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Change Thy Shape: The Metamorphoses of Horror
Lawrence C. Connolly
Consider Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.
The play begins with Faustus contemplating his books: Aristotle’s Analytics, Jerome’s Bible, Galen’s discourses on medicine. The works have been the centre of his world, but now he wants new diversions. For help, he turns to Mephistopheles.
Enter the prototype of the digital-age writer. While Aristotle and Galen are stuck in their books, Mephistopheles travels through the ether, responding to Faustus’ call. Faustus, however, isn’t sold on the initial package. It isn’t quite what he had in mind. ‘I charge thee to return and change thy shape,’ he says, and Mephistopheles complies, repackages himself, and gains a soul.
To be sure, disenchantment with books and shape-changing are only part of the Faustus story, but for our discussion, let us consider Act I, the image of a reader in search of new diversions. Is it worth the effort to reach out to such an audience, and what is to be done with these souls once their attention has been won? Most of all, what is at stake and what is to be gained?
By way of answers, let us examine the shape-changing works of a writer who frequently moves beyond paper and ink, through the ether, and into a variety of readily accessible shapes and packages. Our discussion will center on two major collections (one poetry, the other prose) and the writer behind them.
Michael A. Arnzen began using computer technology to package his work in 1991, when he employed a rudimentary form of desktop publishing to produce a 42-page chapbook entitled Chew and Other Ruminations. Published under his own imprint, Mastication Publications, the book featured illustrations from five artists whose work had been appearing along side his in various small-press magazines. These were the early days of PageMaker, but with the cost of software and the hardware to run it beyond the reach of his student finances, Arnzen made do with a Brother word processor and help from artist Renate Müller, who collaborated with Arnzen to create a professional-looking design at a fraction of what the book would have cost using state-of-the-art computing. Modest success followed. According to Arnzen:
‘I basically sold it to small press outlets, got it reviewed in small genre and/or “little” mags, and used it to have something to sell (and giveaway) at cons. Like Thomas Paine, I guess, only more like Thomas Pain.’ (Arnzen, ‘Re Questions’)
The pun on Paine (Arnzen might say ‘pun of pain’) is an intriguing reminder that, as Bertrand Russell tells us, the right man will arrive at the right time to change history. Charles Fort, referring to such a moment as ‘steam-engine-time’ (Fort, p. 34), points out that the ingredients of profound change often lie unnoticed until someone is capable of recognising their significance. This is a good point to keep in mind, for in 1991, as Arnzen and Müller were employing primitive computer technology to publish Chew, other more dramatic opportunities were taking shape in the world of digital communication. One of these was the release of a public Internet service called the World Wide Web (Berners-Lee). The other was the emergence of pen-based or ‘pen-top’ computing that allowed the general user to write rather than key data and text onto a computer screen (Reinhardt). Both would soon provide Arnzen with the means of moving beyond the printed page and into the as yet undeveloped realm of digital communication.
Arnzen began exploring the Internet’s possibilities while attending graduate school at the University of Oregon. His first Internet creation, Arnzen’s Arbor Vitae (launched in the mid-90s), was one of the first websites devoted to horror, and by working on it Arnzen developed the skills needed to start a subscription-based poetry project in 2001.
Initially, the project was intended to provide readers with short poems that could be read on handheld PDA readers. He was certainly not the first to make literature available for such devices, but while others publishers such as NuvoMedia, SoftBook and a variety of Web-based companies were charging readers for longer material that was already available in print (Hillesund), Arnzen’s set about producing a series of original short poems, which he called gorelets, written specially to fit on the screen of a PDA reader, no scrolling required. As Arnzen tells it:
‘I realized that e-books were everywhere, but nowhere was poetry. And poetry just seemed to fit the screen better than long, eternally scrolling documents written for print rather than pixels.’ (Arnzen, ‘Introduction’, p. 9)
But what would readers pay for these poems? Major publishers were asking the same question about their ebook novels, and it was becoming increasingly evident that some readers were reluctant to pay printed-book prices for digital editions. According to M.J. Rose, best-selling author of Lip Service (2001), ‘People are much more willing to read on the desktop when it doesn't cost them a lot’ (Mayfield), and in early 2001, Pocketbooks tested this proposition by offering digital editions of two of Rose’s titles for $4.95, nine dollars less than their print counterparts. Concurrently, Del Rey offered the ebook edition of its Star Wars title Darth Maul: Saboteur for $1.99 (Mayfield). Seeing the writing on the screen, Arnzen offered his gorelet subscriptions for free.
For a year, starting in August 2001, a new gorelet poem appeared each week. Readers could download each work directly from Gorelets.com, or subscribers could have them hotsynched directly to their handheld PDAs. Some readers were delighted, with as many as 1,000 visitors dropping by the website each month during the year that the gorelet downloads were available (Arnzen, ‘Personal Interview’). Others were unimpressed, as was one sceptic at Geek.com who felt that the project seemed to be designed for PDA users who would download ‘any old toss – so long as it’s PDA-centric’ (‘Horror Author’). But the beauty of the little poems was that they were not ‘PDA-centric,’ for even as PDA users were downloading them for handheld readers, others were opting to receive print editions – in the form of postcards.
Postcard publishing is not a new idea in fantastic literature. Arthur C. Clarke tells the story of British editor George Hay, who in the mid-1970s had
‘the ingenious idea of putting out a complete science fiction story on a postcard – together with a stamp-sized photo of the author. Fans would, he believed, buy these in hundreds to mail out to their friends.’ (Clarke, p. 49)
Hay’s plan never got off the ground. In spite of his acquisition of new short-short stories by the likes of Clarke and Asimov, the postcards were never published, leading Clarke to speculate that ‘probably the rising cost of postage killed the scheme’ (Clarke, p. 49).
Clarke’s ironic comment underscores one of the economic realities of print publishing, and Arnzen was going to need an efficient and economical means of printing and distributing his gorelet postcards if his plan was going to succeed. Fortunately, the means was available in the form of an Internet service called AmazingMail, whose mission was to provide an ‘economical and convenient way to send […] postcards directly from your computer to anyone in the world via US Mail’ (‘Who Are We’). With the help of Chew artist Renate Müller (now Renate Arnzen), who provided him with a crash course in the use of Paint Shop Pro, Arnzen created original illustrations for the fronts of the cards and AmazingMail took care of production and distribution. Though not free (Arnzen was charging $13 for a base subscription of a dozen postcards, $78 for a full run of 52), subscriptions came with some value added features that helped justify purchasing what some readers were receiving in the form of free downloads. One of those features involved password-protected access to an online archive of the full run of gorelet poems. With this service, late subscribers could read digital copies of the poems they had missed. In addition, there was a second feature that served to elevate the series to limited-edition status. The fifth card in every subscription was a special signed edition that Arnzen printed and mailed on his own (rather than processing through AmazingMail). Thus, whereas the PDA versions provided fleeting diversions for readers on the move, the postcard series offered signed objets d’art for collectors.
After the PDA and postcard editions completed their runs in August 2002, all of the poems and many of the Paint Shop images were collected in a chapbook edition entitled Gorelets: Unpleasant Poems (2003). Thus, within two years, Arnzen had made each gorelet available in three different forms, each for a different kind of reader. But the metamorphoses would not end there.
With The Refrigerator of the Damned (alternately titled The Damned Fridge) Arnzen claims he was confronting his own fear of making his original work available in digital form. What if subscribers began modifying the poems, creating variations that they then passed off as their own work? As Arnzen tells it, ‘I took the fear I had of people using my stuff and turned it into The Refrigerator of the Damned’ (Arnzen, ‘Personal Interview’). The experiment proved successful, soon capturing the attention of editor Peggy Jo Shumate at Double Dragon Publishing, who asked writers to generate poems using The Damned Fridge and submit them to a hardback poetry collection entitled Cemetery Poets (2003). Published the same year as Gorelets: Unpleasant Poems, the reshaped gorelets in Cemetery Poets are yet another shape-change for the transmutable gorelets. But the metamorphosis doesn’t end there, for by year’s end Double Dragon also released a newly expanded version of the Fairwood Press edition as an ebook. Here, two years after Arnzen began scribbling them with his digital stylus, the poems returned to their original format, pixels on handheld readers and computer screens.
More than just an intriguing experiment, the various manifestations of Gorelets attracted readers and recognition that Arnzen would not have had if he had limited himself to traditional print publication. Moreover, given the short shelf-life of mass-market paperbacks, even an award-winning novel such as Arnzen’s Grave Markings (1994) will do little to garner continued recognition in today’s marketplace. In an era when the print version of an original novel is given barely a month to prove itself before being stripped and tossed in the dumpster, any undertaking that garners a Stoker nomination (for the Fairwood edition), coverage in non-genre publications as diverse as Wired News and Pittsburgh City Paper, and about 1,000 Internet hits a month would seem to be worth the effort. Indeed, it is worth noting that a number of those hits and downloads come from outside the traditional audience for horror and poetry, readers drawn in by online press releases posted for PDA users (Arnzen, ‘New Media Horror’). In the long term, Arnzen hopes that these new readers, some of whom have become interested enough in what he is doing to offer voluntary contributions to the effort, will also become readers of his more traditional work, such as his novels, which, as of this writing, are only available in print editions (Arnzen, ‘Comments’).
By the time Fairwood Press was readying the print edition of his ultra short poems, Arnzen was already at work on 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories (2004). A Stoker finalist, the book earned raves from readers at Amazon.com and from critics at the usual genre-related websites. The book is currently available in trade paperback and ebook editions, but an attempt to make the individual stories available though a new venue that Arnzen calls the ‘Sickolodeon’ has meet with some initial problems.
Although he had made his short-short poems available as free downloads, Arnzen felt that readers should pay something for digital copies of the longer works in 100 Jolts. Recalling how early filmmakers distributed their work in Nickelodeons, Arnzen devised a delivery system called the ‘Sickolodeon’, through which readers could pay to access individual stories. At the heart of this plan was an Internet company called BitPass.com.
Founded in December 2002 with the help of comic artist Scott McCloud, BitPass was initially an online market through which comic artists sold their creations. It soon expanded to offer a variety of content (music, films, graphics, texts and even schematic diagrams for patented inventions) for nominal charges called micropayments.
The micropayment plan is simple. After opening a BitPass account (which provides the customer with an Internet credit card), a member can begin purchasing small-ticket content from over 3,000 participating merchants (‘BitPass Appoints’). The customer’s account is then debited in small increments for each selection. Arnzen saw the service as an opportunity to make individual stories from 100 Jolts available for nominal fees. Alas, there were problems.
In early February 2006, people attempting to access the ‘Sickolodeon’ through Gorelets.com were presented with a notice stating that the ‘Sickolodeon’ was ‘under reconstruction’ (Arnzen, ‘The Sickolodeon’). The problem, according to Arnzen, results from recent changes that BitPass has done to its programming code. To correct the problem and bring Sickolodeon back on line, Arnzen will need to spend some time rewriting his program. Today, it seems, it is not enough to be skilled at writing poetry and prose. It also helps to be fluent in HTML. Moreover, it also helps to have an Internet service provider capable of handling the necessary programming language. At the moment, Arnzen indicates that he is at the mercy of his ISP, which he reports ‘doesn’t seem to be quite “ready” for the programming language BitPass is using’ (Arnzen, ‘Comments’).
Fortunately, problems with the ‘Sickolodeon’ have not marked the end of the 100 Jolts metamorphosis. If filmmaker Jim Minton has his way, some of the stories (along with a number of Arnzen’s gorelets and works from various chapbooks) will soon be adapted for a film entitled Exquisite Corpse. Minton, a filmmaker who has worked in the entertainment industry for 25 years, has lined up a roster of international filmmakers to direct the individual segments of the film. Arnzen, who has signed on for a straight percentage, says that Minton plans to ‘to release a version of the film (probably an extended excerpt) on the Independent Film Channel website (ifilm.com)’ (Arnzen, ‘Comments’). Beyond that, one can only speculate what the creator of Gorelets, The Refrigerator of the Damned, and the ‘Sickolodeon’ might do once he has access to a series of short digital films based on his stories.
Although Gorelets and 100 Jolts demonstrate Arnzen’s ability to take the written word beyond the traditional realms of ink and paper, no discussion of such endeavours would be complete without mention of his Stoker-winning email newsletter, the ‘Goreletter’.
Launched the month after the last gorelet was hotsynched to a subscriber’s PDA, the ‘Goreletter’ was designed as yet another way to keep in touch with readers. Now in its fourth year, the ‘Goreletter’ continues to provide a blend of news, commentary and humour to a growing list of subscribers. It also keeps readers posted regarding changes and additions to Gorelets.com, the ever-evolving website that has grown to become a cavernous digital museum of offbeat wonders.
Consider, for example, ‘Disco Inferno’ and ‘Riding the Sick Elephant’. The first is an animated poem in which words cavort over the landscape of Pieter Brueghel’s ‘Triumph des Todes’ (1590), gyrating to a jolting remix of ‘Disco Inferno’ by The Trammps. The second is a full-throttle flash-fiction reading set to a driving instrumental composition. And although Arnzen reports that he does not put much stock in hit-count reports, it is nonetheless worth noting that Gorelets.com received nearly a half million hits in 2005, an impressive figure in an age when a book of literary fiction is considered a major success when it sells between 30,000 and 50,000 copies (Hoover) and the ‘average [genre] paperback sells, traditionally, about 15,000 copies’ (Flint). By comparison, Arnzen’s top-selling novel, the Stoker-winning Grave Markings, sold about 30,000 copies in the US (Arnzen, ‘Re Book Sales’). Unwilling to settle for such respectable print numbers, Arnzen has, by changing the form and delivery of his literature and seeking readers in the world beyond the realm of books, garnered a wider audience for his poems and stories than he has ever achieved via traditional mass-market venues. The lesson is clear. Contemporary writers would do well to consider Arnzen’s success.
Returning for a moment to the models of Faustus and Mephistopheles, one finds that the comparison is not perfect. Arnzen’s goal may indeed be to deliver his audience into darkness, but Mephistopheles was a dour entertainer who tricked Faustus into going along on a journey that he ultimately resisted. Arnzen’s audience, on the other hand, seems to be enjoying the ride, and Arnzen is anything but dour.
One need only listen to his reading of ‘Driving the Sick Elephant’, complete with the author’s own driving rock score, to realise how much fun Arnzen is having with his dark mercurial wonders. There is a point, 118 seconds into the reading, where, seeming to suppress a laugh, he says, ‘And you’re getting into it!’ Indeed, we are. For a moment, at least, enthralled in his delivery, a few of us may even be willing to burn our books and ride with him on his shape-changing journey, out of the past, through the ether, and into the future.
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