Thursday, February 11, 2016

Into the Vortex

As promised in my curmudgeonly Star-Wars-flogging post, here are reviews of two more from the seventies.

Zardoz (1974)


If you ever have a hankering for a film whose opening scene depicts a generously mustachioed Sean Connery wearing an orange diaper and cowering before a giant floating stone head that booms "THE GUN IS GOOD! THE PENIS IS BAD!" while spewing heaps of firearms through its stone teeth into the arms of worshiping orange-diaper-clad warriors, then, my friend, this is the movie for you.

My brother apparently thought it was the movie for me, because, after he caught it as a midnight cable flick last spring, he immediately ordered me a copy in anticipation of Christmas. (I got him The Thing and They Live.) Admittedly, we do share a warped taste in movies, which makes sense, seeing as we rented videos together during our formative years.

But I digress. Amazingly, Zardoz was directed by John Boorman, fresh from his success with Deliverance (1972). I've never seen Deliverance, though my understanding is that it involves, er, hillbillies. I have seen another Boorman effort, Excalibur (1981), so many times that I'm embarrassed to attempt a count. It's as clunky and awkward as its knights, who insist on wearing their big, shiny suits of armor while relaxing and eating dinner around the Round Table, but, oh, how I love it. The Grail sequence and closing scenes are simply sublime, and redeem much that has gone before.

But I digress again. After Deliverance, Boorman was given free rein to make the movie of his heart's desire. Zardoz was the outcome. Because it jumps around a lot and doesn't explain itself, it can be a little hard to follow. It's one of those movies that you suspect are best enjoyed in small doses while high on some controlled substance. With only my staid and sober brain to guide me along, however, I seem to grasp the following:

It is the year 2293. The world, unsurprisingly, is a whacked-out place. Mankind is divided into two groups: the Brutals and the Eternals. The Brutals are grimy peasants who live in a sad wasteland. The protagonist, Zed (Sean Connery), is an Exterminator, a Brutal whose job is to ride around shooting extraneous peasants. But there's a bit more to him than that, as we later discover: secretly, he's a super-intelligent mutant not over-fond of the works of L. Frank Baum.

The Eternals are immortal, though sometimes they're aged a few years as a penalty for rule-breaking. They're very pretty, both men and women, with the men wearing little crocheted sweaters with low-cut necklines. They're also quite impotent. They spend all their time eating fruit and getting mellow in small-group sessions. Their society is run by the Tabernacle, an A.I. resembling a talking Wikipedia, which they can access through their mood rings. They seem very smart and have mind-control powers, but there's something of the Eloi about them.

The Eternals live in the Vortex, a beautiful green valley enclosed by a force field, where they manage an old (Irish?) farmstead. It has one building painted blue to make it look futuristic, some plants growing in plastic bubbles, a mirror door leading to a complex filled with famous statues and paintings, and a bunch of groovy interiors whose spacial relation to the farmstead buildings is never elucidated, including an orange one that looks like the set of an old TV game show and another with sloping crystal walls behind which nude women float through space.

Not all is well in the Vortex. The Eternals have stagnated. Some, overcome with ennui, have become Apathetics who just stand around looking at one another all day. Others, recalcitrant troublemakers, have become Renegades, who are made old and senile but can never die. They're housed apart, whiling away their days in mawkish fancy-dress parties.

Zed rides the floating head into the Vortex. He becomes a domesticated animal and symbol of male potency. In time he's revealed as a messiah-figure come to bring the gift of death to the Eternals, which arrives in a crazy tragicomic bloodbath, the victims gleefully crying "Kill me! Kill me!" to their murderers. It ends with Zed siring a child with Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), an Eternal who had wanted to destroy him but now loves him, in the giant floating head, which is no longer floating. Their son leaves and they grow old and turn into skeletons, all to the tune of Beethoven's Seventh.

Visually, this movie is actually quite beautiful. Certain images and scenes definitely stick with you. On the other hand, it is horribly awkward in parts, beginning with the prologue, in which the cut-out, barely-mustachioed head of one Arthur Frayn (the voice of the stone head) floats around on a black screen, saying things like, "In this tale, I am a fake god by occupation, and a magician by inclination." Then there's the part where they show Zed some weird porno films to see if he'll get an erection, and the part where…well, you get the picture.

All in all, it's one of those trippy and highly symbolic but opaque movies they made in the late sixties and seventies, that leave you with a feeling of wondering what you just watched. The nuttiness of its plot as I try to summarize it reminds me of the fictional movie described by Philip K. Dick in VALIS, which for some reason remains one of my favorite science fiction novels. Dick himself was inspired by The Man Who Fell To Earth, starring the late David Bowie, which is another of those movies.

So, is Zardoz worth watching? Well, I enjoyed it, so I'm going to come down on the side of...yes.

A Boy and His Dog (1975)


A Hugo-winner based on a story cycle by Harlan Ellison, this one is genuinely worth watching, if you have the stomach for it. It's crass and brutal, and there's arguably a misogynistic slant to the whole thing, especially the ending, so be warned.

Taking place in the post-nuclear wasteland of Arizona (as opposed to the pre-nuclear wasteland of Arizona), it centers around the titular teenage boy, Vic (Don Johnson), who roves the landscape in search of canned food to eat and women to rape, and his titular dog, Blood (voice of Tim McIntire, who also sings the main theme), with whom he communicates telepathically. Vic is vicious, shallow, and not particularly intelligent; Blood is the real leader of their team. (There's an unsubstantiated rumor that the dog is Tiger from The Brady Bunch, which I dearly wish were true, but strongly suspect is not.)

The only civilization shown on the surface is a camp where wanderers can trade food for the opportunity to watch surreal pornographic films. There Blood sniffs out a female human, whom Vic follows with ungentlemanly intentions. But after he saves her from scavengers (shown) and mutants (not shown), she seemingly falls for him, and they proceed to do things that bore and disgust Blood. In reality, the girl, Quilla June (Susanne Benton), has been sent by her father (Jason Robards) from their underground city ("Topeka," a bizarre totalitarian parody of Midwestern culture) in order to entice Vic down so that he can be captured and impregnate all their females. This is not as happy a fate as Vic at first imagines...

The movie remains genuinely interesting and darkly humorous throughout. While horrifying in a way, there's a certain hilarious justice to the end, although Mr. Ellison objected to the last line, which he characterized as moronic and chauvinistic. The whole thing has a low-budget feel, but does well with what it has, and evokes classic science fiction literature in a way that most movies do not.

*

To read more of my rambling yet uniquely entertaining and insightful reviews of seventies science fiction movies, start here:

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Force Awakens: A Belated Non-Review

Oh, Star Wars, how you hurt me! Against my better judgment, I went to see your new movie last month, only to have my heart finally steeled against caring anything about any of your installments ever again.

No, I don't intend to review your feeble attempt to recover from the embarrassing prequels, through which I continued to hope against hope that one day things would be like they were in the beginning, fool that I was. I won't give you that much time. In fact, I won't even take the trouble to insult The Force Awakens, except to say that it's an imbecilic retread of the original Star Wars (or whatever you're calling it nowadays) with a monumentally stupid, contrived plot (um, no one has a complete star map? really?) that serves as the thinnest of excuses (see right) for Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher to mug the camera, winking and simpering like idiots and prancing about in their old costumes, while giving in-character endorsements as though doing product placement spots for poorly conceived, inconsistently drawn, shallow, whiny, adolescent non-characters who run around shrieking like fanboys/girls and to whose further adventures and shocking familial revelations we will no doubt be subjected in the sequel, though it matters little to me since I'm certain never to put down the money to see another of these idiotic attempts to cash in on my childhood ever again.

Man, I loved you, Star Wars. It hurts me to say this. But it's true. You think I'm being too harsh? You should be thankful that I at least waited until all the people who were going to go see The Force Awakens went and saw it, so that I wouldn't ruin it for any of the poor benighted souls, even though, deep down in their hearts, they know the truth. You think I'm exaggerating? You know what? It's got 3.7 stars on Amazon right now, as opposed to, say, The Fifth Element, which has 4.4. Ouch. But you know, when I come to think of it, I too would rather slog through two hours of Ruby Rhod and that blue singing alien lady than The Force Awakens again.

Wait, what's that? Oh, you think this one is different from the original, because, instead of having a Death Star destroyed by a ragtag group of resistance fighters, it has a Starkiller Base destroyed by a ragtag group of resistance fighters? Sure, I guess it's different, in that the latter has pine trees growing on it, and, instead of immolating millions of innocent people I don't care about except insofar as their deaths make me feel like the bad guys are really bad, man, it immolates billions of innocent people I don't care about except insofar as their deaths make me feel like the bad guys are really bad, man. But then again, the first Death Star is handled in a dramatically effective way, whereas the Starkiller Base is…not.

Eh? What's that? You think your Storm-Trooper-turned-hapless-hero is pretty clever, eh? Yeah, I can just imagine the moment he was conceived in the writers' minds: "What if, like, we had this Storm Trooper, but he, like, turns out to be a good guy. And he's, like, all goofy and clumsy. That would be really cool." I especially appreciate how he has an utterly unmotivated change of heart because Blood! and rescues that Rebel Resistance guy because it's "just the right thing to do" and then gleefully blows away scores of his former fellows who presumably were kidnapped as children and subjected to the same brainwashing he was.

What? No. No, listen. This is it between us. Never again am I going to let you hurt me. If you really still loved me, you would at least have the decency to release the original trilogy on DVD, with the original special effects and no added scenes. But you won't, will you? You're just going to go on pretending that the insertion of that awkward computer-generated conversation between Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt was a good idea. Yeah. I thought so.

I don't do this lightly, Star Wars. I remember how we first met. It was the Eighties. Those cool long-haired denim-jacketed teenage boys who lived next door had practically every single action figure and vehicle ever made, including the Millennium Falcon, an X-wing, a TIE fighter, and an AT-ST walker, with all the characters stored in a set of snap cases, and they let me and my brother play with them when our mom went over to smoke cigarettes with their mom, who had one of those little trees with gold leaves in her living room, which isn't really relevant but helps set the scene. And then I saw The Return of the Jedi, which was somewhat bewildering, since I had no idea who the characters were, but also really, really cool. And in time I saw the others, and, after that, whenever we got to rent something from Videoland, it was a Star Wars movie, over and over again, so that we might as well have just bought the tapes for ourselves.

Well, listen, Star Wars. I've been seeing other sci-fi movies from the seventies. Movies like Silent Running and Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Logan's Run. Movies like The Omega Man and Soylent Green and Westworld. They aren't always great. Actually, sometimes they're pretty bad. They could never be as awesome as the original Star Wars. But they'll never break my heart, either.

Where the real money is made!
Stay tuned for my review of two more science fiction gems cult classics items from the seventies.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Ghosts, Personal and Otherwise

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange! 
Hamlet
Ghosts, it is advanced, either do not exist at all, or else, like the stars of noonday, they are there all the time and it is we who cannot see them.
I…have never been able to understand why the unvarying question should be, "Have you ever seen a ghost?" when, if a ghost cannot exist apart from visibility, his being rests solely on the testimony of one sense, and that in some respects the most fallible one of all. May not his proximity be felt and his nature apprehended in other ways? I have it on excellent authority that such a visitor can in fact be heard breathing in the room, most powerfully smelt, and known for a spirit in travail longing for consolation, all at one and the same time, and yet not be seen by the eye. And even short of signs so explicit as these, who at some time or other has not walked into a room, known and familiar and presently to be known and familiar again, but that for a space has become a different room, informed with other influences and charged with other meanings? Something has temporarily upset the equilibrium, which will be restored by and bye. 
– Oliver Onions, "Credo"
A person I know believes, or half-believes, that he once came into contact with a certain something in a nineteenth-century house turned restaurant. Throughout our dinner, he felt the presence of someone waiting at his elbow, and actually turned to see who it was several times. Contrary to what's shown in the movies, that seems usually to be the way of it: the person who has "seen" a ghost has experienced some sort of psychological disturbance – an upsetting of the equilibrium – that has convinced him personally, on some level, that something was there, but is unable to offer much more than a subjective impression as proof.

The materialist would simply say that a belief in ghosts is irrational. To me that seems to miss the point. Of course it's irrational. Ghosts are irrational. That's the very reason they're so terrifying: they represent a dissonance in the logical framework of the universe, a thing that could not and should not be but yet somehow is.

And what exactly is a ghost? The disembodied spirit of a departed person? Calling up visions of Jacob Marley and Hamlet's father, who are basically just bodiless people, that seems hardly an adequate definition. Sometimes a ghost is more the decayed psychic remains of a person. At others, it's a sinister, inhuman semi-intelligence or force, a watchful presence at work in a place or object. And quite often it's something else altogether.

Perhaps ghosts, like love, elude us when we try to define them.

*

My grandfather passed away when I was nineteen. His was the first death I had witnessed with my own eyes. The semi-mechanical winding-down of his body – his brain had already died its own death as the result of a medical error, and the family had made the decision to take him off life support – may be the most horrible thing I ever watched.

He had served as my confirmation sponsor two years before. I can't say why I'd asked him, as he wasn't in communion with the church, refused to communicate in the course of my confirmation, and died as he had lived. Still, we had a certain bond because of it. My grandmother, though herself not entirely orthodox in her opinions, didn't approve of our free-thinking collusion.

After his death, I began dreaming of him. The dreams were always the same. I'd be at a family gathering, and my grandfather would arrive, sitting down in a corner without saying anything or making eye contact with anyone. Gradually, the realization would grow in me that he oughtn't to be there, that he was, after all, dead, and that I had seen him buried. Mixed with the sense that something just wasn't right, I had the anxious feeling I get in those dreams where I'm supposed to depart on a journey, but things keep happening to delay me, so that I end up wandering around, getting farther and farther from my goal. In this dream, the feeling was vicarious, experienced on my grandfather's behalf. Go! I would tell him. You don't belong here! But he would hang on disconsolately, saying nothing.

This went on for such a long time – years – that I finally told my father about it. He related a story about my great uncle, my grandmother's brother. I was named after him but never met him, as he died before I was born. An air traffic controller and (I'm told) something of an alcoholic, he had remained in Puerto Rico all his life; it was he who had introduced my grandparents. After his death, my great uncle began "visiting" my grandfather much as my grandfather was visiting me. According to custom, my father said, the way to stop such visitations was to light a candle while one slept. I know not whether my grandfather employed this remedy, nor with what success. At any rate, I never sought such relief. If my grandfather was visiting me, why would I want to drive him away? The visitations gradually ceased on their own, however.

Now, I was not the only one to report being visited by my grandfather. Soon after his death, my grandmother, who used to confide in me, began telling me that he would come to her in the house they had shared, and not merely while she was asleep. Whenever she asked whether I thought this possible (for some reason she considered me an authority on spiritual matters), I would tell her, noncommittally, "I don't know, Granny," and change the subject, which, I felt, was not conducive to her mental health.

To explain what this meant to me, I find that I must describe my grandmother and her house more fully.

My grandmother had long, straight white hair. She was, as my grandfather had been, considerably overweight, and usually dressed in black, never showing any flesh above her wrists, which were banded with quantities of jangling bracelets. She had a peculiar horror of light and space. She kept her house as dark as night, with layers of curtains over the windows, which were also iron-barred and overgrown with ivy. Even when she was in good health and my grandfather was alive, curiosities and knick-knacks filled every room, from a Kermit-the-Frog phone and a giant wooden fork and spoon to a number of terrifying (to a small boy) relics from Japan, where they had once lived, and other Oriental bric-a-brac – serene smiling Buddhas, pictures painted on gold silk, tapestries of scowling Noh players, green porcelain dog-lion things sticking out tongues between long white tusks. Bulky furniture turned the small rooms into spaces a large adult could hardly move around in. I had never even seen into certain corners of the dining room. A large, soft canopy bed swathed in yellowed white lace took up most of my grandmother's bedroom, and I remember sleeping there once or twice as a little boy, and also on the thickly cushioned sofa under the frowning Noh players, always an unsettling experience.

Imagine a small version of the house from The Haunting combined with a small version of the house from The Others, decorated like the unsettlingly Oriental death-house in Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep, surrounded by monkey grass and loquat trees, and placed on a sunny street on the south side of San Antonio. That was before the outright hoarding began. The claustrophobic closeness and decay mounted nightmarishly after my grandfather's death. For that period, Miss Havisham's house in Great Expectations comes more to mind:
I crossed the staircase landing, and entered the room she indicated. From that room, too, the daylight was completely excluded, and it had an airless smell that was oppressive. A fire had been lately kindled in the damp oldfashioned grate, and it was more disposed to go out than to burn up, and the reluctant smoke which hung in the room seemed colder than the clearer air—like our own marsh mist. Certain wintry branches of candles on the high chimneypiece faintly lighted the chamber; or, it would be more expressive to say, faintly troubled its darkness. It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing in it was covered with dust and mould, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An épergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.
I grew up not three miles from my grandparents' house, and went there as often as you might imagine. But it was not until I was twenty-seven – years after my grandfather had died – that I first went upstairs. Not once in all the countless times I had been there had I ascended the staircase. On this occasion, I found my aunt's bedroom preserved as it had been when she was a teenager, stuffed animals and all, and my grandfather's bedroom untouched as well. My grandmother herself never climbed the stairs, but my parents once saw an light on when they dropped her off at night, so perhaps she went up there sometimes, after all.

That house was, in many ways, the embodiment of my grandmother's mind, full of secrets and decay and things left untended. Twelve years after my grandfather's death, she began having outright hallucinations – which naturally call into question her reports of ghostly visitations – and had to be placed in a psychiatric ward. It was a grim place, high up in an old high-rise downtown. I went to see her as frequently as I could, living as I did some ninety miles away. Security measures required that she receive only a single visitor at time, which turned my visits into strange colloquies, even when I accompanied other family members to the hospital.

Generally, she seemed lucid enough, making sarcastic remarks at the expense of all the "crazy people" in the ward, but at times she would fall into weird fugues. After seeming to nod off, she would sit erect and begin playing games with children who weren't there, or talking about buildings that stood on forgotten cemeteries, with "creepy things" crawling out of holes in the walls.

Eventually she was diagnosed with dementia and moved to a nursing home. There she became morbidly preoccupied with assisted suicide and the work of Jack Kevorkian, whom she admired. But she was always pleased to see me, and also my wife and children, who were now allowed to accompany me. She died not long after.

Now I dream about both my grandparents.

*

My narrative abounds with rational explanations for those who want them, but there's something about it, an unsettling quality I can't quite put my finger on, that still bothers me. The same, I've noticed, is true of the best ghost stories.

Since I reviewed Crimson Peak last fall, I've been on a kick of trying to find the best ghost stories and movies I can find. Crimson Peak, incidentally, is not particularly successful as a movie about ghosts, falling as it does into the rational Jacob Marley trap. Simply put, it shows too much and explains too much. Since it is, in fact, a gothic romance, rather than a movie about ghosts, this is excusable. But I can't exonerate the many failed horror movies that make a similar mistake.

The very best ghost movie I have seen is Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963), which is based on a story by Shirley Jackson. It explains little and shows less – nary a ghost is seen on screen – but certain parts make my blood run cold. Atmosphere, the play of light and shadow, and sound effects all combine to create a force more terrifying than anything that could be trotted onstage. So, for me, The Haunting is the standard.

Other haunted house movies attempt the same thing but fail. The Legend of Hell House (1973), though it has a promising beginning, ends with the technological contrivances and scientific elucidations that made me think immediately of Ghostbusters. The highly acclaimed The Others (2001), with its sunless rooms and brooding unease, preserves its perfect atmosphere throughout, but relies in its denouement on a trick ending, an ending I unfortunately saw coming. And then we have The Conjuring (2013), which comes close to The Haunting, at least in parts. However, it shows too much toward the end, opting for jump-scares rather than numinous dread, and it also tries too hard to interweave the Annabelle doll into the story, in preparation, I suppose, for that doll's lackluster prequel. But there are a couple scenes – the nighttime clapping scene, the clothesline scene – that still give me goose bumps when I think of them.

As for literature, I've been making my way through the Modern Library Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, a large volume I recently acquired at a used bookstore. Standouts include stories by Oliver Onions, M. R. James, and Sheridan Le Fanu. The only author I hadn't read before was Oliver Onions; actually, I'd never even heard of him before, which is much to my shame, for he seems to be a very gifted writer. I'm currently working through a collection of his ghost stories as well.

Unlike, say, heroic fantasy, the ghost story is a genre that real "literary" authors try their hands at from time to time. Henry James and Edith Wharton are famous examples. Perhaps this is because ghosts stand closer to real life than swordsmen and sorcerers. No one ever fears meeting a dragon on a blasted heath. But just spend a night alone in an old house that makes peculiar creaks and sighs of its own volition, and you will begin to feel uncomfortable.

For me, that's what has made me avoid ghost stories in the past. The reality I inhabit is already haunted enough as it is, be it actual ghosts or merely my neurotic temperament. But lately I've found that the various strains of horror fiction have a cathartic effect. After all, people have enjoyed telling ghost stories for a long, long time. Surely there is some reason why small doses of terror are found pleasurable.

My theory is that they help to brace us up against the onset of the lonely night, which might otherwise drive us mad with fear.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Dark Valley Destiny, Part II

Well, it's time to wrap up my reflections on Dark Valley Destiny: A Biography of Robert E. Howard. The first part of this post can be found here; my crackpot theory that Howard was autistic can be found here. These reflections are, of course, quite self-centered, given that this is a blog; but Howard himself, the biography asserts, tended to see all the things he read only in relation to himself, so perhaps this is not inappropriate.

Howard's work space (but not his original desk (which
happens to be doing service as a coffee table in the town
where my sister-in-law lives)).
I had hoped to find more information in the second half of the book on the nuts-and-bolts aspects of Howard's professional writing career. The authors (L. Sprague de Camp & Co.) mention having failed to obtain permission to view certain correspondence, so perhaps this is not all their fault. What they do describe vis-à-vis Howard's daily writing activities I had gleaned for myself through a visit to the house and reading the notes to his collected works. To wit, Howard lived and wrote in a tiny walled-in porch behind his parents' bedroom, with no privacy and scarcely enough room for his bed and desk, pounding out story after story on a typewriter, usually working through about two drafts, sometimes with a preliminary synopsis and sometimes not.

Parenthetically, I must admit feelings of bemusement and chagrin at reading de Camp's estimation of Howard's various stories. He and his pal Lin Carter did the world – nay, the universe – inestimable service through their efforts to rescue various pulp writings from oblivion, but they were, I think, not the most perceptive of critics. Just my two cents.

The Howard family's living room.
Anyhow, the authors do provide a careful account of Howard's earnings. Here I was a bit surprised. Adjusting dollars for inflation, and taking the narrowness of the market into account, he didn't do half bad. Because he lived with his parents all his life, I had assumed he was unable to support himself through writing. On the contrary, although he probably couldn't have made a regular full-time job of it without some other means of support, he was a professional writer in a sense that no contemporary short-fiction fantasy author could ever be, the SFWA's six-cent-per-word threshold for "pro rates" notwithstanding.

Don't get me wrong. Living as I do from paycheck to paycheck, a story sold at six cents a word is nothing to sneeze at, and may even be the difference between (say) fixing a hot-water heater or going another month with cold showers. (Luckily I live in South Texas.) But I have a full-time job to pay the regular bills and expenses. Even if I sold stories every month to every available outlet, I wouldn't make enough money to support myself, let alone my family. Those were just different times. It was the era of the pulp magazine, before the rise of the mass-market paperback. I gather that a successful pulp writer of the thirties was something like what a moderately successful trade paperback author is now.

The Howard family's kitchen.
As I've mentioned before, one thing that makes Howard a sympathetic character to me is his utter isolation in rural Texas. He did have a number of friends with literary aspirations, and even contributed to a little circular among a clique of writerly acquaintances. But no one had an interest in anything like Weird Tales. His one literary confidant and love interest, Novalyne Price, found his work distasteful. Other Weird Tales authors were just as isolated, I suppose, but I would argue that a writer of weird fiction feels his isolation more keenly in rural Texas than in (say) Providence or California.

It's one thing to have magazine critics on the Internet say unpleasant things about your work, to which they have at least paid the compliment of reading it. It's quite another to have the people in your life despise you for your very devotion to a craft. Eventually you have to develop a thick skin, figure out – for yourself and no one else – what it is exactly that you're about, and learn to follow your own lights and not pay any heed to the hail of doubts and criticism. The danger in such a course is that you might end up going right off the deep end. It's never very safe to hardwire yourself to ignore warning signs.

Postcard from HPL to REH.
The end of Howard's life was dark. Despite my already being familiar with the circumstances of his death, I found this part of the book hard to read. There were some disturbing hints and details that I hadn't known before. Perhaps, instead of mourning his tragic end, we should be happy that it was no worse. I really do wonder what was passing through his mind during those last few days. But it's probably best to just let it lie.

This may be a disturbing admission, but reading about Howard's death called to mind a certain time of my own life, when I planned in all seriousness to commit suicide. I was in my late teens. Plenty of teens think about suicide as a way of feeling sorry for themselves, I suppose; but, then again, plenty of teens end up doing it, too. I think I would have done it. I had a lot of problems, due mainly (as I now know) to an undiagnosed developmental disorder. Things got worse the closer I got to graduating.

What tipped me over the edge was a single phone call from an adult scout leader. Through an unfortunate combination of circumstances, I'd been elected to an office with duties in several counties. I was sixteen at the time. This leader, who was very enthusiastic, set himself up as my mentor. He came to my house with his ladyfriend and had big plans for me and my year-long term. But, you see, I'm this guy to whom making a telephone call to a stranger involves working myself up for hours or days ahead of time, only to collapse in a panic attack at the last moment; to whom participating in a conversation is like solving a Rubik's cube while riding a unicycle. That's how I am now, mind you – back then it was worse. So, long story short, I screwed up, and this leader let me have it (by telephone) at the end of my term. Even now I remember everything he said to me, about how I'd dashed his hopes, how disappointed he was in me, and how embarrassed he was in front of other adult leaders. I'm more than twice as old now, and it still bothers me. Damn.

But that episode was only the straw that broke the camel's back, of course. After I hung up I wrote a journal entry about knowing at long last what a despicable worm I was, and deciding that the best thing was to…well, you know. After considering all the possible methods, I settled on opening my wrists while taking a warm bath, an idea I'd gotten from The Godfather: Part II. I read about how to do this so as to ensure death, as I was quite intent on its being no mere "cry for help." At one point I painted a large picture of a teen in the act, a picture I later destroyed. I'd been in the habit for some years of secretly hurting or injuring myself in minor ways so as to alleviate pressure. Suicide seemed only a short step further.

More than self-hatred, I think the real driving force behind all this was my paralyzing fear of moving out on my own. In the back of my mind, I knew that that's precisely what I had to do: start a new life somewhere else. But I was terrified of such a change in my situation. Suicide was, to me, an honorable compromise. A compounding of various factors during my senior year only strengthened my resolve. I was, I recall, quite cold and rational about it, at the same time as being almost completely unhinged.

In the end, I made a deal with myself: I would go to college, and see if I could make some friends during the week before classes. If things didn't go well, I would kill myself. As it turned out, the first person I met was an older student, a kind young woman who ultimately became my wife. That probably saved my life. Things have never really gotten easier, though. To tell the truth, perhaps I'm not out of the woods yet even now. But I've gone a long way toward learning to live with my limitations. Knowing precisely what the limitations are helps a great deal, of course; otherwise, I'd just be shadowboxing my way down the road.

So, maybe Robert E. Howard shared my disorder. Maybe he had something else wrong with him. Maybe he was just a seriously messed-up guy whose life went bad. In the end, to quote one of my favorite films,
He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Nightspore Update

We take a break from our series of rambling Robert E. Howard posts to bring you an update on my novel.

The working title is The King of Nightspore's Crown, though this may change for practical reasons. I do think it's cool-sounding. These days I'm working on revising the manuscript, which I completed in December. Here's a draft of the elevator pitch / back description:
The last scion of an extinct tribe, Keftu thought he had found a place among the misfits of Enoch's underworld. But the veiled warlock Zilla plots to revive the city's semi-divine oversoul, and all those who refuse assimilation will be destroyed. A homeless outcast, Keftu must single-handedly thwart Zilla's plans and wrest control of the sea-beast Gorgantiphon. With the aid of perilous alliances, he cuts a swath through a world of paleozoic darkness and daemonic splendor, from the dunes of the Fireglass to the decayed heart of Nightspore, in a desperate bid to steal the Star of Morning and confront the secrets of his own past.
I'm also at work on the book cover. As before, the finished product will feature a wrap-around cover in the style of mass-market paperbacks from the seventies. Here's my initial sketch:


The style owes to Samuel Palmer, Henri Rousseau, and certain book covers that I happen to like, among other things. I've transferred the image to my watercolor block and started painting. Here's what I've got so far:


I'm liking it pretty well at this point, so hopefully this doesn't jinx me! As far as fidelity to the text goes, it's more evocative than illustrative. But here at least is a case in which the cover artist has actually read the book all the way through. I'm still at work on the painted portion. I paint extremely slowly, with a size 0000 brush. On the whole, the painting is going to be quite dark, with the right-hand-side a glowing nocturnal scene. That's what I've got in my head, anyway.

I'm not certain yet which side would be best as the front of the cover. I could see it either way, depending on how the colors develop. For instance, something along the following seems rather nice to me:
 
 
The lettering's probably too light for the finished product but you get the idea. Then again, the marketing department would probably rather see a pair of guys hacking at each other on the front cover than a carnivorous placoderm fish. So we'll see how things develop.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Was Robert E. Howard Autistic?

"I'm Robert Howard, I'm sorry if we frightened you. Patches and I are out for a morning stroll. We like to come here where there are big rocks and caves so we can play make-believe. Some day I am going to be an author and write stories about pirates and maybe cannibals. Would you like to read them?"
– Robert E. Howard, age nine
Robert E. Howard, age eight.
Robert E. Howard, pulp writer and creator of Conan the Cimmerian, committed suicide on June 11, 1936, in Cross Plains, Texas, upon being informed that his mother, who was dying of tuberculosis, would not regain consciousness. He was thirty years old. His mother succumbed the following day, and they were buried in the same plot in nearby Brownwood.

Howard has been on my mind since I passed through Brownwood a couple weeks ago, and, more generally, since I visited Cross Plains on the anniversary of his death in 2011. He was in many ways a man of his time and place, and my feelings about him are not without conflict. But I'm also a native Texan who lives in a small town and writes fantasy adventure stories, so he's something of a role model to me. "The Tower of the Elephant" is probably my favorite piece of short fiction, with several other Conan stories coming in close behind it.

Howard was a complex person. The one figure that looms largest in his biography is his mother, who, by all accounts, exerted an unhealthy influence on his adult life, particularly through her attempts to stifle his relationships with women. This has led some biographers – most notably, L. Sprague de Camp in Dark Valley Destiny (published in 1983 and coauthored by his wife Catherine Crook de Camp and child psychologist Jane Whittington Griffin) – to suggest that he had some sort of Oedipal fixation which ultimately led to suicide.

Hester Ervin Howard
Given the facts of the case, that's a certainly a possibility that should be explored. But to me it seems that de Camp and his coauthors leaped to the conclusion prematurely and allowed it to color their investigation. It's dangerous, this business of posthumously reconstructing a person's psyche.

Nevertheless, when you look at a life like Robert E. Howard's, with all its unexplained eccentricities and contradictions, there is a great temptation to ask Why? and expect a single answer pointing to a root cause. Such an expectation is, of course, naïve. That said, I'm about to engage in a little naivety of my own by suggesting a different root cause.

I hypothesize that Robert E. Howard, if he lived today, would be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

This is something I know a bit about from a layman's perspective, as I myself have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. In reading Dark Valley Destiny I was surprised by how many of the quirks and mannerisms described in Howard struck a familiar chord. Howard doesn't necessarily conform to the popular stereotype of a person with high-functioning autism, but autism comes in many shapes and sizes. It may even come in the shape and size of a burly Texan with a penchant for writing lurid adventure tales.

Let's look at the facts of the case. I stress that this is only an informal, preliminary attempt, a setting of thoughts in order, based on secondary sources and without psychological expertise. The complete criteria from the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association can be found here, but the two that concern us are as paraphrased below:

A. Deficits in social communication and social interaction as manifested by:
  • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, which could range from: abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests or emotions; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  • Deficits in nonverbal communication in social interaction, which could range from: poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
  • Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, which could range from: difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or making friends; to absence of interest in peers.
B. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following:
  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).
  • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat same food every day).
  • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).
  • Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).
Let's begin with deficits in communication and interaction. The reader might find it helpful to keep an eye on the deficits listed under (A) above.

Howard in 1911.
The Howard family moved around the state a number of times while Robert was growing up. These frequent changes caused him great stress. He was shy and withdrawn, had difficulty making friends, and was the target of bullying at the various schools he attended. One person later described him as a "sissy."

When he did play with other children, he would assign them all roles (usually drawn from books) and direct their actions. Later, though he tried out for basketball, he was unable to adapt to team play – his approach was to grab the ball and try to make a basket – and he was cut for being too aggressive. This sparked a lifelong contempt for playing team sports, though he enjoyed the one-on-one sport of boxing.

As an adult Howard remained a loner, retaining friendships with a handful of young men he'd met in his school days but often treating them in an off-hand manner. He'd formed his two main friendships as the result of a shared interest in writing, and with them was fairly talkative. With others he remained taciturn. Famously, he corresponded with H. P. Lovecraft and other writers, but he was regarded as an eccentric or a "freak" in Cross Plains and had no friends there. Throughout his life he gave the impression of being in his own world; he might shadowbox while walking down the street, for instance, or stop short to peer under stones.

Howard (left) with his two best friends, Truett Vinson and Tevis Clyde Smith.
Howard generally dressed the same way day in and day out (work clothes consisting of a shirt, unpressed pants cuffed two inches too short, and high-topped boots, attire considered eccentric by his peers), but sometimes sported incongruous additions like an oversized Mexican sombrero and a nineteenth-century frock coat. These idiosyncrasies were often adhered to with an air of defiance following a period of unawareness and then social embarrassment. He paid little heed to grooming, and sported a brush cut throughout his adult life.

He took a number of odd jobs to support himself while writing, doing best at jobs in which he worked alone with an explicit set of instructions (e.g., as a geologist's assistant). The authors note that he was seemingly unable to grasp verbal instructions; he did poorly in socially complex work environments, where his employment generally ended with his being fired for insubordination. He also shunned organized religion, the one exception being his brief attendance at Sunday school to pursue a romantic interest. The girl never became aware of his affections.

In speech Howard affected the working-class diction of Central Texas to an exaggerated degree, while his writing was fairly polished and verbose. This apparent inconsistency once led a long-distance correspondent to break off the friendship in disgust after a visit to Cross Plains. Though subject to bouts of violent emotion, particularly upon seeing rules flouted, Howard's face always remained remarkably placid. He often failed to recognize acquaintances when he passed them on the street. As a young man he had a peculiar handshake (described as a "dishrag shake"). He was poor at reading the emotions and motives of others and imagined himself surrounded by enemies.

The young Howard's fear of the opposite sex was noted by his friends. When he did first kiss a girl (as the result of a prank), he copied what he had seen in the movies to such a ludicrous extent that it was noticed by the girl. (This copying from movies is fairly common in persons with high-functioning autism.) Sometime later, he thought he saw the girl in a public library, and, in a panic, escaped by climbing out the window. (It wasn't her but someone else; perhaps this was a manifestation of prosopagnosia, or face blindness, a condition often associated with autism.) His approaches toward the opposite sex were faltering and generally unnoticed.

He and his one girlfriend, English teacher Novalyne Price, were brought together by a shared interest in writing rather than social interaction. She is the one who initiated the relationship. At Howard's insistence they avoided gatherings and public places on their dates. For Christmas one year he gave her a French book about lesbianism, not exactly a typical gift.

So here we have a man who was unable to function in the milieu in which he'd been raised, to form and maintain normal relationships, or to understand and communicate with the people around him. The angry contempt for society noted by the authors was, I suspect, an emotional defense developed in response to his utter inability to navigate social settings, rather than an effect of his attachment to his mother.

Howard's bedroom at his parents' house
in Cross Plains.
Let's proceed to the second criterion. The first deficit listed is not particularly noticeable in the data cited by the authors, but may certainly have been present. The second (insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior), is, I believe, supported by their statements.

I have noted the strain put on the young Robert by the Howards' frequent moves. As an adult he continued to live in the tiny walled-in porch behind his parents' bedroom until his death at the age of thirty, despite his modest commercial success. His dress, as we have seen, was markedly unvarying. His mother cooked for him throughout his life, and he experienced distress during her absence, when he was forced to fend for himself by eating out. In an emotional letter, Novalyne Price makes reference to his constant irritation at having his "the well-ordered routine of [his] life" disrupted by his love interest. Even small changes seem to have made Howard deeply insecure, while large life transitions were met with something verging on horror.

Bust of Cleopatra purchased by the
fourteen-year-old Howard.
As for the third deficit (highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus), we have, among other things, Howard's lifelong fascination with weapons like knives and guns. He had an extensive collection with a number of unique items, stored, for lack of a better place, in the family bathroom, and experienced intense anxiety at the prospect of traveling without a pocketknife.

But his main preoccupation was, of course, writing. In the epigram to this post, we see the nine-year-old Howard interacting with an adult by spouting off his interests, which indeed remained lifelong, and well-nigh excluded all else.

A few facts might point toward the fourth deficit (hyper- or hyporeactivity). Howard was, for instance, quite agitated by the sights and sounds of night life in a boom town. His work as a tailor's assistant caused him significant distress for reasons having to do with the senses, and his eccentric choice of wardrobe may indicate tactile hyper- or hyposensitivity. He could also take a good deal of punishment as a boxer, indicating an insensitivity to pain.

There is, admittedly, less evidence either for or against his having the deficits listed under (B), for the simple reason that the de Camps were not looking for it. As I said above, this post is only a proposal; a systematic search of existing correspondence, interviews, and other evidence would have to be made before a more certain conclusion could be drawn.

Apart from all such biographical details, however, I think it's worth considering Howard's writing in light of a possible diagnosis. I find it significant that he wrote an autobiography (Post Oaks and Sand Roughs) while in his early twenties; perhaps this was an attempt to cope with a life that didn't make much sense. His stories almost invariably consist of a single protagonist thrown into a world of strangers, pushing through a kaleidoscope of transitory allies and enemies. Relationships between characters range from simplistic to juvenile, especially when it comes to dealings between men and women. He's been derided as a hack who specialized in male wish-fulfillment fantasy, but I think he might equally well be viewed as an autistic writer trying to find order in a confusing world and work his way through the rigid framework of his mind.

Dr. Isaac Mordecai Howard
It's easy to assume that an unhealthy sexual fixation on his mother led to Howard's death, especially as she was so skillful in thwarting his attempts to find love. However, his father also expressed anxiety about losing him to Novalyne Price, and seemingly had a hand in separating the two. Both parents engaged in their own forms of manipulation. Howard was, in fact, caught in a lifelong tug-of-war between his mother and his father, and between his parents and the outside world.

And then, too, there is the fact that, when the family dog Patches was close to death, Howard was so distressed that he took a room in Brownwood until it was over. He returned only after the dog had been buried and the yard plowed so as to hide the spot, and carefully avoided alluding to it in conversation with his parents.

Bedroom of Dr. and Mrs. Howard, with Robert's bedroom visible
through the window on the right.
Howard had a morbid apprehension of death and a lifelong preoccupation with decay and corruption. This was, I believe, tied to his fear of transition. Speaking from personal experience, I can affirm that suicide may indeed seem a positive alternative to a life change as seemingly innocuous as moving out of the family home. The approaching death of his mother must have been like the brink of a cliff. Yes, there was something deeply unhealthy in their relationship, though not, I think, of a sexual nature. But I see it as one of many factors. Indeed, perhaps Howard's fear of transition and difficulty outside the home contributed to his mother's overbearing protectiveness just as much as her protectiveness contributed to his difficulties. In fact, given that autism is tied to genetic factors, I wonder if Howard's mother exhibited many of the same deficits, though in different ways.

In the end, of course, a man is a man, not a bundle of disorders and complexes. Howard's life was a desperately lonely one, and ended in darkness. Any simple explanation of that fact is going to fall short. Perhaps the hypothesis I've offered here is the key to new understanding of Howard's life and death; but then again, perhaps not. At any rate, I think it's an idea that merits further exploration.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Dark Valley Destiny, Part I

Last week my family and I left the South Texas town where we live and headed northward to visit my wife's relations near the Oklahoma state line. The journey takes us through Brady, reputedly the geographical Heart of Texas, and thence through the town of Brownwood, which happens to be the burial place of Robert E. Howard.

My thoughts are usually full of Howard and his writings when I'm in the area. He spent most of his adult life in nearby Cross Plains, which I had the opportunity to visit on the seventy-fifth anniversary of his death several years ago while en route to a wedding in Eastland. (You can read my little photo essay here.)

Later on our Christmas odyssey I stopped by the excellent North Texas used bookstore I used to frequent in college, and there acquired a biography of Robert E. Howard, Dark Valley Destiny (1983), written by L. Sprague de Camp, his wife Catherine Crook de Camp, and psychology professor Jane Whittington Griffin, who grew up in Eastland. I'm about halfway through it now, but thought I'd take the time to jot down some of my reactions. Right now these mostly deal with his family history and environment; later on I'll comment on what I learn about his life as a writer.

The biography begins with an extensive account of the Howard family's ancestry and peregrinations. I'm struck by the similarity with my wife's family and by the many times their paths crossed, in space if not in time. My wife's family has resided in the state since the nineteenth century; she is, I believe, a sixth-generation Texan, a mixture of Irish, German, Dutch, French, and Native American. Her relations came here from Tennessee, Missouri, and other parts of the United States, and include preachers, odd-jobbers, ranchers, oil-field workers, and fiddlers; among her ancestors are the last victims of an Indian massacre in their county. Robert Howard's grandparents likewise entered the state in the late nineteenth century, when it was still a wild and largely lawless place. Howard's father, Dr. Isaac Howard, studied and practiced medicine in the counties where my wife's family resides.

Other geographical connections abound. The Howards at one time made regular trips to Crystal City, a small town (now something of a boom town, thanks to the Eagle Ford shale formation) not far from where we now live. Robert Howard wrote his poem "Cimmeria" in Fredericksburg, in the Texas Hill Country, a town I've visited many times; as a matter of fact, my parents' antique bedstead comes from a famous old hotel there.

The biography contains considerable background information. It's rather amusing to read the history and customs of Texas described from the point of view of an alien. There are of course many hasty generalizations and unfair remarks. The easy condemnation of the pre-Anglo culture and the ascription of Texan independence to the Protestant work ethic and the laziness of the Hispanos rankles now as it did when I was spoon-fed the state curriculum in grade school. (My ancestors have been Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox since they were converted from paganism, and I can't think of anyone who wasn't a hard worker.) It also makes the de Camps' lofty condemnations of Texan racism a bit less impressive. But when all is said and done these are quibbles. The background passages are well done.

Of course, Texas varies considerably from region to region, and I'm definitely an alien in my wife's ancestral homeland. I've been made to feel extremely uncomfortable there on several occasions, and once was threatened with physical violence at a rural gas station. The text mentions that, in Robert Howard's time, blacks were not allowed to spend the night in his county; similarly, my father-in-law has told me that he remembers a large sign on the way into his town expressing the same sentiments in somewhat forceful terms. (I'll not quote it for fear of what the search engines might bring.) And yet the people, Robert E. Howard included, didn't consider themselves racist.

There were also strong anti-Catholic sentiments in that part of the state, shared to some extent by Howard, and, as I know from personal experience, it's still extremely hard to find a Catholic church when you need one. I once had to go out of my way to attend mass at St. Mary's in Brownwood, across the street from Howard Paine University, two blocks from the street where Howard lived when he attended school there.

The text cites an interesting survey conducted by Texas A&M in five central Texas counties: in 1931, 50 percent of the households heated their homes with wood, and 90 percent used boiling water and a washboard to do the laundry; in a third of the households, the Bible was the only book. And yet 85 percent owned automobiles. That's Texas for you. As a matter of fact, my wife's grandparents still lacked running water in the fifties, when my father-in-law was a boy. But in 1931, Howard had only five years to live, and it's curious to think of him, a writer for pulp magazines read all over the country, isolated in the midst of such material poverty and (relative) illiteracy. He felt his isolation very keenly.

Howard came of age during the oil boom era. It's strange to read about gambling and whorehouses in the little towns around the area, which later became so puritanical. In reality, it would seem that the puritanism was in part a reaction against these incursions of vice. Many of the counties are still dry, and drinking is surrounded with strange taboos. Some readers might be surprised to discover that Howard himself had more in common with Solomon Kane than Conan the Cimmerian.

The text dwells on religion in the Howard household. To the outsider, religion in that part of the state is a mélange of Bible Christianity and idiosyncratic additions emphasizing emotional fervor, personal calls, external prohibitions, and readiness for the end times, more akin to an enthusiastic offshoot like Montanism or Catharism than to traditional Christianity. Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away, though set in the Deep South, could just as well have taken place in the area.

Robert and his father, however, were both more or less agnostic, and never attended church regularly. Dr. Howard was read in pseudo-Oriental occultism and made use of "alternative" medical treatments like hypnotism, folk medicine, and magnetic healing in his practice. Robert seems to have read everything his father owned, and often speculated on the nature of the afterlife, the possibility of reincarnation, and the human soul. He remained unconvinced by his friend H. P. Lovecraft's arguments for atheistic materialism.

The text indulges in quite a bit of psychologizing, owing partly to the psychologist co-author, no doubt, but (one suspects) directed by L. Sprague himself. An attempted reconstruction of the subject's psyche is assuredly called for, but when the authors remind the reader of their theses on every page it strikes one as a bit much. Their two main theses are: (1) that Robert, raised in Texas, where the tall tale is an "art form" (their assertion), never developed the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality; and (2) that Robert's sexuality was repressed by his unhealthy attachment to his mother.

As to the first, it used to be common for child psychologists and educational theorists to warn of the supposed dangers of warping children's minds by telling them the wrong kinds of stories. I've heard of education professors teaching with the force of dogma that children's fantasy stories should take place only as dream sequences, and that the division between fantasy and reality should be clearly demarcated.

So, was Robert's mind warped by all those tall tales? Certainly he had a tenuous understanding of worldly reality at times. But how could someone who's not sure of what's real and what's not write fantasy stories? Isn't that the very profession in which you have to know the difference? Writers who can't differentiate write the kinds of speculative and theosophical texts that Dr. Howard was so fond of, not sword and sorcery tales. In addition, Howard wrote in a variety of genres, and ultimately decided to give up fantasy in favor of markets that would pay better. Is that the mark of someone trapped in a fantasy world?

As for Howard's mother, well, we have the great facts that he was afraid of women, never lived apart from his mother on a permanent basis, and committed suicide upon learning of her coming death. So some exploration of Oedipal fixations is certainly in order. But, as I said above, ominous pronouncements get a little old when they are repeated on every other page and related to virtually every sphere of the subject's life.

In addition, there are, I think, other constructions that could be put on the facts as we know them, rendering Howard's reliance on his parents an effect rather than a cause. Here's some data that come to mind:
  • when he was a boy, Howard's play with other children consisted solely of scripted roles that he assigned and directed
  • Howard was bullied in school, and his family's frequent moves had a seriously deleterious effect on his social development
  • he was unable to play on a team and hated team sports, but enjoyed one-on-one sports like boxing
  • he had a peculiar handshake
  • he never had a girlfriend of any sort until fairly late in his twenties, and his fear of women was noted by his friends
  • when Howard did first kiss a woman (as the result of a prank), he copied what he had seen in movies to such a ludicrous extent that the girl noticed it
  • Howard was apparently unable to follow verbal instructions but did well with written instructions
  • he prospered in a job only when working by himself
  • his writing style bore no relation to his manner of speaking, so much so that a writer correspondent who visited him in Cross Plains left disillusioned and refused to answer his letters thenceforth
  • he was frequently overcome with violent emotions but gave no sign of it in his facial expressions
  • he was poor at reading the emotions of others and imagined himself surrounded by personal enemies
  • he exhibited several obsessive-compulsive traits
  • he dressed somewhat peculiarly and with a strange uniformity, and was noted for his inattention to personal appearance
  • he was apparently unable to live on his own for more than just economic reasons
  • his circle of friendships was limited in curious ways, and he could spend an hours-long bus ride talking the driver's ear off while ignoring his traveling companion
  • when Howard read, he interpreted everything primarily in relation to himself
  • he was regarded as an eccentric throughout his life
Allow me to indulge in a little of my own psychologizing. No doubt my own judgment is colored by my prejudices and experiences, but I begin to wonder if Robert E. Howard was, like me, saddled with an autism disorder. Not all high-functioning autistic persons are reclusive computer geniuses who wear argyle socks with their sandals, and Howard resembles some of the case studies I've read. It seems worth expanding on the idea in a separate post.

At any rate, I intend to continue jotting down my reactions to Dark Valley Destiny, which I'm greatly enjoying.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Metapost: 2015

Another year, another retrospective metapost.

Let's see. I suppose the most significant event in my authorial career in 2015 would be the publication of my novel Dragonfly by Hythloday House, a small but discerning publishing company.

Joking aside, Dragonfly is a self-published novel. It's self-published for what I assume are the usual reasons. Perhaps I might have eventually found someone to take it, if I had waited long enough. But all that time I was waiting, I could not be moving on to other projects. I make something like $2.50 on each copy I sell, electronic or paperback. At this point I've more than recovered the cost of production (due mainly to the large number of sample copies I ordered to get the cover just right), but sales have never really taken off. Which is unsurprising, as I don't go out of my way to promote it (or myself). Some people are very good at that sort of thing. I am not. My promotional method is to go on making new things in relative obscurity.

That said, a number of people have taken the trouble to buy my novel and read it, and I have gotten some positive feedback (see here and here, for instance), for which I cannot begin to express my gratitude. It's made me feel that I'm not wasting my time, artistically speaking, even if my audience remains relatively small. And my audience will surely continue to grow as I bring my series to completion.

So much of my energy in 2015 went toward the writing of a sequel, which I completed late in December, under the title The King of Nightspore's Crown. As it currently stands it's slightly longer than the first installment. Taking place against a truly amazing number of backdrops, it's the most significant juxtaposition of neolithic cultures with space-age technology since Yor, the Hunter from the Future. I hope to have it out sometime around the middle of 2016.

In other publication news, two of my stories, "Day of the Dragonfly" and "The Scale-Tree," appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. My story "At the Edge of the Sea" appeared in the Best of 2014 anthology. Another story of mine, "Salt and Sorcery," was accepted for publication sometime later this year. It seems only fair to mention that I make far more money selling short stories than copies of my novel, so, if you like what I do around here and wish to support me and people like me, I hope you will consider supporting BCS through the purchase of subscriptions or anthologies.

I managed to do some art in 2015, despite being extremely busy. A number of paintings and drawings were directly related to my writing endeavors, but I also did some illustrations of local history. My favorite item was probably my map, shown to the left. I'm looking forward to doing a more extensive map for The King of Nightspore's Crown, though I'm not certain how it's going to work yet.

In August I had a one-man exhibition in Del Rio. It featured a sort of shrine to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series and to vintage mass-market paperback art in general. Unfortunately I am quite isolated in my predilections here. I did, however, share the front page news with Donald Trump, which is something, I guess. An interview about my art appeared over at greydogtales in December.

The main complicating factor this year was the birth of my daughter. A joyous occasion, to be sure. But, in this vale of tears, joy is seldom unalloyed with grief.

Longtime readers will no doubt recall my adopted rooster, Pappagallo, who literally dropped into my yard out of a stormy April sky. I noted the last time I wrote of him that, while seemingly intelligent, he lacked the street smarts that the neighborhood feral chickens need to survive. Despite this, he managed to thrash the alpha male of the resident flock, an event he celebrated with an obstreperous hours-long crowing session.

But why, you ask, not without some trepidation, am I speaking of him in the past tense? Alas, while we were off having our baby, and a neighbor was watching our animals, Pappagallo vanished, never to be seen again.

The unseasonably warm weather at the time ended with a cold snap after we returned from the hospital. I observed the hatchling brood of a feral hen shrink from seven chicks to a single one over the course of several days. Burdened as I was with the grief of Pappagallo's presumed demise, it was too much to watch those little peeping fuzz balls vanish one at a time. So I captured the last of them, bought some chick feed, and began raising it in a box in my kitchen.

Over the next few weeks our chick (named Lucky by my children) grew and grew. One evening as she saw me passing by she began cheeping most piteously and insistently. I finally rolled back the mesh covering her box, and, much to my surprise, she flew up to my shoulder and perched there. After that it became a settled routine for Lucky to emerge each evening and sit on my shoulder while I washed the dishes. She was very affectionate, and liked to nestle down in a warm spot and pick at the loose threads on my clothing and tug at my hair with her beak, or walk back and forth from shoulder to shoulder across the nape of my neck.

Eventually our little hen moved to the back porch, after which she was released into the yard. She steadfastly refuses to join the feral flock that brought her into the world and remains very tame. Sometimes she still allows me to handle her. She comes into the house when coaxed, and flies up on my shoulder, which drives my wife crazy. Every day I go out the front door to find her waiting for me. She eagerly runs at my heels to receive her dish of feed out back.

In just a few weeks both Lucky and my daughter will be one year old. How the time flies!

An account of my doings this year would be incomplete without the list of books that I read; actually, the reason I started doing these retrospectives was to keep my lists written down somewhere. So here it is, my 2015 reading list, not including works in progress:
Quite a few of these are read-alouds with my older kids, who are five and seven. Their favorite was A Wrinkle in Time, which we read twice. In my own reading, I note numerous jungle stories and histories. Many, perhaps most, of the books I read this year were things I'd read before but, for one reason or another, wanted to revisit.

Most of the time I find reading to be its own reward. This year my reading paid off in the form of a raffle through the town library's summer reading program for adults. However, the coveted prize consisted of dinner for two at the local country club, of which I am (somewhat pointedly) not a member. A zoning board meeting gone bad (me vs. my filthy rich neighbors' contractor over an eight-foot-high security/velociraptor fence along our mutual property line) made me even less enthusiastic about hobnobbing with the upper crust of my little South Texas town.

As a result, I waited until the expiration date, which was December 31, to use my gift certificate. I took my five-year-old daughter as my dining companion. She was a perfect lady. I wish I could say the same of the woman who stopped by our table to introduce herself to my daughter (though not to me!) and kept insistently asking her name, despite the fact that my daughter had just taken a bite, and was requesting (with a demure smile and graciously upheld little hand) a moment in which to swallow. The lady's husband proceeded to ask my daughter if I was her "grandpa." My daughter's correction of this bizarre misapprehension (I'm in my mid-thirties and haven't a wrinkle or gray hair) produced an odd reaction, a mixture of surprise, suspicion, and/or condescension. I'm not too good at reading people, but these little incidents can occur only so many times before you start noticing a pattern. Here I suspect I committed the faux pas of being a hirsute Puerto Rican dining with a fair-skinned, red-haired little girl in the very place where some people go to see local categories preserved and distinctions maintained.

But let us not dwell on such anachronistic unpleasantness. The management was extremely hospitable, and overall it was a pleasant way to end the year. Of course we toasted (she with her sparkling cider and I with my whisky sour) Francisco Pizarro and William H. Prescott, to whom we owed our dinner.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My Writing Retreat

I am pleased to announce my return from yet another successful writing retreat. I went as always to my little discovery, an old hotel in a remote village on El Hierro, the smallest and most exclusive of the Canary Islands. Naturally I stayed in my usual room, which the proprietor so kindly calls la habitación del señor Ordoñez, enjoying a glass or two of my favorite local vintage while watching the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean from behind the wrought-iron rail of my balcony each evening. I would tell you the names of the town and the hotel, but that would only cause them to be inundated with tourists, which would be fatal to my writing ethic and self-image.

Actually, that isn't quite true. What I mean is, I didn't go on a writing retreat, and I've never been to the Canary Islands. As a matter of fact, I'm stuck here in the southwest Texas borderlands just like always. However, I have completed a new novel, The King of Nightspore's Crown, the second installment of my ongoing Antellus series. As I revise it, the Hythloday House art director (me) will begin working on a wrap-around cover and interior decorations. We hope to have it ready by late spring, but we'll see.

(If you haven't read it yet, now's your chance to get caught up on the first installment, Dragonfly. Many thanks to those who have purchased a copy! I hope you enjoy it.)

In other authorial news, I've sold a story called "Salt and Sorcery" to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I think it's very good, but then, I think that of all my stories! Various things went into the mix, including a little C. L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock. As far as I know, it's the first story to combine the narrative preoccupations of Sword and Sorcery with a salty landscape. Perhaps it'll spawn a new subgenre to take a place beside Sword and Sandal, Sword and Planet, Sword and Soul, and the like. Then again, perhaps not. At any rate, it should come out in the as-yet-unspecified-but-not-so-distant future. I hope everyone who reads it likes it.