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The Reading Vacation, Part 1

The Agony Column for January 16, 2003

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


I'm not really much of one for traveling or vacations. As a regular employee of various corporations, I was required to report to work at least five days a week. Every goddamn day I went somewhere. I would spend a fair amount of my spare time and not-so-spare money setting up a nice place to live -- lots of books, a recording studio, comfortable rooms. But I spent more time away from them than in them. So for me, a vacation, a supposed change of pace -- was not going somewhere.

As an avid reader, I also feel that I can pretty much take a vacation any place or time I can manage to nail myself to a chair and read a good book. Familiarity with the scenery around me actually increases the quality of my reading experience. If I can ignore my surroundings, I can immerse myself in the reading experience. You can't read while you're sightseeing.

On the other hand, if one sits around and reads in one's favorite chair too much, well, the specialness of that special chair will diminish. And yes, reading is a very fulfilling activity, but alas there's not much actual activity going on. If one is in that small percentage of humans who need a tad less sleep than others, and able to read quite a bit, one begins to think that getting away for vacation is a good idea.

If vacation is getting away from your normal routine, going to a strange place and staying in a hotel, walking about and seeing things you've not seen before, how do you take a reading vacation? Sure, you can do what I do -- reserve the finest reads for your vacation. But then you can find yourself sitting in a hotel room, or even on a beautiful beach with your face in a book. And it seems kind of like a waste of money, and more importantly vacation.

The question becomes: What is to reading as vacation is to routine?

Thus I found myself on my second day of Spookycon. As usual, I woke up at ungodly in the morning. I took a quick walk around town. Chinatown, San Francisco, California at 6.30 AM. The sky is just starting to gray up. It had rained the previous night, and the sidewalks were wet. There was a threat of rain, the clouds rearranging themselves, hovering ever lower. Every damn coffee joint in the neighborhood is closed. I can't make myself go to *#'s. The streets are just starting to fill up with residents and workers, all Chinese speaking Chinese. The older moms and pops and starting to open their little stores -- groceries and ginseng. The sidewalks are really dirty. My wing-tip make a lot of noise when I walk. The trams and streetcars are almost the only traffic. Isolated, the sounds they make are very distinct, clackety-clacks and buzzing sizzles as they plunge downhill.

The Con doesn't open for another 7 hours. This gives me a lot of free time, so I wander back to the hotel, pick up a book, and out to the streets again for the unique experience of eating a big American breakfast in a Chinese restaurant. Three bucks buys me ham and eggs and hash browns and toast as good as anything I could buy at twice the price. I read and eat, alone in the worn red-leather booth. Finishing, I leave as the sky comes up gray. Latte Express opens at 6.30 AM. There, in a gleaming shop with enough light to make me feel like I'm visiting a light bulb, I get a cup of coffee with a shot of espresso and wander back to the hotel.

The room I've booked at the San Francisco Holiday Inn has an absolutely smashing view of the Coit Tower and the San Francisco Bay. The iMac is on, and I write up my first report as the clouds creep in and the sky turns a lighter shade of gray. As I report on books and anticipate the day's events, relaxing because the Con is lightly booked and there's plenty of time to talk to everyone, I start to realize that I am actually on vacation. I upload the latest news to the site, then pick up the latest Asher novel, 'The Line of Polity'. I face the room's single chair out the window and begin to read. A reading vacation.

After about an hour of reading, I have to get to "work", in this case writing up interview questions for Ramsey Campbell, with whom I'm supposed to talk today. We've arranged to meet at 10 AM in the lobby. I spend a bit of time setting up the microphones, getting levels right, rehearsing reading the intro, generally fussing. Then I drop down 23 floors and meet Ramsey.

He's quite a nice gentleman, but when we get back up to the room, a problem with interviewing presents itself. Sound. Now I've spent more than an hour setting up DAT and the mics. I've never actually recorded an interview on the DAT, though I've done plenty of shows. But when I did shows, I was using a mixer and the sounds were primarily coming from electronic musical instruments. This time I was just plugging microphones into a recorder without having all the control a mixer offers, so I was rather nervous.

The folks over at Fine Print are kind of picky about the sound. I understand this -- radio is sound-only. For that reason, we don't do phone interviews. So I was worried that the sound quality wouldn't be fine enough for Fine Print. When Ramsey and I got up to the room, and I put on the headphone, I noticed that the ambient sound level was quite high, because they were jackhammering twenty three stories below.

This was a problem. Ramsey, who also does radio -- film reviews for BBC Liverpool -- recognized it as well. We decided to postpone until the following day, when (presumably), the jackhammerers would be sleeping in. Good thing I didn't sleep in.

A brochure from Cargo Cult books. An interesting selection is to be found within. You'll want to find it and perhaps buy from them.

After puttering about a bit, I went downstairs and made yet another pass through the dealer's room. Some very nice folks who had a nice set of books out must have been getting very exasperated with me. In the 24 hours I'd been at the convention, I'd walked past their books and examined them about 15 times. I noted a Phantasia Press Edition of 'The Pride of Chanur', signed by C. J. Cherryh for sale at half price. One of my most voracious reading friends is a huge fan of Cherryh -- he loaned me the first novel I read by this talented author -- and I suspected he might want the novel. Alas, my book-buying avarice is so great that there was not much there that I didn't have that I really wanted to buy. It alarmed me to think that I had more books than there were in the dealer's room. Still, Alan Clark was in the dealers room, selling books from his small-press imprint. Beautiful stuff.

At one PM, I reported to the Chinese culture center for a reading by Ramsey Campbell -- 'No Story In It', from the collection 'Imagination Fully Dilated 2' wherein authors write stories based on Alan Clark's illustrations. I attempted to record it, but alas, was in the midst of a 'learning experience'. That being, "Be prepared". In this case, Ramsey read this wonderful longish story, but the tape was too short to record it. Still, this was prime Campbell -- both savagely funny satire about small-press genre writers (his invented 'Wendigo Award' got the biggest laugh), and terrorizing descent into madness by an economically oppressed former member of the middle class. Some things are too close to home to bear. Campbell cuts to the chase with an incredible imagination.

I bought this in a Lucky grocery store. I was 14 years old.

I bought this book at the same time. I was trying to collect them all, just like Pokemon.

This book I bought a bit later. I was 16 years old.

At two PM, I reported for the panel on Clark Ashton Smith, who was born on January 13, 1893. There, in the 'Chinese Culture Center', I finally saw Darren McKeeman identified, hosting the panel. His questions were literate, and kept the panel moving through an absolutely fascinating history of this author. Now, I've read Smith since I was 14. I bought the Bantam Adult Fantasy series version of 'Poseidonis' off the shelves of the Lucky grocery store on the same day that I bought the Bantam Adult Fantasy series version of 'Fungi From Yuggoth'.

The cover of this book somehow crystallizes my impressions of Smith from the lecture -- standing in a dry orchard in Northern California. This edition is being reissued by Arkham House. I hope they keep the evocative Potter illustrations, they were a major draw for me.

The three panelists, whose names have escaped me, were fantastic. Each knew his stuff and through Darren's questions they laid out the story of Clark Ashton Smith in all its fascinating detail. Smith debuted his writing at the age of 18, with a collection of poems titled 'The Star Treader'. He was an autodidact, a self-taught scholar who had ostensibly read the OED three or four times. If you've read his work, it shows. Ornate is the starting point for describing Smith's language. Smith lived in Auburn, a small town north of San Francisco. Once he got past the proceeds of his debut, he settled down to a life of penniless, rentless ease, living in his parents house and doing work of all sorts while pursuing a correspondence with Lovecraft and others. But writing was not his only artform. He was also a sculptor and a painter. His works won acclaim and disdain, depending on which art critic you were listening; childish or intuitive, you pick. Lovecraft, of course, loved his artwork. The panels spun his story out like a movie. It was fascinating, informative and one hell of a lot of fun. It also involved both reading and being with other obsessed readers. Yes, I had to ask about how me made his rent money ("He didn't have rent."). But I find it interesting to contemplate Smith's life as an artist and writer, living just a rung above destitution with his parents in early 20th century northern California.

Of course the talk ran long, and I dashed out to check my email, take yet another swing through the dealer's room. So I missed the first part of David J. Schow's 'The Zombie Show', damn it. Schow is pure entertainment live. In a just world, he'd have his own late night talk show. In ours, he can get a panel wherein he read from 'The Zombie Show', his wonderful rant about writing for television, writing for New York editors, writing for whoremongering bastards who wouldn't know a good book if it flew across the room and knocked them upside the head. He kept the audience in stitches as he read about the wounds of the writer. A class act.

Afterward, we were treated to a couple of very odd cartoons. I had been hanging about the front projection podium, and noted that they had a DVD of 'My Neighbor Totoro'. I thought this was more than a bit odd for 'Spookycon', since the vibe of 'Totoro' is the antithesis of spooky. But it was certainly a favorite of mine. So when another animated video began playing, I hung about to watch. It looked a little cuter than Totoro, and I thought that maybe the kitsch content would be too high -- until the nonstop cartoon madness of 'Happy Tree Friends' made itself known. You want to buy this DVD. Check out the website. Lord knows, I did.

I found this signed Phantasia Press hardcover edition of the famous Cherryh novel for a friend.

Up again to find my email answered -- the reading friend definitely wanted the Cherryh novel. So, finally armed to buy, ready to spend, I march downstairs and pick up the novel. The very patient and rather bemused booksellers were happy to see my money, and I don't blame them. I could have bought the whole damn table. This was an exercise in self-control. After all, my only purchase so far had been the Charles G. Finny volume from Borderlands.

I bought this for myself, at $20.00. What a steal -- the lovely illustrations and a sturdy Grant edition of one of the classic writers.

The sky was iffy, so I took my umbrella on the forced march 12 blocks from Chinatown to Union Square, really about ten minutes or so, to Lefty O'Doul's. This was a Hofbrau I had been at recently when we were to meet some friends of the wife at 'The Cheesecake Factory', only to find that it was a one hour wait for a pager and a one hour wait for a table call. Well, Lefty O'Doul's suited me fine, and I plunked down the eight bucks got a gigantic barbecue beef sandwich and bowl of coleslaw, and proceeded to eat cheap and read. Life does not get much better. But it can...

I returned late then dashed to an event I wanted to see for my thirteen year old son, who is very interested in Rob Zombie and in his new movie, 'House of 1000 Corpses'. Bill Moseley, a star of the movie was hosting a talk and a preview. Typically, movie stuff does not turn my crank. But the movie's tale was so Hollowood-baroque, and Moseley's rap was so entertaining that I found myself captivated. The short version: Moseley had been working Universal Studios, playing Chop-top his character from 'Texas Chainsaw massacre 2'. At some phony Halloween awards ceremony, he gave Zombie an award, and Zombie, who was a fan of the character, promised Moseley a part in his movie. Moseley has his doubts, but is grateful (not dead). Zombie wants to make a movie, writes a script, connected via Geffen, gets it greenlighted almost immediately. Badda-bing, badda-boom, badda-bang, the movie is made, completed, Zombie does a rough-cut, screens it, people love it. Screens it for audience with Universal executives who are appalled that the audience is cheering "extreme gore and sadistic violence". Universal distributor (female) has to be helped out of screening. Universal kills the picture. Preventive-sale techniques are employed until they stop caring, someone else gets interested. Zombie makes the mistake of quipping something along the lines of 'I'm glad they don't have scruples'. Buyer # 2 is out. Zombie waits patiently. Another year passes -- this thing has been done for 2 1/2 years -- and finally get sold, you and my thirteen year old kid get to see it "April 28 to May 11". When it shines on my eyeballs, I'll believe I'm seeing it.

I head up upstairs briefly, then return for a screening of 'The Dead Hate the Living'. Soon enough, I realize that this is the kind of horror movie that gives the entire genre a bad name. Balanced against Neal Asher's latest with a glittering, Blade Runner-like San Francisco backdrop, it's no contest. I'm getting up early on the morrow, to pick up the wife and begin my vacation proper.




Rick Kleffel