Wednesday, December 31, 2008

December 31st, 2008

On this the very last day of 2008 I would like to take a moment to say something to the entire blogosphere: I'm disgusted with all of you.

Yes, all of you. Even those of you in the corner that don't realize I read your blogs. Yes, I'm disgusted with you.

Why? Well, I keep a very large bloglines file that I read through regularly when collecting WFA links. And in the past couple months I've taken to collecting and posting WFA on a regular basis.

Last week, Heidi MacDonald posted this (in response to a post of Caleb's on Blog@Newsarama) addressing the lack of female writers at the Big Two. She was answered by email and in a few scant places across the blogosphere. Strange, because Heidi and Caleb posted on two of the most widely read blogs in the community.

I had to search for these answers, because in my community we were discussing something else, also coincidentally brought on by a post of Caleb's on Blog@Newsarama. The thin veneer of the conversation was about legal standards for obscene material involving fictional children, the potential harm of these legal standards and appropriate punishment.

The actual conversation was about Val D'Orazio's feelings and whatever crazy thing she said this week.

I ended up with a few links to Heidi's post, a good response from Cheryl Lynn and several posts worth of links to Val. I also got one post that said that WFA was addicted to drama, which got me ranting on twitter (twanting?) about how if no one posts about anything but Val all I'll have to link are posts about Val!

The truly galling part of this--pointed out to me on Twitter by Cheryl Lynn--is that Val is the elected head of the venerable comics charity Friends of Lulu.

From the organization's website:
Friends of Lulu is a national nonprofit organization whose purpose is to promote and encourage female readership and participation in the comic book industry.


This is a worthwhile and noteworthy goal.

The conversation started on Heidi's blog--the one for which she is currently being hammered by the indie community attempting to derail the conversation from the specific topic of writers at the Big Two by calling her too negative, by bringing up artists, by bringing up how many women are in the independent comics community which all detracts from the main complaints which is that the two largest and best known comic publishers in the country--DC and Marvel--who control some of the best loved characters in our culture are neglecting to involve women in shaping their universes (Credit to this list of grievances also goes Cheryl Lynn)--falls directly under FoL's sphere of interest.

And here we are bitching (yes I said bitching with full knowledge of the misogynistic background to the term and its effect) back and forth about her feelings and how appropriate it is for the head of a feminist organization to taking her particular stance while totally ignoring the issue that is the point of that conversation.

I don't blame Val. I don't like Val, but I don't blame her for this. That would be like blaming root beer for not tasting like birch beer. Val is what she is no matter what position she holds. Instead, I blame all of us for talking about her instead of the issues we're pretending to be talking about. (Initially I just blamed all of you because I've been blogging about Robert E. Howard the whole fucking time but now you've got me blogging about Val and I feel disgusted with myself.) We should be better than this.

Happy Fucking New Year, Comics Blogosphere. You've rekindled my deep loathing of humanity.

A Thought

We were goofing around on Twitter and a thought occurred to me. The Spirit was a good property to begin with, and the Frank Miller treatment--Frankification, as it were--has reportedly drained all of the originality and beauty out of the source material. But there are properties out there--popular properties--which the exact same treatment would improve.

Just imagine...
Frank Miller's Twilight.


I think I might be able to fly with that thought.

Monday, December 29, 2008

So it's come to this... blogging about writing.

For the sake of believable narration I've spent the past four days fiddling with wording in a story. I've got the normal problems, how to reveal the setting and the setup without seeming forced. On top of that, I've settled on first-person narration as the ideal point-of-view and the main character is a fourteen-year-old girl.

And to be perfectly honest, even back when I was a fourteen-year-old girl I had a great deal of trouble getting the impression of a fourteen-year-old girl across in my writing. It's my reading history. I started out with the antiquated children's fairy tales we all did, Alice in Wonderland, the Chronicles of Narnia but rather than make my way into more modern and realistic fair I cherished the dreamy atmosphere brought about by a slightly old-fashioned narrator. When I floundered around for older reading material I found myself hunting down Sherlock Holmes stories. I went the way of the goth otherwise, devouring Edgar Allen Poe and other Victorianized literature. Kept to the same fairy tales, though the interpretations I read continued to grow up. I burrowed into the depths of the nonfiction section of the library to consume acres and acres of classical mythology and world folklore, almost all of which is recorded in the antiquated style. When finally I broke free of that library to explore the deeper realms of horror I gravitated towards HP Lovecraft rather than Stephen King.

And somewhere through all of this I developed that sort of voice. That antiquated, slightly dusty voice to my writing (and yes, even my speaking at points) that is just tough to shake.

I know that old and creepy are all acceptably mainstream geekeries, and I'm not saying for one second that I'm the only one suffering from this affliction. (There's certainly enough of us to make it a geek stereotype.) It's just disconcerting to realize that this style of writing and speaking comes so naturally that it's your natural voice, particularly when placed against the voices you hear every day at work, the normal rythm and cadence of human conversation that suits the modern mainstream era and that capturing that is what's necessary to capture the character you're trying to write. It just feeds this paradox where if you write what comes naturally to you it sounds off when you read it back, but you can't seem to naturally write what sounds right when you read it back and I needed to stop and vent a bit about that.

This is ultimately why nonfiction comes more easily. The voice sounds somewhat academic and authoritative and sounds very natural when analyzing art and literature. As part of a work of fiction? Well, this voice was developed in the reading realms of fantasy and horror from narratives specifically aimed towards creating an atmosphere of fantasy and horror. It is not a character voice, at least not for fourteen-year-old girls who aren't already little goths.

Sticking to nonfiction won't do me any good if I want to be anything more than a one-story wonder, though...

Maybe I should go with third-person limited in the future. The normal, natural voice is easier to get across in small snippets of dialogue.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Professor John Kirowan, Badassery 101

I think I've figured out just why Haunter of the Ring makes me so deliriously happy every time I read it.

Here's the Project Gutenberg text. The story is short and fun. Take a read and see if you can recognize just what in that story structure fills my heart with light and joy.

Need a hint? My first fandom--and by this I meant not only the first property that had me hunting down books in the library and searching for information on the internet but to this day the only property for which I will regularly read the fanfiction which are called pastiches in this fandom and the only property for which I will use the term "canon" when referring to the original published works--was Sherlock Holmes. I am so utterly attached to this property that not only do I have fond memories of the stories, I have fond memories of my experiences reading the stories. I still remember clearly stealing my brother's copy of Boy's Life magazine and happening upon the Classics Illustrated adaptation of "The Speckled Band." I remember absorbing takes on Hound of the Baskervilles in cartoon form on Saturday mornings with an interest that I didn't realize would soon be channelled into no less than twenty-four readings of the novel itself over the next sixteen years. I remember late nights at the Carbondale Library after Girl Scout meetings, waiting for my ride and sitting between the fiction shelves, reading and rereading the gigantic four-volume collection of the original fifty-six stories and four novels. I remember my English teacher being disgusted at my preoccupation with "junk literature" when he caught me skimming the course material for a Doyle-written story (in fairness, we'd studied "The Speckled Band" in an earlier year, so it wasn't a completely absurd expectation). I remember hunting down every pastiche in every bookstore in San Antonio just to get my hands on more stories of Holmes and Watson together (don't offer me the Laurie King stories, it must be Watson as the partner and no other). I remember my fascinated revulsion at The Last Sherlock Holmes Story and realizing that my being unable to put that book down in disgust, and my mentally assigning it to an alternate universe is what marked my interest as a full-blown fannish obsession.

Ultimately I can say that Baker Street has possibly been the only fandom that has brought me nothing but joy in all its forms.

In addition to that, in the last few years a different set of classic short stories has captured my imagination. A boyfriend who will forever occupy a favored place in the Hall of Exes introduced me to a series not notable for its characters like Doyle's gift to the world was, but for setting and atmosphere. I'm speaking, of course, of the infamous Cthulu Mythos and Lovecraftian Horror/Weird Fiction setup which has had immeasurable influence on our modern science fiction, fantasy, superhero, and horror genres.

And without even going back to look at my collection, I can't help but recognize that Haunter of the Ring follows the Sherlock Holmes short story structure, but in a Lovecraftian horror setting. That's a recipe for joy for me.

(Needless to say, I do own the Shadows Over Baker Street collection and if anyone manages to write a comic book that combines Holmes and Watson with Green Lantern and King Arthur in a Lovecraftian horror setting I want to be buried with a copy.  Get on it, Internet)

Take a look at it, readers. In the first act the narrator joins his best friend--the story's hero--to find that his friend has a distraught guest. The act is devoted to exposition as the guest reveals his problem--complete with homebrewed explanation that isn't even entertained by the hero--and hopes that the hero can make some sense of this insanity. The hero asks a couple of seemingly frivolous and distracting questions and agrees to look into the matter.

O'Donnel is narrating here, and I have to pause on noting the parallels so that I can say WHAT THE FUCK ROBERT E. HOWARD?!! HE'S AN EXPERT ON ANCIENT WEAPONS--ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME!?!?! And those paragraphs on looking at the ruin of a good mind? That's just.. That's just so eerie. I'm utterly convinced--despite Evelyn's use of the name "Michael" rather than "John" in the next act--that this guy is the same guy who narrated Children of the Night (and Dwellers Under the Tomb) and that we have been tragically deprived of a kickass story where Kirowan and Conrad have to prevent crazed but badass weapons expert O'Donnel from murdering a bunch of innocent people. And even if Howard was not building towards such an epic tale of friendship and madness he fucking well should have been. The world must have this story, even if the author is beyond the veil. Someone with a ouija board needs to get on this right away.

Anyway, O'Donnel plays the role of "normal guy impressed by his friend" right away. He's pitying poor Gordon and commenting on Kirowan's impressive calmness and the traits that mark Kirowan as interested despite that calm. His narration is a little flowery at times in the way Watson's is. He plays the disbelieving voice when Gordon tells the story, draws out exposition from Gordon with his own comments and supplies vital social information.

Kirowan seems very Holmesian here. He's calm and soothing in a way that impresses the narrator. There's something in the description of how he poses his questions during this act that suggests Watson describing Holmes. It's how he cuts through the emotional parts with an even measured calm that O'Donnel seems to find incredibly relieving. The way his questions are set up show that he's focused on the problem itself and not the personal relationship between the Gordons. He only speaks up when he needs to get Gordon to give him the facts, he doesn't offer any explanations or any real comfort. O'Donnel describes Kirowan as calm until he gets a significant piece of information, then "Kirowan had suddenly come to life; it was as if something hard and steely had been sounded in him." This is comparable to Watson's usual description of Holmes as lazy and languid until his brain starts working, then he's like sharpened steel.

The second act introduces the other players in the problem, Kirowan asks more seemingly insignificant questions that the reader knows have a huge bearing on the case, and O'Donnel continues to be baffled and concerned for Gordon's mental health. Most importantly we meet Gordon's wife Evelyn and hear her side of the story. She's smartly brought two friends to back her up during this confrontation--one of which is a learned medical professional and the other of which just adds to the irrationality of the situation by threatening violence. The actual violence that speeds the plot comes from Evelyn, of course. The structure keeps to when the Holmes stories bring action into the mix, with a violent event at the end of the second act that spurs the heroes into action and the explanation offered in the third act. Standard mystery story stuff, of course, but bear in mind that Doyle pretty much made the model for the standard mystery story with his detective.

As Howardian female characters go (and I say this having not read the Red Sonya stuff), I have to say I'm impressed with Evelyn. She handles all of this really, really well. She knows she's in some sort of trouble and something weird's going on. It's incredibly upsetting and it's set her husband against her. So she grabs some allies of her own and tries to hash it all out reasonably. When she breaks down, it tends to be at points where its understandable to break down--right after she blacks out and finds her husband injured by her own hands when she comes to. Dr. Donnelly--who should know her better--displays some sexism towards her in his handling of the situation. And the other characters seem inclined to the sexist assumption that "Hey, women are just nuts, huh?" but they all stick to their knowledge of Evelyn as a woman who is most definitely not insane. Evelyn's sanity is driven home and even held up against the prevailing sexist attitudes at every opportunity. Her sensibility sounds like her defining character trait, which is really odd for a female character in this genre during this period. I have to commend Howard on this one.

But for all her strengths Evelyn DOES end up seriously hurting her husband. Well, perhaps because of her strengths as it turns out she's a pretty good shot. Fortunately, there is a doctor conveniently present and the duo are free to rush towards the villain's house for the final act and the explanation of the mystery.

And this is where John Kirowan breaks the tried-and-true Holmesian Detective story rules. He has a personal history with the villain. He figures out the crime not based solely on logic and evidence but on his memory of what happened to him. And the explanation is supernatural, a big no-no by Doyle's pattern.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course, because the third act proves Kirowan's verymuch not a Holmes clone. He's just a horror genre character who fits nicely into the story structure. Really the Mythos setting and anything similar is not a safe place to put a Holmes clone character, because that sort of detective lives, eats and breathes reason and order and there is no room for reason and order in a world with the Elder Gods.

Thing is, John Kirowan also breaks the rules of Lovecraftian Horror heroes by actually standing in the room as the vaguely described Thing Which Should Not Be appears to eat people. By standing I don't mean he stands frozen in terror and panic but that he stays there in full sight of the damned thing without screaming and fleeing or being utterly unable to scream and flee like he wants to. Hell, not only does he not scream and flee at the mere shadow of the Haunter, he actually manipulates circumstances so that the creature manifests in the very room he's standing in! He anticipates the Haunter's arrival without playing the role of evil crazed necromancer and getting killed by it. That's not just nonstandard in a Mythos story, that's certifiably badass.

That's not to say Kirowan doesn't go crazy in the last act. On the contrary, you can pinpoint the exact moment he botches his sanity check. I put it around the point he goes from just plain telling Vrolock how much he hates him to actively ranting like a James Bond villain. That only makes it all the more impressive to me because even when he loses his composure (and note here, he doesn't lose his composure to fear but to outrage) he still manages to lie and manipulate Vrolock into bringing about his own ruin.

Now there is quite a bit we can learn about John Kirowan from this story. He bears some outward similarities to the Great Detective even though he is not the same sort of character. He's a reasonable individual, but one with a definite interest in the supernatural and some serious ultraterrestrial experiences at his back. He has a very clear moral line that he won't cross but that he doesn't seem to worry about dancing on in the hopes of getting a shot at someone who has crossed it.

In Haunter, Kirowan comes out as a passionate and romantic character with a looming fridge in his past. It matches neatly with his emotionally charged narration in Dig Me No Grave. But in Dig and Children he covered that with an outward denial of the supernatural and just plain snapping at his friends. Here he covers it with the sort of self-control that extends to the other people in the room. That control is probably what makes him the person that someone like Gordon will run to when he's in trouble and doesn't know what else to do. O'Donnel seems to hang on this characteristic at several points in the narrative, and he presents it as a normal character trait of Kirowan's and not something unusual. This trait could explain just why in Dig it was Kirowan Conrad ran to in the middle of the night. Comparing the two stories I'd say at least part of this self-control is an unconcious, natural aspect of personality. Kirowan's own narration suggests that he's more likely to push out irritability than composure when he's agitated.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Today's Unscheduled Unedited TV Rant

One of my favorite television series is Newsradio--it makes me happy and I can watch the entire series repeatedly--but I swear if one more character refer to Matthew as a "sweet guy" I'm going to chuck one of my prized DVDs out the window. Matthew, the resident Weird Guy in the office, the low man on the totem pole so to speak is NOT a sweet guy. He's a fucking hyena.

In several episodes, Matthew momentarily gets the upper hand and starts to act like a complete asshole. Like when he punches Bill and suddenly gets Alpha Male Syndrome, or when Max shows up and Matthew enters a power struggle with him, or when Matthew suddenly becomes smart and condescending as hell, or any of the numerous moments when the punchline is Matthew suddenly saying something cutthroat or mean. And whenever this happens one of the other characters gets concerned that sweet but annoying Matthew is acting so unlike himself and tries to talk him down.

And the thing is, I've seen this behavior in real life. I've seen it at school, I've seen it in the military, I've seen it on the internet. For example, we had a guy in my last office office who got picked on. At first I would tell the guys to lay off him, and defend him when I thought things were overboard. Then came the day someone on shift let someone embarrassing slip and garnered the mockery of the entire office. And GUESS WHO was the one who went too far trying to cement himself as Not The Lowest Ranking In The Room. He failed because the other guy's embarrassment was fleeting, but we all got an ugly glimpse into his true nature. The process seemed to repeat itself whenever someone new became the butt of the day's joke. And almost always, due to his overdoing it, he would be the butt of the day's jokes again before the shift was over. In trying to leave the shitty social role he kept digging his way into it, because everyone quickly realized that if they didn't assert themselves over him they'd be in for ruthless teasing rather than the normal maintenance-world joking.

And the thing I started to perceive about this guy, and other guys who display the same behavior pattern is that they look at the social order like a wolf pack. The Matthews of the world figure there's a bottom and they are it, but there's a chance they can seize on someone else and not be the most put upon person in the room. And so he is very nice and deferential and self-effacing around the other members of the office because he knows they can and will kick his ass. But the second he sees the slightest bit of weakness he tries to exploit it.

And this is the sort of person that Matthew in Newsradio is patterned after. And the thing about this character type is that everyone assumes that--because they act sweet when trying to ingratiate themselves to the rest of the group--they are sweet kind people who can't cut a break. But the real nature shows through NOT when the social order offers you the least power, but when the social order offers you enough power to act out what you really want.

So characters like Matthew, created to be sweet sympathetic people? They aren't. It would be one thing, I suppose, if the guy acted sweet and deferential once he got the upper hand but Matthew (and the guy in my old office, and the guy from my old school and a thousand other "sweet guys" scattered across the internet) does not. He's an asshole just waiting for the opportunity to be an asshole. That's the punchline of at least a third of his jokes. That's why we enjoy watching the other characters push him around.

And why does seeing that the characters are fooled by Matthews sweet facade piss me off so much? Because of all the real-life Matthews who've managed to sell themselves as sweet guys, and all the fiction dedicated to selling this personality type as a sweet guy and because I just plain don't like people who put up a false front and succeed at it. Bastards.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

RIP Eartha


Eartha Kitt has passed away.

Merry Christmas

And to prove to my inquisitive mother that yes, I do have a tree (a Yule tree) this year, I am enclosing a picture.



Okay, so maybe decorating isn't really my thing. But I can be proud for finding a use for all those pins they give out at conventions.

(And I much prefer my Green Lantern fighting a snake splash to your standard nativity scene.)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Interlude: End of Year Resolutions

Today when the conversation at work turned to New Year's resolutions, I realized that over the past few years I had made and kept very few New Year's resolutions, but for some reason during December I frequently found myself making and keeping End of Year Resolutions.

By End of Year Resolutions I mean when you see the calender running out and you resolve to accomplish certain tasks before the end of the year. I've found I'm actually quite successful at these (and more inclined to actually make them), so rather than post a list of New Year's Resolutions on January First I've decided to take December Twenty-second--the day after Yule, the day the year officially winds down in my mind--to list some things I intend to accomplish before December Thirty-First slips through my fingertips like so much spilled wine (and believe me, on December Thirty-First I intend to be stumbling and spilling wine):

1) Finish the Conrad and Kirowan story series on this blog, possibly the first post series I will have finished on this blog in a long period of time. This is important to me not just because it's finally getting back to analyzing character trends in serial fiction but it's me getting back to writing and thinking for my own enjoyment rather than just passing along information or refuting idiocy on the internet. I have 4 stories left to blog. The very next Kirowan post will be on this story, if you're interested in joining me. It leans more on the adventure and suspense side than horror, so I don't feel a need to issue a warning.

2) Find my copy of Dreams of Terror and Death-- which appears to have been lost in the move--or make arrangements to have a replacement sent.

3) Go through my books and my LibraryThing Account and make sure they all made it through the move.

4) Finish unpacking from my move to Germany.

5) Clean out the refrigerator, which is beginning to smell rank.

6) Actually get my trash out to the curb in time for pickup (I seriously have 4 months worth crammed into that little bin). I have one last shot at this, and I think I've managed to figure out the schedule the landlord gave me.

7) Watch that copy of Tristan and Isolde (yes, it is the recent and very bad one, but I am curious.) that a coworker loaned me. This will probably be the easiest, I can put it on while I clean out the fridge and do the dishes. I will probably complain about it extensively to whoever is available on AIM.

8) Write, edit and submit at least one more short story to a paying market before the year slips away. This will be the hardest, I haven't made a serious stab at actually writing fiction for much of this year. I want to get my feet wet again.

9) Start the new year with no dishes in the sink, no laundry in the hamper, and my apartment actually tidy. This is a tradition for me, actually. I always try to start off on a decent foot when it comes to housecleaning.

As you can see, End of Year Resolutions are modest, but they need to be because you make them with only a month or two weeks or ten days to go. Personally, though, I prefer them to New Year's Resolutions because I would much rather start the year with a feeling of satisfaction about the old year and nothing but possibilities open for the new year, as opposed to feeling pressured about some vast, unrealistic goal that I couldn't attain last year. I'd like to advise the rest of the blogosphere to give this a shot in the last week of 2008.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled overthinking of weird fiction.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Conrad... is that you?

I've been sitting on this one a few days, which is weird because Dwellers Under the Tomb is where I really started to love Conrad. But the story itself throws me now that I've read Children of the Night. Why?

It's narrated by a guy named O'Donnel.

Now it could be set after Children with the same guy years later pretending to be sane. (He did end with that cold chilling insanity that looks reasonable so long as the object of that insanity isn't there to be viewed.) Given that O'Donnel was staying overnight at Conrad's house, it wouldn't be completely absurd to suggest this happened very close after the story, with Conrad trying to keep an eye on his newly-addled friend before he hurts somebody. But there's a problem. O'Donnel gets a gun in this story. In order to accept that timing, we'd have to be believe someone allowed O'Donnel to have a gun after the events of Children, which would be as stupid as performing a midnight ritual on an old occultist's corpse after he begged you not to in his death throes. I'd mark this as unlikely, though, because of the lack of batshit insane rambling about racial purity in the narrative.

A later story with Kirowan also has an O'Donnel narrating it, but a third character names him as "Michael" rather than John so there's a chance Howard just liked the name and made a different character. Except the voice in Dwellers--save for the endless rambling on Ketrick's pedigree--matches the pre-batshit voice at the beginning of Children. Plus the idea that this is the same guy amplifies the jarring effect of his fate in that story.

It's not just O'Donnel's characterization that argues placing it prior to Children, Conrad's may be enough to place it prior to Dig Me No Grave. Conrad is uncharacteristically rational at the beginning of this story. I'm not one to say a writer does his own creations out of character, but I'm tempted to with Dwellers. It's just weird after the earlier two stories to see Conrad suddenly portrayed as the steely-nerved voice of reason. In Dig it's him waking poor Kirowan up in the middle of the night to go look at the dead body. Here, his neighbor wakes him and his guest up and drags them out to someone's grave for a little vampire hunting.

And as strange as it is for Conrad not to be the one suggesting the midnight trip to the morgue/cemetery/abandoned tomb, it's even stranger after the other two stories to have him try to talk someone out of thinking they had a paranormal experience.

But that's what Conrad does. His neighbor, Job Kiles, comes to his door ranting that his twin brother Jonas is a vampire and wants to kill him. Being a good neighbor, Conrad naturally agrees to accompany him to the tomb to show him the dead body so that he can calm down and get some rest. When they get there, Job slips into the tomb first--hoping to stake the body--and is frightened into a heart attack by some thing. That's when Conrad's characteristic curiosity taskes over and he just has to see what's going on inside. Exploration of a ancient subterranean complex ensues, and we start to get a feel for how Robert E. Howard might run a D&D game.

I can't come up with a definite explanation. It's possible that this could have been his first real experience with the world beyond. He became a believer this night, and taking the opposite path to that of a Lovecraftian protagonist embraced learning about the secrets of the universe! (Can you botch a sanity check? I know more about World of Darkness than Call of Cthulu game mechanics, but I'd wager that Conrad's botched at least one and Kirowan's botched somewhere near twenty.) He may have been so utterly shaken in Dig by the prospect of performing that ritual because he'd already had a very weird experience and felt he would have another very soon.

It's more likely that Conrad's skepticism came about because of his interest in the occult. He's obviously the sort of guy who brings a bouquet of black roses and takes you on a long romantic walk in the graveyard on a first date. The 21st Century of John Conrad is the guy running around Gettysburg with a camera trying to catch the ghost Jennie Wade on film. As a result, he's probably seen a lot of supernatural events turn out to be undeniably natural and is pretty used to debunking them. Judging by Jonas' plot, Job Kiles is a naturally excitable person--the sort of person who has someone like Conrad on their cellphone and calls whenever a tree branch scratches the window. Conrad may have had him pegged as the sort of person who thinks every noise after sundown is a creeping ghost and really have meant to have humored the old man. He might have reacted very differently to someone such as Kirowan or Ketrick coming to the door with wild stories.

There's another factor in Conrad's character change too. The other story that gave a glimpse of Conrad under pressure was narrated by Kirowan. We can assume--since he's the friend Conrad ran to while in trouble--that Kirowan is someone reliable and trustworthy in Conrad's eyes. A friend he might just let his emotional guard down around. O'Donnel is surprised when Conrad seems shaken, he felt it seemed unlike him and that it underscored the seriousness of the situation. Kirowan was never surprised in Dig when his friend was freaked out about the same stuff he was, just concerned.

Comparing the two stories, you get the feeling that Kirowan is simply more perceptive overall than O'Donnel is. O'Donnel did not hear the noises in the tunnels that Conrad did, but judging from Dig Kirowan would have noticed them. It's logical to think he'd be more perceptive about Conrad himself. As a narrator, O'Donnel prioritizes just a bit differently than Kirowan. O'Donnel notes a few times that Conrad is agitated, but where Kirowan would immediately mention Conrad's mood in the narrative O'Donnel goes through the entire action or dialogue before mentioning it that Conrad seemed to be getting nervous. It's a subtle difference, and it may even be something you can put up to the nature of the two stories (Dig involves Conrad seeking help, Dwellers has Conrad reading paragraphs of exposition) or the evolution of Howard's writing style, but it's there. If this is indeed the same O'Donnel who narrated Children we can argue that he's fairly self-absorbed and thinks first of his own agitation, and then of the fact that Conrad's presence is not as steady and comforting as it is other times. As a result, he may not have as good a picture of Conrad's personality as Kirowan did.

Despite O'Donnel as the filter, we do manage to learn quite a bit that's definitely true about John Conrad. His friends admire him for being brave and steady in the face of danger. He's the sort of person you go to when you need help with something very weird in the middle of the night, he's the guy who knows what to do when the world stops making sense. He is rational and logical, traits that do not contradict the other stories when you factor in curiosity as a drive that overpowers sensibility but doesn't erase it entirely. He's a decent detective, and has pretty good hearing. He has a deep respect for the dead. He's compassionate. And even he's not prepared to look at a Mythos creature without starting to babble about the hopeless state of mankind in such a world.

And this story has one thing which seems to fit Conrad's persona better than anything else. Something he has that Kirowan doesn't, and O'Donnel couldn't dream of having. He has a flashlight.

Yes, I'm getting symbolistic again. But in this story, O'Donnel has the gun and Conrad leads with the flashlight when they explore the tomb. That's what John Conrad is about when it comes down to it. He's the guy with the interest in the occult, he's the guy investigating it to gain knowledge. He's the guy with the exposition. He's the guy with the explanation. O'Donnel (or the O'Donnels, I haven't yet decided) have the brute force reaction to this world. Kirowan becomes closely guarded and sits on his secrets. But Conrad collects the information and tries to make sense of it. He's not always able to make sense of it, and he often sees what he did not want to but he keeps searching. From the impression given (admittedly in just the three stories in this collection) I just can't think of a more appropriate prop for this character than one that shines a light on the dark corners of the world and illuminates the creatures hiding in them.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Race and Reliability in Children of the Night

In the collection I have, the Children of the Night follows closely behind Dig Me No Grave. As far as I'm concerned it's one of the best stories in the book, and I believe it's a great deal more effective in scaring our generation than it was in scaring Howard's.

The Gutenberg Project has the full text of this story online, it's about 14 pages long if you want to take a few minutes so you can follow my thoughts. I must caution you, though, this is a horror story, and a good one. So it will make you uncomfortable. Also, a stronger than the standard 30s racism applies, consider this your trigger warning. And yes, I will give you thoughts on it below.

There are spoilers after the space, of course.

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Freaky, huh?

Let's start with the small stuff first, we have a bunch of white men discussing race and ancient cults. They're having are argument over the shapes of people's heads. This leads into discussing the gobs and gobs of books on the wall, which leads into discussing ancient cults and the sleepytime mutterings of someone else's roommate who-may-have-not-been-completely-white-not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-that.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have Nerds.

There are three pairs of characters at the start, and the first pair--Taverel and Clements--are effectively ciphers. They're there to argue points that didn't fit the four more substantial characters.

The dialogue tells us a lot about the second pair. We learn that if Conrad had been a teenager in the 90s he would be buying clothes at Hot Topic and trying to replicate Glen Danzig's library in his bedroom. But he's a grown man in the 1930s, so instead he's gathered a group of nerds to awe with his collection of really weird, potentially dangerous forbidden tomes and ancient artifacts. This really doesn't contradict my impression of him from Dig Me No Grave. It only serves to reinforce that he has more curiosity than sense.

We learn that Professor Kirowan is a professor, and a skeptic, and he gets pretty irritable if you try to tell him you know more about the shape of people's heads than he does. He is still casually racist towards Asian people. He does, however, admit to not knowing all the answers. He won't allow that YOU know them instead, but he does allow that he's not omniscient. This doesn't actually contradict DMNG either, especially as Kirowan was more forcefully skeptical in that story when he was creeped out. Judging by that impression, he believed Conrad's hypothesis but a) didn't want to let anyone think he'd believe such a thing, b) didn't want the others believing such a thing, or c) was trying to convince himself he didn't believe such a thing. Really, the only new information about Kirowan is that the snapping and shouting at Conrad in the last story wasn't necessarily because he was scared, but because he's irritable.

The last pair gets fleshed out in the narration, directly and indirectly. Through narrator John O'Donnel we learn that Ketrick is a mild-mannered introvert who comes off as a cold fish but may or may not secretly have a sensitive nature. He isn't sure about Ketrick's nature, as he's concentrated so much on tracing Ketrick's Welsh bloodline because the man just doesn't look white enough to him. It's bothered O'Donnel enough that he's actually discussed it with a Professor at the university, and concluded that there must be some Asian somewhere in the blood. Yes, benefit of the doubt suggests that this could have come up in a class discussion involving both Ketrick and O'Donnel and genetics, but I can't shake the image of O'Donnel crouching and running around campus, whispering in the ears of blond-haired and blue-eyed faculty "He just doesn't look Welsh. Something's off about the eyes." Why can't I shake that image? Because three paragraphs about Ketrick's pedigree suggests the narrator might be just a tad preoccupied with it.

Of course, this being John fucking Conrad's house the conversation has to lead to some sort of trouble and it comes from a little flint hammer that is carelessly passed to the one guy who doesn't look completely white. And here's where the 30s horror story pattern breaks. From even what O'Donnel can see, the hammer itself twists in of Ketrick's hand and forces him to knock O'Donnel on the head. Ketrick doesn't suddenly turn murderous on holding it. He doesn't reveal himself to be a big bad villain out to kill O'Donnel all along. He innocently swings the thing and finds his arm wrenched in the wrong direction.

The story's even open for the interpretation that O'Donnel's past-life flashback may have been brought on by the combination of him and the hammer, not Ketrick and the hammer.

Either way, O'Donnel wakes not as a nerd in her nerd friend's study, but as a badass warrior from a race of badass warriors. But as Aryara he's allowed his five friends to be slaughtered by the "Children of the Night" who have creepy yellow eyes and look like little trolls. As readers we're treated to a few pages of violence, bloodlust, angst, tribalism and barbaric vengeance before O'Donnel returns to his five living friends in the present day.

And what could be more natural--after returning from a past-life in which you allowed your five closest friends to die-- than to immediately try to kill one of your five closest friends in the present time?

I suspect that may be one of the things about this story that drive home the insanity of the protagonist. In Howard's horror stories there is a lot of shuffling back and forth between lives, and a lot of people-who-aren't-white-enough-for-the-narrator being bad guys, and a lot of actions that thinking person would consider signs of insanity. There's narrative justification for those actions usually. Usually Howard does make the guy-who's-not-white the bad guy. The past life shifts in other stories have obvious parallels (see People of the Dark, where three people who have met in a past life meet again and get to redo a disastrous encounter in a modern setting). Howard's narrators are usually reliable and their impressions are backed up by the actions of the other characters.

John O'Donnel's impressions are not backed up here. Ketrick performs no actions that justify the narrator's suspicion. The one point that WOULD justify the suspicion, the swinging of the hammer, is blamed on the hammer and not Ketrick. The parallel of the scenes even falls short of O'Donnel's impression, because the past-life friends were all killed by an outside attack--it wasn't four of them betrayed by the fifth who happened to be bad. All five were victims.

When O'Donnel comes out of his fugue, he reads Ketrick's regret as insincere based on his eyes. Ketrick's eyes are the trait that makes O'Donnel suspicious, and we have nothing besides them to suggest that he's insincere, and we have everything about O'Donnel's past life experience to suggest he wouldn't be rational when dealing with Ketrick.

It's obvious the man is an innocent, and O'Donnel is irrational.

I can't say for sure that Howard didn't mean for his protagonist to be heroic, and maybe I just get the imrpession because I'm commuting from Lovecraft-land where unreliable and insane narrators are the norm but O'Donnel strikes me as the bad guy in the piece. If Howard had intended for him to be heroic, he fucked up. And this writer specializes in making characters I would not like in real life seem pretty heroic, so I'm not inclined to think he fucked this up. I can only conclude we're supposed to see O'Donnel as having gone completely bugfuck insane and the racism in the narrative was there on purpose to back this up.

In that vein, I can't imagine Howard had anywhere close to an idea how terrifying reading an insane, unreliable narrator rant about the regality of the Aryan race would be to future generations. Not in 1931. This story must have more effect now than it did back then.

But the scariest element in this story isn't the Naziesque rantings. It's how easy the break was. Here O'Donnel may have been a bit preoccupied with his one particular friend, but otherwise he was just at the normal level of clueless racism for his generation. Then he gets hit with the hammer and has a very strong hallucination/past-life memory (depending I suppose on whether you ask Conrad or Kirowan exactly what happened to him) and suddenly he's plotting the death of a completely innocent person because that guy doesn't look like he's from a pure Saxon bloodline. Suddenly a seemingly harmless casual prejudice that could have been nursed without adversely affecting the rest of the world turns into a violent psychosis.

Think of the last time you thought something along the lines of "I can't change his mind but he'd never do anything to actually hurt someone" and then just try to tell me this story is not fucking horrifying.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Picture it, 1930, a long and wicked life comes to an end...

Dig Me No Grave is the first story in the anthology that features the Conrad and Kirowan group, and the only finished one that teams Conrad and Kirowan together. The Conrad and Kirowan stories are on the surface more like HP Lovecraft stories than Robert E Howard stories. They are set in the 1930s, in a bleak dark world that hides unnameable horrors behind the veneer of normality. There's a really big difference between these two and the average Lovecraft hero, though. First, Conrad and Kirowan stories tend to center around two friends working together rather than a lone man fighting madness. Second, both Conrad and Kirowan have experiences that would end with them in the insane asylum if Lovecraft was writing, but they come out of it relatively sane.

There's only somewhere between 4 and 7 of these stories. 3 are debatable (two with unnamed narrators, one with a Michael Kirowan), and I'm puzzled enough by the "Is John Kirowan the narrator of The Black Stone?" question that I'm going to the trouble of rereading the stories we know for sure that he's in for comparison to the three that are iffy. Now, I make no promises about blogging every step of this quest, but I figure it might help to put what I've gleaned from the first story out on the web in the hopes that other Howard fans might find it and praise my brilliance have something to add. Spoilers follow.

The plot is pretty simple. You know the saying that a friend will help you move, but a good friend will help you move a body? Well, John Conrad is a good enough friend that he will move your body in the precise manner laid out in a letter you give to him ten years prior to your death, as well as perform the creepy just-before-dawn occult ritual you describe in that letter. John Kirowan is an even better friend, because he will help Conrad do this at oh-god-its-fucking-dark-thirty in the morning at your creepy fucking house even though he's really scared and doesn't seem to like you very much.

The characters--despite serving the exact same story role if paired up with O'Donnel in later stories--contrast and work pretty well together in this story. The story starts with Conrad waking Kirowan up in the middle of the fucking night, agitated and upset. Right away, we have Conrad as the guy who finds trouble and Kirowan as the guy he goes to when he's realized there might be trouble. In the first conversation this gets confirmed because Conrad has an interest in the occult, the really dark and crazy parts of it, so he seeks out people like John Grimlan and befriends them. Kirowan doesn't seem to have much of an interest in the occult--beyond happening to know an awful lot about it for a guy who claims that "such talk is foolish" and there's a hoax going on--but he is loyal enough to do stupid things for the sake of another loyal and stupid man.

You get the impression early on that--even with a friend he's willing to help with dark occult rituals--Kirowan is putting up a logical exterior to cover the mentality of a believer. He denounces the supernatural as ridiculous even after he gives the exposition, but gets increasingly anxious about what Conrad's asking him to do even before the asking is over. He gets so tense he loses his composure more than one, yelling at Conrad, or just plain shouting in frustration. Throughout the story he is scared shitless, but he denies anything supernatural loudly and forcefully until the shit hits the fan and there is just no other explanation for it.

But--unlike rational Lovecraft heroes--Kirowan starts out either half-believing in--or more likely fully believing in and just outwardly lying about--this stuff to begin with so the discovery that there's something to it doesn't utterly break his brain. It just scares him and his stupid, loyal friend (I swear, Conrad is walking awesome in Dwellers in the Tomb but here he's just so damned dumb--his saving grace is that he KNOWS he's doing something really dumb) out of the house.

The story's set in 1930, and I believe it's meant to be while both these men are relatively young. In the other stories these are very brave and experienced men. But the setup for this is that Conrad goes through with something that is very obviously designed cause a potentially world-shattering disaster, a mistake I don't see the Dwellers in the Tomb version of the character making. Kirowan seems a bit smarter, going along with this, but he seems utterly unshakable in Haunter of the Ring and here he is definitely very shakable. This may be chalked up to O'Donnel narrating the other two stories. Through his eyes these men are practically made of iron, but this is a story where they can be a bit more human. Kirowan narrates, and he might just Conrad well enough to be able to tell he's really freaked out and made a huge mistake.

But even with that in mind, this story seems like a story about courage failing. Conrad sets up the ritual but needs moral support to go through with it--he establishes through his own dialogue that this is behavior caused by fear and not intelligence. ("It was understood, I suppose," he whispered, "that I should go through with this ghastly matter alone; but I had not the moral courage, and now I'm glad I had not.") When the Fourth Character--"the Oriental" as Kirowan calls him (I'm not going to, call me a white liberal baby for it if you want) because he remembers yellow eyes and a yellow robe and a vague impression of Asianness but can't actually remember what the guy looks like--arrives and takes over, they are both frightened into submission by his mere presence. In the end, they run screaming from the house.

Don't get me wrong, these characters are far from cowardly. On the flip side of moral courage, Conrad keeps a promise that could very well have gotten him torn to pieces by demons. Kirowan braves the same fate for Conrad's sake. There is serious facing of death and uncertainty and the unspeakable, just there isn't much punching of death and uncertainty and the unspeakable. I don't even mean literal punching, just the attitude that you're willing to punch death in the face. That attitude seemed to be there in some of the other stories, it's not here. I have to conclude this was pretty early on for them.

Aside from that, I get the impression Kirowan may be a little psychic. He's having nightmares when Conrad finds him and he gets nauseous when he sees the Fourth Character. That might be an idea Howard threw away, or just horror writing atmosphere. He is especially perceptive, though, he hears the monster not long after they enter the house, he notices things like the pattern on the robes, and he is pretty adept at reading Conrad's moods. I suspect Conrad considers him the friend who knows what to say to him when he's worried, and that's why he came to him to begin with.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Criticizing Old Stuff

I imagine some of you think that losing access to regular comics has given me no rage at sexism in fiction to write about, but you couldn't be more wrong.  There's a well of idiocy and assumption out there.  Going through my unread books pile these few months I've found myself with the impulse to throw a book down it on more than one occasion.

The problem with blogging those thoughts is that when I read fiction I go for classic action/adventure whenever possible.  I like to dig around the roots of genre fiction, see where all our geek traditions started.  As an adventure fan, it's very rewarding.   As a human being with a 21st Century consciousness, not so much.

And the thing is that complaining about racism and sexism in old stories seems pretty unfair because the stories are well... old.  They're a product of the culture at the time so there will be lots of race and gender issues there.  Any complaint gets the defense that "Hey, it was written in the 30s.  He didn't know better."  And I suppose that defense would be all well and good if not for the fact that this stuff keeps popping up in modern fiction because modern fiction is built on the roots of the classics, and some of those roots are just plain rotten.

Yesterday I finished reading The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard.  Awesome stuff adventure-wise.  Howard writes a lot of stuff in Lovecraft's setting, only his characters don't just crumple and tear at their hair.  His characters shoot, punch, stab and try to destroy the nameless/unspeakable/unfathomable/mind-shattering/shambling/shuffling horror that is summoned from the pit.   In a Lovecraft story, the main character is most likely to observe the dark rites of the evil cult, gaze in terror at the summoned creature as it destroys the entire cult and narrowly escape to pen a fearful narrative.  In a Howard story, the main character makes a mad dash for the altar and smashes the idol, maybe taking a few shots at the cultists with whatever weapon is at hand.  It's like adventure-horror.  The heroes of both authors get their worldviews shaken to the core, but Howard's tend to hold it together long enough to act heroic while Lovecraft's fall apart.  (I'm excluding Randolph Carter here, or at least Dream-Cycle Randolph Carter.)

On the flipside, you can't even discern sexism in Lovecraft for the lack of women and romance in his stories.  (Really, the sexism is in the almost complete absence of women but that's easier to ignore than having one show up and be an idiot.)  Howard, though, tries to add a little romance as well as adventure to the horror mix and ends up with the helpless damsel more often than not.  I know, I know Howard created the protoype story for Red Sonja but I haven't seen that one yet.  Almost uniformly he recycled the same stock female love interest or sister in each story in this book that called for a white female character.

I say more often than not rather than all of the time, and specify white female character because there were three female villains in the whole anthology.  Two of these villains are black women.  Guess how many black women are in the book.

One of them (in The Dead Remember) is even named Jezebel.  (And honestly, in that story I'm on her side.  That guy was a dick and he deserved what he got.)

The other is in Black CanaanBlack Canaan is a story which should be printed out with the racist parts circled in red and annotated in the margins (this will need wide margins).  It should then be distributed, along with Hills of the Dead (and I say that as someone who dearly loves Solomon Kane) and the complete works of the aforementioned HP Lovecraft, in writer's courses as an example of what to avoid subconciously putting into your story.

By far the best stories of the entire collection are the ones that fall into the Conrad and Kirowan group.  These are stories starring one or more members of a group of semi-occultist friends centered around John or James Conrad (I am utterly convinced that the reference to James was meant to be the regular Conrad and no one will every convince me otherwise) or Professor John Kirowan.  (I may gush completely about those two characters after I've reread the stories a couple times, but I absolutely adore them and was devasted to find that one of the fragments at the end of the book was a short story starring both of them called The House that he stopped writing right after they got to the house.)  They tend to be narrated by either Kirowan or a guy named O'Donnel.  It was always easy to tell when O'Donnel was the narrator because not only did he drop racist ideas, he dropped metaracist plothooks like mentioning that this guy they know who is obviously going to be the bad guy doesn't look all that white to him.  (This is also how you can tell really early on someone's going to be the bad guy.)

Don't get me wrong, not every black or brown person in the entire story collection is bad.  Howard does seem to have been a pioneer of the offensively obsequious minority pulp sidekick.  There's also a number of insubstantial innocent bystander characters of color.   But it happens enough that when O'Donnel says "He looks Oriental to me" then you know who the antagonist is going to be.

That said, Children of the Night is a brilliant and chilling account of racism gone completely batshit, even if all of the characters present are white.

Anyway, these thoughts and others crossed my mind in more orderly ways as I made my way through this book.  Ultimately, every criticism has been applied again and again to more modern stories, and that's why there are so unbelievably easy to see in Howard's stories.  Because this is the problem at the roots.

But the author--along with the whole Lovecraft circle--is long gone.  We've gotten past that level of racism and sexism in our genre fiction.  It's so recognizeable as to be embarassing, right?

Well, we're not past it.  Contemporary stories are built on the tropes set down by guys like Howard and Lovecraft.  Racism is coded into the archetypes genre writers pick from.  I don't think it needs to be there forever, though.  By looking back at the 30s and 40s tales and seeing what they did right and what they did wrong, we can refine the genre and change it.  We can see the threads that are good, the stuff that is awesome and how it can still be that way without copying the bullshit as well.  But if we ignore it and put it up to a "product of the times" that 21st Century writers are already beyond, we end up copying and reproducing the shit like the Jezebel archetype or the obsequious Afghani sidekick or the 'Conjer man' without even realizing it.

See, even if you think its unfair to judge a classic by contemporary standards, there's still a usefulness in there.  It's not only exercising the old analysis muscles on past works, it's catching problems in future works before they happen.  Thinking critically about the stories that inspire us will force us to think critically about our own stories.

And ideally, thinking critically about the fictional world will translate to thinking critically about the real world.  And that's the ultimate goal, isn't it?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

If you're not here to read me talking about me, move along please.

I've pruned the social media tree enough to have the energy to post on WFA again. I ended up deleting several weeks worth of bloglines posts, and my livejournal. I had starting using my livejournal friendslist as a quick linkfarm rather than add everything to bloglines. While I was doing that I discovered that the friendslock feature gave me a convenient place to gripe about things I didn't want to bicker with trolls over, and gripe about politics or work. I've long avoided blogging politics and work on this blog, but livejournal's friendslock gives a false sense of privacy that I slipped into. It was quick, it was easy, and it wouldn't get back to anyone I didn't want it to.

Well, as long as I didn't gripe about family it wouldn't get back to anyone I didn't want it to. I discovered a leak in this area early on when I tried to vent healthily and it resulted in a member of my family dropping me from the "on speaking terms" list for a short time. Never zeroed in on who the leak exactly was, but the incident itself was not worth digging too deeply into it. That incident was, however, a good reminder that the sense of privacy was a false one. Not only did everyone on your filter have to be trustworthy, you also had to go through a few coding hoops to keep your locked entries from manifesting on feed aggregators and search engines. Plus there's the whole matter of livejournal's changes recently, which let advertisers scan your locked stuff to decide what ads to put there. And--to use a completely random example--if I don't want my sister to discover that I was actually really fucking upset about the matter of the daffodils last Thanksgiving, for example, and that I was lying when I told her it was no big deal then it might be awkward if she sees the ads on my page are for florists and turkey farms lately.

Really, you may as well just blog without locking. And if I'm blogging without locking, what's the fucking point of livejournal? I like the Blogger and Wordpress interfaces better. I have Bloglines--in which I can divide the feeds into manageable folders rather than one stupid feedlist and which allows me to pin and mark read or unread. I like reading some people's locked posts, but not so much that I really need to stick around.

And there was one other result of the under-friendslock writing. I was becoming more reluctant to write about the little things in public. Because it was less of a hassle to just lock them and gripe within my little group than to go out with sword in hand and hack my way through hordes of trolls. Which had two effects, the first being I became a more cowardly writer, the second being I became a less adept reasoner. When you don't fight trolls, your reason and with dull. When your reason and wit are dull, you become reluctant to fight trolls. It's not so much a circle as an ever-lowering spiral staircase to the depths of stupidity and isolation.

And who the hell needs that?

So I dumped the livejournal, made a cute little "This is where you can find me elsewhere" and meant to never return.  I kept the account open for comments, but figured since it was already something I'd let lapse I wouldn't be tempted to return.

But I neglected one thing: Newsarama.

In the past, when I saw a particularly annoying comment on that site that I wanted to gripe about but not engage (because engagement would lead to a quick release of temper in many cases, and I'd been kindly asked to keep it under control on that site) I would gripe on livejournal and not have to engage the person.

And in the past, when a poster that I wanted to support or at least give a fair chance to said something that encouraged the introduction of the heel of my palm to the top of my forehead I would go under livejournal, vent, and keep a pleasant face.

This seemed to be a necessity as I was doing When Fangirls Attack and needed an outlet but didn't want to jump the gun. As things tend to spiral, I grew to rely more on livejournal and less on the main blog as that outlet, until things that desperately needed to be said in public were only said in private, and of course that private was not as private as it seemed at the time. This spiral also led to stupidity and isolation.

So, on the whole, closing the livejournal seemed to be the best thing to do. And as I had neglected the journal during my residency in the Gray Realm I figured I could keep the account without being tempted to write on it.

But again, Newsarama. In my distress this weekend at my apparent replacement, I asked the head of the blog if he was planning to bring in a feminist blogger. He responded that he had two. My relief was tempered only by the realization that I very probably should have heard of Sarah Jaffe before this, but hadn't. I don't like that sort of thing. I may not be the best blogger in the community, I may not have the widest audience but I always took a pride in knowing my way around the place. This was a new person, but one who had been writing about women in comics that I hadn't seen before.  I do not like this strange feeling of being the second or third person to notice new people.

So I tracked down the posts from both bloggers and found several WFAble items had already been posted.

And yes, this new person has already caused me to shift uncomfortably in my seat. (Smart, strong, sexy women as badass as the men? Nothing else you'd want to add to that, perhaps? Even a little "despite the difficulties" or "despite the criticisms"?) And perhaps shift uncomfortably over email. Still, the criticism was unfair. Plenty of perfectly rational women enjoy Frank Miller. I really liked Frank Miller's comics until I realized he was using the same creepy older-macho-man-gets-together-with-young-female-sex-worker plot over and over and over again. After that, his work lost of its charm.  The movie is visually fascinating. Lots of violence, that's fun. And this was just a happy nostalgic post on a site that encouraged positivity.   I wouldn't have blinked twice seeing it on a familiar writer's blog.   Well, I might've blinked twice if one of the major Girl-wonder.org columnists had said it, not because I would feel she just lost feminist cred but because because the mood on that site is so consistantly anti-Miller that I'd have to believe anything positive was sarcasm or mind control.

Now before I go on you need to know that the point of this post was never to criticize the new blogger on Newsarama. This post is entirely about me and my problems. That's what you're here for, I'm just including a free side of Newsarama-nitpickin' with the main meal of my introspection. (And enjoy this meal, because my tortured writerly soul is a seasonal item on the menu, available for limited time only.)

As unfair as it was, I had this little twitch when I read it.  And then when I read this post from her co-blogger (another person I haven't heard of.  This bothers me.  How far out of the loop am I?), and the resulting comment nitpicking. And then I read this post, referring to the previous post, and the resulting comment discussion. And then I introduced Mr. Palm to Mr. Face again.

THAT is when the urge to complain about the whole lot of them--bloggers and commenters--on my livejournal, in private, set in. And then I thought to myself-- well, why? What am I afraid of? Looking bitter? Everyone knows I'm bitter. It's one of the defining characteristics of my writing.

I narrowed my eyes at my livejournal profile, stewed in irritation for a few moments and realized something.   Livejournal and Blogger both support OpenID.  Perhaps I could free myself from the shackles of self-absorption in the living hell of eternal navelgazing. Perhaps I could climb that spiral staircase out of stupidity and isolation. Perhaps I could just delete the freaking livejournal account.

So I did. And I have thirty days to avoid using it, and then it can never come back. And then maybe I'll get my sharpness back.

And then maybe--just maybe--I'll be able to read a post by an unfamiliar blogger that irks me just slightly without turning the whole matter into a personal journey of self-discovery that leads to a fourteen hundred word essay on the true meaning of Blogging.

Monday, December 08, 2008

December 8th, 2008.

You should all know by now that I've left my writing job at Blog@Newsarama.  Not much behind it, really.  JK Parkin was leaving and I didn't feel like explaining to a new editor that holding me to a deadline or a predictable posting schedule was a threat to national security.  I took the opportunity to bow out gracefully and start pruning away the other responsibilities that are making me an overwhelmed/overworked/overstressed lump of misery.

I do admit to missing the massive soapbox and the ability to brag about being paid to write.

The new blog posts too much to really keep up with, so I didn't really pay attention to it even when I got an email linking this post as indicative of Blog@'s new direction. Then I got another email linking the same post, so I figured it might be worth looking over.

I had the strangest reaction, too.  It wasn't anger or disgust. See, it was posted on Friday, which was theoretically when my own feature was posted.  It was posted in a rambling stream-of-consciousness manner.  Every sentence in the first paragraph started with "and" or "so."  I admit it's conceited of me to think they might try to replace based on my writing style rather than my role, but that's almost certainly what it looked like.  And the substance of the post screamed the opposite of any word I had ever posted on that entire website.  To hell with humility and perspective, the only two words in my mind at this point were "Bizarro Ragnell."

So at the same time my feminist heart fell to the floor with the impact of what I'd been replaced with, my ego swelled to four times its natural size.  But alas, I have a brain and it does have some sense of perspective.  This was just a fucking weird coincidence.

My ego deflated to a healthy size again, I picked my heart from the floor and placed it back on the bookshelf next to Jim Butcher's Blood Rites where it belongs.  (I keep my rage tucked between the covers of Chronicles of the Lensmen if anyone's curious.  Gives it a good charge.)  I then sat down, expressed the acceptable amount of human sympathy for the poor saps who are now stuck with the Blog@Newsarama audience and outlined just what was wrong with that particular post.  I refrained from asking Mr. Brownfield if he'd ever read my column while I was at the blog.  I've always had a sneaking suspicion no one did, and this is no time for that sort of idea to be confirmed.  I just told myself I was done with preaching to Newsarama after that comment and went back to the daunting task of organizing and reviving my crumbling life so I could get back to writing something someone might actually read.  Then the author of the article responded:
Thanks guys for the feedback. I appreciate the words and that anyone even takes the time out to read anything I write. Thank you. As for the not respecting women statement, I have nothing but the utmost respect for women. A gay friend of mine read this same article and mentioned that the same statement could relate to him as easily as it could a women. And the lesbian statement came from Terry Moore writing Strangers In Paradise ( a wonderful book that I highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading it) in which, hey, there were lesbian assassins as well as a whole world of crazy crazy goodness.

And yes, I do tend to put my foot in my mouth more often than not but the comparison to porn was only just that, a thought or idea meant to convey an image in the mind of the reader. Not at attempt to downgrade women.

My mom, my sister, my nieces and my aunts all read my blogs, and works, and the majority of my friends, as well as readership (not to mention the main, Calie Liddle, character of the Wonderland series that I write) are female as well and while something’s I might say might seem uncoth or less that civilized, I’d rather it be me coming out rather than everything else you see on the internet that goes through this strange policitical filter of not wanting to write something that everyone will not find offensive.
For those of us who can't sigh over the internet when I see something like this, there's Twitter.

There's also painstaking replies that barely scratch the surface of the column but are still long enough to be put in moderation forever:
Raven -- Okay, I've got nothing against you, man, and I can tell you mean very well but there's two really wrong things with that comment. I don't really have the time/energy to get into the details right now but you did two very big groan-worthy things in that second-to-the-last paragraph.

The "Some of my best friends are women and they aren't offended" thing is incredibly problematic for a few dozen reasons, but the biggest one is this: I don't know these friends and family of yours, I just know what I read in your article. I can only judge based on my knowledge and experience. So can the rest of the commenters here and many of us were given a poor impression by your post and the accompanying imagery.

The other issue is saying that people who carefully watch what they say are just politically-motivated and not merely thoughtful people. I don't know of a nice way to put this, so here it is: That's pretty much dodging responsibility for thinking. Look, writing is communication. What you communicated was that women aren't worth the time it takes to phrase and frame your piece--a piece that seems designed to try and SELL a product--in a manner that at least won't actively offend them.

Maybe to you that's a bogus "political filter" but all writing is political. LIFE is political because human beings are insanely social creatures. We have a billion little tiny rules that we observe in our interactions with each other. There's a reason for that. Because our lives depend on the support of other humans, we've developed a system of rules based on gaining and keeping that support, as well as fettering out who can be trusted to give that support and who that support is worth giving to. What rules are followed and what rules are discarded TELL us what other people consider a priority, and what might be result if we invest our time our efforts or our money in this person. This piece on a professional blog written by a man in a professional capacity is like a neon sign flashing "This guy's product will not appeal to you!"

Example of that political filter? My first impulse was to write "This guy will spend your money on strippers!" but I didn't want to risk earning your emnity for the sake of a cheap laugh when I'm trying to convince you of my point of view.

But there's a more serious, more disturbing implication in that paragraph. And I'm going to qualify it by saying I don't have anything against you personally, and I don't dislike your comics but I'm going to bring it up. It's worth the risk of your emnity so that I can get you to think it over: You seem to be saying you dropped those early thoughts and wrote this because it was a truer representation of your personality than a more measured piece. Well, if people react badly to your true personality after you've dropped the filter, can you really defend yourself by blaming the filter that keeps people from seeing that?


Even pared down I still wrote way more than I'm comfortable in someone else's column, but I still probably just miss the soapbox. On the bright side, I'm writing again.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Haze

So over the past few months or year, or two years because every time I look back I seem to have written less and less of substance than I thought I had I've sunk into a doughy lump of unfocused laziness. I haven't sat down to write. I've thought of some reasonably entertaining posts, but like the old Doug Stone song I was too busy enjoying the feeling of of creative juices filling my head to pour them onto the page. The time passed, and I didn't write, no matter how energized I was.

When I wasn't thinking of something analytical or enjoyable or humorous I was sinking into an ever-deepening pit of depression. I say depression rather than misery because I haven't been miserable. I've been unmotivated. I've been uninspired. I've lost interest in the hobby I used to spend hours perfecting. I'd lost the will to write. It's a down feeling, a form of depression where everything seem gray and uninteresting. Whenever I sat down to put my thoughts into words a haze to rival the thick fog outside my morning window settled in and I'd look for other things to distract me. I've walked around the village, I've obsessed over American politics, I've watched the entire series of Futurama, Arrested Development, Maude, and Scrubs, I've viewed movies I hadn't seen in years, I've surfed the internet randomly, I've been lost in several German cities and villages, I've sampled the wide array of dirty movies available in cyberspace purely scientific purposes for that one, I assure you, I've gotten to know new people, I've annoyed the living shit out of Kalinara over instant messenger, I've attacked the ever-growing pile of unread books in my living, I've dumped my heart and soul into the neglected paperwork of my new workcenter, I've eaten European food, I've baked, I've cooked, I've taken so many baths that I legitimately fear I'll grow gills, I've learnt about the gods of my ancestors, I've raged at coworkers for parking in places people aren't fucking allowed to park would it kill them to fucking walk a few extra feet?!, I've taken pictures of Germany, I've driven around the countryside... I haven't made it up to Uppsala to visit the temple yet but I've managed to do a lot to distract myself.

All meaningless frivolities. Not an ounce of substance in the whole pile. Because whenever one of these activities--the large or the small made me feel the slightest bit of real emotion I started to write about that emotion in my head. And I fully intended to act on that, and actually write down these thoughts once I reached my computer. Then when I turned on the damned thing I lost the motivation. It drained from me, leaving me as a lump of formless, functionless--my god someone's gotten into the vocabulary shed and set loose my prized collection of adjectives!--goo sitting in a bathtub trying to will myself to pick up that half-read book of Robert E. Howard stories on the windowsill.

Or heaven help me I've written it and it's turned from something witty and clever to a muddled mass of bleakness, so I don't publish it.

I'm not the sort of person who labors under the misconception that only she feels this way. This is not the first time that this dear god I do not want to use ennui to describe it that is so fucking pretentious I could crawl under my kitchen table and die ennui has set in. It certainly won't be the last.

In the past when I've felt this intense lack intensity I've pounded out a rambling stream of consciousness post and put it up on my blog. Thereafter this gelatinous apathy clears up and there's once again room for the rage that blends with my venomous blood in the darkened chamber of my heart to produce that thick, vicious hatred that I gleefully spread upon the internet. And that leftover goth melodrama from my wasted teenaged years still soothes my soul whenever I fling it onto the page.

There's a problem, though. See, I live for your comments. I crave your attention, your adulation, your animosity. I don't like your pity, though. It rubs me the wrong way. It's uncomfortable. Give me a pack of snarling misogynistic wolves beating down the front door, a thousand trolls at my back gate--I'll face each and every one enthusiastically and come out of the fray laughing with their blood on my teeth but send a candy-striper and I'll be hiding in the basement with the lights off until she goes away. It's awkward and I shouldn't have to deal with it. But whenever I do one of these depressed stream-of-consciousness posts it never fails-- I get sympathy comments from those of you more readily suited to living in human society than I am.

I don't like those so I stopped writing the depressed posts. That was wrong of me, because now that I've taken such a long break I'm not sure I'll be able to shake it properly and get my anger-fueled writing energy back.


Usually about now the post peters off, because even I fear I sound too unhinged when I let my uncensored thoughts free to roam cyberspace and I get too nervous to continue. Though I'd lay money down that not a single one of you sound saner inside your own heads, and if you do think you sound sane in there you need to get yourself checked out because that's not normal. Sadly, I'm never sure how to stem the tide of stream of consciousness writing so I just turn off the faucet.

Monday, December 01, 2008

A bit cranky lately.

I've been having a dry streak writingwise, as evidenced by the nearly dead state of this blog.  But there are moments, moments when I cheer up.  Moments when I lift my head to peer out from my subterranean lair.  Moments when I feel the world is worth living in, that it doesn't deserve to be destroyed in a hellish clash of fire and ice.  Moments when figure that yes, humanity is a species worth continuing.   Moments when I feel that there's a spark of nobility buried deep within the soul of every person on the planet no matter how small and petty they may seem.  Moments when I feel like setting my pen to paper in praise of all creation!

And in these moments
I need only check my bloglines for those thoughts to clear right up.

More on the endless irritation of my existence later.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

19 Nov

Rogue returns to X-men?

Damn, now I'm thinking about picking up the series again. They would wait until I'm out of the country to do this.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On a more serious note.

Most eveyrone knows this by now, but if you missed it there's an update on Carla:
“The good news is both Carla and Lance’s conditions have stabilized and they are both expected to recover,” he said, “although they will both be hospitalized for awhile.”

He adds that, unfortunately, their home was completely destroyed in the fire. “We are in the process of setting up a fund to help them out, and I will let you know as soon as we have it ready to go,” he said.


The Montecito fire department has announced the establishment of a fund to help Carla and Lance. Donations may be sent to:

The Lance and Carla Burn Fund
Santa Barbara Bank and Trust
1483 East Valley Road
Montecito, CA 93108-1248

Lea has advice on what to give.

Confession

I killed the Blue Beetle.

It wasn't my intention. It wasn't premeditated. It was murder by omission. I killed him because he slipped my mind.

I had intended to send for comics once I'd settled into my new home but time just slipped away from me and I never meant to just let it go on for weeks and then months without a new pamphlett. But when I got here life moved so fast and I had a backlog of regular books I caught up on, and I had a new job to learn and a new place to explore and the time just slipped away. You know how it is. And there was always trades through Amazon.com and the mail and I could get back issues. Surely the book was safe. But I was wrong, it dipped below the cancellation line shortly after I crossed the ocean and Jaime paid a heavy price for my shameful neglect.

It may sound melodramatic, but I killed this book. Yes, yes I did. And I must take the blame for this, not because I didn't buy something that didn't interest me or that I didn't buy something I didn't want or that I didn't buy something that I couldn't afford but that I didn't buy something that did interest me, that I did want and that I could afford.

Of course, I didn't do it alone. I had accomplices in this crime. I wonder how many of my accomplices were out there. And I wonder why they didn't buy.

I wonder how many of my accomplices simply found life in the way of their reading habits, as I did.

I wonder how many of my accomplices wanted a fun, playful book with a sympathetic hero who passed this on the stands because it wasn't starring a familiar character.

I wonder how many of my accomplices wanted a fun playful book but passed this by because they thought a hispanic teenaged replacement for Ted Kord was a gimmick and would die quickly.

I wonder how many of my accomplices would have adored this book but were hoping it would fail so that Kord would be resurrected.

I wonder how many of my accomplices read scans of this book online, complained that their favorite series wasn't so lighthearted anymore and then passed by this book on the shelves in favor of the very book they complained about.

I wonder how many of my accomplices wanted DC to publish more books like this, but were angry and irritated at the state of other books in the DC line and so they passed on this as part of a boycott. A way to punish an editor who changed things a bit too much.

I wonder how many of my accomplices dropped it because of the Spanish-language issue and some political misgivings about it.

I wonder how many of my accomplices read scans of this book and chuckled and made notes to themselves to buy it next trip to the shop but just never got around to it.

I wonder how many of them are sorry to see the book go. I wonder how many of them will discover it in trades or backissues years down the road and will wonder why this book isn't being published still.

Oh well, we'll survive. This isn't the first book I've killed. This isn't the first book I've read that's been killed. It isn't even the best book I've killed. It certainly won't be the last or probably even the most lamented. Still, I have to wonder if I had bought my copy, if the people who showed some curiosity had bought their copies, if the people who complained about their favorites getting too dark had skipped a month and bought their copy and if the people who were boycotting the company had bought their copies how things would be different at the moment in not just Blue Beetle, but in other books put out by DC.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

22nd FSF Carnival

I am a week behind, but between my job and German small-town internet access I think I'm doing fairly well.  The Sainted Nathan Lilly over at SpaceWesterns has made a 3-part carnival for all of you, and here I am a week late in linking to it.

Here's all three parts, ladies and gentlemen:


SpaceWesterns.com Sideshow › 22nd Carnival of Feminist Science Fiction – Part I

SpaceWesterns.com Sideshow › 22nd Carnival of Feminist Science Fiction – Part II

SpaceWesterns.com Sideshow › 22nd Carnival of Feminist Science Fiction – Part III

Enjoy them, and once again I apologize for the delay.  If anyone is willing to deal with waiting on me and host the 23rd Carnival, email me please.

Ragnell finally has her "WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH THIS PLACE?!" moment.

When I told my friends that I was moving to Germany I got the near-universal response that I'd need to learn to be on time for once.   "Germans are sticklers about puncuality" everyone from my boss to my aunt claimed, and I would have to be on the dot for once in my life if I was going to fit in with the culture.

What a load of bullshit.

Germans are not always on time.  Germans are always on lunch.

Okay, I'm generalizing too much there.  I haven't been to all of Germany.  Maybe the legendary timeliness came from somewhere near Berlin, or Munich or somewhere further away from the border.  Maybe it's a different Germany in the Eifel region.  Maybe it's the proximity to France.  Maybe there's something in the water.  Maybe there's something in the land itself, something lazy and drowsy that seeps up from the roots of the grass and emanates from the trees.  I've been told that this region used to be the setting of wars and political strife reaching back to Roman times (Trier was the capital of the freaking Empire for a bit) and leading up to World War II  (seriously, in the neighboring village to mine you can see grooves in the archways that were made by Patton's tanks).  Maybe the land itself just got sick of all the activity and it made a conscious decision to lull all these pesky humans into a constant state of midday relaxation.

Maybe the people have always been this way.  Maybe they figure "We didn't rush our meal to take care of Constantine, we're not rushing it for you".  It's not that people are rude, or unreliable.  Everyone is very nice and polite.  Just..  slow.   And you don't want to rush them because it's rude so you sit there and tap your foot and smile and look like a complete spaz for several minutes waiting on them.  Maybe there's some Lovecraftian turtle-race beneath the hills that's been hiding among the Germans and that's who I've been dealing with all this time.

Maybe it's just the wine.

Whatever it is, if you're going to the Rhinelamd-Pfalz state in Germany bear in mind it takes two weeks and a very fast car to get anything accomplished--and you can't do anything before 10 or after 6.  And don't even think about running around between the hours of 11 and 4 because the entire state seems to be closed.

And the weirdest thing is that things do get done.  If you manage by the grace of heaven to catch a tailor or a mechanic (you can try calling ahead, but appointments are theoretical here) and you leave them your uniform or your car overnight it will be finished (usually not too much later than they said it would be), even superbly finished in some places.

But I have no clue when they manage to do this work because they are always closed for the night, or until 10, or for lunch.  (This is especially annoying for those of us who work our way into an early grave American hours.)  Closing for lunch.  Good god, who can do that? 

I'm sorry, I though I was all for cultural acceptance but I've found my line.  I will never be able to approve of the attitude Germans take towards lunch.  Lunch is not supposed to be this way.  Lunch is no time to take a break and relax.  Lunch is time to get all of the stuff that you couldn't leave work to do done.  Lunch is to be taken in shifts so that someone is there to take care of all the lunchtakers who come in while they have a break from the office.  You don't just close up the whole fucking country for four hours a day so people can eat!  That would be insane.

And who the hell closes on every federal holiday?

And I'm sure Germans consider this sort of behavior healthy or something, but when the hell am I supposed to get anything done?

As someone who spent the last 8 years of her life eating lunch in her car as she shuttled around supposedly lazy southwestern cities accomplishing all the little things one needs to accomplish in order to be a functioning adult this is way too much of an adjustment to make.  I can't deal with lunch here.  They actually sit down while they eat. My life is piling up while the rest of this country eats.  I need a ticket for any US Timezone and I need it sent to me yesterday.