Thursday, August 25, 2016

Two More Hauntings, and a Madhouse

My search for haunted house movies continues. I saw a very good one recently: Burnt Offerings (1976), starring Karen Black and Oliver Reed. As it began I resigned myself to poorly lit, foggy-lensed, muffled-sounding, ill-carpeted seventies schlock, but I very quickly got into it. It's underrated and, I think, quite good.

I'll not reveal much about the plot, except to emphasize that it's not a ghost story. The house itself is a character, as it is in the best movies of this kind, from The Haunting to Crimson Peak. It's not enough (and may be a great deal too much) to have creepy carved newels. The Haunting does amazing things with the illusory faces you seem to see in patterns on the wall at night. Burnt Offerings seems to rely mainly on an attic window that stays lit a lurid red at night. It was shot at the Dunsmuir House, where a number of movies have been filmed. There's a pool, unfortunately, but it's used to good effect.

I'm familiar with Karen Black mainly from Trilogy of Terror. That little doll has lived in my nightmares since I saw it as a fourteen-year-old. I thought Black was quite effective in Burnt Offerings, especially in the final moments, which I saw coming from a mile away, but was still genuinely scared by. That's what a good haunting story does well. It lets you in on the secret pretty much right from the get-go, but toys with you, taunting you until just the right pitch of suspense has been reached. Timing is everything.

And there's this chauffeur. With shades. Sometimes he smiles. It's terrifying. And a mysterious locked room that no one can ever go into. That right there is the stuff of bad dreams. In fact, put a sealed room in pretty much any kind of movie, and you've got a ho

All in all, the movie has a weird kind of logic that reminds me of the nightmares I had when I was a little kid. Like the one about the picture in the yellow living room that silently wanted me to go get a candy from the candy dish. Ugh. Everything is out to get you, the movie seems to say. It's watching you. What is watching you? Who knows? But it watches. The world is sunny. It smiles. It smiles at you.

Though marred by one or two cheesy scenes, this is a good movie that I won't soon forget.

*

And then there's The House that Dripped Blood (1971), one of those horror anthologies released by Amicus Productions. As a haunted house movie it's terrible. The stories, though taking place in the same house, are all quite different, and have nothing at all to do with the setting, except for one or two ominous references shoehorned into the script. Contrary to the advertising, the house doesn't drip blood, and as a matter of fact I don't think there's one drop of blood in the whole production. And it's got vampires, even. What a waste of a good set! A rather nice and creepy little house, murky and slightly run down and with just the right amount of ornament.

Still, it seems a bit churlish to grouse about a movie starring both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Two of the shorts are fairly creepy, one involving waxworks and the other a little witch-girl, and a third is mildly amusing. All were written by Robert Bloch. As a whole the film would have been better if it hadn't been so painfully awkward about linking the stories to the house.

So, as a schlocky horror movie, thumbs moderately up, but as a haunted house movie, thumbs down.

*

I also happened to watch Asylum (1972), another Amicus anthology written by Robert Bloch, and it's much better. Humorously campy at some points, genuinely scary at others, and delightfully bizarre (or gross! – like that little robot's guts!) at still others. In addition to Peter Cushing, it stars Herbert Lom, an actor I'm fond of. Not a haunted house movie, though.

Monday, August 22, 2016

House by Niggle

J. R. R. Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle" is a fairy tale about a Sunday painter whose devotion to his craft leads him to neglect his duties in life, despite the fact that he works in complete anonymity, in his shed, with his neighbors' contempt as his only recognition. When it comes time for his "journey," he must set out unprepared, and undergo a long period of penal servitude (painting board after board the same boring color) to rectify his many failings. But in the end he's granted the reality of what his faltering art has always aimed at without ever achieving it.

Really, the story is a parable about purgatory (cf. Of Rodents and Ashes), and captures a great human truth: time does something to the soul, something that can't be replaced by any amount of wishing or willing. It's has always had a special significance for me, because I seem to have a lot in common with its protagonist. Tolkien appears to have had himself in mind. But his "tree" has, in fact, gone on to become one of the marvels of modern times.

Anyway, one of the duties I've neglected while spinning tales and painting pictures is the decoration of a doll house we bought for my daughter two and a half years ago. It started in a plain-jane, raw-wood condition and has progressed by fits and starts. A dresser here. A floor there. No hurry. But gradually the conviction has grown in my mind that, should I happen to die unexpectedly, the first 200 years or so of my afterlife would be spent painting thousands of identical doll houses the same uniform white. So, overcome by my conscience at last, I've put in some serious man-hours, and gotten the darned thing playable.

Now, don't worry. I'm not going to bore you by showing– Wait, what's that? You want to see pictures? You're twisting my arm, but...okay!

*

We bought the house unpainted and unfinished. It's not fancy or anything – it's made to be played with by little kids – and we got a set of blocky, unpainted wood furniture to go with it. So, here's the finished exterior:


There's a brick stoop that didn't make it into the picture for some reason. Thin slats of wood and a coat of silver paint on top sufficed for a metal roof, which the houses all have around here. We live in the old part of town, and decorated the house to resemble some of the ones around our neighborhood. We don't know what the chimney is for, as there's no fireplace inside, but no matter.


The interior was decorated in the shabby chic style, in consultation with world-renowned designers. Actually, we copied things out of interior design books from Half Price. But it is shabby chic. As you can probably tell from the background, it's made to look a bit like our house, and a bit like we would like our house to be.


We begin our tour in the master bedroom. Note the distressed antique finish on the nightstand and chest of drawers (or "chester drawers," as people around here like to spell it). That's a genuine natural-fiber jute rug you see on the floor, carefully hand-crafted from a place mat I bought at Wal-Mart. The edges are coated in Dritz Fray Check, in case you're wondering. I think I'll glue some rafters to the ceiling one of these days.


And here's the loo. My daughter informs me that the red pan on the floor is the cat's litter box.


Here we have the upstairs hall. I made the wood floor from popsicle sticks craft sticks which I cut square, glued together in a movable mat, stained, and varnished. Everything made specifically for doll houses is super expensive, so I improvised where possible.


The kids' bedroom. We followed instructions from a furniture refinishing book to give everything the antiqued look. We're still working on the lace curtains and blankets and pillows, but that's my better half's department. We're also working on some paintings for the walls, and that, of course, is my department.


The living room, where I think we really do need some more work, plus a big throw rug. Unfortunately, the Plastic Ordoñez family resembles the Real Ordoñez family in that every available horizontal space is stacked with books. We both need more shelves.


The kitchen, where the bareness of the walls is felt most keenly. Note the chunky vintage appliances: pure shabby chic. Disconcertingly, my daughter has given the Plastic Ordoñez family the gender-reversed names of the Real Ordoñez family, with the exception of my wife, whose name has no masculine version. I'm told that they dine around the coffee table, as there's not enough room in the kitchen. At least they don't have a TV.


Thank you for visiting Chateau O., where you're always greeted by a chicken on the roof.

*

My grandmother, who in my own mind ranks among the great matrons of antiquity, became an expert miniaturist in her later years, despite her arthritis and rapidly failing eyesight. She would make scale models of the cane-bottomed chairs built by her carpenter father, who was also blind, and crochet tiny sweaters with tiny crochet hooks. A good but reserved and terrifyingly critical woman. The story is that whenever her adult children gave her handmade gifts at Christmas, she could later be seen surreptitiously giving the handiwork a critical examination.

I recall once driving her around town as a teenager; my truck had a standard transmission, and, impressed by her silent presence beside me, I did my utmost to ensure that my gear-shifting was as smooth as cream. And she was watching carefully, because later on she expressed approbation of my skills with the clutch to my mother.

Her nine children are scattered across the country now, a race of eccentric misfits who might make for a good screwball comedy in the style of You Can't Take it With You, if you could get them all in one place, which only happens when someone dies, and sometimes not even then.

She, alas, would be less than impressed with my accomplishment here, despite being the inspiration behind it. It is a bit crude. But my daughter is sitting here playing with it as I type, which is very rewarding. We'll keep adding to it, too, and no doubt our next endeavor will be finer.

I've always loved models – I had a dinosaur diorama and an HO-scale train set when I was a boy – and I think my son and I will start railroading sometime in the next few years. That's what's great about having kids around: you get to play with really cool stuff, and people act like you're all virtuous because of it.

What now? Hm, I think the backyard may need mowing...

*

Many thanks to whomever has been buying my books, incidentally. I hope you enjoy them! And if you haven't bought 'em yet, go get 'em! See the links on the sidebar for more information.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Serial Epic Fantasy?

I mentioned in my last post that I've been finding epic fantasy somewhat boring lately. That's got me thinking about what epic fantasy is (or ought to be) and why precisely I'm finding it boring. Unfortunately, I'm something of a dinosaur (or would it be a paleontologist?) in my tastes, and anything I say is automatically about thirty years out of date, if not more.

(But wait. I thought fantasy was literature for the dinosaurs. When did it become all edgy and contemporary and topical? Wasn't there a time when fantasists prided themselves on looking backward? I guess that's a topic for another post, though. Back to epic fantasy.)

I've been reading Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane this summer. It's been slow going. I tried reading it once a good while ago, but put it down because of That One Scene. But it's a fairly well-respected book all the same, and an example of post-Tolkien fantasy that didn't fall into the cookie cutter approach of some other authors at the time. (You know who you are.) So now I'm giving it another go.

And I'm finding it kind of dull.

I don't think my problem is with the novel, exactly, but with the subgenre in general, or maybe with myself. There was a time when I ate epic fantasies up. The thicker the better. But I realized one day that the particular series I was reading at the time wasn't going anywhere, and that there was no reason the author couldn't keep spinning them out forever. What got me started reading doorstops and paper weights was, of course, The Lord of the Rings. But LOTR had three things that these others lacked: a beginning, a middle, and an end. It had a sense of wholeness, of completeness. And that's rare in the subgenre called epic fantasy.

Which is kind of ironic. An epic, properly so-called, is a narrative recounting the deeds of larger-than-life characters taking part in great events of universal import. There's an expectation of roundness, of unity and completeness. Think of the Iliad. Its action take place in a matter of weeks, but its perspective encompasses the entire Trojan War, from the judgment of Paris to the razing of the city. Any other epic worthy of the name is similarly comprehensive.

The two great original works of epic fantasy of the twentieth century – The Worm Ouroboros and The Lord of the Rings – take that approach, though describing the end rather than the middle. The Book of the New Sun, which in my opinion is up there with those two, is more like the Iliad in that it narrates the middle of its great events, pointing toward the end without altogether explicating it. Afterwards, each of these authors continued to write in his invented world in various ways, but none sought to actually add to his epic, because it was clearly finished.

Obviously, the more commercial aspects of the fantasy genre militate against that kind of completeness. What people call "epic fantasy" nowadays is often really serial fantasy, which in a way is the opposite of the epic. An epic requires wholeness, with build-up to climax and aftermath. It can't just be arbitrarily prolonged like a soap opera.

Of course, it's premature for me to pin all this on the Thomas Covenant novels. They do seem to have a certain wholeness, though they're also a kind of commentary on the subgenre to which they belong. And I'll admit that I'm interested in seeing where it's all going, at least as far as the main character is concerned, despite my utter contempt for him. I couldn't care less about the Land. But maybe I'm supposed to not care.

Or maybe, like Thomas, I've just gotten too cynical to care. That's a scary thought.

Cf. my long-ago post Literary Fantasy and Ecological Comedy.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Keftu (Still) Indomitable!

Okay, ladies and gentlemen. The King of Nightspore's Crown is back and better than ever. In honor of the awesome new series name, let's peruse a few passages from...the King James Bible!
And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch. And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech. And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle. And his brother's name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ.
When I was about nine, I happened to see a hardcover Bible for sale in the mall. (This was back when you could buy books in malls.) I didn't have access to a Bible at the time, and this one caught my eye for some reason. I begged my mom to buy it for me. She did so, despite an initial reluctance out of fear that I would trash it or something. (I still have it, and it's still in perfect condition, so there.) (My parents were always suckers for buying me books, but they eventually discovered that I would buy them with my own allowance if necessary, so that source dried up.)

It was the King James Version. I set to work reading it at once. And man oh man, is there some weird shit in the Bible. I use the colorful metaphor advisedly, because scriptures are chock full of earthy images and bizarre carnal encounters, though the prudery of the translation hid certain, ah, matters, from my impressionable mind. I do remember asking my mother what "begat" and "slayeth" meant.
And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. There were nephilim in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
I read Madeleine L'Engle's Many Waters at around the same time, and even dressed up as Japheth the son of Noah for Halloween. Yes, I was a weird kid. But ever since, I've been fascinated with the first eleven chapters of Genesis. My Ant–, er, Enoch stories reflect that. I don't know what it is about Norse / Teutonic / Medieval settings and fantasy – Tolkien is to blame, I guess – but me? I'm all about the Greek and the Semitic (cf. here and here). I'm especially interested in the ways in which the religions of the surrounding cultures bled into the Bronze Age traditions that went into what we call the Bible.
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
Anyways, these days I'm not reading my Bible so much as J. B. Bury's A History of Greece (1900). I've also been working on Lord Foul's Bane, but I have to say, it's been kind of a slog. And I read Bleak House this year, people. I can't fault the author, really. Epic fantasy has just gotten kind of boring to me. Even edgy epic fantasy.

Wait, don't I write epic fantasy? I don't know. To me it's different somehow. More along the lines of The Book of the New Sun than The Lord of the Rings. Anyway, I used to eat up epic fantasy, but these days it's tough going. Maybe reading Cars and Trucks and Things That Go too many times has shortened my attention span.

Friday, August 12, 2016

On Imaginary Real Estate

I have good news, and I have bad news. What, you want the bad news first? Here it is.

I have been informed that the term "Antellus," my name for the counter-earth at the cosmic antipodes, is in fact a registered trademark, which I stupidly used for the name of my novel series without doing a thorough search, despite my usual care about such things. It so happens that Antellus is already the name of someone else's planet, and has been since 1988, when I was in the third grade, not that it matters what grade I was in. I was granted permission to leave it on my already-published works, and I'm sincerely grateful for that, but it seemed best to go ahead and expunge it, because (a) the series is not complete, and (b) I get all nervous when people use words like "licensing fee" and "litigation."

So I have changed the series name to Enoch, after the principal setting of the stories. The name of the planet continues to be Antellus, because my muse wills it so, but I must please ask everyone to refrain from referring to it as such in the future. You can call it the counter-earth. You can call it the antichthon, which is the ancient Greek term for that hypothetical planet. You just can't call it Antellus.

Incidentally, no one within my novels calls their world Antellus, because to them it's just the earth, of course. The term actually only appears in the metadata for my two novels and in the front and back matter of one, and wasn't associated with the ISBN of either, so the issue is fixable. And I'm pretty sure that "Enoch" won't give me any problems, because it's the name of a city in the Bible, after all. You can't sue people for using names from the Bible. Right?

This change has three annoying side-effects, however. One is that The King of Nightspore's Crown will be unavailable for a day or two while the corrected files get approved. The second is that the links are all broken now. I've tried to correct everything on my sites, but there might be a bad link or two out there. The third annoying thing is that the kind patrons who purchased copies of my novel before the change now have an out-of-date series reference on the front cover. However, I would encourage them to think of their copies as collectors' items, and imagine the millions they'll bring in when their heirs auction them off in remote posterity.

In all seriousness, I'm more than a little frustrated by this, because it was a stupid, easily avoidable mistake, because my novel-writing endeavors are like a tiny flickering flame that the merest breath of air threatens to extinguish, and because, despite my limited powers, it deeply grieves me to be paid by willing patrons for anything less than the best I can deliver. So, sorry.

Now on to the good news. Drat, I've forgotten what it was. Well, in lieu of that, I hope you'll go check out the excellent greydogtales.com, where they like the kind of stuff I like, and where they gave me a nice shout-out the other day.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

"Salt and Sorcery" at BCS

It never rains but it pours, as we say in my hometown.* Three days after the hotly-anticipated release of my novel, The King of Nightspore's Crown, my latest short story, "Salt and Sorcery," is out at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Go check it out!

The story is inspired by a few of my favorite stories by the likes of Catherine Moore, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock; Herman Melville's meditations on whiteness; the 2015 Yuggoth Pluto flyby; and, of course, salt. But that's not all! BCS Issue #205 also features the beautifully written "A Deeper Green" by newcomer Samantha Murray, and Turtle Caravan, a weird, lovely painting by Marek Hlavaty.

One of the things that's always drawn me to sword-and-sorcery is its proximity to science fiction on one side and to weird / cosmic horror on the other. Sometimes I think it's closer to either of these than to epic fantasy, which frankly tends to bore me these days. I remember reading once in some literary essay the suggestion that sword-and-sorcery stands close to sci-fi because its worldview is fundamentally technological (sword) and scientific (sorcery). And as for cosmic horror, we can take Conan's word for it:
"A devil from the Outer Dark," he grunted. "Oh, they're nothing uncommon. They lurk as thick as fleas outside the belt of light which surrounds this world. [...] Some find their way to earth, but when they do, they have to take on earthly form and flesh of some sort. A man like myself, with a sword, is a match for any amount of fangs and talons, infernal or terrestrial." ["The Vale of Lost Women"]
There you have it. The steppes of the Hyborian world border on outer space.

My story is so titled because it takes place in a salt pan. I read a bit about such formations for the writing of it. That's how my stories often originate: I get interested in some scientific topic, like the fruiting bodies of funguses or the mating habits of horseshoe crabs, and begin romancing about it.

So go check out "Salt and Sorcery" at Beneath Ceaseless Skies! And if you like that, my friend, check thou out my novels, Dragonfly and The King of Nightspore's Crown.

* Actually, we never say that in my hometown.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Keftu Indomitable: Nightspore Is Here!

It has been one year since Keftu, the last phylarch of Arras, established a wandering society of misfits in the underworld of Enoch, the rust-stained city of stone, mankind's omega. The end of all change is at hand, hastened by the machinations of the veiled warlock Zilla.

What can one outcast warrior do to halt the slow slide into tepid chaos? Keftu is about to find out. His quest will take him from the crumbling tenements of Enoch to the black jungles of Ir. He will form alliances the like of which he would never have dreamed.

In the end, he may lose his soul to gain...

THE KING OF NIGHTSPORE'S CROWN


The Second Volume in the Enoch Series

The King of Nightspore's Crown is the second in a series of sword-and-planet tales set in the counter-earth, a world of prehistoric beasts and ocean-girding cities, ancient ruins and space elevators, primordial daemons and antediluvian races.

Inspired by the first master fantasists – Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison, H. Rider Haggard, William Hope Hodgson – and pulp writers like Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, the Antellus series combines a contemplative outlook with a drive to action, a sense of mystery with a dash of violence.

A Visceral Epic Fantasy. A Dark Romance.

A throw-stick flashed past my eyes. The lantern exploded in a shower of glittering shards. Cyrus took off at a run. I followed close behind. Shrill voices hooted and screamed all around us. I slipped in the mud and came down hard on the flagstones. Cyrus, wholly intent on self-preservation, vanished into the murk. By the time I regained my feet, he was out of earshot.

I hesitated, listening. All was quiet save the steady drip of the trees. The chase had passed me by, leaving me alone in the darkness. Though certain that the creatures sought me and me alone as their prize, I feared what they might do if they caught up with Cyrus or gained the
Concubine. I continued forward cautiously, my face beaded with raindrops and sweat.

Without warning, the ground dropped away before me. I tumbled into a hollow. Swarms of huge black dobsonflies swirled up around me. Too late, I realized that I had taken a spurious side-path. I lay sprawled across the roots of a rotting scale-tree stump, its pithy, crannied mass overgrown with toadstools and swathed in spider silk.

I felt a rush of legs and a quick, pinching jab in the heel of my hand. Groaning with horror, I jerked back and scrambled away

Drums dinned in my ears, beginning lowly, mounting ever louder. My heart galloped in my chest. Curtains of coruscating colors descended over the dark forest, washing the scale-tree stems in waves. The agony of my soul found vent in one loud, long, and final scream of despair


 

Buy it at Amazon


Buy it at Amazon

The Words of Metal

I recently came across this interesting study at Degenerate State, a blog run by "an ex-physicist working as a data scientist".

The author reports on an informal analysis of word use in heavy metal lyrics as opposed to the "standard" American English represented by the Brown corpus, a collection of documents compiled by linguists in 1961. He defines a measure for the "metalness" of a word as the logarithm of the ratio of the frequencies of the word in the respective corpora. Basically, the more times a word appears in the metal corpus, and fewer times it appears in the Brown corpus, the greater its metalness will be. Each word has to appear at least five times in the respective corpora in order to be included in the study.

The most metal word is, apparently, burn, which has a metalness of 3.81; the least metal word is particularly, which has a metalness of -6.47. The top twenty most metal words are: burn, cries, veins, eternity, breathe, beast, gonna, demons, ashes, soul, sorrow, sword, goodbye, dreams, gods, pray, reign, tear, flames, and scream. The top twenty least metal words are: particularly, indicated, secretary, committee... Ugh, let's just stop there. This news story on the analysis puts it this way:
What you can infer from this is that the metal English is spoken from a timeless, elemental, and darkly ethereal space, while standard English is unremarkably deskbound. Perhaps this is why we hunger for metal in the first place.
Now, look at some of those metal words. Burn. Veins. Eternity. Beast. Demons. Ashes. Sword. Gods. Flames. Reads like a good old Robert E. Howard story. Which goes to show you what we already knew: metal loves sword-and-sorcery, weird horror, and even epic fantasy.

I'm not exactly what you'd call a metalhead. I'm not regular about listening to music of any sort, and rarely leave the mainstream. But I can say that I'd rather listen to certain brands of metal (the red part on the right of this cluster dendrogram, to be specific) than pretty much anything else, with Metallica's "Wherever I May Roam" at the dead center.

What I most like about Metallica is the way it sounds (duh), but I'm also drawn by the lyrics, which have a kind of dark, quasi-biblical, historical-mythological resonance, with occasional touches of H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. Their best songs inhabit this dark desert landscape in my mind, imbued with a certain atmosphere that I can't quite describe but have tried introduce here and there in my writing.

Since I'm about to release my novel The King of Nightspore's Crown, it occurred to me to see how metal it is. Turns out it's pretty metal. In my highly unscientific count, I find that burn (or close variants, which, I know, is not quite fair) appears 28 times; cries (and variants), 98; beast, 67; demon (or daemon, rather), 22; sword, 90; dream, 51; scream, 25, etc. Each of the top twenty words appears at least several times, with the exception of gonna, which I don't use when translating from Antellurian dialogue, for a total of 430 occurrences. By contrast, only five of the bottom twenty words appear, with 13 occurrences in all, and several of these in tongue-in-cheek dialogue.

This graph plots the metalness of all 10,000 words used in the study against their word length, with the horizontal axis representing metalness and the vertical representing length. I note that my stories (which tend to feature lone warriors pitted against primeval beasts, ancient aliens, and elder evil) are situated in the bottom right-hand corner, while my work e-mails (which deal with academic advising, faculty governance, and program assessment) inhabit the upper left-hand corner. And, certainly, my writing does take place in a "timeless, elemental, and darkly ethereal space," while my work life, it must be confessed, is "unremarkably deskbound".

Talk about your double lives. Sure, some might deride S&S (and metal) as puerile escapism. But who's to say which of these two lives is the real one, eh? Maybe I just keep my staid day job so that I can escape from the "timeless, elemental, and darkly ethereal space" of my burning dreams of gods and demons.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Oodles of Doodles

I have an art show coming up in September and am working to make a few quick pieces to fill out the exhibit. I've gotten two done in one week, which must be some kind of record for me. (Lately, anyway; in my tumultuous youth I used to dash paintings off in an hour or so.)

My art shows generally attract a few of my math students, so I've been under some pains to make mathematical art, dangerous though this is, beauty and truth being distinct transcendentals, &c., &c. A while back a student sent me a YouTube video about topological doodles. Being both a doodler and a student of topology, I added one technique contained therein to my Long Meeting Repertoire. Begin with a squiggle, turn each crossing into a twist, and, Voila!, you have a surface with boundary. In the fullness of time, this led to the advent of...the Chicken Man:

Chicken Man, 5" x 7", watercolor and ink on hot-pressed paper.
Born from a drawing completed on my mother-in-law's kitchen table. Is he a chicken? A man? An indeterminate embryo? A once-punctured non-orientable surface of genus 10?

He is, at any rate, inspired by Paul Klee and the ideas expressed in his highly mathematical Pedagogical Sketchbook. I regard Klee as one of the great artistic geniuses of all time; that I might link the present discussion back to the main topic of my blog, perhaps it would be apposite to recall that time I received the following disapprobation from the famous sci-fi author and political commentator John C. Wright for my opinion:
You sound very reasonable, but then I looked up the works of Paul Klee, and they were so abominably ugly and deranged that I admit the gulf between us can never be crossed. Artistically, it is the same as trying to reason out the sound of one hand clapping: you are looking at something meant to hinder the ability to admire art, to blind the eye and benumb the brain. It is garbage, pure and simple, and even simple drawings by comic book artists or commercial artists doing magazine covers show far more skill, sanity, proportion, color, composition, and execution. [...]
Why do you vainly tell me to ignore the evidence of my eyes, which I trust, and believe the conclusions of your judgment, which even the limited experience of this exchange proves is execrable.
Had you pointed me to some painting that was merely odd or incomprehensible to me, my reaction would be different. I could continue to give you the benefit of the doubt. Instead you have pointed me to the most absurd, ghastly, and disproportion bits of ugly lunacy imaginable, pieces that make me physically sick to look at, and call them good work. [...]
I am an artist. I know what art is because I can do it. I also know when I am looking at something far better than I do because I lack the skill, and I can see the garbage you like and I know I could draw as well with my left foot after my foot was run over by a tractor and I was pumped so full of painkillers that the lower half of my brain was sloshing.
It is also obvious that no further comment is needed. Why do you think words can make me see beauty where there is nothing but filth?
I like to look that over every so often, as a message addressed to me personally by a famous person, and a perfect specimen of some art form of which the name escapes me. Good thing I'm so indefatigably ebullient, or it might have hurt my feelings. But, as my father-in-law says, opinions are like, well, you know. Everybody's got one.

My Long Meeting Doodle Repertoire is quite extensive, and consists solely of mathematical explorations. That way, when my colleagues look over and see me doodling during an important meeting, they'll just think I'm a brilliant mathematician working out some new theory. Actually, I have to draw so I can listen attentively and recall what I hear, a fact that my fifth grade math teacher didn't fully appreciate. These days my sketches consist mainly of Platonic solids and the like, as I've been developing a graduate course on regular polytopes. Here's a few sticky notes:


My aunt bought me these "Dr." sticky notes for graduation, incidentally; I don't buy them for myself.


Why, you ask, am I showing you doodled-upon sticky notes from my office? Perhaps, my friend, you are looking for one of those "sensible" blogs.


Anyway, inspired by such, I spent the first part of this week super-doodling a sketch of the rhombic triacontahedron:

Triacontahedron, 5" x 7", watercolor and ink on hot-pressed paper.
The triacontahedron is a zonohedron, which, well, I won't bore you with the details. It's formed from thirty golden rhombi and is the basis of that cool lampshade you see in coffee shops sometimes. The coloration is determined by five intersecting cubes contained in the solid. The layout shamelessly mimics Leonardo da Vinci's polyhedron illustrations for Luca Pacioli's Da Divina Proportione. Pacioli is one of my mathematical ancestors I am "descended" from him, advisor to student, down through the centuries, along with about two hundred thousand other mathematicians – so this is something of an homage to him, as well as to H. S. M. Coxeter, from whose book Regular Polytopes I first learned of zonohedra.

My multicolored sketches were the wonder of my graduate algebraic topology class, so perhaps I'll continue to produce a few more watercolors along the same lines, for old times' sake.

Monday, July 25, 2016

On Reptoids from Alpha Draconis

In keeping with my time-honored tradition of writing a blog post whenever I encounter a network of ideas connected in any way, shape, or form with speculative fiction, but also in keeping with my equally time-honored tradition of not commenting on current affairs, I hereby commence a post about

THE REPTOIDS AMONG US


without explaining what, precisely, has motivated me to pursue this particular avenue of discovery.

I will tell you what set me upon the path, however.

One day at the office, whilst devouring the salami sandwich, granola bar, and green apple that constitute my lunch, I happened to watch a Mental Floss YouTube video about weird conspiracy theories. Among the factoids presented therein is the assertion that 12 million Americans believe that shape-shifting lizard people secretly hold the reins of world government. This is according to Public Policy Polling.

Now, if a survey company called me to ask whether I believe shape-shifting lizard people are in control of the government, I would respond with an enthusiastic YES, YES, I DO STRONGLY BELIEVE THAT. And surely I'm not alone in my love of trolling the strangers who call my house to ask stupid questions. So, perhaps the number is a little misleading. Still, there must be some truly devout lizard-people believers, right? A little googling (not for the faint of heart in this case) would seem to confirm that, yes, there are some believers out there.

The leading proponent is one David Icke, British ex-footballer and conspiracy theorist. He asserts that reptilians (or reptoids, as I prefer to call them) from Alpha Draconis have been selectively breeding the human race since its inception, creating the Babylonian Brotherhood, a hybrid race of Illuminati who now control the world. He suggests that the aliens first came to earth in search of monatomic gold, which enhances the capacity of their nervous systems ten thousandfold.

Hm. A race of superintelligent extraterrestrials who inhabited earth long before man's coming and now treat the human race as a pet project and secretly orchestrate events from behind the scenes? Remind you of anything? Here we have the connection with my blog's purported focus. It has been suggested that the Reptoid Hypothesis owes a large debt to the writings of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith; they, in their turn, took much of their material from nineteenth-century theosophical writings on Atlantis and Lemuria.

The idea that disguised aliens secretly control everything of course puts me in mind of John Carpenter's They Live (1988). I love eighties sci-fi actioners, and They Live is one of the most enjoyable. The screenplay was written by Carpenter under the pseudonym Frank Armitage, an allusion to Dr. Henry Armitage of "The Dunwich Horror." Like most Carpenter assays, They Live has a B-movie feel, but it's also hilarious, sharply satirical, and eerily contemporary. It takes place in a not-so-distant future when the middle class is being squeezed out of existence, the underemployed live in shantytowns on vacant lots, racial discord and police brutality are on the rise, and a media-induced malaise seems to have overcome the human race. One day, a down-and-outer (played by pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper) discovers a pair of cheap-looking sunglasses that let him see a whole new reality. Turns out the rich and powerful are all aliens or people who have sold out to the aliens. This leads to one of the greatest and cheesiest one-liners in action sci-fi history: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I'm all out of bubblegum."

Now, it's one of my little pleasures in life to post extremely weird links and opaque commentary on Facebook to see if my aunts, cousins, in-laws, coworkers, and high school friends will think I've gone off my rocker. (I used to go in for politics, but eventually you learn what everybody is going to say, so why bother?) So I recently posted the above picture of George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Queen Elizabeth II as reptoids. Imagine my surprise when, immediately afterward, the "people also posted" thing popped up with three stories about...Donald Trump.

Let me pause here to assure whomever might be reading this that I, for one, welcome our new reptilian overlords.

Now, what's interesting to me about They Live (which is awesome and you should watch soon if you haven't yet) is that it appeared shortly before David Icke began his career as New Age prophet. Was it an influence on his ideas? Icke is also supposed to have been influenced by 1940s non-fiction writer Mark Doreal, who took some of his ideas from Robert E. Howard. So apparently there's been a strange cross-fertilization between weird horror and cranky fringe conspiracy theories. Each influences the other; both grow together.

For all that, though, there's a distinct psychological line between the weird horror fan and the wild-eyed conspiracy theorist. For the former, there's a big element of play, of fun. The latter is in deadly earnest. I would even assert that the fan is the unlikeliest person to go down that rabbit hole. They're inoculated by their sense of humor.

But what does make someone start thinking that the celebrities and politicians they see on TV and in the news are all reptoids in disguise? That, I'm afraid, is a question above my pay grade, so I'll just conclude with a word from our sponsor:


ADDENDUM: D'oh! While writing this, I forgot to mention another ridiculous eighties movie making use of the same idea: the inimitable The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984), which pits humans and Black Lectroids against the evil Red Lectroids of Planet 10. Less pointed, much weirder, with an awesome cast. I'll have to start reviewing fantasy and sci-fi schlock from the eighties sometime soon.