Which is the better title: “Bride of the Slime Monster” or “Locksley Hall”?

Previously we looked at the titles Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies and Dover Beach and decided that Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies won hands-down. In fact, in my opinion Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies might be the most awesomest title ever.

Let’s consider Bride of the Slime Monster.  There’s no question that this is also an excellent title.  Short, funny, gives you a clear sense of what the book is all about.  Is it as good as Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies?  I think not, but I recognize that others may feel differently.  The cover is also pretty good.

Now, what are we to make of Locksley Hall?  I think it’s pretty clearly an awful title, except maybe for a Regency romance, with a cover showing an auburn-tressed young maiden running from an English country estate, her half-uncovered bosoms heaving with strong emotion.  While “Dover Beach” has the benefit of being the title of a somewhat familiar poem, nobody nowadays reads the 1842 poem “Locksley Hall” by Alfred Tennyson.  It’s too long, too hard to follow, and it’s got just this one memorable line: “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”  So memorable, in fact, that it has been totally decoupled from the poem in which it occurs.

So what kind of an idiot would title a science fiction novel Locksley Hall?  That kind of idiot would be me!  That’s what I named the long-unawaited sequel to Dover Beach.  If you think you have read this sequel, you are quite probably deluded.  But before too terribly long it will be an ebook you can put on your eshelf next to your dog-eared ecopy of the original novel.  Yay!

My original error, it seems, was in buying into my editor’s idea that naming a post-nuclear-war private-eye novel after a nineteenth-century poem was a good one.  So I decided that I should do the same thing for the sequel.  But when Bantam examined the box office receipts for Dover Beach, it decided that the market for post-nuclear-war private-eye novels named after a nineteenth-century poem wasn’t as strong at they had imagined it to be and, in spite of great reviews, they didn’t want to publish its already-completed sequel.  Boo!

Which isn’t to say that Locksley Hall is a bad title, in the sense that it is tightly integrated with the novel’s themes, in just the way that Dover Beach is. The poem “Locksley Hall” (that’s its author over there on the right) is all over the map.  In outline it is a standard romantic poem about lost love.  But it takes weird digressions into sexism, racism, and weirdest of all, science fiction.

Here is the SF-y passage, which seems to come out of nowhere:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;

Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.

My novel, it turns out, is about the attempt to form a better government as New England is recovers from the “ghastly dew” that rained upon it.  Some people are still dreaming of a parliament of man, a federation of the world, and other are thinking: You’ve got to be shitting me.  Look how well the old government worked out for us!

And in the middle of it all, Walter Sands stumbles onto his second case, and he has to figure out which side a private eye should be on.

Why “Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies” is a better title than “Dover Beach”

I’m not the best guy to offer advice on titles, so I won’t.  Most of my titles are single-word descriptive titles: Senator is about a senator; Pontiff is about a pontiff.  Shorter is, I think, better than longer, but then again, I really like the title The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  The problem with shorter titles is that they can tend to mislead.  Pontiff is about more than a pontiff; Summit is about more than a summit.  But, when combined with the cover, they do the trick.

Titles get easier if the book is part of a series, like A is for Alibi.  Funny books should have funny titles.  The best title I’ve ever been involved with is Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies by the great Craig Shaw Gardner.  I recall a good bit of discussion about just what adjective should be applied to those bunnies.  Having arrived at fluffy, I can’t imagine what other words could possibly have been considered.

Titles serve two purposes. The obvious purpose is to make a reader want to buy the book (or read the story, or click on the blog post).  Like the cover, they’re part of the way you market the thing. Who wouldn’t want to read a book called Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies? (Well, if that’s not the kind of book you want to read, the title will do a great job of steering you away from it.)

But titles are also part of the aesthetic experience of the text, if I can get high-falutin’ for a minute.  The title Gravity’s Rainbow means nothing by itself; its significance grows out of the novel to which it’s attached.  Same with Ulysses.  Same with A Canticle for Leibowitz. You don’t come up with titles like that to sell books.  You come up with them because they grow organically out of the story you’re telling.

This brings us to Dover Beach, which is going to show up as an ebook before very long.  The title was suggested by my editor at Bantam, and I loved it.  The novel is about love and loyalty in a grim world after a limited nuclear war, and I liked the way the title brought out the connections with the themes of Matthew Arnold’s famous poem.

Which is to say, the title works really well in the “part of the aesthetic experience” department.  But Dover Beach was a mass-market science fiction paperback.  The title also needed to move product, as they say.  And that product didn’t move–at least, not compared to its predecessor Replica.  I think the title must have had something to do with it.  If the average science fiction reader read Arnold’s poem at all, it was probably because he was forced to in sophomore English class, and who wants to be reminded of sophomore English class?

For good or ill, the title is Dover Beach, and I’m sticking with it.

Here is the last stanza of “Dover Beach”, which is still moving a hundred and fifty years after first publication:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.