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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Reader's Guide to "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe

First appeared in The Pioneer. Reprinted more times than you can shake a stick: [by]  Edwin Baird, Alexander Laing, Philip Van Doren Stern, Boris Karloff, John L. Hardie, Robert K. Brunner, Howard Browne, Don Congdon, Charles Higham, Groff Conklin, Eric Protter, Syd Bentlif, Rosamund Morris, Robert A. W. Lowndes, Robert Arthur, David Aloian, Aidan Chambers, Nancy Chambers, Peter Haining, Mary Danby, Robert Potter, Les Daniels, Diane Thompson, Deborah Shine, Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh, Martin H. Greenberg, Betty Ann Schwartz, Simon Petherick, Margaret Iverson, Rex Collings, Italo Calvino, Ron Hanna, Kathleen Blease, Martin H. Greenberg, Mike Baker, Leslie Pockell, Megan Dempster, Mollie Denman, Laura Kuhn, Alex Lubertozzi, Adele Hartley, Barry Moser, Chris Mould, Michael Hague, Devon Hague, Andrew Barger, Marie O'Regan, Paul Kane, Karen Henderson, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen Jones, Marguerite Kenner. <--partial a="" href="" listing.="">Online
A murderer explains his crime with what he assumes is reasonable reason.
Analysis with Questions and Spoilers:
Haven't read this? Remedy the matter here.

I. The Nature of the Tale
Strangely, this has been anthologized in ghost and monster collections. The monster appellation fits loosely as a metaphor, but ghost is likely problematic considering the nature of our narrator, established early on.

II. Opening
The story opens:
"TRUE! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?"
What is the narrator trying to accomplish here?

At least two things: 1) establish his veracity. He is. His events seem to align--in his mind, at least--with the facts. He admits to failings of nervousness. 2) say that he is not mad. We probably never buy into his arguments, which makes him unreliable narrator. We ask why he would tell us this if he weren't. It is probably the easiest way to establish something by denying it (even though, hypocritically, we have probably denied things that weren't true about ourselves).

III. Reader's Role
"The disease had sharpened my senses --not destroyed --not dulled them."
Who are we, the readers, in this narrative? What have we said to the narrator?

We are his accusers. We said 1) that he is mad, 2) that he's lost his senses, and 3) that he is diseased.

IV. The Narrator's Sanity

A. Narrator's Misunderstanding

How does the narrator respond? Does he understand the accusations?

Unlikely. While the narrator latches on to the idea of disease and combines it with the senses, we the accusers were probably stating the same thing in different words: You are insane. Your morality is corrupt (a less common usage of "disease").

B. Calm Passion
"Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily --how calmly I can tell you the whole story."
What can we conclude from this?

This may be but seems unlikely. Again, the denial and the repetition of the word "mad" establishes the madness. Note the exclamation points. We sense his difficulty to control his passion despite his claim to the telling as "calmly" told.

C. A Certain Uncertain Motivation
"It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture --a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees --very gradually --I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever."
How do we accusers view his reasoning for murder?

He loves the old man, and doesn't know why he killed him except that the idea suddenly possessed him. Note he writes, "I think it was his eye!" He thinks? He confirms it to himself with detail that we roll with this reasoning if a nonsensical one. Yet he thinks? He has to convince himself. With such detail, how could he forget or be uncertain? Is it madness or a lying mind? Probably the latter since we learn he has exposed his own deed.

V. Kind to Be Cruel
"I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him."
What can we make of this line? What does it suggest? Who might the old man be?

For one, the irony makes it unintentionally (on the narrator's part) if darkly humorous. Also, the word "whole" paired with "week" as if that's a long time to be kind, especially  when you're planning to do in the kindness recipient, which adds a new wrinkle to the phrase "kill them with kindness."

This brings us to a recurrent character of Poe's the kind back-stabber or the faux friend. You'll find him stories like "The Cask of Amontillado" as well. Considering the evil and conniving nature of such villains, one might be able to guess Poe's opinion of such men or women.

In addition to age, the "old man" can refer amiably to one's father or an older man that one cares for. So this may be a story of patricide.

VI. Lineage and Genetics
"[P]erhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back --but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness, (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers,).... 
"I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in bed, crying out --'Who's there?'
"I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed listening; --just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall. 
"Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief --oh, no! --it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself --'It is nothing but the wind in the chimney --it is only a mouse crossing the floor,' or 'It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp.' Yes, he had been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions: but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel --although he neither saw nor heard --to feel the presence of my head within the room. 
"When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him lie down..."

Granted that this represents the narrator's perspective, how does the old man act?

If the old man is the narrator's father, the apple may not have fallen far from the tree. Their paranoia mirror each other although the father's seems closer to normal.

VII. Wisdom vs. Madness
"If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body."

Does this reassure you about the narrator's madness?

VIII. Fear Fear
"for what had I now to fear?... for what had I to fear?"

What does it mean that the narrator repeats this? What does he fear?

IX. Villainy of Perspective

"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed!"

Who are the villains? 

More irony although he is the villain.

X. Ironic Structure

There is a further irony in the story's structure. Although the reader is supposedly the accuser, he is also the accused. When we read, we tend to cast our sympathies and consciousness in with the protagonist so that we paradoxically become both. What does this say about us? That we are both mad and sane? Villain, victim, and accuser?

I still recall first reading this in grade school, reading about a crazy man who justifies himself in a way that is reasonable even if his reasoning is flawed. He does not view himself evil or mad, but entirely rational through his own faculties. This ability amazed me then. Whenever I feel dismissive of the tale, I reread it and sense the mad power thrumming, beating like a heartbeat the wood boards of the words.

Note: It is important to remind readers that because a narrator is mad does not mean the author is also mad.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Mysterious Book Promo

I received an email this morning:

Henry Bloomburg

4:10 AM (4 hours ago)

to bcc: 
I don't know who this is going to reach, and I don't know what will happen when it does.

I'm sorry if he gets to you the way he got to me. 

My name is Henry Bloomburg, and I am a private investigator. I was on a case when I first noticed the man. Except he wasn't a man. 

I saw him from the corner of my eye, and it's like he's stuck there. Stuck inside me, somehow, and I can't get away.

I've tried, but I know the truth now - once you start searching, you can never go back. 

You have to look closer. Follow the clues - they're everywhere. If you follow them, you'll see him too. We have to see him to stop him. But I don't know how to get him out once he's there. I can feel him in me, crawling, like a fly on meat.

I can prove it's happening. There are clues all around. Just look. Look closer. You'll see him too, and I don't know if we'll all be damned or not so I'm sorry for this. I'm sorry.

Please. Help me. I can't stop. 

It's interesting if a bit vague. I guessed either someone was demented, or a writer had gotten hold of my email. I searched for "Henry Bloomburg" and "email" to see if it were a scam or a book. Book, it turns out.

Needless to say, some people will be ticked. An advertisement? I thought it was another Nigerian scam! 

But I'm intrigued. I like the semi-meta element and set-up. This campaign piqued my interest anyway. Hopefully, I didn't ruin his mystery through the powers of Googling. Good luck, Colum. Your ad worked on me.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Gina Berriault on our contemporary culture's inability to venture or artificial limitation of venturing into writing about certain necessary subjects/themes

"We write to be acceptable. Some thing I wanted to write about, I haven't because I was afraid I wouldn't be published.... I like to believe... that I wrote truthfully, but I've always felt the presence of anonymous and not-so-anonymous authority."
--Gina Berriault from Passion and Craft interview

Has this trend gotten worse?

Gina Berriault on characters

"The way to escape from the person you figure you may be is to become many other in your imagination.... I haven't roamed far enough."
--Gina Berriault from Passion and Craft interview

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"[Why there is a gap between books is] a question that should never be asked. It opens a wound. What can a writer say about gaps and silences?"
--Gina Berriault from Passion and Craft interview

Gina Berriault on the failing of contemporary writers

"In Unanmo's Tragic Sense of Life he speaks about poets' desperate longing to be remembered, to be immortal. I think that concept of immortality is long... gone from our consciousness.... Now the vying with one another is only for present gain. When I asked the students if they'd read this-or-that greatwriter, most had read only contemporary writers."
--Gina Berriault from Passion and Craft interview

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Gina Berriault on learning the craft with others

"I regret not having a formal, organized education.... I wish I'd studied world history, philosophy, comparative literatrue, and... several languages... [T]here is no excuse for my lack... of intellectual exploring.... [L]earn more about everything... rove... be curious, and... read more great writers from everywhere.... [Enter] a creative writing program... [to learn] how to shape what's already known and felt. Sometimes, when I taught workshops, I was glad I hadn't subjected myself to the unkind criticism of strangers. There's so much competitiveness, concealed and overt."
--Gina Berriault from Passion and Craft interview

Gina Berriault on learning the craft alone

"One thing I'd do was put a great writer's book beside the typewriter and... type out a beautiful and moving paragraph... and see those sentences rising up... and... think, 'Someday maybe I can write like that....' It was like a dream of possibilities for my own self. And maybe I began to know that there was no other way for the sentence... to... arouse the same feeling. The someone writing whose words were rising from the typewriter became like a mentor for me.... You shouldn't do it more than a few times because you must get on with your own work."
--Gina Berriault from Passion and Craft interview

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Manliness and Manitude (pt 1) in Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's Hurt Locker

Someone said she wouldn't read a book without females. Dave Wolverton suggests you populate your stories with a maximum of character types to maximize your audience. No doubt that's true, but life happens outside mixed groups, and fiction can get interesting when the focus narrows.

Bigelow and Boal's Hurt Locker tells (yes, there will be spoilers, so go watch it) with a three-man EOD team or a bomb diffusing squad.

Death: Amazingly, they toss big actors Guy Pearce and Ralph Fienes, and we the audience believe they'll be around for awhile. Boom. Nope. They want you to think this is life and death. The people you're used to rooting for, can die. That's war.... But it's also something that fascinates men--violence, death, honor, codes of conduct.

Violence, Honor, Codes of Conduct: The lead, Sergeant First Class William James [Jeremy Renner], takes an unnecessary risk with the smoke screen, which I doubt this character would take. It seems to me likely he'd take risks to defuse bombs, but not stop his mates from helping (unless he has reasoning we're not privy to). So in this case, we agree when Sergeant J. T. Sanborn [Anthony Mackie] punches James in the gut.

Violence, Honor, Codes of Conduct: Of course, not all men are equally drawn to these subjects, but most of us are to a degree or are fascinated by other men's fascination. The scene involving traded gut-punches evoked memories. One young wanted a group of us guys to organize wrestling matches. When I broke my arm playing rugby, he urged me to play again, with the broken limb. A river, inner-tube trip with another group of guys ended up in an impromptu mud-wrestling match. You play or you're a spoil sport. Or say, the pointless grade-school fight (started by someone claiming I said something I had not--someone bored, no doubt) ended up in friendship afterwards.

A Man's Life: We wind up focused on one man's life, William James (perhaps named after the famed 19th century philosopher/psychologist). He befriends a lad, threatening his life one minute, then saying he's joking the next, proving the joke by buying things from the kid and giving him bonuses (earned by defending James's terrible soccer kick). When James find a dead kid looking like the kid he befriended, he must avenge the kid's life, as if the kid were his own. He holds the man for whom the boy works. He interrogates a family. He shoots down three men in the street, one of whom is part of his EOD team. And it turns out James misidentified the kid.

When James goes home to the States, he tells his baby boy (not his wife) that for men all the things in life you love whittles down to one or two things. For him, there's only one. He returns to Iraq for another tour.

Part 2 regarding Michael Chabon's "Along the Frontage Road" appears here.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Manliness and Manitude (pt 2)* in "Along the Frontage Road" by Michael Chabon

"Along the Frontage Road" first appeared in The New Yorker. Reprinted in Best American Short Stories.

Someone said she wouldn't read a book without females. Dave Wolverton suggests you populate your stories with a maximum of character types to maximize your audience. No doubt that's true, but life happens outside mixed groups, and fiction can get interesting when the focus narrows.

Chabon's story examines this from an angle different than Bigelow and Boal's (scheduled for release 10/21)*. Here the narrator seems less preoccupied by death and violence and yet it's there if buried. Mostly, perhaps to his surprise or chagrin (though his emotional response isn't recorded), the Manly Code of Conduct permeates their consciences--consciously or unconsciously--written differently on each "man" (term used loosely). Another difference is that manliness is on this character's mind, which the more pensive men tend to do.

Again there are spoilers, but it's hard to spoil literary stories.

The story opens with the narrator's family tradition: pumpkin selection for Halloween. So the weight of tradition, of generations hangs heavy on this story. There's a brief allusion to an infant child who died. Another gave this the story's full weight. But I don't read it that way. The story spends it's time on men interacting with men. The death (again, death) plays more of a catalyst's role, a way of bringing the men together. 

The Jewish narrator spots a young black boy bored and irritated that he's been left alone in the muscle car while his dad does manly things in the Bait shop (the narrator turns out to be correct). The boy, in other words, is left out of manly discourse. Note all or the manly things mentioned above. 

Meanwhile, the narrator's son selects his pumpkin. It is small, possibly too small to carve. The narrator is disappointed in his son's selection, agrees with the other boy who walks up to offer his commentary. When the other boy's father arrives, disappointed perhaps that his son would consort with Jews or other men?

I choose to follow a non-race interpretation, but yours may be different (after all, the narrator also quickly judged the other man's manhood, guessing him to be a drug dealer with no apparent evidence that I noticed). Instead, I see this as men disappointed in other men's manliness. That disapproval and perhaps guilt over telling his son what kind of pumpkin he should pick, causes him to attempt to erase what he said about picking a larger pumpkin. The boy should pick his own, say, manliness or pumpkin. The boy chooses both--his own, for the sister he'll never have, and a larger "normal" one for carving.

A "frontage road" is a service road, the one off a main road. According to Merriam-Webster, "frontage" can also mean "the act... of facing a given way," which verifies the different direction all of these men are pointing. Possibly, also "affront" is intended, the causing of offense. If so, these affronts are buried, unstated in each man's sense or orientation of what manliness is.

* * *

My point in examining these two works is to show the potency art can attain by limiting its focus. The same goes for women, of course (or any group). As an editor, I recently tried to vote for a wonderful tale set in an all-girls school. I've selected poems about being a woman from women and asked men to do the same. Crickets chirped. No one took the bait.

This isn't to say that literature has to be purposefully segregated or isolationist group--just that it can make for great art.

Those of us interested in humanity are interested art and life in their various manifestations, not limiting art and life to any one kind of ideological interaction. That said, many solely manly or womanly arts may not be to my taste. So it goes. No one is required to like everything.

Some may only want one type of literature--all men, all women, all mixed, all fantastic, no fantastic. That's fine, but please don't limit others in what they like to read/view/etc. Don't deprive others of art's richness. We live in a world of genetic variety. And don't threaten people's lives or livelihoods because you disagree, either, for that matter. Please. Play nice.

* * *

Aside:  Here was an amusing pair of lines, amusing in how Chabon switches tone:
"Toward the end of the year, however, with a regularity that approximates, in its way, the eternal rolling wheel of the seasons, men appear with trailers, straw bales, fence wire, and a desultory assortment of orange-and-black or red-and-green bunting. First they put up polystyrene human skeletons and battery-operated witches, and then, a few weeks later, string colored lights and evergreen swags."
* The point of reversing the order of the essay is so that they may appear in order later (first to post appears below the following post).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Gina Berriault, author

Here's a writer I'd heard of but doubted I read anything of hers. It turns out I had. I suspect a number of us have read "The Stone Boy" by Gina Berriault:

  1. Story (in Points of View anthology) -- definitely read this one. I must have read at as a lad and it's still stuck with me.
  2. Film, won the 1972 New York Teenage Kodak Movie Award for Best Cinematography. It seems pretty bad until you realize these guys are amateurs. Then it's impressive. They pull off some good moments despite limitations of budget and acting classes. Kudos.

Other stories:

  1. "The Woman in the Rose-Colored Dress" at Narrative
  2. "The Infinite Passion of Expectation" at Vice
  3. "Around the Dear Ruin" [page down] at Vice 
Interview and articles:
  1. Passion and Craft interview (Here's an author who takes early influences seriously. She includes genre fantasists like George MacDonald. Usually names get rattled off.)
  2. Daphne Kalotay
  3. Marianne Rogoff's student remembrance
  4. Here's Richard Yates on the beginning of "Around the Dear Ruin"
  5. Here's Whitney Otto on its ending
  6. The best I can't find, but if you can find another here's a place holder

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Resurrection Points" by Usman T. Malik

Appeared in Strange Horizons, which is doing their annual fundraiser.
This is a solid performance by newcomer Usman T. Malik. The imagisitically stimulating story relates how Baba leads Daoud and through his ability to animate a murdered young man through resurrection points. Slowly, Daoud develops his ability to animate a dead chicken, a cat, and a human who seems to shrug on his own. Meanwhile, some community Muslims don't want to bury the dead boy in the graveyard because he was Christian. Baba pushes against them, but the Muslims overreact, torching a small village, killing many Christians.

Spoilers & Commentary:
His mother has been hiding her Christianity. The local Muslims found her birth name and used it to get back at Baba, and Daoud discovers he had family in the village. Even Baba has passed away. So Daoud raises the entire village of dead people.

The tale itself is compelling and sure to satisfy. Malik has developed Daoud into a Christ figure. Daoud paraphrases certain sentences, raises the dead, and bleeds from the palms. Presumably, he will drive the dead in to give these local Muslims a reckoning for their behavior, but it's not clear how long or strong these zombies will last. It's a great final image but hard to imagine what it will accomplish except to show discontent and cast Daoud in an evil light among the Muslims (perhaps a sequel is forthcoming). The tale seems to reveal discontent with violent answers to religious disagreement.

Although much of the tale is outside Daoud, it is solidly told. Likely, Usman T. Malik will be a writer to watch. A discussion of his other story, "The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family", can be found here. Both stories admirably treat the problematic issue of violence within a culture.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: Million Dollar Professionalism by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta

The "Million Dollar" phrase is used to indicate that the authors have sold at least a million dollars worth of books, a marker intended to show the authors know what they're talking about. I read David Farland/Wolverton's Million Dollar Outlines (reviewed here) mistakenly thinking it indicated popular methods of writing (although that is Wolverton's purpose).

In Anderson and Moesta's modest book (about the length of a novella or so), they turn their gaze upon how one behaves as a writing professional. Some of it should be obvious: Bathe. Others we need reminders: Thank you's and unexpected generosity can win you fans. They supply examples. Also, I've thought of conventions as times to relax, but they show that for writers, it's the opposite.

And be nice. To everyone. It's something we've lost sight of, in this age of outrage. Anderson and Moesta do state that writers may choose to stick their necks out for different cases, which may earn you attention for one group, but the book's authors ask if that's worth alienating part of your readership. It doesn't discuss diplomacy and whether it can be executed effectively.

Although I've tried kindness and diplomacy since I've been in the field, the book lists things I still need to work on. I highly recommend this book of writerly etiquette -- comparable to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People for the genre writer. Carnegie's book was so popular at one time that it became an object of scorn. If you read it, though, you'll find it packed with sound advice. Anderson and Moesta's Million Dollar Professionalism may fall into the same category.

Amazon had it on sale for $6.99, so snag this with several other volumes of writer advice at Story Bundle.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Real Mad Scientists from the 1940s

Aside 1 (pointless gender battles): This propaganda presumably came from a guy who was tired of hearing from women that they have to give birth to babies (though it is possible that a woman, tired of hearing about other women's birth pains, wrote this). Birth pains may be a badge of pride or shame depending on which woman said it. So the guy came back with this.

He captions the picture: "No right to moan about child birth." The guy and the people he's arguing with must be teenagers or in their early twenties. Who cares if someone moans about pain, whatever kind?

Aside 2 (impressive photoshop):  I am impressed with how well they matched colors in this photo. The black and white probably helps. Here's the original:

Mad Scientists
I did some fact-checking: A pain unit of measurement does exist, they're apparently called dol (for dolores) -- not del. I have no idea where this guy gets his numbers or how they should be used (I've had broken bones worse than kick to the nether region). One friend said giving birth wasn't bad, others hated it. In med school they said the worst pain was kidney stones, followed by childbirth, but who knows? The guy who said it was a urologist. Was it a badge of pride for his profession? Pain is hard to measure because people are different. Surely, scientists noticed this phenomenon before undertaking an experiment of dubious ethics. Can't you hear scientists mu-ah-ah-ah and rubbing their hands?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Casting the Runes" by M. R. James -- Will the real mad scientist please stand up?

First appeared in Astounding. Reprinted by V. H. Collins, Alexander Laing, Herbert A. Wise, Phyllis Fraser, Alfred Hitchcock, Edward Gorey, John Keir Cross, Don Ward, Stephen P. Sutton, Vic Ghidalia, Barbara H. Wolf, Jack C. Wolf, Stuart David Schiff, Frank D. McSherry, Jr., Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh, Peter Haining, Robert Silverberg, Brad Leithauser, David Sandner, Jacob Weisman, Chad Arment, John Pelan, Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer.

Scientists have thoroughly drubbed an occult scientist, Karswell trying to publish about alchemy and such phenomena. One scientist dies, having fled up a tree and fallen off a dead branch--his face locked in horror. Another scientist realizes he may be next.

Commentary & Spoilers:
The scientists figure out that the problem is a piece of paper with cryptic runes on it. It had happened to Harrington's brother. With only so much time, they manage to pawn the paper off back on Karswell who died from a fallen stone off a church though there'd been no workers at the time.

An interesting use of the mad-scientist trope. In this case, the sane scientists are the unethical ones. They've denied the occult without proof and even with proof don't support Karswell's findings. So in a sense, they, too, represent mad scientists. Further, they're not even sure that Karswell is behind the runes. Although it seems likely, they can't be sure.
"Had they been justified in sending a man to his death, as they believed they had? Ought they not to warn him, at least? 'No,' said Harrington; 'if he is the murderer I think him, we have done no more than is just.' "
If Karswell is out for revenge, most readers probably feel his end is justified. He is the primary mad scientist. But what if he isn't? Then Harrington and Dunning are the only true mad scientists, a fact which may escape some readers. Perhaps that is the true horror here: Those, whom we assume to be sane and good, are actually the evil-doers.

1. What do the rune victims actually see or are visited by? A demon?

"One was a woodcut of Bewick's, roughly torn out of the page: one which shows a moonlit road and a man walking along it, followed by an awful demon creature. Under it were written the lines out of the 'Ancient Mariner' (which I suppose the cut illustrates) about one who, having once looked round--
                  walks on,
  And turns no more his head,
  Because he knows a frightful fiend
  Doth close behind him tread.
Dog or human?
"he got a dog with him, or what? Funny thing: I could 'a' swore 'e wasn't alone."
2. The translation of runes is unknown; therefore, they have a mystery about them and are thought by some to be magical, inhabiting that great realm of the unknown/unknowable. No doubt, this is why James employs them.

Monday, October 13, 2014

"The Weapon" by Fredric Brown

First appeared in Astounding. Reprinted by Groff Conklin, Michael Sissons, Isaac Asimov, Terry Carr, James Sallis, William F. Goodykoontz, Theodore W. Hipple, Robert G. Wright, J. E. Pournelle, Martin H. Greenberg, and Gregory Benford.

A stranger named Niemand enters Mr. Graham's house. Niemand has come to get Graham to rethink his weapon, but Graham is uninterested, not to mention annoyed, wondering how to rid himself of the stranger. When Graham fetches a drink, Niemand visits Graham's mentally handicapped son, Harry. He gives Harry a gift. When Graham sees what it is, he sweats.
Commentary & Spoilers:
"only a madman would give a loaded revolver to an idiot."
What Niemand has done is paralleled Graham's action in a cruel way. The gun, of course, is a nuclear weapon, and the idiots whoever is in charge of them. Depending on your perspective, you may or may not agree that the metaphor is perfect, but it provokes thought.

Brown signals immediately what he's up to:
"The room was quiet in the dimness of early evening."
Earth, too--this room we inhabit--is ultimately a limited space. When discharging something so sweeping as a nuclear bomb, the effects spread, making the Earth feel smaller. The dimness also presents a problem in limiting our ability to see. And it is evening, or the death of day, should a grand nuclear war occur.

Like M.R. James' "Casting of the Runes," we can't be certain who the madman or mad scientist is in this case. Possibly both. Niemand made his point, but his ethics are dubious at best. The same could be said of Graham.

This is not only one of my favorite Fredric Brown stories but also a favorite in SF. Brilliant execution. Go forth and read.


  1. Niemand means "nobody" in German.
  2. Graham means "gray home."
  3. Harry means "persistently harass." 
  4. Chicken Little -- the chicken who said "The sky is falling" although it was not. Niemand hopes this story is always true.

"The King of the Beasts" by Philip José Farmer

First appeared in Galaxy. Reprinted by Tom Boardman, Jr., Frederik Pohl, Jane Yolen, Edmund J. Farrell, Thomas E. Gage, John Pfordresher, Raymond J. Rodrigues, Robert R. Potter, Joseph D. Olander, Martin Harry Greenberg, Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh, Robert Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz.

Zoo of extinct Earth beasts reconstructed from bones, including the most dangerous...

Spoiler & Commentary:
Drum roll. "Man!" That seems to be the punchline for many of these short shorts. It must have been potent in its day: Look at all of its reprints. Isaac Asimov writes in his usual dry wit, "That's going too far."

Asimov collected this as a mad scientist tale. Farmer hid from us who the speakers were in a sort of POV cheat so that we might guess the character were human. Instead, they must be alien.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Heading Home" by Ramsey Campbell

First appeared in Whispers. Reprinted by Gerald W. Page, Stuart David Schiff, Al Sarrantonio, and Martin H. Greenberg.

A scientist discovers not only has he been cuckolded but he's also had his muscles cut by her literally butcher boyfriend. He struggles for every inch up the stairs. The boyfriend hears something and says he's going to investigate.

Spoilers & Commentary:
What a perfectly horrid title pun, and what a perfectly executed mad scientist tale.

The scientist has killed kids in order to make himself immortal. Of course, that doesn't negate what the lovers have done, but Campbell has beautifully switched our loyalties. The boyfriend is called back, and the scientist makes it back to the lab, where his body is. He'll sew himself back together.

I'm a little dubious about the head's propulsion system, though.

The mad-scientist perfection is how he justifies his misdeeds and allies our sympathies until we truly learn what sort of man he is.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" by Edgar Allan Poe

First appeared in The American Review. Reprinted by J. Walker McSpadden, Hugo Gernsback, V. H. Collins, Dennis Wheatley, Herbert A. Wise, Phyllis Fraser, John L. Hardie, Judith Merril, Elizabeth Lee, Charles Higham, Herbert van Thal, Noah D. Fabricant, M.D., Groff Conklin, H. Bruce Franklin, Robert Aickman, Lee Wright, Richard G. Sheehan, Leo P. Kell, ey, Peter Haining, Kurt Singer, Eric S. Rabkin, Mary Danby, Stuart David Schiff, J. A. Cuddon, Tim Haydock, Al Sarrantonio, Martin H. Greenberg, Stephen Jones, Mary Hill, Rebecca K. Rizzo, Gary Crew, Aaron Polson, Jean M. Goldstrom, Andrew Barger, and Otto Penzler. 
Doctors hypnotize a dying man and prolong his life.
Commentary & spoilers:
The dying/dead man begs to be killed. He dies as soon as the hypnotism is removed.

This is actually a problem that continues into the present although less so than it once was. Doctors prolong life to what end? I can't find the article now, but a doctor, who often prolonged life with cancer treatments, chose no therapy for himself. It is an assumption that people should live and keep wanting to live. We don't necessarily consider this scientist mad. Unless we hate our fathers, most of us like Dylan Thomas want our fathers to "rage against the dying of the light."

In this case, Poe pushed the case further. The man is dead. The doctor has exceeded his jurisdiction over life. For an instant, the doctor is mad and joins the ranks of mad scientists, but he does let the man die.

There might also be a case for the tale discussing about the letting-go of loved ones.

Overdrive Media -- Windows media player -- security upgrade

Here's something that may cause you a little headache that's more easily solved than anything I've found:

Go here:

Friday, October 10, 2014

"Cool Air" by H. P. Lovecraft

First appeared in Tales of Magic and Mystery. Reprinted by Farnsworth Wright, Elizabeth Lee, Alden H. Norton, Seon Manley, Gogo Lewis, Don Ward, Gerry Goldberg, Stephen Storoschuk, Fred Corbett, Stuart David Schiff, Helen Hoke, Carol Serling, Charles G. Waugh, Martin H. Greenberg, Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, and Stephen Jones.
The plot is simple. A man seeks lodging, finds it and visits his mad-scientist upstairs neighbor, who does not mind mixing science with the occult. The scientist or "benevolent fanatic" keeps his room cool. Nonetheless, the narrator feels repulsion.
Commentary & Spoilers
The cooler breaks down and the man dies. In fact, the man had died long ago, and only keeping himself cool extended his "life."

This scientist does seem mad--strange inventions, quirky personality, and general creepiness. But he isn't without human scruples--as far as we see, anyway. We do not see experiments with little to no ethical structure.

Lovecraft, like Poe, depends almost solely on effect--a deranged creepy, horror with its potent final image--as opposed to plot or character.
Notes: (from S.T. Joshi and Peter Canon)

  1. Apparently, Lovecraft couldn't write below 73 degrees, fainted at 20 degrees. He loathed the cold.
  2. Air conditioners only occurred in factories, not homes until WWII.
  3. The above editors point out that the ending letter written by a dying man is a common technique for Lovecraft.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

"At the Bottom of the Garden" by David Campton

First appeared in Whispers. Reprinted by Gerald W. Page and Stuart David Schiff.
Mrs. Williams, a mother, preoccupied with being a good housewife and cook, neglects to understand her daughter, her needs, and her daughter's friend, Ineed. She mentions Ineed's furry teeth, but Mrs. Williams ignores this as her daughter's imagination.

She thinks she sees her daughter dismantled with another, unknown child but suspects her vision's wonky. The daughter shows up without braces and with straightened teeth.

Commentary & spoilers:
The parents catch Ineed, the ugly "child," who appears quite aged amid their dismantled daughter. We leap out of Mrs. Williams' POV to an omniscient narrator to see the daughter's breathlessly begging that the parents allow her friend Ineed to do her thing. She dies that way.

Despite the semi-gruesome ending, I don't read this as horror. It's more like SF--the alien out to help the hapless humans, but the humans misunderstand to their own detriment.

Although Schiff collected this among various mad-scientist tales, his reasoning may simply be the strangeness of the being and its unorthodox healing. Also, it probably provided variety to his collection. It doesn't really show us the madness and/or problematic ethics of our scientist. It really doesn't touch on the issues that bringing up mad scientists delves into.

But perhaps it does show how people can misunderstand someone perceived to be a mad scientist, to their own detriment. The parents are perhaps too oblivious. It would have been nice if Mrs. Williams were a little more observant. We can, however, safely project ahead in time to discover that Mr. and Mrs. Williams went to their grave believing they just missed saving their daughter's, rather than being instrumental in its destruction. Perhaps limited understanding carries its own madness and problematic ethics.

I tried to show above that the name Ineed may simply be I-need. The mother keeps changing the name to Enid, which effectively wipes out not only the friend but also the child's various needs--ultimately to the child's demise.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Fringe: Surrounded by Madness

After returning from Honduras, I wanted to fill in the gaps of my pop culture. So far, Fringe and Orphan Black are the two programs I've found worth watching.

A while back, I reviewed Fringe's science book without having seen the program (I did hunt down the pilot). I rather like the program. It has a quirky combination of unlikely science, real science, SF, fantasy, mystery, suspense, horror, and humor.

It has a thing for madness, too. Whenever our protag experiences something paranormal, she has to tell her boss and friends that she's not crazy but... The kind of thing likely to get you committed in real life. Instead, they reassure her what a good agent she is.

Most intriguingly is how it pits mad scientists vs. mad scientists, making the good ones a little bad (Walter) and the bad ones questionable and sometimes helpful (evil? corporate Massive Dynamics vs. nebulous opponents to Massive Dynamics). Each week they shuffle the baddies to keep viewers uncertain.

They do and don't glorify science of dubious merit: Do: The imagery and ideas are outlandishly cool. Don't: They assess and reassess the damage scientists have wrecked on others--usually unwilling victims.

There is some outrageously bad science, too. One episode had the common-cold virus become a gigantic slug that zips along the floor. The problem is that viruses don't move and require cells to reproduce. So if you're a product, say, a million times larger than your warehouse, how do you build and release it? How does the thing coordinate itself and give itself a large protective covering? If you're a virus, doesn't it make sense to stay where the cells are, then release when there's a bunch of you?

I'm still watching it, so the bad science hasn't impaired my enjoyment of the program.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Story that Explains the Mad Scientist Trope: "The Doctor's Heroism" by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam

First appeared in Contes Cruels. Reprinted by Robert K. Brunner and Stuart David Schiff (also in 75 World Masterpieces).

The point of the mad-scientist trope has been lost. Some readers reject it as ridiculous. But it wasn't that long ago that scientists had a different frame of mind (see Nazi human experimentation and Tuskegee experiment): That scientific knowledge trumped the individual human.

Now we have medical research boards that check that human subjects are ethically treated. But the question remains: Are there areas where we still treat the individual human as unimportant, for whatever grandiose reason--for social, political, financial gain?

Of the mad-scientist tales I've read, this seems the quintessential work of its type. Mary Shelley and Nathaniel Hawthorne took on the trope memorably, but this one confronts the trope head-on, speaking more directly than others before it.

It's a simple story, so read it. I'm going to reveal "spoilers."

Dr. Hallidonhill is treating several patients for consumption. He tells one patient, who looks terminal, that the patient won't live and the doctor won't do anything.
"What do you think I am--a coroner?"
Apparently, bedside manner had yet to be invented. But the good doctor has a thought, possibly due to the valet:
"Are you rich?"
As a matter of fact...

So the doctor reveals a supposed cure he heard about but doesn't believe in: Go to Nice and only eat watercress for six months, prepared in multiple ways.

Spoilers: When the man returns--healthy as an ox--the doctor doesn't recognize the man. The man wants to honor the doctor. But the doctor shoots him in order to do an autopsy: What made this formerly sick man survive? When the doctor is about to go before the British Assizes, the narrator and some unnamed group find on behalf of the doctor:
"[T]he exclusive love of the Humanity of the Future without any regard for the individual of the Present is, in our time, the one sole motive that ought to justify the acquittal under any circumstances of the magnanimous Extremists of science."
Now I've suggested one interpretation above that goes against reading this statement as straight. I suspect some readers in the past agreed with this last statement, or else some experiments now regarded as criminal would not have taken place.

Essentially, this is a battle between the two Star Trek themes: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." (Star Trek II when Spock sacrifices his own life to save the Enterprise.) vs. "The needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many." (Star Trek III when the crew put their lives and careers in danger to save Spock.).

The difference, though, is that one man offered his life as a sacrifice where those in experiments did not. Moreover, the sacrifice in "The Doctor's Heroism" was likely pointless. Better to study watercress and its components than the man. You could say, "Look at all these people dying of consumption." If you had a relative or relatives dead due to consumption, you might agree with the story's last paragraph.

A few phrases ought to clue us in, however:

  1. "exclusive love of the Humanity of the Future" -- Great, you care about the future. When will the future arrive? Why exclusive?
  2. "without any regard for the individual of the Present" -- When will we care for those around us? How can one care about Humanity without caring for the individuals that compose it?
  3. "under any circumstances" -- Any? Is anyone willing to accept every circumstance brought under the banner of saving the future?
  4. "the magnanimous Extremists" -- the author is complimenting then slapping (or at least sugar coating a bitter pill). Magnanimous defined: "very generous or forgiving, especially toward a rival or someone less powerful than oneself." (Merriam Webster). Monetarily, the victim may be more powerful, but the doctor is medicinally in the position of power here. In no sense is the doctor generous or forgiving to his patient whom the doctor doomed to die without hope. You could say that the doctor was generous toward the future, but we aren't given any proofs that the doctor actually found anything worthwhile.
Incidentally, the doctor's name may refer to this famous battle where the Scotsmen were defeated in an impossible-to-win battle, Halidon Hill. The Scots had to endure arrows as they crossed a swamp and climb up a hill to attack the Brits.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

"Conversation Piece" by Richard Christian Matheson

First appeared in Whispers II, reprinted by Stuart David Schiff. 

Summary: A reporter interviews man who sells himself off piece by piece to make money.

Spoiler and Analysis: He sells every last piece until he's dead (even parts of wife and daughter). Reporter decides he's not so different in how he sells off his own morals, bit by bit. Great connection adding more dimension to a disturbing piece, although we probably need more character background to make it resonate.

Scars, Matheson's collection, is a favorite of mine, largely for his style and voice. Dystopia is his collected works.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Copyrights and Writing


Billie Sue Mosiman and Graeme Reynolds both tackle writers who don't read their contracts. It appears a company (I have no knowledge of this) has been overreaching, taking too many rights. Even if this isn't what's going on, it doesn't hurt to be cautious. 

Sometimes, it might be a misunderstanding. My first or second sale involved an editor who asked for all rights to a story. A friendly discussion got the editor to change his contract--for everyone.

Note that Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith have long recommended The Copyright Handbook, which I've been dragging my heels because of its price.



I just heard great advice from a fiction writer from Pakistan, Shandana Minhas, author of Tunnel Vision and Survival Tips for Lunatics.
"[I]n a market like that where there is intense competition for a very small pie--I don't know if that's what brings out the negative aspect of human behavior, but you do have to be wary of the feedback that you will receive from your peers because it might not necessarily always be ego-free."
I wish someone had said this earlier to me. Fellow writers can be helpful, and they can be unpleasant--out to eviscerate in order to prove their superiority. It may or may not be good advice, but if it's not specific, it's probably not good advice. Advice coming from superiority generally spouts from this poisoned fountain.


But StoryBundle has twelve writing books you should take advantage of--on sale, incredibly cheap.

Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing
by David Farland 
Million Dollar Productivity
by Kevin J. Anderson 
Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing
by Dean Wesley Smith 
The Pursuit of Perfection and How it Harms Writers
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch 
Million Dollar Professionalism
by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta 
Shadows Beneath
by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells & Howard Tayler 
Million Dollar Outlines
by David Farland 
21 Days to a Novel
by Michael A. Stackpole 
Charisma +1: The Guide to Convention Etiquette for Writers, Geeks, and the Socially Awkward
by Jessica Brawner 
The Freelancer's Survival Guide
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch 
500 Ways to Write Harder
by Chuck Wendig 
The Non-User-Friendly Guide for Aspiring TV Writers
by Steven L. Sears

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Dreaded H word: Homework

This is a 2-year-old article I just heard of, but it's been making the rounds: "Homework: An unnecessary evil? … Surprising findings from new research".

For a lot of teachers, what we first want to know is if this guy teaches or has taught. Has the researcher actually worked in the field? Or is he someone with an ax to grind? When the article writer establishes his credentials, she says:
"Alfie Kohn writes about what a new homework study really says — and what it doesn’t say. He is the author of 12 books about education and human behavior, including 'The Schools Our Children Deserve,' 'The Homework Myth,' and 'Feel-Bad Education… And Other Contrarian Essays on Children & Schooling.' "
This does not instill confidence. Not only is there no  mention of this man teaching, but look also at those emotionally charged words. He goes on to attack teachers who give homework (which is opposed to his view):
"If we’re making 12-year-olds, much less five-year-olds, do homework, it’s either because we’re misinformed about what the evidence says or because we think kids ought to have to do homework despite what the evidence says."
So either the teacher is ignorant or willfully evil. This is an attack on teachers. Is that the best way to get people to change? Insults?


  1. The word "evil" is in the article title, so it's a valid use. 
  2. This is binary thinking. I can think of at least three other possibilities.  
    1. The "evidence" was poorly assembled. 
    2. The "evidence" goes against the teacher's experience. He may have had a different experience in his classroom. And that's what matters: How do we maximize the effectiveness of the teacher to teach? There is no one right way of teaching. This is where so many non-teachers get confused. There are millions of tools and teaching styles. Everyone outside education is under the false impression that a teacher just stands up there and talks. 
    3. The teacher has another reason for assigning homework.
    4. Insert your reason here.

Here is Scott Huggins, a history teacher, on this article:
Here's my take as a high school teacher with 9 years of experience teaching History:
1) What I feel is left out of these studies, because it is very hard to measure, is the QUALITY of the homework assigned. All homework is not created equal, and measuring the effectiveness of homework based on hours spent doing it strikes me as a little like measuring the nutrition a child gets by the hours they spend at the dinner table.
2) I would honestly rather assign no homework. The reasons I do assign it are these:
a) that reading, which can be done at home, is necessary to discussing history meaningfully as a class. If we read in class, it would cut our discussion time by at least half.
b) If I assign no written work on the reading, they don't read.
c) Some things, like writing research papers, actually demand that students start to do work on their own with little help from the teacher. It's a skill I'm trying to develop, so they aren't stunned by it in college.
d) Another skill I am trying to teach is writing about history, and if this were done exclusively in class, it would, again, kill our discussion time.
3) While this is anecdotal evidence, I have heard from MANY of my students, after they have graduated, that they are grateful for the homework (essays, research papers, etc.) that they were made to do, because it DID prepare them for college... and many of their college friends were not so fortunate. I take those stories seriously.
4) Lastly, I agree that homework can be assigned disastrously badly,, with horrible results for grades and for students' desire to learn. This should stop. I didn't weigh in on the discussion about the need to evaluate teachers, but I agree teachers can be and should be evaluated. I do not, right now, have a suggestion for how. I have yet to see a way I think is good, but am open to suggestions.
 Here's my response:

Some kids don't have to do homework to do well on the test. Some kids study (I suspect they didn't pay attention in class or don't formulate a good plan of attack) and still perform poorly. But in general, as a teacher, students who did homework, did well on quizzes. Those who did well on quizzes, did well on tests. Part of it is practice. The more you see/work with a thing, the better you tend to do. Now Marzano found a positive effect of homework, so I'm a little puzzled why that study isn't mentioned.

Plus, you can cover more, in more depth if you allow homework. Otherwise, you have to do all the students' studying for them in class, which defeats the point of having age-maturing students be mentally maturing (i.e. taking on more independence and responsibility).

I'm not sure how the studies were conducted either. Probably the best scenario would be to test the same students in similar scenarios and compare (Jonny takes a test without homework prep and another with). Of course, said homework should be *relevant* to the test.

Problematic: Comparing standardized scores to homework only makes sense if the teacher teaches to the test, which I suspect most teachers do not do.

Also problematic: How many teachers pass kids so they don't have to fight parents or the kid or the school system, or because they felt sorry for the kid, whatever?

Another problem is that students copy homework, which undermines the point of learning. This would also be masked on any studies like these mentioned.

Also, a number of teachers don't weigh homework heavily in the students' grades because they copy. Therefore, it would not show up in a student's grade. If a lot of teachers did that (I know of many who do), then it would not make a significant dent in showing a relationship between homework and actual grades.

I don't recall receiving homework until fourth grade myself. Maybe I did. But if homework is useful in later grades, lower grades will have to transition students toward homework. This isn't to say that students should be over burdened. As a teacher, I probably over-burdened my first year or two, but under-burdened the students, thereafter--just enough to make them practice concepts outside of class. I'm not sure how other teachers view this.

Someone mentioned word-searches being a waste of time.

This may or may not be true. I'd double-check with the teacher to see what they were up to--to see if the homework had a point (without being confrontational). I handed out word searches my first years when I was looking for the right combo to help students, but the word-search was optional (interestingly, some students who wouldn't do homework, did do the word searches, so at least they became more familiar with the terminology, which is pretty important to science). I gave a few points. Mostly it was for a brain break as we worked in a A-B block schedule (i.e. 1.5 hour classes). Research shows that humans work most effectively if we have breaks (52 on, 17 off). Writing down the definitions on the back, however, was not optional. Even then, one could skip all homework in my class and still get a good to decent grade, depending the school.