Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Clark Ashton Smith

Clark Ashton Smith 1912.jpgAs I mentioned recently, I've been listening to a book of Clark Ashton Smith's short stories as I paint at night. My knowledge of his stories comes chiefly from the Ballantine books (Poseidonis, Xiccarph, and Hyperborea; the fourth Ballantine volume, Zothique, is inexplicably hard to find and expensive, and I don't have a copy). Some take place in the prehistoric, Atlantean past; others in the Dying-Earth future; and still others on weird planets circling unknown suns. I've also read a number of stories at the excellent, excellent website, Eldritch Dark, which features the text of many of his stories as well as images of his drawings and sculptures, articles, bibliographies, and more.

Smith was born in California in 1893, and stayed close to home until his death in 1961. He is said to have had a fear of crowds, and never went to high school, completing his education at home instead. You can sense his self-educatedness in his writing, which exhibits an encyclopedic scope and (perhaps) shallowness, and a varied, idiosyncratic, precise use of words, ranging from a staid, journalistic prose to ironic detachment to heavy-laden verbal ornament. His wide reading and knowledge of history and mythology add a pleasant depth to his fiction. Many of his stories are really prose poems, and he achieved some fame as a poet before becoming known as a fiction writer.

He had his heyday in the period from 1929 to 1937, when he was one of the First Triumvirate of Weird Tales authors, together with the better-known H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. With the death by cancer and suicide, respectively, of these two author-friends, as well as of his parents, whom he supported through his writing endeavors, he largely ceased to write. To the best of my knowledge, no one really knows why. He married late in life, and seems a person who was fairly content with loneliness. He was generally poor, and supported himself through hard manual labor at times.

I am a great admirer of his work. My favorites in this particular collection (The Door to Saturn, the second volume of the collection put out by Night Shade Books) include the title story (a Hyperborean tale taking place largely on the superbly imagined, inhospitable ringed planet), "The Gorgon" (a George MacDonald-esque horrific encounter with mythology in a London backstreet), "The Red World of Polaris" and "A Captivity in Serpens" (long science fiction stories featuring the circumnavigating Captain Volmar and the crew of his ether-ship), and "The City of the Singing Flame" and "The Hunters from Beyond" (weird tales set – partly! – in California, and narrated by bookish pulp fantasy author "Philip Hastane," who happens to be second cousin to a middling sculptor of the grotesque).

Smith's Vathek-esque oriental pieces and Averoigne stories are less appealing to me. The stories I like best are those that take place in bizarre, surreal landscapes brooded over by cruel adepts and high priests and nightmarish yet eminently practical primeval monster-gods. But there's also something about the sheer inventiveness of the pre-Golden Age science fiction you get from the thirties; the Volmar stories exemplify this.

I identify with Smith for many reasons, including my dislike of crowds and almost paralyzing fear of personal interaction, my isolation in an insular provincial town, my self-education (for, though I have a doctorate in mathematics, I am largely self-educated – such are the vagaries of modern schools!), and my struggles with material limitations. His most well-known literary model was Poe, whose complete works I carried around in my backpack when I was a boy, but he also apparently admired George MacDonald (e.g., Lilith) and (later) Tolkien. He pursued his own lodestar, now through poetry, now prose, now painting or sculpture, all of a grotesque turn, with little regard for worldly approbation. My short fiction approaches his style more than anything else, though I feel that my pieces are both more serious and less charming. Well, everyone is different, as my mother would say.

Smith never has been extremely well known. I don't know why this should be. Perhaps he is too poetic, too insubstantial to appeal to a popular taste for plot-driven narrative. But if you have any interest at all in the idiosyncratic speculative fiction of the Weird Tales era, you'll want to take a look at Eldritch Dark.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Religion and Fantasy

Last spring I submitted a religious-themed science fiction story to a religious short-story contest. I don't usually submit to contests, and I never submit to religious markets, so this was doubly out of character. Still, the story was a speculative piece about a possible solution to a relevant bioethical issue that hasn't (so far as I know) been seriously considered yet, and perhaps rather too specialized for a more general market.

After I submitted the story I forgot about it, figuring it wasn't likely to get anywhere. So I was surprised when the editors contacted me to tell me that it had made it to the final round. Eventually it was one of the top fourteen (out of hundreds, with ten winners in the end). But when we spoke on the phone, I was informed that there were serious qualms about the story, to the effect that the thought of publishing it scared the hell out of them (well, the word they used was "heck," but I knew what they meant), and that one reader had had a very bad visceral reaction to a particularly shocking image.

Mission accomplished! Unfortunately, after some highbrow literary back-and-forth, the story was rejected. Structural problems were cited as the cause. Fair enough. How did it get as far as it did? Got me. Why was a personal interview felt to be necessary? I don't know.

Now, none of my other stories have religious themes. If anything they have philosophical themes. Religion is divisive. I suppose the same could be said for any strongly held opinion. All the same, there are plenty of religious sci-fi novels – VALIS, A Case of Conscience, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, to name a few famous ones. I'm not saying they're all necessarily friendly to traditional religion, but they at least treat it seriously and try to grapple with the issues involved, as opposed to the silly Carl Sagan, "Nightfall" approach.

So suppose I sit down to write a religious sci-fi story. Not a trite religion story that happens to take place in outer space, or a sci-fi story that happens to have an ironic genuflection thrown in, but a sci-fi story that has religion woven into its very fiber. Well, clearly speculative fiction can only be religious as such if it speculates about religious things. If you have what we might call a dogmatic religion, this involves the possibility of coming to the wrong conclusion about an issue that hasn't been settled yet, or deliberately denying or questioning some tenet that is held to be settled. And that bugs some people.

But what are the duties of the fantasist or scientifictionalist to his religion? Here I speak as what I happen to be, a Catholic. Our beliefs are clearly enunciated and organ-ized, but at the same time there's this constant outgrowth and deepening and process of maturation, or what John Henry Newman called the development of doctrine.* Sometimes an idea which was once seemingly universally rejected later becomes an article of faith. To someone interested in such things, there is a rich field for speculation. But suppose you get something wrong? Or suppose that you decide to write a story that clearly contradicts some received article? Is that bad? I think it's fair to say that a lot of people who consider themselves very religious would say, yes, it is bad.

Let's look to Tolkien, the great exemplar for Catholic fantasists. Tolkien, it is often claimed, wrote in a purely Catholic universe. This is debatable, depending on what one may mean by it. But he seems to have departed from established doctrine for literary effect on at least one occasion. In The Silmarillion it is intimated that death is the gift of Eru, the One, to Man, rather than a punishment for transgression.** In a letter he notes that this understanding of death is an Elvish myth, told from their perspective, and perhaps neither here nor there as regards the Christian myth. But he goes on to say:
I suppose a difference between this Myth and what may be perhaps called Christian mythology is this. In the latter the Fall of Man is subsequent to and a consequence (though not a necessary consequence) of the "Fall of the Angels": a rebellion of created free-will at a higher level than man; but it is not clearly held (and in many versions is not held at all) that this affected the "World" in its nature: evil was brought in from outside, by Satan. In this Myth the rebellion of created free-will precedes creation of the World (Eä); and Eä has in it, subcreatively introduced, evil, rebellions, discordant elements of its own nature already when the Let it Be was spoken. The Fall or corruption, therefore, of all things in it and all inhabitants of it, was a possibility if not inevitable.
Despite what he says regarding the divergence from Christian myth, this reminds me of the Catholic understanding of "physical evil":
[...] God freely willed to create a world "in a state of journeying" toward its ultimate perfection. In God's plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection. [CCC 310]***
For my argument, though, that's immaterial. What seems clear to me, based on Tolkien's manner, is that he was not at pains to align his secondary world with his beliefs regarding the primary world, though he plainly regarded Middle-Earth as a mythical prehistoric precursor to Europe. In fact, the various parts of The Silmarillion contain a good amount of theological speculation.

My own opinion is that a story is a literary artifact, not a profession of faith, and that an authentic religious impulse in an artist will move him to make the best work he can make, regarded as a work of art and nothing more. Of course his faith will inform it, as it must all he does, but this is not a matter of particular concern to him, and may be quite hidden to casual observers.

Consider the bee. The bee spends her days gathering nectar and making honey. It is not her concern to deliver a message, to illustrate a virtue, etc. Her task is simply to make honey, and she goes about it assiduously until she dies. In this she glorifies God, for such a honey-maker God has made her to be. Be what you are, Catherine of Siena said, and you will set the world on fire.

Further, fantasy is a kind of play. We are regular mass-goers here at Casa O., and my children have played mass since a very young age, using makeshift surplices, thuribles, candles, and the rest. Well, because they're children, they sometimes don't get it exactly right. They even introduce terms and ideas that might raise the eyebrows of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Do I correct them? Of course not. Why? Because I'm not a narrow-minded wet blanket, and I recognize that playing is a way for children to process their experiences and grow into adults. Well, we are all children in the eyes of Eru Ilúvatar.

As regards Tolkien's popularity among my co-religionists, and my own seeming propensity to be put on the Index, well, there was a time when Tolkien's works were more beloved by heavy metal bands (and by Leonard Nimoy – watch only if you hold sanity cheap!) than the would-be architects of Catholic culture. But now he stands canonized. In religious circles one hears unceasing praises of him and Dante and Flannery O'Connor and Evelyn Waugh, but what really strikes me about these authors is that they established themselves on their own merits, in the world at large, and not in a religious literary ghetto. And if they didn't now have a kind of communal Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur one suspects they'd be rejected out of hand. As Solon said to Croesus, no man can be called happy until he's dead.

It's this perceived adherence to the faith, and not literary merit, that a certain religious critic looks for. They stand diffident, reserved, careful to neither praise nor censure, until they have some kind of idea about where the author stands. They want to be certain whether the author is on their team or the other team before they commit.

Take Anne Rice. Not many years ago she returned to the Catholic Church and proceeded to write a multi-volume fictionalized life of Christ. (I don't think vampires were involved.) She actually took out ads in First Things and sent a review copy to Richard John Neuhaus, who responded with a backhanded compliment, something about how it wasn't exactly Dostoevsky but maybe people would benefit from it. Anyway, everyone lauded her. Catholic-types talked about how they'd always felt there was something special about her vampire books. I actually heard a nun speak about it in front of a group of catechumens. Then, not long after, she left the Church again, in something of a huff, and Catholic-types talked about how they'd always felt there was something not quite right about her Christ novels, something not altogether real about her conversion.

Then there's Oscar Wilde, an author I happen to admire. He experienced a deathbed conversion, so he's canonized. But if that conversion had remained unknown, or if he had lived to repudiate it, then (one suspects) certain critics wouldn't care about him except to make snarky triumphalist comments about his lifestyle.

In the end, then, the attitudes here are not far from those of the diversity-obsessed. They're primarily concerned with secondary elements, and not altogether honest in their criticism. If you're religious and just want to write then it seems you must steer your way between this Scylla and Charybdis. Or, to continue the analogy, maybe just ignore all voices as you would the Sirens.

* As a matter of fact, Newman wrote a speculative historical novel about the early Church (Callista), which I read in grad school – read it aloud to my wife, in fact, if I recall correctly – but didn't much care for. It's richly detailed, but rather too minute in its descriptions, and the characters are wooden, which isn't surprising, seeing as Newman was a great admirer of Ivanhoe. My wife adores Ivanhoe, but me, not so much. I read it in the cab of my pickup truck during lunch breaks at a warehouse job across from a brewery when I was sixteen. I enjoyed it then, but have never been able to stomach it since: it reminds me of the overpowering smell of cooking barley.

** This would seem to be tied to the idea that the men of Númenor lay down their lives voluntarily, in full possession of their faculties, rather than seek to prolong their years through dotage, and are praised for it, another idea that is problematic from a Catholic point of view.

*** It seems to me that the ideas expressed in this part of the Catechism, about physical evil, the angels and the visible world, the intrinsic goodness of each created thing, the interdependence of creatures, the beauty of creation, the hierarchy of creatures, and the cosmic sabbath-rest, form the central theme of The Book of the New Sun, another monumental Catholic work.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Night Thoughts

A few random updates.

I've written a longish short story, an homage to some of my favorite pieces from the wild and free pre-Tolkien epoch, with flavors of H. Rider Haggard, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Mervyn Peake, and others. Right now it's simmering on the back burner. Maybe I'll submit it, maybe not. I hold half my stuff back. They say you're not supposed to do this, but all the stuff I've actually published contains material incorporated from stories I've deemed unsuccessful for one reason or another, so I don't feel that I'm wasting my time.

My evenings have been taken up with painting. I'm still working on my groovy Ballantine-style mass-market fantasy book cover. I've gotten into the painting stage at last. I think it's going pretty well so far, but I never can tell if the parts will coalesce in the end. As I paint, I'm listening to the audiobook of The Door to Saturn, Book 2 of a Clark Ashton Smith collection put out by Night Shade Books. The stories vary from middling to excellent, but the readings are all quite good. Smith's stories are often mordantly humorous, and the best way to achieve the proper effect when reading aloud is to adopt a rather dry, reserved manner, as most of the readers, happily, have done.

Next I'd like to do a couple of maps. I'll need one large-scale "overworld" map and one local city map, perhaps with a cut-away view to show the layered structure. Seems to me there are two kinds of maps in fantasy: those that are shaped by the story (and therefore subservient to it), and those that shape the story. The latter tend to generate bad coupon-quest stories, but not always: Orson Scott Card's Hart's Hope, which I'm fond of, apparently began as a city map.

Me, I've been drawing fantasy maps since before I started reading fantasy. My third grade teacher was into various New Age ideas. She told us stories about having personally seen flying saucers and communicated with them with her mind; she made us talk to the plants when we were on watering duty, to encourage them to grow; and, most significantly, she conducted meditation sessions in which she would sit cross-legged on her desk, rub a crystal bowl with a crystal rod, and narrate a sequence of events beginning with a giant egg that was also a house and had our name on it. The egg-country took on a life of its own in my mind, and it wasn't long before I was peopling the land and drawing maps of it. These were always contour maps, and used standard map symbols, with a legend and a compass rose, as my dad had recently taught me map-reading and orientation.

So it should go without saying that the maps in Tolkien's books were a big draw when I encountered them in high school. The map in The Lord of the Rings is definitely the first kind of map, the kind shaped by the story, a literary artifact, as is apparent from his correspondence. What gets you when you read LOTR is all the walking. The story takes place in plains, mountains, forests, deserts, swamps; there is only one city to speak of, and it's a compact walled fortress. The sense of space is what really made the book appeal to me. My own fantasy is rather more urban, though it certainly isn't "urban fantasy." Most of it takes place along the weedy margins of a great city. Actually, my city is little more than margin, being long and thin and all-encompassing, like Dido's stretched hide.

Much of it is inspired by my own experiences in San Antonio, where I grew up. In its slow growth, the city has reached arms around tracts of countryside and then enclosed them on the far side, so that now you have these hidden pockets of farmland or brush country surrounded on all sides by urban development. Some of these pockets are quite old. On the South Side there's an old Spanish acequia and aqueduct that still function to irrigate crops. The inner city is a strange otherworld, larger on the inside than its perimeter would seem to allow, with very old things here and there, like fossils in a prehistoric fluvial deposit. My most recent story, "Day of the Dragonfly," was prompted by a quest into its depths to find an actual fossil, an ammonite, for my little boy, who requested one for his birthday.

I worked on a land surveying crew in high school. We had to crawl or hack our way through all the forgotten nooks and crannies of the city, through the back rooms of warehouses that stank of urine, under bridges and around stagnant pools lined with rank weeds, across back lots overgrown with mesquite where people had left old cars to rust decades ago, into the foyer of Planet Hollywood on the Riverwalk. Sometimes we saw beautiful things, like a family of roosting barn owls in a short brick structure with a twisted metal roof. At other times we saw ugly things, which I'll not describe here. Once I was bitten by a dog as we crossed a series of unfenced lots, and had to be taken to a hospital, where I shared a room with a young man who'd just been savagely beaten with a baseball bat because of road rage. It was summer, with temperatures in the triple digits, and clouds of mosquitoes in the heavy humid air.

The men I worked with had a certain Dickensian eccentricity. There was one guy who would sidle up to the rear-view mirror to pop his pimples, who liked to take us to the Taco Bell where his wife's former lover worked, to gloat. There was another guy so skinny and stringy he looked like he'd been microwaved too long; he lived on peanuts and coffee, until one day he turned purple and fell over in a juniper thicket, the victim of heat stroke and exhaustion. Then there was the guy with the braid, biker mustache, and bandana, who lived with his mother, and liked to get me alone to tell me cautionary tales about his former crack habit. Another guy, a Louisiana Cajun, had a vendetta against prickly pear, which he believed sucked the moisture from the land, killing the "good" plants; every time he saw one (which was quite often) he hacked it to pieces with his machete, not reflecting, I suppose, that this is one of the ways such cacti propagate.

None of them wore seatbelts, but they would loop the belts over their shoulders so as not to get pulled over. They honked the horn and shouted lewd things at every pretty woman they saw. They lied to their superiors daily, about the pettiest of things. Once they chewed me out for emptying the trash bucket in the company dumpster, because they knew the foil wrappers would give them away – they'd been getting breakfast tacos while on the clock, which wasn't allowed.

All in all, it was dirty, oppressive work. I lived from one little touch of beauty to the next. One morning as I left the house for work I looked up in the eastern sky and saw Venus centered just above the upturned horns of a thin crescent moon. That one vision bore me through weeks of work.

Like Tolkien, I find myself deeply troubled by modern urbanization and the general speeding-up of life. But unlike him I feel that I've had to make my peace with it. I'm not an Oxford don, but an anonymous guy of very mixed ancestry stuck – permanently, it seems – in the South Texas brush country. I write to cope with it.

On a related note, one reason for my low output on this blog lately has been a serious mental disturbance. It may seem ridiculous, but this stemmed from the renovation of the house next door. You see, I live next to this big, fine house built by a great public figure of yore for his mother. Harry S Truman actually spent the night there once, supposedly. I've seen the room he stayed in. Also, as everyone within a thirty-mile radius knows, the bathroom is marble and has gold faucets, and the master bedroom is big enough to play arena football in. Our own humble domicile used to belong to the family as well, and once housed the foreman of their massive ranch.

Anyway, the house is kind of a status item, and was recently bought up by an old branch of the local gentry. (We have gentry here.) They proceeded to cut down every one of their pecan trees, trees that provided my property with as much shade as theirs. The yard is a now a gravel pit surrounded by a temporary chain-link fence. Half the bricks and siding have been cut off the building. A sheet-metal portable lies alongside my driveway. There's a constant sawing and dumping and shouting and jackhammering. It's been going on for over a month. And I haven't even ever seen the owners! They've never deigned to stop by to say, hey, we're super-rich and are going to be causing some serious disturbance in your lives for the next half-year or so. This is Texas, the Friendship State, and we just don't do things like that here. But as I said, this is the local gentry, and around here I'm regarded as singled out for a special blessing on account of my new neighbors' mere presence.

It's the trees that really get me, though. They were big, old trees, and they just hacked 'em down. Some were kind of in bad shape from the drought, granted, but certainly not all. The tree trimmer himself felt so bad for us he brought us a pizza one day (hey, we take what we can get), and, on his own time and without my asking him, took up a big brush pile I'd had in the backyard, which would have taken me days to break up and haul on my own. Now that's Texas decency. Anyway, without the trees I feel like Sam in the scouring of the Shire, but I have no mallorns to plant. I've gotten more used to it now, but for a while I felt like I was just drifting through space.

Now I'm tempted to plant a line of hackberries down the property line, and maybe build a big ugly chicken coop for my chickens up against the fence.