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Monday, March 8, 2021

"Night of the Cooters" by Howard Waldrop (with updated analysis)

First appeared in Ellen Datlow's Omni. Reprinted by Gardner Dozois, Kevin J. Anderson, Jack Dann, Gina Hyams, Mike Resnick, Neil Clarke, and Norm Sherman. It was up for the Hugo and Locus awards. The can read online at Clarkesworld and listened to.

"Night of the Cooters" may well be the best starting point for someone wanting to get acquainted with Howard Waldrop's oeuvre. It displays his characteristic panache for mixing oddities (what Gardner Dozois often termed "gonzo"), humor, historical verve, and singular style. Dozois considered Waldrop one of the best writers of his generation, comparing him to R.A. Lafferty. Though their styles differ, their voices are both unique within the speculative field.

As far as I can tell, the only places you can get the story where the writer will benefit are as ebooks [Kindle or Weightless]: Things Will Never Be the Same.

The story follows the 68-year-old Civil-War veteran, Sheriff Bert Lindley, as he starts what seems to be an ordinary day, but ends up bombarded by meteors that happen to be Martian war-machines in disguise.

Analysis (spoilers):

 After the aforementioned writerly effects, the main power of the narrative comes from its contrast with the H.G. Wells's original War of the Worlds. It highlights the difference between the American (particularly a small Texas town) and the British response. The opening helps characterize these motley humans as the unlikely heroes who come together and repel an invasion. 

Wells might have been incensed, given that his whole point was to pit the British against their own colonial attitudes at the height of its empire. Waldrop's version is not completely an idealized version of America as some problems of the era are set up. Still, the story's a good deal of fun.

It is the only reprint in Anderson's War of the Worlds anthology, which might lead one to suspect that it might have helped crystalize the anthology. Apparently, Waldrop selected it as his funniest (according to Resnick's anthology).

Style, Structure, and Meaning

It struck me, belatedly, that the above description was intended to show Waldrop--knowingly or unknowingly--inverting what Wells did. Well, sort of yes, but no. Some of his stylistic choices should illustrate.

The story opens:

"Sheriff Lindley was asleep on the toilet in the Pachuco County courthouse when someone started pounding of the door. 

" 'Bert! Bert!' the voice yelled as the sheriff jerked awake. 

" 'Gol Dang!' said the lawman. The Waco newspaper slid off his lap onto the floor." 

1) Pachuco is not a county in Texas. It is a zoot-suit-wearing, swing-and-jazz-listening rebel from the 1930s--one who did not conform to the predominant culture.

2) That older gentleman has fallen asleep on that location is not unbelievable, but certainly laughable--as is his euphemistic vocabulary. Waldrop plays with words as you can see above, and Waco looks a lot like wacko.   

3)  The sheriff sits on what is mockingly called a "throne." This is the first of several power structures referred to. He also has humble origins: "He had been born in the bottom of an Ohio keelboat in 1830." This could be considered the American dream: to rise above poverty into a position of power.

What follows is the description Sheriff Bert Lindley's dream. The dream--especially one this long--breaks conventional writer rules. Waldrop is unafraid to deploy as a long vision appears in "The Ugly Chickens."

The dream brings in some Aztec culture, full of what seems like amusing mistakes the some of us might feel momentarily superior: like "Moctezuma" vs. "Montezuma," both of which are actually accepted variations, and "I-talian" priests. Probably they'd be from Spain alongside the conquistadores--ha, ha, that idiot sheriff. But then you think about it, and those priests are part of a hierarchy that peaks in Rome. Rather clever inversions.  

Now the conquistadores overthrew the Moctezuma, which is one power structure--one that mimics what Wells may have been up to--however, that isn't the dream. Moctezuma is atop another power structure where players will be sacrificed. Power structures within power structures. There is a rebellion.

Keep in mind the comic tone. Any sense of mocking we might feel toward these rubes should be balanced by their pluckiness and success at mounting a defense.

The next power structure (prior to the aliens) is the visit to the rich De Spain's [another Spain] property where two boys were caught stealing peaches. Although De Spain not only wants the boys to be charged with trespassing and thieving but also beaten, the sheriff lets the boys go with a threat about schooling if they get caught again. 

Then we have the battle with the aliens. It seems dubious that where the British failed, some small-town Texans could succeed, but maybe the improbability mirrors how the aliens are defeated by the smallest organism on the planet.

The story ends with another dream. This one is a bit puzzling in how to read it in terms of the story. 

1) The sheriff now sees himself as the king of Babylon. It's hard to say where to put the emphasis. It may be that at the beginning was not sure of himself as a policeman, but now he's proven himself, he accepts this power, so it shows his character shift. Lindley may have felt uncomfortable in his position as two details might suggest this:

"He had become sheriff in the special election three years ago to fill out Sanderson’s term when the governor had appointed the former sheriff attorney general. Nothing much had happened in the county since then."


[Lindley:] “You’ve got sixteen months, three weeks, and two days to find somebody to run against me. Good evening, Mr. De Spain.”

Perhaps this dream, not interrupted while sleeping on a faux throne, suggests that, after not doing anything to prove his his worth as a sheriff, he has finally entered into self-confidence about his work.

2) A Babylonian king would be no picnic: Conquer and coerce obeisance. Severe penalties. It could be that Waldrop suggests that there will always be a power structure and, as such, it will problematic. However, the text doesn't support this, except perhaps suggesting that a power structure will always exist.

3) The Babylonian king Hammurabi may not have been a perfect ruler, but he started introducing some of our modern ideals of justice such as assumption of innocence and presentation of both sides. His rule may have been sometime/somewhere near the construction of the tower of Babel. This seems a likely intention. Perhaps with the above mention of the sheriff's handling of the boys suggests his type of rule. The beating of the boys would go beyond Hammurabi Code's Eye for an Eye, so perhaps this strengthens this point.

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