The title of this column is Crimea River. Your antipodal proprietors have asked me to do it frequently; nay, all the time. For which I shall endeavour, forthwith.
In Faulkner's Sound and the Fury, Benjy the idiot is always 'trying to say' something; what comes out is bellows and yells misunderstood by those around him; all they know is that he's upset.
Sometime in the early '90s, as I said in the afterword to "Flatfeet!" in Going Home Again, I was reading about the Palmer Raids (of the first Red Scare in America, in the early '20s: the one that netted Sacco and Vanzetti's friends) and realized that they would have been carried out by people like the Keystone Cops.
It was in those years the story's set-1912 to 1920-that the US found itself a world power. We'd already killed all the Native Americans who'd give trouble. We'd had a brush with internationalism with the Spanish-American War ("that splendid little war"); when it was over we tried to sell off, or make independent (as long as it was US-friendly and independent) whatever possessions we'd gained that we couldn't immediately use (and with the "Christianizing" of the Philippines, setting the style of the brush-fire wars of the coming century). Suddenly we had world leadership by default; we were the last guys left standing at the end of WWI.
Spengler foresaw that. He said: Europe's time's over; time now for Russia and the US (and after, China). The fact that all this was written in sleep-producing German mumbo-jumbo didn't matter, or stop the book from becoming a bestseller wherever it was translated.
So, how to impose the overlay of Spenglerian world-view on what is essentially a cops vs. monsters story. (I'll get back to the monsters in a minute.)
I needed an objective correlative to Spengler. Spengler could be handled in the dialogue, but I knew that the earliest it could be used was in 1918, in the German original, so the ideas had to introduced earlier, by other means.
Fortunately the idea of cyclical history's been around a long time; one of its most concrete expressions was made in the 1830s: Thomas Cole's series of paintings, The Course of Empire. These showed, as described in the story, the birth, rise, consummation, destruction, and aftermath of a Classic-looking but unspecified ancient empire and that bay on which the capital city sits; or, to complete the analogy made specific by painted suns on the 5-painting installation and thus the fall of the light within the paintings themselves, the dawn, morning, noon, late-afternoon, and sunset of the culture.
So now I had primitive visual aids, an idea, a time, a setting.
Now for the cops. They're analogues to Mack Sennett's Keystone Cops (or Kops-it varied), who were called in at the end of Fatty Arbuckle-Mabel Normand comedies to chase someone, wreck cars, be dragged careening seemingly to their deaths, or explode locomotives-in general to have violent slapstick silent fun. Most of the actors who played them were ex-vaudevillians, acrobats and the like. The job of stuntman was unknown; if the gag called for Arbuckle (who was one of the cops before he got his own series) or Normand to fall off the paddy wagon and be dragged 50 yards, that's what you got. All the cops, or people just like them, are in the story under their or their characters' names. For some I invented biographies; some needed none.
I wanted a world-view that opposed the Wilcox view. One way was through the movies. (As I said in the afterword, history should have been different so that DW Griffith made Intolerance-four world-historic stories-before he made Birth of a Nation-one US Civil War/Reconstruction story-so "Flatfeet!" would have been all neat and tidy, but it was the other way around, so tough beans for me.) The other was through the postcards from the former chief of police, Angus (or, Wandering Angus, if you will). Those were the first things written, four months before the rest of the story. I read them to students at Clarion in 1994 as a warm-up before reading "The Sawing Boys".
I wanted to see if I could bring across the shape of a time in a postcard form of each incident, also and always with another referent in the PSs.
So here was the narrative that was making itself: 1912-1920, Wilcox CA, the police station, the town, the moviemakers. Overlaid on this a Spenglerian view of history, backed up by Course of Empire across from the sergeant's desk, with a reference to US and world events in the postcards.
Enter the monsters; later, Enter the Others.
As I said in the afterword, even the monsters are Spenglerian.
The first is the mummy, from Egypt (and Africa, where we all came from), ancient history, the dim recesses of human time.
The vampire is a medieval Eastern European figure (and he's done in by a Louisville Slugger baseball bat, which was first manufactured for the older brother of Tod Browning, who directed Dracula).
The werewolf, in received form, was a high-Renaissance pan-European piece of folklore, bringing us further forward in time.
The lowland gorilla was revealed to Europe during the 19th century colonial wars in Africa. (The pickelhaube helmet and the Kaiser as a gorilla were staples of British and American WWI propaganda.)
The automaton with the 'Q' on its chest is modern Western technology (from Harry Houdini's serial The Master Mystery) that brings us up to the story's present.
As the story goes along, the monster incidents have an increasing tempo. The mummy scene is fully developed, police procedural, methodical. The vampire one's a little shorter, sharper. The werewolf section starts with a three-line paragraph that tells you everything you need to know and goes on a page. The gorilla/automaton part is less than a page. Sort of like the increased pace of life in the 20th century, huh?
And I tried to do lots of other stuff; to show change by Teeheezal's transportation-horse to streetcar to car; by the changing slang on the No Sparking signs in the park; the Pancho Villa scare and the stoning of the daschund, which are the first time the world comes to Wilcox except through postcards and movies; the changing of the street names and names of new studios.
As I began to write the first draft (Oct 5-9, 1994) and then the rewrite (Oct 10-11), I realized I had barely a novelette, not a novella; at just 7,500 words it was a third as long as I'd imagined.
Part of this compression, I know, was working so close between all the things I wanted going on in the story, and telling the story I wanted to tell. I trusted my instincts when things got shorter, when things I thought I'd be doing differed from what was coming out the end of my pen. And I did have to read it to an audience at Armadillocon on October 9th, so there wasn't time to beat myself up about it.
After the convention, and the rewrite, I sent if off to Asimov's, and Gardner accepted it.
With a postcard from Angus.
It was the last story I wrote before leaving Texas and moving up here to Oso, Washington. A swell valedictory, I thought.
But not good enough.
Doing the story made me stand more in awe of what Constance Willis did, how she handled "In the Late Cretaceous".
Take it from me, and carve this backwards of your forehead, so you'll see it every time you look in the bathroom mirror:
Eidolon: SF Online July 1998.
©1998 Howard Waldrop