Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Reviews, Local Fame, Cosmogony, Crime, Etc.

Charles Payseur of Quick Sips Reviews fame has reviewed Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Issue 35, and appears to have enjoyed "White Rainbow and Brown Devil." There's no better feeling than knowing that you wrote something that gave someone pleasure, so, thanks, Charles!

On the other hand, there's no worse feeling than knowing that you wrote something that brought someone nothing but annoyance and impatience, so I won't link the other review I've gotten so far.

I haven't been posting here much lately, have I? That's partly because I got a monthly column (about STEM matters) in the local paper, and the samples for my pitch and the first installment have sucked up most of my light nonfiction-writing energy. But now I'm so famous that people tell me all over town that they enjoy my writing, so it's definitely worth it. This month I wrote about honeybees and melon-stacking. The next installment will be about the tesseract, because a movie based on a certain book is coming out in March and will undoubtedly be showing in the local theater. I have small hopes for the movie, alas.

I have revised the Eladogran Cosmogony a bit, bringing my translation more in line with the original texts. You can now find it under the Library of Enoch tab at the top of the page.

I've been reading quite a bit of crime fiction from the forties and fifties lately, mostly thanks to a Library of America collection I checked out at the library. I'm also still working through the correspondence of Flannery O'Connor and The History of the Conquest of Mexico and a few books about four-dimensional geometry. I recently read and greatly enjoyed several volumes of Hellboy comics graphic novels. I got into these through the excellent Guillermo del Toro movies. A big red devil with sawed-off horns battling Nazis, Rasputin, and evil gods out of H. P. Lovecraft: what's not to love? The art is wonderfully expressive and minimalistic; I find that I'm not a big fan of the hyper-realistic, cinematic presentation of superhero comics these days.

All matters that might get turned into full-fledged posts at some point, if I feel like it...

Monday, February 5, 2018

"White Rainbow and Brown Devil" at HFQ

The vagabond conquistador Francisco Carvajal y Lopez continues his grim, rapacious, and not-terribly-successful trek across southwest Texas in the latest installment of his exploits, "White Rainbow and Brown Devil," a tale of high adventure and weird horror appearing in Issue 35 of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. Published out of chronological order because of the awesome Triple Crossover Event that, as the perspicacious reader may have noticed, took place at HFQ last year, it falls between "Heart of Tashyas" and "I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds," being a sequel to the former but preceding the latter by an as-yet-undetermined-by-historians amount of time.

"White Rainbow and Brown Devil" takes place in a geographically telescoped version of what's now Val Verde County, following the Rio Grande and the route of U.S. 90, from Sycamore Creek in the east, past San Felipe Springs, across the Devil's River, and through Seminole Canyon, to the Pecos River in the west. As my bio states, I'm a circuit-riding professor; this is one of the circuits I ride. (In a pick-up truck, not a horse.) Past Del Rio, the country is desolate, torturously prickly, beautiful, and slightly sinister, with ruined stone buildings here and there, and abandoned bridges from the old highway paralleling the modern one. The bed of the Devil's River is under the Amistad Reservoir now; one wonders what other dark secrets those placid waters hide.

Fate Bell Shelter, Seminole Canyon
Seminole Canyon, which is named after Black Seminole Scouts posted there by the U.S. Army in the nineteenth century, was first inhabited something like 10,000 years ago, with paintings in Panther Cave and the Fate Bell Shelter dating back some 8,000 years, among the oldest in North America.

Other items of note appearing in HFQ Issue 35 include stories "That Sleep of Death" by Mary-Jean Harris and "Things of Shreds and Patches" by Norman Doeg, and poems "Washer at the Ford" by James Byers and "Dragon Mountain" by Mary Soon Lee. The issue also contains HFQ's first foray into audio, with the poem "Fire Lover" written and narrated by Karen Bovenmeyer, who also narrates for the horror podcast Pseudopod. Please go check it out!

The picture that accompanies my own story is an original watercolor. You can read about it here.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Four-Dimensional Lord of Dance

I wrote two posts last year dealing with the fourth dimension:
The focus was mathematical, but along the way I looked at how the fourth (spacial) dimension appears in the works of authors like H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Heinlein, H. G. Wells, Jorge Luis Borges, and, most memorably, Madeleine L'Engle, whose A Wrinkle in Time is about to appear as an uninspired-looking Disney movie in March (sigh). I also talked about mathematical visionaries and mystics like Paul S. Donchian and Charles Howard Hinton, both of whom made real contributions to the field, if only in the sense that they developed and humanized what the academics were saying in their inaccessible research articles, and both of whom might be labeled as cranks or crackpots.

Since then I've done a little research on Hinton, Donchian, et al., and have found a number of other links between the idea of a fourth spacial dimension and various forms of spirituality or mysticism. For instance, the German astronomer Friedrich Zöllner (1834 – 1882) apparently tried to use the fourth dimension explain Spiritualist phenomena. In his eagerness, he was imposed upon by the medium Henry Slade in experiments that have since been debunked. Fantasy and horror authors in their turn used the claims of Spiritualism in their stories; some, like Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, actually subscribed to its views. Hinton, who wrote a number of "scientific romances" himself, was a post-Christian altruist who speculated that spiritual agencies might work by means of the fourth dimension and believed in something like eternal return.

Some Christians of the late Victorian era, disconcerted by the advance of materialism, attempted to colonize the fourth dimension themselves. For other Christians, such as the liberal theologian Edwin Abbott Abbott (author of Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, a book much admired by Hinton), higher spacial dimensions were merely a metaphor for gradual way in which the human mind must approach divine truths. 

Salvador Dalí appears to have used the fourth dimension in a similar way, in his famous 1954 painting Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), which portrays Christ crucified on the net of a tesseract / hypercube / 8-cell (Schläfli symbol {4,3,3}) hovering over a square grid (Schläfli symbol {4,4}), illustrating the incomprehensibility of God to man.

I have in my hands a Dover edition of Speculations on the Fourth Dimension: Selected Writings of Charles H. Hinton, which includes several of Hinton's scientific romances. It's edited and has an excellent introduction by Rudolph v.B. Rucker, also known as Rudy Rucker, author of the Ware Tetralogy and a modern tribute to Flatland and all-around sci-fi author of note. So no doubt I'll soon be posting about all of this yet again.


My post on four-dimensional arts and crafts includes an account of my building the sections and net of a 120-cell. More recently, I've printed and built the sections and net of a 24-cell, which is a regular four-dimensional polytope built from twenty-four octahedra.

The sections proceed as follows, with colors given as the craft paints I bought at Wal-Mart: (I) the octahedral cell at the "south pole" (Parchment); (II) the truncated octahedral section cut by a hyperplane through the midpoints of the edges "above" the south pole (Parchment and Real Brown); (III) the cuboctahedral equatorial section cut by a hyperplane through the set of vertices to which these edges connect (Look At Me Blue and Real Brown); (IV) the truncated octahedral section analogous to Section II but in the "northern hemisphere" (Look At Me Blue and Real Brown); and (V) the octahedral cell at the "north pole" (Coffee Latte).

The net has the "south pole" at the center and the "north pole" at the base. For reasons fully known only to my subconscious, but partly inspired by Dalí's painting above, I decided to model it after traditional depictions of the Hindu god Shiva as Nataraja or Lord of Dance, with three-fold rotational symmetry.

Shiva is the destroyer, and his dance is the cosmic dance of creation / destruction. That puts me in mind of the line from the Bhagavad Gita, uttered by Krishna, quoted by Robert Oppenheimer, and used by me in the title of a short story: "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds."

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Francisco Carvajal y Lopez: A (Self) Portrait

My story "White Rainbow and Brown Devil" is set to appear in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Issue #35 in February. It's a direct sequel to my first Carvajal story, "Heart of Tashyas," coming between it and "I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds," and takes place in the Southwest Texas border region, which is where I live, beginning at Sycamore Creek and traveling up the Rio Grande across Devil's River and Seminole Canyon to the Pecos crossing. (The geography is somewhat telescoped.)

The story will be accompanied by an original watercolor painting of its protagonist, the vagabond conquistador Francisco Carvajal y Lopez:

That is, essentially, a self portrait, except that I don't have long hair, I don't wear earrings, I don't encourage birds of the American subtropics to perch on my shoulder, and I don't go about armed to the teeth. Ultimately it's just a picture of the guy in my story, but to me it also asks the question To what extent do I identify with my protagonist? without really answering it. I looked to Frida Kahlo for inspiration.

Here's the slightly modified version that will accompany the story:

That's a green jay on his/my shoulder, incidentally. In the United States, green jays are found only in South Texas. The sewage treatment plant outside the town I live in is pretty much the northern limit of their range. I sometimes go there to bird-watch, and the jays are my favorite thing to see. A magnificent, lime green bird with a dark blue head. Much of the adjoining nature reserve occupies an old landfill covered with thickets of prickly pear; Carvajal's first adventure in "Heart of Tashyas" began at the foot of the small extinct volcano just across the highway, on a site now occupied by trailer homes and the ruins of a fort.

Here's the initial sketch:

The background is a prickly pear cactus wallpaper design of my own devising:

There are exactly seventeen types of wallpaper symmetry. My design is described by the group known as pg in the IUC (International Union of Crystallography) notation. I created it by drawing a single prickly pear image and copying it via translations and glide reflections.

I cast this wallpaper upon the Internet for noncommercial use, but I urge the reader to employ it in papering a room only with extreme caution.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Nightmare Alley

Question: What does William Lindsay Gresham, the American author of Nightmare Alley, a bitingly vitriolic, pessimistic, cynical novel about the rise and fall of a carnie conman, have in common with C. S. Lewis, the popular apologist and beloved writer of children's fantasy books?

Answer: They were both married to Joy Davidman.

I first learned of Nightmare Alley, which came out in 1946, when I watched the film noir of the same name starring Tyrone Power. After being rather difficult to find for a long time, it was available for streaming through Amazon for a brief period last fall, but has now mysteriously vanished again. It's an excellent film, a true gem among noirs. I must be getting worldly-wise, because I could tell exactly where the film was glossing over seedy details or pulling its punches. Most importantly, I could tell exactly how the story was supposed to end. I don't want to spoil it, but it's hard to think of a darker ending.

If the film is excellent, the novel is only that much better, a detached, merciless dissection of a man destroyed by his own small-mindedness and lack of self-understanding. Stanton Carlisle, the protagonist, uses what he learns at the carnival to start a big-time mentalist act, then reinvents himself as a spiritualist minister in a bid for money, lots of money. I don't think I'm giving anything away when I say that it all blows up in his face. He shows no mercy to marks and gets none when it's his turn to be the prey. The last line of the novel is so cold it burns.

And yet it's impossible not to pity Stan. There are several flashbacks to his childhood: you can't really look at a well-portrayed kid and say, yeah, he gets what's coming to him. As the pieces of his backstory fall into place, you see the picture of a child warped by selfish parents whose dysfunctional marriage pushes him into the adult world of fear, lies, compromise, manipulation, frustration, and abuse. The novel leans heavily (though not explicitly) on certain well-known Freudian theories, but its examination of Stan's psychology is no less incisive for all that.

Nightmare Alley is a grotesque but beautiful kaleidoscope of twisted humanity, in which the only freaks, inside the carnival or out, are those who aren't freaks. It's aptly named, because you can see the monstrous ending from far off in the very first pages, then proceed to step slowly toward it with the inevitability of a nightmare. Nightmare Alley is a masterpiece of noir.

A brief but detailed account of Gresham's life can be found here. He got to know the ins and outs of the carny world through a fellow volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. Shortly after the war his first marriage ended in divorce. He began drinking heavily and attempted suicide, after which he turned to writing and editing, marrying Davidman, his second wife, in 1942. They had two sons. His abiding interest in sideshows, spiritualism, magic acts, and debunking molded his literary career as a writer of both fiction and nonfiction.

In an account I can't seem to locate right now, I read that he and his wife both became interested in Christianity and the works of C. S. Lewis; he ultimately moved on to other things (like Spiritualism and Scientology, strangely enough), but Davidman, who was a Jewish atheist, became a Christian and traveled to England to meet Lewis. Gresham had an affair with Davidman's cousin, Renee Rodriguez, while she was away. He had also become abusive toward her and their children, and their marriage ended in divorce, after which he married Rodriguez. Davidman's subsequent marriage to Lewis was made famous by his writings, most notably by A Grief Observed, written after her death in 1960. Gresham's sons remained with Lewis.

Gresham committed suicide at a Manhattan hotel in 1962 after being diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. In his pockets they found business cards that read: No Address. No Phone. No Business. No Money. Retired.