Miskatonic Manuscript, Q&A part 4


(This is the fourth part of a week-long Q&A with Vin about his new novel, “The Miskatonic Manuscript,” continuing the adventures of rare books sleuths Matthew Hunter and Chantal Stevens, this time carrying them far beyond peaceful Providence, Rhode Island. The Q&A series begins here.)

Q: Is there a real “Books on Benefit”? Why is the series set in Rhode Island?

A: Providence is a relatively bookish town, along with Cambridge (pick your Cambridge) and Berkeley, and a couple of places in between. So a few used bookstores actually survive there, even in this Internet age. I published the weekly Providence Eagle from 1980 to 1985, so I knew enough about the town to set the stories there, I can mostly get the geography right. And of course Edgar Allen Poe passed through a few times; H.P. Lovecraft was from Providence, there’s some historical resonance to work with.

No, there’s no actual “Books on Benefit,” that I know of. I don’t think there could be, in that area within a few blocks of the Rhode Island School of Design, just down the hill from Brown. It’s the oldest part of town, the first settled, so the hillside streets were laid out in the colonial era, they’re very narrow. There’d be trouble over where customers would park, unless you tore down one of the adjacent old houses to pave a parking lot, which would arouse the ire of the historical preservation folk — only the university itself seems to be able to get away with that kind of thing.


The neighborhood is real, though. The old houses are real, with old trees and sandwich shops for the college crowd. New England is beautiful in the fall, in December you get snow and the Christmas lights; if the readers and the market give me any encouragement to continue the series there’s still material there to be mined . . . though of course I have no interest in a series where they’re all the same except you substitute a blonde suspect with a knife for a redhead suspect with a gun, in Perry Mason and his descendants. If the rides don’t get more challenging as you go along, why bother?

Q: Your characters don’t seem to have strong Rhode Island accents …

A: I try to keep the terminology pretty accurate -– folks in Southern New England are more likely to order a “hot oven grinder” than a “sub sandwich,” a term I think first encountered at a Blimpie’s in New York. New Englanders refer to “soda” where folks further west say “soda pop” or just “pop”; in New England it’s always a “paper bag,” never a “paper sack,” since sacks have to be made of woven fabric. People have made studies; they contend they can pinpoint your age within a decade and your home town within a couple hundred miles depending on whether you say “sofa” or “couch” or “divan,” whether it’s a “gramophone” or a “record-player” or a “stereo” –- I suppose now we’d have to add a Walkman or an IPad — whether it’s a “water cooler” or a “bubbler.”


I’m not quite that analytic. I play it by ear. And yes, I made a decision early on not to spell out dialogue among the main characters with phonetic indications of the local accent. Don Bousquet illustrated a paperback by Mark Patinkin, years ago, called the “Rhode Island Dictionary,” that’s a lot of fun. But I think readers would just give up, it would be too much constant work sounding things out, if two acquaintances running into each other on the street said “Hawaiiya?” “Goodinyou?” “Hanginintheah.” “Scone-on?” “Nah’much.” “Meeneitha,” “Avvagoodwon,” “Tawktyasoon.” I did try to give the charter boat captain a little different sound, and I didn’t want Marquita Solana to sound like a New England college lass. But I also didn’t want everyone to sound like they were trying out for a part on “Murder, She Wrote.” A little regional dialect goes a long way.


Q: The marketing for these books seems a little like a guerrilla campaign; why do they seem to stay under the radar where the mainstream press and distributors are concerned?

A: Not entirely by choice. Your remaining big boxes like Barnes & Noble just take whatever mix of books they get sent from “corporate,” which works from the lists of the big New York houses owned by the German conglomerates. Even if a customer walked in and asked for one of my books the clerk there would look it up on a computer that only lists books they have in the central warehouse or books they can order from one or two bulk wholesalers — that customer would be told my books are “out of print” or never existed. We’ve dealt with this for years.

And the mainstream reviewers are even more hopeless. They used to have the rationale that if they reviewed a book from a small publisher, their readers would get frustrated because they’d walk into Border’s or Barnes & Noble looking for that book and it wouldn’t be available. Of course, nowadays when anyone can find hardcover copies of our books online in 30 seconds or order them as instantaneous six-dollar downloads from Amazon, that rationale is out the window. But they still want you to jump through all these hoops; send them specially bound review copies in white wraps with information about how many thousands of dollars you’re going to spend on ads in The New York Times, do all this at least a hundred days before publication.

We tried that with The Black Arrow in 2005; printed the special whitebound review copies, mailed out a hundred review copies a hundred days in advance to Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, all the big dailies, jumped through all their hoops. No result, nada, no mainstream reviews, good bad or mixed.


They’re swamped, I understand that. More books are getting published – especially by small outfits – at the same time ad revenues are down. Traditional newspaper and magazine page counts and staffs are being slashed. When you’re up to your waist in new books and you’re clearing them away with shovels, how do you know which ones are worth a look? So basically they just rely on the same old politically correct New York editors at Putnam’s or HarperCollins, all these obstacles are set up to repel anything that’s not “pre-sold” — “Y is for Yesman” or some other sixteenth sequel with 80-year-old Richard Sharpe taking his riflemen off to fight the Crimean War.

And that’s before you figure in the fact that what I write is a little, uh . . . different. They’ve always got to worry about the boss storming into their office, shouting “We gave this thing a positive review and the drug dealers are the GOOD GUYS?! The heroes are STONED ON MAGIC MUSHROOMS? The courts and the police are the VILLAINS?! Are you NUTS?!”

I had a friend who was hired by Dino De Laurentiis to write a screenplay based on a comic book to which Dino had bought the rights, “Submariner.” After they’d been at it a couple of weeks, Dino came storming in –- Dino always stormed — and asked the two writers why it was taking them so long to cobble together a story. They explained it was a little harder when the title character is a bad guy. “Submariner is . . . BAD guy?” Dino asks. “Well, uh . . . yeah.” The big guy pulled the plug shortly thereafter.


We keep trying — we send out a hundred free review copies to Harper’s and the New York Review of Books and The New York Times, the usual list of suspects — but people who want anything new and different that doesn’t just reinforce the statist party line are going to have to set up some Internet forums to pass the word around, that’s all there is to it. Writing and producing an attractive small-press book takes a year’s worth of time and energy and many thousands of dollars, it’s an expensive hobby no matter how gratifying it is to have a few hundred readers say “I can’t wait for the next one!” We don’t ask for donations, but if you want these books to continue it does call for a little of people’s time. Post a review, or go find someone else’s review online and post some comments. (You may want to be cautious about visiting a site called “sci-fifanatic” -– I don’t know anything about it but our virus software detects “threats,” there. But there are plenty of others, including this site.)

If you like the books, mention them to friends, give one as a gift, ask reviewers and booksellers why they’re ignoring Psychedelic Fiction in general — and Matthew and Chantal, in particular. 🙂

Q: “Autograph” is a noun; the adjective is “autographed.” Yet your characters keep referring to “autograph manuscripts.” What’s the distinction?

A: “Autographed” is a very imprecise term, so booksellers don’t use it much. You might open a copy of an old book and find a letter from the author folded in there; that can be a great find. A letter like that will usually be described either as a TLS -– a “Typed Letter Signed” – or an ALS, an “Autograph Letter Signed.” The layman might describe them both as “autographed,” meaning the author signed his or her name. But the word “autograph” to a bookseller means the author wrote the whole thing out, longhand, holding a pen or pencil in his or her hand. An “autograph manuscript” has the same meaning –- the author didn’t merely sign the thing after typing it, which to a layman might make it “autographed”; instead it means he or she wrote the whole thing out, longhand.

Any of this stuff adds value. But -– while in the old days collectors seemed to prefer just a naked signature — the consensus today seems to be that the more writing the author did, longhand, the better. That makes sense, when you think about it.

If you find a letter inside a book, all written out in the recognizable handwriting of Charles Dickens, that reads “To my Dear Mistress Fanny — Even though our three children can never be acknowledged as mine under the law, I hope the proceeds from this book will help to support them when I’m gone, and that they’ll be raised in the Cthulhian Church as we’ve agreed,” that would be wonderful. On the other hand, if the letter were typed and appeared to be signed by Dickens at the bottom, suspicions might arise. You might want to have an expert take a good look to see if there’s been some funny business, there. You might also want to ask when the typewriter came into common use in England.

Q: That’s all the questions I had, for now. Anything else you want to add?

A: No. I think you’ve mentioned that readers are welcome to participate. I’ll be interested to see if there’s anything they’d like to ask, about what’s in the books or how they’re written. I assume that offer is good for a couple of weeks into January; after that I may get busy, you know . . . writing something.

Part one of this four part Q&A is here; part two is here; and part three is here. We still welcome reader feedback, comments and questions below. As always, thanks for reading!

9 Comments to “Miskatonic Manuscript, Q&A part 4”

  1. Thomas Mitchell Says:

    I got a chuckle reading the Lovecraft story at the end of the book when I noticed the house was on Benevolent Street in Providence and realized that Benevolent and Benefit intersect … in more ways than one.

  2. MamaLiberty Says:

    “And that’s before you figure in the fact that what I write is a little, uh . . . different.”

    Got a big charge out of this part. LOL You might not believe just how often that happens in a great many different settings. I issued a few memos to my staff, long ago now, and absolutely cherish the memory of some of them storming into my office shouting, “ARE YOU NUTS?”

  3. Steve Says:

    I took my time and enjoyed this story. As I read it my inner vision was activated, I “saw” the events taking place as they were described. This is one of the most enjoyable aspects of reading, the ignition of the imagination. From the vortex and what you saw in it to Chantal discovering the peyote cactus, it was like seeing the story, not merely having it dictated to me as some authors do.
    Character development was nicely mixed in with story-line, Stephen King can get boring with his character development, making me wait almost halfway through the book to get some substance.
    I liked the ending leaving open another adventure, I hope to see another in this series.

    I was surprised that the end was followed up with a string of reprisal episodes that would have fit in much better (in my humble opinion) along the way with the rest of the adventure, all of the corrupt/evil characters got what they deserved but it was all lumped into one spot. This part of the book made me wonder if it was an afterthought, though I think it wasn’t. Vin wanting to punish these characters as hard and harsh as possible. All these characters were shown to be as crooked as any in mainstream fiction. Evil must die, good lives and triumphs. It matters not where the evil is depicted, it must die for the story to be well received with a final destination.
    In stories where evil does not die, there is no ending, the story is left to live on in the the readers imagination.

    In short, I liked this and I would like to see another, please.

  4. Carl "Bear" Bussjaeger Says:


    “I was surprised that the end was followed up with a string of reprisal episodes that would have fit in much better (in my humble opinion) along the way with the rest of the adventure…”

    To each his own. Unless it’s handled very carefully, I find that shifts like that — not POV shifts of the same tale, not breaks to converging sub-tales — tends to disrupt the story; disruptive. Also, by placing them after the “real” story is over, Vin shows that particular episode may be over but the war continues.

    (And I could argue that the Cthulhians were a little distracted with trying to find their lost team, rebuild their trashed resonator, and that until the MIAs were recovered other volunteers might be hesitant to come forward. They aren’t Islamic jihadis seeking a short cut to Jannah and 72 perpetual bimbos. They’d likely want to know the boss has their backs and isn’t sending them on suicide runs.)

  5. Steve Says:

    Check this out….it’s perfect and you just can’t make this stuff up.
    It’s in Benefit street neighborhood, Providence.
    Nice picture at the hed.


  6. MamaLiberty Says:

    Seems to be a subscription only site. I’m not willing to subscribe, so can’t see the story. Nice looking building, what little of it I could see. 🙂

  7. Steve Says:


  8. Rick Tompkins Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this story. Some may say I am biased in favor of Vin and his writings, to which I would respond, so… what’s your point? Bias or not, it’s a good story.

    One of the questions that keep me wondering (due to the feel of authenticity that is apparent in many of the scenes) is, how much of the descriptions and ideas in the book are made up from whole cloth, and how much is based on research, and how much on actual experiences?

    I don’t need to know badly enough for you to risk getting unwanted attention from the thugs, so I hope you will answer carefully. Tongue firmly in cheek here.

  9. Vin Says:

    Hi, Rick — Thanks for joining the conversation. Hard to give a short answer.

    Certainly everything at “Books on Benefit” is based on real incidents, real books, real values — though it’s possible Matthew sets a standard of saintliness in regard to prices paid that would be hard to match in the real world. Books really can sit on the shelf unsold for years, which means simply meeting the monthly overhead can severely punish anyone who overpays for stock. (You may have noticed brick-and-mortar bookstores and thinning, everywhere.)

    Economic reality is a harsh teacher. If the seller is asked “Did you have a price in mind” for a $200 book and says, “Twenty dollars,” that’s all he or she is likely to get — and after some frowning and chin-rubbing, at that. (Not that our seller would be likely to get more than $40 or so from a re-seller, under any circumstances.) The main asset of any dealer who’s worked hard to make himself an “expert” is simply what he knows. No one else is obliged to do your research for you. In fact, human nature is such that a buyer trying to “do the right thing” and offer more may only arouse suspicion and “queer the deal.”

    As for the ability of sounds, vibrations, to affect states of consciousness, we know this just from the prevalence of music and chanting in all human cultures and religions. There’s further experiential evidence of substantial impacts on the pineal and the hippocampus — which we know have an impact on the dream state and thus by extension on the visionary state — in those under the influence of the plant helpers. How Lovecraft stumbled on that theme way back in 1920 remains unknown. Mr. Tesla may yet shed some light.

    Someone recently asked if I “believe in orbs.” I know the orb photos in “Miskatonic” are un-retouched. As to what they are, I agree with (still) the world’s foremost consulting detective, that it’s often unwise to speculate till we have more evidence.

    Finally, as to the question of whether, upon stumbling through a vortex into the Sixth Dimension, we’re really likely to encounter scantily-clad warrior goddesses battling bloodthirsty dinosaurs: duh. The answer to this one is so obvious that I’m surprised anyone would even ask. Of COURSE we are!

    Do you think Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, Wallace Beery and Bessie Love, Roger Corman and Robert Vaughan and Darah Marshall, David Hedison and Jill St. John, Doug McClure and Sarah Douglas, Michael Carreras and Raquel Welch and Martine Beswick and Victoria Vetri, Jennifer O’Dell and Rachel Blakely, would ALL have lied to us about this? Beyond that, what’s the likelihood they would have come up with such remarkably similar accounts, independently, if they were “just making it all up”? Honestly!

    — Vin