All posts by Mike

Adventures and mishaps in science fiction, fantasy, and mystery

Eyes of Tammy Faye

My wife Julie had a speaking role in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a new movie based on the story of Jim and Tammy Bakker. We caught the premiere last night in Charlotte. Here, Julie is posing outside the theater. (The picture above, by the way, was made by Ken Garfield, the former religion editor of the Charlotte Observer.)

I thoroughly enjoyed it — and not just because my wife had a scene with Jessica Chastain, who delivered an honest portrayal of the one-of-a-kind Tammy Bakker. The movie is not a parody, but a tribute to a flawed optimist who somehow survived scandal, Jim Bakker, and copious amounts of diet Coke and Ativan.

It’s touching, funny, and dazzling — as this review in USA Today notes:

One of the Ten Commandments states, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Considering her knockout, praise-all-her-glory performance in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” however, it’s going to be tough not to worship at the altar of Jessica Chastain throughout this Oscar season.

The movie was selected for special presentation by the Toronto Film Festival, and Jessica Chastain received the Festival’s Tribute Actor Award for her performance. And no wonder — Chastain is powerful and believable in this role. Check it out.

The Ancient One

The Ancient One mask

Lovecraft aficionados will appreciate this mask and its backstory. I snapped the image this weekend at the Seattle Art Museum. It was so delightfully gruesome that I couldn’t pass it by, and when I saw its name — “The Ancient One” — I knew I had to sneak a picture.

The mask is an artifact of the Ivory Coast. It’s a striking example of a “gela” mask, a disguise that supposedly transforms its wearer. The peoples of the Ivory Coast and Liberia believe a gela mask has the power to create a new being composed of the mask, the person wearing the mask, and the costume. The name of the mask, “The Ancient One,” suggests it’s a traditional design dating back many centuries. And no wonder — almost every culture recognizes a shadowy, shifting realm linking the human and animal worlds. This mask is a vivid and imaginative variant of that tradition.

The mask, made of wood, cloth, teeth, horn, feathers, hair, shells, mud, and natural pigments, deliberately combines human and animal features. It’s believed to have the power to absorb the feral passions in a community and redirect them back into the wild — where they belong.

Or so they say.

Quote of the day

Image by Andrew Lih

“Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things—childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves—that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.”

Salman Rushdie

The Magic of Indian Artifacts

Grooved ax
Grooved stone ax

It’s a steamy July in the summer I turn eleven. The hot sun is beating down on a broad field of sandy soil, where I tramp down a quarter-mile-long row of green tobacco plants, cutting off the secondary stems from each plant so the main leaves can grow.

There’s a cold watermelon waiting for the field workers at the end of the row. I plod toward it and continue to lop off the suckers, as we call the unwanted stems.

Then I see it, a thin, wedge-shaped piece of blue flint. An arrowhead. When I pick it up and wipe away the dried dirt, I can’t help but gaze in wonder at the craftsmanship, or to imagine its story. Who made it? Who used it?

Being the bookish sort, the relic means much more to me than just a neat-looking curiosity. At the first opportunity, I locate books on Indian artifacts at the High Point Public Library.

Many people think the Indian artifacts they stumble upon in farms, gardens, and construction sites are a few hundred years old. In fact, the Palmer point I found was over 8,000 years old, a testament to the enduring legacy of the first North American inhabitants.

Over the years, I continued to search for relics and accumulated a sizable collection. What began as an escape from drudgery turned into a lifetime hobby that not only taught me a lot of history, but also introduced me to primitive weapons. More important, it gave me an appreciation for both Native American culture and fine craftsmanship.

Disc scraper and Kirk Serrated point

For example, the grooved ax in the first image was a formidable weapon and vital tool. The disc scraper shown immediately above required a great deal of pressure flaking from a skilled hand. The Kirk Serrated point beside it may have functioned as a saw. Running my finger over its barbs, I can’t help but appreciate its usefulness and beauty. It reveals the patient work of an experienced artisan, a product of a long tradition of craftsmanship.

Lesson learned: Every landscape conceals hidden wonders, not to mention forgotten stories waiting to be discovered.

My Favorite Golem

(c) Marvel Entertainment – Fair Use

Over at The Philosophical Fighter, Joshua Clements has posted a thought-provoking piece on teaching martial arts. However, his observations also apply to coaching and even classroom teaching.

Clements uses the metaphor of the golem to make his argument that teachers play a vital role in shaping students. In Hebrew folklore, the golem was a creature formed from clay, given life and purpose by its creator, normally a rabbi. Like a rabbi, a teacher imparts much more than rote knowledge to his students. As Clements puts it:

“As teachers and coaches, we also have the opportunity to sow truth and life into our students. We help inscribe emet [Truth] on their minds while simultaneously breathing life into their dreams, their passions, and their growth.”

The golem myth reflects the Genesis account of the creation of Adam, who was also formed from clay. That same myth inspired one of the most complex and beloved Marvel Comics characters, Benjamin J. Grimm, aka, The Thing, whose powerful body appeared to be made of rocks.

As Thing, Benjamin J. Grimm often clashed with the serious, logical Reed Richards (aka, Mr. Fantastic). In contrast to Richards, Thing was emotional, a little crude at times, and haunted by guilt and self-loathing. While Richards the scientist approached problems objectively and dispassionately, Thing was ready to clobber them. Fans often sided with Thing, the down-to-earth (!) everyman, against Richards, the highbrow academic.

The inevitable conflicts among the team sparked some memorable stories. Their personalities reflected one of the four classical elements they represented: Air (Invisible Girl), Fire (Human Torch), Water (Mr. Fantastic), and Earth (Thing). Despite their dissimilar temperaments, they managed to unite and overcome their challenges.

Yet another lesson we can learn from the golem.

Better than Spock

“I feel that if we were a Spock-like species — you know, if we came from the planet of Vulcan and we only did those things that made logical sense, I feel that we would not have prevailed. It is only by virtue of our capacity to allow our minds to freely roam the landscape of imaginative possibility that we are able to innovate in the ways that we have.”

Brian Greene,  professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University

Hexagon Year One Anthology

Hexagon Anthology

Now this is an unexpected surprise. The Year One Anthology for Hexagon Speculative Fiction Magazine features all 20 pieces from Hexagon’s successful and groundbreaking first year. There are bonus pieces as well, such as author interviews and new cover concept art.

The anthology includes my flash fiction story Mirrors, which was published in the magazine’s premiere issue. I wrote it after re-reading Dr. Lewis Thomas’ book, The Lives of a Cell, which made me realize how an alien species would marvel at how cooperative humans are despite our aggressive tendencies. I was pleased at Didi Oviatt’s review: “Tuggle’s story of an insight about predatory creatures is a thought-provoking read.”

You’ll find the thought-provoking, the beautiful, and the sublime in the Hexagon Year One Anthology.

Writers On Good Manners

Robert Heinlein
Robert Heinlein

I’ve been pondering the deterioration of public discourse. The occasion of Robert Heinlein’s birthday brings to mind this quote:

“An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.”

― Robert A. Heinlein

Which reminds me of this:

“Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”

― Robert E. Howard

Making your vision apparent

Promotional still of Mia Farrow

Last week’s post featuring Lin Carter‘s observation about H.P. Lovecraft got me to thinking about Rosemary’s Baby.

Carter found it fascinating that Lovecraft, a thorough materialist, could enthrall the world with his terrifying tales of “evil and fallen gods.” Carter’s take was that Lovecraft utilized his firm grasp of science and materialist outlook to craft stories made believable with concrete details and methodical precision.

Ira Levin, the author of Rosemary’s Baby and Veronica’s Room, used an approach similar to Lovecraft’s. Like HPL, Levin was an atheist, yet his horror tales make supernatural evil seem frighteningly real, even palpable. In both the novel and Roman Polanski’s excellent screen adaptation, Rosemary’s Baby draws you in with odd but apparently mundane details. The realtor who helps Rosemary and her husband Guy find an apartment is missing fingers. When Rosemary and Guy move a dresser from the wall, they realize it hides a secret room — but it’s only an empty closet.

Nothing to see there, right?

As the truth about these seemingly innocent details slowly comes out, you’re fascinated by the inescapable conclusion that there’s something sinister going on, and it’s impossible to turn away. Like Rosemary, you’re in this thing now and there’s no turning back.

So why are confirmed materialists such as Lovecraft and Levin drawn to supernatural subjects? And what enables them to be so convincing?

Both men knew that writing depends on exaggeration and metaphor. I like the way Flannery O’Connor put it: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Of course, O’Connor was a traditional Catholic who aimed to make readers perceive supernatural evil by vividly presenting earthly evil.