December 8, 2017

Lack of Character Relatability: Scott Hawkins' The Library at Mount Char

Scott Hawkins' The Library at Mount Char (2015) is a compelling, experimental fantasy novel. Set in the 2010s in the state of Virginia, it features a group of orphans who have been tortured by a deity who imprisoned them in an extra-dimensional and vast library that contains the total knowledge of the cosmos. It's a strange, surprising novel. Perhaps a more accurate description would be it is a combination of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," Roger Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber, and Jorge Luis Borges's "La biblioteca de Babel." Indeed, it combines strange mythology (Gaiman), cruelty-laced phantasmagoria (Ellison), a cast of cruel demigods (Zelazny), with a disorienting, labyrinthine fictional ontology (Borges).

Despite the novelty of the concept and Hawkin's skill at rendering vivid and memorable characters, I couldn't get too into this book. I give it a 3/5. Why? Put simply: the characters weren't relatable.

The main characters, the demigods--they're called "librarians"--each have a particular "catalog" or subject in the library that they are forced to master by their god-like father: e.g. murder, medicine, prophecy, death, etc.. The protagonist, Carolyn, focuses on language; her psychotic brother, David, focuses on murder and war. There were other flatly characterized librarians: the "goth" girl, Margaret (death); the pot-smoking healer, Jennifer (medicine); the animal whisperer, Michael (animals), and others who were barely sketched.

These characters were compelling in the beginning, but in execution they weren't fully realized. For the most part, they seemed wooden and alienating. And when they were characterized in depth, they had a bizarre, inhuman quality to them. David, for example, was super evil: a torturer, sadist, and sometimes rapist. Despite the fact that the novel wants you to see him as the sad product of abuse, I just couldn't. He legitimately had no redeeming qualities at all, and his abusive and cruel nature was too extreme for me to relate to him as a human. So, he was basically a monster from my perspective.

Margaret, the librarian of death, was equally off-putting: her leitmotif behaviors consisted of creepy giggles and torturing animated decapitated heads. The protagonist, Carolyn, was the most relatable of the three, but, alas, not by much; the novel spends a lot of time exploring her past and rounding her out. But her experience in the strange world of her god-like father's library has made her evil, at least from an ordinary human perspective. For example, she massacres several dogs, kills an innocent lion, and blows up two helicopters filled with people.

There were two minor, non-librarian characters I could root for: Steve and Erwin. The problem with these two characters for me, however, is that they were macho-types whose fragile psychologies was barely probed and treated only obliquely. Both had a rough, no-BS exterior but both were barely keeping it together, a compelling tension that the narrator largely ignores. And both had a traumatized past: Erwin was haunted by the combat he saw in Afghanistan and Steve had a criminal past that resulted in the death of one of his best friends. Neither were able to talk about their traumatic past. Steve sought spiritual relief in Buddhist meditation. Both characters were very similar. Erwin was a little more folksy than Steve. Steve came off like a self-denigrating twerp, perhaps betraying Hawkin's skepticism towards self-help practices like meditation. But both characters were basically rendered as good guys with feet firmly planted on the ground; they served as anchors of the ordinary in a novel filled with strangeness.

The fantastical concepts, the world building, the renderings of the sublime and otherworldly: these things aren't what keep me coming back to fantasy novels; instead, it is for the vivid, likable characters that I can root for through engaging crises. In other words, fantasy novels provide me virtual friends who I want to spend a long time with.

Despite the strange, labyrinthine plot and the occasional flash of cosmic horror, The Library of Mount Char didn't completely work for me. Why? The traumatized, nihilistic characters of the novel--corrupted and haunted by abuse--were just too alienating.

August 3, 2017

Stanley G. Weinbaum, "A Martian Odyssey"

Stanley G. Weinbaum's, "A Martian Odyssey," published in Hugo Gersnbeck's Wonder Stories in 1934, treats the strange experiences of a surveyor, Jarvis, who, after crashing his rocket ship, has to hike his way back to his base ship, the Ares, over 800 miles of bizarre and inhospitable martian landscape. In the course of his difficult journey he encounters several strange creatures: a hypnotic tentacle monster that kills by projecting itself as the deepest desire of its selected prey, a bird-like intelligent creature named Tweel, a race of silicon-based mindless pyramid builders, and a barrel-shaped race of suicidal scavengers.

Much of the story focuses on the relationship between the protagonist and Tweel, who struggle to understand each other in spite of language and logic barriers. A general question posed throughout the story is whether or not Tweel is as intelligent as Jarvis. This dynamic reminds me of the movie, Enemy Mine (Wolgang Peterson, 1985), about how a human and an alien have to come to understand each other and trust each other to survive an inhospitable planet.

There are several memorable moments from this story, such as when the barrel-shaped creatures the protagonist and Tweel encounter parrot back the protagonist's English. There is another element near the end of the story, a strange crystal produced by the barrel-shaped creatures that possesses strong healing properties. Here is how it's described:

There was something [...] shining on a sort of low pedestal. I walked over; there was a little crystal about the size of an egg, fluorescing to the beat Tophet. The light from it stung my hands and face, almost like a static discharge, and then I noticed the funny thing.

After an exciting battle the protagonist is separated from Tweel and saved by his companions, other engineers on the Ares, but in the course of being saved, he steals the crystal. This is a common, enduring mythological and literary trope. Here the crystal is a kind of life-giving lotus, such as that sought by Gilgemesh, or the Holy Grail, sought by the Knights of the Round Table.

July 31, 2017

Toxic Beauty in Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter"

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" (1844) allegorizes the effect of scientific knowledge on human relationships. The three main characters, the young man Giovanni Guasconti, the mad botanist Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini, and his daughter Beatrice, interact to narratively test the idea that perhaps the pursuit of scientific knowledge is toxic to romantic love.

The story takes place in medieval Padua in the botanical gardens of the University of Padua, which, through the logic of allegory, becomes a version of the Garden of Eden. In this view, Giovanni and Beatrice are the innocent Adam and Eve figures and Dr. Rappaccini is the serpent/satantic figure.

Dr. Rappaccini cultivates a variety of toxic plants and creates a few deadly plants through artificial means. In the course of doing this, he subjects his daughter, Beatrice, to a poisonous environment. Beatrice then develops a tolerance for poison but she also becomes poisonous herself. Her touch shrivels flowers. Her breath kills insects. Her kiss is deadly. And despite all of this, she is sublimely beautiful. Consider when Giovanni sees her for the first time:

There emerged from under a sculptured portal the figure of a young woman [...] beautiful as the day, and with a bloom so deep and vivid that one shade more would have been too much. She looked redundant with life, health, and energy.

But, upon deeper scrutiny, there is revealed something sinister to her beauty:

The impression the stranger made upon him was as if here were another flower, the human sister of those vegetable ones, as beautiful as they--more beautiful than the richest of them--but still to be touched only with a glove, nor to be approached without a mask.

Beatrice here makes me think of the Batman villainess, Poison Ivy, although, unlike Poison Ivy, this particular poisonous woman hates the toxic garden her father has created.

The conflict of the story proceeds from the vexed love that Giovanni develops for Beatrice. He sees her strolling in the garden everyday and so falls hard, and she for him as well. Beatrice never allows Giovanni to kiss her and she never embraces him, and soon he discovers her tragically poisonous nature. Even more, he discovers that since he has been hanging out with her in this toxic garden he, too, has become toxic and therefore unable to return to society. Beatrice is wracked with guilt because she thinks she has doomed them both to social isolation. We she tries to cure herself by drinking an antidote to her poisons, she dies.

Beatrice is the first of many female personifications of knowledge, inspiration, and truth, a literary tradition going all the way back to the Muses of Greek Mythology. I find Beatrice's poisonous quality compelling. She combines the allure of knowledge with the threat it also holds. I find it intriguing that this ambivalent view toward science appears as early as it does, fourteen years before Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1959) decentered the human animal. Rappaccini isn't a Darwinian figure, though; he is one of our first SF mad scientists, a inhuman sorcerer whose pursuit of knowledge leaves no room for the human.

July 16, 2017

Lovecraft and Literature: A Depersonalized Process of Tranquility Creation

Consider H.P. Lovecraft's advice to a fellow amateur journalist, Rheinhart Kleiner, related in a letter dated March 7th, 1920:

My advice to you would be to re-enter active amateurdom and follow my example of accumulating a Johnsonian circle of literary dependents--worthy folk who suffer more than you, and whose pain cou'd be assuaged by the exercise of the critical gifts which you possess in so great an abundance.

Lovecraft then goes on to reveal the secret of true contentment, which consists of the adoption of two philosophical perspectives (numbering below is mine):

1. I am convinced the secret of true contentment [...] lies in the achievement of the cosmical point of view; whereby the most cruel distinctions between great and small things are shewn to be merely apparent and unreal. 

2. The next philosophical step is to acquire the impersonal attitude--to divest oneself of egocentric consciousness, and assume the role of a spectator at the comedy of man.

From my perspective, Lovecraft is reflecting, and in a sober way, on the value of literature and literary culture (read fandom, if you'd like). Why write, read, think, and discuss with others?

Lovecraft's primary value is very similar to Epicurus' idea of "ataraxia," which is basically the tranquil state of being free from worry and anxiety. For Lovecraft, a way of cultivating "ataraxia" is to read, to become a writer, and these things done, to inspire others to read and to become writers. This is a subtle utilitarian view of literature. Lovecraft sees literature as functional in the most practical sense; his time spent as an amateur journalist made him see participating in literary culture as transactional and collaborative, a group activity where everyone is less concerned with their own legend and more concerned with the activity as a mode of salvation.

What is that activity? One might say simply "writing," "learning," "imagining," "entertaining," or "fandom," but Lovecraft doesn't get that specific. Earlier in the letter he put the goal of literary activity quite simply: To enjoy tranquility and to promote tranquility in others.

I find this refreshing. Lovecraft views writing, reading, thinking, and discussing as a depersonalized process of tranquility creation.

July 12, 2017

"She is so beautiful, she is unnatural": Angela Carter's Beautiful Monster

Angela Carter's vampire story, "The Lady of the House of Love," is about how beauty held in stasis becomes a horror. What a compelling idea. It reminds me of John Keats' poem, "Bright Star," which is a thematically comparable meditation on how beautiful things cannot, and probably should not, endure. Beautiful things are, and perhaps should be, ephemeral.

The protagonist of a the story is a vampire, referred to only as "the Countess," and her horror derives from the fact that she is a beauty held in firm stasis. She is living yet she is dead, a paradox. Here is how she is described:

"She is so beautiful, she is unnatural; her beauty is an abnormality, a deformity, for none of her features exhibit any of those touching human imperfections that reconcile us to the imperfection of the human condition. Her beauty is a symptom of her disorder, her soullessness."

The Countess is characterized by her joy in tarot cards and augury. This fits thematically, a perfect brushstroke. What is an augur but someone who views the world not as an unfolding narrative driven and shaped by character but instead a finished tableau, a cartouche, a fully environed and unchanging form, beginning, middle, and end?

Carter's Countess allows us to imagine the unreal psychology of a vampire. This bizarre character allows us to think a strange thing, the possibility that a certain timeless perspective transforms one into a darkly beautiful monster. To come to view the unfolding cosmos not as an unfinished activity but as a completed gesture is a dark epiphany that dehumanizes.

July 3, 2017

"The Failings and Ambitions of Such Struggles as Himself: The Problem of Realism in Robert E. Howard's Post Oaks and Sand Roughs"

I gave a brief presentation this June as part of the Glenn Lord Academic Symposium, which, in turn, is part of Howard Days, an annual celebration in Cross Plains, Texas of the life and art of Robert E. Howard. My presentation treats Howard's unpublished novel, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs. The videographer is Ben Friberg.

June 21, 2017

Reflection on Howard Days 2017

I have been a fan of Robert E. Howard for several years but only got involved in Howard fandom and scholarship in 2008 after I attended, as a Ph.D. student still in coursework, Pulp Fest in Columbus, Ohio, a convention for collector's and enthusiasts of pulpwood magazines. It was during this event that I got introduced to some of the the important people in Howard Studies: Rusty Burke, Bill Cavalier, and Don Herron. It was also during this event that I met the writer Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, the granddaughter of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the founder of D.C. comics. I didn't realize it at the time, but these people would become a major influence on me.

By the time I actually made my pilgrimage to Cross Plains, Texas, nine years after that initial Pulp Fest, a lot had changed in my life. I had gotten married. I had finished my Ph.D. in Literature at Case Western Reserve University. I defended a dissertation on Weird Tales, interwar print culture, and literature. I had published a few articles on Lovecraft, Howard, and Weird Tales. And I had started publishing fiction, both of a general literary variety and a more genre-focused sort. Finally, I had been lucky enough to get a job as a Lecturer at Christopher Newport University.

Howard Days was a chance to take stock of things. For example, I didn't realize how many friends and acquaintances I'd made throughout this journey that began, perhaps, in 2008. I'm so inspired by the energy, intelligence, creativity, and knowledge of people like Jeff Shanks, Mark Finn, and Chris Gruber, these three who seem to have the superhuman ability to manage several projects at any given time. It's so inspiring to me that scholars like Patrice Louinet and Dierk Guenther come from far-flung Paris and Tokushima to confer. There were so many people at Howard Days whose knowledge and insight outstrips my own: Todd Vick, Frank Coffman, and Bobby Derie.

When I was at Howard Days, when I finally caught a glimpse of Howard's restored bedroom, I had an insight: I wasn't just there to hang with friends and enjoy myself or even to develop my scholarship. Instead, I was there as part of a group paying homage and respect to an actual person who provided us with some amazing works of literary art. Over time writers sometimes become larger-than-life, quasi-Olympian figures. Howard had become that for me. Going to Texas, seeing Howard's room and town, allowed me to unearth hidden connections between the normalcy of Cross Plains and the strangeness of the Hyborian Age. In doing so, this trip helped me humanize Howard and reminded me that although fantasists might seem to write about extraordinary worlds, despite the costuming, it is this ordinary one that they treat.

June 8, 2017

There is No Encouragement for Ghosts

I'm teaching a course on the American Gothic this summer as part of the Summer Humanities Institute at Christopher Newport University. I recently re-read Washington Irving's, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820) and came across this compelling passage that captures the unresolved way a large portion of North Americans relate to the past, ghosts, hauntings, and superstition. Referring to Sleepy Hollow, a community where the rustic, backwater folk are particularly superstitious, the narrator muses...

"Local tales and superstitions thrive best in these sheltered, long settled retreats; but are trampled under foot by the shifting throng that forms the population of most of our country places. Besides, there is no encouragement for ghosts in most of our villages, for they have scarcely had time to finish their first nap and turn themselves in their graves, before their surviving friends have travelled away from the neighborhood; so that when they turn out at night to walk their rounds, they have no acquaintance left to call upon. This is perhaps the reason why we so seldom hear of ghosts except in our long-established Dutch communities."

I find Irving's idea that in most American villages there is "no encouragement for ghosts" and that they are "trampled under foot by the shifting throng" very interesting. Is Irving suggesting that ghosts, hauntings, and superstitions grow like fungus when people dwell in one place over time? When people "haunt" a place for a sustained period of time? This is an intriguing sociological theory of the origins of local ghost stories, one I'd like to think more about.

June 7, 2017

Writing to the Empty Dark: Some Thoughts About Blogging

I haven't been posting here regularly. Keeping a blog, for me, is a source of anxiety, and this is because of the distinct characteristics of "the blog post" as a genre. Let me explain.

The rhetorical function of a blog post is ambiguous. An academic essay educates. An opinion/editorial piece persuades and is a form of activism. A lyrical essay delights on the level of language and poetry.

But what does a blog post do best?

A blog shouldn't be too weighted with research, right? If a writer spends a lot of time researching deeply, then why not write up something like an academic essay and then publish it in a journal? Academic Journals are the perfect medium for communicating knowledge. For example, the peer review process makes rigorous quality-control demands, demands not meted out by a blog. I could be wrong.

Perhaps blog posts aren't so effective as persuasive, activist writing. Why? Because they are unapologetically subjective. A blog post, only slightly less so than a tweet or status update, tends to be unedited and unvetted. In a personal blog (like this one) the editorial apparatus consists of one's self. So, if I am going to try to persuade other people, a newspaper might be a better place. With a newspaper the editors of the op/ed section work establish a neutral, balanced space for discussion. Not so in the case of a blog post.

In terms of literary aesthetics, blog posts become suspect because their whole context is informality and ephemerality. Are there bloggers who are committed prose stylists? Lyricists? I don't know. I'd be interested to find one.

Also, there is the ambiguous and mysterious issue of who reads blog posts and how they are read. Am I writing to the empty dark? Are my posts read with rapt attention? Or, are they skimmed in a shallow, distracted way? I read online news and blog posts differently than I do books, which demand my attention more deeply for reasons I haven't fully thought through.

Anyway, I feel a nameless compulsion to start blogging more but I want to be transparent to myself and clear to my readers about what I'm doing, why I'm writing, what I'm hoping to accomplish with this specific literary activity.

February 17, 2017

Empyreome: "Space Too Deep, Orbit Too Wide"

I just got a flash fiction published in Empyreome magazine, titled Space Too Deep, Orbit Too Wide. It is a science fiction horror about a group of "deepspacers" who have a malfunction on their ship and have to stop on an unmapped, unexplored planet.

January 12, 2017

"Ancient Red" by Larry Elmore

I went to Wizard World Con in Richmond last September and Larry Elmore, the famous Dungeons and Dragons artist, was a guest there. He was selling prints. I picked up a copy of his "Ancient Red," a painting that adorns the 1983 version of the Basic Dungeons and Dragons boxed set. I love this painting. The way I imagine dragons has been shaped by this painting. I find so many details of this painting appealing: the rictus snarl on the dragon's face, the scintillant hoard of gold it seems to guard, and the warrior wearing a horned helm holding up his sword to defend himself against the dragon's oncoming claw. If you look closely at the treasure hoard you will see fine details: a few chests, several vases, a bejeweled crown, an overflowing sack of gold. Elmore's illustrations are some of my favorites, right up there with Franz Frazetta. I chatted with Elmore very briefly at Wizard World and he told me that when he worked at TSR the employees often played Dungeons and Dragons. He said that his character was a red-haired dwarf warrior who had the sore fate of always dying. When he died he would have his follow adventurers resurrect him, but they would make him pay them back for this service, and this annoyed him. He also said he knew Gary Gygax. We didn't get a chance to talk too much about this interesting topic.

January 10, 2017

My Marscon 2017 Panel Schedule

Friday 5pm – What Makes a Good Narrator or DM? - This panel could be made up of writers and DM’s who could talk with input from all in attendance about how to be a good DM. Panelists: Charlie Stayton, Jason Carney, Travis Sivart

Saturday 12noon – All I need to know I learned from D&D - Panelists discuss how D&D can and has had an impact on their day to day life in the real world. Panelists: Charlie Stayton, Jim Minz, Jason Carney

Saturday 7pm – Fantastic Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings - Powerful, mysterious, sometimes evil, and often magical beings exist in the fantasy realms of Middle Earth, Shannara, Rivia, and other universes. This panel will discuss how races of magical beings, such as elves, dwarves, and halflings, are used differently through these types of fantasy worlds. Panelists: Jason Carney, Monica Marier, Rachel Hixon

Saturday 9pm – Rogues, Rebels, and Rapscallions: Questionable Morals in SciFi & Fantasy - There is something truly captivating about a rogue character. Panelists will dissect some fandom-favorite rebels like the Marquis de Carabas, Han Solo, Captain Tightpants, Kvoth, and more. Panelists: D.J. McGuire, Holly Harding, Jason Carney, Melissa Scott, Emily Leverett

Saturday 11pm – Guilty Pleasures: Enjoying Problematic Media - We all have our favorite fandoms: Arrow, Harry Potter, etc., but what happens when we notice our favorite show, book or movie lacks diversity? This panel is an open discussion about how to continue enjoying our favorite books, television shows, or movies etc., while also confronting the things we find problematic within them. Panelists: Author Charity Ayres, Tabitha Grace Challis, Nicole Jamison, Jason Carney

Sunday 10am – Strong Heroines and Villainesses in Pop Culture - There are many female characters in various series and fandoms. Some are well-rounded and others not so much. Panelists will be discussing topics from personalities to abilities, from Hermione Granger and River Song to Poison Ivy and Lady Deathstrike, and why strong females are important in any world. Panelists: David Lee, Jessica Lee, Holly Harding, Tabitha Grace Challis, Jim Minz, Jason Carney, Emily Leverett

Sunday 11am – Dark Heroes - Not all heroes travel the straight and narrow. Between right and wrong, there can be a great deal of gray area and some of our favorite heroes navigate this gradient terrain. Being a hero is not always easy, and these panelists get to the root of these dark heroes. Panelists: David Lee, Jessica Lee, Aela Lee, D.J. McGuire, Jason Carney, Melissa Scott

January 8, 2017

Roger Zelazny's Sign of Chaos (1987)

Just finished Roger Zelazny's Sign of Chaos, the eighth book in the Amber Chronicles. I enjoyed it and am looking forward to book nine, Knight of Shadows. Sign of Chaos wasn't my favorite Amber novel (Nine Princes in Amber is). Its major flaw is the rambling plot. I get the impression Zelazny didn't revise significantly and probably made up the story as he drafted. It's strange, because this the labyrinthine nature of the plot is also a part of the unique pleasure and distinctiveness of the series. It's fun to try and figure out all of the subplots, the motivations behind the many characters, the alliances within the alliances, and so forth. One annoying element for me, though, is how the narrative necessitates that the protagonist be kept in a state of ignorance. So, the reader is kept in a state of ignorance. To an extent these Amber novels are equal parts mysteries and fantasies.

January 7, 2017

Review of Metre, Rhythm, and Verse Form by Philip Hobsbaum

I've read several books from this series by Routledge, The New Critical Idiom. So far I haven't read one that hasn't been worth the attention. This one is good overview of metre, rhythm, and verse form that relies upon analysis of several examples. Hobsbaum describes specific verse forms but also discusses their dynamics, the way they emerge in response to previous forms, and how they change over time. The chapter on blank verse was very insightful. Hobsbaum also helped me rethink "free verse." I did not understand free verse at all. I considered anything that is lineated and presented as poetry as free verse. Hobsbaum argues that this is not the case. He has a more constraining definition of free verse. For him, free verse is almost always anchored in a latent metre, rhythm, and verse form and yet deviates for specific effects.