Tales within Tales within Tales…

I love books that don’t exist.

You know what they are: characters in novels read them. They’re imaginary books that exist only in the universe that’s created in the novel you’re currently reading. A character, looking across a river, might have in her hand, The Gulf: When to Get Divorced. Another character might find a book in a mysterious, dimly-lit curio shop. He opens the book . . . and that’s the last anyone sees of him. The book’s title: Don’t Open This Book.

They push the plot along, or indicate theme, or are just there because the author felt like adding a little something.

My novel-in-rewrite-purgatory, The Enigma Club, is a 3/4 adventure, 1/4 comedy story about the era of pulp adventure, and I’ve filled it with mentions of imaginary books that reflect both the golden age of adventure, but also the antiquated post-Victorian era that spawned the pulps. They’d publish any kind of crap back then.

Safari to Hoboken
Where the Dung Beetles Dwell
Haunted Biergartens (Holzer & Grolsch)
Don’t You Believe It! (rare copy of Mr. Ripley’s first book — quite the unsuccessful)
Roadside Gondwanaland
Who Discovered the Mogo?
Without a Nightlight in the Jungle (by our own Dr. Dickie Denton)
Enchanted Poems and Assorted Vowels
Palace of a Thousand Toothless Harem Girls
The Banana — America’s Friend!

One of the first notes I made in 1996 when I started the novel was about the ape-man who was the Enigma Club’s benefactor, as well as a focal point to reel in readers’ disbelief. He was a Tarzan clone who was not as dumb as George of the Jungle . . . but was close. Tarzan had adventures. My jungle lord has misadventures. He began life as Ka-Gor, but that name was not only unfunny, but also very close — too close — to Ki-Gor, a real pulp jungle lord of the ’40s. So, after much serious deliberation, I switched Ka-Gor to . . .


Scrotar the Pendulous.

And, to make this world of the Enigma Club as real as possible, I’ve come up with about 700 titles — and synopses — of Scrotar’s adventures, as published in every other issue of the Enigma Club All-Adventure Magazine from 1914 to 1953. My lovely wife and muse, Maria, helped me come up with some of them, but I think she still prefers Ka-Gor over Scrotar. She’s nuts.

Scrotar Aboard the Ghost Yacht
Scrotar and the Scrotarettes
Scrotar and the Trojans
Wanted: Scrotar . . . Dead or Alive
Scrotar and the Odd-Tasting Brownies
Judge, Jury and Scrotar
Sing a Song of Scrotar
Moo Goo Gai Scrotar
“Die, Scrotar, Die!”
Smell the Spoor of Scrotar

The Challenge of Scrotar
The Algebra Master covets Scrotar’s Golden Slide Rule. Best line: “‘Pi,’ the mathematician shouted. ‘Not pie!’”

Scrotar the Challenged
Scrotar follows a faint trail to Korocca, where a poisonous snake cult throws him into their diabolical Maze of Monochromatic Sand.

Scrotar the Magnanimous
Scrotar throws a banquet for homeless jungle animals and gets a prize . . . from the Volcano Death-King!

The reason I explain all this to you is that books that don’t exist are really fun, and the New York Times has a cool article online that talks all about them. Go there . . . and keep reading . . .

. . . in the name of Scrotar!

Like a novel from the five and dime…

When I started seriously reading and collecting books, I could tell you where I bought any title on my shelves. Noah II — a bookstore in Daytona Beach. The Shining — Waldenbooks, Hampton, ’77. Two Doc Savage pulps from the forties — Richmond Book Shop on Broad, ’73 (and the store is still there). Swords of Mars — mail order from a Burroughs collector.

Now days, forget it. I have way too many — all over the place, in stacks, in boxes — and only certain titles will jog my memory enough so that I can reach that far into the dim, distant past.

Whenever my parents wanted to get out and about, I was assured of finding something to read almost everywhere, from Rose’s, to Thalhimer’s, Miller and Rhoads, or People’s Drugs. Every “general” store, from department stores to drug stores, used to have decent book selections. Today the phrase “decent selection” doesn’t apply — books in these stores just don’t pull in a lot of revenue for the chains, so inventory is handled by a regional distributor, who picks only bestsellers for the racks, and the selection is typically minimal.

The late sixties and the ’70s were wonderful years for paperbacks. Even if the insides were tame by comparison, the covers were gaudy, glorious, cheesy, carnal — and especially memorable. Woolworth’s had magic in their wire racks, as did my local Peoples Drug, at Riverdale Shopping center in Hampton — a whole corner of the store was paperbacks and magazines, right next to the fountain area. The drug store in Colonial Williamsburg — it’s now the Trellis restaurant — is where I bought several memorable paperbacks (some against my mother’s wishes, who thought they might be racy — and they were).

While I was in Woolworth’s on Washington Avenue in Newport News one day in 1971, I found this paperback.

I had heard about the upcoming movie, and was dying to see it. (I wasn’t disappointed, either. Almost forty years later, it remains one of my favorite films, and is one of those movies when, if I come across it on television, I HAVE to watch it.) This paperback used the hardcovers’s earth and computer graphics artwork, but placed a naked guy right next to it. This was one of the first times that I consciously recognized “marketing” — another popular title at the time was Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape, which, not coincidentally, was published by the same publisher as Andromeda Strain.

Dell obviously wanted some of that same bestseller magic to rub off on Crichton’s novel. I don’t know if it worked, but Andromeda was a bestseller that year, and a hell of a film.

I almost didn’t buy the book. I hesitated because I thought I might not understand the science. I’m glad I changed my mind and got it, though: it’s Michael Crichton at perhaps his best, with perhaps his best story; and Crichton’s gift at that time was that he could take complicated science and make it understandable — and enjoyable — to lay people. (As opposed to his anti-global warming polemic, State of Fear. A complete 180. Avoid at all costs.)

The other reason I love this book was Crichton’s incorporation of graphics with the text. In a seamless way, he added faux computer readouts and used typography creatively that served not just as mere illustration, but to further the story along. As a lifelong comic book reader, his use of graphics blew me away, in the same way that split-screen cinematography added dynamics to movie watching. I’ve since incorporated graphics and illustrations in my own fiction to help propel the story and to create a believable world filled with unbelievable creations. The Enigma Club trilogy, especially, uses graphic design as both verisimilitude and as storytelling:

There was magic in The Andromeda Strain just as there was magic in the book sections of even the littlest stores. But books today, as more and more publishing companies are bought out by international conglomerates, have lost some of their magic, as there isn’t much of a midlist any more. Publishers aren’t allowed to take too many chances — the execs want every book to be a bestseller (it’s the Jaws Syndrome), so we have Wal-Marts and CVSs and Krogers, all with the exact same titles, all in cramped little spaces that minimum wage workers don’t care about keeping neat. Outside of Barnes and Noble, book purchasing has become horribly homogenized, and magic is sometimes hard to find.

The five and dimes are mostly gone now. But good storytelling will never die, whether its printed and bound on paper and board, or whether its backlit on an iPhone or a Kindle.

The only thing missing is the joy of finding something unexpected in an unexpected place, that you can grasp in your hands and marvel at, that touches something in your soul, and you can claim it as your very own. That’s the magic of a book.

The View from Scenic Cayo Arcana

For those of you keeping score…

My agent called me last week, prior to a long trip to the west coast. When she returns to Cambridge, she will read my manuscript — again — and let me know if she thinks it will need changes. She knows how much I have polished it for her already, including splitting one big, big book into a trilogy, and she told me she was pretty confident it wouldn’t need a lot of fixing.

She expects to start sending it to publishers in October — and just in time, too, for a sale would make a great Halloween present for Rusty.

Note to self: stop speaking about myself in the third person…