Future of the Underground: What to Read Before Everyone Else Does

After years of living as a starving writer, Nick Mamatas has published a guide to the underground publishing life called Starve Better. In this essay, he talks about why he wrote the book, and offers a guide to the best underground writing you should be reading.

I've just published a book for starving writers called Starve Better (Apex Publications), based on a decade of experience trying to make the rent writing strange articles for third-tier magazines, non-generic genre fiction, and anything else I was allowed to. It covers writing tips, finding venues for publication, and how to use one's skills as a writer outside of traditional markets.

My interest in science fiction and fantasy is really just an epiphenomenon of my interest in independent publishing and underground culture. I write SF and fantasy and horror, but unlike many in my cohort I didn't grow up reading Asimov's and thinking how neat it would be to grow up and win a Hugo award one day. I preferred the editorial tastes of Ellen Datlow's fiction selections in Omni and thought, "Oh boy, it would be neat to grow up and have sex with an alien one day!"

Well that never happened, but I did get to work with Ellen Datlow a couple of times… Anyway, I mostly I read Omni for those bizarre "Antimatter" columns. It's odd that a slick magazine that was even advertised on television reported on and depicted more weirdness and bleeding edge stuff than the supposedly disreputable pulps, but as an eleven-year-old in Brooklyn, it was a mind-blowing experience each and every month.

Future of the Underground: What to Read Before Everyone Else Does

My mind was so blown, in fact, I've grown up to fulfill a secondary fantasy-for many years I was a starving writer eking out a living of sorts in dumpy Jersey City apartments, former New England mill housing, and a cinderblock bedsit in Northern California. I've written about the Otherkin for the Village Voice, the magickal design of logos for Silicon Alley Reporter, my experiences as a term-paper artist in the academic underground for The Smart Set, and tons of other essays and articles. Then I branched out into fiction — mostly the sort of science fiction and horror that makes SF and horror fans complain, "This isn't science fiction! You call this horror?" and readers of literary fiction slit their eyes and say, "Wait a minute…is this supposed to be scifi or horror or something?" "Antimatter" meant a lot to me, what can I say? This is why I continue to be a starving writer.

I've also met a lot of starving writers in my time as one, and here I've collected together some books and magazines and people you should be following, if you're into the fringes of the genre.

Swill
This print annual comes straight outta Berkeley and is very kooky indeed. The stories are a mix of local workshop buddies, the occasional big name like John Shirley throwing the locals a bone, and awesome weirdness from the likes of Delphine Lecompte who does not give a fuck about you, or the English language) and Craig Hartglass, who won a marriage proposal from me for his "My Day At The Mall With Paul Bowles and Jack Kerouac" in the fourth number. Art in every issue is by Sean Craven. No chainmail bikinis or space-porn here!

Requires Only Hate
You know those dubious-looking paperback fantasy novels that look a little sexy, and probably more than a little awful? This woman reads them all, and boy does she hate them. Her posts are arranged helpfully with tags like "neckbeard land" and "irredeemable verbal diarrhea upon which illiterate maggots feast." And it's not as though she hates everything. For example, she was pleased to give Richard Morgan points for his gay protagonist in The Steel Remains, and for lines like "the faintly hinted odour of shit from his opened anus…" As she points out, "[O]kay, not pleasant and not romantic, but no one's going to fault Morgan for writing idealized sex where semen tastes like honey and assholes lubricate themselves[.]" Requires Only Hate updates at a ferocious near-daily schedule, so bookmark it!

NVSQVAM (Nowhere) by Ann Sterzinger
Coming out in June from the tiny and insane Nine-Banded Books, who are the sort of assholes who stupidly publish memoirs by Holocaust deniers for free-speech reasons. But this book, which I blurbed, is fantastic. Lester is just another punk-rock nothing whose world is collapsing, but his life is heavily annotated and footnoted…from the future. Lester's life is a symptom of the fact that the world is shit, and NVSQVAM (Nowhere) is the kind of book that sexists of all genders like to claim women don't write or read. Wrong again!

Steve Bialik's Twitter feed
I attended third and fourth grade (P.S. 97, represent!) with Steve Bialik. He's an illustrator now, known mostly for his Japonisme versions of Star Wars characters. And he's hilarious. Here he is on last week's Rapture scare: "with the Rapture coming up Im gladder than ever that I let that spider outside instead of killing it. And that hitchhiker lives dont count" Why doesn't he have 5000 Twitter followers?

Lost in Cat Brain Land by Cameron Pierce
Have you heard of "bizarro fiction"? It's a subgenre of absurdist fantasy-horror heavily influenced by Troma films and other self-conscious "cult" stuff. A lot of it is good for a laugh, though the laugh is generally limited to the title, as in Cameron Pierce's Ass-Goblins of Auschwitz. But then Pierce followed up that silly novella with the collection Lost in Cat Brain Land and those stories are great! They're still bizarre, of course. "A monkey with amputated limbs gave birth to a meat-eating plant in the monkey pen at the zoo," starts a typical tale in this book. These mostly first-person (and occasionally second-person) narratives (dis)locate their characters in worlds too strange to be fiction. Check it out.

A Moment of Doubt by Jim Nisbet
This slim volume was just released by PM Press (my current fiction publisher) last year, but was written in the 1980s, when CP/M was king, text-based quest games were queen, and hackers seemed like all-powerful wizards. It's also about private eyes, the end of the publishing industry, and sex sex sex. But remember, of all the genre rules for detectives out there, only one cannot ever be broken…

Pick up a copy of Starve Better from Apex Publications.

Nick Mamatas' new novel, Sensation, is about parasitic manipulation and class struggle and those stupid Williamsburg hipsters. It is published by PM Press, a huge anarchist publisher.