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Friday 19 July 2002

Vanishing Books, Fake Diseases, and Alien Babies:
A Myopic View of ReaderCon 14

by Jeff VanderMeer

Books vanished at an astonishing rate at Readercon, held in Burlington, Massachusetts, from July 12-14. Books seemed not so much to fly off the shelves as to pirouette, puff out their dust jackets, and then disappear into thin air. You could not leave a dealer's table for even ten minutes and expect a book to remain where it had been before. At the very least, these books were tricky — and mobile. I must confess that I made a few disappear myself, and spent most of the rest of my time happily manning the Ministry of Whimsy dealer's table along with Jeffrey and Rose Thomas. There, I could watch in contented wonder as the gleaming black-gold-gray stacks of the City of Saints & Madmen hardcover (Prime Books) — looking like nothing less than a modern illuminated manuscript — became smaller and smaller over time, withering away to 20, then 10, and finally two... I would be lying if I said I derived no spark of pleasure from watching readers become ensnared by it. One buyer, at first perplexed by the unconventional approach to cover design (and much else), became curious, then skeptical, read the fake bio note and smiled, and then, leafing through the pages, became a convert. As this was exactly the reaction — the sense of discovery — we'd been after with the design, it was highly gratifying to see what amounted to preliminary "reads" of the book.

I also got to meet a few people I'd never met or only corresponded with via e-mail, including Paul Miller, Josh Snyder, Claude Lalumière, Heinz Insu Fenkl, Paul Levinson, Glenn Grant, Graham Sleight, Stephen Fredette, and Michael Kandel. I got to talk to David Hartwell, Darrell Schweitzer, Ellen Datlow, Gavin Grant, F. Brett Cox, Samuel Delany, and Paul & Deborah Di Filippo again and hung out with the seriously demented and imaginative Ministry of Whimsy posse of writers — Michael Cisco, Stepan & Kia Chapman, Jeffrey & Rose Thomas, and Eric Schaller, old friends Dan & Sandy Pearlman — as well as with the hilarious yet erudite Jeffrey & Lynn Ford and Patrick & Claire O'Leary. alien baby Eric Van, the Readercon organizer, was witty, friendly, and a lot of fun, especially at the bad prose competition won by Glenn Grant; although all the contestants, including Craig Shaw Gardner, John Kessel, and Patrick O'Leary were incredibly inventive. (As always, I took some photos, most with the alien baby: Anyone not already familiar with the alien baby idea can view photos of the alien baby with meerkats, in Antarctica, etc., at:

Between the dealer room experiences and lunches/dinners, I only had time to go to three readings (Jeffrey Thomas and Michael Cisco, both excellent, and my own) and the panels I moderated (all the while planning my escape back to the dealers room). That said, I should probably report that both the panel on Leviathan 3 (which I co-edited with Forrest Aguirre) and the Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Discredited and Eccentric Diseases reading I moderated went extremely well, with good attendance.

The Leviathan 3 panel — and the news the very next morning that Publishers Weekly had run an excellent review of the anthology (thanks to Revolution SF editor Peggy Hailey's quick action in typing the review into an email for me) — bolstered sales at the Prime/Ministry ( table substantially; by convention's end, the book had sold out. The panel consisted of Jeffrey Ford, Jeffrey Thomas, Michael Cisco, and Stepan Chapman. After presenting a brief history of the Ministry and of Leviathan, I asked Jeff Squared, Cisco, and Chapman a series of questions about fantasy, surrealism, and the anthology. When asked why he had submitted his "State Secrets" novella to Leviathan 3, Stepan, who has been in each volume, replied, "Force of habit." Jeffrey Thomas and Michael Cisco rightly pointed out that the stories in Leviathan 3 often partake of a dreamlike quality: a rigid internal logic that is still not quite the logic of the real world. Jeffrey Ford agreed and added a comment about the "element of strangeness" that permeates such work, entering from the writer's subconscious. Stepan, at my urging, reiterated his thought that the slogan for Leviathan 3 should be "There's something for everyone to hate," meaning the broad range of themes and approaches has, as always, created a diverse number of critical reactions. The idea that fantasy could exist without a fantastical element — fantasy at the level of metaphor — was also discussed by the panel. Unlike many panels at these conventions, we deliberately did not talk about marketing or any other commercial considerations.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases (forthcoming from Night Shade Books) reading consisted of Paul Di Filippo, Jeffrey Ford, Michael Cisco, Jeffrey Thomas, and Stepan Chapman. Again, we had a decent-sized crowd, even though up against heavy competition. After providing context about the guide (including some facts about Dr. Lambshead, wink wink) and pointing out that the experimental nature of our studies as doctors had led to us having to present our findings at a conference better known for fiction than nonfiction, I introduced each reader in turn. Paul and Stepan read blatantly funny entries about moving bodily features and moving tumors respectively, while the two Jeffs provided pieces that mixed humor and seriousness ("Internalized Tattooing" and "Ouroborealis Lordosis"), and Michael, who had pushed hard for the event, read mostly serious work ("Clear Rice Sickness"). The balance of serious and silly worked well — the audience clearly loved the entire event. The high point for me was reading the biographies the authors had come up for themselves, my favorite being Cisco's, which made me crack up in the middle of it:

Reviled by many as a quack, and dismissed publicly by Dr. Orveo Vitrine as "a self-smoking ham", Dr. Michael Cisco has nevertheless had a surprisingly long and eventful career in speculative medicine. One of Vitamin D's most vocal critics, he also developed the world's first premortem embalming techniques, and his book on pseudomyopia is considered by many to be the definitive text on the subject. He has recently made a highly unlikely and very gratifyingly complete recovery from a bout of anti-typhoid which, until only a matter of months ago, kept him confined to the Parisian sewers beneath the Hotel du Tond; his next work is expected to shed light of a sort onto this, until now, relatively poorly understood disease.

The panel went so well that even though this anthology — edited by myself and Mark Roberts — will not see print until late 2003 (Night Shade Books), people came up to the Ministry table afterwards trying to buy it. In the meantime, the site will have to suffice for the curious.

The only other excursion of note occurred prior to Readercon — and it also hinted at the pleasures of the dealer's room. I had arrived early, Thursday afternoon, and met Jeff & Rose Thomas at the New England Aquarium (, where I was delighted to discover that they had bought me a couple of commemorative squid, including a vampire squid. From there, we drove to their home in Westborough, Massachusetts. Their house is filled with books — stacks and boxes of them, spilling into the staircase. The drawings of their son Colin, a budding artist, cover the refrigerator door and the kitchen table. After getting my luggage settled for the night, Jeff and Rose took his brother Scott and me to the Tatnuck Bookseller Marketplace & Restaurant ( Established a quarter of a century ago, Tatnuck, perhaps the most famous independent bookstore in the Northeast, now resides in a former manufacturing site replete with exposed pipes and solid wood beams. It is "part three-ring circus, part boutique, part literary 'mall-ternative'" as the advertising brochure explains. The Tatnuck Bookseller Restaurant had great food, but even better, the tables were glass display cases, housing books and book memorabilia.

Jeff Thomas and Scott Thomas are both dark fantasy writers of rare power and vision. They have been writing as long as they can remember, fashioning novels in their youth that still exist in handwritten form among their belongings. Since then, each has forged an individual and imaginative writing identity, with Jeff best known for his collection Punktown (Ministry of Whimsy), which merges horror and science fiction and Scott Thomas, meanwhile, known for Cobwebs & Whispers (Delirium Books), an often delicate and always intricately-written series of more traditional quiet horror stories. Stories from both books have been reprinted in year's best anthologies. Both men have also been profiled in local media. We had a great evening of excellent conversation and gourmet food, punctuated by browsing among the bookshelves.

Tatnuck's proved good training for the Readercon dealer's room, which had a similar laid-back atmosphere. (David Walrath, the book room organizer, had obviously done an excellent job of getting a diverse group of dealers together.) I enjoyed sitting at the Ministry table and letting people come to me. I am not particularly fond of the "cold call" — approaching someone who may not wish to be approached, usually armed with just a few crumbs of conversation, like "Really liked your book."

At times, it was easy to convince myself that the book dealer room at Readercon should be the extent not only of the convention but also of the world. We would not stay there just for a weekend, or even a month, but for years. We would grow our own crops in the empty space in the middle of the rings of tables, cracking open the ceiling to let in the rain for drinking water. Corn and potatoes and rice would sustain us as we built our homes from bookshelves. We would raise families and hold communal readings. We would die among the books. We would be buried under dust jackets and rotted shelves, our funerals an opportunity to read aloud from the books. Over decades, the life of our community would become ritualistic. We would, as dealers, exchange our books with readers — and as readers sell our books back to dealers. Eventually, steeped in the smell of books and defined by them, we would know, completely, every book existing in the dealer room. We would know them so well that we would become the books, our oral versions containing subtle variations that would define our personalities, our relationships with other members of the community...

Or so I imagined, cocooned in the warm glow that can only accompany the most fanatical, obsessive, and unrealistic of visions.

This vision was given substance by William Keaveny's Vanishing Books table (, positioned sadistically at the dealer room entrance — you could not enter or leave without passing through the gauntlet of books. Ashtree and Tartarus hardcovers, their end papers flashing, their dust jackets blowing a kiss, their bookmark ribbons winking lasciviously, seduced even the most casual passerby. Upon a closer inspection, I realized that I could have bought all of Keaveny's stock (in a sense become Vanishing Books) if I only had the money. Mr. Keaveny (okay — "Bill"; one cannot divest oneself of large sums of money without conversing on a first-name basis) has the soul of a poet but the heart of a hardened follower of the Marquis de Sade. I would go bankrupt just by standing too close to his stall — books would shoot off the shelves and attach themselves to me like magnets, smother me in marbled endpapers. And yet he showed no remorse. "Bastard!" I muttered, scowling. Bill had the audacity to laugh as customer after customer, approaching like supplicants at the end of a long pilgrimage, brought him their offerings of money on bended knee, their devotion to the relics that lay upon the Vanishing Books altar complete.

Of course, not all were so sanguine — a sense of sangfroid did not always run through the veins. Some pleaded with him. Others evoked the image of irritable, responsible, righteous wives or husbands looking at checkbook balances in disbelief (some using wallet photos as visuals). All such protestations only served to make Mr. Keaveny ever more cheerful. Hour after hour, he took their money, without relent — and then, merciless, pressed catalogues on them containing still more wealth-reducing riches: "[Beckford, William Thomas] [VATHEK] AN ORIGINAL TALE FROM AN UNPUBLISHED MANUSCRIPT WITH NOTES CRITICAL AND EXPLANATORY, London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1786, First Edition, $750.00." If not for the early evening closing of the book room — analogous to the return of the prayer scrolls to the ark in a synagogue — every man, woman, and child would have been stripped bare of coin.

I mention all of this (at length) not to besmirch the character of Mr. Keaveny (who, in addition to his fine taste in books has a fine taste in wines, as we discovered at one particularly enjoyable dinner), but to explain the paucity of information particular to the rest of this account. Instead, I was in the book room, having a great time talking to Bernie Goodman, Mark Wingenfeld, Joe Berlant, and other book lovers who also happen to be dealers. At a time when it appears that the book as a physical object is on the verge of extinction, of becoming irrelevant, it reassured me to talk to people who value books so highly, who understand the aesthetic satisfaction of a well-made book.

In short, this has not been a convention report. It has instead been a slight tale of one man's heroin-like addiction to books, masquerading as a comprehensive summary of Readercon. The damages? Not high, although as long as I have Keaveny's catalogue I am at risk: Jean Lorrain's Nightmares of an Ether Drinker (Tartarus) and David Madsen's Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf (Dedalus). Michael Cisco also bought me the excellent The Other Side by Alfred Kubin. Of course, this does not include the free books given to me, or the review copies, or the... and so it goes...

Jeff VanderMeer's latest book is the hardcover edition of City of Saints & Madmen. Forthcoming works include Veniss Underground and Shriek: An Afterword. This ReaderCon report will appear in his nonfiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat When I Can Just Ask You For the Money? in about six months. His official website is

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