The Daryl News Network

Hi, it’s been nearly 4 hours. Would you like some more news about me, Daryl? Put on your best James Earl Jones voice and say it along with me: This is… DNN.

I’m trying to figure out what part of The Devil’s Alphabet to read at the Barnes & Noble signing this Friday. I don’t think it should be the scene where the main character helps three thugs drain pus out of his father. I’m just saying. If you’re curious to hear how this turns out, and you’re anywhere in central PA, please stop by — 6:30 Friday night.

Meanwhile, some reviews of TDA have been coming out. About a week ago Locus featured an interview with my friend Charlie Finlay, also known as Charles Coleman Finlay (to readers of his short stories), C.C. Finlay (to readers of his secret history of the Revolutionary War, with witches, known as the Traitor to the Crown trilogy), and Cuddles Finlay (to me, when I was feeling cold and alone one night at his Blue Heaven workshop). I really liked hearing why he chose a secret history over an alternate history for his books, and how Tim Powers influenced him. I can see it now, but I completely missed it when I read the books!.

Anyway, also in that issue of Locus is a review of my book, by Faren Miller. I found it interesting that she highlighted how much of a regional book this was. I liked this bit at the end:

Graduate thesis writers could probably find rich material for investigations of its allegorical nature, since the clades can be seen as exaggerations of various southern types: long, lean hillbillies; religious sects whose obedient women devote themselves to childbearing; and gluttons unacquainted with the concept of healthy food.

But Gregory doesn’t limit himself to parody, and major characters among the Changed can seem very real in both their memories of lost humanity and adaptation to their new conditions… Events in Switchcreek may also have wider implications for human evolution and the fate of the Earth itself, making this as much an innovative work of science fiction as it is an extraordinary exercise in regional literature, tinged with medical horrors.

And that pretty much says it.

Pretty much. Thanks to Google Alerts, I’ve been able to hear of a bunch of other reviews as they’ve come out:

Kel Munger of the Sacramento News and Review picked The Devil’s Alphabet as one of his top five fiction books (all genres) for 2009.

BW Fenlon, over at the Missions Unknown blog (staffed by various Texans of San Antonio, one of whom is a friend of mine, John Picacio) wrote a review of TDA.  He works at a San Antonio bookstore, and says, “It was the cover of The Devil’s Alphabet that initially drew my attention with its gloriously creepy upside-down eyes staring back at me every time I walked by.”  I definitely get a binary response on that cover. Some people, especially editors and booksellers, think it works. And some people really, really hate it. Even Mr. Fenlon, who liked the contents of the book, by the end of the review sounds a bit ambivalent about the cover: “One question I do know the answer to: I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more stories from Daryl Gregory, upside-down eyes or not.”

Ryan on the Battle Hymns blog recently wrote a nice (in both senses) review of Pandemonium.

The Barnes & Noble Online F&SF Book Club featured a two-person discussion on The Devil’s Alphabet. Okay, only two people, but I was happy to hear Paul and Ryan’s thoughts on the book. Thanks, guys.

Several nice reviews have showed up on Amazon.com from Moses Siregar (Moses stops by here a lot– hi Moses, thanks for posting that), Amanda Mitchell of SacramentoBookReview.com, and Amy Gwiazdowski of BookReporter.com (who really disliked the main character, but liked the book).

And on the GoodReads site, GoogleAlerts scooped up this review by someone named “Ellen”– who turned out to be the editor Ellen Datlow! She gave it 4/5 stars and said, “My only complaint is that I thought it was going to be darker than it is and so I don’t feel comfortable including it in Best Horror. (sniff)” My next assignment: Write something really dark for Ellen. Maybe I can finish it before I see her at the KGB Reading Series in NYC next month.

(You see how I slid that in there, mentioning again how I’m going to be reading at KGB? That, my friends, is the equivalent of a text crawl at the bottom of the screen. Next up: DNN Headline News.)

Good reviews aren’t necessarily positive

Update 12/14/09: Gary K. Wolfe’s review is now online.

Today I read two reviews of The Devil’s Alphabet, one by Karen Burnham at SF Signal, and the other by Gary K. Wolfe at Locus (printed on actual paper). Both were pretty positive — Wolfe starts the review calling me “amongst the most interesting of the newer writers to emerge in the past decade, and rapidly becoming one of the most unpredictable,” which is nice, and Burnham gives me 4/5 stars — so I’m not complaining. But what I most appreciated was the thoughtfulness of the reviews.

Gary Wolfe is pretty much the dean of SF critics, the reviewer I’ve been reading the longest, and the person I most wanted to be reviewed by when I started writing novels. When I get my copy of  Locus, I read his column first, every issue. He’s such a good writer that I find it difficult to disagree with him, even when I don’t agree with him. So it was with some sense of trepidation that I read his review — if he said I sucked, what was I supposed to do with that massive cognitive dissonance?

Karen Burnham has been reviewing for a couple years, and when I met her at a convention a couple years ago, I was immediately struck by her excellent taste — because she immediately told me she liked my short stories. She hasn’t been reviewing enough lately — she’s works for frickin’ NASA, for crying out loud, so her day job’s a bit busy — but her review of Pandemonium last year pointed out something I hadn’t been conscious of, that you could read the story as one family’s struggle to take care of someone with mental illness. It’s the mark of a good review that afterward you think, damn, maybe that IS what I meant.

So, two reviews in one day. Wolfe (I’m going to call him Wolfe, because in his review he uses my last name, like reviewers do) pointed out that while Pandemonium was a mash-up of content, Devil’s Alphabet was a mashup “of form and genre.” Then he goes down the line sighting echos and references that seemed to have informed the book, all of which made me think, damn, he must be right.

On the one hand, the novel hovers around a sort of evolutionary hard SF of novels like Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio… on the other, it returns to an earlier kind of evolutionary SF that we’d seen in novels from van Vogt’s Slan to Sturgeon’s More Than Human, in which the focus is more on the pariah status of the victims than on the biological puzzle, and on the inability of the larger society to cope meaningfully with the implications of the event. But then again, it’s also a homecoming tale about a young man (unaffected by “the Changes”) who has escaped his rural origins for a life in Chicago. Finally–and this is what drives the novel’s main plot–it’s a small-town southern Gothic murder mystery. No one can accuse Gregory of being a one-note author.

Wolfe then goes on to describe the overstuffed plot, and says, “While Gregory does an impressive job of keeping all these plates spinning without losing his narrative’s coherence, there is still a sense that a bit much is going on all at once, and that some of those plates are starting to wobble.”

This is definitely something I struggled with while writing the novel. How to pay off all those plot lines? How to keep them in balance? I think it’s something I’ll continue to struggle with. I was happy, though, to have him end the review with this:

The larger question, of what eventually might become of these evolutionary exiles as they move into second and third generations, seems to move us back into Theodore Sturgeon territory, and it’s fortunately a territory that Gregory has mastered well. The novel’s quiet ending, in a snowbound South Dakota winter, is haunting.

In Burnham’s (not Karen’s) review, which I won’t quote from as much, ’cause you can read it yourself, she points out something that is kind of my modus operandi — I try to wed a mainstream, character-driven story to sfnal weirdness. In fact, it’s pretty much all I’m trying to do, every outing.

But Burnham takes a couple paragraphs to do something that the best critics do — consider the work in context of a career. One, she doesn’t think Pandemonium or Devil’s Alphabet measure up to my short stories, and she’s particularly sad that neither book has a female character as the main protagonist, as some of my stories (her favorites of mine) do.

This is an interesting problem for me, in a couple ways: one, I don’t want to be writing the same characters over and over, and having the main protagonist always be young, white, and male is boring and a bit odd. (Besides, I want to stay as unpredictable as Wolfe thinks I am.)

And it’s not like I don’t like to write about women. Burnham mentioned some of the short stories, and in  the novels some of the strongest and smartest characters are female. In Devil’s Alphabet, as a reviewer on SFF World pointed out last week, most of the power structure of Switchcreek is female, led by Aunt Rhonda, the mayor of the town, who shares some of the POV duties in the book. But none of these women are the main character, as Burnham points out. So what’s up with that?

Now, I realize that this is a sample size of 2 novels, and hopefully I’ll have more opportunities to write more books. But the problem for me is that I don’t have much choice in these matters. When I wrote “Second Person, Present Tense,” the main character walked on stage, and she was a teenage girl. There was never any question that she’d be a boy. In “The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy,” I likewise knew that this was the story of two boys who were best friends. In “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm,” the welder and minion of the supervillain was always going to be a woman– and so on, for every story.

With secondary characters, I have a bit more leeway. They’re more vaguely defined in my subconscious, so when they walk on stage I can ask myself if they’d be more interesting, and better for the story, as female or male, gay or straight, of color or not. But with main characters, they pretty much arrive as-is, with no refunds, packed alongside the idea that carried them into my brain. Maybe it’s different for other writers.

So, will I ever have a female protagonist in a novel? I can’t believe I won’t at some point. If the short stories are any indication, some woman’s going to walk on stage with a novel-sized idea under her arm and demand to have her story told. I have to admit, though, that in the book I’m writing now, the main character is another guy. Maybe Book 4, then.

Publishers Weekly has sympathy for the devil

I’m home today, hanging out with daughter Emma who is herself hanging out with (probably swine) flu, when Chris Roberson sent me news of this new starred review on the Publisher’s Weekly site:

The Devil’s Alphabet Daryl Gregory.

Gregory (Pandemonium) produces a quietly brilliant second novel. As a teen, Paxton Martin left the town of Switchcreek, Tenn., to escape a scandal and the retrovirus that afflicted many of the town’s inhabitants. Many died hideously, and most survivors turned into strange creatures: towering argos, parthenogenic betas, enormously obese charlies. A decade later, Pax returns home to attend the funeral of a close friend who has committed suicide. Hoping to avoid his estranged father, Pax plans to leave immediately after the funeral, but he soon finds himself caught up in both the complexities of his old life and the deep quantum weirdness that Switchcreek has become. A wide variety of believable characters, a well-developed sense of place and some fascinating scientific speculation will earn this understated novel an appreciative audience among fans of literary SF. (Dec.)

So, good news on flu day. I’m thankful.

Next Step: Evoking Stephen King’s Sales Figures

Kirkus Reviews has the first professional review of my new book that will be out in November, The Devil’s Alphabet. I was pretty happy with the first few paragraphs, and then I got to the last sentence :

Engaging sophomore effort from the author of Pandemonium (2008) paints a highly original portrait of a town irrevocably changed by a bizarre disease. … [Snipping the plot summary]

The plot sometimes meanders, but the talented author has a wonderful eye for detail, and his descriptions of how the horrific mutations have affected every aspect of small-town life are both compelling and creepy.

Evokes the best of Stephen King: Gregory is a writer to watch.

Frankly, I would have been happy evoking the worst of King. Certainly the mediocre of King. But this, this is just gravy.

And it occurs to me that I’ve been doing a poor job of promoting this book. Details, the opening chapter, and a picture of the disturbing cover, are all here.