Howard Waldrop's


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.
What I proposed to do in it is to write about the wonders, terrors and heartbreak of this world in which we live, i.e. whatever I want.
And this first column did not turn out to be the one I thought I was going to do; that one was why we, the USA, pretended to be shocked, shocked when the USSR exploded its first A-bomb in 1949, and arrested and fried the Rosenbergs even though we had been listening for the explosion since late 1945, and what that had to do with the Roswell NM saucer crash of 1947 . . . It would have been a great column, and set off an international flurry of hard-hitting investigative articles that would have won someone a Pulitzer. You would have been intrigued. Tough Beans.
Instead, I wrote about something I can't let go of.
"Flatfeet!" appeared in the February 1996 issue of Asimov's, and was, we blush to say, in my Eidolon collection Going Home Again (Jan. 1997)-and will be in there in your hardcover edition from St. Martin's Press when you buy it in July of this very year.
So much for preamble.

Trying to Say

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.
I know how he felt.
I knew I was going to write the story "Flatfeet"; I also knew right from the start that I was going to try to do what Connie Willis did in her story "In the Late Cretaceous".
For those of you who haven't read it, the story's about: 1) the small paleontology department of a cow college being reorganized due to funding cuts; 2) the extinction of the dinosaurs in the Late Cretaceous die-offs. The two stories are one and the same, without ever saying it.
I heard her read it at some convention just after she wrote it. It's a funny story, besides everything else, so people were laughing. But none of them, between laughs, sat there, like me, with their mouths hanging open at the sheer audacity of what she did in the story. The subtext was not only on the surface; it and the text were the same (which, as I tell Clarion students, means that the real subtext is somewhere else, even if, as may be the case, it's only "this was a hard-as-hell story to write and I did it").

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.
That lead me to research early Hollywood (the town, not the industry: I already knew all that movie stuff); strange and forlorn, a dry town separated from LA, before most of the film people came there to escape the clutches of the Motion Picture Patents Trust in the East. It would have stayed a sleepy residential/farming town until Los Angeles ate it, like all the rest, if the movie business hadn't set up there. (Cecil B. DeMille rode a horse out each day from LA; he wore a pistol because people from the Patents Trust potshot at him from the hills . . .)
Colonel Wilcox had set up his planned residential community in the 1880s. It would have been named for him if his wife hadn't overheard a man on the train from Chicago talking about visiting someone's estate called "Holly Wood". . .
So the jumping-off point was Wilcox, the real town, run by movie-comedy cops, and everything took off from there.
The more I thought about it, the bigger it got, until in my mind it was a novella, somewhere around 20,000 words. (I usually know before I begin writing-within 2,000 words-how long something will be.)

Thomas Cole: The Course of Empire
I also knew I wanted to revisit Spengler-Land. Oswald Spengler, who I'd first read about as a teenager in Fritz Leiber's "Fafhrd and Me" in Amra, wrote a book Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1918; translated and published over here as The Decline of the West, two volumes, 1922 and 1926), was a cranky German high school teacher who, as early as 1911, saw it All Coming Down. What's more, he said that it always had; every culture, every empire went through birth, growth, maturity, and death or, to complete the analogy, spring, summer, autumn, and winter.
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".
She did all the stuff I did in "Flatfeet!" and she did it first, better and, if I remember correctly, shorter.
I'm sure she wrestled with the same problems: can you get away with doing this in these modern times? Can you tell a story where the parallels are absolute, concrete, and at the same time wholly necessary to the story you're writing? Can you tell a story where the reader's on to what's up from the very start without having it be a po-mo deconstructivist job, that is, clever me, what amounts to a mindgame with the audience, which never did a writer or a reader any good?
Fortunately for all, Ms. Willis answered them just by writing her story; I tried to put the nail in the coffin of discourse with mine, and I'm sure ten or fifteen other writers have done the same kind of thing without reading either of ours, without even knowing the questions they were asking themselves.
As I tell all people who want to be writers: Writing is Hard.

Take it from me, and carve this backwards of your forehead, so you'll see it every time you look in the bathroom mirror:
Connie Willis only makes it look easy.

Read Howard Waldrop's latest short story, "Mr Goober's Show", at the recently deceased Omni Online.

This instalment of Crimea River was originally published in Eidolon 27, April 1998
Eidolon: SF Online July 1998.
©1998 Howard Waldrop