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.



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?