West Virginia Book Festival

Dan Chaon: Virtuoso stories of absence and loss

For several years, I kept a list of the books and authors that I didn’t have time for just then, but wanted to read at some point. I might see a review or other reference to a book, think “that looks interesting” and put it on the list. But as time went by, the list grew, and the memory of authors who had really piqued my interest would sometimes fade.

Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon (who’s coming to the West Virginia Book Festival this weekend) was one of those authors. I think it was his short story collection “Among the Missing” (a National Book Award finalist in 2001) that caught my eye, or it could have been his first novel, 2004’s “You Remind Me of Me.” Regardless, I didn’t forget his name, but I didn’t read the books, either.

Then a few years ago, a friend recommended — practically demanded — that I read “Await Your Reply,” Chaon’s new (at the time) novel.

It was amazing; “literary fiction” that read like a thriller, full of suspense and intrigue. Chaon takes three separate and (seemingly) unrelated plot threads — a teenage girl who runs away with her high school teacher; a college student who joins his estranged birth father in an identity-theft scam; and a young man searching for his unstable twin brother. (Chaon’s first novel, “You Remind Me of Me,” uses a similar three-part plot structure.) The storylines eventually converge, like three airplanes on a collision course, with about the same result.

I’ve since read two of Chaon’s three short-story collections, “Among the Missing” and “Stay Awake,” which was published earlier this year (and came out in paperback last week). Each of them, in its own way, is a remarkable work; choosing between them is like choosing the filet mignon or the porterhouse (that analogy is in honor of Chaon telling NPR in 2006 that if he didn’t write a page a day, he punished himself with a vegetarian meal).

As you might guess from the title, “Among the Missing” is full of stories about absence and loss. The first story, “Safety Man,” deals with a woman who, after her husband’s death, finds unnatural solace in an inanimate replacement. People in other stories have missing parents, spouses and friends — but the emotional losses can be worse than physical absence, as Chaon (pronounced Shawn) shows that it’s possible to be gone even while you’re still there.

The new book, “Stay Awake,” collects stories that Chaon has published over the past decade, beginning with “The Bees,” which (according to a review in the San Francisco Chronicle) began when McSweeney’s guest editor Michael Chabon asked for a piece of literary fiction that crossed genre lines, and Chaon came up with a horror-tinged tale of a man trying to make his second family work after his first one imploded.

Themes of loss once again run through “Stay Awake,” but the supernatural patina established in “The Bees” colors the rest of the book. In several stories, shadowy figures appear, leaning over people or trying to impart messages, and you’re not sure if the memories and apparitions are real, or if the characters are losing their grip on reality– or both, I suppose. The horror aspect is rarely overt, but you may find yourself scared, without really knowing why. And once you know that Chaon’s wife, the writer Sheila Schwartz, died of cancer in 2008, the stories gain another layer of meaning. In places, they are truly chilling.

(One of the “Stay Awake” stories, titled “Shepherdess,” is online at the website of the excellent Virginia Quarterly Review, so you can see if it appeals to you — but know that it may be the story least like all the rest in “Stay Awake.”)

So while I’m excited about everyone at this year’s West Virginia Book Festival, from Charlaine Harris and Craig Johnson on down, I will admit that in the festival’s 12 years, I’ve rarely looked forward to seeing an author as much as I am Dan Chaon. He’s reading on Sunday at 2 p.m., in an event sponsored by the West Virginia Library Commission and the West Virginia Center for the Book. I’ll be there; I hope you will too.

And I really ought to go back and look at that must-read list I used to keep. I wonder who else is on it.

“Serious” literature for Halloween? Why not?

In 11th grade, our English teacher had each of us pick an American author and do a big project around him or her. One of my friends wanted to pick Stephen King, but the teacher wouldn’t let him. Stephen King, she said, was not “literature.”

Halloween seems a good time to note that that distinction has become more blurred over the past couple of decades, as “serious” writers churn out books and stories that would previously have been shunted off to genre sections like horror, science fiction and mystery. The latest example is Colson Whitehead, author of such well-received novels as “The Intuitionist,” “John Henry Days” and “Sag Harbor.” His zombie novel, “Zone One,” was released earlier this month to good reviews, and is on several best-seller lists.

Joe Fassler had a great piece in The Atlantic last week that looked at the phenomenon and some possible reasons behind it. In the story, Whitehead said part of the reason is modern-day novelists have a different set of cultural references:

Colson Whitehead told me that he thinks we’re seeing the first tremors in a seismic shift of influences. In his view, novelists and short-story writers working today are no longer afraid to embrace the pop cultural influences that excited them as kids. He remembers growing up when VCRs were a hot new thing, and renting horror movies on Friday nights was a part of his childhood education. For him, writing genre acknowledges influences that were always there—his love for comic books as well as literary books.

“I think that people of my generation are more comfortable making the foray into genre,” he said. “Because of macabre books, Stephen King, and probably cable. Culture changed in the ’70s and ’80s […] Look at the phenomenon of the blockbuster, whether it’s an adventure like Indiana Jones, or something like Star Wars and Star Trek. You’re exposed to that pretty early. And you’re supposed to walk away because you start reading Ernest Hemingway? It’s just one of many influences that makes you into the writer you are today.”

There have always been some genre books have transcended their limits to become classics; Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” come quickly to mind. But the trend has become more prevalent recently, as The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda noted back in 2007:

Over the past 25 years, literary fiction has increasingly disdained the strict tenets of social realism. Our finest writers are now producing what is essentially science fiction (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), alternate history (Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) and absurdist fantasy (the short stories of George Saunders). A hot author such as Jonathan Lethem proudly introduces the work of Philip K. Dick for the Library of America. Neil Gaiman, creator of the Sandman series, has achieved rock-star status. We are living in an age when genre fiction — whether thrillers or graphic novels, children’s books or sf — seems far more exciting and relevant than well-wrought stories of adultery in Connecticut.

So when you’re adding to your personal list of favorite horror books, or maybe giving away a scary story to someone you love, you might also be reading some serious literature.

Want a little post-Book Festival entertainment?

So it’s 4 p.m. this coming Sunday. And the West Virginia Book Festival will be over, but the weekend won’t be over. And you know what they say: all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.Park Place Stadium Cinemas, just a few blocks from the Civic Center, has been showing some classic films on the big screen lately. Up this Sunday at 4 p.m. (and Monday at 4 and 7 p.m.) is “The Shining,” from the Stephen King novel of the same name.

And Halloween’s just around the corner. So make a weekend of it. Jack wants you to.

There is probably someone on your Christmas list who is sarcastic, ironic, loves satire and may be between the ages of 13-21.  This is a book for that person, or the person who still embraces that attitude.

It is sad to note, but some day, your kids grow up, and the Christmas traditions of the family change with them.  My husband and I have reared two boys to manhood, and along the way, nurtured the sense of the ironic in them that brought us together years ago (when dinosaurs still walked the earth.)

So, at this stage in our lives, when visits to Santa and trips to feed the West Side nativity sheep are happy memories, Christopher Moore has stepped in to fill the void.

Specifically, The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore.

Author Christopher Moore, who was born in Toledo and grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, writes comedic (some say satirical) fantasy.  His cast of characters is likely to include aliens captaining whale-like submarines through the world’s oceans, a band of Safeway stock boys turned amateur vampire hunters, a lonely yuppie insurance salesman who seeks assistance from ancient Trickster gods to get the girl of his dreams, or a recently widowed new father who seems to have been recruited for the job of the grim reaper (and needs a babysitter!)

The Stupidest Angel is one of those tales that is thick with enough twists to amuse all of us as we travel “over the river and through the woods,” or at least along the local interstates to visit family. It starts with a very public fight between a divorced husband and wife, it continues when the wife accidentally kills her ex (did I mention he was dressed as Santa at the time?) and a feckless angel, who stands in front of a graveyard, to bring Santa back to life to fulfill the Christmas wish of a child.

Instead, we end up with a graveyard full of zombies who have arrived, uninvited, at the Pine Cove community Christmas dinner, where a town full of those amusing characters (some of whom have appeared in Moore’s other novels) are facing their own personal holiday demons in addition to their former neighbors turned zombies.  There is nothing as terrifying as a zombie that knows all your personal secrets.

And there is a fruitbat, named Roberto, who talks.

For us, the audiobook narrated by Tony Roberts, is a vital part of the holiday season.

The scariest books I’ve ever read

First, I should say that this is not my most well-read area. Noir, sports, classics? I’m your man. Horror? Not so much. But Halloween is just a couple of days away, and the scary book season is just beginning. As the days grow colder and the nights grow longer, what better time than late fall or early winter to dive into a book that makes you shiver? (If anyone’s got any more recommendations, let’s hear them in the comments.)

Bram Stoker, “Dracula”: I love the old stuff: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the ghost stories of M.R. James. But the Count remains the king.

If there’s anything about “Dracula” that hasn’t been said, I don’t know what it is. But the vampire has become such an archetype, and the film versions of Dracula (including that Bela Lugosi guy up at the top) are so firmly set in people’s minds, that the power of the original story may get lost. And it is a powerful story. Stoker’s not the greatest writer, and there were plenty of other vampire tales floating around. But for whatever reason — almost certainly, those classic film adaptations played a role — “Dracula” struck a nerve (a vein? an artery?) with readers.

My favorite part of the book might be the first four chapters, which consist of Jonathan Harker’s journal as he arrives at Castle Dracula. We know what he’s getting into, but Harker only gradually realizes that his host is an undead fiend:

What I saw was the Count’s head coming out from the window. … [My] very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over the dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow, but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.

What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature, is it in the semblance of man? I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me. I am in fear, in awful fear, and there is no escape for me. I am encompassed about with terrors that I dare not think of.

Stephen King, “It”: No scary book list in 21st-century America is complete without Stephen King. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the man ever since I was 13 years old or so, found a beat-up copy of “Cujo” in my dad’s vacation house at the beach and scared the crap out of myself.

As is the case with many authors, I think most of his best stuff was his early stuff, including “Salem’s Lot” and “The Shining.” But the one that I put at the top of the scary list is “It,” about a sewer-dwelling clown monster that terrorizes generations of children.

I read it the summer after my freshman year in college, when I was walking home after dark most nights. It wasn’t a long walk, but it seemed like there were about 5,000 sewer openings on it, and I had to look in every one.

The scene in the book where a girl sticks a piece of string down her kitchen sink drain, half-knowing what will happen, and something down in the pipe takes it and starts running with it … man, that gives me chills even now.

Richard Matheson, “I Am Legend”: This was a novel long before it was a Will Smith movie (and before Smith’s version, it was a Charlton Heston movie called “The Omega Man” and a Vincent Price movie called “The Last Man on Earth”). None of them is as good as the book.

A lone man fights against a takeover of the world, and realizes not only that the good guys don’t always win, but sometimes, they’re not even the good guys. Although the monsters are called vampires, they act more like zombies, and Matheson’s 1959 novel is credited with helping to start that whole movement. George Romero, director of “Night of the Living Dead” and several sequels, has acknowledged his debt to the book.

The details of the story are a little dated, but Matheson wonderfully evokes the aloneness of Robert Neville, possibly the last remaining human on earth. The moment when he comes home to find his citadel breached is genuinely heart-pounding.

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Haunter of the Dark”: I haven’t read a lot of Lovecraft; all the multi-eyed slimy tentacle stuff always seemed a little over the top to me. But he does set a terrifying scene, and when I read “The Haunter of the Dark,” I was suitably freaked out by it. After you read it, if your power goes out at night, you’ll move for the candles or the flashlights just a little bit faster. As with many Lovecraft stories, the ending is not a particularly happy one.

Sara Gran, “Come Closer”: You probably know the other books on my list; you might not know this one. Sara Gran is a terrific writer who’s written three very different novels: a modern coming-of-age story (“Saturn’s Return to New York”), a noirish mystery (“Dope”) and “Come Closer,” a scary-as-hell novel that’s part traditional horror and part psychological thriller. As Booklist said in their review from 2006, “Strange noises that come and go; objects that inexplicably appear, then vanish. Such bump-in-the-night shenanigans are horror-story standard fare, but in Gran’s gifted hands, these stereotypes fade away like ghosts.”

Gran hasn’t published any books since 2007, but she’s supposed to have the first in a detective series out next year. I’m in.

Honorable mention: I considered adding “Rosemary’s Baby” by Ira Levin to the list, but I recently re-read it, and it’s just not as scary as it would have been once. Still a good book. “The Haunting of Hill House,” by Shirley Jackson, is one I’ve heard great things about and have been meaning to read for years. It’s not really scary, but I also enjoyed “Anno Dracula” by Kim Newman; it’s an alternate history of what might have happened if Dracula hadn’t been stopped (half of London is vampires; Van Helsing’s head is on a pike at the gates to the city, etc.). Lots of figures from other fictional tales, both vampire and non-vampire, make appearances.