Blaylock, James P.
James P. Blaylock
Born September 20, 1950, in Long Beach, CA; son of Loren Calvin (an orthotist) and Daisy (a nurse; maiden name, Teeslink) Blaylock; married Viki Lynn Martin (a secretary), August 12, 1972; children: John Andrew, Daniel Robert. Education: California State University, Fullerton, B.A. (English), 1972, M.A., 1974. Religion: Protestant.
Home— Orange, CA. Office— Chapman University, One University Dr., Orange, CA 92866. Agent— Writers House, Inc., 21 West 26th St., New York, NY 10010.
Fullerton Community College, Fullerton, CA, part-time instructor, beginning 1976; California State University, Fullerton, part-time instructor of English, beginning 1980; Chapman University, Orange, CA, creative writing instructor. Clerk at a pet food store, Garden Grove, CA, 1967-72; construction worker, Placentia, CA, 1972-80.
The Elfin Ship, Del Ray (New York, NY), 1982.
The Disappearing Dwarf, Del Ray (New York, NY), 1983.
The Digging Leviathan, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1984.
Homunculus, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1986.
Land of Dreams, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1987.
The Shadow on the Doorstep, Axolotl Press, 1987.
The Last Coin, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1988.
The Stone Giant, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1989.
The Magic Spectacles (young adult), Morrigan Books (Bath, England), 1991.
The Paper Grail, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1991.
Lord Kelvin's Machine, illustrated by J. K. Potter, Arkham House (Sauk City, WI), 1992.
Paper Dragons (limited edition), Pulphouse Publishing (Eugene, OR), 1992.
Night Relics, Ace Books (New York, NY, 1994.
Doughnuts (limited edition), illustrated by Phil Parks, Airtight Seels Allied Productions, 1994.
All the Bells on Earth, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Winter Tides, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1997.
The Rainy Season, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Old Curiosity Shop, A.S.A.P. Publishing, 1999.
Thirteen Phantasms and Other Stories, Edgewood Press (Cambridge, MA), 2000.
Home before Dark (chapbook), Subterranean Press (Burton, MI), 2001.
(With Tim Powers) Oh Pirates (poems by "William Ashbless"), Subterranean Press (Burton, MI), 2001.
(With Tim Powers) The William Ashbless Memorial Cookbook, Subterranean Press (Burton, MI), 2001.
In for a Penny (stories), Subterranean Press (Burton, MI), 2002.
The Man in the Moon, illustrated by Phil Parks, Subterranean Press (Burton, MI), 2002.
(With Tim Powers) The Devils in the Details (stories), illustrated by Phil Parks, Subterranean Press (Burton, MI), 2003.
Contributor to anthologies, including O. Henry Prize Stories, edited by William Abrahams, Doubleday, 1990; When the Music's Over, edited by Lewis Shiner, Bantam Books, 1991; Christmas Forever, edited by David Hartwell, Tor, 1993; Omni Visions One, edited by Ellen Datlow, Omni Books, 1994; and The Mammoth Book of Fantasy, edited by Mike Ashley, Carroll & Graf, 2001. Contributor to Web sites, including scifi.com; contributor to periodicals, including Omni, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.
James P. Blaylock is the author of a score of novels and short story collections that bend, stretch, and sometimes fracture the genre boundaries of fantasy and science fiction. So unique are some of his works that a new sub-genre term, "steampunk," was coined in order to give it a home. His books are filled with whimsy and eccentric characters, especially early works such as The Elfin Ship, The Disappearing Dwarf, and The Stone Giant. Full of picaresque and episodic adventures and characters full of quirks and ticks, these novels secured Blaylock a place of honor in fantasy fiction. His steampunk fiction—so called because it is set in the steam age of Victorian London—includes Homunculus and Lord Kelvin's Machine, while more contemporary and darker tales of good versus evil feature the author's home state of California as a setting. Such books include both science fiction and fantasy: The Digging Leviathan, Land of Dreams, The Last Coin, All the Bells on Earth, and The Paper Grail. Blaylock has also turned out novels of edgy horror peopled by ghosts and very believable everyday protagonists. These include Night Relics, Winter Tides, and The Rainy Season.
According to a critic for the St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, Blaylock is "perhaps the most singular fantasy writer to emerge in the 1980s." Describing Blaylock's work in the St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, another contributor called him an "artist of landscapes." For this reviewer, Blaylock "creates realistic landscapes, even when they are those of fairy tale countries, to accommodate his blend of everydayness, quirky characters, zany motivations, metaphysical speculations, and many varieties of magic." William D. Gagliani, writing in SFReader.com, similarly observed that "Blaylock has made a career out of creating real, wonderfully eccentric characters." The writer's trunk full of eccentrics in fact is, as Gagliani further noted, "as weird a collection of bizarre but amazingly sympathetic characters since Charles Dickens wielded a quill." For Blaylock, however, there is nothing weird or eccentric about these fictional personae; instead they reflect real life. Speaking with Jim Freund in an OmniVisions Web site interview, Blaylock commented, "I take far more from real life, so to speak, than anybody would believe. Most of my best characters are based utterly on people I know, and many of the books contain bits and pieces of autobiography with a Humpty Dumpty thrown in for flavor."
Born in Long Beach, California, in 1950, Blaylock grew up in a West Coast region that was just entering the world's imagination: a sunny, relaxed American Mediterranean paradise that was attracting thousands of immigrants each month. Attending California State University in Fullerton and majoring in English literature, Blaylock became friends with another aspiring writer, Tim Powers, who also became a fantasy author. Powers and Blaylock began collaborating on poetry that was hopelessly literary, historical, and filled with mythical allusions as a sort of practical joke. They even invented a fictional author for this poetry, one William Ashbless. In the ensuing years, both Blaylock and Powers have used Ashbless as a fictional character in their works and have had him write introductions to some of their works. In 2001, they even penned a cookbook of this fictional poet's favorite dishes. Ashbless is only one example of Blaylock's playfulness regarding fiction, a playfulness gained as a result of his literary heritage. As the writer told Freund, he was "crazy for Laurence Sterne and Joyce Cary" in college. Other influences include Kenneth Graham, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
While still in college, Blaylock began what would ultimately become his third published novel, The Digging Leviathan, a book much influenced by the work of Wells, Verne, and Sterne. Meanwhile, he married, started a family, and went on to earn a master's degree at California State, making a living both as a part-time college instructor and as a construction worker.
A Published Writer
Blaylock's first published novel, The Elfin Ship, appeared in 1982. This book, along with The Disappearing Dwarf from 1983, and The Stone Giant from 1989, form a loose trilogy of adventures that span, as the St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers essayist noted, "across what at first glance seems a fairly standard rural fantasy landscape, peopled with goblins, dwarfs, elves and reclusive magicians." However, the critic continued, these tales differ from others in the genre in that the "sensibilities of their characters are 19th-century rather than medieval," and literary influences include Sterne and Stevenson.
A contributor to the Great Science-Fiction and Fantasy Works Web site labeled this trio of books Blaylock's "G. Smithers tales," after a fictional author who appears in all three volumes and whose works in fact are exactly the sort of entertaining and delightful fantasy novels as Blaylock himself is attempting to write. The reviewer further described these books as a "genteel descendant of the great adventure tales of old, Treasure Island and its kin," and went on to observe: "The heroes are mostly likeable ordinary folk whose biggest problem in life normally is which G. Smithers book to next take up for the evening." There is also, according to the Great Science-Fiction and Fantasy Works contributor, an "anachronistic mix of elements: one of Blaylock's great achievements is that he manages to make a quasi-Victorian (if rustic) world with coffee and telescopes and pocket watches able cheerfully to co-exist with galleons and windmills and pirates." These "homey and cozy" books assured Blaylock's "position in fantasy," the same contributor concluded.
In 2002 Blaylock's original attempt at these adventures, The Man in the Moon, was published. The Elfin Shop was ultimately culled from a part of this manuscript, featuring Master Cheeser Jonathan Bing of Twombly Town and his rafting adventure downriver to save a Christmas tradition. The Man in the Moon has even less plot than the works published in the actual trilogy. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly felt that despite the "sheer beauty of the prose,"this was a book that would appeal to Blaylock's "strongest admirers, for whom its weaknesses are strengths."Blaylock continues the Victorian theme in Homunculus, which won the Philip K. Dick Award, and in Lord Kelvin's Machine. The two books share a common hero, Langdon St. Ives, and a common villain, Dr. Ignacio Narbondo. In Homunculus St. Ives battles to thwart Narbondo's evil plan to bring corpses back to life, while in Lord Kelvin's Machine, "a successful, tightly-plotted homage to H. G. Wells," according to the St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers essayist, St. Ives must save the world from a comet Narbondo has aimed at the Earth and also find a way to bring his murdered wife back to life. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Lord Kelvin's Machine a "tale of obsessive grief, time travel, mad scientists and gentlemanly adventure." Similarly, Dan Chow in Locus commented on the scope of the novel: "Blaylock has created a story which ranges from the blatantly sentimental . . . to the richly complex." While Gerald Jonas, writing in the New York Times Book Review, complained that writing the same novel is "regressive in more ways than one," Chow countered that Lord Kelvin's Machine "faithfully reflects both its antecedents and a more contemporary Weltshmertz." Similarly, Nancy Fritz Bunnell, writing in Book Report, concluded that "the author has done an excellent job of creating the mood of Victorian England."
Southern California as a Setting
Blaylock moves closer to his actual home and historical epoch for several novels that essentially pit contemporary and very everyday protagonists against an evil, with good ultimately winning out. These novels are not peopled by bigger-than-life heroes; their themes generally show that evil is undone by the simple, everyday actions of people who act on good impulses. Land of Dreams is set in a small coastal town that becomes the site for a bizarre fissure in reality as the Solstice—in this case a weird astronomical event that comes every dozen years—hits. The reviewer for St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers noted that this work is an example of "realism and fantasy uniquely fused," while Jackie Cassada, writing in Library Journal, similarly noted that Blaylock "weaves bits and pieces of surreal images into a fascinating tale."
In The Last Coin a very ordinary soul, Andrew, is sucked into a strange plot involving the Wandering Jew and the search for the silver coins paid to Judas Iscariot, while in The Paper Grail a museum curator in search of a lost woodcut by the Japanese master Hoku-sai is suddenly thrust into the role, as Cassada noted in Library Journal, of an "unwitting front-line soldier in a battle between good and evil." Cassada further found this a "witty and intelligent metaphysical novel." Walt, in All the Bells on Earth, is another everyday character, something of a neurotic who is trying to start a mail-order business. But when he opens a wrongly delivered package, he also opens the door to the powers of evil in this "deal-with-the-devil story," as a reviewer for Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction described the tale. Writing on the Agony Column Web site, Rick Kleffel noted that Blaylock's novel is filled "with wacky characters, humor and moments of real love stunningly portrayed." In a similar vein, Library Journal reviewer Cassada felt that Blaylock "infuses ordinary lives with extraordinary layers of meaning," while a Publishers Weekly critic praised the author for the "acrobatic grace" with which he "walks the dividing line between fantasy and horror."
Tilting toward Horror and Ghosts
Several of Blaylock's California novels jump over the line from fantasy into horror and ghost-filled realms. The protagonist of Night Relics, Pete Travers, "can't get over his failed marriage, although he has a growing relationship with another woman; when his ex-wife and son disappear, he faces a crisis," summarized a Washington Post Book World reviewer. Pete begins seeing a woman and boy walking in the hills near his home, and realizes that they are not his missing wife and son, but rather ghosts connected to his cabin in a story of long-forgotten murder. The Washington Post Book World reviewer concluded that Night Relics "is a powerful story full of creepy moments, made meaningful by a cast of well-drawn characters, living and dead." Booklist contributor Dennis Winters wrote that Blaylock "masterfully employs the night and the wind to conjure the eerie and terrifying menace." Cassada, writing in Library Journal, called the book "gracefully written and splendidly told." For Charles de Lint, writing in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Night Relics "is a darker novel than we have come to expect from this author, but the darkness is relieved by light touches and, as always in a Blaylock book, a great deal of heart."
Set on the Pacific Coast, Winter Tides is also a ghost story. Dave Quinn quits the surfing life after he fails to save a woman, one of two sisters, from drowning. The survivor is Anne Morris, and her twin sister Elinor's spirit comes to overshadow both their lives. Dave works for Earl Dalton's theater props company. Earl's son, Edmund, is cheating his family and has a propensity toward violence. In a Library Journal review, Susan Hamburger wrote that the contemporary ghost story "exposes the underbelly of human nature." A Publishers Weekly contributor called Blaylock's writing "supple" and the plot "tense and carefully executed." Gagliani observed of this and the preceding novel, Night Relics, that the "harder edge swings the books closer to horror territory," while Rodger Turner, writing for SFSite.com, dubbed Winter Tides "one of Blaylock's most intriguing novels to date." De Lint, reviewing the same novel in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, noted Blaylock's move toward edgier fiction and concluded that the author "is proving to be a writer unafraid of change—one willing to explore beyond the stylistic terrain that he has already so ably claimed as his own in previous work."
More tales of horror are served up in The Rainy Season. Jackie Cassada wrote in Library Journal that, with this novel, Blaylock "continues to display an uncanny talent for low-key, off-kilter drama." Booklist contributor Roland Greene called it "a novel of quiet—but not entirely psychological—horror." In southern California, the rainy season refills pools and springs as underground aquifers expand. One such pool has a secret history involving drowned children, time travel, and a crystal first created by a cult leader in 1884. Photographer Phil Ainsworth must protect his young niece from slipping into this pool as ghosts from the past return to redress old grievances, take control of the crystal, and protect the magic portal. "This is one ghostly tale that stands on very solid ground," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer. De Lint also had praise for the novel, noting in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction that while Blaylock "persists in mining the theme of strange doings in Southern California, it never feels tired or repetitive." The critic further explained that Blaylock's "prose continues to mature, his characters are ever more deeply realized, and he's able to blend whimsy and serious goings-on like few other writers working in or out of the fantasy field."
If you enjoy the works of James P. Blaylock
If you enjoy the works of James P. Blaylock, you may also want to check out the following books:
Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1962.
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine, 1991.
J. Gregory Keyes, Newton's Cannon, 1998.
Blaylock has also had success in the short story form, with collections such as Thirteen Phantasms and Other Stories, In for a Penny, and The Devils in the Details. Reviewing In for a Penny in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, James Sallis called it an "excellent collection," reserving special praise for the story "The War of the Worlds," wherein, the critic explained, "an entire life, an entire relationship, and by extension an entire culture, in their apparent last moments become the things their foot soldiers choose to carry." Similar praise came from a reviewer for Publishers Weekly who found these tales "simply, almost artlessly written." Such apparent artlessness informs all of Blaylock's fiction, as does his penchant for whimsy and characters who always surprise, whether they are involved in a quest to sell cheese, to save the world from a deadly comet, or to save their own soul.
Biographical and Critical Sources
St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Booklist, March 1, 1994, Dennis Winters, review of Night of Relics, p. 1179; August, 1999, Roland Green, review of The Rainy Season, p. 2038.
Book Report, September-October, 1992, Nancy Fritz Bunnell, review of Lord Kelvin's Machine, p. 46.
Bookwatch, September, 1997, review of Winter Tides, p. 7; November, 1999, review of The Rainy Season, p. 927.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1997, review of Winter Tides, p. 916; June 15, 1999, review of The Rainy Season, p. 927.
Kliatt, March, 1998, review of All the Bells on Earth, p. 16; March, 1999, review of Winter Tides, p. 18.
Library Journal, August, 1987, Jackie Cassada, review of Land of Dreams, p. 146; April 15, 1991, Jackie Cassada, review of The Paper Grail, p. 129; February 15, 1994, Jackie Cassada, review of Night Relics, p. 188; November 15, 1995, Jackie Cassada, review of All the Bells on Earth, p. 103; August, 1997, Susan Hamburger, review of Winter Tides, p. 141; July, 1999, Jackie Cassada, review of The Rainy Season, p. 142.
Locus, March, 1992, Dan Chow, review of Lord Kelvin's Machine, p. 31; August, 1999, review of The Rainy Season, p. 33.
Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September, 1987, Orson Scott Card, review of Land of Dreams, p. 28; May, 1994, Charles de Lint, review of Night Relics, p. 25; February, 1996, review of All the Bells on Earth, p. 39; March, 1998, Charles de Lint, review of Winter Tides, p. 28; December, 1999, Charles de Lint, review of The Rainy Season, p. 30; April, 2004, James Sallis, review of In for a Penny, p. 34.
Necrofile, winter, 1998, review of Night Relics and Winter Tides, p. 1.
New York Times Book Review, March 15, 1992, Gerald Jones, review of Lord Kelvin's Machine, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly, September 16, 1988, review of The Last Coin, p. 69; March 22, 1991, review of The Paper Grail, p. 74; January 6, 1992, review of Lord Kelvin's Machine, p. 52; January 17, 1994, review of Night Relics, p. 416; October 16, 1995, review of All the Bells on Earth, p. 46; July 14, 1997, review of Winter Tides, p. 70; July 26, 1999, review of The Rainy Season, p. 68; October 8, 2001, review of The Mammoth Book of Fantasy, p. 49; February 11, 2002, review of The William Ashbless Memorial Cookbook, p. 167; June 10, 2002, review of The Man in the Moon, p. 45; June 23, 2003, review of In for a Penny, p. 51.
Village Voice Literary Supplement, October, 1984, review of The Digging Leviathan.
Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1998, review of Winter Tides.
Washington Post Book World, February 27, 1994, review of Night Relics.
Agony Column Web site,http://www.trashotron.com/agony/ (January 13, 2005), Rick Kleffel, review of All the Bells on Earth.
Great Science Fiction & Fantasy Works Web site, http://www.greatfandf.com/ (January 13, 2005), "James Blaylock."
OmniVisions Web site,http://www.hourwolf.com/ (June 12, 1997), Jim Freund, interview with Blaylock.
SFReader.com,http://www.sfreader.com/ (January 13, 2005), William D. Gagliani, review of Winter Tides.
SFSite.com,http://www.sfsite.com/ (1997), Roger Turner, review of Winter Tides.
Sybertooth.com,http://www.sybertooth.com/ (January 13, 2005), "James P. Blaylock: Fantasy and Steampunk Author."*