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.