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In April 1997, I wrote my grandmother, Ms. Florence Eugenia Miller, a long letter about the significance of the Frogs Rampant on the VanderMeer family crest. A postscript to that letter asked if our family - on either the Miller or VanderMeer side - had produced any writers other than me. Subsequent letters from my grandmother did not address the issue. Naturally I assumed this meant that (1) the question did not interest my grandmother; (2) she knew of no other Miller/VanderMeer writers; and/or (3) there had been no other writers in our family. However, the true answer was "(4) None of the above", because in March 2000 she sent me the letter reproduced below, along with various photographs of book and magazine covers. I hope this document satisfies the fairly intense curiosity about my family's literary antecedents. (My immediate family members specifically asked to be left out of this account, an attitude I find remarkably short-sighted.)
- Jeff VanderMeer



Dear Jeff:

I enjoyed your recent letter, although your gardening skills could use some work (a cactus should last years, not weeks, even under the worst conditions). Also, despite your kind offer to send me an alien baby (?!) and a disposable camera, why don't you hold onto them. Instead, I could send you the pink flamingoes in my front yard and you could photograph Ann and Erin standing next to them. That would be more appropriate, perhaps. (And, before I forget, I do not have Martin Amis' address - that is not really the kind of information I keep around the house, dear.)

I hope you will not be upset that I am refusing your offer. Maybe this will cheer you up: I have finally completed the research necessary to answer the question you asked me in your letter of April 2, 1997. I started promptly on April 3, but things got away from me. There must be 10 file cabinets full of papers, letters, and documents in the attic, so it took longer than I thought - I had to ask the neighbor boy to help sort through it all. Most of the papers had little to do with literary matters. (Did you know Uncle Christopher spent three years in the Chattahoochee State Mental Hospital? And not as a guard, as some have claimed.) But I did, nonetheless, uncover a surprising amount of information. I have classified it below under subheadings for ease of use - and because I know how much you love subheadings.

The Gutenberg Connection
Appropriately enough, it all seems to have started with Gutenberg. In a locked chest - Jimmy, the neighbor boy, had to perform the action his name implies, using a hatchet, and I don't think his mother was too happy about it (the hatchet, I mean, even if it was a perfectly safe blunt hatchet from under the kitchen sink) - I found a handwritten letter from your great (x 5) grandmother, Henrietta Miller, and assorted older records.

It appears that the first famous literary ancestor on what would become the Miller side of the family was none other than one of Gutenberg's former scribes: Peter Schoeffer. Schoeffer and Gutenberg must have had a falling out because one of the oldest documents in the attic is a copy of a letter from Schoeffer testifying against Gutenberg on behalf of one Johann Fust. Fust had loaned Gutenberg gold in return for a partnership, but Gutenberg denied offering a partnership. Shortly thereafter, Fust and Schoeffer went into business together as one of the world's first printing companies.

Schoeffer had already made a name for himself as Gutenberg's helper - he had assisted with the "Gutenberg" Bible and had printed a Papal Bull in 1454 against the Turks, who had just taken Constantinople. Schoeffer also helped print papal indulgences granting authority to raise money for a campaign against the Turks (according to a faded photograph of a page supposedly from Schoeffer's diary, Schoeffer mischievously mis-printed the amounts, which, drastically lessened by an order of two decimal places, were not enough to mount a serious threat against the Turks).

But Schoeffer's main claim to fame may be as one of the first PG (Post-Gutenberg) self-published poets. Under the auspices of Fust & Schouffer, Schoeffer paid for the publication of his poetry and prose, the most infamous of which sold only five copies, with the remaining 400 copies given away at local churches. Henrietta concludes that "Although Schoeffer contributed greatly to the history of books, although his sons followed in his footsteps and built a great publishing enterprise, Schoeffer died a heartbroken man, his literary ambitions never fulfilled."

An Aside
Jeff, I must use an aside now. I know you like asides, too, so I hope this will not bother you too much...I'm afraid the VanderMeer side of your bloodline only appears in the Odds & Ends section that ends this letter - not much literary ambition over there, apparently - but I must set down a few facts relevant to the Gutenberg era. Although the VanderMeers have generally been involved with the sciences throughout the centuries - including pseudo-sciences I am sad to note [at least one account I stumbled across stated that a "Johannes VanderMeer has been charged by English authorities with assisting Nicholas Dee in Matters Infernal"] - you have one well-known Dutch ancestor peripherally connected to the Arts. Laurens Coster, whose daughter married into the VanderMeer family, is cited by many historians as the chief rival to Gutenberg's claim of having invented the printing press. Still, the less said the better.

The Drought
Following Schoeffer's self-publishing efforts, the Miller and VanderMeer family trees are littered with rum-runners, thieves, pirates, cut-throat traders, brothel owners, goatherds, and Guild middle management. The VanderMeer side of the family features a few prominent scientists, but no literary ambitions blossom on either side for more than 350 years. It is not until the 20th century that writers again appeared in the Miller family.

The 20th Century
In the 1930s, two brothers, Nathaniel Miller and Frederick Miller, brought the literary arts back into the family fold - although their talents could not have been more different. Nathaniel Miller had dozens of stories appear in magazines such as Odd Stories, Fantastical Fictions, and Weird Tales. Arcane House published five collections of his short stories, including the famous Nights Beyond Night (1937) and Beyond Dread Albion (1939). His one novel, Dark Sings The Lark Beyond the Veil (1938), divided critics of the time. Lovecraft wrote of it in the letters column of Night Mares, a nonfiction fan zine of the time, "It is, in its fulminous ferocity for decrepitude and decadent barbarism, indistinguishable from that which poured forth from the ashen pens of Poe or Ashton Smith." Robert "Dicky" Slapper wrote, in Weird Tales, "Yet another pastiche, not at all skillfully done, of Lovecraft. In this novel, Miller's depiction of the timeless, evil Ancient Ones seems like some kind of obscene Punch & Judy Show."

Frederick Miller, on the other hand, was for a time in the late 1930s through the early 1950s considered the equal of Thomas Mann and Ernest Hemingway, before fading into obscurity and alcoholism. His stories, the most famous of which is apparently "The Refraction of Light in a Prison", regularly appeared in The New Yorker next to those by Eudora Welty and Vladimir Nabokov. Frederick's novels - all of which are out of print - include Back from the Angel's Tavern (1933) (published as, oddly enough, The Back of the Tavern of the Angels  in Germany), Tabernathy's Dilemma (1935), Crutchshank Malone (1945), and Hymn to the Fallen (1950). Hymn to the Fallen, according to my research, is now considered an excellent and criminally-neglected World War II novel, although no one has brought it back into print. Unfortunately, two bad marriages and a stint in World War II that left permanent scars ended Frederick's inspiration and his literary career. Alcoholism proved the final blow. There is even a letter from Nathaniel to Frederick offering to help him place a story in Weird Tales, although by this time Nathaniel's star had also faded, so I can't imagine he would have been able to help his brother much. (Nathaniel, by the way, disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1963 - his car was found at an old abandoned 18th century farmhouse in the wilds of Massachusetts, but his body remains missing.)

Anyway, ironically enough, given the apparent literary quality of Frederick's work, it is Nathaniel's Ancient Ones that have stood the test of time - you may even have come across his work in Weird Tales reprint anthologies and not realized he was a family member.

Odds & Ends
Since the rise and fall of the Miller brothers, there have been no major writers on either side of the family tree. There have been instead what I like to call "Odds & Ends", almost exclusively on the VanderMeer side of the family. I provide a short list of these "one-offs" below just to round out this letter:

* The History of the Nostril (1964, Harcourt, Brace, & Janovich), by John VanderMeer. A probing nonfiction account that "looks at the nose in a refreshing new light - from physiological, historical, social, and chromosomatic points of view" (from the cover). Marred by recurring passages on the effects of alien abduction on the human nose. John VanderMeer, a dentist by trade, appears to have been a little out of his area of expertise. He never published another book.

* The Development of the Navel in the Art of Western Civilization (1967, Simon & Schuster), by Natalie VanderMeer. A coffee table book filled with various artistic representations of navels. The accompanying text discusses "innies", "outies", and "mutations". The book apparently did not sell very well. Natalie never published again.

* Mary, Mary, She's So Hairy: The Revelations of a Sideshow Freak (1969, Glam Press, a vanity publisher), by Randy Miller. A tell-all book of "revelations" by sword swallower Randy Miller. The book was sold by Randy before and after his shows with the Glorious Sundial of the Gods Traveling Circus, a hippy flower power circus that did not feature animal acts or clowns and which went bankrupt after 10 months. Randy became a security guard shortly thereafter and never published again.

* The Seasons of My Backyard (1985, Blossoming Flower Productions, a division of Larry's Lawncare Services; self-published), by Larry VanderMeer. A meticulous chronicle of 365 days in the life of the author's backyard lawn. A lavish 2,500-page hardcover with endpapers. An excerpt from a sample entry:

"September 3, 1984: Today I discovered that blade of grass #254,222 had turned yellow, a trend that had begun to affect blade of grass #254,221 and blade of grass #254,223. I quickly plucked #254,222 and watered the entire area, including tree #34. I then inserted #254,222 into a matchbox and, in the gravel garden, atop stones #3,010 through #3,015, burned #254,222 into ash using matchstick #35 from matchbox #5,204."

I hope this satisfies your curiosity as fully as it has satisfied mine. Please write soon - and let me know if I should send you these boxes of documents. Some of them might be valuable.


Book covers by Mark Roberts