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.