All posts by Mike

Adventures and mishaps in science fiction, fantasy, and mystery

Can Science Fiction Fill the Religious Void?

The latest Rebel Wisdom features a thought-provoking interview with writer Damien Walter. Science fiction, says Walter, can replace “society’s central source of meaning,” which has traditionally been religion. As Walter puts it: “Science fiction is essentially the attempt of science… to create a mythos for itself. Because science damaged the previous mythos, the Christian mythos, for most of Western society.”

It’s a fascinating idea, one that every writer can relate to. I believe literature is inherently spiritual, exploring and ruminating on our connections to others and the universe. Anyone who wrestles their thoughts onto paper has a view of the world they yearn to share. Science alone, I realized long ago, is no substitute for a well-rounded world view. However, it can not only inspire great stories, but also deepen and broaden our perspective.

After all, ideas have consequences. A valid philosophy of life must begin with an accurate understanding of human nature. Look at the horrors spawned by the ideologies of the last century, all based on noble-sounding assumptions which turned out in practice to be false. Writers, I think, have a duty to diagnose, advise, and heal while we entertain.

The unspoken component of that duty is to constantly revise and strengthen our world view. As E. O. Wilson tells us, science can give the humanities “more solidly grounded answers” to life’s mysteries. And boy, does this society need grounding. That’s why I’ve long been fascinated by science fiction.

Quote of the day

Library
My den.

“When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.”

Niccolò Machiavelli

Review: The Recognition of H.P. Lovecraft

Hippocampus Press sent me a copy of S. T. Joshi’s The Recognition of H. P. Lovecraft in return for an honest review. The pristine, shiny book with the magnificent cover they sent is now dog-eared with numerous underlined passages.

Which is my way of saying it is a book I will reread and refer to often.

The Lovecraft Riddle

When Howard Phillips Lovecraft died in March 1937, he was known to only a handful of readers, writers, and editors. He had published during his all-too-brief lifetime, but only in small-circulation magazines, notably, Weird Tales. Not one collection of his stories had been published in book form.

Today, Lovecraft’s tales are available world-wide in multiple languages. Famous writers and film makers acknowledge his profound influence. He even has an HBO series named after him.

What accounts for Lovecraft’s world-wide popularity? How did an author of fringe stories not only continue to be read, but win over new readers over the years and become a figure of pop culture? Only an ardent admirer and scholar of Lovecraft’s work such as S. T. Joshi could pull together an account of this unparalleled posthumous ascent to fame.

Lovecraft’s Long March

Lovecraft’s readers and fellow writers mourned and celebrated him after his death, including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, and Kenneth Sterling. It fell to August Derleth to keep Lovecraft’s work in front of the reading public by printing or reprinting the late author’s greatest works in Weird Tales, some of which had been previously rejected. Later, Derleth founded Arkham House to put those stories and others into book form.

Derleth also had a hand in Lovecraft being featured in the 1945 Armed Forces Edition of paperback books. (It was his father’s copy of one of these books that introduced young Stephen King to Lovecraft.) Here’s a picture I took of some of those books, which includes The Dunwich Horror and a letter requesting more of Lovecraft’s works:

Other paperback editions including Lovecraft trickled out in the 1950s. By the 1960s, his stories made their way into attractive and beautifully illustrated volumes, such as 3 Tales of Horror in 1967. Lovecraft’s reputation was boosted by the roaring success of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. By this time, the obscure scribbler from Providence was regarded on many campuses as “a sort of counter-cultural figure, along the lines of Nietzsche, Camus, [and] Dalton Trumbo,” no doubt partly due to his appearance in textbooks.

Lovecraft-inspired films, including “Die, Monster, Die!” and “The Shuttered Room,” while not true to the original, nor of sterling quality, did keep the author’s legacy alive.

The Scholars Weigh In

The engine that slowly but inexorably propelled Lovecraft to global recognition was his artistry. Long denigrated as an interesting but flawed scribbler of scary stories, Lovecraft is now appreciated as a gifted craftsman. Shortly after his death, fan publications discussing his work popped up and flourished. As early as 1949, Lovecraft was getting serious scholarly treatment as a literary talent. Graduate-level theses emerged from Ivy League colleges and universities, and by the late 1990s were almost routine. In 2012, Graham Harman, a professor of philosophy at American University in Cairo, could proclaim that Lovecraft’s work “brushes against several of the most crucial philosophical themes of our time.”

His writing style, once considered turgid, even shrill (an opinion I will admit to having once believed) gradually won over critics. In Joshi’s view, Lovecraft’s work inspired other authors, filmmakers, and graphic artists because “there is such an abundance of striking visual effects and compelling dramatic action in some of Lovecraft’s scenarios that they can be manipulated into a wide array of media.”

The Final Word

Joshi’s passion for Lovecraft shines through on every page. That enthusiasm complements vast research to produce an enjoyable voyage of discovery for either the HPL fan or any lover of good writing. Unpretentious and straightforward, this overview of the world’s gradual recognition of an underappreciated talent is entertaining and enlightening.  (Don’t miss chapter 9, “Dissemination and Controversy,” which includes Joshi’s thoughts on why a materialist like Lovecraft wrote about ghosts and demons.) That recognition will continue to grow, because, as Joshi concludes, “H. P. Lovecraft has proven himself a man and writer of the ages. His fame has expanded so far beyond what he could have imagined as itself to constitute a ‘weird tale’ of the most spectacularly bizarre sort.”

Just one more thing …

Publicity photo for Columbo

My mother, an enthusiastic reader of crime and mystery stories, got me hooked on the original Columbo series back in the 70s. During our latest family get-together for New Year’s, my wife and I spent the night with her. The Sundance channel ran a Columbo marathon over the weekend, and of course, we watched several classic episodes together. It was great to spend time with my mom and revisit old memories.

Much of the series’ appeal was its implied critique of fashionable debauchery. Detective Columbo was solidly middle class, as was his code of ethics. Though he often assured suspects he was “only doing his job,” he was actually defending blue-collar values. His suspects were affluent and rootless jet-setters. Besides being murderers, they casually resorted to blackmail, adultery, and theft to get what they wanted. Columbo never lectured or grandstanded about his morality, but championed it through the way he lived his life.

For example, in “Sex and the Married Detective,” a world-famous sex therapist suggests Columbo should attend one of her workshops to loosen him up. He turns her down with his usual politeness and propriety: “Oh, but I’m a married man.” To Columbo, that meant something. It also meant something to his fans.

The show was funny, too. Here’s an exchange that could’ve fit into a scene from “Naked Gun”:

Columbo: So far, sir, we don’t have a thing.
Nelson Hayward: Well, that’s heartening.
Columbo: Officially, that is.
Nelson Hayward: And unofficially?
Columbo: Unofficially, we don’t have anything either.

And then there were the running gags, which were highlighted for me by seeing them in back-to-back episodes. Columbo was always borrowing things and forgetting to return them. I don’t know how many times I saw him borrow a pen or a lighter and absent-mindedly walk off with them. The owner always had to remind him to return their property, to his red-faced embarrassment.

The Columbo marathon was great entertainment and heady inspiration for anyone who writes mysteries. My mother, still going strong at 91, thoroughly enjoyed it. After a traditional Southern New Year’s feast of pork, cabbage, black-eyed peas and pecan pie, it was a much-appreciated trip down memory lane.

E. O. Wilson, RIP

E. O. Wilson
E. O. Wilson

Edward O. Wilson, whose research into ant behavior unlocked insights into human society, has left us.

This is one of my favorite quotes from Wilson’s groundbreaking work:

I have a special regard for altruism and devotion to duty, believing them virtues that exist independent of approval and validation. I am stirred by accounts of soldiers, policemen, and firemen who have died in the line of duty. I can be brought to tears with embarrassing quickness by the solemn ceremonies honoring those heroes. The sight of Iwo Jima and Vietnam Memorials pierces me for the witness they bear of men who gave so much, and who expected so little in life, and the strength ordinary people possess that held civilization together in dangerous times. (p. 25, Naturalist)

Changes in latitudes …

That unshaven bum is me on my back deck at Carolina Beach, armed with notebook, binoculars, and strong coffee. We’re SLOWLY transitioning to the beach, and on our last trip earlier this month, we really lucked up on the weather.

While my wife worked her real estate magic on the phone, I worked on a sword and sorcery story. Though I’ve long relished the works of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Fritz Leiber, I’ve never before tried my hand at this genre. Of course, this calls for guerrilla-style research, from the history of the locale I’ve picked, to the tropes and traditions of sword and sorcery adventures.

Now that’s my idea of a good time.

And while changing latitudes, I’m changing a few attitudes as well. I’ve always insisted on writing at my desk in crypt-like silence. But I’m learning to adapt and take advantage of writing opportunities as they come along. I wrote in the car on our way down, and, as you can see by the Mona-Lisa-like smile on my face, am getting the hang of composing by the sea shore. The hypnotic rhythm of the crashing waves seems to pull me forward, and I’m pleased with the manuscript. It has magic. It has knives. It has slings. And of course, desperate battles.

To get in the proper spirit the morning I wrote on the deck, I did Isshin-ryu katas for a half hour and then Julie and I took a long walk on the beach. I’ve long believed in the mutually reinforcing interplay of the body and the imagination. I like the way Nietzsche described how walking sparked creativity:

“We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors — walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.”

Thoughtful indeed. The sea, which has a role in my story, teems with history, wonder, and vivid spectacles of life and death. I think Freddy was on to something.

Quote of the day

By Marian Wood Kolisch, Oregon State University – Ursula Le Guin, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89862997

“A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the unconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you.”

Ursula Le Guin, from her magnificent essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie

Quote of the day

Who’s there?

“The work of art is an intricate interplay between concealment and un-concealment, secrets and exposure, and invisibility and visibility.”

Louis Cheng

In his article, The Arts as an Area of Knowledge, Louis Cheng explores Martin Heidegger’s thoughts on art as a means to know the world around us. It’s a two-way street of mutual discovery, one beneficial to both the artist and the audience. As Flannery O’Connor famously put it, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

Of course, step one is to get your audience’s attention. Withholding information triggers the imagination, and the reason this works is central to our nature. We’ve always been attracted to the interplay of the revealed and the hidden. Mystery fascinates us because it ignites the primal need to know what comes next — a basic survival skill. That’s why story tellers withhold certain details from readers, who must turn the next page to find out what happens next.

To quote from Flannery O’Connor again, “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.”

Once your reader confronts those large and startling figures, they’re open to what you have to say. That’s when the real journey begins.

Hooked on Crime(ucopia)

The prolific and talented John M. Floyd has a great post on the Crimeucopia series over at the SleuthSayers blog. Says John:

It’s not often that a publisher produces crime anthologies one after the other in a very short period of time. One did, though, this year: John Connor, at the England-based Murderous Ink Press.  … many of my writer friends besides Eve and Michael have been published there as well (or soon will be), including Jim Doherty, Adam Meyer, Joan Leotta, Judy Penz Sheluk, Robert Petyo, Bern Sy Moss, M. C. Tuggle, Jan Christensen, Brandon Barrows, and Wil A. Emerson.

I quite agree with Floyd’s comments about John Connor, one of the most professional and easy-going editors I’ve ever worked with.