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July 15, 2010

Book Notes - Jim Knipfel ("These Children Who Come at You with Knives, and Other Fairy Tales")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Wonderfully filled with dark humor and fantastic in all the best ways, Jim Knipfel's These Children Who Come at You With Knives is a collection of modern-day fairy tales that hearken back to the true spirit of the Brothers Grimm.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"These bleak fables about the hazards of greed, vanity, and other follies are filled with eccentric loners...Knipfel fashions a wildly entertaining and wicked world where few live happily ever after, if they live at all."

In his own words, here is Jim Knipfel's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, These Children Who Come at You with Knives, and Other Fairy Tales:

Every book I've written has had a very specific soundtrack; an album or composition I listen to repeatedly and exclusively while I'm writing. It creates an atmosphere within the apartment that helps focus all my attention on the work at hand. (I'm sure my neighbors love it, too.)

Something about the music has to capture a certain tone and rhythm I'm hoping will come through in the book. Because of this, choosing the proper soundtrack is a tricky business, and I've been known to spend months looking for the right music before I type the first word.

In the case of These Children Who Come at You With Knives, it was a very easy choice.

Bobby Beausoleil, Lucifer Rising

Beausoleil was a member of the Manson Family who is presently serving a life sentence for a murder committed prior to the Tate-LaBianca killings. He's also a composer and a revered electronic music pioneer. Back in the late ‘60s, when he was hanging out with the Church of Satan crowd in San Francisco, he became friends with filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Years later when Anger made his film Lucifer Rising (inspired by the work of Aleister Crowley), he asked Beausoleil to compose a score. Beausoleil created an experimental soundscape that was beautiful and unnerving and extremely dark. That music, together with that web of connections, made it the obvious choice given the nature of the book (though it began to seriously unbalance me after a few weeks of listening to nothing else).

Even though I listened to Lucifer Rising exclusively as I was writing, here are a few other songs that worked as early inspiration, or captured the spirit of the book as a whole, or are somehow related to specific stories within the collection.

The Residents "Goosebump"

Throughout a career that has spanned four decades, The Residents have regularly produced work that has the feel of a funny but sinister fairy tale. They've also always had a knack for unearthing the dark core of some seemingly innocent cultural icons, from Elvis, to ‘60s bubblegum pop, to commercial jingles, to "We Are the World." It would've been easy to pick an album or song at random and have it somehow reflect These Children… in some way. But in the short song cycle "Goosebump," released in 1978, they take a collection of children's songs and nursery rhymes—"Old MacDonald," "Ring Around the Rosie," "Humpty Dumpty," etc.— and dredge up the buried horror of each with heavy drumbeats, toy instruments, and electronically modified vocals. To this day, their take on "Three Blind Mice" scares the hell out of me while still making me smile. And I guess that's what I was after in the book.

"Oh, what can the matter be?"

Tiger Lillies, The Gorey End

Fashioning themselves as a contemporary English music hall band, The Tiger Lillies lean toward the bawdy, the grim, and the very funny. The great Edward Gorey was a fan of theirs, and shortly before his death he sent them a collection of poems he never had a chance to illustrate. With the help of the Kronos Quartet, the Tiger Lillies set the poems to music and released them as The Gorey End. I'd long been a fan of Gorey's, and his influence on my fairy tales was undeniable. As a fan of The Tiger Lillies as well, this was the album I passed along to my agent and editor as an example of the tone I was after in These Children…, though without the heavy British accents or the rhymes.

Sonny Terry, "Hootin' the Blues"

There are a few songs that can be directly connected with specific stories in the collection, but in ways I'd rather not reveal because it would give away too much. Sonny Terry's "Hootin' the Blues" and its connection to "The Chicken Who Was Smarter Than Everyone" is one such example. Let's just say the song should play during the final scene in the story. It's a reference to my favorite movie.

Black Flag, "My War"

Somehow I always imagined Gerard, the power-hungry protagonist of "The Gnome Who Would be King," singing this to himself as he turns his back on the rest of the gnome community.

David E. Williams, "Crippled Lord of Fairies"

Since the mid-‘80s, Williams has been crafting outlandishly clever, gorgeously orchestrated songs about horrible things. "Crippled Lord of Fairies," off his debut album (A House for the Dead and a Porch for the Dying) is a brief number—only about 45 seconds long—but it's always been one of my favorites. It must've wormed its way into my subconscious over the years, because only recently did I see the connection between this song and the story "Misery & Co." Especially the second line, "I killed myself with alcohol when I should've been killing you."

Robert Maxwell, "Oriental Blues"

The story "Rancid the Devil Horse" was inspired by, and in fact takes its title directly from, a single line in an old Ernie Kovacs sketch. Kovacs has been a huge influence on me since I was very young, so it seems only appropriate to include the song that was used as the theme for The Ernie Kovacs Show. Listening to it again today, it struck me that it would also provide a perfect soundtrack, should "Rancid" ever be made as a silent film.

Charles Manson, "I'll Never Say Never to Always"

Manson's catchy little hippie anthem appears in the final story, and unless I'm mistaken it remains the only actual song that is quoted directly as a song in the book. Given the nature of both the story and the song, it was the only thing that made sense. I have a long history with "I'll Never Say Never to Always," and its appearance near the end of the book brings things full circle, back to Bobby Beausoleil and Lucifer Rising, which was playing before I started typing.

Jim Knipfel and These Children Who Come at You with Knives, and Other Fairy Tales links:

the author's Wikipedia entry

Entertainment Weekly review
RA for All review

New York Press interview with the author
The Story Prize Blog guest essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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