The Origin of Anthony Zen


In October of 1989, I was busy in my attic alcove; a cheap plastic fan / heater combo kept me from freezing to death. I was on the top floor of a classic student house – eleven of us living together in some semblance of harmony. That small attic room was cold enough to hang meat; every day the decrepit sash windows froze into fascinating patterns of ice and frost, different each day – an arctic kaleidoscope. I started taking pictures of them. Sometimes I scratched my name into them.

I was coming down from my powerful HP Lovecraft addiction. “The Tomb and Other Tales” was a gateway drug.  Soon, I was into the hard stuff. “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” shook me to the core; it convinced me to start writing (and inspired the name of my small press). I was a junkie alright. My early writings were attempts to copy Lovecraft. I even painted his image on the back of my black jacket. Friends found his published letters in my backpack. I expressed interest in becoming a posthumously famous writer. There was an intervention. Anyway, now back to the attic alcove.

It was getting late, maybe around 11:30 pm. I was feverishly copying one of my Lovecraft clones from one messy notebook to a slightly more legible legal pad, so a friend could type it for me. Suddenly, it struck me: why was I copying Lovecraft’s style? Where would this lead me?

It occurred to me that I should be using the same style I had developed in my dream journals – a simple, straightforward, matter-of-fact description of extremely odd dreams (incidentally, a style that drew comparisons with Franz Kafka, who I discovered two years later). My grandfather, who I was very fond of, once saw me seated at his dining room table, jotting down my dreams. He asked what I was doing. I told him I was keeping a dream journal. He brightened up and said I should keep doing that; it could lead to something. He was right.

TOM CLARK: Franz Kafka: Before the Law

So I stopped mimicking my idol and started following my dreams – literally. Soon the words flowed like never before. My subconscious poured across the page. I caught myself completely off guard. I was laughing along with it, as if those words were written by a stranger. Before long, I had finished a completely absurd Halloween story. I had a friend who worked for the features section of the University of Guelph student paper, The Ontarion. She published it in a special Halloween issue. It got a fantastic response. After penning that story – it must have been just after midnight – it struck me how quick and effortless it was. I decided to try writing more in that vein. The excitement and energy I felt I imagined was similar to how young rebels felt during punk and the DIY post-punk and indie scenes.  All fine and good, but I needed a character – someone to hold the entire thing together.

I thought his first name had to be 3 syllables and sound rather prestigious (somewhat like my own name) but his surname had to be one syllable and blunt – even a bit odd (rather like my own surname). I figured the first name should start with the first letter of the alphabet and the last name the end of it. That’s how I happened upon “Anthony Zen”. It came to me so quickly – naturally, effortlessly. It sounded perfect.

So, I started writing my first “Anthony Zen” stories. Before I knew it, I had written five short stories; it was now around 2 am. It felt amazing. I was laughing as I wrote – surprised at what leapt up from my subconscious, in my dream-like state. I didn’t sleep until 5 am that morning. After writing those five stories, and coming up with ideas for several more, I needed a good title.

The title had to capture the essence of the stories, their dream-like feel. But it also had to be ironically humorous, since the stories were (deceptively) about nothing in particular (keep in mind this was years before Seinfeld – the “show about nothing”- ruled the airwaves), thus the foundation for most of the humour. The word “surreal” sprung to mind. I didn’t know the meaning of the word back then, but somehow knew it fit; I knew it had something to do with dreams and a general feeling of otherworldly oddness.  Also, Anthony was to carry out mundane everyday tasks; which I cheekily referred to as “adventures”. Thus the title came together: “The Surreal Adventures of Anthony Zen”. It all felt right.

So that was the origin of “The Surreal Adventures of Anthony Zen”. When I became obsessed with surrealism, reading and researching everything I could get my hands on, it was complete serendipity; the title did in fact suit my stories perfectly. Like many things in the world of Anthony Zen, things fell together and started to make sense in the end (how random is random?). Looking back at my creation, some 30 years later, it strikes me how much I can read into those stories. When I wrote them, I did not know I was autistic; looking back, it (pleasantly) surprises me how many hints are in those stories. As readers, I hope you too find them rich and rewarding – in their own merry, playful way.





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