The following letter was originally sent to author Jeff VanderMeer on July 21, 2006, after I finished reading his groundbreaking and superbly weird “mosaic novel” CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN. After reading last week’s review of this modern classic (and the two stunning sequels that have appeared since then) I thought it would be interesting to post this message that I was compelled to write after finishing the first book of the Ambergris Trilogy.
Dear Mr. VanderMeer,
Tonight I finished reading CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN. I discovered the book quite by accident…while gliding listlessly through the staid environs of the local Big Chain Store (as I often do, wishing there was something worth buying on the fantasy shelves). I was about to leave with the taste of a familiar disappointment filling my mouth. But…something caught the corner of my eye…or my soul…and I turned toward a random shelf without any particular reason for doing so.
There sat a book that drew my hand toward its spine, and before I realized what I was doing, I was looking at the cover to CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN. Something in the back of my mind rose (squid-like) to the surface. I read the comments on the back of the book, and on the first few pages. There was something here…something I’d been looking for. To my amusement, the book itself validated my thought seconds later as I read the quote from Mr. Moorcock: “It’s what you’ve been looking for.”
Now, I should explain that this has happened to me before. I have a sort of mystical relationship with exceptional fantasy books…a radar sense, if you will…the bright works, the ones worth reading, the pillars of gold standing among the rotting piles of formulaic drivel, they sometimes call out to me. I can explain it no better than that. While I can’t stand to read much of “modern” fantasy and sci-fi, I seem to have this uncanny talent for finding the books that are true works of genius. But my theory is this…the books find me.
I marched to the cashier and bought my first copy of CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN. Yes, my first copy. (I’ll get back to that in a bit.) I dove into the book and found that it exceeded my high hopes… “Dradin, In Love,” enthralled me, and I knew that I had discovered something truly special. The kind of book (the kind of writer) that I’m always looking for but rarely stumble across. I poured through the book voraciously, enjoying every paragraph, every odd detail and eerie image of Ambergris and its sinister (yet often hilarious) inhabitants.
And a funny thing happened as I was reading. The book began to fall apart in my hands.
I was halfway through “The Hoegbotton Guide…” section when, like some fungus-infested relic from the damp environs of Ambergris itself, the binding of the book began to disintegrate; sections of the book were falling out. I kept reading, unwilling to stop, with pieces of the book laying around me, but eventually I decided to take it back to the bookstore and get a replacement copy. Must have been a bad binding job…some bad glue probably. Certainly no strange fungus or exposure to otherworldly vapors could be causing the book to fall apart like Tonsure’s dilapidated journal.
So I obtained my second copy of CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, because I simply had to finish this wonderful book, and because I knew I’d want a solid, intact copy to keep among my collection of truly precious volumes (alongside my Tanith Lee editions, my ThomasLigotti, my Dunsany, my Lovecraft, my Schweitzer, my Bakker, my William Gibson, and my Brian McNaughton). I dove into “The Transformation of Martin Lake” section as soon as I got home with my fresh copy.
Perhaps there are invisible fungi in Ambergris, ones that have the ability to transfer themselves across the barriers between imagination and reality; if so, they certainly are the type that feed on book-binding glue. My second copy began falling apart in my hands, just like the first one. Undaunted, I completed my reading of Martin Lake’s harrowing tale before returning to the bookstore yet again to claim another “fresh” copy.
Tonight, I finally finished the book (my third copy of CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN), and this final copy has remained mostly intact–except for the fact that while I was reading the second half of the book it split right down the middle. The binding decided to break itself apart in the middle of “The Cage,” right between the lines “No response.” and ” ‘Is something in there?’ ” Luckily, this single split didn’t spread to the rest of the book, and I was able to finish it without returning for a fourth copy.
Now that I read your online chronicle of how much painstaking effort went into producing the final, perfected version of this amazing book, I wanted to share with you the odd experience I had while reading (and immensely enjoying) it. Although it took me three copies, I made it through the vapor-clogged streets of Ambergris, and I’m eager for a return trip: I’ve already ordered my advance copy of SHRIEK: AN AFTERWORD. I’m hoping that it doesn’t get routed through Ambergris, where some strange, unseen fungus can attach itself and feast like Manzikert III on the binding…
My only regret is that this book evaded me for so long. But now that the book has found me, I am a wholly converted fan of your work. I look forward to SHRIEK and anything else you write. Thank you for having the guts and conviction to stick to your creative vision, to go beyond the confines of the publishing world and the limits of “standard” fantasy/horror fiction to create something truly new, original, and absolutely thrilling. I find it fantastically entertaining as a reader, and fantastically inspiring as a writer.
Here’s to a long succession of many more VanderMeer books (with solid bindings).
Your friend and fan,
John R. Fultz
To this date (Aug. 19, 2010), there has been no reply from Mr. VanderMeer. Rumor has it that he has disappeared into that world of malevolently sentient fungi that his books so thoroughly describe. The presence of his succeeding manuscripts and publications (SHRIEK and FINCH) is at least some evidence of his continued survival in this parallel dimension.
We, his earthly fans, can only hope that Mr. VanderMeer continues to send reports of Ambergris and its scurrilous denizens across the space/time barrier. Meanwhile, there is some concern that his manuscripts have introduced certain spores into our own world that could conceivably reproduce to the point of threatening our very existence.
We have agreed to accept this mega-fungal risk in order to continue communication with the author and his Ambergrisian agents. Great art is always dangerous.
— John R. Fultz & The Advocates of Ambergris