Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Letter to my undergrad students, Nov. 9

 I sent this letter via Canvas Announcements to all my Frostburg State University classes Monday, Nov. 9.

Hello! How are you?

Yeah, I’m panicked, too. Let’s all take a deep breath, please …

hold it a few seconds …

then let it out.

Now, let’s do it twice more.


OK, now you can keep reading.

The last day of classes is only nine days away (yikes!), and two weeks from Thursday is Thanksgiving (double yikes!), by which time (believe it or not) all grades will be in, and our bizarre semester will be over – a semester that has not gone according to plan on any level, a semester that may yet throw some surprises at us, in the final two weeks.

Even so, it WILL BE OVER, and we will have gotten through it, together.

Every day since mid-August – and I mean EVERY DAY, weekends included, no exaggeration – individual students have shared with me their feelings of demoralization and panic and being overwhelmed, have told me about illness and family crisis and financial hardship, have expressed uncertainty and concern about the semester, the election, the pandemic, the university administration, social justice, the economy, their careers, the future in general.

I have been hearing all those same things from Frostburg State faculty, too, and from Frostburg State staff. We all are staggering as we near the finish line of Fall 2020, and no one has been at their best, certainly not me.

I’ve been trying all semester to accommodate individual students who have found themselves in difficulty, amid the unprecedented circumstances in which we all find ourselves, because I know exactly how they feel. I expect to do even more of that in the next two weeks, as I hear from one panicked student after another, and try to calm each one down a little, and (in the process) calm myself.

In the days to come, you’ll get emails from me as I post final assignments, grade outstanding ones, and share handouts, links and announcements that may be helpful. I’ll even be chasing some of you to find out the status of things that are missing, or just to see how you are.

But please, as you understandably worry about practically everything else in the next two weeks, try not to worry about your grades in my class. If you’re doing the work and participating in our online community, you’ll be fine. I will do my best to penalize no one for my steep learning curve in adjusting to our first online-only semester, nor for the state of our campus/region/nation.

If I can help any of you with anything, whether it’s class-specific or not, please let me know – not just this month, but over winter break, and next semester, too. More than you know, you have all helped me through this difficult semester, and I promise that my interest in you will not end at Thanksgiving.

So. Are we ready to finish this thing?

OK, let’s start by taking a deep breath …

holding it a few seconds …

then letting it out.

Twice more …

All righty, back to work! For me, anyway. I’ll update you soon, but in the meantime, thanks for all, stay safe, wear your masks, avoid crowds – and good luck! I believe in us; I believe in you.         

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Recommended reading from 2020

Clearly I overprepared for Sunday's Capclave panel titled Best Fiction of 2020, as there were (gasp) other people on the panel, with even taller stacks. And I was silly to think we'd have time to talk non-fiction, too.

Here's the list of speculative-fiction titles I brought to the panel, only a few of which I got the chance to talk about. I will add to this list later, as I have a lot more reading to do. For example, I have barely begun to read the print magazines, a stack of which will comfort me in December, once the semester's over.

Short Stories (SFWA defines these as shorter than 7,500 words)

Ashley Blooms, “Little and Less,” F&SF, September/October

J.R. Dawson, “She’d Never Had a Name Before,” Lightspeed, January

Yohanca Delgado, “Evanescent Dolores,” MQR Mixtape, June

Yohanca Delgado and Claire Wrenwood, “The Blue Room,” Nightmare, May

Tegan Moore, “John Simnel’s First Goshawk,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February

Gabriela Santiago, “Martian Cinema,” Strange Horizons, May

Cooper Shrivastava, “Mandorla,” Clarkesworld, February

Kate Osana Simonian, “The Problematic Douchebag Collective,” North American Review, August (Summer/Fall issue)

Dan Stintzi, “The Faces Inside of Everyday Objects,” Heavy Feather Review, June

Dan Stintzi, “Invasion,” Hobart, January

Eugenia Triantafyllou, “My Country Is a Ghost,” Uncanny, January

Marie Vibbert, “Blue Eyes,” Nature, May

Jude Wetherell, “Dead Horse Club,” Reckoning, January

Claire Wrenwood, “Dead Girls Have No Names,” Nightmare, August

Claire Wrenwood, “Flight,”, August

Novelettes (SFWA defines these as 7,500 words to 17,499 words)

Rebecca Campbell, “An Important Failure,” Clarkesworld, August

Justin C. Key, “The Perfection of Theresa Watkins,”, September

Tegan Moore, “Strange Comfort,” Clarkesworld, July

Em North, “Real Animals,” Lightspeed, June (a first fiction publication!)

Sarah Pinsker, “Two Truths and a Lie,”, June

Novellas (SFWA defines these as 17,500 words to 39,999 words)

Julian K. Jarboe, “Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel,” Lethe Press, March (title story of their collection)

Novels (SFWA defines these as 40,000 words and longer)

Ashley Blooms, Every Bone a Prayer, Sourcebooks Landmark, August (a first novel!)

Christopher Brown, Failed State, Harper Voyager, August

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi, Bloomsbury, September

Maria Dahvana Headley, Beowulf: A New Translation, FSG Originals, August

N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became, Orbit, March

Single-Author Collections

Octavia Cade, The Mythology of Salt and OtherStories, Lethe Press, July

Julian K. Jarboe, Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel, Lethe Press, March

Tenea D. Johnson, Blueprints for Better Worlds, counterpoise records, May

Michael Martone, The Complete Writings of ArtSmith, the Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, Edited by Michael Martone, BOA Editions, October


Bill Campbell, editor, Sunspot Jungle, Volume Two:The Ever Expanding Universe of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Rosarium Publishing, September

Theodora Goss, editor, Medusa’s Daughters: Magicand Monstrosity from Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siecle, Lanternfish Press, March

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, editors, The Big Book ofModern Fantasy, Vintage, July


Alyssa Wong, Marika Cresta and Ray-Anthony Height, Star Wars: Doctor Aphra (Marvel)

Alyssa Wong and Greg Pak, Aero (Marvel)

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Some recommended reading from 2017

If I had to pick one, my story of the year still would be "The Wretched and the Beautiful" by E. Lily Yu, from Terraform.
Here are a few things published in 2017 that I commend to y'all's attention, especially readers of science fiction, fantasy and horror. At the end, three TV series are thrown in. The list may update; my reading is spotty, and my memory spottier still. Happy reading!

In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany, Volume 1: 1957-1969, ed. by Kenneth R. James (Wesleyan University of Press)

Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown (HarperVoyager, July)
A Poison Dark and Drowning by Jessica Cluess (Book 2 in the Kingdom on Fire trilogy; Random, September)
Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly (Tor, February)
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss (Saga, June)
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory (Knopf, June)
The Moon and the Other by John Kessel (Saga, April)
The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller (HarperTeen, July)

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy (, August)
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages (, January)
“And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny, March/April:
“The Border State” by Christopher Rowe (Telling the Map, Small Beer, July)
“I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land” by Connie Willis (Asimov’s, November/December)

Single-Author Collections
Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages (Tachyon, May)
Hainish Novels and Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, ed. by Brian Attebery (2 vols., Library of America, September)
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf, October)
Speaking to Skull Kings and Other Stories by Emily B. Cataneo (JournalStone, May)
Strange Weather: Four Short Novels by Joe Hill (Morrow, October)
Dear Sweet Filthy World by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Subterranean, March)
The Blood of Four Gods and Other Stories by Jamie Lackey (Air and Nothingness Press, September)
Telling the Map by Christopher Rowe (Small Beer, July)

“Come as You Are” by Dale Bailey (Asimov’s, May/June)
“Gale Strang” by Michael Bishop (Asimov’s, July/August)
“Dirty Old Town” by Richard Bowes (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June)
“And the Village Breathes” by Emily C. Cataneo (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, October:
“The Hermit of Houston” by Samuel R. Delany (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October)
“After the Harvest, Before the Fall” by Scott Edelman (Analog, January/February)
“How Val Finally Escaped from the Basement” by Scott Edelman (Analog, November/December)
“The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine” by Greg Egan (Asimov’s, November/December)
“Three Can Keep a Secret” by Gregory Frost and Bill Johnson (Asimov’s, March/April)
“Afiya’s Song” by Justin C. Key (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August)
“@lantis” by Marc Laidlaw and Rudy Rucker (Asimov’s, July/August)
“Making Us Monsters” by Sam J. Miller and Lara Elena Donnelly (Uncanny, November/December:
“Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s, September/October:
“Bourbon, Sugar, Grace” by Jessica Reisman (, June:
“A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson (, January:
“We Who Live in the Heart” by Kelly Robson (Clarkesworld, May:
“Universe Box” by Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s, September/October)
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May/June:
“The West Topeka Triangle” by Jeremiah Tolbert (Lightspeed, January:
“Other Worlds and This One” by Cadwell Turnbull (Asimov’s, July/August)
“In Dublin’s Fair City” by Rick Wilber (Asimov’s, November/December)
“Attachments” by Kate Wilhelm (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December)
“Excerpts from a Film” by A.C. Wise (, March:

Short Stories
“Invasion of the Saucer-Men” by Dale Bailey (Asimov’s, March/April)
“Old Teacups and Kitchen Witches” by Kate Baker (Cast of Wonders, April:
“We Regret the Error” by Terry Bisson (Asimov’s, March/April)
“Goner” by Gregory Norman Bossert (Asimov’s, March/April)
“The Fall of the Mundanaeum” by Rebecca Campbell (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, September:
“Lares Familiares, 1981” by Rebecca Campbell (Liminal Stories, May:
“On Highway 18” by Rebecca Campbell (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October)
“The Lily Rose” by Emily C. Cataneo (The Dark, February:
“Glasswort, Ice” by Emily C. Cataneo (Lackington’s, Spring:
“The Two Choice Foxtrot of Chapham County” by Tina Connolly (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October)
“Itself at the Heart of Things” by Andrea M. Corbin (Shimmer, July:
“Raise-the-Dead Cobbler” by Andrea M. Corbin (Shimmer, November):
“My Time Among the Bridge Blowers” by Eugene Fischer (The New Voices of Fantasy, ed. Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman, Tachyon)
“Persephone of the Crows” by Karen Joy Fowler (Asimov’s, May/June)
“Eruption” by Jaymee Goh (Anathema, August:
“The Last Cheng Beng Gift” by Jaymee Goh (Lightspeed, September:
“The Escape of the Adastra: Asha’s Story” and its five companion stories by James Gunn (Asimov’s, May/June through November/December)
“Riding the Blue Line with Jack Kerouac” by Sandra McDonald (Asimov’s, September/October)
“eyes i dare not meet in dreams” by Sunny Moraine (, June:
“In the Blind” by Sunny Moraine (Clarkesworld, August:
“Shape Without Form, Shade Without Color” by Sunny Moraine (, May:
“Grandmaster” by Jay O’Connell (Analog, March/April)
“Number Thirty-Nine Skink” by Suzanne Palmer (Asimov’s, March/April)
“The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s, March/April)
“Disturbance in the Produce Aisle” by Kit Reed (Asimov’s, September/October)
“Longing for Stars Once Lost” by A. Merc Rustad (Lightspeed, October:
“Monster Girls Don’t Cry” by A. Merc Rustad (Uncanny, January/February:
“The First Day of Someone Else’s Life” by John Schoffstall (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June)
“Never Yawn Under a Banyan Tree” by Nibedita Sen (Anathema, August:
“Queen of Dirt” by Nisi Shawl (Apex, February:
“The Waking of Giants” by Adrian Simmons (Lackington’s, Summer:
“Starlight Express” by Michael Swanwick (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October)
“Wendy, Darling” by A.C. Wise (Daily Science Fiction, June:
“Shadow Station” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Nature, April:
“The Wretched and the Beautiful” by E. Lily Yu (Terraform, February:

TV Series
Twin Peaks: The Return (dir. David Lynch, written by Mark Frost and David Lynch, 18 episodes, Showtime, from May 21)
Fargo, Season 3 (10 episodes, FX, from April 19)
The Young Pope (dir. Paolo Sorrentino, 10 episodes, HBO, from Jan. 15; previously aired in Europe in 2016)
Wormwood (dir. Errol Morris, 6 episodes, Netflix, Dec. 15)

Saturday, October 21, 2017

"An occurrence, partaking of the marvelous": The legendary rocking cradle of Lynchburg, Va.

In the first volume of L.B. Taylor Jr.'s long-running series The Ghosts of Virginia (1993), one chapter is titled "The Extraordinary Rocking Cradle." It begins:
From the beginnings of my research for this book, every time I had talked about the Lynchburg area, people would mention the "Rocking Cradle House." They would say that I had to include a story on this, because it was the most famous haunted house in the city. Everyone, it seemed, had heard about the house, but seemingly no one could provide any details on where it was, or when the phenomena occurred. (275)
Taylor finally learns the address -- 1104 Jackson St., which you can see here, thanks to Google --  and finds a 1937 version of the story, told to Works Progress Administrator researcher Susan R. Beardsworth by a local architect with the lovely name of Trueheart Poston. His family had bought the house in 1902, and Trueheart lived there as a boy. Here is his version of the legend, as transcribed by Beardsworth and transcribed again by Taylor more than a half-century later.
The house at that time (1839) was occupied by a Rev. Smith, who was a cousin of Bishop Early. I do not know whether this cradle belonged to the Smiths or was loaned them by the Earlys, but the tale has it that the Rev. Smith, upon returning home from his duties, found the Negro nanny in a state of hysteria and was told that the cradle had been rocking with the baby in it for some hours and would not stop.
Upon hearing this, Rev. Smith went into the room and found that the cradle was indeed rocking. Being a very religious man, he commanded the cradle to stop rocking in the name of Beelzebub, whereupon the cradle immediately stopped. Rev. Smith then suggested that Beelzebub start rocking the cradle again, whereupon he apparently did so. This constant rocking under orders continued for a period of some days, during which, as the rumors spread, most of the town folk dropped by and witnessed this sight for themselves. … Apparently, after just so long, the cradle ceased rocking and would rock only by human efforts from then on.
Poston also cites an earlier source: "Mr. Asbury Christian in his book, 'Lynchburg and Its People,' gives the account of the rocking cradle." Taylor does not mention the Christian book further, but today I found it online. Here is the entirety of the already 60-year-old rocking-cradle story, as Christian tells it in 1900:
An occurrence, partaking of the marvelous, created a good deal of excitement in the town. It took place in the spring of 1839, in the one-story brick house on Jackson street, between Eleventh and Twelfth, the residence of the Rev. Dr. William A. Smith. Dr. Smith had borrowed a cradle from Rev. John Early, in which to put his new-born baby. One morning, as he was at breakfast, his wife, who was in bed in the next room, called to him and said: “Dr. Smith, come here and look at this cradle, how it rocks.” He arose and came to the door, and, to his amazement, the cradle was rocking vigorously, and there was no one near it. Dr. Smith moved the cradle from near the fire-place into the middle of the floor, and said: “Now Geoffrey (he called the Devil by that name), rock!” and he did.
The news of it spread through town like wildfire, and hundreds closed their places of business and went to see the “rocking cradle.” Various explanations were given, but none seemed satisfactory to the people. (126-27)
The differences between the 1900 and 1937 stories are striking.
  • The story acquires a new character, a stereotyped hysterical African-American servant -- as if a supernatural anecdote from antebellum Virginia needed some racist eye-rolling, just for legitimacy.
  • The story becomes vague on where the cradle came from, whereas the earlier story is quite clear that it was borrowed from another pastor, John Early. Early would be promoted to bishop later, but he was already in his fifties, a founder of Randolph Macon College, and one of the most prominent pro-slavery Methodists. The great man lent out a haunted cradle!
  • Rather than rocking for only a few moments, empty, while Smith is in an adjacent room, the cradle now rocks for hours, with his child in it, while he's out of the house entirely. The implication is that in his absence, the negligent nanny has failed spectacularly to protect the baby.
  • The baby's mother, who formerly sounded the alarm from her bed -- was she ill? not yet recovered from childbirth? -- now is stricken from the record entirely.
  • No longer does Smith take the eminently sensible, practical step of moving the cradle, to see whether it still rocks at another spot on the floor. Instead he leaves it where it is, perhaps afraid to touch it.
  • The most charming detail of the original is gone: No longer does Smith address a "Geoffrey." In 1839, would that have been a common nickname for the Devil? Or would this have been part of Smith's private discourse, a semi-playful way of addressing his old adversary? In either case, Christian feels the need, in 1900, to explain the reference with an intrusive parenthetical. In 1937, Poston substitutes "Beelzebub" -- which, like all cliches, is predictable, recognizable, and safe, with no thought required.
  • The most interesting detail is also gone: No longer does Smith command the cradle to keep rocking. Instead he commands it to stop, then to resume -- as a sign, presumably, of his mastery over Beelzebub. That, again, seems much safer than the older version, in which Smith says only, "Now Geoffrey, rock!" and only after he moves it. I take this to mean he's playfully daring Geoffrey to keep the cradle rocking, and of course Geoffrey obliges. One gets the sense that Smith and Geoffrey have been at these games for a long time.
  • In the 1937 version, the townsfolk come to marvel at Smith's supernatural ability to make the rocking start and stop. (In what sense, then, is Beelzebub to blame?) In the 1900 version, the spectacle is a cradle that just keeps rocking, without interruption or intervention from Smith.
  • In the 1937 version, the cradle eventually just winds down like a pocketwatch. Nothing more to see here, folks. In the earlier version, the rocking cradle never stops.
I have a guess about that last point. Before moving on to the other ghost stories associated with the Jackson Street house, Taylor quotes one more detail from Poston:
The cradle itself is a very beautiful Sheraton mahogany high poster affair with turned spindle sides and a field bed canopy. It gives the effect of being a miniature Sheraton field bed on rockers.
This seems fussy and anticlimactic, since the cradle's architectural virtues are surely eclipsed by its supernatural history, if any -- but it also sounds like a proud collector of antiques describing furniture still in his possession, a century after the celebrated episode. And after all, if that rocker is not now rocking, that must somehow be acknowledged; hence "after just so long, the cradle ceased rocking and would rock only by human efforts from then on." (I am reminded of Peter Cook's old bit about John Stitch, self-described "non-stop dancer," who is forced to explain why, in that moment, he is not dancing.)

I much prefer the 1900 story to the 1937 story, but the 1937 story makes me wonder whether the old cradle is still around.


Christian, W. Asbury. Lynchburg and Its People (Lynchburg, Va.: J.P. Bell Co., Printers, 1900). Digitized by Google from a copy in the Northwestern University Library, Evanston, Ill.

Taylor, L.B. Jr. The Ghosts of Virginia, Vol. 1. 1993. Lynchburg, Va.: Progress Printing, 2009. 6th printing.