Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Night Thoughts

A few random updates.

I've written a longish short story, an homage to some of my favorite pieces from the wild and free pre-Tolkien epoch, with flavors of H. Rider Haggard, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Mervyn Peake, and others. Right now it's simmering on the back burner. Maybe I'll submit it, maybe not. I hold half my stuff back. They say you're not supposed to do this, but all the stuff I've actually published contains material incorporated from stories I've deemed unsuccessful for one reason or another, so I don't feel that I'm wasting my time.

My evenings have been taken up with painting. I'm still working on my groovy Ballantine-style mass-market fantasy book cover. I've gotten into the painting stage at last. I think it's going pretty well so far, but I never can tell if the parts will coalesce in the end. As I paint, I'm listening to the audiobook of The Door to Saturn, Book 2 of a Clark Ashton Smith collection put out by Night Shade Books. The stories vary from middling to excellent, but the readings are all quite good. Smith's stories are often mordantly humorous, and the best way to achieve the proper effect when reading aloud is to adopt a rather dry, reserved manner, as most of the readers, happily, have done.

Next I'd like to do a couple of maps. I'll need one large-scale "overworld" map and one local city map, perhaps with a cut-away view to show the layered structure. Seems to me there are two kinds of maps in fantasy: those that are shaped by the story (and therefore subservient to it), and those that shape the story. The latter tend to generate bad coupon-quest stories, but not always: Orson Scott Card's Hart's Hope, which I'm fond of, apparently began as a city map.

Me, I've been drawing fantasy maps since before I started reading fantasy. My third grade teacher was into various New Age ideas. She told us stories about having personally seen flying saucers and communicated with them with her mind; she made us talk to the plants when we were on watering duty, to encourage them to grow; and, most significantly, she conducted meditation sessions in which she would sit cross-legged on her desk, rub a crystal bowl with a crystal rod, and narrate a sequence of events beginning with a giant egg that was also a house and had our name on it. The egg-country took on a life of its own in my mind, and it wasn't long before I was peopling the land and drawing maps of it. These were always contour maps, and used standard map symbols, with a legend and a compass rose, as my dad had recently taught me map-reading and orientation.

So it should go without saying that the maps in Tolkien's books were a big draw when I encountered them in high school. The map in The Lord of the Rings is definitely the first kind of map, the kind shaped by the story, a literary artifact, as is apparent from his correspondence. What gets you when you read LOTR is all the walking. The story takes place in plains, mountains, forests, deserts, swamps; there is only one city to speak of, and it's a compact walled fortress. The sense of space is what really made the book appeal to me. My own fantasy is rather more urban, though it certainly isn't "urban fantasy." Most of it takes place along the weedy margins of a great city. Actually, my city is little more than margin, being long and thin and all-encompassing, like Dido's stretched hide.

Much of it is inspired by my own experiences in San Antonio, where I grew up. In its slow growth, the city has reached arms around tracts of countryside and then enclosed them on the far side, so that now you have these hidden pockets of farmland or brush country surrounded on all sides by urban development. Some of these pockets are quite old. On the South Side there's an old Spanish acequia and aqueduct that still function to irrigate crops. The inner city is a strange otherworld, larger on the inside than its perimeter would seem to allow, with very old things here and there, like fossils in a prehistoric fluvial deposit. My most recent story, "Day of the Dragonfly," was prompted by a quest into its depths to find an actual fossil, an ammonite, for my little boy, who requested one for his birthday.

I worked on a land surveying crew in high school. We had to crawl or hack our way through all the forgotten nooks and crannies of the city, through the back rooms of warehouses that stank of urine, under bridges and around stagnant pools lined with rank weeds, across back lots overgrown with mesquite where people had left old cars to rust decades ago, into the foyer of Planet Hollywood on the Riverwalk. Sometimes we saw beautiful things, like a family of roosting barn owls in a short brick structure with a twisted metal roof. At other times we saw ugly things, which I'll not describe here. Once I was bitten by a dog as we crossed a series of unfenced lots, and had to be taken to a hospital, where I shared a room with a young man who'd just been savagely beaten with a baseball bat because of road rage. It was summer, with temperatures in the triple digits, and clouds of mosquitoes in the heavy humid air.

The men I worked with had a certain Dickensian eccentricity. There was one guy who would sidle up to the rear-view mirror to pop his pimples, who liked to take us to the Taco Bell where his wife's former lover worked, to gloat. There was another guy so skinny and stringy he looked like he'd been microwaved too long; he lived on peanuts and coffee, until one day he turned purple and fell over in a juniper thicket, the victim of heat stroke and exhaustion. Then there was the guy with the braid, biker mustache, and bandana, who lived with his mother, and liked to get me alone to tell me cautionary tales about his former crack habit. Another guy, a Louisiana Cajun, had a vendetta against prickly pear, which he believed sucked the moisture from the land, killing the "good" plants; every time he saw one (which was quite often) he hacked it to pieces with his machete, not reflecting, I suppose, that this is one of the ways such cacti propagate.

None of them wore seatbelts, but they would loop the belts over their shoulders so as not to get pulled over. They honked the horn and shouted lewd things at every pretty woman they saw. They lied to their superiors daily, about the pettiest of things. Once they chewed me out for emptying the trash bucket in the company dumpster, because they knew the foil wrappers would give them away – they'd been getting breakfast tacos while on the clock, which wasn't allowed.

All in all, it was dirty, oppressive work. I lived from one little touch of beauty to the next. One morning as I left the house for work I looked up in the eastern sky and saw Venus centered just above the upturned horns of a thin crescent moon. That one vision bore me through weeks of work.

Like Tolkien, I find myself deeply troubled by modern urbanization and the general speeding-up of life. But unlike him I feel that I've had to make my peace with it. I'm not an Oxford don, but an anonymous guy of very mixed ancestry stuck – permanently, it seems – in the South Texas brush country. I write to cope with it.

On a related note, one reason for my low output on this blog lately has been a serious mental disturbance. It may seem ridiculous, but this stemmed from the renovation of the house next door. You see, I live next to this big, fine house built by a great public figure of yore for his mother. Harry S Truman actually spent the night there once, supposedly. I've seen the room he stayed in. Also, as everyone within a thirty-mile radius knows, the bathroom is marble and has gold faucets, and the master bedroom is big enough to play arena football in. Our own humble domicile used to belong to the family as well, and once housed the foreman of their massive ranch.

Anyway, the house is kind of a status item, and was recently bought up by an old branch of the local gentry. (We have gentry here.) They proceeded to cut down every one of their pecan trees, trees that provided my property with as much shade as theirs. The yard is a now a gravel pit surrounded by a temporary chain-link fence. Half the bricks and siding have been cut off the building. A sheet-metal portable lies alongside my driveway. There's a constant sawing and dumping and shouting and jackhammering. It's been going on for over a month. And I haven't even ever seen the owners! They've never deigned to stop by to say, hey, we're super-rich and are going to be causing some serious disturbance in your lives for the next half-year or so. This is Texas, the Friendship State, and we just don't do things like that here. But as I said, this is the local gentry, and around here I'm regarded as singled out for a special blessing on account of my new neighbors' mere presence.

It's the trees that really get me, though. They were big, old trees, and they just hacked 'em down. Some were kind of in bad shape from the drought, granted, but certainly not all. The tree trimmer himself felt so bad for us he brought us a pizza one day (hey, we take what we can get), and, on his own time and without my asking him, took up a big brush pile I'd had in the backyard, which would have taken me days to break up and haul on my own. Now that's Texas decency. Anyway, without the trees I feel like Sam in the scouring of the Shire, but I have no mallorns to plant. I've gotten more used to it now, but for a while I felt like I was just drifting through space.

Now I'm tempted to plant a line of hackberries down the property line, and maybe build a big ugly chicken coop for my chickens up against the fence.

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