June 23rd, 2007

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Charnas intro


I thought folks might like to read my introduction to this story collection.


As of this writing, I have not had the pleasure of meeting Suzy McKee Charnas face to face. She lives in the sunny desert paradise of Albuquerque (or, as Homer Simpson once charmingly and perhaps fittingly refered to it, "I'll be quirky"), while I inhabit the benighted non-Euclidian warrens of Providence. I suspect that one day sooner or later we will meet, given the melting-pot allure of the science-fiction and fantasy convention circuit, and I fully expect that encounter to be a pleasant one, with its share of mutual surprises and confirmations. But right now, despite a lack of non-virtual time together, I still feel I can describe Ms. Charnas to you well enough that you'll be able to recognize her, should you chance to bump into her.

Suzy McKee Charnas is a human-sized sentient female lizard named Walter Drake who boasts a human lover.

She is a lonely Tarot-card expert named Edie, charged with shepherding a child messiah through peril.

She is a nervous housewife named Fran who is obsessed with a strange circle of mushrooms on her lawn.

She is a young girl nicknamed "Boobs" Bornstein who finds herself transformed into a vengeful supernatural entity.

She is a misshapen recluse living beneath the Paris Opera house with an abducted child bride.

She is a middle-aged psychiatrist named Floria who finds herself forming a fatal identification with a patient named Dr. Weyland, a man who believes he is a vampire.

And perhaps most vividly, she is Dr. Weyland himself, immortal, anguished, jaded, violent, a curse to humanity and his own peace of mind.

But wait, I hear you protest: these are only Charnas's characters, not her true self. Charnas is the historically locatable woman who debuted in the SF world some thirty years ago, with her excellent post-apocalypse novel WALK TO THE END OF THE WORLD (later followed by three sequels). She's the writer who's won a Hugo and a Nebula and a Mythopoeic Society Award, the one who has had successes in the theater. That's the gal we need you, as introducer, to describe.

Well, I reply, if your interest is that shallow, I imagine you can find pictures of Charnas easily enough, on her various dustjackets or with the help of Google. But those photos won't help you identify what's really unique and important, the inner essence of Charnas, the soul-glow that will allow you to spot her amidst a mob much more readily than by knowing mere tilt of head or jut of jaw, curve of lip or wrinkle of brow. No, those inner qualities are only apprehendable by diving into her stories and getting acquainted with her characters. For what is an author if not the composite of those she chooses to write about?

And what fine, intriguing, well-crafted stories and characters they are! Charnas has never been one of those ultra-prolific genre writers, deluging the world with a book or three per year. And, in these stories at least, she does tend to focus on a certain deliberately restricted set of themes and settings and personages, rather than going in for gallivanting about the universe with a bunch of casual acquaintances. But the limits of her fiction are the limits of, say, a Virginia Woolf, and her relative sparsity is belied by the richness of what she chooses to gift us with.

Charnas obviously has a certain reputation as a feminist writer, and one would naturally expect her to "do women well." This is borne out by the touching portraits of Fran in her suburban disintegration ("Evil Thoughts"); of "Boobs" Bornstein in her exultant transcendence ("Boobs"); of Floria in her gray-haired sensual blossoming ("Unicorn Tapestry"); and of Christine in her unwilling marriage to a monster ("Beauty and the Opéra or the Phantom Beast"). But Charnas is much more than a blindered journalist focused a single gender. Her imaginative and empathetic depiction of Michael Flynn, one of the few human survivors in a world of lizards ("Listening to Brahms") and her multiplex rendering across three stories ("Musical Interludes," "Unicorn Tapestry" and "Advocates") of the vampire Weyland proves that she can tap into the universal currents that animate both men and women. And children as well, given her intimate portrayal of Holluth and Serchio, juvenile seekers from another world ("Peregrines").

Charnas embeds these characters in worlds where art matters, where an esthetic discipline or spiritual practice can provide both the setting for a story and the key to its resolution. Whether it's theater or opera, Tarot-card reading or psychiatry, classical music or law, she delivers the message that while suffering cannot be kept completely from one's doorstep by such practices, these templates that humans have invented down the millennia serve to blunt the hurt and point us toward what endures. And occasionally, Charnas revels in pure physicality as an antidote to the vices and illnesses of civilization, most notably in the glorious carnal transmogrification of "Boobs" Bornstein.

On the surface, Charnas is a serious and even grim writer. Her stories could rightly be called tragedies for the most part. But poke a little deeper, and I think you'll see a strain of comedy, of black humor, that clears her fiction of any charges of imbalance, and lends perspective to her moral universe. If you don't think that the account by "Boobs" of her first taste of human flesh is delightfully grand guignol, then you're not opened up enough to the irony Charnas intends. Likewise with some of Weyland's more tart comments to his psychiatrist. "The laugh with the bubble of blood at the corner of the lips" is what we have here.

Charnas seems to me to bear an affinity with several fine predecessors and contemporaries. Sometimes her work recalls the similar stylings and concerns of Elizabeth Hand or Kathe Koja. A piece like "Advocates" (co-written with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro) summons up comparisons to Harlan Ellison's "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World." Jack Williamson's magnificent DARKER THAN YOU THINK (1948) can surely lay claim to being grandfather to "Boobs." And surely Charnas's fascination with and use of the theater is the most pronounced in the genre since the heyday of Fritz Leiber. This reverence for ancestors is a vital part of any honest and self-respecting fantasist's makeup.

But surely you're tired of me weaving my Charnas tapestry by now, however intriguing the figures are against their mysteriously variegated background. It's time for you to listen to Suzy.

I'm sure you won't have any trouble picking her out of the crowd.

The Hauntening ...

... had me at the title.


It cracked me up, so then I watched some other short-shorts from Waverly Films: "X-ray Vision," "Kitchen Trouble," and "The Potion."




So then I said What the hell and watched them all.


They made me laugh the same way I used to laugh at Firesign Theater and the old National Lampoon's Foto Funnies (I still retain fond memories of "Do you smoke after sex?"). Dopey but funny. Well, to me, anyway.

Oh No, William & Mary Won't Do . . .

While strolling around the bucolic campus of my alma mater, William & Mary, here in Colonial Williamsburg, I came across the following sign, which explains a lot about the college's success, or lack thereof, in athletics.


In a way, you have to admire them for being so organized and up front about it.   And why not?  It takes just as much skill to throw an event convincingly as to win outright!

Working man's death

What I didn’t much care for about Workingman’s Death, the documentary by German director Michael Glawogger, was that it felt like something intended to make yuppies feel better about themselves for having seen it; yet there’s no denying the film’s powerful images and stories.  The picture focuses on five shitty jobs.  I mean really, really shitty jobs, among them Indonesian laborers who walk into the belly of live volcano, descending on a path that would challenge a mountain goat through clouds of noxious fumes, protected against them by rags stuffed in their mouths; once they reach the volcanic pipes that spew forth molten sulfur, they collect the hardened sulfur and load it into panniers; then they climb out of the volcano, balancing the panniers, now containing 70kg loads of sulfur, on their shoulders.  It takes them a full day to make a complete round trip.  They stop along the way to rest and talk about women, about Bon Jovi, etc.  During the last leg of the trip, they pass through groups of tourists who have come to haggle with them over souvenir crystals of sulfur.  

Another hellish environment is the coal mine in Dombass, Ukraine.  During the Soviet era, it produced a hundred tons in a single shift.   Today, a handful of miners dig at thin “mousetrap” veins, crawling between plates of rock just wide enough to admit them, risking death for barely enough coal to survive.  In South Africa, a slaughtering ground where uncountable numbers of goats and cows scream in terror as their throats are slashed, then bleed out and are roasted whole in fires that burn continually, casting a thick pall over the sun.  Workers slog through lakes of blood.  It’s an absolutely appalling place, one made even more so by the banal conversations of the workers, talk such as might be heard in any workplace.

All in all, it's pretty cool--worst case, as Theodore Roethke said, for a writer, "facts are jewels," and Workingman's Death contains a whole bunch of jewels.

They shoot people from away, don't they?

They also shoot locals on Grand Manan Island, off the New Brunswick coast, as reported by Calvin Trillin in a great article in this week's New Yorker magazine (June 25 issue). At first I thought the piece was about Manan Island or Petit Manan here in Maine, and I kept waiting to recognize a neighbor's name — I certainly recognized the scenario — but turns out Grand Manan is a not-too-distant Canadian neighbor. The article unfortunately can't be accessed online, but anyone planning a trip to Vacationland or the Maritimes should pick up the issue, and certainly anyone planning to sell crack or heroin to schoolchildren in a picturesque island setting should read this first, especially if you drive a SUV and don't have friends in local law enforcement. We had a similar issue here last year in a neighboring house (I could throw a rock and hit it from where I am now) but the situation was resolved without bloodshed, use of propane tanks, or firearms.