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Sunday, February 20, 2011


One of my favorite fictional fictions (yes) is Michael Chabon's "In the Black Mill," by August Van Zorn (pseudonym (and so now a fiction within a fiction's fiction) for one Albert Vetch, chronic sufferer of the Midnight Disease), which shows up as the final tale in Chabon's collection, Werewolves in Their Youth.  Van Zorn, a fictional horror writer, reputedly of the same mold as H.P. Lovecraft, is first mentioned by Chabon via his fictional novelist Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys.

Chabon quotes Tripp in his introduction to "In the Black Mill":

The first real writer I ever knew was a man who did all of his work under the name of August Van Zorn.  He lived at the McClelland Hotel, which my grandmother owned, in the uppermost room of its turret, and taught English literature at Coxley, a small college on the other side of the minor Pennsylvania river that split our town in two.  His real name was Albert Vetch, and his field, I believe, was Blake; I remember he kept a framed print of the Ancient of Days affixed to the faded flocked wallpaper of his room, above a stoop-shouldered wooden suit rack that once belonged to my father.

This isn't a new idea--the creation of a fictional artist who inhabits the background or history of a story.  What I love about this story at the end of Werewolves, however, is that it's set out as further evidence that Van Zorn was real, and it's crazy fun!

As Chabon is perhaps the most outspoken "serious" writer championing genre fiction, which I've indicated here before, I think it's funny that I find my next favorite fictional artist, similar though not as fully realized as Van Zorn, in the pulpiest genre fiction I've ever read: Harry Stephen Keeler's The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, also which I've very recently discussed, and as comparison, no less, to James Joyce's abysmal "After the Race."

Keeler's fictional poet, and with her equally fictional (and gleefully dreadful) poetry, is one Miss Abigail Sprigg (Keeler shows himself equally skilled in the naming of characters as Thomas Pynchon, by the way).

As much as I want to tell you all about this awesome book and its awesome writer (as in, I'm-in-awe kind of awesome), I will refrain from the plug until I finish it, at which point I'll offer a complete review, and now simply quote this woman's "poetry."

Poor Pickings
A burglar entered by mistake
     A poetess's room one day.
And finding there was nothing else
     To steal, he stole away.

* "Poor Pickings" was extemporaneously reviewed before publication in the new quarterly publication Verse by Clay Calthorpe, protagonist of The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, self-professed poetry loather, and candy salesman:  "It's short, brief, and to the point.  With no flubdubbery.  Frank and honest.  Poetess money no has got.  Burglar no can steal nothing!  That--that appeals to me.  And because of it honesty--and simplicity--I--I call it one of the best poems I've ever read.  A fact!  Im a man in the street, am I not?  So if it scans all right--and rhymes correctly--for I'm not authority there, I say--mark her 100 per cent."

If His Love Dies--So Mine!
A Sonnet
He's gone: I would he had my wounded heart
That, by its aching beat, he might remember,
In these days of Passion's dead December,
The love of Passion's June.  I would the art
Of Cupid might rekindle with my fire
That heart of his, and light it through and through,
The flaming of my own heart to renew
Again, igniting all my first desire.

But his heart's whole, and mine is in my breast,
And every hour is filled with fear for me
Lest anguish, through each hour, become distress,
And then, by slow degrees, forgetfulness.
For every sun expires in the West,
And lo!  a new moon shines above the sea.

The sun was brighter, the air was cleaner,
     The skies were bluer
     When I was young;
The task of lighter, the grass was greener
     And love was truer,
     More sweetly sung!

The maids were fairer, the men were braver,
     The sages wiser
     in days of old;
Now joys are rarer, and cares are graver,
     And life a miser
     Who hoards his gold!

* I've been reading up on Keeler here and there in the few hours since I posted this entry.  It turns out that Keeler's first wife, Hazel Goodwin, wrote "If His Love Dies--So Mine" specifically for this particular novel.  In a biography posted HERE it's stated that Keeler was particular enamored of Hazel's writing, and somewhat regularly included her work within his own.  This, of course, explains why the in-text review by Clay Calthorpe of this second Miss Sprigg poem is so favorable and even possibly, and by degrees, converting Calthorpe to poetry.


  1. I love the wordplay in "Poor Pickings".

  2. It's so not a poem, but yeah, the word play's fun. And really, that little poem is practically an analog for the whole novel. I was surprised when I saw the second labeled a sonnet and saw that it actually is one!


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