Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Dragonfly is Here!

     By a route obscure and lonely,
     Haunted by ill angels only,
     Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
     On a black throne reigns upright,
     I have reached these lands but newly
     From an ultimate dim Thule—
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
          Out of SPACE—out of TIME.
 – Edgar Allen Poe              
Antellus! Counter-earth! There is no new idea under the sun. Pythagoras posited the existence of such a planet, an occult earth standing out against earth as weight against counter-weight, as called for by his metaphysical conceits. His followers were taken to task for this piece of extravagance, but it was only their system that was at fault, and not the faith that led them to use it in deducing the hidden stops of the cosmos. For there is a dark sister planet to Tellus, our earth. It lies, not beyond the hidden hearth of the solar system, but at the cosmic antipodes, circling an alien star at the dim ultima Thule of the universe.

Long ago – or is it the future? Or another cycle altogether of our wheeling cosmos? – a text was committed to the boundless deep, and fell at last, meteor-like, into a waste place of our world, where it was discovered by a lonely herder of goats, and made its way through a succession of curious chances into my hands.

"It was a storm. I knew that from stories. All night I sat
and watched the lightning leap from buttress to buttress.
It was terrible to be alone."
It wasn't easy to translate, for, though the antediluvian tongues are rooted in archangelic songs and cries, and not subject to the curse of Babel, yet the baleful protraction of the daemonic stasis in the alternate orb has wrought strange convolutions in the speech of the blemmyes and sciopods that dwell there. But the effort was well-spent, as I hope my readers will agree.

And I must remind the prospective reader that, in purchasing a copy of this first installment of my translation – Dragonfly – he or she buys, not merely a book, but a passport to another world, including but not limited to:
  • 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; and
  • manly men and beautiful women.
And so, even as our narrator's nameless heirs entrusted his manuscript to the vast, blind cosmos, thus do I cast Dragonfly at the feet of that terrifying modern techno-Argus, the Internet.

My imprint, Hythloday House has graciously agreed to publish Dragonfly; at present it can be purchased through and from our CreateSpace eStore.

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*     *     *

One dark day, a rebellious thought took hold of my brain: I have my own vision for my book, particularly as a physical object. To me a mass-market trade paperback is, or should be, a thing of beauty. So I set out to create what I as a reader would consider the perfect paperback.

I dedicate this endeavor to those bold idiosyncratic ones, the ones who sowed the first seeds of modern fantasy, to E. R. Eddison and David Lindsay and William Hope Hodgson and their kin. But to you also, my reader, with whom I hope to make contact, anonymous though you remain. For, as E. B. White said, the penetration of the barriers that separate minds and hearts is the purpose and principal reward of writing.

Yes, I write for entertainment. But entertainment is no mean thing in my estimation. I hope that you, my reader, will be entertained by what I have written.

*     *     *

Here is Hythloday House's 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 gaining 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 drawings by the author.
Please visit Hythloday House for more information. Time to go oding!

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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.