Sunday, June 9, 2013

7 Books That Changed My Life

Early this morning, on my way to sit down and check my e-mail, I caught a glimpse of my bookshelves and something made me stop for a minute and look. Hundreds of books stared back at me, many I've read at least once, some I've read many times, and quite a few I just haven't gotten around to yet. But among those many volumes are a handful that, for one reason or another, had such an impact on my mind (and heart too, in some cases) that they literally changed who I am to one degree or another, either by introducing me to a new genre or interest or doing something to inspire my writing or maybe even changing the way I think about the world we live in, or the worlds we could live in if things were just different enough to shift reality into something other than our familiar realm of existence. In appreciation of those personally important works, here is a list of seven books that really had an impact on me. There are others too, but these are the ones that jumped out at me today.

I first "met" Sherlock Holmes when I was about 8, via the British TV series starring Jeremy Brett as the Great Detective. I was fascinated by everything: Holmes' brilliance and eccentricities, his colorful adversaries, his loyal companion Watson, and all the details that go to make up a mystery. My grandfather, noticing my interest in one of his favorite fictional characters, found his own copy of the complete Holmes canon, the one he'd owned since his boyhood in the 1930s, and gave it to me for Christmas. I still have it today and still refer to it anytime I need to double check something for the new Holmes stories that I've had the privilege to be allowed to write for Airship 27 Productions for the past few years. My love of detective stories began with Holmes, but certainly didn't end there. If not for Doyle's work, I wonder if I ever would have followed that fascination and found Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot or Peter Falk's brilliant portrayal of Lt. Columbo or countless other literary or film detectives.

CASINO ROYALE by Ian Fleming
The aforementioned Sherlock Holmes is probably my favorite fictional character, but also pretty high up on that list is James Bond. Like with Holmes, I knew Bond on screen before I ever met the literary version. To me, in my early childhood, Bond looked like Sean Connery or Roger Moore or Timothy Dalton or George Lazenby. When I did finally get to read Fleming's books, I began with the first one, Casino Royale. I'm glad that was the first one he wrote and the first one I read, because it had not, at the time, been made into a movie yet. Had I read, say, Goldfinger, first, I probably would have had images of Sean Connery and Gert Frobe running through my head the whole time. But because the first 007 story I read was not a movie yet, Fleming's words had their effect on me without cinematic memories getting in the way. Because of this, the Bond I see when I read Fleming is different than the guy in the movies, and hopefully closer to what Fleming intended. I like both Bonds now, the movie version and the one that comes in words on the page. My own first spy novel, coming soon, was inspired by both versions of Bond, as well as by all the spy fiction I read later after first discovering the genre because of Ian Fleming.

DRACULA by Bram Stoker
Forget every movie version of the famous vampire count. Forget the handsome face of Christopher Lee. Forget the romantic baggage added on to the character in Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation. Let all that slide out of your mind and lose yourself in the novel upon which all those movies were not-quite-based. Don't get me wrong, I love some of those movies, especially the Hammer ones, but this is the real Dracula, and one of the best (worst?) villains in literature. Stoker's choice in telling the story as a series of letters and journal entries was particularly inspired, as it allows the story to unfold as the characters experience it, letting the reader know just slightly more than any individual character does at any given moment. Of course, the two characters who actually have a firm understanding of just how dangerous things are getting, Dracula himself, and Van Helsing, aren't included in the narration (except for one section by Van Helsing toward the very end). Dracula is a slow, chilling, crawling, deepening nightmare of a book that will drag you in and not let go until you've made it to the end. It reaches a point where you must know what will happen next. That's the book that really cemented my love of vampire fiction and what eventually led to my writing 100,000 Midnights, the first of my own vampire series.

 When I was a kid, reading books meant for kids, a story was often just a story and the words were just there to move it along from one event to the next and eventually to its conclusion. I knew that things had to happen in stories, but I don't recall, at a young age, giving much thought to how important it was for some writers (the best writers, maybe) to choose which words served the story best. And then I discovered Ray Bradbury. Words never looked quite the same to me after that. Bradbury used them to build atmosphere, alter mood, make a story so much more than just a series of words describing events. I don't know if I can explain it any better than that, but I do know that The October Country  is my favorite of Bradbury's books, a wonderful collection of short stories, including such classics of horror and speculative fiction as "The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse," "Skeleton," "The Man Upstairs," and many more.

THE BEST OF H.P. LOVECRAFT: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre
I've since read almost all of Lovecraft's fiction and own many editions holding various stories in various orders under various groupings, but this sampler was my first taste of the absolutely unique sort of storytelling that we now call "Lovecraftian."
Lovecraft's work, so I've heard people say, isn't for everybody. Some people find it too thick with extravagant adjectives and antiquated phraseology and cyclopian....see? It's contagious!
But seriously, there's nothing else in the world like Lovecraft. Whether it's his Cthulhu stories or the Dream Cycle or anything in between, it's a unique, thrilling, often horrifying blend of myth, horror, and science fiction, a genre unto itself.

HYPERSPACE by Michio Kaku
As much as I love science-fiction, I'm also very interested in science fact. One of my favorite subjects is quantum physics. Although I'm fascinated by the concepts and theories, I'll come right out and honestly admit that I don't understand the complicated mathematics behind them. Dr. Kaku's book explains the amazing ideas of modern physics in an entertaining way that makes them clear, and even more interesting, to a mathematically-inept reader like me. You won't see your "reality" in the same way after reading this or any of his other books.

This is my favorite novel in the world. A mind-altering blend of Egyptian mythology and science-fantasy told in a way that I don't think any other writer can ever replicate, I was never quite the same after reading this for the first time and, strangely and wonderfully, it seems just slightly different with each subsequent reading, as if there are always nuances that remain hidden until I'm ready to discover them.
It starts out with a unique present-tense third person narrative, drifts into poetry in unexpected places, and ends as a play! Zelazny, it seems, was willing to break any rule, stretch any boundary, and do anything to get this story told, and it works perfectly.
As I've been writing this blog entry, I've realized something. Perhaps the reason I love this novel so much is that it really includes, in some way or another, all the qualities that make the other books on this list so special to me. "Creatures" gives the reader the intellectual exercise of a Sherlock Holmes mystery, the suspense of Bond, villains as terrifying as Dracula, epic events as cosmic in scope as anything Lovecraft ever imagined, exquisitely crafted prose worthy of Bradbury, and mind-bending concepts that could very well have come from (or might even go beyond) the things discussed in Hyperspace.
"Creatures" is a short book. The edition I have here is only 190 pages, but it packs more punch than any other book I've ever read. I can't really say it's influenced my writing, because I could never be as bold as Roger Zelazny when it comes to finding a truly new way to tell a story, but it's certainly influenced my imagination, and I think that's even more important.      


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