The Man on the Ceiling

A few weeks ago, my wife and I did something we haven’t done for a while; we read to each other.

We’ve done that off and on since before we married, but lately it’s been more off than on due to different sleep schedules. The particular night in question, however, the timing was right, the decision to read was spontaneous, and we couldn’t have picked a better story to read each other.

In 2000, American Fantasy Press published a chapbook by Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem called The Man on the Ceiling (as opposed to Jules Feiffer’s The Man in the Ceiling.) The little book, sold only in a limited edition run, garnered critical acclaim and is the only work to have won the a literary trifecta of the International Horror Guild Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the World Fantasy Award in the same year. In March of 2008, Discoveries (the literary fiction imprint of world-renowned gaming juggernaut Wizards of the Coast) will release a full-length novel version of The Man on the Ceiling, a complete rewrite of the original by the Tems themselves. The book is available for pre-order through Amazon. Better yet, have your local bookseller place an order for ISBN-13: 978-0786948581.

The Man on the Ceiling is a unique book. Part autobiography, part nightmare, and all true (though not necessarily factual), it alternates between Steve and Melanie’s tales of their encounters with the Man on the Ceiling. Who is the Man on the Ceiling? I can’t — no, I won’t — tell you that. It’s not my place to tell you about things you already know.

What you may not know is that The Man on the Ceiling is a wonderful read for couples. When Lannette and I read it to each other, we passed the book back and forth. I read the “Steve” sections and she read the “Melanie” sections. A few times, we paused to shiver or say “Wow” after particularly well-crafted paragraphs, and it was interesting to note that such different writing styles could produce the same effects in us. Steve’s writing is surreal and very visceral, and Melanie’s writing addresses the deeper, less tangible fears that we all face. But the shivers induced in us by both styles were the same. The two writers took different paths, but arrived at the same fearful, insecure, vulnerable spots within us, and that is simply astounding in a work so concise.

The story works exceedingly well for reading aloud in separate male and female voices, and I recommend that other couples do the same (if they can find a copy of the chapbook; otherwise, wait for the full-length release in March.) When we finished the book, we sat on the couch and cuddled for a while, grateful that we could experience the story together, secure in the realization that some fears are universal, and glad we have someone with whom we can share the burden.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that we are friends with the Tems, and you might think that gives us an edge in appreciating the story. Maybe; I thought so at first, too. But the more I think about it, I don’t think knowing them makes that much difference. Sure, when they mention the house that they share with the Man on the Ceiling, images of that house jump immediately to my mind, and since we know what Melanie and Steve look and sound like, we automatically “hear” their voices reading the text and “see” them in the story’s scenes. But those elements, real as they may be, are not the story itself. The story is about him — the Man on the Ceiling — and our interactions with him. The setting could be any Victorian house in any historic neighborhood, and the people could have any faces concocted by the reader’s imagination.

I think that’s one of the things Melanie and Steve mean when they say in the story, “Everything we’ve told you is true.” Whether the details provided by individual readers match the “real” details is irrelevant; the experiences in the story are universal, and the Man on the Ceiling is, himself, universal.

Revisionist William Gibson

When I made yesterday’s entry, I intended to talk a bit about William Gibson‘s appearance at the Boulder Book Store last week. The reading took place in the large upstairs room of the store, which Gibson referred to as a “ballroom,” and the crowd had standing room only. I was fortunate enough to get there early since I work in Boulder, and I was rewarded with not only a good seat, but a low number for the book signing line.

Gibson read a chapter from his latest book, Pattern Recognition. Well, initially, I thought he was going to cough a chapter of it; something got hold of his throat and the water he drank to soothe it seemed to make the problem worse. Despite this, Gibson croaked on, and eventually he seemed to find his voice again. It was a bit surreal for a moment, more than a hundred of us sitting there silently listening to his amplified coughs reverberating through the store. I expected people to involuntarily clear their throats, but if anyone did, I didn’t hear it. There wasn’t much we could do, but it was an awkward moment in which I wanted to do something to help him, and didn’t.

The chapter was short, a bit shorter than the Q & A session afterward. I did manage to pose a question to him. The exchange went something like this (paraphrased, since I didn’t take notes):

SJ: You seem to have a talent for putting words together in unusual ways.  Are there any exercises you do to cultivate that talent?

WG:  Revision.  It’s all revision.  I write the drafts, then rework it until it’s right.  

That makes sense. Although I’m a big believer in revision, for some reason I continue to have the notion that Great Writers spew complete paragraphs forth, Zeus-like, from their heads. This personal myth is probably fueled by reports of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury writing without revision, and surely, the more one writes, the easier it becomes to pre-form great sentences. But that’s no reason to expect that all successful writers write without revision; I’m glad Gibson reminded me that it’s not the case in his life. That makes me feel a little better about the level of his writing, too. It’s a bit more attainable now.

I haven’t read all of Pattern Recognition yet, but what I did read grabbed me. It’s Gibson’s first novel set in the present day, and it’s interesting how it still feels very much like a Gibson novel, despite the fact that no one has an input jack in his head and there are no major characters that are AIs. The evil international mega corporation backdrop is still there, but this time it takes the form of corporate branding á la Tommy Hilfiger. Heavy fragment use in writing, much like this sentence.

One notable difference is that September 11, 2001 plays a direct role in the development of the main character, Cayce Pollard. At his appearance, Gibson spoke at length about how he had completed 100 manuscript pages of the book before the attacks, and how the real world events utterly destroyed those pages of fiction. To be believable, Cayce Pollard had to be completely re-imagined as a result of the attacks, and the first 100 pages had to be re-written. He did so, and I think the revision contributed to the dark feel of the book. Reading this, I get the feeling it’s not such a big jump from Pattern Recognition to the shatterglass worlds of Neuromancer or Virtual Light.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.

Sick Again

I stayed home from work today with a sore throat and stuffy nose. One of the lessons I learned earlier in this year was to take care of myself when I get those early symptoms so they don’t carry forward for weeks. So, I stayed home today, drank yucky TheraFlu, and slept. I also did about an hour and a half of work, via the Internet, but it won’t count since I stayed home.

When I wasn’t sleeping or working, I read. I got through most of The Two Towers today, a pretty big reading achievement for me. I’ve mentioned before that I am a slow reader; I think this is partly because I am a very sensory reader. I like to hear the dialogue in my head and see the scenery as I’m reading, smell whatever the book is describing. I think that slows me down, but it also gives a very rich reading experience.

Tomorrow night, we plan to go watch Dot Com at Brewski’s. I should be well enough to go.

Dinner and a Veil

Tonight, my stepson joined us for dinner. He showed up wearing a shirt that said, “My parents said I could be anything I wanted, so I became an asshole.” I thought it was pretty funny, but not necessarily appropriate for Red Lobster.

Late in the evening, I started reading Trey Barker’s Veil of the Soul, a prose adaptation of Trey’s stage play about the life of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s very good so far; it’s obvious that Trey spent a lot of time researching Poe’s life, and the details really help bring the prose to life.

Garage Sales & Source Enlightenment

Today I picked up a bunch of great books at a garage sale, including another copy of Ellison’s Angry Candy, Datlow’s Alien Sex anthology, several issues of Glimmer Train, a Leslie Marmon Silko book, the screenplay and director’s journal for Darren Aronofsky’s p(Pi), and Philip Toshio Sudo’s Zen Sex, the companion volume to Zen Guitar, which I reviewed on this website. My friend Dave also went to that garage sale, and purchased The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume I. I saw him walking down the sidewalk, and asked if they had anything good at the sale.

“They did. But it’s yours, now. Happy early birthday present.” He handed me the book.

Thanks, Dave. 🙂

In the afternoon, I watched the Broncos-Rams game, glad to see that Brian Griese pulled through for the team. I get sick of the media hounding him, and it was nice to see him prove — again — that he’s a world class quarterback. During the game, I told my wife that I was going to either write or critique stories tonight, and that’s exactly what I did, after losing a close game of Literati to her. I beat her sister, though. (It’s strange to play a game over the Internet with someone who’s in the next room, but by doing so, we were also able to play with her sister in Phoenix. Pretty cool!)

I worked on “Chesterfield Gray,” getting into the swing of it by revising the three pages I had written before. I then continued for another page and a half, fact-checking WWII on the Internet as I went. I still didn’t know where the story was going, or why a WWII story was coming out, but I made a passing reference to Kamikaze attacks, and started exploring the main male character to see what made him tick. I decided that he had seen real death, and it had affected him deeply, and got to wondering which battles would be the most likely for him to have been in. I wanted it to be a battle where ships were known to have been directly hit by Kamikaze pilots, and the only ship that I knew off the top of my head had been hit was the U.S.S. Saratoga. She was badly damaged near Iwo Jima in 1945, with seven direct hits by Japanese aircraft. Three of those direct hits were Kamikaze strikes.

I know this because I dug out the obituary for my Uncle Wayne Johnson, who passed away in July. He was on the Saratoga on February 21, 1945, and was one deck below a direct Kamikaze hit. He spent the next ten days in a Hawaiian hospital, getting a glass eye and reconstructive surgery.

As I was reading the obituary, it hit me why I am writing this story. It’s my way of grieving for and paying tribute to my Uncle Wayne. Of course, the events in the story will only be tangential to his life, but I understand now why the story is coming out of me. I have a direction, now, and I can work on shaping the story into something worthy of his memory.

Wayne (sitting) and Lyle Johnson, brothers.  Cutter, New Mexico, March 2002
Photo © Stace Johnson, all rights reserved.