Thursday, June 26, 2014

On Reading Fairy Stories

I've read fairy tales to my children off and on for several years. I've always enjoyed such things myself – I have most of the Andrew Lang collections, and some of my short stories are inspired by them – so it pleases me greatly that my kids enjoy them.

And they do, considerably. As I've mentioned before, we don't watch television here at Casa O., so their play generally comes from what we read. Every tale we've gone through works its way into their make-believe. But naturally they each have their own preferences.

My six-year-old boy, who enjoys piano, chess-playing, and math, prefers stories that have some kind of repetitive pattern. His favorite is "The Fisherman and his Wife." We of Casa O. are obstinate papists, and the enormity of the wife's demands bowls my kids over every time and makes them howl with laughter. When we last read it, my boy said that some stories make him wonder whether he's hearing them or actually there as the events are unfolding, and that "Fisherman" is one of these. How glad that made my heart! They were both excited when we saw a flounder at the aquarium last week – I'd forgotten the fish-prince was of that species – and recited the incantation from memory.

It's a funny thing, but "Fisherman," which really is a very simple and repetitive tale, hooked me when I was a kid, too. At one point my junior high language arts class had to write and perform modernized fairy tales in front of the whole school; at my suggestion, my group chose "Fisherman." I played the husband, who discovered a talking fish filet inhabited by the reincarnated soul of Elvis at Luby's Cafeteria. We even had a brown paper fish-puppet that danced to "Don't Be Cruel."

But I digress.

My four-year-old daughter, on the other hand, likes "Rapunzel" most of all. She loves whimsical ideas and often makes up such stories on her own. She's told me about Nobody the friendly giant, who's invisible (nobody knows Nobody but Nobody knows everybody, she says), and about the tree that gives eggs instead of fruit, eggs that hatch into "clear" cats, which can only be seen with special goggles, and fly through the clouds over the city. She likes witches, bad fairies, and ogresses, but doesn't have any use for princesses; once I called her Princess (as I'm wont to do) and she said, "Never call me Princess. I hate princesses. I like dinosaurs, sharks, and every animal that's scary." She also has flaming red hair, and (in a remarkable display of good fashion sense) refuses to wear pink.

In one of his introductions, Lang asserts that "Is it true?" is the great question children ask. My children have certainly done so. Chiefly, though, they ask about the scarier things, and from a strictly practical point of view. For instance, when we read about an ogress-queen who tries to devour her son's wife and children, they like to know – quite sensibly, in my opinion – if there's any danger of that happening to them. I remember Tolkien saying somewhere that his children were more wont to ask "Was he good?" That has been my experience as well. They want to classify each character as good or bad and are bothered when someone's actions are ambiguous, as they often are in fairy tales.

Incidentally, I don't care for the writing in a lot of the stories in Lang's collections. I guess the writers thought it cute to ridicule the story they were telling, but over the children's heads, so that they could share a smug little smile with the adult reader. Such condescension disgusts and angers me. When I read with my kids I want to be right down on their level. They – my daughter, especially – tend to find stories with little jokes and witticisms extremely tiresome. By contrast, the Blue Fairy Book contains Lang's own retelling of the Perseus myth ("The Terrible Head"), which uses simple, unadorned language, but plays it straight. They've never sat so still as they did last night when I read it to them, clinging to their respective arms of the big green chair where they perch for bedtime stories.

My son, who's very sensitive in some ways, has always been afflicted with strange spectral fears. For instance, he used to be terrified of a certain pair of framed child's handprints at my parents' house. Stop signs and lamp-posts with globes also made him hysterical – he said they were "happy," which still gives me the shivers. Certain images make him extremely uncomfortable.

I experienced similar fears when I was young, and am rather careful about the movies I watch. What's interesting is that the same sort of terror doesn't attach to fairy tales, for him or for me. They may involve the most monstrous crimes (as the mother's in "The Juniper Tree") but they play the role of symbols, as it were, in an abstract pattern, and actually produce a kind of pleasure at their appearance in the larger context of the story.

Then again, right now my kids desperately want me to read "Bluebeard," because I mentioned it at some point as being too creepy, but I don't think I shall, not for some time yet. I can't abide the thought of their working through that in their games.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tim Burton's Batman

Yesterday was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Batman, Tim Burton's 1989 film. This came to my attention because Yahoo! News, which I read every day, being a man who likes to keep abreast of important current events, has positively deluged us with stories about it. (This is neither here nor there, but I sometimes wonder if someone (Warner Brothers, in this case) puts down cash for these stories. For instance, I recall seeing quite a few articles about the cast of Full House earlier this year. Not that I read them or anything.)

Anyway, the fact that Batman is a quarter of a century old has me feeling slightly dated, as it was my favorite movie when I was a teenager. I didn't see it in the theater, of course. We went to the movies only rarely, and never to see something as dark and violent as Batman. I was ten at the time. That Christmas I received the VHS tape as a gift from my Granny, but my parents wouldn't allow me to watch it until I was fourteen. Fourteen!

Why they singled out this particular film I'll never know. It did depict Antoine the Gangster being fried to a crisp by a joy-buzzer, but then again we sat down and watched movies with gun violence and nudity as a family. What makes it more ironic is that we got Big Top Pee-Wee at the same Christmas, and no one blinked an eye. Now, Big Top Pee-Wee is a sick, twisted little film, featuring Pee-Wee Herman, unsavory character that he is, happily two-timing away with some not-so-subtle, er, Hitchcockian imagery, his girlfriend winding up engaged to four acrobatic brothers, the Shim (half man, half woman) married to shimself, the ringmaster married to a little lady he keeps in his pocket, a reluctant pig-hippo romance, and various other things. But it was for kids, so no problem. That's the Eighties for you.

Well, being a parent myself now, I know better than to be critical of these little inconsistencies. The truth is, they (the A.P.s) probably did me a favor, because I was of an age to really appreciate Batman when I finally saw it. Once I did see it I watched it repeatedly, obsessively, almost, until it was displaced at the top of my list by The Road Warrior. (I guess I go for dark stories about loners and outcasts.)

What did I like about it? Not the plot, of course, because it's impossible to like (or dislike) something that doesn't exist. What drew me to it was partly the visual style, and partly the tableau it presents of a dark hero who is himself somehow a part of the chaos and madness he fights.

The portrait of Gotham is dark and apocalyptic, with city streets that look like something out of Piranesi's prison pictures. Its visuals owe a great deal to German Expressionism; the final scenes in the ridiculously tall Gothic cathedral are lifted straight from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The buildings, the news office, the Axis chemical plant – all seem drawn from some nightmare extrapolation of noir cinema, a black cityscape heaped upon itself by a confused, obsessed mind, akin to the urban imaginings of Proyas' The Crow and Dark City, or the sublime middle act of Phantom Lady (1944).

And as for the dark vision of Batman, well, I recall that people objected to it at the time on grounds of nostalgia, but in my opinion the darkness is part of his DNA. It's a far cry from the campy Adam West period, yes, but Batman existed before that. His persona originated at the beginning of the noir era, and his adventures have varied quite a bit in tone. I've mused a bit about Batman's role as the dark knight and its relation to mythology and the hardboiled school of literature; for instance, here, and here, and here.

Batman films have this tendency to subtly ask difficult questions about the role of heroism in an ordered society, generally leaving them unresolved. Burton’s vision of Batman standing before the neon Axis sign encapsulates this. Wayne Enterprises is responsible for creating (and losing) the microwave emitter in Batman Begins and the nuclear reactor in The Dark Knight Rises, while Batman himself is credited with the rise of the Joker in The Dark Knight as well as in the 1989 Batman.

Jack Nicholson’s Joker is, of course, quite entertaining to watch. He's a hoodlum turned mad supervillain but also a pretentious avant-garde artist-vandal. His acts of sadism and terrorism (the shoot-out at City Hall ("It's your uncle Bingo!"), the disfigurement of Alicia, the mass poisoning ("Love that Joker!"), the anniversary parade) are self-conscious pieces of performance art. In the museum desecration scene he and his goons "decorate" pieces by Rembrandt and Degas and other masters while pointedly leaving a Goya (?) intact. ("I kind of like that one, Bob.") It's darkly amusing that his appreciation of Vicki Vale's work parallels Bruce Wayne's; they make a number of the same comments regarding Miss Vale. ("Nice apartment. Lots of space.")

All that said, it's too bad that Batman is such a plotless movie. It's of a piece with Tim Burton's other works, which generally strike me as visually brilliant but spiritually empty. I never have cared for Batman Returns, though other people seem to regard it as the better film. It's just got too many cheesy parts. And the later, non-Burton Batman movies that came before the Nolan rebirth are too stupid to comment on, except to say that the batsuit should not have nipples.

Wingéd bat flies by night.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Witch of Anûn: A Review

A bit of shameless self-promotion: Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews my most recent story, "Witch of Anûn," over at Black Gate:
I’ve enjoyed all of Ordoñez’s Antellus stories independent of one another. They possess a beautiful and dark strangeness, both in characters and setting, that I like very much. [...] 
Taken together, a larger world is coalescing out of these stories. Bits and pieces of history have been revealed, religious sects and heresies have been alluded to, and dangerous races have been shown to dwell just beyond humanity’s settlements. There’s an intoxicating quality to the world he’s created and with each story I’m increasingly, willingly, being drawn into it.
I aim to please!

As I've said, I'm personally quite fond of this story. If you like sword and sorcery and planetary romance, please go give it a try, and give one of the only online venues dedicated to heroic fantasy a bit of traffic!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Day of the Orcs

"All right, all right!" said Sam. "That's quite enough. I don't want to hear no more. No welcome, no beer, no smoke, and a lot of rules and orc-talk instead. I hoped to have a rest, but I can see there's work and trouble ahead."
This is tangentially related to my last post.

I've instituted a new family tradition: every week we have a movie night. My children, who are four and six, don't watch television – we don't even get it at our house – and have practically no media exposure. So, I thought, maybe it's time to begin introducing them to a rich if vulgar vein of our artistic culture.

Last weekend's showing was The Wizard of Oz. My wife had been concerned that the witch and the flying monkeys would be too scary (they are for her!), but, no, not our kids. I guess all these years of telling them creepy fairy tales like "Hansel and Gretel" and "Jack the Giant-Killer" and "The Juniper Tree" have finally paid off.

Actually, what really bothered my son (the six-year-old) was the implication that the story was all a dream. He asked about it while I was tucking him in, and I told him I thought the movie left it up to the viewer. We decided together that it wasn't just a dream. But I was a bit put out by it too, though I confess that the movie as a whole – which I hadn't seen in a long time – greatly delighted me.

I told someone else about it, and they mentioned that they'd been taught in college (they were an educator) that this is the good kind of children's fantasy, the kind that makes it very clear what's real and what's not, so that the poor dears don't get their heads turned and start looking for Technicolor dream worlds inside tornados. The bad kind of fantasy treats the events of the tale as real events. The child never wakes up or, if they do, they discover the rainbow scepter in their bed.

The main problem I have with the "good" type of fantasy is that it's stupid. When I was a kid I hated dream-stories with a passion. Why on earth would I want to read about a silly dream of the chief pencil sharpener's assistant at Acme Widget? As an adult I feel just the same way, and I discover that my children do as well. Fiction is fiction, I suppose, but the dream machinery just drapes the story with a layer of condescension: "Ha ha! You thought this was real! But it's not." Or: "No, you idiot, things like this don't really happen. You knew that, right?"

Granted, exposing the idiocy of assertions made by child development "experts" is like shooting fish in a barrel. But this particular attitude is, I think, more than just annoying. It's nothing short of damnable. It was beaten out, hammer and tongs, in the deeps of the earth by a secret cabal of Orcs.

Yes, that's right. I said Orcs. Their numbers being too small now to plot large-scale domination, they seek to influence events from behind the scenes.
And what Orcs most dearly want, more than anything else in the world, is for the children of Men to become efficient slaves. They want lesser breeds of imps and goblins to lord it over. They hate anything that makes the children look out the window and dream of a better place, so naturally they heap scorn on Fantasy, calling it a form of Escape (a bad word on their lips).

To which Tolkien replies:
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which "Escape" is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer's or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the "quisling" to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say "the land you loved is doomed" to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it.
Now, if the Orcs can't keep children from reading fantasy, they at least want them to understand that it's just a silly dream that we put away when there's real work to be done. Hence their compromise on dream-stories.

Their approach to adults – and, I think, their more recent approach to children – requires a bit more subtlety but goes a step further. Rather than settling for making adults despise the medium – which they still do, to be sure – they aim to make its very ideals despicable in the eyes of its readers. After all, we know what Orcs think about heroes:
"There's a great fighter about, one of those bloody-handed Elves, or one of the filthy tarks."
What's a tark, you ask? For the etymology of the term, please see the Appendix to The Return of the King. However, to our excellent diversity-minded modern Orcs, Frodo son of Drogo is just as much a tark as Aragorn son of Arathorn. It's all the same to them, and they're as tired as hell of it. Enough with your Hectors, your Beowulfs, your Rolands, your Arthurs! No more Gilgameshes and Galahads and Godfreys! Grow up! Give us something different! Except, when they say, "give us," they really mean, "give the great unwashed masses," because these Orcs always know what's best for everyone else.

To accomplish their ends of making the ideals of Fantasy despicable, they create (as Saruman his pitifully derivative pits and engines) meta-stories, stories that masquerade as Fantasy but serve rather to browbeat the casual reader and insult the perspicacious or principled reader through "subversion" and "deconstruction." The condescension of the dream machinery mentioned above now comes out in the open and slaps the reader in the face.

In the end, of course, such stories are read only by critics and other writers, and the sub-genre becomes a Worm Ouroboros, devouring its own tail. The one to whom Tolkien and Lewis, or even Howard and Smith, are like fine wine, decried now as a fool who reads knaves, flees with terror before the face of such insipid, self-regarding, effete, irrelevant "literature" as the Fellowship of the Ring fled the Balrog, except in this case there's no fire to ignite his mantle of darkness, because "No Smoking" signs are hung on all the walls.

Here, then, are the three main thrusts of the Orcs' assault on Fantasy:
  1. Keep people from reading Fantasy.
  2. Make Fantasy seem unreal and silly.
  3. Mock the ideals of Fantasy.
To which I reply with the words of the Marsh-Wiggle:
"Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world."
And so I'll keep looking for the land of the sun, though all the Orcs ever spawned oppose me. I'll keep reading (and trying to write) books that aren't afraid to tell tales straightforwardly, without the winks and nods and other cheap tricks the literati use to dress up the watery barf they call "writing." I'll keep painting pictures of flowers and insects and saints and princesses and knights without an iota of irony, commentary, or self-reference. And I'll read my children the stories I like, and guide them (for a brief time) through the beauties and terrors of the world, and protect them, until they are mature enough to fight for themselves, from the clutches of "experts" whose smiling, concerned faces hide the hearts of Orcs.
"The world is all grown strange. [...] How shall a man judge what to do in such times?"
     "As he ever has judged," said Aragorn. "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house."
It's not the first time the Orcs have tried to take over, and it won't be the last. The proper responses are the same as ever: Escape, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Evil, Be Thou My Good

There's something I've hesitated to speak about, not so much because I'm afraid of career sabotage – although that is, to be sure, a matter that has crossed my mind more than once – but because I'm so small and unimportant that I risk making myself seem ridiculous.

Also, I have no interest in being an Internet culture warrior. You can count the number of my posts that have discussed politics or hot-button social issues on one hand, without using any fingers, even your thumb. Public backbiting is an easy way to generate hits – such a chimera is man! – but I just want to write.

To be perfectly blunt, I started this blog because I wanted a place where I could (a) jot down random musings to clarify my ideas, and (b) demonstrate to potential publishers that I'm capable of maintaining a web presence. First came the novel, then came the blog.

As I rewrote my novel it seemed a good idea to get some short stories published, as a way of getting my foot in the door and generating interest in my secondary world. This then became a place where I could do a little low-key self-promotion – connecting readers to my other stories and so forth. But my end goal is still to get my novel (currently called Dragonfly) published.

Am I revealing too much here?

Anyway, the point is, I'm not interested in debating politics on my blog. Heck, that's what Facebook is for. Why would I want to shoot down random strangers on the Internet when I can take out my aunts, cousins, and high school friends in front of all our mutual loved ones?

So I'm not going to start now. I'm simply going to state that I'm associating myself with the United Underworld Literary Movement, whose proposed manifesto (penned by the inestimable John C. Wright) may be found here. Its principles are threefold:
This new movement shall be one where the writer is allowed to put a message in his story, provided it entertains the reader, and provided he does not sabotage or ignore the story trying to shoehorn a message into it. Story telling comes first in stories. 
All stories will be judged on their merit, rather than on the skin color of the author or authoress. 
The writers are the servants of the readers, who are their patrons and patronesses. We are not the teachers, not the preachers, and not the parents and certainly not the masters of the readers. We are not social engineers with permission to manipulate the reader, nor subject them to indoctrination nor propaganda disguised as entertainment. 
In sum, the three ideas of the so-called reactionary Evil League of Evil is that that Science Fiction stories should be workmanlike, honest, and fun, and serve the reader rather than lecture, sucker-punch, subvert, or hector him. Stories should give the reader what he paid for.
A plan fiendish in all its intricacy! The movement is tied to Mr. Wright's proposed Space Princess Movement, to which I also subscribe, having pledged in my heart to place at least one space princess in a sequel to Dragonfly.

Mr. Wright goes on thusly:
Does that sound like a new literary movement? It is older than Homer.
When the first storyteller of prehistory standing outside the cave in the circle of light shed by that newly-invented dancing sky-flower called fire, and with wide gestures and daring words, while the shadows leaped,  astonished the youngsters of the clan with the deeds of the great hunt which happened that day, he used these tools of the trade. 
He told of the comedy of a spear thrown butt-first, the tragedy of a man trampled, the drama of the band of hunters aiding each other that the tribe might feast, that the tribe might live! And the youngsters with their eyes wide and mouths hanging round open listened in wonder. They were enchanted. 
And then, as twilight deepened into night and the stars looked on, the tale he told turned to the of the eldest grandfathers and great hunters long dead but living again in the constellations, chasing the raging boars and mighty mastodons and swift smilodons whose images were in the zodiac — that unknown and unnamed first storyteller told a tale of stars and eternal things. 
He told of the creation of the world, the kindling of the sun and moon, and how the High Spirit placed green trees and blue rivers in the mighty lap of the Earth. And he sang the names of their fathers and forefathers, and how the tribe was blessed in times long gone by the gods, and how these names and great deeds must never be forgotten, but told in turn to their sons and daughters. 
That first founder of my guild knew the three things any storyteller who is honest knows: A story is not a lecture nor a sermon; the storyteller puts the story first, not the storyteller; the storyteller serves rather than rules those who hear his tale.
Amen to that.

As of April, I'm eligible to join the SFWA. However, given recent developments, I have decided that, for the moment, my money would be better spent on a trip to the beach with my family. Which is too bad for them (the SFWA, I mean), because they miss out on diversifying themselves with Puerto Rican blood and autistic brain cells. If any of its representatives ever sees this humble post, and cares that I'm withholding my slender talents from its august ranks, they can reflect on the irony of that.

I've done diversity before. As a grad student I was supported for several years by a fellowship for minorities. I've never felt more isolated than I did at the fellowship conference, which was more like a religious retreat for a church I didn't belong to than a professional gathering. The price of "diversity" was ideological conformity. I have no wish to repeat the experience.

The SFWA can entertain themselves with defining the "right" and "wrong" types of stories or writers – I wish them much pleasure in the pursuit! – but they can count me out. Already one of my stories has been identified as the "wrong" kind on the blog of a major publisher. Since I don't seed my writing with statements about what I stand for and what I oppose, and (like Flannery O'Connor) reserve the right to write about grotesque people doing grotesque things, intending (though arguably with little success) to let the story speak for itself, I suppose it's really just a matter of time before I get in more trouble.

So, I'm "coming out" as a minor villain. Evil, be thou my Good.