I’m always looking for new projects, ways forward that can widen my platform and bring me new challenges. As 2020 finally left our lives, it gave me a final gift in December with a positive Covid diagnosis. The symptoms were fairly mild and I recovered as so many others have done, grateful for my family’s safety and the new year.
But the cough remains. Just a nagging occasional thing, but enough to screw with the spirit of a hopeful audiobook narrator. I’m taking different meds trying to beat it, but in the meantime it’s tough to audition for new projects, because I can’t stick to a schedule with my hack rising up all of a sudden.
Can’t Work, Need to Work
I need to keep doing projects.
But they can’t be long.
And Lord knows, I can’t do much with short! The Book of Tales represents my output of shorter-than-
novella length writing for the past three years, and maybe the next three too.
Once again, it’s better to be lucky than good.
Voicing a Past Master- Clark Ashton Smith
A friend and fellow author sometimes writes and enthuses about one of the old pulp masters- what a great tale this is, here’s a link if you want to read it, etc. I sometimes click, and in January I did for a Clark Ashton Smith yarn entitled The Double Shadow. It was perfect; as soon as I started reading I could just hear the tale, the voices, the effects, the whole thing.
And with acknowledgements, opening and closing files, the whole thing was less than forty minutes. I recorded it in a single morning. And became hooked on a feeling…
The Pulp Masters- They Knew How to Write!
I was always more of a Robert E. Howard guy. His tales are more rollicking, a bit more classic. The good guys win fairly often- I like that part, so sue me. I had read a lot of Burroughs and Lovecraft too and they have their features.
But something about Smith. I couldn’t tell you how many of his works I read back then, but there’s this high-flown vocabulary (real tongue-twisters!), words that make my Kindle dictionary cry for mercy just piled thick on each paragraph. I sincerely believe that’s the kind of challenge I can take on, and I loved doing The Double Shadow. My author friend mentioned it was in the public domain–more about that later!– and an idea began to form in my brain.
Audiobooks and “Classic” Tales
You may see occasionally a famous tale, for example a Sherlock Holmes mystery or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, being issued as an audiobook by an ambitious narrator. If the work was performed roughly a lifetime ago and no estate or other person picks up the “estate”, then others can simply come in and make use of the work themselves.
I blew through Double Shadow in a heartbeat, as I said; it stoked me up, and I started the process of publication on Findaway Voices. And I laid out a plan, to do maybe five or six of these tales. Maybe it would get a little notice. Maybe I would become known as “the voice of Clark Ashton Smith”!
Then I got a bad feeling and decided to check into whether his work was really freely available.
Maybe I would get myself in trouble.
It’s a Bit Complicated…
I searched some forums and learned that there IS a rights-holder for CAS’ work (or some of it, anyway) and like the commenters said, it’s just good manners to ask. So I wrote to the gentleman at CASiana Literary Enterprises and he confirmed. It’s complicated.
CAS works are not simply in the public domain, but some versions of his tales probably are. The folks at CASiana and Night Shade books collated and edited the latest, clearest and most official versions of Smith’s canon and those works ARE copyrighted, under The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith.
Having said that, he asked me what my intentions were and I told him. And he graciously gave permission for me to proceed. My sense of it is, the folks minding the Smith estate haven’t thought very much about audiobooks, and the gentleman figured my work might have some merit and attract new customers. I’m on board with that!
All’s Well (Except for the Tales’ Endings!)
So my project is up and running, starting with publication of The Double Shadow due February 15th followed by The Death of Malygris by March 1st. This should keep me out of trouble for a while as I wait for this damn cough to go away… and I can take comfort that my tale seems to be ending much better than most of Mr. Smith’s! These will be fun little horror tales you can curl up with in a loose half-hour or so, but don’t expect to hear of marvelous sunsets and couples kissing. CAS wrote some of the most exotic, bizarre, and usually hero-less tales in all of pulp. I hope it made him happy. Trying to voice and relate his stories to a new audience is certainly giving me joy and satisfaction.
I’ll have plenty of free Author House codes for anyone who would like to take a listen and maybe leave a review. Just let me know in the comments below and I’ll hook you up.
Re-publication of a post originally written for the Independent Bookworm website.
Classic: a book that people praise and no one reads.
It’s not what you think.
True, we’ve hit on this theme before in many places. Hey, sue me, this is what we do in fantasy. But don’t forget the series title, dear reader- this is about the classics, and I don’t mean Tolkein. Once again, you’ve never read it (be honest); a name as famous as Justin Bieber (now THERE’s another world for you). Everyone “knows” it, but not on paper. Hollywood and Broadway each took a swipe at this incredible tale: you ask me, they both missed by a mile. It’s not a horror story. It’s not merely a drama or a mystery and it sure as shooting is not just a romance.
No, Gaston Leroux built a world for you when he wrote… The Phantom of the Opera.
Shirley, You Jest?
Never mind that condescending “sure, it’s all semantics” nod you’re making. Fantasy has to build a world for the reader, not just point at it. You can’t bluff world-building- so you wouldn’t normally expect a tale set in the Alleged Real World to need it. But as authors of historical fiction know, today’s readers are a spacy race, and anything before the assassination of Kennedy is formally classified as ancient history. Maybe before Lennon. Even so, you can assume gravity, taxes, the nuclear family- billions of “normal” things in many tales. And plenty of other instances, like the calendar of days, don’t need explanation even if they’re not important- the author can just write “on Tuesday” and everyone’s fine. Think about what it means to have Conar’s Day (your Sunday) instead- when do you stop to explain that?
OK, I’m off the soap box now.
But this is the genius of what Mr. Leroux did. His tale is set in Paris, late 1800s. He draws on a wealth of worldly knowledge you already have- the gentleman caste, police procedure, what an opera is- but even so, he takes you into an entirely different world.
Where? Inside the Opera House itself!
The Craft of the Tale
I don’t want to spoil this pleasure for you, so at the top I say- read the book, it’s marvelous. And since you haven’t done so before, take note of a couple of things I’ll point to here and illustrate with examples:
Leroux dovetails history into fantasy with seamless precision. The Opera House really was that big, the cellars truly were that many, and the fantastical underground lake is rooted in the constant pumping the builders had to undertake to drive the foundations of this massive edifice so deep. I’m not talking about the author’s mind- this is what really happened. When he “creates” an account from newspapers speaking to these facts in the building of the place- he’s practically plagiarizing! The world is almost completely there to begin with: just add Ghost.
Leroux compounds the believability of this tale with numerous “accounts”- which is a classic device of the period, you see it in Dracula and Frankenstein. A set of “facts” gains credibility because the author doesn’t rely on omniscient third person, but uses a character’s diary, or a policeman’s report to “back up” the story. He adds another layer- of complexity admittedly, but also of interest- with the terribly confused goings-on during that climactic night when the Ghost’s plans come to fruition and ruination at the same time. Folks in the Opera House are all pursuing their own mysteries, and colliding with, not understanding each other- it’s a meticulous description of bedlam. One person’s “account” takes you away from the story thread you were just reading, and into another. You may be vexed for a second- but this new tale generates its own interest. Meanwhile behind your back, the suspension of disbelief goes from strong to impregnable. It’s genius.
Finally, Leroux achieves painless world-building through a wonderful vehicle, one I have had occasion to adopt myself: the ignorant narrator.
As the story opens, the Opera sees the arrival of two new managers- nice enough guys, who like the arts and love the idea of being managers. But they know diddly about how the place actually runs. So you get a box seat on the action, as everyone steps into the office to whine about something that’s gone mysteriously wrong- and in the process, fills them in on how the Opera works. At one point, the Ghost (Erik, the Phantom- you know, HIM) steals a white horse so he can carry off the lovely soprano Christine to his palace in the underworld. How do we find out? When the stable-chief goes to the bosses to complain. I want you to fire all these dishonest stable-hands, he shouts. The managers blink and respond- wait, we have a stable? Oh yes, twelve horses… and now you’re hearing about grooms, and the different operas this matched pair and that black horse get used in, the chariot… None of that directly informs the plot- but you begin to sense how incredibly LARGE this operation is.
How large? I’ve already told you- it’s an entire world.
There are 2,531 doors and 7,593 keys; 14 furnaces and grates heat the house; the gaspipes if connected would form a pipe almost 16 miles long; 9 reservoirs, and two tanks hold 22,222 gallons of water… 538 persons have places assigned wherein to change their attire. The musicians have a foyer with 100 closets for their instruments.
How the Story Changed
Look at what Hollywood has done with this epic- pumped the horror. See Lon Chaney wrestling with his organ, and the poor girl fainting dead away? Great imagery: Beauty and the Beast, minus the happy ending. But a trip to Erik’s underground palace is usually given short shrift on film. The underground lake, so Stygian and remote, is a great element: people die there. But that’s below FIVE cellars- where do you see those? The second level, where those horses are housed; the third, where the poor scene-setter supposedly hung himself, his life forfeit to hide the existence of its secret trap door; the fourth, where the rat-catcher evokes a scene from Hades itself- THAT was spooky! But you can’t see it on film, evidently- because there is no world there.
What did Broadway aim for? Duh- romance of course. Christine is beloved of the rash young Viscount de Chagny, but the Opera Ghost poses as her Angel of Music- let the tug of war begin. This is also fine- but in the book, Christine and Raoul flee to every corner of the Opera for a few whispered speeches. She suspects Erik is listening in wherever they go. Finally, they ascend up above the vaulted ceiling into the rafters of the roof where stands an enormous golden statue of Apollo, until she finally feels safe enough to tell her lover the truth. But even there, a shadow flits between the god and heaven… from the sky to the underdark, the Opera House of Paris is a colossal setting that launches the reader into an experience so complex and far-flung as to need tons of explanation. Is Erik a charlatan, a mystic, a sorceror, a monster? You can’t decide- because YOU’RE NOT IN THE REAL WORLD ANYMORE. This setting was too vast even for film or the stage, so its directors cut away nearly everything to do with that other world and focused on just one aspect of the tale. Only in the book can you get the full picture: mystery, farce, the supernatural, all of it.
Reading The Book
The free Kindle version of Phantom had a few glitches- the author uses footnotes to reinforce that “real-world” feel which is great, but Kindle doesn’t distinguish the break between the end of the note and the resumption of narrative. I’m also pretty sure there are issues with translation here (as Steve Martin pointed out, “it’s like, those French have a different word for everything!”). No way I’m learning French- but there may be a better translation out there worth paying for. And of course the two-page drawings were sadly absent. I’ve substituted some in this article, providing dramatic proof that there’s no accounting for taste.
I could tell you this story has terrific characters and I wouldn’t be lying. It’s pretty rare for me to feel any empathy for the villain- usually I see that the heroes, though admirable, have flaws that can make me angry with them. And Phantom has all this- Erik is horrifying and pitiable, Christine can evince the pity but cannot insist on her own happiness; Raoul is impulsive, the Persian shrinks from what’s needful. But hold on- the most true thing I can tell you, going back to my theme, is that these characters come to life in a fully-realized, beautifully described and completely believable WORLD. Ninety percent of what happens takes place inside the same building, and you’re never done exploring it, meeting its denizens and understanding its culture. This is a kingdom of its own, where old stage crewmen are pensioned with the job of just walking about and shutting doors (to keep out drafts that could harm the singers); where Box Five holds its secrets through all manner of frenzied searches, and the gas-man needs two assistants just to keep the furnace going. I’m telling you, read about the encounter with the rat-catcher, and you WILL believe in spooks.
Writing epic and heroic fantasy means you catch hell from all sides about world-building: like a flu shot, your readers have to have it, but they complain whenever they detect the smallest pinch. We amuse them with a distracting joke, promise it won’t hurt, and try to get it over quickly. Your book is better for it- but don’t hold your breath waiting for appreciation. Gaston Leroux brilliantly points the way to building a world within a world; this is the most highly recommended of the classics I’ve reviewed so far. In Judgement’s Tale I make use of an ignorant narrator of sorts, in fact two. The sage Cedrith is determined to befriend the taciturn, driven orphan Solemn Judgement despite the shock and embarrassment his company entails. He knows nothing of the boy’s mind and tries to tease it out. By the same token, Judgement- like the reader- knows nothing of the Lands of Hope and Cedrith squires him from church to library and theater in an effort to educate him. How well it works I don’t yet dare allow the public to decide- but I’m mindful that a world can be as small as one person’s soul, and the story of it takes you through straight fantasy to mystery, horror, whimsy, erotica, in short, all the genres of literature.
All the writing in the world, because in the end you are writing about an entire world. A little spooky, truth be known.
Leroux, Gaston (1994-10-01). The Phantom of the Opera . Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.