READ THE TERRIBLE TWELVES VIA TAPASTIC!

READ THE TERRIBLE TWELVES VIA TAPASTIC!
A YA fantasy by Emily Devenport and Ernest Hogan

Thursday, December 31, 2009

FAREWELL,LITTLE MASTER OF THE UNIVOISE!


Funny how time changes your perspective. When I was a kid, the Genie in the Sabu version of Thief of Bagdad scared the crap out of me. Rex Ingram (the African American actor, not to be confused with the Irish Rex Ingram who directed movies and wrote the incredible bullfighting novel Mars in the House of Death) just blew me away with his booming voice and diabolical attitude. Over the years I grew to like him more, until, these days, I admire and identify with him.

In more viewings of the film than I can count, I realize that the Genie is the most interesting and most important character. He had an agenda. He didn't just want to be freed from the bottle and his slavery, he wanted cosmic revenge. He manipulated Abu/Sabu into stealing the All-Seeing Eye of the mysterious unnamed goddess, blinding her to the doings of humanity for ten thousand years. When it is done, he is delighted.

I've often wondered, did that crime damn or free us? After the ten thousand years are up, will the goddess like what she sees with her new eye? When he yelled "Farewell, Little Master of the Univoise!" where did the Genie go and what did he do?

And why do I feel like him?

For the last decade, I've spent most of my time in Big Box, being Mr. Customer Service. It wasn't bad. I earned an honest living, and learned some hard realities about being an artist and writer in our global civilization. Now that it's over, fate has allowed me to pursue my own interests and my own agendas.

You shouldn't spend your entire life serving the Little Masters of the Universe. You should break out and do your own thing if you can. Do your damnedest to gore the matador. It's what aesthetics, spirituality, and life are all about.

I hope to achieve that Genie's attitude. If I'm lucky, I'll be able to laugh like Rex Ingram.

Monday, December 28, 2009

BACKING INTO NANOHUDU, MARTIAN MARIACHIS, AND VAMPIRE CACTUS

Theme & Variations a podcast anthology of science fiction with musical themes edited by Michelle Welch became available during my recent computer outage. It features my story “The Rise and Fall of Paco Cohen and the Mariachis of Mars.”

It first appeared the April 2001 issue of Analog -- about a guy working as a janitor on a Mars colony. The corporation in charge tries to use him to manipulate the workers. Paco has his own ideas, and so does the nanohudu that’s doing the terraforming on the molecular level.

This wacky idea started back when Em & I got involved with some people who were experimenting with making videos. This junkie showed up who claimed to have contacts in Hollywood, and soon had us wasting a lot of time coming up ideas for movies. We met a guy who knew a lot of cowboy/stunt men who needed work. I had a blurry vision of a sort of spaghetti Western passing off Arizona as Mars with a lot of low-budget Road Warrior-type stuff.

The so-called production company crashed and burned. I sold my first two novels. Em & I went for lots of walks in the mountain preserve behind her Mom’s house. My brain entertained itself by making the landscape into something Martian.

Then I couldn’t sell my third novel – hell, Nueva York and me never got along – I got depressed, started listening to everybody about how to write the sort of thing that they will buy. I took the Mars stuff that was cooking in brain, and instead of the simple, Flash Gordon-ish adventure I first envisioned, I tried to make it into the grand epic that everybody assured me was the only kind of science fiction that would sell.

The problem was, I hated it. I struggled with world building, drew pictures of NeoMartian creatures, did some sample chapters and an outline, but that monster never got up off the slab. And Nueva York rejected it.
I shelved the mess, Em & I got by cleaning houses and sweeping classrooms. We did illegal alien work and listened to ranchera radio, saw how music disconnected from the corporate infrastructure affects people’s lives.

One day, while washing windows in Sun City, I felt a biting pain. I had backed up into a cactus. When Em pulled the spines out of my butt, I was amazed at how big they were. They looked like long fangs. The NeoMartian world in my brain stirred. The vampire cactus was born.

Yes, sometime inspiration literally bites you in the ass.

Over the next few years, as I sucked up dust, bits and pieces of my aborted novel rearranged themselves without much help from my conscious mind. I felt like a mariachi, doing the dayjob, making my “music” when I could. Paco Cohen came to life out of the ashes of that aborted novel. And the NeoMartian world keeps eating away at me. I’m working on a sequel. And the original, straight-up, adventure story keeps after me.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

BABY JESUS, MATADOR

Tauromaquias.com keeps amazing me. When I saw the cartoon of baby Jesus fighting a bull in the manger, I wished that is was a Christmas card. I put it on my Facebook page. Avant-garde artists and angry satirists wrack their brains trying to come up with stuff this outrageous, yet this is not meant to be outrageous, just a subculture putting its own stamp on a holiday.

We keep hearing about how, in this age of globalization, Hollywood has conquered the planet, and North American notions of political correctness are universal. Yet there are still quaint local traditions that can make those who swear they believe in "tolerance" act line lynch mobs.

We hear a lot about religious freedom, but suggest a simple Aztec blood ritual or a bit of good, honest voodoo, and people want to call the police. It makes me laugh.

Humans are so wonderful. And twisted.

I never dreamed that in South America, child bullfighters would be so popular, and this activity would be considered a Christmas-kind of thing. If you identify the Child Jesus with the matador, the archetypes clash and waves of transformation radiate through human consciousness, and yes, the very fabric of reality. Is the bullfighting salvation? Then what is the bull? Our sins? Is the ritual more than has ever been perceived?

Even though I'm obsessed with La Fiesta Brava, I must admit that kiddie tauromaquia gives me the same queasy feelings I get from child beauty pageants and prepubescent college students. A kid may be able to learn to perform brain surgery, but I wouldn't let one open my skull.

Still, I applaud this manifestation of the human spirit. When we celebrate, no matter what we think we celebrate, we awaken some primal things. Truths emerge and frolic, no matter what kind of camoflauge the unnatural act called civilization puts on them.

Besides, it's not much weirder than the American consumer orgy, with people running amok like piranha with credit cards. Would Jesus feel at home with either ritual?

So Merry Christmas, or whatever holiday you choose. And be careful with spirituality. It'll gore you if you give it a chance.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

RAW FEED FROM THE BLAST ZONE

I haven’t posted anything here in a few weeks. I am still alive. Do not believe the rumors that Emily and I were kidnapped by Lemurian terrorists. The Olmec Yakuza had nothing to do with it either. Honest.


It was just another computer meltdown. Nothing special, it’s happening to a lot of people. Em went into detail about it on her blog, so I don’t have to do that here.


So, we’re hurtling into another decade and it’s looking apocalyptic as all hell. The times they are a-changing, my friends. Then, the times are always changing. It’s the nature of the beast, though the Maya would call it a burden.


Rest assured, I’m okay. Em, too. Fangs gleaming, the gods have smiled upon us. We will no longer be bookstore clerks. We have a new computer set up. We have decided to start living the way we want to.


The sacrifices we’ve made are paying off.


The final days in the bookstore biz will be rough, so will dealing with the switch to Mac, but the future looks bright.


Yeah, I know a lot you think this kind of optimism is sick, but a lot the stuff that’s crashing down around us needs to die. New things are being born. By 2020, it will truly be a different world.


Meanwhile, I’m fumbling around, trying to get my new life in order. Soon I’ll be able to tell the inside story of the Bookstore Holocaust, and offer insight into the Publishing Apocalypse. I’ll be taking my nefarious plans off the shelf, dusting them off, and putting them into action.


And then things just hit me. With the new computers, I not only have the facilities for self-publishing, but my own recording and animation studio. As that was sinking in, while I was helping Em get her books for her return to college, I realized that with a little more time and effort, I could get a degree in Archeology or Anthropology . . . I’ve been playing the amateur for years, as a famous wise guy who blew his brains out a few years ago said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”


I feel like for the last decade, I’ve been hanging out in querencia, like a bull bristling with banderillas, bleeding, and weary from the fight. Now I feel recharged. Think I’m gonna hold my horns high, rush out, and gore the matador.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

DEATH IN WINTER AFTERNOONS

Arrrgh! My usual sources for bullfighting news and video ABC.es and Burladero.com have run short on new stuff. The season is over, the weather is cooling off in the Northern Hemisphere. You need El Sol for a proper bullfight.

. . . though the idea of one taking place in a snow-filled arena, with the bull exhaling clouds of steam as his body heat and blood vaporizes the white powder is appealing. It would have to be a bull designed for a subzero climate. Perhaps with some reconstituted Ice Age bull genes spliced in. This may end up in a story . . .

Luckily, it’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere. A bit of searching had me happily discovering Tauromaquias.com, a Peruvian website that will get me through this winter, when I’m going to have to survive working through the Great Retail Meltdown of 2009. It will be a struggle to stay civilized, and I’m going to need serious diversion to keep my savage mind from running amok.

Not only is there the usual news, photos, and video, but access to complete Peruvian television programs, blogs by both bullfighters and aficionados, and links that will take me months to explore. Oh boy! A portal to another world! It’s like finding a news site direct from Mars!

Already, I’ve discovered Milagros Sanchez the latest female torero, and boy wonder Michelito Lagravere.

Also, South American bullfighting has a different feel from the Spanish. In Spain, it’s all very dignified, with the royal family looking on and preliminary rituals that look like something out of the Middle Ages. In South America, it’s more rough and tumble. In one video, it seemed like it was all the entire torero crew could do to keep the bull from breaking down the arena walls and eviscerating the audience. It’s like classical versus rock and roll.

Not only does this sort of thing get my blood pumping, it makes me forget about the crap I had to participate in during the day: “I was only following orders! I’m only a clerk!”

And it inspires the hell out of me. Some wild science fiction and art will come out of this!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

CHICANO IS A SCIENCE FICTION STATE OF BEING


Here I go explaining myself again. It’s what I get for being so complicated. My name is Ernest Hogan, and I write science fiction, and I’m a Chicano. Some of your heads started spinning when you read that.

I have reasons for preferring Chicano to the more popular Latino ( as in “sexy Latino star”) or Hispanic (as in “the suspect is Hispanic”).

Latino is the most globally inclusive term, derived from Latin America, that was coined by the French back when they had dreams of a non-English-speaking New World empire with a French-speaking elite. When you talk about the Latino world, you include Quebec, Haiti, and Brazil.

Hispanic is more specific, dealing with places and people that were touched and transformed by the Spanish Empire. It’s a step up from the days when anyone who spoke Spanish was considered a Mexican. Still it covers the majority of the Americas, and parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia.

So, I call myself a Chicano, even though it was once an insult, very much like “nigger.” It literally means “bastard Mexican.” It was originally what Mexicans called Americanized Mexicans who lived on the wrong side of the border (the American side).

During the Sixties, in imitation of the Black Power movement, it was turned around into a term of pride. It also connects to a place and time. I am a Chicano, therefore I’m from the Southwest of the United States (AKA Aztlán, the Aztec homeland), and lived through the second half of the Twentieth Century. It puts me in both geographical and historical context. And it connects me with the Chichimecas, which is a generic term for the nomadic tribes of Aztlán, who eventually became the Aztecs.

But what about the Irish name? Yeah, I’ve got a cowboy from Cork, Ireland in my family tree. And that actually makes me more, not less Chicano. To be Chicano is to be impure, polluted, a mongrel. Add something to the mix, you become more Chicano.
Which brings me to science fiction and visions of the future.

Have you noticed that if you take someone from India, the Middle East, or anywhere on the tropical zones of the planet where people have brown skin, teach them a little English, dress them in American clothes, put them in an urban environment – they become Chicanos!

When you’re a mixed-up stranger in a mixed-up strange land, you are a Chicano. You don’t need the Spanish language, or a Hispanic heritage, or any Latino connections. You don’t even need brown skin. Hell, you could even have blue eyes!

Here in the Twenty-First Century, globalization is making Chicanos of us all. The interface between you and your world is volatile and unstable – a recombocultural witch’s brew out of which bubbles brave new mutations and abominations. If you want an example, just look into a mirror.

I’ve had half a century’s head start on this. If you need any advice, let me know.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

RE-THINKING THE FATE OF THE SHORT STORY IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

Way back in another millennium, in a magazine called Science Fiction Eye, in an essay called “Guess Who’s Killing the Short Story,” I predicted the end of the short story.

A few years ago, I thought my prediction had come true. It looked like the only people who read short stories started doing it the day after they decided they wanted to write them. And a lot of people were writing stuff along the lines of: The Day I Almost Let My Hair Down – And Thank God I Changed My Mind.

So, why is it now, I’ve sold one short story, have another soon to be podcast, sent off another to a waiting editor, and am finishing still another to another editor?

For those of you who have been taking part in a sensory-deprivation experiment for the last few years, a whole lot of change has gone on. We are witnessing the Apocalypse of the Bookstores, soon we will see the Great Publishers Die-Off, and then it's the End of New York as the Center of the Publishing Universe (in a decade or so, that city will only be known as an Atlantis-like fable).

Of course, this will be hard on writers, but then we’re always swimming neck-deep in inky, candiru-infested waters. I feel sorry for my colleagues who were doing well in the last decade. But then, as Henry Cabot Henhouse III said, “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred!”

So, how is it that I’m suddenly doing a ridiculous amount of short story biz, amid all this turmoil?

Shortly after writing the “Killing” essay I really did try to give up writing short stories. Then I was unable to interest publishers in my novels, since Sci-Fi as Nerd Lit had become the official policy. When I decided to try again, I no longer thought of them as Literary Art, but Entertainment Modules.

Then the landscape shifted. New media and corporate collapse are bringing about the end of publishing as we knew it – and actually, it’s not a bad thing. For those of you who haven’t been struggling with the business, it’s sucked for a long time. There are no good old days here. It’s never been a good time to be a writer.

And with the shifts and upheavals, a new world is forming. People want entertainment that is an alternative to the corporate megaproductions, stuff that comes at them through cracks from the emerging society. Places are popping up where I can sell and promote my wacky Entertainment Modules.

And in the world of texting and e-mail, the skills of a writer (and artist), honed over some hard decades, come in handy.

It all makes me feel more like a professional and less like a guy with a bizarre addiction that he’s disguising as a hobby. And if more money starts coming in – look out.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

THEME, VARIATIONS, AND THE MARIACHIS OF MARS

The world is in turmoil. Looks like the times they are a-changing, as we used say way the hell back when. It looks kinda apocalyptic, but I’m not worried. Like my wife, Emily, I don’t believe in the end of the world – it’s just change, you make some adjustments and go on.

As usual, I find myself hurtling ass-over-tea-kettle into a new frontier . . .

Theme & Variations a podcast anthology of science fiction with musical themes edited by Michelle M. Welch is now online. A new science fiction story on MP3 about music will become available every week for eight weeks. Maybe one of the stories – or hopefully, the whole anthology – will achieve my mad dream of science fiction that makes people want to get up and dance.

Mine will be the last, available on December 16,“The Rise and Fall of Paco Cohen and the Mariachis of Mars.” It first appeared the April 2001 issue of Analog -- about a guy working as a janitor on a Mars colony. The corporation in charge tries to use him to manipulate the workers. Paco has is own ideas, so does nanohudu that’s doing the terraforming on the molecular level.

Michelle put in some great blues by Jack Mangan to make it rock.

This is my second podcast, though my first in English, after the Russian one of "Coyote Goes Hollywood." I’d really like to hear from someone in Russia someday. Is anybody really using it for a ringtone?

I’d really like to know.

Meanwhile you can catch the rest of the Theme & Variations stories. I hope that somebody gets up and dances.

Wouldn’t it be great if science fiction could someday make the whole world get up and dance?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

DELIRIUM ABOUT DEAD DAZE


Just about time again, Halloween and Días de Los Muertos. In my novel Smoking Mirror Blues, I suggested that these holidays from both sides of the Mexamerican border be run together into one three-day celebration of the fantastic, our fears, and remembering those who have died.



I like traditions, but I love to mess around with them, the way I love to mess around with everything else.


I remember and preserve the past, but I can never bring myself to leave well enough alone.


Jack O'Lanterns are great, but why not do some variations on the theme?

As for the Mexican Calaveras -- those lovable living skeletons -- they're going through changes, too. People call them calacas these days, just as the traditional gingerbread piggies have gone from cochinitos to cochitos.


And after all, aren't we all skeletons under the skin? So let the good times, our Dead Daze, roll . . .

CHRISTIAN VOODOO FROM NOLLYWOOD



Wow! That sure looks like voodoo from the Yoruban homeland of Nigeria, doesn’t it? Well, actually, you should probably look again. The “voodoo” people zapping each other are supposed to be Christians.

Nigeria has an Islamic majority. There’s also the “pagans,” “witches,” and a pesky Christian minority. And you know what happens with minorities . . .



Minorities, others, aliens, their very existence make people's imaginations go wild. See someone who looks, talks, or dresses funny move into your neighborhood, and the rumors of cannibalism, human sacrifice, “voodoo” start to fly. And if this includes some kind of strange religion – watch out!

I’m reminded of an anti-immigration road troupe from a few elections ago that included a black guy who dressed like he stepped out of a Seventies blaxsploitation movie, who screamed about how Mexicans were about to rush across the border to cook and eat “Americans.” Somehow, despite this revelation, Mexican restaurants are more popular than ever. And salsa has surpassed ketchup as America’s most popular condiment. Nobody is offering Aztec sacrificial tacos.



Meanwhile, outside of Christendom, it’s Christianity that has the reputation of being a scary, weirdo, alien religion. Its symbols and paraphernalia take on a voodooistic quality. Throughout the Middle East, centuries after the crusades, children have nightmares about monsters with crosses on their chests. In Japan, the cross is considered sexy. And, let’s face it, the crucifix is just plain weird.

There goes someone wearing a miniature 3D image of man undergoing a slow, torturous death – how freaking sadomasochistic can you get?

And even the Bible can inspire fear:



I wonder if the makers of this film realize that in America, the Bible is the number one book stolen from bookstores. And there are no signs of supernatural repercussions.

However, in my decade-long career as a bookstore clerk, I’ve never once heard of anyone stealing the Koran.

So one person’s blasphemy is another person’s creed. Horror in one culture is holy in another. And here we are in an age of globalization, the world is flat and all gods are created equal. Believe me, it’s gonna get weird!

Friday, October 16, 2009

LA LLORONA GOES COMMERCIAL

La Llorona has done better than El Cucuy. She pops up connected to pop music, films, literature, and my wife’s blog. For the ghost of a woman who killed her children and calls out for them, seeking others to share their fate, she’s doing great. She may become the Frida Kahlo of our era.

She’s even in commercials. I wanted to include the great one I saw where the Verizon team shows up and tells her that she doesn’t have to cry for her children anymore – she can call them on her network! When I searched, I couldn’t find it online. Maybe it got axed by the same sorts who got the Frito Bandito banned back in the Seventies. I don’t see why – it was funny and clever. And it’s not like she’s the Virgin of Guadalupe!

Besides, there are other commercials featuring La Llorona. Like this Got Milk spot:


I love that she’s holding a pan dulce! Though I usually prefer Ibarra chocolaté with mine.

And this Doritos one is a mini-horror masterpiece:


Another remarkable thing about La Llorona’s current manifestations is that she’s suddenly gotten beautiful. No more of the skull-faced Aztec spirits, or witchy hags of the traditional representations:


These days, La Llorona is a sexy babe, like the above commercials, and in this annual pageant performed on Mexico City’s Xochimilcho:


Can she go from an object of fear to a sex symbol? What effect will this have on the younger generation? How long before some corporation claims to own the rights to her image?

It’s gonna be some future, kids!

EL CUCUY IS ALIVE AND WELL . . .

I was worried about El Cucuy (and I don’t mean the morning disk jockey). Here we are in the Third Millennium, with the Internet and all kinds of hand-held and wearable gizmos that bring you information from all over the world, usually from some multinational corporation. How can a funky little bit o’ folklore – essentially a Hispanic version of the Boogieman – survive when he’s competing with video games and Hollywood productions?

For those of you who haven’t heard of him, El Cucuy is one of the things that Hispanic parents, especially in the Southwest/Aztlán, tell their children lurks in the dark of night, that will carry them away, “never to be seen again,” if they don’t get back in the house when the sun goes down. Like the Argentine gnomes, he comes out of the duende tradition, of gnomish creatures, that Spain spread throughout the New World along with the Catholic Church, the Spanish language, and spicy foods. Only El Cucuy doesn’t look like a cute little gnome with pointy hat.

The strange thing is, nobody seems to know what El Cucuy looks like. Since over the last several decades, Hispanic culture has been . . . let’s say “undocumented” in Norteamerica, no official version of the story exists, just parents giving a warning and kids imaginations going wild. The result is an unclear, faceless image and a name that, when properly pronouced (coo-COO-ee) with a Spanish accent, sends chills down the spine.

I did hear one detailed description, from one of my cousins. He grew pale and his eyes glazed over when he said it, as if he were describing an actual, traumatic experience. “He’s a man! But he’s got eyes – eyes all over his face! And he doesn’t have any arms – just legs! Lots and lots of legs! And he grabs you with his legs and takes you away!”

Great stuff, but can it survive in the Information Age? A bit of searching on Google and Youtube revealed that El Cucuy is alive and well and living online!



The above shows El Cucuy in his natural habitat – kids speculating about him. It’s pretty close to the kind of conversation that produced my cousin’s fantastic description.


With this one, a Hispanic student (with a British accent!), documents the spread of El Cucuy out of his usual territory.

Folklore is spreading and mutating through the new communications media like viruses. Ethnic monsters are escaping their ghettoes, and wandering the Earth in new ways. Children of the night, what music do they make! Be on the lookout when the sun goes down.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

GNOMOPHOBIA IN ARGENTINA

I never thought much about gnomes, the little men in pointed hats that are used to decorate tacky gardens and who star in TV commercials. I never imagined that people could be afraid of them. Though apparently, this is the case in Argentina.

There is folklore about gnomes there. People see them – especially children. This is something that goes back for generations. Like UFOs or Bigfoot in our culture, there are sightings, close encounters, even videos.

It’s possible that it’s a spinoff from the Hispanic tradition of the duende – gnomish beings with a boogeyman-like reputation that spread across what was once the Spanish Empire. Out of New Mexico, throughout the Southwest/Aztlán, children live in dread of El Cucuy when the sun goes down, but El Cucuy doesn’t wear pointy hats.

In his 1927 book La Cueva del Fósil: Diálogos Increíbles sobre la Vida Literaria Argentina (“The Cave of the Fossil: Incredible Dialogues on Argentine Literary Life”), Carlos Obligado tells of finding a gnome in his library in the middle of the night. In the first chapter the gnome introduces himself as “Rahim” (an Arab gnome?), and explains that gnomes have a network of tunnels all over the world. They like to sneak into people libraries and “borrow” books.

Does Homeland Security know about this?

And is that why I had trouble finding my copy of Thor Heyerdahl’s Early Man and the Ocean this morning?

In the rest of Cueva del Fósil, Obligado and Rahim discuss the works of the poet Leopoldo Lugones and Argentine literary traditon. Obligado seems to be an Argentine precursor to Paul Riddell. But why use a gnome to present satirical literary criticism?

There probably is nothing to worry about. What could gnomes do to you, except carry you off to their underground homeland, never to return? And how many of them would it take to carry off a grownup or child?

Besides, they look so silly, pointy hats and all. The video of one terrorizing children looks like someone in a team mascot outfit.
It was put online by the British newspaper The Sun, with its reputation for sleaze. Some people have even made videos making fun of the whole business.

But still, why do perfectly rational, “civilized” people feel compelled to put effigies of gnomes in their gardens?

Why do such ancient archetypes persist into modern times?

And where is that book I was going to quote from?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

NOT JUST ANY OLD BIG MACHINE

It was the cover of Victor LaValle’s Big Machine that caught my eye. Automatic pistols, cats, ghostly black people, and an array of objects dancing in a white background, under the red, swirly letters. It suggested hardboiled mayhem, but was so un-noir.

It’s the Twenty-First Century, folks. Noir is getting to be cliché. Black translated into French ain’t enough. We need more than darkness. How about some ultraviolet – the invisible light that makes the scorpions glow in the dark? Just a humble suggestion.

Anyway, the flaps and blurbs mentioned Hieronymus Bosch and paranormal investigations – could be kinda weird. Then I read a review that compared it to Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, which I consider to be one the great novels of the Twentieth Century. I ended up plunking down some hard-earned money for it.

It’s not the Mumbo Jumbo of our century – we’ll be lucky if we see such a thing – but I was not disappointed. The range of traditions that LaValle draws upon include Ishmael Reed, Chester Himes, Octavia Butler, and Philip K. Dick. He admits to being a horror fan, uses a quote from John Carpenter’s The Thing as an epigram, and lists Shirley Jackson, T.E.D. Klein, Stephen King, and “my man” Ambrose Bierce as influences. He’s not your typical African American writer, and this book will probably not become an Oprah selection.

Big Machine is the story of Ricky Rice, an ex-junkie janitor, who was raised in a cult that is truly bizarre but disturbingly believable. He is recruited into a group of psychic investigators, because he can hear The Voice. He is drawn into the wars between secret societies that include the one he grew up in. The story tears back and forth through time, revealing him and his world in startling, jagged chunks like brutal time-travel. And where it ends up is far beyond, and more fantastic than I was hoping for. Fans of the science fiction/fantasy/horror megagenre will enjoy the mindblowing conclusion.

The “paranormal” entities in the book are truly something different, have the texture of reality, and stand out in this age of cheap fantasy media overload.

Part of me wonders why Will Smith and Denzel Washington aren’t fighting over the movie rights, but this book digs deep into heroin, race, religion, politics, and other specters that are haunting Twenty-First Century America. It’s scary in a way that “horror” loving pop culture will have a hard time cozying up to. Which makes it a better book, and one to look out for.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

THE TRANSDIMENSIONAL LIQUOR STORE OF FRANCISQUITO AVENUE

Our bookstores are dying. Not just the big box chains, the independents are also in trouble. Bookstores have always been a risky business.

People think of something that has been around for a generation as a natural phenomenon. I thought it about television. The current generation feels that way about the Internet. Bookstores as we know them seem like something that must have existed since the beginning of time.

It’s not true. Bookstores were something that didn’t come into my life until I was near my teens. I thought they were wonderful when I found them, but they weren’t where I was accustomed to getting my reading material.

In my early years, the Sixties, and Seventies, I found my books and magazines where my family bought everything else in the San Gabriel Valley, down the San Bernardino Freeway from L.A. – supermarkets, department stores, drug stores (I found Michael Moorcock’s The Final Programme in a Thrifty’s), and liquor stores. What I found in these venues was so much more interesting than what they were trying to force on me in school and at the library. These were bizarre magazines, gaudy paperbacks, and comic books – my happy alternative to children’s literature.

My favorite was George’s Liquor Store, on Francisquito Avenue, a short walk from my parent’s house. This walk crossed the border between "suburban" West Covina, and "barrio" Baldwin Park. Lots of people thought I was crazy for risking my life among the lowriders and graffiti.

But I remembered the day my mother got a letter announcing that our house that used to be in Baldwin Park was now in West Covina. I went out to discover that everything looked the same, and was disappointed. I learned an important lesson: that borders are arbitrary, and can change without notice. You shouldn’t be afraid to cross them, and you never know when they will cross you.

The magazine and book racks of George’s always challenged my developing sensibilities. Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy, and Vampirella were plopped next to second-rate girly mags. The comic book spinner was next to a paperback rack that mixed bestsellers from New York with soft porn books from local publishers. One glimpse of the cover of Ed Wood’s To Make a Homo, disturbed and haunted me for years. I was made aware that there were other worlds out there.

I also found science fiction magazines, Amazing, Fantastic, Galaxy, If, and other latter-day pulps that inspired me to become a writer. When one on slick paper appeared, I was eager to let my high school English teacher know about it. It was called Vertex and had a story that impressed me called "Bleeding Stones" by Harlan Ellison.

When Mrs. Goodman asked me where I found it, I told her. Looking disgusted, she repeated, "George’s Liquor Store?" She made it sound like the last place on Earth she’d want to go.

To this day, I don’t understand academics.

Friday, October 2, 2009

RANDOM PEEKS AT MEXICAN COMIC BOOKS

Mexican comic books are a lost world. They tend to be consumed and not collected. Often they are found with pages ripped out, on the bathroom floors of bus stations. What information I’ve found about them is interesting, if spotty. If I had more time (and money) on my hands this is another world I’d be exploring.
La Novela Policiaca No. 1695 has everything, sex, drugs, bloody violence, and a title lifted from Baudelaire.
La Novela Policiaca No. 1535 is a personal favorite that I’ve reread many times. I can’t resist crime amongst the ruins. And the woman who is way too tall for a Maya was ripped off from Boris Vallejo.
The upside-down tequila ad from the back cover of La Novela Policiaca No. 1535. I guess it's only okay to have liquor ads in comics if they're upside-down.
From Kaliman No. 1128. Mexico’s musclebound mystic hero also stars in movies and radio serials. Note the phone number for an Alcohol Anonymous youth group at the bottom of the page.

A warning about AIDS from the inside front cover of Sensacional de Sueños No. 3.
A plea for etiquette while using public transportation from the inside back cover of Sensacional de Sueños No. 3. Who says social responsibility can’t be fun?
Ghosts of a Gulf War past, with a wrestler in charge, from Teniente Botija, El Huracán del Norte No. 152.

These are just a few chips off the tip of this bizarre iceberg. I’m hoping some obsessive collectors have more weirdness filed and catalogued. There were these kids who ran an impressive used comics shop in the town of Palenque, not far from the Mayan ruins of the same name – I wonder what they’re doing now?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

COMIC BOOK WEIRDNESS RUN AMOK!

One of the great tragedies of our age is that our superheroes are owned by TimeWarner and, now, Disney. Representatives of DC and Marvel sound like stock brokers talking about maintaining their branding. Fanboys say things like, "I expect superheroes to be about ISSUES!" And great cultural landmarks like the Iron Man and Dark Knight movies are like professional wrestling -- guys in silly outfits beating on each other, and it's all fixed. Only with these movies, and "graphic novels" (a pretentious term I hate) we’re forbidden to laugh. It’s supposed to be Fine Art even if it does reek of a cynical corporation propping up creaky old franchises.

Which brings me to Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury’s Holy Sh*t! The World’s Weirdest Comic Books. See? Comic books, not graphic novels. No corporate sponsorship. No slick production. Just pure, raging weirdness, and cheap thrills that may get you expelled. The authorities will tear such cultural atrocities to shreds in front of your eyes, just to teach you a lesson. And who know’s what today’s Orwellian child-rearing authorities would advise.

Though there a some covers and descriptions of comics from recent decades, in Holy Sh*t!, most are from before Marvel and DC became "cool." I remember a lot of them. The bulk are from companies that no longer exist -- some of them only existed for brief flash of weirdness. Some were cynical attempts of make a quick buck, while others were attempts to make the world a better place.

Oddly, the high-minded books tend to be the strangest. The Leather Nun is nowhere as weird as Hansi: The Girl Who Loves The Swastika, The Gospel Blimp, or Neraka, a Malaysian Islamic vision of Hell. In a bizarre way, the creators of Amputee Love, had intentions similar to those of the religious giveaways.
Others tend to be examples of what happens when twisted talents are given a forum to go wild. Jerome Segal’s Jon Juan, Steve Ditko’s The Geek and Mr. A, Otto Binder’s Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer, and the cult-favorite Herbie all probably horrified the folks that were signing the checks.
Interestingly enough, a lot of these were commercially successful, but got the plug pulled on them for sociopolitical reasons. Loss of nerve can override the profit motive. These are the limits of capitalism.

Too bad. Our civilization is weaker for it.

Holy Sh*t! takes me back to some of the happiest times of my childhood, spinning a comic book rack. All the covers were gaudy portals into strange worlds, not some cohesive corporate universe. Every now and then, I would discover something that was so peculiar that I just had to buy it. It didn’t matter if they only lasted a few issues, they opened up a kind of weirdness in my mind that made me what I am today.

I hope that with the emerging technology, and cultural turmoil, artforms will arise that will give future generations the opportunity to be similarly warped.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

FROM SKETCHBOOK TO WEB . . .

In her last blog, my wife quotes the notes I jotted on our 2008 roadtrip. She also shows some of the drawings I did in my sketchbook. This my first experiment in taking the raw, on-the-run sketches, running them through the scanner, and messing with them in the computer to create electronic Web illustrations that have the high-touch feel of hands-on art.

Just some of the stuff I'm working on . . .

Thursday, September 17, 2009

BAD MAGS FOR BAD BOYS


Among the other turmoil sweeping over the world, magazines are dying. Not just individual publications, but the entire medium. The World Wide Web is killing printed publications, perhaps the forests of the world will be spared.

I’ve always like magazines. I’ve written for them. They’ve given me a great deal of pleasure.

The funny thing is, I tend not follow any one particular magazine for long time. Nobody has ever published a magazine that was "me." I buy an issue, if I like it, I buy another, but usually I don’t subscribe for very long. I never assume that these things are put together with me in mind, I don’t think I’ll ever see such a thing.

What I look for in a magazine is weirdness that makes me smile and feel that the world is stranger than most people like to think.

That’s why I enjoyed Bad Mags Vol. 1 by Tom Brinkmann so damn much. It’s just the sort of celebration of trash culture that I live to wallow in. It claims to be about "The Strangest, Most Unusual, and Sleaziest Periodicals Ever Published, and delivers.

The mags covered came out from the Fifties to the early Eighties. Today’s scholars call them "men’s journals." Their main selling point was usually women in various states of undress, and the law required some written material to provide "redeeming social importance." In the days before it was okay to show pubic hair, feverish imaginations went wild on low budgets.

So here’s sadomasochism, lesbianism, transvestites, drugs, beatniks, hippies, bikers (from the first reports of the Hells Angels, to the magazines that institutionalized the lifestyle), sexploitation films, wacky visuals, and unhinged writing. The impression is that somewhere, out there, usually near or in California, people are going berserk and getting all kinds of bizarre thrills that you’ll never experience in your humdrum hometown. Fear not, for the price of a magazine, you too can taste the weirdness.

For me, a lot of the appeal is the unashamed artlessness of it. No pretension, just, "wanna see something bizarre?"

This a world where women with soft bodies and natural breasts run wild. A young John Holmes can be seen kissing a green-skinned, pointy-eared girl. The works of Russ Meyer and Titus Moody are celebrated. William Rostler is evoked. Ed Roth’s biker years are documented.

And there are descriptions of entire magazines written and edited by Ed Wood – with lengthy quotes that will make your head spin. No one could let loose the creatures of the subconscious like Ed Wood. When is someone going to publish a collection of his short stories?

After looking at what Horror Sex Tales, Bizarre Life, Wild Screen Reviews, Shocker, Freakout, Heads-Up, Raunchy, and Way Out had to offer, it’s not surprising today’s magazines going under. I’m going save my money for Bad Mags Vol. 2.

And hope the craziness of these mags will be recreated in the entertainment modules of the future..

Friday, September 11, 2009

THE CHUPACABRA EFFECT

The weird stuff I write and obsess about laps over into a category that is fashionably called “paranormal.” I prefer the old terms “occult” or “pseudoscience” myself, but I guess you gotta use hip lingo so people can understand you. People are often surprised to know that I’m actually a skeptic.

Yeah, weird stuff happens. It even happens to me. But just what the hell all this weird stuff is -- is the issue.

Given the right kind of stimulation, the human brain gets creative in incredible ways. I’ve already written about this as the Monster Reflex. This awesome creativity confuses us. Often we are compelled to believe our scrambled senses.

The problem with that is, we are capable of believing in anything. It is the greatest strength and the Achilles heel of our humble species.

Technology just makes it stronger, and amplifies the confusion.

Which brings me to what I call, the Chupacabra Effect (yeah, I know that the proper Spanish word is Chupacabras, but as a native Spanglish speaker, I prefer the North of the border bastardization, cabrónes). In the past, the human habit of storytelling generated legends and myths over long amounts of time, generations. With modern communications technology, this has been sped up. Let an appealing fantasy loose in the electronic neighborhood, and in no time it takes on a life of its own, mutates, and is soon a mainstay in the freak show we call civilization.

When Elvis died, he was just a washed-up teen idol. With television, it barely took him a generation to be come a full-blown saint, with shrines, temples, miracles, and sightings. It took Jesus a lot longer to accomplish that. Michael Jackson did it over one weekend.

As with El Chupcabra, it was powered by the World Wide Web.

I remember back in the Eighties, watching Primero Impacto on Univision, seeing the first stories about a strange blood-sucking creature in Puerto Rico. It was about the same time that Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park became available in Spanish. Soon people in rural parts of Mexico, Central and South America were including speculation about genetic engineering in their eye-witness reports.

And the creature changed. At first crude drawings showed spiny, teddy-bears with wings. Then it got bigger and more reptilian. Later proper fangs were added. Then the black almond-shaped UFO pilot eyes.

Recently, in Texas there was the stuffed blue-skinned mutant coyote head, and some more coyote-type photos.

This is what happens when information technology meets folklore. Instead of an enlightened age, we find ourselves with ever-expanding media for irrationality.

The cliché: “That can’t be, this is the Twentieth Century,” should be replaced with: “This is the Twenty-First Century, people will believe anything.”

Scary, yes, but you don’t have to believe in the Fijee Mermaid to appreciate the artistry that went into her creation and presentation. P.T. Barnum’s Art of the Humbug was enjoyed by believers and skeptics alike. Learn to revel in absurdity, because we keep making more of it.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

MY GEORGE CARLIN MEMORIAL HIGH SCHOOL FLASHBACK

He’s been dead over a year, why not?

Evoking George Carlin always takes me back the early Seventies. The Sixties had come to a hemorrhaging climax that reached all the way to the Moon. Vietnam was still burning. Watergate was about explode. Nudity, gore, and four-letter words were appearing on movie screens everywhere.

I was the staff cartoonist at the Edgewood High School Iliad, hijacking an inch&half square in each issue to commit surrealistic nonsense, and getting an hour a day to goof off while getting credit for "Journalism" class. The teacher kept disappearing. I think she was afraid of us, or maybe it was me in particular – I had Jimi Hendrix/Abbie Hoffman/menace-to-society hair back then.

I’d draw, but mostly, read comic books (both straight and underground), science fiction magazines like Amazing Stories under the editorship of Ted White, books by Harlan Ellison, and the L.A. Free Press, and do my best to blow whatever minds happened to be around. Somehow we actually put out a newspaper, too.

One day, someone brought in the George Carlin album with the infamous Seven Words routine on it. We grabbed a record player, put it on, and delighted in desecrating that hallowed place of education with Carlin’s words of wisdom that would soon influence the Supreme Court and the FCC.

Then, when the buzzer called us to go to our next class, I ran into a friend who was just coming out of the classroom next door. He was laughing so hard he almost pissed his pants.

It seems we had the record player loud enough so that it could be heard through the walls of the pasteboard building. The teacher on the other side of the wall, a clean cut Fifties-type guy, heard it all. He probably never heard of George Carlin. Records with "obscene" language were rare back then. He did his best to keep lecturing on Psychology, listening, and not knowing what to make of it. He probably thought somebody put LSD in his coffee.

Even though that record could be heard in at least four classrooms, there was never any mention of the incident. We didn’t get in trouble. Indirectly George Carlin had taught us a valuable lesson in the Fine Art of Getting Away with Stuff: When something is far enough out of people’s everyday experience, they ignore it.

Some say that in the Information Age, this is impossible. Not true. With the Internet and other modern conveniences, people build a world where they hear and see things they feel comfortable with. If something happens that is out of their selected norm, they ignore it. If it’s hard to ignore, they complain, but you’d be surprised how many things people blur out their consciousness if it forces them to think too much.
How do I know this? I’ve made it my lifestyle.

And I have George Carlin to thank for it!

THE MONSTER REFLEX

I write about monsters a lot. They are also one of my favorite things to draw. I devote a lot of my life to studying them. Real, imaginary, mythological, cryptozoological, folklorical, fine art, crass commercialism, mass media, or mass hysteria, it doesn’t matter, I’m fascinated by grotesque beings.

Some say this is because I’m rather grotesque myself, but I guess I should let others decide that.

I am not unique in this fascination. Though not always considered to be high-minded, a lot of science, culture, and just plain stuff that humans do to amuse themselves are devoted to monsters. When I feel the need to amuse myself this way, I never have to search very far to find something suitable.

Why would this be? I have a theory.

It has to do with how I think the human brain works, and that I consider the imagination as a survival tool.

You know how it is, you think you have things figured out, you go about your business feeling that it’s all routine. Then, out of nowhere, you find yourself faced with something strange, so strange that it threatens all that you think you know. You sense danger. The fight-or-flight reflex kicks in.

Only this time, it’s more complicated than that. Fighting or flying won’t do the trick. This is so strange that your brain has to do some reconfiguring.
This is a wonderful thing I call the Monster Reflex.

Deep in parts of the brain, circuits light up that don’t get used in ordinary circumstances. The imagination starts running wild. Without any prompting, you find yourself performing daring feats of creativity. You don’t realize it, so you think that something weird is happening to you. You may hallucinate. You may come up with an idea for new invention. You may create a new religion.

Or you may see a monster.

Or a UFO. Or a demon. Or an angel.

It's an altered state of consciousness that’s perfectly natural and better than any drug.

I think it’s a very healthy thing to put your brain through. Once you get used to it, the world, or just your life going crazy on you, becomes easier to deal with. When the going gets weird, you can find the strength to deal with it.

You also may end up with monsters living in your brain. And they’re good company.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

DID PAUL T. RIDDELL WRITE THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL?


It was way the hell past midnight. A weird violet light zapped me out of the sleep I needed. My wife was unaffected. The dog just snored. The light was coming from the sky. Then it went out.

The phone rang. It didn’t kick into voice mail, just kept ringing. "Oh no," I muttered, getting up to investigate. The dog looked at me as if I was crazy. My wife snored.

The caller ID screen glowed with: GODAMIT, ERNEST! PICK UP!

I shuddered, picked up.

"Hey, Ernest! Howzitgoing?"

"Victor Theremin?"

"You sound relieved."

"I was afraid it was going to be Edgar Harris." I walked to the living room.

"You read Paul T. Riddell’s Greasing the Pan yet?"

"I’m getting there, reading an essay or two a day, laughing, enjoying it." I sat down in the dark, turned on and muted the TV.

"Nononono! You gotta stay up all night. Read it all in one sitting."

"Why?" I found a Mexican gallero movie, like a Western only with cockfights instead of shootouts.

"To get the full effect, and realize what it really is."

"And that would be?" A cockfight is the closest we can come to watching dinosaurs fight.

"It’s the freaking Great American Novel!"

I stopped wondering if the incredible cinematic possibilities of cockfighting would ever be fully explored and exploited, and gasped.

"Uh . . . Ernest . . . you still there?"

"Yeah, did you say Great American Novel?"

"I sure did."

"But it’s not even fiction."

"It’s written like a series of essays -- like Borges and his reviews of nonexistent books – and tells the epic tale of young man locked in a quixotic struggle to participate in a culture that was disintegrating during the turn of the Millennium. Future generations will study it as one of the great satires of all times. Like True History, Satyricon, Gulliver’s Travels, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Naked Lunch, Mumbo Jumbo, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas!"

"Fear and Loathing isn’t fiction either."

"Yeah, like in another ten years anybody’s going to be able to tell. Who’s going to believe that there was ever a magazine called Fuck Science Fiction?"

"You may have something there. But what I am I supposed to do about it?"

"Tell the world!"

"What about you?"

"I’m busy helping these AI/Singularity manifestations deal with human weirdness."

He’d been telling me that for years. I don’t believe it. I think he’s laundering money for the Lemurian Mafia. "I can’t review it, Victor. It mentions me like I’m some kind of chingón."

"He never mentioned me."

"After that incident in Juarez with the stuffed alligator you’re lucky he hasn’t killed you. Anyway, what can I do?"

"Blog about it! Mention it on Facebook!"

"Some of my Facebook friends are English professors . . ."

"See! This could be the salvation of American literature!"

"Or its destruction."

"Either way, we win!"

There was another blast of violet light. The phone went dead.

The next day there were reports of UFOs over Phoenix. Damn Lemurians.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

SOME WORDS ABOUT GOD AND/OR THOMAS M. DISCH


Despite Steve Brown of Science Fiction Eye wanting to make it seem like I was mad at Tom Disch (I shamelessly exploited the situation in my essay, “Greasy Kid Stuff From Outer Space”) Disch has always been one of my favorite writers. But I’m not really fond of his commercially successful children’s books and horror novels, or On the Wings of a Song. I liked him best when he breaking all the rules. His straight-up short stories are also excellent, but nobody rushed off into unexplored literary territory New Wave style like Thomas M. Disch.

Go ahead, track down The Genocides, Fun with Your New Head, Camp Concentration, 334, and Getting into Death. Have a ball, you’ll see what I mean. It does make me mad that all of Disch’s book aren’t readily available.

I’m delighted to report that in The Word of God: Or, Holy Writ Rewritten, he’s back to smashing the hell out of rules and regulations, and it is wonderful.

But then, how could the author of High Aztech not like a book that joyously deconstructs religion? Never has it all seemed so absurd! But it’s not just a book-length rant, it breaks down literary barriers in the best New Wave tradition: Non-fiction blends into fiction. Poetry intrudes on prose. An entire previously published short story appears. There’s even a hilarious fictional storyline featuring Philip K. Dick, Hell, time travel. It also contradicts itself, but then the premise is that Disch is God.

It should be no surprise that in these dark times for writers and writing, this book was published by a small press, and no one will bribe bookstores to put in on display. Oprah will not recommend it. Guess it’s up to me.

The thing is, for a book that came out close to the time of the death of the author, it does not read like final statement of a mind that's sputtering out and getting ready to call it quits. The Word of God is Disch as witty, creative, and skillful as ever. This book is alive, as any good book should be.

I finished it with a smile on my face, then I frowned. Society doesn’t treat writers well. Anyone considering writing as a career should grab a stack of the biographies of dead writers they admire and read the closing chapters. Its rare that writers are happy or prosperous in their old age. And their deaths . . .

Which is why we need to celebrate the works of the writers we admire. Read them. Recommend them. Life is short. Paper and ink crumble and fade. Words get forgotten. Memory fails.

But, in that moment when you read something wonderful, like The Word of God, something happens. Like a magic spark, something invisible and intangible comes to life. It’s like talking to someone who has died, or talking to a god.

Hmm, I wonder how long it be before someone is writting this kind of stuff about me?

Friday, August 28, 2009

GETTING AVANT GARDE IN MY OLD AGE


I don’t do well with labels. They tend not to stick to me. The ones that do, tend to be the ones people use when groping to describe things that they don’t understand: science fiction, surrealism, avant garde . . . things people can’t readily define, but know when they see, like pornography.

Avant garde keeps coming back to haunt me. I really don’t know why. Maybe because I know what it’s really supposed to mean, and I know it doesn’t really fit me.

When I was young I actually tried to be avant garde, but gave it up when I realized that it was a good way to insure a lifetime of poverty.

When I finished my first novel, one of the first reactions I got was, "Y’know, this kind of avant garde stream-of-consciousness stuff is hard to get into and really hard to sell." And I was trying to be crass and commercial. I though a cross between Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would be an instant best-seller. Nevertheless, Nwatta-Nwatta-Nwatta remains unpublished except for an excerpt that Kristine Kathryn Rusch ran in Pulphouse.

And the rejection letters! "This could revitalize the genre! Too bad it’s too zany . . ." Maybe I should publish them someday . . .

In another attempt to make my writing habit profitable, it tried to write for Hustler, dreaming about getting paid five thousand dollars for a short story. I studied the market, and came up with a hilarious romp about genital enlargement called, "The Frankenstein Penis." Hustler rejected it.

A few years later, Peter Lamborn Wilson, along with Rudy Rucker and Robert Anton Wilson, did an anthology called Semiotex(e) SF. There, "The Frankenstein Penis" found a home. One critic said it was like "William Burroughs on steroids," and if that doesn’t translate to avant garde, what does?
It became my most famous story. It was reprinted in Penthouse Hot Talk and illustrated with an H.R. Giger painting. Unauthorized translations have popped up in Greece, and Brazil. There was even an award-winning student film. People would run up to me and say, "Oh, so that’s what the guy who wrote ‘The Frankenstein Penis’ looks like!"
I used to joke about writing a sequel called "The Dracula Vagina" if I could find an editor crazy enough to buy it. Enter Chris DeVito, and if you can find the single issue of Proud Flesh, you can read it.

This has given me a reputation for the bizarre, outrageous, outré, and yes, avant garde. This has not been a big plus in an era when people think "commercial" means "dull," and "routine." I’ve had the lecture:
"People don’t like to be disturbed or surprised. They like familiar things and to know what’s going to happen. Life is too full of strangeness these days. Why don’t you do something just like what’s popular . . ."
I usually fall asleep at that point.
But I do wonder, what if forgot all about being entertaining and actually tried to be avant garde? Maybe people’s heads would explode . . .

Saturday, August 22, 2009

MERMAIDS IN DESERTS, RIVERS, AFRICA, & AMERICA


There’s usually a cactus next to her. Sometimes she’s sitting on it -- a bizarre thing for a mermaid to do. She’s most often made from papier mâché, or ceramic, and she's very colorful in the tradition of Mexican folk art. (I have seen one made out of Oaxaca-style black terracotta, and Oaxaca is in the mountains, far from any ocean.)

She’s usually found in tourist shops throughout Mexico, and Aztlán (AKA the American Southwest). She’s beginning to show up in antique stores (and the Web). Desert mermaids are quite marketable.

When did they first appear? On what traditions – if any – are they based?

It may be that mermaids have a tendency to intrude onto land through rivers. There are river mermaid traditions in Africa and South America. In both places they tend to be blonde, like their desert sisters, (though one with Indian features hangs in my hall), and like the Sirens in the Odyssey, they kill and eat humans. And there have been sightings.

The Nigerian film The Secret Adventure shows one tempting two boys

In Trail of Feathers, Tahir Shah quotes an Amazonian shaman: "They have blonde hair and teeth made of gold. If they fall in love with you, they lure you to their kingdom under the water."

The South American fear of mermaids extends to river dolphins, who are believed to be able to take human form. Do mermaids walk among us?

They could also be goddess manifestations, like the Virgin of Guadalupe, who also appears out of a cactus. Sirens and sea goddesses become river goddesses as people migrate inland. In the case of the Nigerian Oshun the reverse happened; after her believers where shanghaied to the New World, she became a sea goddess again as Erzulie in Haiti, and Yemanja in Brazil.

Tales of people or spirits who live under water are universal. But how do they end up playing their guitars and ukeleles among the cacti? It must have been more that just a particularly compelling mirage.

Life needs water. Even when we live in the desert, we need to coax it along. Phoenix has canals, built along the network created by the Hohokam, long ago. These canals are haunted by La Lloroña, the Mexican child-killing spirit, and her Phoenix manifestation, Mano Loco.

It’s been recently discovered that Teotihuacán , the Place of the Gods, in Mexico, was built to be flooded; its Avenue of the Dead is meant to be a canal in the desert.

And the Johnny Weismuller movie, Tarzan and the Mermaids ,was partially filmed in Teotihuacán. Yes, Tarzan brought mermaids to the desert. They appeared before the Temple of Quetzalcoatl.

Mermaids have been sighted on Israeli beaches.

Why do I feel safe in predicting that there will someday be mermaids on Mars?

Weird connections. No conclusions. I need to do more research. Hunting mermaids in the desert ain’t a bad way to spend my spare time.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

WU YULU AND HIS ROBOT FARM



Some people write science fiction, other people are compelled to live it. Such a man is Wu Yulu, a humble Chinese farmer with a primary school education who makes robots.

Okay, maybe the correct word would be automatons, for all you nickpickers out there. They don’t have cybernetic brains, but give the guy a little time . . .

Mostly, these wonderful machines walk. All kinds of doll-like things that march like toys. Charming, like high-tech folk art.

Then there’s the full-size humanoid with a hat, ping-pong eyes, and rubber lips who pulls a rickshaw that two people can ride. It doesn’t go very fast, but it may well be the prototype for a system of taxis that could someday be pulling people around the shopping centers of the world. Besides, it looks like such fun.

So does a car that has six legs instead of wheels. Again, not much speed or maneuverability, but they look wonderful as Wu Yulu drives it. A car that walks like an insect! Could it be the shape of things to come? The cities and highways of tomorrow would be more interesting for it.

Another insectoid can walk up metal walls with electromagnetic feet. Wu Yulu has visions of them someday cleaning the sides of ships. I could see them walking along the outside of spaceships, checking for trouble, making repairs.

His story is like a fairy tale. People make fun of him for making robots when he should have been working on his farm. Now people are buying his creations, like works of art.

I hope that it isn’t just the art world that’s watching. Engineers, inventors, and industry should take a look. There’s something happening at that Chinese farm.