A wee while back, John Klima posted a message up on the Night Shade Books message board, a call for stories for his magazine, Electric Velocipede. See, John had come across an article about Spelling Bees, with a list of words that had won it each year -- words like "eczema", "autochthonous", "cambist", and so on. One of those words, "chiaroscurist" struck a chord with me because I've always been a bit of a fan of the technique of chiaroscuro, the balance of light and dark. What can I say? It's a Yin / Yang thing, I guess. It's just always seemed to me that this is how life comes, with joy and sorrow and the contrast between them defining the shapes of our selves, with form emerging out of the shadows, caught in a shaft of sunlight. With the fear and fury of a Caravaggio painting.
When I was a kid I remember catching Derek Jarman's biopic of this master of chiaroscuro on Channel Four and being blown away by the man's life as much as his art. An artist and a murderer, Caravaggio was (according to Jarman at least) one of those wild-man queers of history, no flouncing fairy but a drinker and a fighter, like Christopher Marlowe or Jean-Arthur Rimbaud, ending his life on the run after killing a man in a knife fight -- with a knife which, so the story goes, was engraved with the phrase "Nec Spe, Nec Metu"... "No Hope, No Fear". He painted for popes and priests but his models were from the streets. His Bacchus is a wasted pretty-boy, a hustler who looks like Pete Doherty in Greek drag. It's said that he used the corpse of a drowned prostitute as the model for his dead Magdalene. And in his grandest Biblical paintings of scenes, you look at every single character, every centurion or disciple, and you see the face of the peasant model stripped of any idealising bullshit. There's a case to be made, I think, that in his fusion of the epic and the domestic, the sublime and the mundane, Caravaggio is the first Modernist painter, if not artist in general. Before him we have Giotto; after him we have Joyce.
Caravaggio understood, I've always thought, the terrible beauty of humanity, painting glory and tragedy in a single scene. Look at his painting of Saul on the road to Damascus. Look at his painting of Jesus at the Last Supper. Better still, look at his painting of the young David with the severed head of Goliath, in which, it is believed, both faces are self-portraits, himself as heroic youth and as monstrous adult. Look at the way he spears figures with sunlight, picks them out against near-black backgrounds. Look at the sense of drama, of tension, that creates.
So, I saw the word on John's post and it leapt out at me like one of Caravaggio's figures. A few years previously I'd kicked a story idea around inside my head, an idea about a fantasy story set in one of those classic secondary worlds of Epic Fantasy. I was playing Warhammer at the time and one of the guys at the GSFWC, I knew, was writing tie-in fiction about a troll-slaying dwarf. Against that pseudo-medieval backdrop, I sort of thought to myself, what about the non-fighters? What about a story that says, "Fuck that shit," to all the heroic adventuring? I want to know about the guy who's painting the Temple of Sigmar, not the one who's heading out on a glorious campaign against "Chaos" which, in the historical reality, would have probably involved slaughtering every Jew on the road to the Holy Land.
With the word "chiaroscurist" in mind, that idea re-emerged from the shadows. I thought of all the taverns and temples of the traditional secondary world of Tolkienesque fantasy and things clicked together, an image came to mind -- an old man with a face like one of Caravaggio's saints, leaning forward out of the darkness, illuminated by the flame with which he's lighting a cigarette, breathing in the smoke and blowing it out in a billow. The smoke caught also in that same light. The chiaroscuro of it. And from then on, the story wrote itself.
I was chuffed when John took the story for Electric Velocipede. I was even more chuffed when he started talking about a whole anthology of stories based on Spelling Bee words. And I was truly fucking chuffed when my contributor's copy of LOGORRHEA came through the post and I got to see how others had taken their words and transformed them into fiction. There's some fucking awesome stories in the book, so whatever you think of "The Chiaroscurist" I can't recommend it high enough. And one of the neatest stories is Jeff Vandermeer's "Appoggiatura", in which Jeff -- show-off that he is -- didn't just take one word but took all the words that the other writers had used and built a story that used every fucking one of them.
And now, with the wonders of the interweb, you get to hear that story, in sections, in a set of podcasts that you can find on John Klima's blog:
Go on. You'll like it; trust me. And if you don't want to deal with this newfangled podcasting malarkey for some inscrutable reason, well, you can read the section of his story written around my word right here. So I'll shut up now and let you read it...
(from "Appoggiatura" by Jeff Vandermeer)
I was still searching for the missing daughter of a wealthy industrialist from Cyprus when the locals brought me in on another case. They’d heard I was staying at the Hilton—an American and a detective, in a city where neither passed through with any regularity. The police deputy, a weathered old man with a scar through his left eyesocket, made it clear that it would be best if I got into his beat-up Ford Fiesta with the lonely siren on top, and venture out into the sun-beaten city to help him.
It was a crap ride, through a welter of tan buildings with no hint anymore of the green that had made the place famous since antiquity. The river had become a stream. The lake that it fed into was entombed in salt. The cotton they turned to as a crop just made it all worse. They’d survived a dictator, too, who had starved and disappeared people while building a monstrous palace. Becoming modern is a bitch for some people.
The dead guy, a painter the deputy told me, turned out to have lived on the seventh floor of what looked like a Soviet-era housing project made from those metal shelves you see at hardware stores. The smell of piss and cigarettes in the stairwell almost made me want to take up cigs again and find a bar. Most of the complex was deserted.
The painter’s place had an unwashed, turpentine-and-glue smell. Several large canvases had been leaned against the wall, under cloth. Through a huge window the light entered with a ferocious velocity. Somewhere out in that glare lay the ruins of the old city center.
In the middle of the floor, a young man lay in the usual pool of blood. I could see a large, tissue-filled hole in his back. Behind him, one canvas remained uncovered on an easel.
Against a soft dark-green background so intense it hit me like the taste of mouthwash, a girl sat on a stone bench in an explosion of light. Pale skin. A simple black dress. No shoes. No nail polish. A sash around her waist that almost hid a pack of cigs shoved in at the left side. Her head was tilted, chin out, as if looking up at someone. A thin smile that could have been caution or control. She held something even greener than the background, but someone—the murderer I guessed—had scratched it out with a knife. It could have been a book; at least, she held it like a book, although there was something too fleshy about the hints of it still left on the canvas.
For a moment, I thought I’d found the missing girl. For a moment, I thought I’d found something even more important.
I looked around the apartment a bit, but my gaze kept coming back to the painting. It was signed in the corner with the initials “F.S.”
I kept thinking, Why did they defile the painting?
After awhile, the police deputy asked me in his imperfect English, “You know what happen? Who?”
Somewhere in this rat’s warren of apartments there was probably a man whose wife or daughter the artist had been screwing. Or someone he owed a lot of money to. Or just a psychopath. You get used to the options after awhile. They aren’t complicated.
I breathed in the smoky air. They weren’t ever going to find the guy who had done this. Not in this country. It was still reinventing itself. Deaths like these were part of the price you paid. The police deputy probably didn’t expect it to be solved. He probably didn’t really care, so long as he could say he’d tried.
“I have no fucking idea,” I said. “But how much to let me take that painting?”