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Friday, 27 February 2009

The books I grew up on - Dan Wells

Books have been an important part of my life since before I ever went to school. My Dad used to read to my brother and I every night before bed, and my Mom always had a book in her hands. Reading was just what you did—it was as much a part of life as eating or sleeping. As I got older I realized that not only did my Mom always have a book, she always had a new book; she reads faster than almost anyone I know. Being naturally competitive, I decided to race her, and thus began my personal relationship with books.

The first real book that I have any conscious memory of is The Hobbit, which my Dad read to us at night. Soon after that came the Narnia books, and then The Lord of the Rings (though I was too young to really appreciate it until I re-read it a few years later). My brother and I had a bookshelf in our bedroom stocked with fairy tales, from Hans Christian Anderson to the Brothers Grimm, and after I’d devoured those I moved on to a series of “history for young readers” books, full of non-fiction stories about life in the Yukon gold rush, or the American revolution, and so on. I remember reading kid mystery books, like Encyclopedia Brown, and then in elementary school I was re-introduced to fantasy through the works of Robin McKinley, Madeleine L’Engle, and Lloyd Alexander. My sixth grade teacher had us do a school project on Anne McCaffrey, and I was officially hooked on fantasy.

Meanwhile, I was developing a deep love of poetry. One of those early books on our shelf was the collected works of A.A. Milne, and while I liked the Pooh stories well enough what I really loved were the Christopher Robin poems. I can still quote many of them by heart. The books I was reading were introducing me to stories and plots and grand emotions, but through poetry I realized the deep power of words, and for that subject you can’t ask for a better teacher than Milne. Go read “James James Morrison Morrison Willoughby George DuPree” and watch the way he manipulates your voice and cadence so perfectly, just by the words he chose and the order he put them in. A good poet isn’t just using words, he’s playing with them, and when you read those words you can’t help but join in the fun. So powerful was Milne’s effect on me that it took me years—well into college, probably—before I would accept any kind of poetry that didn’t rhyme; sure, they had a nice sentiment and everything, but if they couldn’t do that AND make it rhyme I figured they just weren’t trying hard enough. That’s also why I eventually became a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim.

In college, though, I finally “got” non-rhyming poetry, and in a big way. You’ll notice as they are released that the epigram for each book in the “I Am Not a Serial Killer” series begins with a quote from a poem; I chose these poems, and the poets, very carefully. The first is a quick quote from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T.S. Eliot, which is quite simply my favorite piece of literature ever, in poetry or prose. I learn something new every single time I read it. Books 2 and 3 use Edgar Allen Poe and ee cummings, respectively, but you you’ll have to wait to see which ones.

Back to books. I read fantasy and science fiction about as fast as I could get through it, including Terry Brooks, Fred Saberhagen, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, and more. Meanwhile I was also developing a love of “classic” literature, aided in no small part by the fact that I already loved classic poetry, and I figured that if old, dead poets had something valuable to say then old, dead authors probably did too, even their books didn’t have dragons in them. So I read Charles Dickens, and Nathanial Hawthorne, and Harper Lee, and Mark Twain, and finally Joseph Conrad—and it was Conrad, at long last, who ignited my love of dark fiction. You see, for all my reading I’ve never really read a lot of “traditional” horror, but through Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” I discovered this very dark, very bleak side of literature that for some reason I responded to powerfully. I don’t know why, I just did—there was a kind of epic grandeur to it, some level of tragedy that just hit all the right buttons for me. I wanted to read more stuff like it, but I was leery of horror fiction because I assumed (mistakenly) that it was all just slasher movie stuff. With horror off my radar, and so much of fantasy perpetually cheery (though I did read quite a bit of Michael Moorcock), I turned back to the classics for my fix of darkness: I read more Conrad, I discovered Lovecraft, and by happy chance I found a deep well of darkness in French and Russian literature, in everything from Crime and Punishment to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I still thought I wanted to be a fantasy writer, because that how I had defined myself in my head, but it was the classic themes of human obsession, misanthropy, and self destruction that eventually came to define my writing. Dragons are cool and all, but who needs a dragon when humans can do such horrible things to themselves? I latched onto serial killers and true crime essays, and when I finally started to read modern horror it was through the psychological side-door of Thomas Harris and “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Which brings us, by a long and twisty road, to “I Am Not a Serial Killer.” It’s got a bit of everything: human weakness, supernatural terror, and even a snippet of poetry here and there (quoted from others; I won’t subject you to my own). I hope you like it.

As you can see on my own website, www.fearfulsymmetry.net, I’ve listed a long list of favorites in my bio, including my favorite books. Next week we’ll go through all five of these books and talk about why each one is so awesome.

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