All posts by Mike

Genre-bending writer.

Make it new


“That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes

We’ve all been there. We want to create something groundbreaking, something new and fresh. And we imagine that to do so we must start from scratch and create something never seen before. Forget genre! Forget tropes! Let’s make something truly original.

Problem is, it’s impossible to create something no one has ever seen before. Everyone gets their ideas from someone else. Stephen King learned from H.P. Lovecraft, who imitated Edgar Alan Poe, who got one of his best ideas (“The Raven”) from Charles Dickens. And so on. The work of every writer has a lineage, born out of a tradition. Step one in mastering the craft of writing, then, is to learn that tradition and make it your own.

What we call tradition is a set of conventions handed down — and embraced — because they work. As evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller put it, “A ‘tradition’ is just an innovation that’s been peer-reviewed. One that replicates, generation after generation.”

The reason these conventions work for us is because they are based on who we are. Carl Jung observed recurring personality types that he referred to as archetypal figures, which include: mother, father, child, devil, god, wise old man, wise old woman, the trickster, and the hero. Jung rejected the blank slate theory of human psychological development, knowing that evolutionary pressures formed our bodies and personalities.

As beings with a long-established nature, we find ourselves confronting situations that are also long-established and recurring. Jung described these archetypal events as birth, death, separation from parents, initiation, marriage, and the union of opposites.

Underlying the superficial changes we experience is a timeless reality that repeatedly manifests itself in a set number of ways. That’s why there are only so many possible plots.

Joseph Campbell, who wrote “The Hero With A Thousand Faces,” used the term “monomyth” to describe the hero’s journey, a plot that appears all over the world. All cultures, he wrote, create their own traditions, including their own stories to express their experience with the unchanging reality behind human existence.

And that’s what we want to do. Tradition is not an obstacle to creativity, but a springboard. When we interpret our experience in the light of tradition, we reveal to our readers, and ourselves, the mystic union of the past and present. In the words of T. S. Eliot, we must uncover the “point of intersection of the timeless with time.” That endeavor, says Eliot, is “the occupation of the saint.”

The challenge, as Ezra Pound put it, is to “Make it new.” Somehow, we must honestly recognize, and then relate, our insights, our pain, our love, our hate, to the timeless truth of the human condition. That’s the vital component that keeps the tradition alive — us.

Blood & Thunder: A Review

I’ve just finished Blood and Thunder, Mark Finn’s literary biography of Robert E. Howard. It’s one of those books I hated to see end. Blood & Thunder is an entertaining and inspired introduction to one of the greatest fantasy writers who ever lived.

Finn stresses throughout this biography that Texas was a life-long influence on Howard. Finn, also a native Texan, knows what he’s talking about.

Howard’s unique voice has been described as robust, vivid, and dark. The sizable Anglo-Celtic population throughout the South, including Texas, accounts for much of this. As Howard wrote in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft:

“But no Negro ghost-story ever gave me the horror as did the tales told by my grandmother. All the gloominess and dark mysticism of the Gaelic nature was hers, and there was no light and mirth in her. Her tales showed what a strange legion of folk-lore grew up in the Scotch-Irish settlements of the Southwest, where transplanted Celtic myths and fairy-tales met and mingled with a substratum of slave legends.”

Another major but often overlooked influence on the future writer was the Western tall tale. The young man listened intently to his father, a small town doctor, who spun entertaining yarns for patients, family members, and friends. The chapter dedicated to the fine Texan tradition of the tall tale is titled “Authentic Liars,” a perceptive acknowledgement of the writer’s most crucial talent, the ability to tell a believable lie the audience will happily swallow.

The Texas young Robert E. Howard grew up in was barely a generation removed from the Wild West, and the boy was spellbound by first-hand accounts of Comanche raids and attacks by the Mexican rebel Pancho Villa, undoubtedly the inspiration for the bandits, kozaki, and Picts who brawled and stormed throughout the Hyborian kingdoms. Even Texas-sized rattlesnakes found their way into Howard’s stories (“The Scarlet Citadel,” for example.) As Finn puts it, “Conan, then, is much closer to the American frontier tradition than epic fantasy.”

The Texas oil boom not only overturned the state’s once-agrarian economy, but jolted the culture, and not in a good way. In a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Howard wrote:

“I’ve seen old farmers, bent with toil, and ignorant of the feel of ten dollars at a time, become millionaires in a week, by the way of oil gushers. And I’ve seen them blow in every cent of it and die paupers. I’ve seen whole towns debauched by an oil boom and boys and girls go to the devil whole-sale. I’ve seen promising youths turn from respectable citizens to dope-fiends, drunkards, gamblers, and gangsters in a matter of months.”

Howard’s recurring theme of civilizational rot and downfall were not abstract notions; he experienced these things first hand. Like his friend and fellow writer H. P. Lovecraft, Howard viewed industrialization as a destructive, de-humanizing force.

It’s impossible to discuss Robert E. Howard without considering H. P. Lovecraft. The two masters corresponded extensively, and clearly influenced each other’s work. Howard set Conan in a Lovecraftian universe, complete with a number of Cthulhu mythos deities. But it was a reciprocal – and beneficial – relationship. Finn points out how Howard’s action-oriented style inspired Lovecraft, whose fiction tended toward the psychological, to include the well-done nighttime chase scene in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” one of Lovecraft’s greatest tales.

I cannot agree with all of Finn’s conclusions. For example, I winced at his assertion that Yasmina from Howard’s novella “The People of the Black Circle” is a “more fully realized” character than Belit from “Queen of the Black Coast.” C’mon! I applaud Finn’s rejection of L. Sprague de Camp’s unfair and uninformed opinion that Howard was a suicidal paranoid with Oedipal tendencies. However, to rebut de Camp by asserting Howard had no choice but to commit suicide is simply ridiculous.

All in all, though, this is a well-researched, intelligent, and sympathetic evaluation of Robert E. Howard’s life and legacy, one I highly recommend for both newcomers and seasoned fans.

Bury my heart at Radio Shack

photo by Windell Oskay

Once widely available, electronic kits and chemistry sets made science fun and approachable

It happens every time.

On our way to the beach, my wife and I pass through Marshville, thirty-five miles outside Charlotte on Highway 74. Not long after I see the sign proclaiming we’re speeding past the birthplace of its most famous son, Randy Travis, we pass a rusted Radio Shack sign.

I can’t help but gaze at it. Like Mr. Bojangles, I still grieve after all these years.

When I was in high school in the early 70s, nothing compared with a trip to Radio Shack. It was a science nerd’s dream. The kits they sold promised high-tech adventure, and making them gave a sense of accomplishment. Build your own AM radio transmitter! How about a treasure finder? Make your own shortwave receiver and listen to the US armed forces, or NASA, or ships at sea. There was nothing quite like soldering that last connection, powering up your project, and hearing it work.

And it wasn’t just Radio Shack. Kits for any skill level, as well as more serious electronic gear, could be found at Heathkit and Lafayette stores. Retail and drug stores offered chemistry sets, lab gear, and a dazzling (and potentially dangerous) variety of chemicals.

From the 1950s up to the early 90s, kids were encouraged to explore the sciences, and not just for entertainment value. After all, we had to compete with the Soviets. It was the age of Sputnik, of Lyndon Johnson growling that he did not want to look up at the moon and see a damn Russian flag. Mastering science and technology wasn’t just for the sheer fun of it; it was a patriotic duty.

My parents did their part. I had a microscope in the third grade, and received chemistry and electronic learning labs as presents for many birthdays and Christmases. One set included a formula for what the manual called “Dehydrated Fire,” a harmless-looking powder that would burst into flames when you sprinkled water on it. Who says science is boring?

In the eighth grade, my parents bought me a reflecting telescope from Sears. The night sky in the backyard of our rural home was unpolluted with city lights, ideal for squinting at distant craters, ice rings, and glowing stellar nurseries.

In the late 70s, the personal computer put even more technology into the hands of ordinary people. Hard-core hobbyists made their own computers from kits, but even off-the-shelf computers gave owners the ability to create and store their own programs. Learning to program no longer required access to a big-ticket, room-sized mainframe. I learned BASIC on the Commodore 64, and thought I was Mr. Spock himself.

From the end of WWII to the early 90s, science and technology were domesticated and made understandable. Little wonder that this period saw such a creative outpouring of intelligent and optimistic science fiction, with visionaries such as Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Card, and Le Guin dazzling and enchanting us with tales of wonder, exploration, and adventure.

And then something happened.

Today’s computers do not come with built-in programming capabilities. You can buy an interpreter or compiler, but why bother? Whatever you want to do, there’s an app for that already. Yes, computers can be customized, but they only allow you to choose features designed by others. The mini-computers in our cell phones are not springboards for creativity, but instruments that transfix and numb their owners.

Technology today is designed for consumers, not collaborators.

I believe the age of hands-on, empowering technology started dying the same year Radio Shack peaked, 1999. The number of stores dwindled until the parent corporation declared bankruptcy in 2015. Since then, electronics morphed from interactive to anesthetizing. With the Cold War won, and no real challenges before us, we lost that sense of purpose that pushed us to learn and explore and dare.

And yes, a few stores do offer science kits today, but these kits are feeble substitutes for the magnificent and daring science adventures we enjoyed. Have you seen the “fossil dig kit” available in craft stores? For $19.99, a kid can brush away dirt from a fake rock and “discover” real shark’s teeth and bones. Yes, it’s boring, but it’s safe. It’s what kids are allowed to do in a timid, complacent, and aimless age.

Quote of the day

“I find the short story much more intriguing because it encompasses, in a moment, everything that went before and supposes everything that will follow. It gives the reader the opportunity to exercise his or her chops in solving the mystery. It freezes up a moment in time, it freezes your imagination of a concept in a moment in time, and the short story has always seemed to be to me far more difficult and adroit and flexible than the novel. There are many great novels, and yet I see people writing trilogies and quatrologies and even five and six and eight volumes in a series, and I think, ‘Are they not re-chewing their cud?’ So I try to hit the gong the first time.” Harlan Ellison

Quote of the day

Jack London

“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame.” Jack London