How Stephen King’s second novel cemented his reputation as America’s foremost horror writer
Stephen King, Salem's Lot
Stephen King, ‘Salem’s Lot

Stephen King first found his way onto the international stage with 1974’s bestseller, Carrie. But it was his next published novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, that cemented his reputation as America’s foremost writer of horror fiction. King, who had been working in obscurity until his newfound success, had two unpublished manuscripts. In his 2005 introduction to ‘Salem’s Lot, King recalls a conversation with his editor Bill Thompson, who was enthusiastic about one of the two manuscripts, calling it ‘Peyton Place with vampires’. It had bestselling potential, Thompson had said, but there was one problem: the decision would forever type him as a horror writer. King was relieved: ‘I don’t care what they call me as long as the checks don’t bounce’.

The cheques didn’t bounce. In the four decades since ‘Salem Lot’s publication in 1975, Stephen King has become one of the world’s bestselling living authors. And, while his work ranges a broad range of styles and genres, including thrillers, fantasy, and nonfiction, his reputation as the ‘King of Horror’ persists. It seems Thompson had been right on both counts. (more…)

A new short story collection from NYRB celebrates what is enigmatic about everyday minutiae

Robert Walser, Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories (NYRB, 2016)
Robert Walser, Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories (NYRB, 2016)
Feuilleton. Traditionally, a ‘feuilleton’ is a portion at the bottom of a French newspaper that is kept free for light literature, criticism, and commentary. It derives from the word ‘feuille’, meaning ‘leaf’. By its very nature, the feuilleton is marginal and fragmentary. For the early twentieth-century author Robert Walser, this became an ideal medium for his wandering and ephemeral style.

The NYRB’s wonderful new collection of the Swiss writer’s short texts, entitled Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, allows us to leaf through a life of extraordinary writing. The German writer and academic W. G. Sebald, using Walser’s own words, described him as a ‘clairvoyant of the small’, a writer of prose ‘at odds with the demands of high culture’. Tom Whalen’s afterword to the NYRB volume echoes this sentiment, recognizing in Walser a sensibility of ‘sovereign insignificance’. Whalen continues: ‘For the fueilletonist anything can be an occasion for a prose piece: a walk in the mountains, a new hairstyle, an old fountain, shopwindows, a kitten, a carousel, a Parisian newspaper’. As Walser drifts aimlessly through the modern European city, we share his curiosity and wonder at the small details of this strange and peculiar life. (more…)

Chicago University Press releases the final installment of The Great Movies series

Roger Ebert, The Great Movies IV (Chicago University Press, 2016)
Roger Ebert, The Great Movies IV (Chicago University Press, 2016)
Roger Ebert was more than just an opposable thumb. His television appearances with Gene Siskel and regular dispatches to the Chicago Sun-Times made him one of the most well-known and beloved movie critics in America. The fourth volume of Great Movies, recently published by Chicago University Press, showcases over sixty of Ebert’s reviews spanning the history of cinema. Together in one place, these brief essays offer fresh insights into established classics, and draw attention to noteworthy outliers that deserve a closer look.

Among other things, the collection includes discussions of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (released ‘after the Summer of Love but before Woodstock’), and Hiyao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (written after Ebert’s third viewing). Also included are reviews of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, and Spielberg’s deceptively simple science-fiction narrative, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence – a film that Kubrick gave to Spielberg when he felt he could not achieve the special-effects required. (more…)

Joseph Anderton’s compelling new study explores the role of creaturely life in Beckett’s post-war prose and drama

Joseph Anderton, Beckett's Creatures: Art of Failure After the Holocaust (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Joseph Anderton, Beckett’s Creatures: Art of Failure After the Holocaust (Bloomsbury, 2016)
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Samuel Beckett volunteered with the Irish Red Cross on the European continent. With a strong grasp several languages, the writer was assigned the role of driver and translator in the devastated Normandy city of Saint-Lô. During this time, while still stationed in the city, Beckett submitted a record of his experiences to Ireland’s national broadcaster, Radio Telefis Éireann (RTÉ). It was entitled ‘The Capital of the Ruins’. This unaired report on a landscape of wounded civilian casualties and collapsed buildings is the starting point for Joseph Anderton’s compelling new study, Beckett’s Creatures: Art of Failure After the Holocaust. [Read More]

This is an excerpt from a review of Joseph Anderton’s Beckett’s Creatures: Art of Failure After the Holocaust (Bloomsbury, 2016), published in Studies in Theatre and Performance(October, 2016).

An inventory of imaginative potential

library-of-babel-jorge-luis-borges

Scott Esposito has recently published The Missing Books, a catalogue of written works that do not exist. LitHub, who has posted extracts from the work, describe its entries for ‘books that have not yet been published (but might one day be), books within books, and books whose authors did not manage to ever complete’. Among the nearly 100 texts listed are Jorge Luis BorgesBook of Sand, a work that promises totality and completeness but which never came to be; there is a non-existent universal dictionary of every word in every language; and H. P. Lovecraft‘s Necronomicon, a book of magic to be written and expanded by future authors. In each case, Esposito is alluding to books that seem to hover tantalizingly between presence and absence. (more…)

A new title refines and condenses more than a decade of Jean-Michel Rabaté’s thinking on Beckett

Jean-Michel Rabaté , Think, Pig! Beckett at the Limit of the Human (Fordham University Press, 2016)
Jean-Michel Rabaté , Think, Pig! Beckett at the Limit of the Human (Fordham University Press, 2016)
Glancing at the title of Jean-Michel Rabaté’s excellent new book, you might be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of self-help manual from the shelf of tough love. The author clears up any confusion: “This is not a self-help book”, he writes; rather it undermines such projects of affirmation by “questioning the humanism that we take for granted”. Through the motif of the “animal”, Samuel Beckett’s prose and drama re-examines what it means to be human in the aftermath of the Second World War. Think, Pig! (Pozzo’s demoralizing order to Lucky in Waiting for Godot) refines and condenses more than a decade of Rabaté’s thinking on Beckett. The book’s focus is ethical and interrogative, but is peppered with a lively and inventive sense of humour. [Read More]

This extract is from my review of Jean-Michel Rabaté’s Think, Pig! Beckett at the Limit of the Human, published in the Times Literary Supplement, 14 October 2016.

Verso publishes a new anniversary edition of Thomas More’s radical vision
Thomas More's Utopia, with contributions from China Miéville and Ursula K. Le Guin
Thomas More’s Utopia, with contributions from China Miéville and Ursula K. Le Guin (Verso, 2016)

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. Despite its advanced age, More’s compelling vision of a perfect society remains a quintessentially modern aspiration. Utopia is hailed as ‘astonishingly radical’ by contemporary political thinkers, and the text continues to offer inspiration and renewal for writers, artists, and filmmakers.

The perfect island of Utopia is a dream of societal harmony and order, not unlike the Biblical garden paradise or Plato’s Republic. More’s early modern work is considered a canonical text of Western literature and culture, providing a template to which we might one day aspire. But Utopia is also a perplexing and troubling text. More’s explorer protagonist, Raphael Hythloday, is presented as a companion of Vespucci on his voyage to the New World, which binds the utopian dream to the European invasion and colonization of America. It is no coincidence that there are slaves on the island of Utopia. Despite its associations with liberal thought and communal happiness, the island of Utopia has a rigid societal hierarchy and strictly-regulated communal laws. (more…)

Part of a sequence of records showing a master improviser at the height of his powers
Sonny Rollins, Newk's Time (Blue Note, 1957)
Sonny Rollins, Newk’s Time (Blue Note, 1959)

In his autobiography, Miles Davis remembers taking a New York cab with Sonny Rollins: “the white cabdriver turned around and looked at Sonny and said, ‘Damn, you’re Don Newcombe!’”, confusing the saxophonist with the Brooklyn Dodgers star pitcher. Davis goes on: “Man, the guy was totally excited. I was amazed, because I hadn’t thought about it before. We put that cabdriver on something terrible. Sonny started talking about what kind of pitches he was going to throw Stan Musial, the great hitter for the St. Louis Cardinals, that evening”. Rollins’ resemblance to the player became the origin of a nickname ‘Newk’, by which he was known by Davis, Charlie Parker, and the wider jazz community.

Newk’s Time, a Blue Note album recorded on this day in 1957, was Rollins’ third album for the label and anticipates his landmark live recording Night at the Village Vanguard that November. (more…)

Innovative arts journal promotes the work of Welsh-born writer, critic, and librettist
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Music & Literature (No.7): Paul Griffiths, Ann Quin, Lera Auerbach

Today’s artistic landscape can often feel like a busy marketplace, where voices compete for attention and creative validation. And, as a result, some voices do not get heard. Since its launch in 2012, Music & Literature has been a torchbearer for writers and artists that are often neglected by the mainstream: its first issue was notable for its discussion of avant-garde composer Arvo Pärt, offering an unprecedented glimpse into his life, work, and motivations. Scott Esposito points out that the journal offers ‘the kind of thing that’s unavailable anywhere else’, and he’s right. Music & Literature is a fascinating read for enthusiasts, and a valuable cultural resource for scholars.

Now publishing its seventh volume, Music & Literature is celebrating the work of Welsh-born writer, critic, and accomplished librettist Paul Griffiths. His first novel, Myself and Marco Polo: A Novel of Changes (1989), is a work of speculative fiction that reimagines the life of the world traveller through his memoirs. More recently, Griffiths translated eleven Japanese noh plays, published as The Tilted Cup: Noh Stories (2014) in a beautifully illustrated volume. Paul Griffiths has written five librettos, and is an insightful commentator on modern classic music; he is the author of a number of critical works on topics ranging from electronic music to the history of the string quartet, and was a music critic for both The New Yorker (1992-96) and The New York Times (1997-2005). As if that wasn’t enough, Griffiths is also the biographer of a number of modern composers, from György Ligeti and Bela Bartók to John Cage and Igor Stravinsky. (more…)

Revisiting the jazz innovator’s much overlooked minor classic
Ornette Coleman with his saxophone during a rehearsal for The Empty Foxhole, September 1966. Photograph: Francis Wolff.
Ornette Coleman with his saxophone during a rehearsal for The Empty Foxhole, September 1966. Photograph: Francis Wolff.
Ornette Coleman‘s The Empty Foxhole was recorded at the Van Gelder studio 50 years ago today. It was his first studio recording for the Blue Note label, and the avant-garde composer wastes no time performing trumpet, violin, and his signature alto-saxophone. Longtime collaborator Charlie Haden (who followed this website before he passed away) appears on bass. But the personnel is perhaps most notable for the debut appearance of Coleman’s son, Denardo, on drums: he was just ten years old at the time.

(more…)

A glimpse into the singer’s lifelong pastime, and the texts that shaped his identity
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Bowie pictured with American writer William S. Burroughs, whose ‘cut-up method’ was adopted during the writing of Diamond Dogs

When David Bowie was 15 he read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a Beat Generation novel that inspired him to leave the cloister of London suburban life. For Bowie, the paperback novel offered more than just escapist fantasy, it could affect and change the way someone lived.

Alongside the influence of music and contemporary art on Bowie’s creative development, the songwriter drew on literature as a fertile resource of possibility and transformation. For example, the lyrics of Bowie’s 1974 album  Diamond Dogs adopted the ‘cut-up technique‘ of the experimental American writer William S. Burroughs, whereby existing passages are broken up and reassembled to create something new and original.

(more…)

The most important sound engineer in jazz history has died, aged 91
If you’ve ever heard a jazz record, chances are you’ve heard the work of Rudy Van Gelder. But you wouldn’t have heard him playing the drums, the piano, the saxophone, or the trumpet (although he had lessons in his youth) – and you wouldn’t have heard him singing into the microphone. That’s because he was the microphone. In a manner of speaking. Born in New Jersey on 2 November 1924, Rudolph (Rudy) Van Gelder became the most prominent sound engineer in American jazz history. He recorded just about every major figure in the canon, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins.

(more…)

Simon Critchley’s philosophical antidote to the self-help manual
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Simon Critchley, How to Stop Living and Start Worrying

Since when did happiness, wisdom and contentment become the cornerstones of a fulfilling life? Whatever happened to doubt? Instability? Melancholia? In 2010, Polity Press published How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, a collection of interviews with Simon Critchley which playfully parodies the conventional self-help manual. Through a series of conversations with Carl Cedeström, Critchley sketches an alternative view of the role philosophy plays in our lives today, covering an ambitious range of topics: from science and religion, to poetry and politics, love and humour, life and death.

Critchley, a philosophy professor who teaches in New York, takes us step-by-step through the major themes of his work in an entertaining and accessible way. Each interview takes the form of an informal, improvised chat on a theoretical topic, elucidating terms and concepts with helpful metaphors and memorable anecdotes. Jokes also play a key role in the overall tone of the book, illuminating central ideas with a lightness of touch. (more…)

A notable precursor to the contemporary zombie movie
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Richard Matheson, I Am Legend
Recently, I picked up a copy of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend at a second-hand bookstore. Matheson—whose high-concept man vs. truck short story Duel was to launch the career of Steven Spielberg—made a name for himself in the genres of science-fiction, horror and fantasy. His writing spans novels and short stories, alongside work in television and film. I Am Legend, itself no stranger to the silver screen, has been adapted no less than three times, and is, in some ways, a reflective document of post-war American culture. First published in 1954, it laid an early foundation for zombie movies such as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) series, and critiques many of the same social and cultural concerns associated with these later films.

“a reflective document of post-war American culture”

The plot revolves around Robert Neville, the ‘last living man on earth’. He navigates a post-apocalyptic landscape where every other man, woman, and child has been converted into zombie-like nocturnal vampires. It is a cautionary tale, negotiating the long-term impact of violence and exploitation in the atomic age.   (more…)

Does Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Poor Folk and Other Stories speak to our troubled economic era?
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872).
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872).

In November 1844, Dostoyevsky finished writing his first story. He confides in Diary of a Writer that he had ‘written nothing before that time’. This was 22 years before the publication of Crime and Punishment, and 36 years before The Brothers Karamazov. Having recently finished translating Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, he suddenly felt inspired to write a tale ‘of the same dimensions’. But he was not only prompted by artistic aspirations. Poverty also played a part. In a letter to his brother, Mikhail, just a few months earlier, he mentions being satisfied with a work-in-progress, and his hopes for greater financial stability: ‘I may get 400 rubles for it,’ he wrote, ‘and therein lie all my hopes.’

First published in 1846, Poor Folk was both a critical and financial success, with one prominent critic hailing Dostoyevsky as the next Gogol. It is a short epistolary novel that traces a five-month love affair. And while it certainly owes something to Balzac’s masterpiece, the role that money plays in determining people’s fates has a distinctly Dostoyevskyan bite. Financial difficulties plagued the Russian novelist’s career, and are a recurrent theme throughout his work, from the destitute student of Crime and Punishment to The Gambler, written to pay off gambling debts. The writer confessed having money troubles in letters to his brother, and hoped Poor Folk could offer some kind of reprieve. It is through his pen, he says, that he hopes ‘to save the whole situation’, considering suicide as perhaps his only other alternative. Money, then, was one of the novelist’s chief motivations, and one of his signature themes. (more…)