Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Book of Other Worlds: Childe Rowland (1976).

For some strange reason, it's just been easy for me to compare the two.  For the longest time now, both J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen King have occupied the same, easy shelf-space in my mind.  The main reason for this seems to be because of how similar they appear, at least as far as my own reading is concerned.  I'm not sure this is a common reaction for most fans of either writer.  However, I do wonder how often this might occur for those Tolkien geeks who are also fans of the Horror genre.  It's just that, for me, I've always been able to see the ways in which Tolkien has impacted King's work to the point where there can be times (especially in his best work) where King almost seems to be copying the old Oxford professor without even trying.  

It's a constant feature of his writing that is perhaps best on display in books like Salem's Lot, The Shining, and It.  When those books reach their peak moments, it's as if King has found a way to turn any given narrative passage of the typical American Gothic setting (such a dry and barren farmer's field, or the inside of a haunted dwelling, or even just a surveyors description of an entire town, or a single corner street in that same setting) into the kind of description that sometimes mirrors, or even rivals any possible segment of Middle Earth and its environs.  I  suppose a better way to put it would be that King has found a way of taking the usual description reserved for Tolkien's Blakean backdrop, and found a way to make it apply to the average, modern suburban American main street.  

Like I say, though, I'm probably going to have to always be in the minority on this reaction.  Even if that's the  case, then I can't say I mind all that much.  Nor do I care to retract that statement.  One of the main reasons why is because I'm sure those readers who do know at least something of what I'm talking about can go through their favorite books in the King canon, and point to any number of passages that would help support this idea.  In the second place, the real good news is that we don't have to just sit around, theorizing in a vacuum.  It turns out the author himself has managed to oblige us on this point.  He does so with the help of a simple essay entitled "On Being Nineteen: (And a Few Other Things)".  If you've never heard of, or even read the piece before, then it's not going to surprise me.  It only appeared in print once a long time ago, and hasn't really been seen since.  In fact, I don't think they include it anymore in the current reprints of the series in which it originally formed a (to me) vital part.

The "Nineteen" essay was originally published to serve as an author's introduction for a 2003 reissue of the first four books in The Dark Tower series.  That's the place where King described a great deal (if perhaps not all) of his relationship to the Bard of Middle Earth.  "Hobbits were big when I was nineteen", he tells us.  "There were probably half-a-dozen Merrys and Pippins slogging through the mud at Max Yasgur's farm during the Great Woodstock Music Festival, twice as many Frodos, and hippie Gandalfs without number.  J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Ring was madly popular in those days, and while I never made it to Woodstock (say sorry), I suppose I was at least a halfling-hippie.  Enough of one, at any rate, to have read the books and fallen in love with them.  The Dark Tower books, like most long fantasy tales written by men and women of my generation (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen Donaldson, and The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks, are just two of many), were born out of Tolkien's.

"But although I read the books in 1966 and 1967, I held off writing.  I responded (and with rather touching whole-heartedness) to the sweep of Tolkien's imagination - to the ambition of his story - but I wanted to write my own kind of story, and had I started then, I would have written his.  That, as the late Tricky Dick Nixon was fond of saying, would have been wrong.  Thanks to Mr. Tolkien, the twentieth century had all the elves and wizards it needed.  In 1967, I didn't have any idea what my kind of story might be, but that didn't matter; I felt positive I'd know it when it passed me on the street (ix-x)".   

If nothing else, the existence of these words can serve to establish a number of important facts.  (1) King has been familiar with the work of Tolkien for quite a long time now, even before the advent of the 21st century.  (2) He also acknowledges that the writings of Middle Earth have had quite an impact on his mind, in particular his imagination.  I don't think it's going too far to say that the reaction King got out of the books is pretty the same as that of the entire Woodstock generation of his era.  Besides, all he's doing in the paragraphs above is little more than highlighting a very important historical fact.  It really was during the 1960s that Tolkien's popularity began to take off in a big way.  A lot of it was down to being in the right place at the right time, and a sense of resonant values. The Flower Children of that decade found a sense of common cause with those books.  And I think the real curious part is that their sense of identification was never really misplaced.  What Tolkien and the 60s shared in common was an unapologetic Romantic streak, one that could probably trace its lineage all the way back to the poetry of William Blake, another scribe who found his popularity soaring during those heady years.

It was this shared sense of Romanticism that catapulted Tolkien and his books toward an international stardom that hasn't really gone away since then.  And King was right there when it first happened.  Much like his peers of that time, it's not too much of a leap to say that King found himself caught up in that Romantic ethos, along with everybody else.  He dug it enough, anyway, to get the notion into his head that he ought to try and match a story such as The Lord of the Rings, one that would be just as big, and yet in his own voice.  The question was just what that kind of story would be.  Tolkien supplied the first spark of inspiration, and yet something more was needed.  According to King, that something more came in the form of an old, semi-low-budget Italian film import. 

"Then, in an almost completely empty movie theater (the Bijou, in Bangor, Maine, if it matters), I saw a film directed by Sergio Leone.  It was called The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and before the film was even half over, I realized that what I wanted to write was a novel that contained Tolkien's sense of quest and magic but set against Leone's almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop.  If you've only seen this gonzo Western on your television screen, you don't understand what I'm talking about - cry your pardon, but it's true.  On a movie screen, projected through the correct Panavision lenses, TG, TB, & TU is an epic to rival Ben-Hur.  Clint Eastwood appears roughly eighteen feet tall, with each wiry jut of stubble on his cheeks looking roughly the size of a young redwood tree.  The grooves bracketing Lee Van Cleef's mouth are as deep as canyons, and there could be a thinny (see Wizard and Glass) at the bottom of each one.  The desert settings appear to stretch at least out as far as the orbit of the planet Neptune.  And the barrel of each gun looks to be roughly as large as the Holland Tunnel.


"What I wanted even more than the setting was that feeling of epic, apocalyptic size.  The fact that Leone knew jack shit about American geography (according to one of the characters, Chicago is somewhere in the vicinity of Phoenix, Arizona) added to the film's sense of magnificent dislocation.  And in my enthusiasm - the sort only a young person can muster, I think - I wanted to write not just a long book, but the longest popular novel in history.  I didn't succeed in doing that, but I feel I had a decent trip (xiii)".  This is how we got the story known as the Dark Tower series.  The whole thing seems to have been one long strange trip for King.  He claims it all got started in 1966-67, and it didn't stop until roughly 2012.  At least that's as far as his memory could take him at the time he wrote those words.  The catch is that it's not the whole story.  There's still one element, or missing piece of the puzzle, that King has sort of unintentionally neglected.  That's the exact bit of reading he did that seems to have given him the final ingredient needed to set the gears of his imagination into full drive.

This final piece of the puzzle comes in the form of an old, forgotten poem, and it's author.  According to Bev Vincent's book, The Road to the Dark Tower, "Stephen King isn't the first person to write about a man named Roland whose goal was to find and perhaps conquer a mysterious Dark Tower.  He was inspired by the feel of Robert Browning's somewhat obtuse "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", written in Paris on January 2, 1852, during the denouement of Napoleon's coup d'etat.  The poem, which King had been assigned in a class covering the earlier Romantic poets, combines romance and existentialism, atypical of Browning's other work and ahead of its time in its Weltschmerz (281)".

Vincent then goes on to make a very interesting observation.  "Browning, in turn, borrowed his title from a line in Shakespeare's King Lear uttered by Edgar during his mad ravings while disguised as Poor Tom: "Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came, His word was so still - Fie, foh, and fom/I smell the blood of a British man"...Tom was likely referring to an old Scottish ballad titled "Childe Rowland and Burd Ellen (ibid)".  So what we've been describing and uncovering this whole time amounts to little more than a line of literary descent.  We've been following the circuitous paths and byways of the initial inspirations that King used in constructing the longest story out of his career.  It's the kind of exercise that won't matter to anyone else except English Majors, and King fans.  My only excuse for doing this is because I like stories, and I have a natural curiosity to know where they come from.  If there's a chance that it can help us learn a bit more about King, Browning, the history of the Dark Tower narrative, and what it all means, then it's just the kind of opportunity that I, as a book geek, just can't turn down.

With that said, even those who are be willing to follow me down this particular rabbit hole might look on the whole idea with a more than decent amount of skepticism.  Their question might be whether there is really anything left to know about King's infamous book series, even in terms of its sources?  My answer to this is that there could be at least one avenue that has been left unexplored, and Vincent just told us what it is.  In the passage quoted above, he makes mention of an old ballad known as Childe Rowland.  It's treated as something to be noted in passing, and not given any consideration beyond that point.  I'm starting to wonder if that might have been a mistake, however.  Part of the reason for saying this is because I had a chance to read the actual legend itself.  I came across it in a children's anthology of stories, known as The Hamish Hamilton Book of Other Worlds, edited by Roger Lancelyn Green.  


It's a collection whose purpose is to look at a very specific fictional trope.  A good term of description might be to call it the Other World narrative, or any work of fiction dealing with journeys through through a fantasy reality that is different from, yet somehow connected, or related to ours.  What's interesting is to discover that one of the entries in this collection happened to be the very same legend that Vincent believes might have acted as a direct source for Shakespeare, and later on as an indirect one for both Robert Browning, and Stephen King.  I guess this makes it something of a lucky find.  At least I found it interesting enough to crack open the spine of Green's ancient anthology (the copyright page lists its initial date of publication as 1976 in Great Britain) and see what it has to say.  Who knows?  We might just get lucky and learn a thing or two about, King, Browning, Roland, and the Tower that have often gone overlooked.  "All things serve the Beam", after all.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Green Knight (2021).

It's difficult to know where to begin on this one.  There are a number of reasons for that.  Part of it is down the seeming inscrutability of the material under the microscope.  The other lies in the specific type of story we have to deal with.  A better way of putting might be described as the problem of source materials.  The last thing I want to do is turn this into a dry-as-dust- academic study.  I tend to pride myself on making complex literary matters both interesting and graspable for a very large audience.  The real challenge (or one of them, at least) seems to lie in those cases where there really is a lot of material to talk about, so that often you don't know what's the right place to start from.  Right now, I think the best vantage point in which to get our bearings would be to take a survey of the literary landscape before us.  Perhaps that will help us gain something like a usable compass bearing.  A quick enough scan of the territory reveals a familiar setting before our eyes.  It's a field of green underneath, and blue or gray above.  It's also an enchanted forest with a mysterious castle at its heart, or else its the blasted waste land of some long, forgotten field of battle.  The territory seems familiar enough, right down to the knights in shining armor, and the hidden creatures peering at us from the darkness of the trees.  We've been here before.

It could just be that the legends of King Arthur and his Knights present a very special challenge to modern audiences.  I wrote just a moment ago that we've already been through this particular secondary world.  In sense, I guess that statement is true enough.  Or is it?  I mean I don't know about you, it's just that when it comes to Camelot, I've sort of grown up learning all the familiar signposts and benchmarks.  When I was kid, my parents got my one of those quaint, old, clam-shell video cassette copies of The Sword and the Stone, one day.  I can't even recall if it was for a birthday or something like it.  I just know that was my first introduction to the greatest mythical monarch of the British Isles.  Except, or course, we never truly see him in that role for the entirety of the Disney film.  He's only just learning to wear the crown by the time the credits role.  It's also where I first learned about Merlin, the greatest wizard and magical practitioner of all time, as well as the future kingdom itself.

I suppose it's the closest thing anyone will have in terms of a fair to going on decent enough first introduction to the mythos, for better or worse.  From there, what little I've gathered about Arthuriana over the years has been haphazard and slip-shod, probably just like everyone else.  I learned about the Holy Grail, first from Steven Spielberg, and then from Monty Python.  In time I came to know about Malory and Mordred and Morgan Le Fay, and the rise and fall of a great empire, like a hero is supposed to do (or so it's claimed, I have a doubt or two about certain aspects of that trope).  Beyond this, however, I'm not sure that I know any more than anyone else in the audience.  It is just possible that I may have described the constant irony of the Camelot mythos.  It's become one of those ill-defined standbys.  A constant background presence which remains largely unexplored except for the most familiar halls and passageways.  What makes it seem more familiar than it is has to be the fact that it is able to stick in the memory from an early age.  It's enough to lull one into a false sense of security.  You think it's all an open book, when in truth you've barely read little more than a page or two in a much larger story.  I suppose that's just the way it has to be for most folks.  However, I'm not sure it's helpful for a getting a read on a film like The Green Knight.

In the introduction to a Young Adult compendium of the legends, Roger Lancelyn Green provides us with the first hints as to why the terrain of this particular secondary world is more wide, vast, and sometimes a lot more treacherous than we think we know.  "The story of King Arthur and the adventures of his knights have been told so very many times that there seems at first sight little excuse for retelling them yet again.  But, setting aside poetical versions of a variety of the legends made by such poets as Dryden, Morris, Tennyson, Swinburne, and Charles Williams, scarcely any writer in English has done more than condense the narrative of Sir Thomas Malory, cutting and simplifying according to the age of his audience, but always following him with more or less exactitude.  Moreover, it has recently been shown that Malory himself did not write his Book of King Arthur as a single narrative, but merely as a collection of quite separate stories, based on a variety of old French romances.  There is a certain coherence, but no fixed plan (xi)".


It sort of gets worse when you find out about the adventures of a lot of other knights that you really don't know about.  Most of us these days have a sort of passing familiarity with characters like Lancelot, and Galahad.  However, who on earth is Sir Gareth of the Kitchens?  All I know is I'll swear I didn't make that up.  We've heard of figures like Sir Bedivere, yet what is it he did, exactly?  What of Tristan and Isolde?  Who were they?  Here's an even better question.  Who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?  It isn't until this point is reached that you begin to realize you've maybe stumbled a bit deeper into the forest than you probably meant to go.  Once you step past the well trodden paths, it seems, the risk of getting lost is a bit too easy.  The simple fact is the myth of Arthur and his world is probably deeper and steeper than our current level of pop-cultural awareness can allow.  I think it's this last fact which helps explain the type of reception that's greeted David Lowery's 2021 adaptation of one of the most obscurely famous of the legends of Camelot.  It's sort of all most of us can do to even bother asking the most important question.  Is the story that Lowery has to tell any good?

Sunday, December 19, 2021

From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created the Counterculture (2004).

This is how it begins.  "Woodstock; Summer 1969.  What follows is a modern urban legend that, if only apocryphal, remains true in spirit.  One longhair, passing, a toke to a companion, studiously observes the sex, drug, and rock 'n' roll around him.  Smiling wryly, he sarcastically comments: "Can you believe these kids were raised on Disney films?"  His friend, while attempting to inhale, chokes on his own laughter (ix)".  From here, scholar and academic Douglas Brode goes on to create what has to be one of the most succinct statements in the history of criticism.  "End of story; beginning of book (x)".  It may have all begun with a parable, however, I'm not quite sure how many people out there were expecting it to end where it does.  The main point itself is all laid out in the very subtitle of Brode's study.  And yet it's probably one that has no other choice except to come off as just so damned atypical to the casual observer. 

A lot of it is probably down to the collective image that most of us have had built up in our minds over the years.  When we think, or even hear of the name "Disney", our list of automatic associations and recall tends to be pretty much by the numbers.  We each have our own variation of the what the name means to us.  However, when the memories, and the emotions they help conjure up keep centering around the same, familiar set of imagery, even in differing minds, it's no wonder if a large amount of psychological overlap tends to take place.  We think of carpets that fly, a large rock in the middle of an African landscape.  We see a wicked witch offering a poisoned apple to a snow pale looking girl, with dark hair.  We tend to think of a stern, yet fresh-faced English nanny, riding the currents of the air on her umbrella.  Or of a puppet that comes to life.  These are just the most familiar handful of iconography that the House of Mouse has planted in our brains, like an unofficial catechism.

It may not be true for everywhere in the world, however odds are even that it would be difficult to uncover that many in several generations of children whose first impressions of the world didn't include the antics of a talking mouse.  Disney appears to be that rare phenomenon, a piece of entertainment whose notoriety has managed to achieve such a grand level of ubiquity, that it's almost like reading an open and shut book.  It's there right at the beginning, alongside Sesame Street, and Dr. Seuss.  And the funny thing is how there seems to be no getting away from it.  Not that many of us would care to, for that matter, at least when it comes to all the good stuff.  It's like our first, unofficial baby-sitter, or something like it.  I know that's sort of the way it was for me.  Like most 80s kids, I came of age learning about the nature of folklore thanks to Uncle Walt.  It's where I first met the entire heroes and rogues gallery of the Brothers Grimm.  After that initial round of introductions, it was places like the old Disney Channel that acted as a kind of gateway passage to my earliest artistic first impressions.

That was the place where I met the likes of James Mason, Bob Hoskins, Christopher Loyd, and Tom Hanks for the very first time.  For the record, the first time I ever saw the future Forrest Gump was in the Touchstone film, Big.  That's another thing that was pretty cool about the channel, in retrospect.  I managed to catch it at the height of its powers, back before it became a regular cable outlet.  Before 1995, or thereabouts, this was the channel where you could sometimes get lucky and catch a lot of interesting, out of the way programming.  I know how strange that must sound to anyone who is familiar with how the company is set up today.  However, all I can do is swear by the truth of that statement.  It really was the best broadcasting space for a kid to pick up a very memorable set of childhood memories.  I was able to catch previews for films with titles like The Secret of Nimh, Roger Rabbit, or Fantasia.  It wasn't just limited to the "in-house product", either, at least not back then.  


Besides this, it was also the best place to pick up on a whole plethora of these weird, quirky, or sometimes downright strange choices for a program slot.  Some of it was to be expected, such as the occasional rerun of the original, animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  However, then you would get more out of the way fair like The Big Friendly Giant, or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  Further on from this, and you get certified weird fare, such as Return to Oz, and The Adventures of Mark Twain.  I'll also swear, one of the most vivid memories I've ever managed to retain of the Channel is about this feature -length, TV special where this cartoon girl in a yellow dress has a very surreal encounter with none other than Herman Melville's Moby Dick.  Yes, that White Whale.  

The strangest part may be that they played the whole thing straight.  No slapstick, or laugh track in sight.  No fooling around, either.  Instead it was very much like they were trying to cram an existential encounter into a kids show.  I'm not sure I can ever convey how weird and cool something like that was for the developing mind of a seven year old boy.  It's one of those creative choices that walks a fine line between childhood nightmare fuel and a really far out trip, man.  Let's just say it's easy to hear Pink Floyd's Echoes or Marooned in the soundtrack of your mind if you watch that kind of stuff.

Beyond this, however, there was also stuff like The Rocketeer, The Rescuers, The Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Witches, and The Goonies.  Many of the films just listed did poorly at the Box Office on first release.  It wasn't until they started getting repeated air play on the Channel during the 80s and 90s that they slowly began to gain their current status as a lot of criminally underrated cult classics.  Films like Starfighter and Goonies, meanwhile, pretty much cemented themselves as certified 80s Childhood gold, and their repeats on the Disney network at the time just helped solidify their reputation.  It was, in many ways, a whole other world.  I was there, I saw, I had my imagination shaped by the best and brightest of the time.  It was a formative experience that was not limited to just the usual suspects in the 80s Kid pantheon, either.

Way before the launch of Turner Classic Movies in 1994, it turns out the Disney Channel was just about the only place where you could catch re-airings of cinema from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  What that meant in practice was that a lot of the networks loyal roster of kid viewers would have made their first acquaintance with names like Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Fred Astaire, and John Wayne.  You could catch them in films like Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Longest Day.  It's a fact of history that doesn't get reported on as much nowadays.  It's what happened to me once upon a time, though.  It was through the services of Uncle Walt that I got to know an actor known as Patrick McGoohan, who would one day go on to make a counterculture classic known as The Prisoner.  Before that, he was The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, however.  This is also something like just the tip of a larger, underwater glacier.  Would you believe me if I told you the Beatles used to be on the Disney Channel?

Now, I know what a lot of you out there are thinking as you read this.  "Well sure", you think, "I just caught Pete Jackson's documentary on Disney Plus.  It's awesome, etc"!  It's a sentiment that's probably true enough, to be fair.  It's also not at all what I'm talking about.  What I'm saying is that this is just the second time the Mouse Kingdom has played host to the Fab Four, not the first.  The initial time these two giant, pop culture entities got together to put on a show for a viewing audience at home was way back in and around 1989, as far as I can tell, anyway.  In fact, if you turn to one of the old issues of the Channel's magazine companion/official cable guide (because, this is Disney we're talking about; of course they're going to do something like this) you might be surprised to run across a promotional article for a long-forgotten documentary called The Making of Sgt. Pepper.  The piece itself makes its own case, in no equivocal terms.  "Through the years there has been much mystery surrounding the project, but with the Disney Channel premiere of The Making of Sgt. Pepper, Beatles fans have their first opportunity to discover some amazing secrets from behind the scenes (27, 30)".


Those words appeared just once in print, in the August/September issue of Disney's magazine, during the last days of Summer, 1992.  The band still had three members left, instead of just two, with the lingering threat that one day we'll have to wake up to find that count reduced to probably just one.  Heck, they even got George Martin, the titular Fifth Beatle, to host the program.  Nowadays, all Jackson has to work with is archival footage.  My reason for even bringing this bit of trivia past up at all is because of just how much of a clash it is for our expectations.  Let's be honest, here.  How many of you ever really expected to see the music group dubbed the Number 1 greatest entertainers of all time having one of their products sold by the Mouse Factory?  It is just possible to get a slight note of cognitive dissonance from the whole affair.  A lot of that might be down to the way history itself has pretty much forced us to place both entities in separate boxes all our lives.

I mean let's do the math here for a second.  On the one hand, you've got the Disney Company.  One of the pioneers of animation history, it's true.  So is the fact that most adults outside of the pop culture sphere still tend to view as just a go-to babysitter for the younger demographic, and not much of anything else.  It's at least certain that I've never seen or heard any indication that the studio has been able to break down any sort of "cartoon ghetto" barrier to a significant degree, not even with Let It Go wearing a permanent groove in the brain.  Then, on the other hand, you have four long-haired guys from Liverpool, and the music they made.  Right away, even a lot of Gen-Z types will be more than happy to halt you right in your tracks, just in case the picture's not so clear.  The Beatles, these folk will maintain, are a bit more than just a mere "rock group", and what they did can't be encompassed in a simple phrase like "music".  If I'm being honest, I kind of get where they're coming from.

I mean I'd make the comparison between apples and oranges, yet it really is more fundamental than that.  If they were just good at the writing and singing of songs, then it's doubtful there would be anything to talk about all that much.  What I've just realized, writing this, is how difficult the next part will be to explain to someone who either wasn't there at the time, or else doesn't have enough of the sense of history to understand why and how this simple British bar band from their parents' generation could still maintain a sense of relevance that shows every sign of outliving the members of the group itself.  It's a topic that deserves several articles just by itself.  To summarize a complex situation, it all seems to have been a combination luck of the draw, mixed in with being at just the right place and time, along with having the eerily pitch-perfect creative expression.  One that was good enough to capture the collective imagination of the 60s, and turn the group into this kind pivot point around which the social changes of their decade began to flower and erupt into being.

A lot of it is the stuff we've grown so familiar with that we seem in danger of losing sight of its importance, such as the various forms and types of Civil Rights.  In addition, there is the way the band helped to change the nature of music making in and of itself.  There is a solid enough case to be made that it was the Beatles who gave us the first chords to the sound of what we now know as modern rock.  It's a grave mistake to claim that they brought all this about by themselves.  That's just laughable, in addition to being a disservice to names like Martin Luther King, Mario Savio, Ken Kesey, and a lot of other important culture makers who helped the 60s become what they are and were.  It's more like the decade somehow found the ultimate catalyst for a lot of necessary social changes that needed to happen.  I think what ultimately made them the right candidates for the job was the way their music acted as a bridge for all the differing social groups of the period to come together and, as cliche as it may sound, make a lot of important moral and ethical stands in the name of a fair and just society.  Such, then, is the long, strange, tripped out history of the act known simply as, the Beatles.


Then over here, you've got guys like Walt Disney making cartoons on a little hillside in Burbank, California.  It was the home of Hippie movement, in many ways.  However, is that the same thing as saying that a little animation factory had anything in common with young kids growing their hair long, burning their draft cards, and linking white hands in solidarity with black ones?  What has Haight Ashbury to do with Disneyland?  From the viewpoint of the great majority, the answer would have to be something like, not much, really.  It may be fair to claim that both Walt, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, were both innovators in their respective fields.  That's also about as far as most casual audiences in the street are willing to take it.  One is the greatest musical act of all time, the other is the most notable maker of animation, and there it ends.  However, Douglas Brode holds a very different idea of the matter.  It's an idea that he felt important enough to turn into its own, book-length study.  If his theory is correct, then it could mean that Disney, the Beatles, and the 60s Counterculture could share a greater deal in common together than has been recognized in all the official history books.  I guess the real question that has to be asked here is simple.  Is there any merit in the idea?

Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017).

This is a film that's interesting to talk about.  It's got enough to unpack, in and of itself, that's true.  However, there's a kind of bittersweet serendipity at work here as well.  At the start of this year, one of the great lights in the history of cinema finally went out.  Here and now, at the very tail end of the turning of the year, and the start of the seasons, we come to one of the final performances of Sir Christopher Plummer.  For whatever it's worth, at least I can say with an honest face that I never meant for this article to take on the air of a pseudo-memorial.  Nor, as long as we're keeping things honest, is it my intention to make this a gloomy affair.  In the first place, both the holiday, and one of the key figures at the heart of it (the very subject of this film, in fact) tend to mitigate against it.  There's a reason why the author of A Christmas Carol referred to it as "this festive season of the year".  It's a maxim I intend to live by.  In the second place, I can't seem to shake the idea that Plummer himself might have wanted us to enjoy the film for what it is, in the same spirit in which it was given.  That's another goal that I at least hope I can live up to, even if none of us have ever been sure what that entails.  

For me, it means focusing on the story itself, as well as the nature and quality of the writing that went into it.  Same as it ever was, in other words.  That's not to say I believe it's possible to just leave it at that without at least paying some kind of final respects to a great actor.  What I think I can promise is that when the time comes, I'll not mourn, so much a celebrate both a fine career, and a great film to go along with it.  With all this in mind, let's move on to the proper business of criticism, which I'm sure even an actor of Plummer's talent would have encouraged, not matter the final verdict.  And so, with all that said....

We don't tend to think much about where things come from.  Have you ever noticed that?  It's a strange form of free-floating incuriosity that the vast majority of people in the world seem willing to live with.  Either that or else I'm just stuck having to go by the criteria provided by own American surroundings.  Maybe it's different in other countries.  All I can highlight with any certainty is that most of us Yanks can't be bothered to even stop and consider the ideas, facts, and events that have shaped our behavior.  Take Christmas, for example.  Or maybe don't?  I'm told it's kind of a sensitive topic.  Charles Schulz was of the opinion that the three topics you were never supposed to bring up were politics, religion, and the Great Pumpkin.  For what it's worth, I'm not interested in any so-called war, for or against.  Instead, my interest lies a lot closer to home.  I'm interested in the later traditions that have accrued around the holiday.  I'm talking about wreaths placed on front doors, and bows of holly mixed with red ribbons and lights decorating fence posts, front porches, and trees.  The modern iconography of the season, in other words.  I guess you could say I'm sometimes curious about where it all comes from.

Now, to be fair, it's not like I have or can give anything like the full answer, here.  I'm just another passenger on the same train, like other folks.  However, as someone who tends to get a kick out of the whole Holiday vibe, it is nice to pick up what bits and pieces of info you can about it.  The best collective piece of information I've ever gotten on the great winter festival comes from the writings of two men.  One of them is more or less still famous, or at least reasonably well known.  The other was just one of the former guy's many biographers.  Way back in another time and world known as 2008, an author, critic, and historian known as Les Standiford released a work of nonfiction known simply as The Man Who Invented Christmas.  The nature and content of the whole book seems pretty well summarized by its subtitle: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.  


Turning to the dust jacket's inside-flap, the prospective reader is given a further bit of clarifying information: "As uplifting as the tale of Scrooge itself, this is the story of how one writer and one book revived the signal holiday of the Western world".  That, in essence, is the story that Standiford has to tell for his his readers.  In some ways, the final product itself can also stand as an act of revivification.  These days, if you say a phrase like Christmas Carol, or a name like Scrooge (even if it's just hurled out at random in the moment, as a form of insult) what tends to happen is almost capable of being charted on a graph.  The very words themselves tend to dredge up various, assorted old memories.  Most of these tend to cluster in and around the age of childhood, as that seems to be about the time that most of us tend to make our first acquaintances with Mr. Dickens, and his little holiday fairy tale.  The whole thing seems to have become an unofficial rite of passage.  We may see images of a "grasping, covetous, old sinner" dressed in black against the cold.  Or else we might see the same figure clad in just a night gown and a candle for company.  

This old sinner is far from alone, either.  In addition, we've got memories of a quartet of ghosts, some in chains, some in light, others dressed in holly leaves and robes.  Some still manage to creep the hell out of us all these years later, and one of them is best avoided altogether.  One or two of them might even be comforting, in their own strange way.  Beyond all this, there's the lingering sense of a very specific time and place.  Or maybe it's a central standard no-place-at-all.  Something that's just as much a product of Imagination as Middle Earth or Neverland.  In this case, however, I like to think there's at least some truth in the trope, or picture postcard image we've come to think of as the Dickensian cityscape or winter village.  They at least have a firm grounding in historical reality (though even Middle Earth might qualify for that same category, surprisingly enough).  This is about as far as most of us can go when it comes to Dickens and his Carol.  The whole thing has become so much a part of the general furniture of our minds that it's more of an item we like to dust off and admire for a moment or two, every now and then, before tucking it away back among the mothballs and old Monopoly board.

Very few of us seem to have much in the way of a reason to examine this story, or the Holiday that spawned it in any great detail.  The cool thing about Standiford's book is that it's written in such a way as to give even the casual fans a reason to keep turning the pages.  Standiford's prose is simple and engaging by turns, framing the actual history in narrative, novelistic terms.  It's what allows us to treat the creation of the Carol as an adventure we can sink our teeth into.  It's made all the more enticing by the way Standiford is able to show how Dickens was able to help solidify a lot of the modern traditions that we now have and associate with Christmas.  What Standiford is able to make clear, and what makes his study such a good read, is how much our current sense of the fun during the Holidays is owed to a former, Victorian newspaper sketch writer, who once signed his efforts with the pen-name of Boz.


From what I can tell, Standiford's efforts seem to have been given a pretty warm reception.  It was so well received, in fact, that a little later on, the book was optioned for a film development by Universal studios.  It seems to be one of those obtuse deals that can happen in Hollywood, ever so often.  Somebody somewhere will be doing a bit of navel-gazing, or caught up in a desperate search for material, and then they hit upon books like Standiford's in passing, so, viola, an idea that's better than starving to death in L.A., that's for darn sure, if nothing else is.  I guess the biggest surprise is that the book was able to get optioned at all.  It's not the sort of item you'd think would make a good film project.  I can recall raising a skeptical eye myself once I caught one of the first trailers online.  Still, the year came and went, and the movie adaptation appeared along with it.  Just in time for the Holiday season, and everything.  Which leaves just one question.  How does it stand on its own two legs?

Saturday, November 20, 2021

The Mixed Mine by E. Nesbit.

I'm not sure whether or not it's possible to ever arrive at an original artist.  I am certain at least that the search for perfect artistic originality has been a long one.  Nor does it ever show signs of stopping.  In artistic-critical circles, the desire for the new has long since passed into something like the local totem of the trade.  Any writer whose book smacks of the least bit of "originality", or a filmmaker who is held to have discovered a "new image" is often hailed as a wunderkind for the very simple excuse of a bad habit getting in the way.  I can't say I know where this human addiction for novelty in the arts comes from.  All I can be sure of is two things.  The first is that it is very much a separate topic from politics.  The other is that the habit is very old.  Or at least that's how it seems to me.  I'm not sure I'd go so far as to claim that it was around as far back as the Bronze Age, or anything like that.  There's just something far too modern about the whole thing to for it to ever be considered in any way ancient.  If I had to pinpoint where it all might have started, then I guess that would have to be sometime during or just after the middle of the 19th century, when the world of book publishing was established as an industry, and literacy was starting to achieve a mass level that has long since leveled off, and may never be reached quite ever again.

The desire for the novel and the unknown in storytelling seems to have been one of the unintended side-effects of a growing ability to read on behalf of the American public.  I also wouldn't be surprised to learn that an element of snobbery lay somewhere in back of the desire.  It's didn't take long for the birth of the literary critical establishment once the art of writing was able to become a Big Business of its own.  One of the perennial problems of arts criticism is that it didn't take long to find out that it also serves as a neat window into human nature.  This is a topic that comes in both good and bad varieties.  The biggest pitfall to be avoided is the kind of psychological arrogance that results in the phenomenon known as snobbery.  It's this particular mental malady that lead the charge for consigning books like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to the children's nursery back in the day (and that was an irony all its own), while also trying to establish various types of nonsense as a necessary, critical shibboleth.

One of these garbage ideas, seems to have hinged around a nebulous concept of newness.  The trouble with this kind of logic is that it's always difficult to maintain when actual literary practice keeps bursting your bubble.  Too often what happens is that the next written work of genius will reveal that the main reason it succeeds so well as a book is because the author wasn't concerned at all with making anything new.  He or she was just focused on trying to tell the story to the best of their abilities.  A book like Moby Dick sounds like it could be a revelation, until you learn that Melville was inspired to write his work based on reading material he'd manage to snag, telling about how an actual, real life whale was able to batter and sink an American harpooning ship not long ago, at the time.  It's the kind of situation that can serve as a blow to those dumb enough to place their egos up in the shooting gallery.

It's a bad habit that a lot of worthy names out there have had to fight tooth and nail against.  Edith Nesbit is one such author.  I've talked about her at least once before on this site.  Though this marks the first time I've ever taken a look at one of her own stories.  Before we get there, first, I think it helps to know what kind of a writer we're dealing with.  In her book-length study, Magic and the Magician, children's author and critic Noel Streatfeild makes this very interesting observation.  "The background and personality of a writer of adult fiction is not necessarily revealed in their books, but something of the background and personality of a good children's author is almost always discernible, for it is their ability to remember with all their senses their own childhood, and what it felt like to be a child, that makes their work outstanding.  E. Nesbit, because she has been read and loved by many generations of children, has established herself as one of the great, and today her books are ranked as classics (11)".  

Well, at least that how it probably still is in England.  I've never seen any proof that she ever made quite as big a splash here, across the pond.  Nesbit's reputation in America is the type that can be lumped in with the likes of P.L. Travers and Beatrix Potter.  These are the types of writers who are known more for their indirect impact on the culture and content of modern children's literature, rather than for their own efforts.  In other words, we might have heard of Mary Poppins.  So who on earth is this Pamela Travers when she's at home, then?  I mean, what's the big deal?  I'm also not certain whether telling anyone that a girl like Travers is the actual creator (or transcriber) of the world's most famous nanny will make that much of a difference.  It's one of those cases where the author is eclipsed by the impact she has left behind, while the work she wrote, the one that helped to set the type of narrative trends we are all familiar with now, has been relegated to an obscure corner of the nursery.

I'm afraid Edith has suffered a lot worse than Pamela, in this regard.  She's a trendsetter with barely any honor to her name as it is, at least here in the States.  This has resulted in a kind of schizoid form of creative irony.  We're able to enjoy the fruits of her labors, and yet we can't name the creator of a lot of the stories we now enjoy.  We've long grown used to the tropes of a lot of Young Adult and/or Fantasy fiction, and so most of us have no choice except to be clueless about where they came from, or who is responsible for a lot of it.  There's also a sort of double irony involved as well, once you realize just what kind of achievement Edith was able to pull off.  A huge part of the key to her success was the fact that in all that time, she never seems to have stopped to worry about the question of originality.  Rather than giving any sort of fig about creative novelty, Edith did the smart thing by first searching out for her creative strengths as a writer, and then putting them to good use once she'd found her natural pace.


This strength manifested itself less in the creation of new images.  Instead, it's more truthful to say that she made her way back to the nursery and saw a lot of the older images and legends just lying around, rusted and disused, like an entire island of lost toys, and then found the right way to put them to good use once more.  A lot of it seems to be down to what Streatfeild observed earlier.  Edith had a good knack for recalling all the golden times of her childhood, and a lot of it seems to have revolved around the fun she had in being regaled by stories of ancient myth and legend.  Whether it was the Brothers' Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, or the various retellings of Greco-Roman and Norse epics and sagas by anthologists such as Andrew Lang, Edith's experience as a writer bears at least this much similarity with someone like Tolkien.  Both of them had to start their careers as writers by first learning how to be good readers and listeners.  It's one of those vital skills that are so easy to overlook.  Most of it is probably because the task itself appears to be so simple enough, that it's kind of easy to lose sight of the obvious work involved, especially if you're busy caught up in the shuffle of things.  

Nesbit and Tolkien were both good learners, in that sense.  Each of them was able to first pinpoint the type of stories they liked to hear or read.  Next, they developed their own literary skills to a point that left them in a position to be able to tell more of the type of stories they liked as children once they were adults.  In both of their cases, this amounted less to any sense of novelty in their writings (there's noting all that original about Middle Earth, once you stop to take a closer look at the layout and nature of its contents and characters).  It's more do to with the matter of literary expression, if that makes any sense.  Each of them was able to find the right narrative voice that would help breath new life into old images.  What they discovered was that there was no need to reinvent the dragon.  All you needed to do was find the right type of story for it, told in a way that appealed to, or was able to draw in, the modern sensibilities.  Once Edith and Tolkien were able to do this, the rest has sort of become history.


It's an achievement for which she plays just as integral a part as that of the more familiar Bard of Hobbiton.  And yet she never seems to have gotten as much of the credit and recognition that I believe she rightly deserves.  That's why I'd like to take some time to examine one of her early efforts in this endeavor of making the old new again.  It's one her minor short pieces, and yet I don't that's any slight against her effort.  Sometimes it turns out that one of the early efforts in the career of a talented writer can hold the DNA for the later output that cement their names in the annals of creative history.  With this in mind, let's see if this is the case with The Mixed Mine.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (2015).

Let me make one thing clear.  I just can't set much store in things like horoscopes, and astrology.  Say sorry, yet there it is.  It's just not me.  For the longest time now, I've never been able to see the point of it all, really.  If I had to give anything like a reasoned argument for why I've never set any kind of stock in the idea, then I'd have to say its on account of how I kind of like keeping a free will and mind of my own.  It's just this weird sort of thing I discovered on my own.  It's called having a personality, not that it's saying much.  If it were, do you think I'd be hanging around here all the damn time?  Trust me, though.  It's a hell of a lot better than having to worry about what kind of shape you're in based on stuff like the position of the Earth's trajectory in relation to Saturn.  Or whether or not that dream you had last night about two doves humping each other means anything of significance.  I think once you've reached that sort of level, you've kind of placed yourself up the creak without so much as a prayer-wheel for a paddle.  So yeah, no offense, but no thanks either.  For some strange reason I just can't kick this crazy habit I've got.  It's called thinking.  Granted, I can't say even this has taken me all that far in my dubious exploits through life.  However, it's like Billy Joel says, "It's better than drinking alone".  

Anyway, the reason I even bring up the most overlooked section of the newspaper at all is because I've got another problem.  For whatever reason, I've been blessed or cursed with a sharp enough sense of irony.  You think that's bad?  It gets worse, trust me.  I also have a bad case of sarcasm.  Yeah, that's right.  Sarcasm!  The knowing angle, the ironic gaze, followed by the appropriate comment, the quip remark, the perfect put down.  I got it all!  The punchline is I'm not all that sure how I got into it in the first place.  All I know for sure is that somewhere around high school I learned about this hip, new-old thing called Satire.  It's the kind of topic that's even harder to explain than astrology, if I'm being honest.  At least with Satire, you're on firmer ground.  I think the best description I got for it is the artistic practice of nailing a chosen target to the wall for the purposes of some sort of moral or ethical endpoint or goal.  Most often this practice is utilized in the form of comedy, though it can also find or have its uses in straight-forward drama.  However, comedy seems to remain it's most natural metere.  It's sort of like the format's natural home base.  Not that it makes any sense.


Anyway, why am I even bring this whole mess of stuff up at all, anyway?  Well, apart from always needing a place to put your stuff, I'd have to say that I've got a few in mind, here.  The first, and most important, is because I want to talk about an old magazine that used to be one of the biggest cultural forces for satirical humor in this country.  It least it used to be for one bright and shining moment.  Either that or I'm letting the Sun get in my eyes too much.  Just a moment, let me shut the window here, and take care of that for ya.  Anyway, the second point is kind of nebulous, yet I find it interesting.  While I still don't believe in astrology, I am aware of a perfect irony that's involved, even in my circumstance.  Those who do believe in horoscopes would claim, for instance, that the reason for my interest in humor and satire is all on account that I was born a Gemini.  It's the kind if thing that sounds like it's off-topic, yet it's also kind of relevant, sort of, anyway.  It's all to do with what people used to believe back in the days before indoor plumbing was a thing.

In earlier ages, your birth date on a horoscope was determined by whichever planet in the solar system was ruling the month of the year in which you were born.  Traditionally, the Gemini, both as a constellation and as a zodiac sign were linked, both mythically and scientifically, with the orbit of Mercury.  Why is that important?  To tell you the truth, I'm not sure myself.  All I know is that over the course time, it was this one single planet, out in the cesspool end of the galaxy, that wound up getting tagged as the Great Trickster of Universe.  That means our ancestors used to look up to Mercury as a symbol for the source of all humor in the world.  They even used to go so far as to make it a kind of intergalactic patron of satirists, humorists, and clowns, such as those featured in the old Commedia Dell'arte.  As a result, we Geminis have often been saddled with a reputation for being jokers and pranksters, with an easy and natural sense of humor.  Why that should ultimately be the case is a long story, like I said.  Let's just call it one of the natural quirks of the Imagination for now, and leave it at that.

So why should I care, just because it puts me in a month ruled by the galaxy's great joker?  Why should that have any effect on my life?  What's all that supposed to mean, anyway?........(Sighs) The net result has been that I developed an early interest in Humor as an artistic medium....And then when I got older, and found out about things like Mad Magazine and Saturday Night Live, or stand-up comedy and its practitioners like Mark Twain, Jon Stewart, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Richard Pryor....(Sighs again) The whole thing was like picking up a really cool motorcycle and discovering you were a natural at it.  No need for any instruction manual, either.  It was like a duck taking to water.  I don't ever recall having to wade in, at all.  Once I got the first notion that humor could involve in the correct use of Seven Words that You Can't Say on TV, then it was like arriving at a home place that I never even knew I owned.  And by the way, no, this doesn't convince me of astrology.  Though it has made me curious as to how many of the great modern clowns out there were born under the same sign.  As it turns out, the most important case I'm thinking of, the one with the most relevance to this article, was in fact not born in the Month of Mercury, but on the 10th of December, 1946.  So there's that, at least.

What is sort of funny, however, is that even though he was never a Gemini, there is a sense in which I guess you could kind of say guys like Doug Kenney have devoted their whole lives to a planet like Mercury.  Or, you could also state it the other way, and claim that Mercury has been a loyal patron of Kenney's efforts, ever since the little snot-rag was taken under the wing.  Or maybe it was more like he was found on the underside of a rock, I'm not sure anymore.  You know what, I'm probably starting to ramble, and not making much sense.  I get that.  It happens.  Tell ya what, let's take things one at a time, before I start to get ahead of myself.  Perhaps it's best is I start out with some introductions.

Hey kids, Al's the name, Al Sleet.  Never heard of me, huh?  Yeah, I get that a lot.  I used to be a local weatherman for a time.  Then I had to give it up.  Actually, it's more like I was fired, if ya wanna get technical about it.  I made the mistake of telling the truth, live on air, you see.  I gave away the ultimate secret about the weather.  "The weather," I said, "will continue to change, on and off, for a long, long time (web)".  Yeah, to be fair, I might have been high as a kite at the time.  Which probably explains how things have been going so far, if you stop and think it over.  

Well, that was the end of the weather for me.  Ever since then I've been what I guess you might call a Gonzo Journalist, of sorts.  Lately, however, as time goes on, I've found it almost necessary to become a Gonzo Archivist, if that makes any sense.  Not that it does, really.  We'll all just play along for the moment, and pretend like I'm talking sense here.  My reason for wanting archive stuff is pretty simple, I think.  I occurred to me that there's a lot of good humor out there that was in danger of melting through the cracks of time, and disappearing forever.  I was there when a lot of it was made, so I count myself very lucky to have been allowed to witness a lot of it.  I suppose you could say I've led an accidental charmed life, in that regard.


Well, whatever the reason, it's led me to get all nostalgic of late.  I'd like to think back on all those heady days, for a moment or two of your time.  It's fun to reminisce on what it was like back then.  My main reason for saying that is on account of a feature-length look-back I managed to catch not too long ago.  It's called Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon.  It's a documentary directed by Douglas Tirola, is all about Doug Kenney, his friends (or else they were more like his partners in crime; you might have heard of some of them) and the magazine that they all created together, and helped put out there for the world in all its glory.  Yeah, maybe you should keep a bucket nearby, just in case.  It probably wouldn't hurt, as it's going to be that kind of story.  Either way, they staked a name for themselves.  In fact, I think they all might have done a whole lot more.  The Lampoon used to be a pretty big deal for a time, there.  You might not believe it, but there were also live shows, radio plays, records albums.  Never did find out if they managed to make it all the way to the breakfast cereal and the flame-thrower, though.  Still, they left one hell of a legacy behind.  The way it all began, of course, was with just two college friends, and a shared sense of humor.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Mrs. God (1990).

Some authors can be a challenge.  This isn't always true across the board.  Nor is it meant as any kind of slight.  On the contrary, my own experience as a reader has taught me that sometimes its those who just write straight from the gut that tend to come off as the best tellers of tales.  That's not to say that complexity doesn't have its place, nor that simple can't be sophisticated.  If there's any kind of logic to all of this, then I guess it might lie in the idea that each story is like one big give and take process.  The general rule of creativity (for lack of any better word) seems to go more toward multiplicity, rather than uniformity.  It seems to be a major reason why even those books and films with similar sounding storylines just wind up veering off in their own, differing directions.  That may very well be a headache for some.  For anyone like a bookworm, however, it's something very close to the spice of life.  Perhaps that's why I've just never been able to mind it all that much when it's clear that I'm reading from a book who's author seems naturally drawn toward literary complexity.  Peter Straub seems like a good example of this trait.  He's the kind of author who's imaginative technique is best described as layered.

His books are the kind that often contain the themes, symbols, and sometimes even story elements from those of his Gothic progenitors.  The best example of what I'm talking about still remains a vignette from Ghost Story, which basically consists of the plot of Henry James's Turn of the Screw told in miniature.  The remarkable thing about it is not just that it works, but that it does so in a way which neatly ties into the remainder of that novel's main story.  It looks like invention, yet I'm willing to maintain that what we're dealing with in those moments is a sample of inspiration where the story is able to double upon itself, if that makes any sense.  We're not dealing with a mere Simpsons parody or allusion, in other words.  This is something else.  We seem to be in the hands of a creative process that is just that bit more sophisticated, if I'm being honest.  It's a simple story, told in a such a way that allows the plot to enrich itself through naturally piling on and playing off of earlier references in such a manner that the blending of all into one comes off as a single, seamless whole.  Like a well made birthday cake in which all the necessary ingredients have been packed in just so.

I think it takes a lot more than just "mere invention" to pull that off.  It takes a Romantic frame of mind that is willing to "let the muse speak", as it were, while also paying attention to what's going on as the words arrive on the page.  In any case, this a process that Straub has followed on every single book or short story he's ever written.  On the whole, it seems to have worked for him, more often than not.  Sometimes, in books like Koko or Mr. X, the results might be less than stellar.  When he's firing on all cylinders, however, you tell can things are going right just by reading a page.  Even if he's describing a relatively quiet scene, the way he writes it down makes the narrative instill in the reader a necessary desire to keep the pages turning in order to answer that all-important question.  "What happens next"?  It's what happened for me in my reading of the book that's under discussion here today.

I suppose the first step toward understanding a text with the curious title of Mrs. God would be to provide some much needed context.  For that, you'll have to turn to Bill Sheehan's At the Foot of the Story Tree.  He knows a lot more about it than I do.  It's in that study that Sheehan is able to situate both the genesis and first appearance of this overlooked piece in Straub's bibliography.  It came during a time when all of the author's concentration was laser-focused on what has now come to be known as The Blue Rose Trilogy.  It was a set of books (namely the aforementioned Koko, along with Mystery and The Throat) which featured intertwining themes and characters spanning across several decades and time periods.  It seems to have been the project that was able to capture the writer's heart, as its the one set of writings which Straub invested himself in the most.  A good way to the describe the triologu may be to refer to the whole project as his version of The Dark Tower, except this time a lot more down to earth.   This may also help explain the labored, uneven and uninvolved quality of these books as a whole.

I think what happened is that Straub's heart was always in the right place.  He just got so caught up in the explication of extra-literary themes that the idea of telling a story sort of got demoted to second place.  That's usually the kiss of death for any good chance at an enjoyable narrative.  Still, even if the ultimate truth about the Blue Rose saga is that of the clash between story and ambition, along with the inevitable downfall of the latter, then at least it is possible to say it wasn't a total loss.  While the Rose period might have been a less than stellar time for Straub, his real muse managed to speak up every now and then.  This would result in an occasional short story or novella, something that would be written off in a neat spurt of creativity and then tucked away for later.  Eventually, this process began to generate enough cast-off material to result in one of the author's few short-story collections.  This is where Sheehan's scholarship comes in handy.

"Before turning his attention to The Throat, Straub gathered together a number of shorter pieces and published them, in 1990, under the title Houses Without Doors.  A distinguished, ambitious collection that remains, justifiably, one of Straub's favorite books, Houses gathers together two novellas (both of which have deep connections to Straub's () series of Blue Rose novels), two short stories, and two short novels.  In addition, the book contains seven short, loosely connected vignettes whose themes, scenes, and subjects - childhood, Vietnam, resurrected memories - echo and amplify the central concerns of the stories that surround them, giving the collection an overall sense of cohesiveness and thematic unity that is both unusual and effective.  Together, these thirteen pieces create a composite portrait of a violent, claustrophobic universe whose essence is suggested by the Emily Dickinson epigraph that gives the book its title.  "Doom is the house without the door-'Tis entered from the sun-And then the ladder's thrown away-Because escape-Is done (211)"

Let me just note in passing, that ever since Sheehan penned those words back in June of the year 2000, Straub went on to write what at this date appears to be his final novel, just some few years later on down the road.  As a result, perhaps its fitting that Straub's A Dark Matter does well enough to act as neat a summation of his outlook on life, literature, and everything.  If this is the case, then the way that last big book ends leaves one with the sense that the author's own personal view of the universe is a lot more open-hearted than Sheehan is giving him credit for.  Let's just say that, as it stands, that latter novel might just help one figure out the definition and landscape of the Horror genre as mapped out by Straub and Stephen King for future generations.  All that is future fodder, however.  Back to Mrs. God.

Sheehan tells us that "Mrs. God was written in the aftermath of Koko, and much of Straub's psychological condition at this time found its way into the story.  Having invested so much time, effort, and emotion in Koko, Straub found himself literally bereft by its completion, a feeling complicated by the sense that he had just placed his baby, his 'Real Baby', into the keeping of strangers, and he "didn't know how they would care for it."  To combat this feeling, he needed to begin writing again, but was completely unprepared to begin working on a new novel.  Instead, he embarked on a longish story patterned, as he later realized, much too closely on The Turn of the Screw.  Not surprisingly, given Straub's emotional condition at the time, the story that eventually evolved from this initial notion had at its center the recurring image of a lost - in this case, aborted - child.

"At about the same time, Straub agreed to write an introduction to an omnibus edition of Robert Aickman called The Wine-Dark Sea.  Aickman (1914-1981) was one of the greatest and most original practitioners of the twentieth century tale of terror.  His stories - which he referred to, simply and precisely, as "strange stories" - are perverse, eccentric, often willfully obscure, and absolutely unlike anyone else's.  Writing in a British anthology called Dark Voices, about Aickman's 1957 story "Ringing the Changes," Straub noted that:

"(The) real oddness of most of Aickman's work is related to its psychological, even psychoanalytic, acuity.  Unconscious forces move the stories...as well as the characters, and what initially looks like a distressing randomness of detail and events is its opposite - everything is necessary, everything is logical, but not at all in a linear way.  To pull off this kind of dreamlike associativeness, to pack it with the menace that results from a narrative deconstruction of the nature of "ordinary reality," to demonstrate again and again...that our lives are literally shaped by what we do not understand about ourselves, requires a talent that yokes together an uncommon literary sensitivity with a lush, almost tropical inventiveness.   

"The process of reading a great many Aickman stories in a short period of time helped Straub solidify his notions about Aickman and his work.  It also helped him to solidify certain notions about narrative, and the ways in which narrative can be deepened and enhanced by subverting conventional expectations, and by denying readers the comforts of neat conclusions, sequential plot development, traditional climaxes and, above all, rational explanations (227-8)".  I feel the need to make an annoying critical pause here for a moment, if for no other reason than to head off a literal load of current assumptions that (as of of this writing) seems to be a constant presence of the creative scene at the moment.  The reason for this comes in Sheehan's use of the words "expectation" and "subversion".  The two terms, placed together, have become something of a loaded dice phrase of late, amounting to what could almost be the simplest, unexpected trigger warning phrase in existence.  Whatever meaning the current users of that phrase insist upon, one that thing that should be made clear is that its a usage which neither Sheehan nor Straub have ever meant or intended.  And yet I can't help thinking that's how some readers may view it.

If so, then I'm afraid a genuine misreading has been made of both author and critic.  The good news is the resulting morass is capable of helping us arrive at an understanding of where the trouble lies.  The whole crux of the problem seems to lie in a confusion between style and content, or literary method and matter.  The fact is that Sheehan is using his words in a way that allows a distinction between the style Straub uses to tell his story, and the actual contents of the plot itself.  If a reader goes in expecting to find the current, passing meaning of "expectation subversion", then I'm afraid they'll be in for a disappointment.  Indeed, there's nothing at all out of the ordinary in the tale Straub has to tell.  Instead, all he's doing is utilizing the methods, tactics, and stylistic flourishes of narrative dream logic and association (the kind you can still find in Alice in Wonderland) all in the service of a conventional narrative.  In that sense, I'm afraid Straub is among the least avant-garde artists out there, and it's a fact that Sheehan is well aware of.  In a sense, however, I'm afraid both of them are victims of the time.


What this means in practice, unfortunately, is the tedious yet essential need to help the reader gain a sense of the critic's terms and theirs uses for commentary as originally defined.  The good news is there doesn't seem to be any real reason why this should spoil the enjoyment of a story.  With all this boring preliminary out of the way, let's return to the podium back to Sheehan, who says: "The most enduring result of this extended encounter with Aickman and his work was Mrs. God.  And though there are a number of other influences discernible in the story - traces of Ramsey Campbell, himself an Aickman devotee, can surely be found here, along with traces of Stephen King (The Shining), Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), and Carlos Fuentes (Aura) - Aickman is the major force behind this strange, extreme, "meditation on sex, violence, and the sacred".