Remembering Hugh Cook, a fantasy author

A long time ago my boyfriend (at the time, who we will call Mr.A). found himself in a Master’s level English class with his favorite author, Hugh Cook. A few months ago I happened to look Cook up on Wikipedia after trying to describe his work to someone and that’s how I found out that he had died in 2008, sadly, far too young.

As a fantasy author with 10 published novels you could say that he had considerable success. Especially if you had read those 10 long, genre-challenging novels. Wikipedia explains them in a clearer way then I can.

“The Chronicles differ from most fantasy or science fiction series by not telling the adventures of a main protagonist, on a particular quest, in sequential order.

Instead, each book is written from the viewpoint of a different character, whose personality and objectives differ markedly from the protagonists of other books in the series. The novels are set over the course of about thirty years.

Only occasionally do the plots of the novels interact directly, and when characters cross paths, they perceive events in markedly different fashions…

Book ten tells the story of Guest Gulkan, a recurring character who appears in many of the first nine novels. Guest’s story encompasses the entire chronology of the Chronicles, beginning before the earliest previously related events, and ending with the close of the “Age of Darkness”.

The 10th book somehow brought all of the characters into one narrative, connecting all the previous stories together in a feat of plotting and continuity that few authors are capable of. It was pretty amazing after reading nine long, densely detailed stories to find them all come together. I didn’t even really like fantasy, but I read and enjoyed these.

I remember being blown away that a published author would be sitting in an English class at the University of Auckland. But the story I heard from Mr.A. was rather demoralizing. Cook had struggled to get his books published. New Zealand is not a great place to live if you’re keen on publishing a fantasy novel. I would venture that it’s not a great place for books in general – an average fiction paperback cost around $17.95 back when I was working at London Bookstores… earning $9 an hour. The average NZ published work started at $24.95 and most of those were of the serious literary fiction type. Publishing is not easy anywhere, but Cook told Mr.A. that he had to publish in the UK to get his books in print at all. The publishers insisted on ridiculous titles – all following the same pattern – The Wizards and the Warriors, The Walrus and the Warwolf, and so on. And then when he tried to get into the American market his publishers insisted on splitting each of the long books into two books (actually that was only one book according to wikipedia), and saddled them with appalling cover art (which was true – I saw with my own eyes. Sadly American fantasy often has awful cover art). Cook told us he had many more stories to tell, but he was unable to publish them.

Now I see that this is just one way to tell this story. If you ask wikipedia, sales were disappointing and the W titles may have put people off, or it might have been the style of the books, being non-chronological, telling the same stories from different points of view, or the inconsistency of the writing style across the series. Some people might have found it hard to deal with there being no obvious good guys and bad guys. Mr.A would argue that some people just aren’t smart enough to appreciate such an amazing series. (Some people apparently think that Hugh Cook was a group of people writing under the same name, but he looked like a real guy to me).

From the kiwi point of view, and especially a Gen-X-uni-student-1990s point of view, this was a typical poor-me narrative – of being an underdog, treated unfairly, bullied into selling out (with those awful titles) and then being blamed when they bombed. Mr.A didn’t want to hear that he would have to struggle to find a publisher for his books, or that he might have to compromise with the marketing department (and that they might be right). Maybe it’s just a story of economics and the difficulties of publishing fantasy specifically, and fiction generally. It was very demoralizing to A who was an aspiring sci-fi/fantasy author, but he spent the next year writing his own novel anyway.

When I looked Hugh Cook up on wikipedia I found out that he’s known as a cult author. That’s good in some ways, better than being unknown or forgotten, but it’s kind of like those great TV shows that got cancelled after one season that people won’t stop mourning. Being extremely popular with a tiny group of people isn’t as much fun as being able to share your work with a lot of people over many years.

And the part that stunned me was that these 10 books were only the first half of his planned Chronicles of an Age of Darkness. He had 20 books planned for that series. And two more 20 book series after that! Chronicles of an Age of Wrath, and Chronicles of an Age of Heroes. Can you imagine going to a publisher with a plan for 60 books and being turned away after 10? No wonder he didn’t feel successful.

I don’t remember hearing that Cook was going to move to Japan, but he did, right around the same time that Mr.A and I did, and for the same reason, to teach English. It was a really good way to earn enough to live well and pay off student loans. Getting well-paid work in NZ was difficult at the time, especially for Arts grads. But I don’t know if that’s why Cook went to Japan. Maybe he had other motivations. Wikipedia says he lived in Yokohama with his wife and daughter.

And then he got cancer and was treated, and then relapsed and died at the age of 52.

But it also says that he published poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and novels on his website. This was actually the part that made the most impact on me, the difference that the Internet has made for writers and creatives of all kinds. I wonder how many more people Hugh Cook could have reached if he’d lived a decade or two later, whether he would have been a popular blogger, whether his sales would have been better. I imagine that he was thrilled that he got to share more of his work in the last decade of his life and got to interact directly with his fans.

Perhaps if he’d had more time he could have written and released those other 50 Chronicles books as self-published ebooks. Who knows?

I was surprised that in all the years since he showed up in that English class I had never thought to google him. I’ve even tried to tell people about his books before, even though I’ve never seen them in any library or bookstore in the US. I was sad that when I finally looked him up that he was gone. His website is gone too.

(I recently listened to this podcast about control of blogs and social media after death. I thought it would have been nice to be able to go and read his work now, even though he is gone. But sadly all that remains is an in memoriam photo and a random, probably spammy, link. I don’t know if that was his family’s preference, but it makes me kind of sad.)

So anyway, this is me remembering Hugh Cook.

This post has taken me months to write. Actually this is my 3rd try I think. I hope that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth writing. I hope that means that it was challenging but that it was worth persisting with. (Maybe that’s a lesson to learn from his story).

Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

Jo:)

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6 Responses to Remembering Hugh Cook, a fantasy author

  1. Really great post, Jo. I am sorry that there wasn’t more of Cook for you to enjoy on the internet. I am going to recommend his books to my husband as it sounds like someone he might enjoy reading!

  2. David D says:

    I read the chronicles years ago (got ’em originally from the library) – If you want to check his writing on his old zenvirus website try this archive – http://archive.is/zenvirus.com

  3. Martin Green says:

    Thanks for this Jo, great read, great author and his talent is much missed. I still read the W series books occasionally and wish he could have finished his projected cycle.

  4. DE CLARKE says:

    I ran across Hugh Cook’s books in the SF stacks of a library where a friend of mine works. Rather than being put off by the alliterative titles, I was intrigued, and leafing through them I thought “this is an unusual writer.” When I got home I hit Abebooks and ordered the first 6 in Corgi paperback from the UK. Now, like others who have stumbled across his work, I’m puzzled and even more intrigued. There’s a distinctive mind at work here, a flavour unlike other genre fantasy/sf. It’s a shame that he never got the chance to develop such an ambitious series. I was glad to find this memorial essay and to share the author’s regret that Cook (a) was born too early and (b) died too early.

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