Saturday, August 31, 2013

Have I Been Gone That Long?

A whole month? Really?


I keep thinking about blog posts then rejecting the ideas because I don't think they would be that interesting, or that they are interesting ideas that I can't possibly do justice to, or I'll fall back on the old standby that, hey, I've got more pressing work to do -- do you want to write, or do you want to write about writing?

It's been summer, if you haven't noticed. In summer, I often work late at night when the temperatures are down (okay, I work late at night during the other three seasons as well -- but summer gives me an extra reason). Late at night is a good time to work, but it can also be a time when all your insecurities come out. Who cares? Who really cares about all this junk?

I don't know. And, in a world which, at this time, is filled with a few million extra folks filling up blogs with posts on every possible topic, in every possible manner, of every possible quality, does it matter?

Good lord, what have I done with this month?

I have put together another e-book, by golly. It's called Into a Space Unseen and it features three published pieces -- the plan behind these e-books was that I would quickly put them together, hit the "publish" button at KDP and, badda-bing badda boom! I'd give the books some basic pluggerino because, after all, you don't go to all that trouble and just try to hide the damned things. Especially since it would be nice if a few people buy the e-books.

Part of this e-book experiment has to do with seeing if this sort of e-book publishing produces some viable revenue.

Yes, I am destitute. I broke open my last piggy bank to make it through the end of the month. I will not get paid for teaching until October. I would very much like not to have to make statements of this sort.

It's not that I don't enjoy the great cosmic uncertainty that faces me now. It's only a more highly defined version of the uncertainty under which everyone lives, for as long as they live. Try as one might, funds go south. Health goes south. Reputation goes south. Friends go south. I am living at a time and in a country where upheavals come every week (I was about to say, "With every morning paper," but you already know what happened to those). There's no way to get through this life without making a few gambles.

Of course, some folks are lucky enough to make gambles they can afford.

Others will say, "If you can afford it, it's not gambling."

By that definition, I'm gambling.

Forty years ago, when I entered the "regular" job world, I did so because I believed it would be a temporary thing. At some point, I would kick into whatever it was I best suited for, whether that was writing, teaching, sitting at a desk and sorting things out in a way that would satisfy some who might pay me, and satisfy myself that I was doing work that I was best suited to do, that added to my life and gave my existence what can be loosely defined as "meaning." I would take my rightful place in the world, be it as a subsidiary functionary or as a significant "voice," a "contributor," in some way, to the progress of humanity and civilization.

After a decade in the "job world," I realized I entered a trap. And I lacked the means to escape. The decision, it seemed, wasn't mine to make. You don't decide to contribute to the culture; the culture decides whether you will or not. Resistance may not be futile, but it's one hell of a battle without sufficient allies, funds, resources, opportunities, etc.

So, after I finally got thrown from the train called "Useless Shitwork" and dusted myself off, and upon discovering that a canned newspaper employee in his late-fifties isn't particularly desirable -- oh, hell with that . . . I was NEVER desirable as a hire of any sort -- when I did get hired it was on the strength of someone's recommendation or because I came through the door when the people hiring were desperate enough to hire anyone. I kid you not. Anyway, having dusted myself off, yadda yadda as before, I decided, "Well, I tried it their way. Maybe this time I can try it my way."

So here I am. Destitute.

Okay, so what else have I done during the dog days?

Headaches? Arthritis? And just the other day I picked up a stomach bug, or I might be enjoying my eighth ulcer. August is never good for my health.

Even so, I've really enjoyed most of my trips downtown on the Metra. The walks to the train station. The walks back. Running into colleagues and former students at Columbia. Meeting with my writing group over at Cafe Perla. Visiting the writing group Trey Thoelcke runs at College of DuPage (the Semi Os), all the work I've done hammering out a reading list for my fall Science Fiction Writing class. Likewise the Short Story Writing class I'll start teaching Tuesday (though I'm still rifling around looking for my master of Katherine Mansfield's "A Dill Pickle," which I want them to read for my first session).

Have I finished writing "Dixon's Road"? No, but I'm close. And I feel as if I've finally found the moments where the story should pivot and kick my readers in the head. The science fiction readers/critics who do the reviewing and pooh-poohing in the field won't get it. They never get my shit. Because one thing I'm going to throw at them is the crazy notion that poetry has a "future in the future" because it isn't technological -- because it's verbal and visceral. And while they're chewing over this "old fashioned" notion of mine, they'll miss the rabbit punch about the "love story" between my protagonist and the woman he knew almost a century before and how the house he once lived in, which has become a museum, is part and parcel of the love story; that the people and the house and everything else is inseparable and lost -- they won't even notice that. Though I hope a good editor notices.

And the story I started called "The Agent," now called, maybe, "Reggie is Reggie"? I still have some rough rows to hoe. The main roughie is still going to be how Charlotte manages to meet the other kids in her little "cell" with all the draws from her attention in the social networking world? We have already learned to shut off so much marketing and data-mining "noise," how will Charlotte recognize that Reggie is bringing all these people together for something other than selling them more shit they neither want nor need?

I read another section of The Va-va-va VOOM! at the Gumbo Fiction Salon open mike this month, and it seemed to go over pretty well. I have to send it to the person at Tor responsible for sorting out authors and new editors after the departure of Jim Frenkel. I have over 60,000 words of novel, but I still have to hammer the outline down. Hasn't the outline always been the biggest headache?

And "The Man Who Put the Bomp"? There's still several important scenes I need to write, but the shape is getting there. Every saur story I write can't be just another saur story. It's not simply a matter of progressing the "plot." but in adding to the scope and outlook of the world the saurs occupy.

And something new has been coming into my head -- no not really new, but more like something I played around with before but now I think I can really try to work upon. It's a story I want to call "The Home Run," and it's about what might happen if Louis H. Sullivan, shortly before his death, gets a glimpse of the world of architecture 90 years on, in the form of the Roosevelt Tower, now situated just north of his Auditorium Building. I came upon a quote from one of his letters Friday, talking about the world of architecture and his own situation therein: "There may be a future, but there is no present."

Damn! If that ain't a kick in the head. I want it to be a brief story, just a couple of thousand words, narrated by an old colleague who comes to visit him early in April of 1924. It's one of those stories I blithely (and foolishly) imagine myself able to knock out swiftly and unequivocably, then find myself doing fifty drafts more and screaming because the one important link that brings the whole thing together has evaded me.

Oh well.

It's September now. I've still got a lot of plans (not even mentioned here) and a lot of work to get done (though I'm down one class, thanks to all the "prioritization" finagling going on at Columbia now). I might even manage to file a few more blog posts. It's a race between my native stubbornness and total disaster.

And the odds are always in disaster's favor.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Andrew Ulaszek Cthulhu Screenplay

Sometimes I surprise myself.

While editing another batch of stories for e-book publication, I ran into this section of "The Cthulhu Orthodontist," which I wrote for the anthology Cthulhu and the Coeds: Or, Kids and Squids. It's a story about how the divorced father of the young teenager writes two screenplays to help raise money for her orthodontist bill. Sounds simple enough, but it's a story about stories and storytelling and how the making of stories affects our lives in all sorts of ways at all sorts of levels.

This passage explains what Andrew Ulaszek, the dad, writes when he believes that the announced production of "The Call of Cthulhu" is legit and that macabre master Mario Bava is slated to direct:

"Dad kept the period setting of the 1920s, but the first change he made was also the most radical: he replaced narrator Francis Wayland Thurston with Elizabeth Thurston Wayland – heiress, adventuress and noted archaeologist. She was a liberated woman who was just as at home dancing to hot jazz as she was to deciphering hieroglyphics in the reading room of the British Museum.
"After her great-uncle’s mysterious death, she acquires his files on the Cthulhu cult and deciphers the pictographs on the relief made by the artist Wilcox. Not only does she learn of the original events in the story, but that those events are a prelude for another rising: the pictographs are a sort of calendar or timetable, and Cthulhu’s next appearance is in a matter of weeks.
"Elizabeth is the sort of woman who has no hesitation about flying down to New Orleans on a biplane to enlist the aid of the retired police inspector John Legrasse. The shy, milquetoast, artist Wilcox accompanies her too, and finds himself emboldened by the fearless Elizabeth. And of course, along the way, the followers of Cthulhu continually threaten and thwart them.
"From New Orleans, the threesome sail to Australia, where they plan to set out to meet Cthulhu and send the monstrous thing back to its watery tomb. To do so, Dad stole (or borrowed) Yog-Sothoth and the Shining Trapezohedron from other Lovecraft stories, the former as a nemesis to Cthulhu and the latter as a means of bringing them together.
"Yog-Sothoth dispatches Cthulhu and the sunken city sinks again, but not before Legrasse is killed and the dreams of humanity are profoundly unsettled by visions of unworldly horror.
"In the end, the victory is at best a bitter triumph. Cthulhu’s retreat is temporary, and the influence of the monster is already being manifest in Germany and Italy through the spread of fascism. The world will never be the same. Elizabeth and Wilcox, though romantically inclined, go their separate ways.
"In Dad’s hands, “The Call of Cthulhu” was transformed from an antiquarian’s nightmare to, as Dad called the project, Doc Savage Meets H. P. Lovecraft."
Encountering these lines again, I thought: Cool! What I wouldn't do to see what this screenplay would have been like! Imagine, the time is about 1969 -- no plethora of strong female characters. My first choice for casting Elizabeth Thurston Wayland would be Diana Rigg (of course). 1969 -- looking back on the late 1920s. The world is changing in so many ways. The revival of interest in Lovecraft would have been in its infancy.
Wait a minute: the screenplay for the The Call of Cthulhu is fictional. The screenwriter is fictional. You invented them. If you're ever going to see that screenplay, you're going to have to write it yourself.
Well, I don't have time to write a whole screenplay, but I began to wonder if I couldn't create a scene that might help describe where the difference lies between the original story and Andrew's version.
So, I imagined this scene, early on in the story: Elizabeth Wayland has arrived at the home of Wilcox, the artist, to ask him about the bas relief he made, and to the account of his dreams found in Professor Angell's papers. Wilcox is intimidated by this confident, "modern" woman, but he shares the story of his nightmares and all the strange things he heard and saw. He also hands to Elizabeth his own account of the experience. Wilcox's opening lines are same as the opening sentences of Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu." In some regards, Wilcox is conceived as a kind of Lovecraft surrogate -- if not the one we find in the biographies, the one that filled our imaginations in the late 1960s.
Here's Elizabeth's reaction:
[Opens manuscript] What is this rot? [Reads] 'We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant we should voyage far.' [puts down manuscript] Do you really believe this drivel, Mr. Wilcox?
Miss Wayland, if you had seen --
Well, what I dreamed --
Dreamed, then. You had a bad dream, therefore you believe the world is doomed.
Not a bad dream, Miss Wayland. The bad dream -- the ne plus ultra of bad dreams! A bad dream for the ages!
Mr. Wilcox, you have no more to base your morbid fatalism upon than a dream. I grant you that there is much to be said for the influence of dreams. But for you to back away in fear, to embrace ignorance, to abdicate your reason in the face of a threat -- a threat you believe may not simply bring about your own end, but the end of humanity itself --
Miss Wayland --
[takes up manuscript again] ' . . . some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality . . . that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee . . . into the peace and safety of a new dark age.' [throws manuscript across the room]
Without context, it does sound cowardly --
Your words, Mr Wilcox.
You have not seen --
I have seen this! [holds up the bas relief] I have seen a dozen accounts collected by my great-uncle. I do not know what you have seen, Mr. Wilcox, but I will tell you this: before I crawl off into some hidden corner and await the darkness I will find out what is at the cause of this cancerous madness. I will find out and -- if I can -- send it back to the hell where it came from.
Miss Wayland, have you any notion of the danger --
Even if I didn’t, Mr. Wilcox, it wouldn’t matter. I have experienced my share of dangers. I will seek out this cult and the object of its adoration. Do you know why?
Because . . . well, because . . . [shrugs] No.
[Smiling] Because I am curious, Mr. Wilcox. Not duty, not honor, not courage. Curiosity. I want to know. Life is knowledge. Life is danger.
So is death.
You plan to escape death?
There are worse things than death.
I know one thing worse than death – it’s not having lived at all.
[WILCOX looks away]
[Still smiling] Mr Wilcox – How would you like –
[WILCOX looks back at ELIZABETH, but says nothing]
[Smiling even more intensely – alluringly] – how would like, for once, to live?
[WILCOX stares back, speechless]
[ELIZABETH is dressed in aviator’s jumpsuit and leather helmet as she strides out onto the runway toward a waiting biplane. WILCOX trails behind, apprehensively, in street clothes with the exception of a leather jacket. He is having trouble donning his leather helmet – the goggles keep falling down.]
Have you ever flown, Mr. Wilcox?
[raises goggles] Not under these conditions.
Under what conditions have you flown, then?
Well, the pilot was . . . a man!
And so on. One thing I like about the interaction between Elizabethand Wilcox, other than the story now having some relationships develop through the course of the story, is that it questions Lovecraft's premise about the piecing together of "dissociated knowledge." Is humanity better off wallowing in its ignorance or seeking out knowledge, even aggressively? This isn't "revisionist" thinking, but a logical dialectic. The inclusion of Elizabeth Wayland introduces an added depth to the proceedings, not diminishing Lovecraft's fictional reality but validating it -- by continually challenging the premises of his traditionally male, tradtionally white, traditionally westernized narrators.
Not to mention being able to see Diana Rigg battling monsters in a biplane.
I hope perhaps someday we'll be able to see the entirety of this screenplay surface. You never know what might be found in the back cellars of my brain.