Where All the Ladders Start

I have looked at the novel I’ve been working on in all different seasons, at all different times of day, and I have finally decided its title is Where All the Ladders Start.  Readers of a poetical persuasion will recognize the quote from the ending of the Yeats poem The Circus Animals’ Desertion:

I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Deciding to give the books in my Last P. I. series titles lifted from poems is one of the many ways in which I strive to be a commercial failure.  Couldn’t I have come up with something clever — liking naming them after numbers, or colors, or letters of the alphabet?

Anyway, I am declaring the novel “pretty much done.”  So you’ll have a chance to take a look at it before very long.

Help! I need a title!

And it can’t be Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies, because that’s already taken, dammit.

For those of you just tuning in: I’ve got a sequel to my post-nuclear-war private eye novel Dover Beach; it is tentatively titled Locksley Hall.  I’m not convinced that the title Dover Beach ever did me any favors, and I’m even less convinced that Locksley Hall will be any better.  This post explains.

The hero of both novels, Walter Sands, is a bookish guy, so it makes sense that he would come up with a bookish title.  Locksley Hall, a poem by Alfred Tennyson, surely qualifies as bookish.  But I’m pretty convinced that no one is going to want to read a book with that title, unless maybe it’s a Regency romance.  On the other hand, I don’t want to give the novel a boring, self-explanatory title, like Walter Sands’s Second Case.

Locksley Hall is a weird poem in which the narrator is trying to come to grips with being dumped by his beloved.  He ends up getting past his personal unhappiness and giving a typical Victorian paean to the future and its wondrous possibilities.  Here is a couplet from near the end of the poem:

Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

I have made this the epigraph of the novel. You will notice that, in the context of a novel that takes place after a limited nuclear war that has made a mess of everything and everyone, the Victorian optimism of the couplet is absurdly ironic. On the other hand, as we see by the end of the novel, it is not completely ironic; after many setbacks and a lot of self-doubt, the hero has solved his second case and is finally starting to feel good about his personal future, even if the world he inhabits is still a mess.

So how does the title The Distance Beacons strike you?  The first thing that you might notice about the title is that the grammar is misleading.  The tendency is to think of “beacons” as a plural noun–so what the heck are “distance beacons”?  Is that confusion bad?  Sometimes a title that grates on you a little is a good thing.  Think of The Sun Also Rises, which is a quote from the Bible that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until you really ponder the novel.  What is that “also” doing there?  (OK, OK, I’m no Hemingway.)

I’d love to know what you think.

Here, by the way, is the scene where Walter discusses titles with his friend Art, proprietor of Art’s Filthy Bookstore.  Walter is taking refuge there after being shot and chased by Federal soldiers.  “TSAR” is a shadowy group that calls itself “The Second American Revolution”.


My friend Art is a pleasant-looking little old man with a long white beard. He is also a smut-peddler, but everyone’s got to eat. His store is filled with books and magazines that let people fantasize about a world they can never experience. He has his own fantasies, but they aren’t sexual: he dreams of literary soirées, of long philosophical discussions over a glass of sherry in faculty lounges, of a world where people can contemplate great ideas and meditate on the mysteries of life instead of brooding about the past (like Henry) or struggling just to stay alive. He feels that I am a kindred spirit, and I think he may be right.

“Walter!” he cried out when I staggered inside. “What happened to you?”

“Long story,” I mumbled. The prospect of finally getting some relief made me realize how exhausted I was.

He led me through the bookstore and into the back room where he lived. I lay down on his cot and closed my eyes while he bustled about, trying to find something he could use to bandage my arm. “I should tell you that you might get into trouble if the Feds find out I’m here,” I said. “They aren’t happy with me at the moment.”

I’m sure this didn’t please Art, but he was brave about it. “Then we’ll just have to keep the Feds from finding out,” he replied. He sat down next to the cot and began tending my wounds. “Now tell me everything,” he said.

I summarized for him the case so far. He shook his head in wonder as I described what I’d been through. “Why don’t you write about these things instead of living them?” he asked.

That had been Henry’s advice, too. “Maybe I will, if I ever get the chance. But right now I’ve got to figure out how to find Gwen before sunrise, or else TSAR says they’re gonna kill her.”

This was the kind of reality that made Art uncomfortable. It didn’t make me feel very good either. “But what can you do, Walter?” he asked. “How can you find her?”

I tried to think. I had no more theories. The only thing I could do was to find out what Gwen’s theory had been. How had she managed to find TSAR when no one else could? But to find out Gwen’s theory I had to somehow get to the Globe. “Have you got a bicycle, Art?”

“Well, yes, but—”

I struggled dizzily to my feet. “I’ve gotta go to Dorchester and talk to Gwen’s editor.”

“Don’t be a fool, Walter. You’ve got to rest. You won’t help Gwen if you collapse on the way—or if the Feds capture you again.”

I supposed he was right. “But I can’t just stay here,” I said.

“Look,” Art said. “Why don’t I send someone over to Bobby Gallagher’s place? Mickey can come pick you up and drive you to Dorchester.”

Bobby and Mickey once again. I decided to buy my own car once this was over and learn how to drive. Couldn’t I accomplish anything without help? “I dunno,” I said. I took a step; it wasn’t a very steady one. I sighed. “All right.”

“Good. Now rest.”

I sank back onto the cot and rested.

* * *

Art got a teenaged boy who lived next door to make the trip to South Boston for us. His payment was an ancient copy of Playboy, which sounded like a pretty good deal to me. While he was gone, Art cooked me some food and tried to keep my spirits up. “Have you thought about a title for your case yet?” he asked.

A title. When I had started on the case, I hadn’t thought it deserved one. Now, well—a title couldn’t hurt. But I sure was in no mood to come up with one. “Any suggestions?” I asked.

Art brought some scrambled eggs over to me, and I wolfed them down. He sat on a wooden chair next to the cot and considered. This was the sort of thing he enjoyed. “Your case really starts with the president and her dream, right?” he said after a while. “She thinks the referendum is the start of a great new age for America and the world.”

“I suppose so.”

“Then how about Locksley Hall for a title?” He smiled and quoted from the poem. “‘For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see,/Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.'”

“That’s some serious irony,” I said. I quoted from another part of the poem. “‘Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rained a ghastly dew,/From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue.'”

“Irony is good in titles,” Art pointed out, and he topped my quote. “‘Till the war drum throbbed no longer, and the battle flags were furled,/In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.”‘

The Parliament of man, the Federation of the world. The president was having some difficulty with her vision of the world. All we had gotten so far was the ghastly dew.

“It’s a bit obscure, don’t you think?  We’re probably the only two people in Boston who know that poem.”

“Why should that matter, Walter?  It’s not like anyone is going to read the book.”

“That’s a very good point.”

I finished my eggs, and we waited for Mickey.


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.

In which the narrator of Dover Beach comes up with a title for the book — and it isn’t “Dover Beach”

Here is our first exciting excerpt from Dover Beach, and it’s apropos of this discussion of titles.

It’s early in the novel.  The narrator, Walter Sands, has a strange desire to become a private eye — strange, because he lives in a world that has been devastated by some kind of catastrophe.  At this point, we’re not quite sure what that catastrophe was, but it’s beginning to look like some kind of limited nuclear war.  Walter has a job offer to become a hired gun for a black-market operation, but prefers to pursue his  dream–no longer entirely a dream, however, since he has gotten his first case.  A man has come to him believing he is the cloned offspring of a scientist from MIT, back before the catastrophe.  He wants to track down his “father” and find out why someone is trying to murder him.

Walter is a bookish sort, we are learning, and so he feels the need to come up with a name for his case.  The name, it turns out, is based on an old mystery–Trent’s Last Case.  You probably haven’t heard of it.  But you can download it for free thanks to the nice folks at Project Gutenberg.  (There’s an obscure movie version starring Orson Welles that I have never seen.)  Walter likes the first line of the novel.  So do I; so much so that I made it the epigraph for Dover Beach:

Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?

Not that Walter knows it just yet, but this is whatDover Beachturns out to be all about.

Anyway, here he is, back from a trip to the wilds of New Hampshire with his black-market friend Bobby, where they traded scavenged antiques for computer parts.  He lives with his girlfriend Gwen and a couple of other people, holding onto each other in the darkness of their fallen world.  He helps Gwen sleep, but he is unable to sleep much himself.


Gwen was waiting for me in the front parlor when I arrived. She was wearing her patched blue robe and a couple pairs of woolen socks. “How did it go?” she asked.

“Oh, fine.”

“No problems?”

I shook my head. “I think I’ll have a glass of cider.” We went out to the kitchen. With Gwen, I was never sure if my lies were successful. I always had the feeling that she understood everything, and that sometimes she just decided to let me get away with one.

She poured us each some cider, and we sat at the table. I told her all about the farm and Lavinia and Mr. Fitch and the electric lights and the tapestries on the wall. And then I remembered something. “I brought you a present.” I reached into my pocket and took out a piece of cake I had grabbed from the Rose Medallion plate.

“Oh, Walter. Thank you.”

“It was either this or a hard disk, and I figured you had more use for cake.”

She smiled and ate the cake.

“Bobby wants me to go to work for him full-time,” I said.

I waited for a response, but none came. She looked at me and sipped her cider.

“I told him to forget it. I’m a private eye now. No time for stuff like that. ”

She nodded, “You must feel good about getting that case.”

“Yeah. Well.” No sense going into it. She knew how good I felt. I finished my cider and stood up. “You should get some sleep,” I said.

Gwen stood up too. She took the lamp in one hand, and my hand in the other, and we went upstairs. We paused as we passed Linc’s bedroom. He was breathing heavily; he muttered something unintelligible in his sleep. Gwen’s hand squeezed mine. We went into our bedroom.

She set the lamp on the night table and pulled the bedcovers down. I took off my shoes. We got into bed, and she put out the lamp.

The darkness was total. We pulled up the covers. I put my arm around Gwen, and she snuggled into the crook of my shoulder. “Do you feel like it?” I asked.

“I guess not,” she said.


We were silent for a while. The darkness became less total. I could make out the looming bulk of the dresser, the elegant curves of the escritoire, the useless outline of the useless radiator.

“I’m glad you’re safe,” Gwen said.

“So am I,” I said. Glad to see the dresser and the escritoire for another day. Glad to see her. Across the hall, Linc snorted and groaned.

“Someday,” I murmured, “sleep will come easy.”

“And dreams will come true,” Gwen replied.


We didn’t say anything then. I stroked her hair, and we breathed together, and eventually her breathing became deep and regular. I listened to it for a long while, and then carefully pulled my arm from beneath her head. She settled herself onto the pillow, still asleep. I got out of bed, groped for the lamp, found it, and made my way out into the hall. I was an old hand at this. I lit the lamp in the darkness and walked slowly up the creaking stairs to the third floor. The lamp threw spooky shadows against the walls. I wasn’t afraid of spooks, though; there was too much else to be afraid of in this world. At the top of the stairs, I turned right. More shadows, more spooks, beckoning to me in the dim light, writhing in their lust for life, for freedom. The room reeked of the past, overpowered me with the musty odor of lives lived, of genius spent. It was an odor as exciting as any perfume. I entered the room.

Too many books, Bobby had said. An accusation.

Guilty. I stared at them:

Confess, Fletch

The Dreadful Lemon Sky

The Good-bye Look

Ten Little Indians

The Case of the Amorous Aunt

Green with mildew, brown and brittle with age, dying but not dead yet. Not dead yet.

It occurred to me that I needed a title. What good was a case without a title? Confess, Clone. The Case of the Confused Clone. I was new at this.

The Godwulf Manuscript

God Save the Child

Early Autumn

In those books Spenser was still alive. Still working out at the health club, drinking beer, listening to the Red Sox. Ah, would that it were not fiction. That way madness lies, as Mr. Fitch would say. But maybe you had to be mad to stay alive nowadays. God Save the Clone. Early Winter. No, try again.

Farewell, My Lovely

The Maltese Falcon

Penance for Jerry Kennedy

The Big Sleep

Trent‘s Last Case

Trent’s Last Case. An old, old British mystery with a couple of twists at the end. I took it off the shelf and glanced through it. Private eyes were nowhere to be found, although I liked the first sentence.

Sands’s First Case. The possessive sounded ugly.

Sandman. That was Linc’s nickname for me. I didn’t like it. The Sandman went around putting people to sleep, and I—I only did that for Gwen.

I smiled.

The Sandman’s First Case.

It would have to do, until I came up with something better.

I rummaged through a rotting carton of textbooks until I found one on cellular biology. I took it out, sat in my old, overstuffed armchair, and read by lamplight until dawn. Then I tiptoed back downstairs and got back into the warm bed beside Gwen.

I shut my eyes and snuggled up to Gwen, and after a while sleep came for the Sandman—short and troubled as always, but enough to let him make it through another day.

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.