Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Devil's Land

We (ahem) continue to work on the publication of Dragonfly. Tweaking it has been more time-consuming than anticipated, but we (my publisher and I) are still on for our April 27 release date. In the meantime, I'll ruminate a bit on Texas and Mexico, which have been much on my mind for various reasons lately.

Blooming ocotillo and acacia near the Pecos River and Rio Grande.
The former, also aptly known as the devil's walking stick, usually
looks like a dead stick with murderously long, sharp thorns, but after a
spring rain it sprouts leaves and vermilion flowers.
I am, as my bio reads, a circuit-riding professor living in the Texas hinterlands. My work this week took me deeper than usual into the open spaces on the map.* My young son accompanied me. Among other things, we paid a nighttime visit to the Marfa lights, where mysterious orbs of golden fire appear and disappear over the distant desert for no apparent reason. Sometimes the lights fail to show, but we were fortunate on this occasion. The night was chilly and star-pricked, and storm cells flashed in the distance.

I've been visiting the spot since I was a boy. But the place is on the itineraries now, and there's a viewing platform and public restrooms; my son and I were subjected to a busload of senior citizen tourists who swarmed the stop and complained loudly that the lights weren't as spectacular as they'd been led to believe. One lady right behind us, after having exclaimed to all and sundry that she couldn't see what everyone was talking about, finally had the little orbs pointed out to her by a neighbor, and bitterly commented, "Well they should be bigger."Sigh.

Because Texas is a Gulf state, it's easy to forget that the westernmost tip, occupied by El Paso, is closer to the Pacific Ocean than to Louisiana. The wedge of land between the Pecos and the Rio Grande belongs to the Chihuahuan Desert of northern Mexico and the high plains of New Mexico. What rain it gets typically sails over from the west. It's a land where your heart expands, a land that makes you feel wild and free, a land for which I have a deep and abiding love. But, as I said, it's becoming increasingly well known, which sends persons like me hunting for places farther from such well-trodden ways.

My home lies in the east, at the Edge of Beyond, as I call it, on the ecological borderland where the Winter Garden region, known for its winter vegetable growing season, ends and the South Texas Badlands begin. Farther west, beyond the Amistad Reservoir and the Devil's River, civilization gives out altogether. The stretch of country between the Pecos canyon and the town of Sanderson is particularly desolate.

The Pecos River, that sediment-choked symbol of death, hell, and
the devil, gateway to the semi-mythical Old West.
The land is open and rolling and completely treeless, an undulating, rocky plain of prickly, dark green acacia cut here and there by canyons and arroyos. Most of the buildings are abandoned and roofless and have a haunted, almost demonic look. Marfa and the rest lie far beyond it, and there's little danger of a popular inundation so far from the Interstate and any points of interest.

The U. S. highway hugs the Rio Grande. Looking northeast you have eighty or a hundred miles of trackless, houseless wilderness, bordered on the far side by the Interstate. In the other direction, on clear days, you can see far away into the southwest, beyond the Rio Grande and across the uninhabited deserts of northern Coahuila, to where the Sierra del Burro rise up from the arid flats; perhaps you can even catch a glimpse of the Sierra del Carmen beyond, a "sky island" in a sea of desert that attains heights of more than 8000 feet, putting me in mind of one of my favorite films. Together these two ranges form the northernmost limits of the Sierra Madre Oriental. There are no paved roads there and no towns. What inhabitants there are live on large ranches. It has been called one of the remotest places on earth.

I've traveled a bit in Coahuila, having spent some time in Saltillo, the capital city, in my tumultuous youth. It's a wild and beautiful region, and one that I've longed to explore ever since. Perhaps one day, when my children are older and Mexico is more settled, I'll do so. More than anything I long to penetrate those blank spaces on the map, the Sierra del Burro and Sierra del Carmen.

Joseph Conrad's Marlow puts the desire thusly:
Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, 'When I grow up I will go there.' The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven't been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour's off. Other places were scattered about the hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and...well, we won't talk about that. But there was one yet – the biggest, the most blank, so to speak – that I had a hankering after.
True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery – a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.
Sometime soon perhaps I'll write a little narrative of my strange journey to Saltillo.

* Since my bio also reads that I live eighty miles from the nearest bookstore, I will mention that, in a tiny used bookstore I frequent out there in the Old West, I discovered a number of Arkham House books, including three collections of Clark Ashton Smith's stories, dust jackets and all, but, alas!, they are priced far beyond my limited means.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Blind Carpenter

My eyesight has always been extremely bad. Until modern advances in high-index materials allowed me to get fairly thin, small lenses, my glasses looked something like a pair of sawed-off coke-bottle bases with frames attached. I recently broke my only current pair, and, while I'm waiting for a new set, I'm wearing an extremely old pair that are so heavy they make it hard to breathe. My wife says I look like Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner. For various reasons contact lenses are out of the question.

On top of this, I've just been diagnosed with glaucoma. It's not a great surprise, as it runs in my family. But then again, I'm only in my mid-thirties, and there has already been damage. The drops I'm taking seem to be helping (though this may be only my imagination) so we'll see what the doctor says when I return. An uncle was diagnosed with glaucoma in his thirties and has been able to live with it. So things could be worse.

But anyway, all this has me thinking about blindness and adversity.

My mother's grandfather, known to me as Grandpa Ubl, went completely blind in middle age. I only met him once, in the eighties, close to the time of his death. His was the first death I knew, and my mother has always spoken of him so affectionately that he's one of my main role models.

He was born in something like 1896 in the small town in Minnesota where all that side of the family lived. His own father had to be placed in an asylum after attacking them with a knife (he was, perhaps, schizophrenic, a another disorder that seems to run in my family), and Grandpa Ubl had to step up to fill this vacant role. He was passed over for service in World War I as the main breadwinner for his mother and siblings. His youth was touched a second time with tragedy (before or after his father's removal I don't know) when a fire destroyed their house and took the life of his sister, who burned to death before his eyes.

It was an agricultural community, but he was a carpenter, a builder of houses. During the Depression he is said to have bartered and done what he could to work with people who weren't able to pay. He was self-employed, and when he went blind it could have been a catastrophe. He could have despaired as his eyesight darkened. But he put his faith in God – that's how he described it to a newspaper reporter years later – and somehow was able to adapt and continue to work as a carpenter

He transitioned to furniture; I'm not sure what the timing was, or whether this was an effect of his loss of eyesight, aging, or both. I have a number of his pieces in my house. They are simple but highly finished, some with delicate light-on-dark inlay. Just about everyone in the family has some of his chairs, many of which have caning woven in a traditional octagonal pattern by his own fingers. In a newspaper interview he said that he would keep his tools in a careful array so as to always find what he needed. My aunt's husband, who was old enough to have seen him work, told me it was an uncomfortable experience to sit by and watch him reaching "blindly" around power tools, but he was deft and never made a mistake.

I met him when I was a very little boy. He and my Grandma Ubl spent most of their time in their basement, reserving the parlor upstairs for special company. They lived in the house he'd built for them, shown to the right. He always wore suspenders, which terrified me for some reason when I sat in his lap. I recall going downtown with Grandma Ubl to pick his pocket watch up from the repair shop. He insisted on wearing one, though he couldn't read Braille because his fingers were too calloused from working with wood.

His daughter, my grandmother, had glaucoma, and was practically blind by the time she died. She raised nine children with my grandfather and was head nurse at a hospital. She was strong-willed and strong-minded; the story is that she was kicked out of Catholic school during her last year for asking too many questions about free will and omniscience, and had to finish her education elsewhere. (She then went away to nursing school and abruptly married a Greek, as recounted here.)

Though left-handed, she was raised to be ambidextrous, and was supremely skilled in sewing, knitting, crocheting, and other such arts. She was such a perfectionist that, whenever she received someone else's handiwork as a gift, she could later be seen to surreptitiously examine it for minute flaws. As her eyesight started to fail she turned to miniatures, going so far as to crochet tiny sweaters with tiny crochet hooks, and build and cane tiny replicas of her father's rocking chairs for her houses. She worked almost right up until her death.

One of my aunts is now legally blind, but still makes beautiful quilts, and also canes furniture as a side business. Of all the family she probably takes most closely after my grandmother in perfectionism. She's kind, but critical, and unwilling to accept less than perfection. Another aunt, whom I've always looked up to, teaches high school shop class and plays trombone for a jazz band, but has also worked as a math teacher, a carpenter, the conductor of an orchestra, and a trombonist for the Navy band. My own mother is a painter, and when I was a kid I knew never to show anything to her unless I was willing to have its flaws pointed out for correction. And, well, I could go on, but you probably get the idea. I seem to have inherited the hypercritical eye, artisanal aspirations, unusual impairments, and general inability to fit in shared by the rest of the family.

So, although I of course hope I'm able to stop the deterioration of my eyesight, I'll trust in providence to take care of me and my family whatever happens. But never think that the idea of divine providence is some kind of pat, everything-will-work-out complacence. No! Providence is a dark and fearful thing. It rained manna in the desert, killed the dinosaurs by fire and darkness, and gave the bee both honey and sting. In any event, I'll be able to come of up with some way of doing the various things I do, if that is what is meant to be.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

You Are Likely to Be Eaten by a Grue

"Zork I box art" by The box/cover art can or could be obtained
from the distributor. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.
In my last post I mentioned the Infocom games, which got me to thinking about such games and about interactive fiction in general. Infocom, if you don't know, was a computer company founded in 1979 and bought out by Activision in 1986. We had a number of their titles on floppy disks for our Commodore 64, including the three Zork games, Enchanter, Sorcerer, Planetfall, and I forget what else. I mostly played them around the late eighties and early nineties.

They're purely text-based, and form a bridge between the choose-your-own-adventure books that were popular at the time and visual adventure games like King's Quest or Police Quest. But the former were too simplistic to be engaging for long, while the latter, to me, left too little to the imagination. I loved the Zork games because playing them was a bit like being a character in a book. Also, because my parents wouldn't let me play Nintendo, and we didn't own a PC until winning a shopping spree a couple years later.

The beginning of Zork II, my favorite in the series.
The puzzles were extremely difficult, partly because the possibilities for action were basically limitless – you could try any simple command – and partly also because of misleading clues and useless objects. But of course, once you strip away the trappings, they're really just big logic puzzles, and I've mentioned my proclivity for logic puzzles here in the past. Part of the difficulty for me back in those Web-less days was that we had no instructions for any of them, since we inherited the games as part of a box of disks gotten rid of by someone else, but really that just added to my enjoyment.

I've done a bit of programming, beginning with BASIC at the same time I was playing the Zork games – which probably are what got me into programming – and continuing into C++ and other things in later years. Actually, just the other day I found some ancient C++ notes of mine with a map of Zork II drawn on the back. They're the classic games for geeks, and contain numerous programmers' in-jokes and obscure references, like 69,105. I've always wanted to try my hand at writing interactive fiction...

But all of that's not to say that the setting was nothing to me. Romantic that I am, I played the Zork games chiefly for their subterranean, half technological, half magical setting, exemplified by the opening above, in which the adventurer encounters an Elvish sword (which naturally glows in the presence of enemies) and a battery-operated brass lantern in an ancient barrow. The lantern's batteries, incidentally, have a frustratingly low life-span, leaving the hapless adventurer prey to lurking grues once the light goes out.

The interested reader can experience these games at the Internet Archive, which allows you to play them online in an Apple II emulator:

Oh ye who go about saying unto each: "Hello sailor":
Dost thou know the magnitude of thy sin before the gods?
Yea, verily, thou shalt be ground between two stones.
Shall the angry gods cast thy body into the whirlpool?
Surely, thy eye shall be put out with a sharp stick!
Even unto the ends of the earth shalt thou wander and
Unto the land of the dead shalt thou be sent at last.
Surely thou shalt repent of thy cunning.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Hope and Horror

Tolkien was a watershed in fantasy, but I've always found myself drawn to what went before rather than to what came after. The analogy's not perfect, but H. P. Lovecraft has something of the same role in weird horror, and in much the same way I generally prefer to explore his predecessors. Not that I'm denigrating either author; it's just that they're so big in their respective genres that nothing that came after could be quite free of their influence, either positively or negatively. They brought about a loss of (literary) innocence, and to me there's always something wild and free about their forerunners.

For instance, while more developed, Lovecraft's mythos or whatever you want to call it is tame compared to what you find in Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, Robert W. Chambers, Oscar Wilde, &c. By tame I don't mean boring or not worth reading; I simply mean that it's been taught its place, answers when called, and retires when dismissed. For all their eldritch grandeur, Lovecraft's alien gods are too well delineated to be truly horrifying to me, and I've always read him as a fantasist rather than as a horror writer. But Machen's Pan, while of course quite familiar in a cultural sense, has something unspeakably perverted and wrong about him.

Hodgson is my favorite of the aforementioned authors; this spring I read his masterpiece, and one of my favorite novels: The House on the Borderland. Not content to recount a brutal battle with swine-things from the mysterious subterranean world beneath his house, after the manner of The Boats of the "Glen Carrig", he expands the scope to cosmic proportions, traveling far beyond the compass of even The Night Land. Here H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, another favorite of mine, was clearly an influence (and how much a one, I wonder?), but House delves much deeper into the temporal abyss.

*          *          *

Now, this is neither here nor there, but when I was a kid I was a huge fan of the Infocom games – I've beaten Zork I, II, and III, which, if you've played them, should impress you! – and the setting of Zork I vaguely reminds me of The House on the Borderland. The programmers seemingly took grues from The Dying Earth:
It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.
What is a grue, you ask?
> what is a grue
The grue is a sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the earth. Its favorite diet is adventurers, but its insatiable appetite is tempered by its fear of light. No grue has ever been seen by the light of day, and few have survived its fearsome jaws to tell the tale.
I wonder if they were Hodgson readers as well?

*          *          *

As an OCDS I sometimes ask myself, Self, what business does a person with religious pretensions have reading (or writing!) supernatural horror? Shouldn't the things I read and write have some kind of moral or eucatastrophe or epiphany or something? Certainly the kindly old ladies I meet with every month would be scandalized if they knew the sorts of things I've put out there, which happens to be one of the chief reasons I write with a pen name. And some of my unpublished pieces – my Hodgson fan fiction, for instance – are quite openly at odds with received dogma. But more than anything, what characterizes supernatural horror is a plot of hopelessness, of despair that an end exists to be attained, i.e., the negation of a theological virtue. Otherwise it would be a thriller or some such thing. Who ever read Lovecraft hoping the protagonist would somehow get out of it all and find that, really, God's in his heaven, and all's right with the world? But isn't it an imperfection or a sin to dally in such crooked fancies?

Part of the answer (if there is one) is, I think, that stories are works of art, and not religious tracts. A stunning revelation, I know. But it's one not many people these days seem to understand, and it's not just religious-types. For instance, if you make the progressive in your story a good guy, and the stick-in-the-mud a pharisee or a doofus, then everyone will think you're scoring points for progressivism (or whatever -ism you like), even if you're actually attacking it by exposing its weaknesses in some subtle way.

Graham Green understood the narrative weakness of making your protagonist the one who's right about everything, and the Catholics in his novels tend to be no-goods, like the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory. In Brighton Rock, for instance, the crusading protagonist is a modern pagan named Ida, while her opponent, Pinky, who eventually gets what's coming to him, is a vindictive, hateful little hoodlum and a Catholic. Plenty of readers conclude that Graham is attacking Catholicism – just look around on the Internet – but by giving Ida her head what he's actually doing is exposing every joint and rivet in her naked worldview and allowing the reader to see its inherent poverty and blindness. It's the contrapositive of optima corrupta pessima.

So people nowadays facilely assume that the white hats are the truth-tellers and the black hats the liars, and that what happens in a story is a working-out of the way the author thinks the world should be. But even granting that authors with an ax to grind can be slightly more sophisticated in their approach, can we admit authors who deliberately subvert their own worldviews?

I say yes. Because the point of a story – especially a short story, as I see it – is to form a beautiful pattern, and if its inner logic calls for the violation of some deeply held truth, well, then truth must be violated. In the story, all that matters is narrative truth, plot-logic, and the writer who sins against it sins against beauty, a transcendental in its own right. Furthermore, the thing about Lovecraft and his circle is that there's a very great element of playfulness about it all. We can play make-believe, can't we?

And even if I were to cede that literature must have a moral purpose (which I do not), who's to say that it can't be a thought experiment in which I start with certain assumptions and take them to their logical conclusion? Consider also that even great saints can experience hopelessness – e.g., Thérèse of Lisieux, the young Carmelite whose temptations to blaspheme and despair while dying of tuberculosis were censored from the earliest editions of her autobiography – and it might be said that there's something cathartic about stepping into a malign cosmos for a brief moment. Because, really, that's the human condition, that's what we face every day. "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me" (Pascal).

So, there's that, a little apology in case any of my church-lady friends find this blog, which, since I doubt they're out trolling the Internet for musings on weird fiction, seems unlikely enough.

See also: Catharsis and the Post-Apocalyptic

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Dragonfly: Coming Soon!

One hundred years after Edgar Rice Burroughs' Thuvia, Maid of Mars was serialized, the year 2015 will become known to future generations as the year that Dragonfly, the first sword-and-planet novel of Raphael Ordoñez, appeared to trouble the world-city's semi-divine oversoul. This new entry in a long-neglected subgenre combines a contemporary outlook with all the familiar tropes, including but not limited to:
  • a stranger in a strange land;
  • a mixture of bronze-age with steam- and space-age technology;
  • mysterious ancient ruins;
  • coexisting human, abhuman, and nonhuman races;
  • a well-developed planetary ecology;
  • perilous encounters with said ecology;
  • manly men and beautiful women.
The novel takes place in Antellus, the counter-earth at the cosmic antipodes, whose precise relationship with Tellus, our earth, can be described via a topological-mythological excursus which we will forgo for the moment. All my published short stories have been set in this world, with "The Goblin King's Concubine" being perhaps the most closely related.

Dragonfly is intended as the first entry in a tetralogy. My imprint, Hythloday House (of which I am the sole editor, author, artist, graphic designer, marketing director, and pastry chef), has tentatively set the release date for April 27. I have a proof copy beside me as I write this; the final round of format review is close to complete. Here is a draft of our puff for the piece:
In the counter-earth of paleozoic darkness and daemonic sway, the people of Arras have dwindled, retreating from Urgit and Cormrum-by-the-Sea to clutches of domes in the desert. But still they walk the songlines of the seraphim, preserving their primeval lore.
When Keftu, the rightful-born young phylarch, returns from a journey to find his people poisoned, he sets out to discover the secret of immortality. He is drawn to Enoch, the rust-stained city of stone, mankind's omega. There his plans change as he falls under the power of an urban warlord and falls in love with a mysterious harlot. 
Rising from slavery as a slayer in the pits, Keftu ascends on wings of resin and bone to trouble the world-city's oversoul. Will he succeed in scaling the sea-girt, stratospheric Tower of Bel and ascending to the Hanging Gardens of Narva? Or will the city devour him before he can find his place in it?
A New Planetary Romance 
Dragonfly is the first in a series of sword-and-planet tales set in Antellus, the alter-earth circling an alien star at the dim ultima Thule of the universe, 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, Dragonfly combines a contemplative outlook with a drive to action, a sense of mystery with a dash of violence.
A Mythic Adventure with a Touch of Noir
Deinothax was white-hot and smoking in my hands. Jairus gave the signal, and his men charged.
It seemed at that moment that I had ages to wait until the tide of steel reached me. The light of the sinking sun shot slantwise down the street, and each cloud wisp, window, and mote stood out as something tragically and eternally beautiful.
The length of two buildings lay between me and the Misfit now. A new light flashed in Jairus' eyes. He slowed and stopped in the middle of an intersection. His men drew to a standstill behind him, bunched up and tense, watching him with confused eyes.
A slow and growing thunder was in the air. I looked at the sky, but the sky was clear. Then the quiet was cloven by the voice of a savage horn, awful and lonely, such as might have led the Wild Hunt through the moss-forests at the dawn of time. The street seemed to pulse and vibrate under my feet. I heard a sound that was something between a squeal and a roar, and wondered why it was so familiar.
A cry of panic went up among the men. They started to divide down the middle, on either side of the intersection. But it was too late.
Published by Hythloday House. Cover art and interior illustrations by the author.
Dragonfly will be available for purchase at and our CreateSpace eStore. In the future it may be distributed through other online retailers such as Barnes and Noble. Also in the future it will be offered as a Kindle ebook, but, what with the nostalgic charm and retro wrap-around cover and all, we feel strongly that its main form of existence should be in the physical realm. The main hub for purchasing is the imprint's website:

Our marketing director has come up with an innovative strategy to enable us to sell hundreds of thousands of books and retire to a life of ease and plenty, but, for my own part, I shall continue writing and illustrating stories until someone makes me stop, I die, or an unforeseen cataclysm brings about the end of all life on earth as we know it; eventually, scope and consistency will bring readers to my brand in droves, gaggles, and/or flocks. Through Hythloday House I also plan to publish story collections and other ancillary works; in the future we may also offer new editions of old fantasy classics, if that proves feasible.

Stay tuned for further announcements.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Lego Chess!

As a general rule I hate playing board games, but I make an exception for chess. I don't pretend to be anything but an amateur, and I've never played anyone but family members and friends, but I enjoy it quite a bit, and read about it from time to time. I've been playing chess with my son since his fifth birthday and my daughter since well before her fifth. My son has almost beaten me several times; I don't know whether that says more about me or about him! We're also reading Through the Looking-Glass, having just finished Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The latter is definitely the superior of the two, but the kids are amused by the chessboard conceit of the former.

Another thing we three do together is play with Legos. You see, the awesome thing about having kids is that you get to play with toys all over again, but now that you're older you can do way cooler things with them. Plus, people think you're a devoted parent, etc. Anyway, when I was a kid, I was really into Legos. I eventually had this enormous plastic tub full of them. And my parents, who save everything, from my umbilical cord (carefully coiled in a little pouch) to a piece of my finger I chopped off in high school, naturally kept these stored in their garage like the Ark of the Covenant in a top-secret government warehouse. And now I have them all – cord, finger, and Legos.

It was quite an experience sorting through the tub, which hadn't been touched since my brother and I got too old for them. The Lego Movie is, naturally, quite a favorite around here. Best movie of 2014. Part of it takes place in a hall of "relics," which include a dirty Band-Aid and other nasty little bits of trash. The joke here, which only a person with lots and lots of Legos would get, is that all kinds of weird things end up in the bucket. Well, going through our old bucket was like opening up a time capsule of relics. The helmet of a G.I. Joe; the leg of a Parademon; the eraser-end of a pencil bitten so as to make the eraser protrude just a little bit further; the wrapper from a clandestinely consumed piece of candy; a plastic cockroach; a rusty binder clip; and so on.

Well, being the systematic person I am, I washed each and every Lego and sorted them into colors. That done, what was I to do? I made several increasingly grand gothic imperial space palaces, but, you know, that gets old. So at last I hit upon the awesomest idea of all: Lego chess! A bout with a stomach virus over the Christmas break gave me just the opportunity I needed.

Here's a picture of the white side:

Which makes me think of the Kenneth Branagh Hamlet:

The king is accordingly called Hamlet, and his wife, Gertrude. One of the bishops wears the sign of the shell, selected as being an ancient symbol of pilgrimage, and also because I ran out of red capes. The black side has more of an Iron Crown of Witchland thing going on:

Naturally, white represents Order, and black, Chaos. It's hard to see in the pictures, but the white king holds a sword across his lap for Justice, the black king a whip for Tyranny. The latter (King Gorice XII) has a fierce spiky cross:

His queen we call Semiramis. Just for good measure, here's another view of the white side:

The set is inspired partly by Battle Chess, which I loved watching on autoplay in Radio Shack in the late eighties. The horses' heads, alas, protrude beyond the edge of their squares, and they thus must sometimes be turned sideways. I could build a more traditional-looking knight, but what fun it is to use real horses!

And yes, the pieces are a little cumbersome to play with. But the kids and I derive considerable enjoyment from it nonetheless. As you can probably tell, I'm inordinately pleased with it. The Lego bricks are all from the late eighties / early nineties, the very latest having been bought by my younger brother after I'd moved on to other things. So they're not as specialized as what they make now, and the white ones are slightly discolored.

No arena of combat would be complete without spectators:

Most are from my old sets, but several of my son's make an appearance as well. As you can see, quite a few celebrities like to stop by. From left to right:
  • Row 4: Blacktron Future Generation spaceman; Larry from Newhart; morning news anchor; Chima bird-thing; one-eyed cutthroat; M:Tron spaceman; Redbeard the Pirate; Blacktron spaceman; Jolly Roger pirate.
  • Row 3: Burt Reynolds; Bane; the Toecutter; crossing guard; Justin Bieber; Lizzie Borden; airport worker; greasemonkey.
  • Row 2: General Zod; General Zod's minion; doctor; Sally Ride (it's hard to tell because of the helmet); Sir Bruce sans Pitie; Shell gas station employee; rioting peasant; barbarian warrior; hardened criminal.
  • Row 1: Emmet Brickowski; Batman; Super Mario; Commissioner Gordon; Robin Hood; Little John; Benny the retro eighties spaceman; Superman.

We keep ourselves entertained.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Half-Breeds Like Us

In which I muse on my mixed ethnic background, the sense of isolation resulting from such a background, the history of negative mixed-ethnic stereotypes in letters and logic, and the weird ways in which these play a role in my writing.

Wagner's Hagen: half man, half dwarf.

Raymond Chandler's Playback is not his most well-known novel. It's meandering and depressing and mildly offensive, though it might have made a good noir film in the hands of the right director. In the course of this particular quest for truth, Marlowe finds himself extracting information from a parking garage attendant:
I let the door close and stood outside it waiting and a lean man in a long white coat came around the corner. He wore glasses, had a skin the color of cold oatmeal and hollow tired eyes. There was something Mongolian about his face, something south-of-the-border, something Indian, and something darker than that. His black hair was flat on a narrow skull.
Marlowe questions him, using his dope habit as leverage. In the course of their conversation the man reveals his ethnicity:
"You're not Mex?" 
"I'm part Chinese, part Hawaiian, part Filipino, and part n****r. You'd hate to be me."
He turned away and I went through the door and rang for the elevator. He was a queer duck, the attendant, very queer. Kind of interesting, though. And kind of sad, too. One of the sad, one of the lost.
Later on, Marlowe goes to find him at his house.
At the far corner of Polton's Lane there was an automobile agency. I followed its high blank wall, looking at broken crates, piles of cartons, trash drums, dusty parking spaces, the back yard of elegance. I counted the buildings. It was easy. No questions to ask. A light burned in the small window of a tiny frame cottage that had long ago been somebody's simple home. The cottage had a wooden porch with a broken railing. It had been painted once, but that was in the remote past before the shops swallowed it up. Once it may even have had a garden. The shingles of the roof were warped. The front door was  a dirty mustard yellow.
It goes on like this for a while. Then comes the inevitable discovery:
The man's scuffed toes almost touched the floor. His head was up in the darkness inches from the two by four that held up the rooof. He was hanging by a black wire, probably a piece of electric light wire. The toes of his feet were pointed down as if they reached to stand on tiptoe. [...]
I closed the door on him. I didn't go back in the house. As I went along the side towards Polton's Lane, that handsome residential street, the parrot inside the shack heard me and screeched "Quién es? Quién es? Quién es?"
A cruel but effective and not unsympathetic portrait of a person relegated to the interstices of society.

*     *     *

I am, as I have mentioned before, of rather mixed ancestry. Two of my grandparents were born in Puerto Rico, and their genes were a mixture of Spanish, Native American, and West African; my other grandfather came of Greek immigrants who entered the country by way of Ellis Island, and my other grandmother came of plains-dwelling Bohemians like characters in a Willa Cather novel. Practically speaking, what all this rich heritage means in is that I'm an outsider in every party.

When my Greek grandfather married my Bohemian grandmother, he was for a time persona non grata with her family. Her parents refused at first to let him in the house, or so the story goes. Being quite a likeable guy, though, he eventually won everyone over; actually, he became so integrated in the town that he hosted a polka program on the local radio station. They eventually settled elsewhere, and my grandmother had nine children – think My Big Fat Greek Wedding – while her brother had seven, giving rise to two very large but very distinct branches. The first is scattered from the West Coast to the East Coast; the second has tended to stay close to home.

A couple summers ago I went to a reunion in the old hometown. It was friendly, but I could sense a certain amount of tension. I suppose it didn't help that the cookout took place in a park dedicated to Hermann (Arminius, the titular protector of the Sons of Hermann), in the shadow of a terrifying statue of the hero that looms over the whole town from atop a towering dome, a kind of shrine where devotional souvenirs are sold. A relative lamented to me that her children aren't pure-blooded, as her husband isn't entirely of Germanic extraction. My children are purely human, and that's about it.

But back to my grandfather. On his own side he was regarded as having run off to marry an outsider. He made a choice – a sacrifice – to turn his back on his Greek heritage and embrace American patriotism like no other person I know. Similarly, my Puerto Rican grandparents raised my father to speak English, not Spanish. This was a conscious decision to integrate. My great-grandfather was a railroad worker; my grandfather was a sailor and airman and hardware store manager; my dad was a soldier and science teacher and counselor; and I'm what I am, such as it is. I guess we're slowly working our way in.

Incidentally, though, I'm not criticizing those who choose to retain a strong cultural identity in this country. On the contrary, I have an acute sympathy for them, because I know what happens when you lose it, and find yourself falling between chairs. I've sometimes regretted my family's sacrifice. But then again, I like existing.

*     *     *

There is a tendency, even among the diversity-minded, to view ethnicity as a matter of discrete categories or sets. To them, the "other" about which they are so solicitous tends to be a pure-blooded member of an ethnic minority, a view reinforced by bureaucratic check-boxes. In such a world the half-breed has no place. But of course ethnicity is really more like a collection of fuzzy sets.

In Aristotelian logic and classical set theory, an individual either does or does not belong to a set. The concept of the fuzzy set, developed by Lotfi Zadeh in the 1960s, allows for degrees of membership. Membership is valued as a real number μ such that 0 ≤ μ ≤ 1. In contrast to this, membership in ordinary or "crisp" sets is valued as 0 (not belonging) or 1 (belonging). In a rigorous sense, fuzzy logic is, I think, still insufficient to model ethnicity, because there clearly is a discrete element to genetics – inheritance is "digital" rather than "analog" (as, I believe, Mike Flynn put it, though I can't find the passage now) – and no ethnic category has a well-defined center, as though springing from a single progenitor like mankind from Adam. But as a metaphor, the concept at least captures the fact that we're not dealing with a black-and-white issue.

Thayer Watkins, whose website I consulted while reading about fuzzy sets, opines that Lotfi Zadeh's ethnicity is itself an example of a fuzzy set:
The question of Zadeh's ethnicity is difficult to answer sharply. His father was Turkish-Iranian (Azerbaijani) and his mother was Russian.
Dr. Watkins' site has some (alas, broken) links to discussions of the art of Paul Klee, a subject that fascinates me. It's interesting and possibly significant that the same people who were so fixated on the idea of racial purity were also the most suspicious of visual abstraction. (I wrote a bit about "degenerate art" here, and defended the art of Paul Klee here; these were part of a larger essay.) It's also interesting that A. E. van Vogt, who helped to popularize non-Aristotelian logic in the 1940s with his Null-A books (which I'm very fond of), apparently grew up speaking Low German in a Russian Mennonite community in Canada; whether he was ethnically diverse I don't know, but certainly he was personally acquainted with the idea of degrees of membership. It's the pitiably thalamic Enro the Reds of this world who feel the need to call black black and white white and fear or anathemize anything that falls between.

*     *     *

I sometimes read Nietzsche. How great a philosopher he was is debatable, but he had a penetrating insight, and was sensitive to the trends of his times and what was to come. At any rate I've found him useful. Henri de Lubac's Drama of Atheist Humanism has been helpful in this regard.

Nietzsche discusses the mixture of races at some length in Beyond Good and Evil. To wit:
In an age of disintegration that mixes races indiscriminately, human beings have in their bodies the heritage of multiple origins, that is, opposite, and often not merely opposite, drives and value standards that fight each other and rarely permit each other any rest. Such human beings of late cultures and refracted lights will on the average be weaker human beings: their most profound desire is that the war they are should come to an end. Happiness appears to them, in agreement with a tranquilizing…medicine and way of thought, pre-eminently as the happiness of resting, of not being disturbed, of satiety, of finally obtained unity, as a 'sabbath of sabbaths.'
It's hard to read this without reflecting on the way history went in the following century. There were the Nazi atrocities, and all else pales beside them, but even in our own country we had anti-miscegenation laws and the eugenics movement. Might not the still-current suspicion of the mixing of races be traced to the same origin? It's a little depressing to reflect that Alexis de Tocqueville predicted in Democracy in America that equality would never dawn until intermarriage created a smooth gradation between the races.

Anyway, Nietzsche goes on to describe how this leveling process sets the stage for the coming of the beautiful predatory one, the "Alcibiades" of history:
But when the opposition and war in such a nature have the effect of one more charm and incentive of life – and if, moreover, in addition to his powerful and irreconcilable drives, a real mastery and subtlety in waging war against oneself, in other words, self-control, self-outwitting, has been inherited or cultivated, too – then those magical, incomprehensible, and unfathomable ones arise, those enigmatic men predestined for victory and seduction… They appear in precisely the same ages when that weaker type with its desire for rest comes to the fore: both types belong together and owe their origin to the same causes. 
He later discusses Frederick II, better known as Frederick the Great:
Men were missing; and he [Frederick William I] suspected with the most bitter dismay that his own son [Frederick II] was not man enough… He saw his son surrender to atheism, to esprit, to the hedonistic frivolity of clever Frenchmen: in the background he saw that great vampire, the spider of skepticism; he suspected the incurable misery of a heart that is no longer hard enough for evil or good, of a broken will that no longer commands, no longer is capable of commanding. Meanwhile there grew up in his son that much more dangerous and harder new type of skepticism – who knows how much it owed precisely to the hatred of the father and the icy melancholy of a will condemned to solitude? – the skepticism of audacious manliness which is most closely related to the genius for war and conquest… This skepticism despises and nevertheless seizes; it undermines and takes possession; it does not believe but does not lose itself in the process; it gives the spirit dangerous freedom, but it is severe on the heart…
These ideas are profoundly repellent and fascinating to me. Repellent, because I embody everything Nietzsche saw in the degeneration of civilization: I'm not strong or ruthless or masterful, I'm racially impure, I have a developmental disability, I believe in the Beatitudes he so despised, &c. Fascinating, because they have a certain inner consistency and dramatic effectiveness, and even a romantic aura, if you're one of the pure-blooded. 

*     *     *

My ruminations on the subject gave rise to a pulp adventure story called "The Goblin King's Concubine." The plot outline was suggested by the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, mother of Quanah Parker, a story that also inspired Robert E. Howard's "The Vale of Lost Women," which has some disquieting racial elements. "Concubine" is the tale of a half-breed who falls between cultures. Write what you know, as they say. The character I identify with is Zilla. Maybe I shouldn't admit that! It's a dark tale and obviously made some people uncomfortable. But despite its origin it doesn't have a message or point. It's just a story written for entertainment.

And the half-goblin Zilla's biography extends far beyond it. He goes back almost twenty years in the history of my imagination, appeared in my earlier story, "Misbegotten," and plays a role in my forthcoming novel, Dragonfly. He is inspired by Nietzsche's Frederick the Great as well as Dostoevsky's Nikolai Stavrogin (The Possessed), Wagner's half-dwarf Hagen (Götterdämmerung), and, I must admit, Tolkien's "ill-favored" half-orc southerner in Bree. He comes from a desire to explode, from inside out, the negative stereotype of the suspicious half-breed, a role I've found myself assigned more than once. And by explode, I mean expand and dissect. But again, the objective is entertainment.

You see, I could write moralizing stories about virtuous half-breeds misunderstood and mistreated by their wicked pure-bred fellow citizens, but that would be obvious, stupid, and boring. No, my half-breed is not just suspicious and sneaky, but bad-ass, a great-souled warlock and conqueror who, far from being ill-favored, is so beautiful he has to wear a veil like Moses coming down from the mountain just to keep people from worshiping him.

So, yeah, Dragonfly, coming soon to an online retailer near you.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Hodgson and Lovecraft on the Net

One blog I keep up with is william hope hodgson, a site dedicated to Hodgson's life and writing, being as I am a great admirer of said author's work.

I first discovered it through The Night Land Website, begun by the late Andy Robertson and maintained at its new home by Kate Coady. This latter is a kind of Internet shrine, a wonderful source of information and speculation regarding The Night Land, and host to short fiction in the Hodgson mythos. Among other things, it features a really cool timeline.

I was saddened by Mr. Robertson's passing, for, though I didn't know him personally, I enjoyed his site and appreciated the devotion it represented. I actually submitted a short piece for his consideration only days before his departure. I'm grateful that his tribute to a great but largely unknown work of literature lives on.

What prompted this post was the news on the aforementioned blog that a 1924 letter of H. P. Lovecraft's was found at the Harry Ransom Center (UT Austin), which I happened to visit a few times when I was in school there. It's quite a read – scanned images of the entire letter, typed on hotel stationery, are posted at the HRC website – and divulges (in his prolix style) HPL's candid thoughts on the state of weird and "phantastical" fiction, the craft of writing, and the lack of imagination in the average American reader and writer.
Actually, the typical reader has very little true taste; and judges by absurd freaks, sentimentalities, and analogies. So it has come to be an accepted tradition that American fiction is not an art but a trade---a thing to be learnt by rule by almost anybody, and demanding above all else a complete submergence of one's own personality and thought in the general stream of conventional patterns which correspond to the bleakly uniform view of life forced on us by mediocre leadership. Success therefore comes not to the man of genius, but to the clever fellow who knows how to catch the public point of view and play up to it. Glittering tinsel reputations are built up, and dumb driven hundreds of otherwise honest plumbers take correspondence courses and try to be like these scintillant "great ones" whose achievements are really no more than charlatanry. Such is our fictional situation---indiscriminate hordes of writers, mostly without genius, striving by erroneous methods toward a goal which is erroneous to start with!
No, tell us how you really feel, Mr. Lovecraft! He goes on to praise A. Merritt's The Moon Pool, a book I remember fairly fondly, though I haven't read it in a long time. Anyway, I always find a writer's musings on their own craft – even (and perhaps especially) the very practical aspects – more illuminating than any criticism. All in all an interesting read for anyone into that period and vein of literature.

Perhaps sometime I'll post my Night Land story here or hawk it on Amazon, seeing as there's not a huge demand for wordy Hodgson-mythos fanfic in the mags these days. I've written two so far, actually, the latter being a tale set in the days when cities moved across the earth, following the sun. That one has made it to second rounds of consideration, so it can't be that bad.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Of Rodents and Ashes

This being the first Friday of Lent, the season of penance, allow me to spend a few moments dwelling on the doctrine of Purgatory and its role in one of my favorite movies: Groundhog Day.

I had originally intended to post about this topic on, you know, Groundhog Day, but instead I was in the hospital watching my daughter, Agnes Callista, being born, and then, later on, sleeping fitfully in a hospital easy chair whenever I wasn't changing horrible, horrible meconium diapers (don't click the link if it's close to lunchtime). Still, though it may seem a bit silly, it was special to me that our daughter was born on Groundhog Day, which also happens to be Candlemas.

Before we begin, I would like to invoke the capybara as a beneficent animal spirit-guide in our quest. Why the capybara, you ask? For one thing, it is a rodent, like the groundhog. It is, in fact, the largest rodent in the world, and one of my favorite animals. The picture shown here is a watercolor painting I did a few years ago in its honor.

But, more than this, there is a legend that sixteenth-century missionaries to South America, in a quandary as to whether the creature was to be considered fish or flesh, obtained permission from the Vatican for Catholics to consume its meat on Fridays. (The word "fish" has not always been used in the current taxonomical sense – cf. Moby-Dick, Chapter 32 – so this is more plausible than it may seem.) Rumor has it that this permission has never been rescinded. Me, I'm not a big meat-eater, and don't particularly care for fish (or giant aquatic guinea pigs), so I'm more than happy to forgo the K of C fish fry in favor of pasta or saag paneer on Fridays. Living where we do, we have to substitute queso fresco for the paneer, so it's not quite the same, though our Indian friends to whom we introduced q.f. now do the same thing, and actually like it better.

But I digress.

Many years ago, when I was not a practicing Catholic, I came across Tolkien's short story "Leaf by Niggle," which is the "leaf" of his Tree and Leaf. It is the story of a niggling artist who, like me, is devoted to his art despite his obscurity and mediocrity, but who tends to be a bit negligent of the things of this world, i.e., the needs of his neighbors. He is compelled at last to start his journey (death) and is sentenced to performing mundane tasks (like painting boards) for a long, long period of time. This gradually changes him. He learns discipline, how to make the best use of his time. And then, at long last, he is judged fit to pursue...a new task, with the help of his old neighbor, with whom he is now reconciled.

It is, of course, a story about Purgatory, which I didn't believe in at the time. It made me see, if not the religious necessity of the dogma, at least the psychological necessity of thing itself. To tell the truth, I'm not all that interested in disputing the truth of the belief. Most people have a rather stupid comic-book idea of what it actually entails, whereas the official teaching is fairly agnostic. But let me at least say that I was at the time living in the Bible Belt, where altar-call, pray-this-prayer-and-you'll-be-saved Christianity reigns, and I always found the concept of faith-alone salvation without purgation repugnant. Because I knew that, deep down inside, I was a twisted, messed up person. Maybe I wasn't that horribly sinful, but at any rate I had a lot of problems. The idea of my getting "saved" without being made virtuous and strong seemed like putting lipstick on a pig.

One reason I enjoy Groundhog Day so much is that it gets at the same idea, at the psychological need for purgation. You see, everything we do affects who we are. That is why the Church insists on penance. A sin can be forgiven in a legal sense, but the damage done to the integrity of the person remains, and must be healed. You can't just wake up and say, starting right now I'm going to be a better person. You can change your actions in a superficial sense, but you can't change who you are, and who you are is what ultimately determines what you do. What is required, at least on this earth, is time. Sometimes – rather rarely, these days, but they're still around – you come across a Catholic who has a very literal tit-for-tat understanding of Purgatory and indulgences in terms of days and years. But even this simplistic understanding stands for the truth that a journey from Point A to Point B must be made, and that, for us, in the flesh, this means time. It's a truth often neglected in fiction, and people are generally quite sensitive to its absence.

Phil, Bill Murray's self-absorbed weatherman (who, amusingly, shares his name with the famous Punxsutawney rodent whose prognostications he's sent to report on), finds, as everyone knows, that his Groundhog Day repeats. At first he lives for material gratification. This leads to despair, and he begins committing suicide in an delightful variety of ways. But through all this he starts to see the goodness of his producer Rita, a woman he once despised, and determines to win her heart. Because of who he is, this takes the form of manipulation. He tries to learn what buttons to push to make her do what he wants her to do. She's still an object to him, not a person. His attempts at seeming cultured and kind are hilariously superficial. And she sees through him every time.

Here there is a turning point. Realizing that he will never succeed in making her love him as he is, but also having come to find some true love for her in his heart, he opens up to her about what he experiences every day. And she opens up to him in return. His day keeps repeating, but from that point on he seeks to better himself through hard work, reading, learning how to do things, performing good deeds, figuring out the best way to help the people around him on their own terms. This takes a long, long, long time. But in the end he is loved by all, including Rita; the breach between him and the human race is closed; the spell is broken.

Apart from all that, it is a hilarious movie, and one with amazing production values. It bears repeated watching, if only to observe the subtle similarities and differences in the background action from day to day.

So, there: I managed to write a post about the multiple connections between rodents and penance.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Typesetting and Such

Though I haven't posted much of late, I've not been idle. I have, among other things, continued to work on the layout of my novel. Here's a more finished draft of the front cover:

As you can see, I'm now leaning toward Garamond rather than an Art Nouveau font, as it matches the interior better. It may seem strange, but I've always found Garamond quite beautiful. There's something about the broad roundness of the characters and the thinness of the strokes that I like.

It has a lightweight quality, beside which Times New Roman seems coarse and bulky. A certain small publisher I sometimes read uses a Garamond-derived font, as does the Everyman's Divine Comedy with the Botticelli illustrations, and I find that it makes the books more pleasurable to peruse. But then, I'm weird like that.

Anyway, here's the spine, which would be a truly handsome addition to the shelf of any discerning collector of fine books:

(The name of the "publishing house" is mosaicked out, because I don't want people to, like, steal it.) The glory of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy wrap-around covers was their spine, and I've tried to evoke that. On my own shelf it would fall between William Morris and Mervyn Peake, if that tells you anything.

Here's the back, complete with the blurb and the place for the execrable bar code:

Well, okay, you might be thinking, but this is more or less the same as what you posted the last time you blathered about all this.

But! I now have some interior pages to show. Here is the title page:

As you can see, if you know about these things, I'm going for the effect of the earlier editions of The Worm Ouroboros. I don't know if the first edition looked like this, but the oldish Xanadu Library edition I have does, and I'm pretty sure that that one's the same as the hardcover edition I checked out from a university library long ago. The dragonfly illustration is from a scratch drawing in India ink.

One thing I like about the layout of these Ouroboros editions is the sense of monumentality and width. The pages are, relatively speaking, short and wide, rather than tall and narrow, and this is accentuated by the typeface. My choice of Garamond goes with this ideal.

Another thing I like is the use of ornaments at the ends of chapters. But my own chapters tend to be short and to-the-point, as in parts of Moby-Dick, unlike the epic months-long chapters of The Worm Ouroboros, and my feeling is that an ornament at the end of each chapter would be wearying. So I made larger ornaments (inspired by Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur) and included them only where the chapter-end left a large amount of empty space.

From a drawing in ink on clay ground.

And here, for your viewing pleasure, is the map page with my newly touched-up map:

Feast your eyes on that. At this point I have it coming after the table of contents. Books like this don't often have tables of contents (or chapter titles, for that matter), but mine does because I like them. Skillfully deployed, they yield a tantalizing first glance at the plot.

I will, I suppose, also be offering this in e-book form, but I personally prefer a book that you can hold, that's pleasing to the eye and feels good in the hands, and that's what I'm going to offer first.