Saturday, April 25, 2020

Joe Hill's Faun (2019).

One of the main goals of this blog is to bring the forgotten pieces of artistic history back from the past, and give them their moment in the spotlight.  At the moment, I don't think the subject of today's post needs that much introduction.  If you mention the name Joe Hill to anyone, chances are there will be a sizable enough number of people that know who you're talking about.  He's managed to carve out a place for himself in the current pop-culture landscape, and emerge as a pretty good example of what modern Horror fiction is capable of producing.  His most famous creation remains the multi-part graphic novel known as Locke and Key, while his 2008 novel, Horns, was recently made into a Daniel Radcliffe vehicle a while back.  His name has received its most recent boost from having his 2013 novel, N0S402, translated into an open-ended TV series adaptation of the same name.

It's an admirable achievement for the most part, and Hill has been able to demonstrate a remarkable sense of talent when it comes to entertaining his audience.  This begins to make a bit more sense when you take the author's family history into account.  In the strictest sense, Joe Hill the writer is a man who doesn't exist, except as a limited number of words that make up a fictional pseudonym.  I suppose it looks good or at least serviceable enough for a book jacket byline.  However, that still doesn't tell readers the whole truth.  His real name is Joseph Hillstrom King, and for whatever reason, he was lucky enough to have the famous Horror author Stephen King as a father.  Once this important fact is kept in mind, the outlines of Hill's creative output begins to perhaps make a bit more sense.

The introduction to his recently published anthology series, Full Throttle, is unique in that it marks the first time Hill has opened up about how the writings of his own Dad have influenced the nature of his career.  "Most sons fall into one of two groups.  There's the boy who looks upon his father and thinks, I hate that son of a bitch, and I swear to God I'm never going to be anything like him.

"Then there's the boy who aspires to be like his father: to be as free, and as kind, and as comfortable in his own skin.  A kid like that isn't afraid he's going to resemble his dad in word and action.  He's afraid he won't measure up.  It seems to me that the first kind of son is the most  truly lost in his father's shadow.  On the surface that probably seems counterintuitive.  After all, here's a dude who looked at Papa and decided to run as far and as fast as he could in the other direction.  How much distance do you have to put between yourself and your old man before you're finally free?

"And yet at every crossroads in his life, our guy finds his father standing right behind him: on the first date, at the  wedding, on the job interview.  Every choice must be weighed against Dad's example, so our guy knows to do the opposite...and in this way a bad relationship goes on and on, even if father and son haven't spoken in years.  All that running and the guy never gets anywhere.

"The second kid, he hears that John Donne quote - We're scare our fathers' shadows cast at noon - and nods and thinks, Ah shit, ain't that the truth?  He's been lucky - terribly, unfairly, stupidly lucky.  He's free to be his own man, because his father was.  The father, in truth, doesn't throw a shadow at all.  He becomes instead a source of illumination, a means to see the territory ahead a little more clearly and find one's particular path.  I try to remember how lucky I've been (2-3)".

Hill doesn't leave it at that, and is kind enough to provide the reader with a kind of map of his own development as a writer.  It kind of helped that both his parents were not just "book people", but were also dedicated to the art and crafting of a good story.  In spite of this, Hill says he was a poor student.  Here again, his parents demonstrated just how much they cared about their son's ambitions.  There big discovery was that Hill was able to remember things better if it came to him from the pages of a book.  It was a copy of Ray Bradbury's Zen and the Art of Writing which began to unlock all the important doors in Hill's career.  The writer also mentions how make-up artist Tom Savini acted as a kind of "second father" and role model for him to look up to.

It was from Savini that Hill inherited the sometimes impish sense of glee the writer demonstrates in bringing some of his wackier and off the wall concepts to fruition.  I can see how some readers might be inclined to turn their noses up at these moments as a kind of sophomoric sensibility that the author allows to get in his way.  In Hill's defense, I'm willing to maintain he is able to pull off such stunts, more often than not.  Even when he doesn't make the jump shot, it's not for a lack of either talent or inspiration.  Instead it seems to a phenomenon I was puzzled about at first, but have since come to realize as those unfortunate, yet genuine moments when the inspiration is there, yet it also somehow manages to remain just out of the artist's reach.  I can't even begin to consider the level of frustration that must bring to someone who is such a perfectionist at his craft as Hill is.  The good news is that he never let it discourage him for long.

With all that in mind, it's refreshing to see Hill is the type of writer who isn't shy or ashamed of the influences on his sleeve.  There are two interesting aspects about Hill's work.  The first is the most obvious in the sense that it's plain as day that he's followed in his own dad's footsteps.  The second and more important is the way his work serves as both an extension and continuation of the type of Gothic tale that helped put Stephen King on the map.  I'll get into that subject in it's proper place.  For the moment its enough to stop and take a quick, close look at one of the stories in Full Throttle.  It's an intriguing sort of yarn in its ability to take old ideas, tropes, concepts, and give them a fresh spin.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Souls of Wit: A Tribute to the Algonquin Round Table.

Does the name sound familiar?  Even if it does, the faces escape us.  That's not too much of a surprise.  The trouble with history is that its what everyone wants to get away from and everybody has to have.  It's a sentiment the knights of the old Round Table would have known and applauded.  They were made of different stuff back then.  Another aspect of history is that it all happened in the past.  What that means is sooner or later everyone has a jigsaw puzzle dropped right in front of them, and its our inglorious task to try and see if the pieces fit together.  Whether any of us learn to warm to this subject depends a great deal on whether its able to capture your interest.  That makes it a very haphazard affair, and even when the past is able to bait the hook, it's still no guarantee that the final picture is correct in every detail.

Very few remember the legends of the Round Table.  Not the one I'm talking about, anyway.  I call them knights, although perhaps a better way is to describe them all as a scrappy lot of literary talents looking for some kind of professional home.  At least, that was how it all started out.  It all happened in New York, not long after the First World War.  A lot of the decommissioned war correspondents made their way back to the Apple and somehow found themselves lounging around the dining area designated as the Rose Room of the Algonquin hotel in between waiting for the next gig.  In that sense they were pointers to a more noticeable facet of today's economy.  Back then, however, their professional credentials just made them third-class citizen of a second-class society.  Still, they were able to keep their heads above water.  Some of them like George S. Kaufman and Robert Benchley were up and coming names in the theater circuit.  Both Kaufman and Benchley were critics reporting on the products of the Great White Way at the time the story started.

They were returning vets in one form or another, and were at New York's Algonquin Hotel to welcome back another fellow ink-stained wretch.  His name was Alexander Woollcott, and it was his strange stuffiness mixed in with a bit of low-lying snobbery that made Benchley and the others decide to play a prank on him.  The nature, meaning, and intent of the prank itself is so small as to be unremarkable.  They erected a welcome back banner for Woollcott with his name deliberately misspelled and they were even considerate enough to add in the byline of a fellow critic that Woollcott despised to the masthead.  The prank itself was a minor thing, however the sense of camaraderie it inspired in the participants, even Woollcott as it turned out, made one of them ask, ""Why don't we do this every day (6-7)".

A better sense of the context of that moment in relation to its own time is I think best provided in the following description.  "The period that followed the end of World War I was one of gaiety and optimism, and it sparked a new era of creativity in American culture. Surely one of the most profound — and outrageous — influences on the times was the group of a dozen or so tastemakers who lunched together at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel. For more than a decade they met daily and came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table. With members such as writers Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross (founder of The New Yorker) and Robert Benchley; columnists Franklin Pierce Adams and Heywood Broun, and Broun’s wife Ruth Hale; critic Alexander Woollcott; comedian Harpo Marx; and playwrights George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood, the Round Table embodied an era and changed forever the face of American humor.

"It all began with an afternoon roast of the New York Times drama critic, Alexander Wollcott. A number of writers met up at the Algonquin Hotel on 44th street and had such a good time that the event was repeated the next day, and the day after that, until the lunch table at the Algonquin was established as a ritual. The core group of friends was sometimes joined by others who attended for short periods or drifted about the periphery of the group, including such notables as actress Tallulah Bankhead and playwright Noel Coward. The Round Table was made up of people with a shared admiration for each other’s work. Outspoken and outrageous, they would often quote each other freely in their daily columns.

"Round Tabler Edna Ferber, who called them “The Poison Squad,” wrote, “They were actually merciless if they disapproved. I have never encountered a more hard-bitten crew. But if they liked what you had done, they did say so publicly and whole-heartedly.” Their standards were high, their vocabulary fluent, fresh, astringent, and very, very tough. Both casual and incisive, they had a certain terrible integrity about their work and boundless ambition. Some of the most notable members of the Round Table came together to work on significant collaborative projects. George Kaufman teamed up with Edna Ferber and Marc Connelly on some of his best stage comedies, including Dulcy and The Royal Family. Harold Ross of The New Yorker hired both Dorothy Parker as a book reviewer and Robert Benchley as a drama critic (web)".  I think its somewhat telling that another member of the group was named Bill Murray.  As the later comic once observed, "Like you, I am shocked".  I suppose the final ingredient to the mix, the one acts as a decent capper, is the addition of the Brothers of the aforementioned Mr. Marx.

One of the things I've begun to notice is how a lot of the really great artistic accomplishments are either the result of the kind of informal group collaboration like that described above, or else they're at the very least interlinked by what I can only describe as a wave of inspiration that effects the culture of which each artist forms an integral part.  In the case of the Round Table, it seems as if a little bit of both was at work.  I've only begun to dive into this particular artistic group, yet what I've found already is enough to warrant a closer look or two.  As of this writing, I've familiarized myself with the work of four the members, or hangers-on of the the Tablers: Benchley, Kaufman, James Thurber, and  E.B. White.  Right now these four seem to represent to me the core artistic principles that forged a kind of informal bond for the Table.

It's the nature of those principles that I'd like to take a moment to examine.  I think unpacking the toolbox the group used to compose their works can help gain a better understanding of the ideas that drove the collective.  What makes it interesting is that what I've found convinces me that the Round Table as an artistic collective can help throw some interesting light on a forgotten influence on the nature of not just modern fiction, but on the practice of fantasy writing in the twentieth century.  The core principles of the Table that I've been able to discover come down to just three elements.  The first is that I think it helps to see the four knights discussed here as part of the Modernist experiment in world fiction at the time.  While guys like Benchley, Thurber, and White were making a name for themselves at The New Yorker, across the pond, guys like Ezra Pound and James Joyce were also busy mapping out the parameters of what Post-War literature could become.

The second element that was spread out over the work of the entire Table was that of Humor.  This is an arena in which guys like Kaufman and Marx were able to shine.  In particular, a brief look at the collaboration between the two can help to demonstrate the legacy they've left behind for up and coming modern comics.  The third and final element that united the group was their revelatory and unexpected approach to the topic of Myth.  In some ways, this is the biggest surprise I was able to uncover about the group, and the best part is I wasn't even on the lookout for anything.  I just kept going through the bibliography of guys like White and Thurber, or the list of performances made by Benchley, and somehow it finally got through that there was a genuine sense of respect for the kind of storytelling that was frowned upon by all the important taste-makers of the time.  It's the most overlooked aspect of the Round Table, and I think it may also be the one subject I'd like to go through the most.  So, grab a a favorite drink, a chair, put on some proper mood music, and meet some interesting people.