be good. He wishes he could be great but you get the vibe he’d settle for better than bad. But it all slowly unravels and it’s brutal to follow as you read.

Because, and here’s the dirty little secret, reading THE SHINING isn’t scary, it’s heartbreaking. Jack Torrance fails at his most important job and it kills us all inside, especially because we all knew he couldn’t really do it all along, himself included. Once we find out he once broke his son, Danny’s, arm because he lost his temper, well, the seeds of doubt were not only sown but they were fertilised and the liquid nourishment of alcohol was all it ever needed to grow more, with Torrance not having the mental tools to know how to tend to that garden.

The concept of the shattered man holding it together with trembling fingers is great noir fuel. Because you want it to go one way and when it goes another that’s killer, but when it’s his own fault for that downward curve, you just hate. You hate him, you hate alcohol, you hate the world for setting these things up.

The other major aspect of the book that the movie neglects, or at least adapts poorly, is the state of the Overlook Hotel. The hotel isn’t just haunted, it’s aggressively evil. It’s a conduit to our worst and so it aligns with Jack’s hidden interior to make it exterior. It takes over him, in a way, but it also feels like an acceleration of Jack’s natural timeline anyway. Even in the end, as Jack elects to try and save the Overlook from a volatile boiler, it feels like it’s Jack’s choice to do this. It’s is he who elects the method of his own downfall. But with him gone, imagine how much the world will improve for his family.

That’s not actual logic, but it is a choice made daily by people, sadly. And so, in that end, THE SHINING becomes this great exploration of one man’s inability to be good and so slowly spiralling down into pure evil until he implodes in and with it.

Yeah, heartbreaking.

RKL NOTE: THE SHINING was my favourite novel for well over a decade, in which I read it more than once, and found I could constantly just pick it up and flick through and lose myself for 80 pages. It’s amazing.

My new favourite novel is THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY by Michael Chabon. It isn’t really a noir.

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