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.

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