by Anne M. Pillsworth
by Anne M. Pillsworth
author guest post
"how my genre found me"
Science fiction and fantasy, or SFF as its friends call it, has a walk-in closet the size of an aircraft hangar and is thinking of getting a similar-sized storage locker for the overflow of faces that it wears. Let's not forget all those thousand-league boots and magical dancing shoes and slippers in glass and ruby. The spacesuits, very bulky. The unicorn horns and wands and wizard-staves, always threatening to fall over and send the swords and spears and ion blasters sprawling. SFF doesn't even want to think about the dragon wings and werewolf hides and shoggoths imperfectly confined in biohazard vats. If you've ever had to clean shoggoth-slime off a werewolf hide, you'll sympathize.
Some genres consider SFF a mess, a compulsive and indiscriminate hoarder of ideas, an enabler of pestiferously fecund tropes, an accomplice of the unreal. Judgmental as those genres may be, SFF will still invite them over to dinner and let them borrow its trappings and only shake its head gently when these genres rework them into magical realism and not-really-SFF-because-um-yeah-SERIOUS. SFF knows its bloodline goes back to the earliest tales humanity told, which we now call mythology and folklore. Well, except for that primordial story about how Orrg was really depressed and having marital problems and existential angst and a meta-rash from the cave painting pigments, and then the saber-tooth tiger ate him. That was literary fiction.
Anyhow, SFF courts most of us in nursery rhyme and fairy tale and Disney movies. Sometimes we respond with a twitch of YES that makes it persist into adolescence and beyond. I remember how it lurked in young Stephen King's attic, in a box of musty pulp novels that had belonged to his long-gone father. Lurked there, patient, moldering but eternal. Then an impressionable mind came along and opened the box, and SFF sprang.
As for me, SFF made its first contact via a richly illustrated book of Greek myths. I must have taken that beauty out of the library fifty times. Then there was The Hobbit, which a dramatically-inclined grade school teacher read aloud to the class one year. Even the rotten kids shut up for that. Star Trek drove me to write fan fiction, though I didn't yet know what fan fiction was, the Internet being years into the fabulous future of interstellar federations.
Then, in a corner bookstore I'd often visited, I found a rack of paperbacks with the most intriguing covers I'd ever seen. Rather I should say, SFF (invisible but determined) led me to that rack and left me gaping. All the covers were black, with a single huge head floating under the title. One head was half-human, half-rat, with empty sockets in which pairs of tinier eyes glittered. Also, who knows how, a rat tail dangled from one socket. Another head seemed made of sky and cloud. Another screamed as steamy columns spouted from its bald skull (brains? liquified brains??) The last and best was a hairless green head, its lower half dripping away into slime, its pate pierced from within by shards of glass.
All the books were by H. P. Lovecraft. Who? Who cared. I bought them one by one, and I read them on the back porch, and those stories whispered to me in SFF's voice that what terrified could also allure, and so the susceptible would always go through the barred door and over the mountains of madness, would slide down into the twin valleys of delight and death, would speed out to the siren cosmos. And that was good, and I could do it, too. I could be one of SFF's friends, welcomed into the vast closet, allowed to try on the faces and shoes and space helmets and wings.When Ray Bradbury and C. J. Cherryh came along soon afterwards, it was all over. My genre had me. The closet door closed, the door of the crowded closet, and yet, hey magic, there was room for me.