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.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dragonfly at Black Gate

Fletcher Vredenburgh, who, in my humble opinion, does an inestimable service to Sword & Sorcery as a genre by reviewing online S&S short stories from the perspective of someone who actually appreciates and enjoys such things, has reviewed my most recent endeavor, "Day of the Dragonfly," over at Black Gate. I'm getting plenty o' hits from Black Gate and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, so I'd like to offer everyone visiting my site a big howdy from the armpit of Texas.

Howdy! Please take a minute to peruse all the interesting, amusing, irrelevant, and downright embarrassing things I've posted over the last few years.