Monday, March 29, 2010
Saturday, March 27, 2010
“for when He crows they quiver and when He comes they flee”
-- Ishmael Reed, “The Black Cock"
The local roosters are time-warped by this unnatural environment. They crow at all hours. I don’t blame them, this place scrambles my cycles, too.
There may be cockfighting going on, even though it’s been illegal in Arizona since 1998. People need to make money one way or another. And in carnicerías and liquor stores all over town, I’ve seen cockfighting DVDs for sale.
Most Americans see cockfighting as sleazier than pornography, but it’s a natural phenomenon. Roosters are kamikaze sperm-delivery systems. They’d take on velociraptors, if they met any. Their philosophy is “Live fast, die young, leave a mutilated corpse.” We had chickens in West Covina when I was a kid, and I witnessed a string of roosters live and die bloodily without ever being in a staged fight.
I wonder, if bullfighting has developed an online culture, could cockfighting be alive and well and living in cyberspace?
After a few taps and clicks, I found that, yes, it certainly is.
Not only are their sites that promote the breeding of fighting cocks, and the fights themselves, across the globe, but there are videos of birds in action. I won’t embed any here, out of respect for some of my more sensitive readers. Those who are curious, search on YouTube, try keywords in Spanish and English.
A big surprise for the Anglo-American sensibility is that cockfighting overlaps into other parts of Latino culture.
It is the theme of a lot of songs.
Adela “La Gallera” Fernandez has made a career of them.
And Lucha Villa can’t seem to sing a song without somebody setting up a cockfight nearby.
Yes, that was from a movie. There is a Mexican “gallero” genre. It’s very much like the Western, except instead of the traditional shoot-out, there are cockfights, and also songs. Music makes everything seems more civilized.
A classic of the genre is La Muerte de un Gallero, (that’s “The Death of a Cockfighter” for the Spanish-impaired), starring legendary singer/actor Antonio Aguilar. Here we see a spaghetti-Western influence, and songs. (Note: No roosters are hurt in this clip -- and the human blood is fake).
Like bullfighting, swordfighting, kung fu, and car crashes, cockfights are cinematic. These beautiful creatures fighting to the death is pure drama, and closest any of us will come to seeing what it must have been like when real dinosaurs fought -- if there were any around people would pay to watch them fight.
Not many other works of art out of the English-speaking world have been inspired by cockfighting. One exception is the hard-to-find novel Cockfighter by the hardboiled genius Charles Willeford, that was made into one of the few unprofitable movies by Roger Corman.
And as the world grow smaller, roosters, and artists are warped by it, who knows what savage inspirations we’ll see . . .
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
I first saw Ishmael Reed at the first Mt. San Antonio College Writer’s Days, back in the Seventies. I hadn’t heard of him. At the time I was more interested in Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and George Clayton Johnson because of the science fiction connection.
There was something about this big, black man talking about “a crisis of the imagination in this country.”
It took me a while to get around to reading Mumbo Jumbo. A girl in one of classes warned that “he has a difficult style.” But I was reading William Burroughs and the New Wave of speculative fiction by then, hungry for writing that would give my mind a work-out and maybe expand it a little. And the Saturday Review called it “an all-out assault on Western Civilization.” I couldn’t stay away.
Mumbo Jumbo delivered. It succeeds in thrusting you into another world, better than most science fiction even comes close to. Set in Harlem in the Twenties (time- rather than space-travel), the world of PaPa LaBas, Jes Grew, and the Wallflower Order comes at you in a barrage of multimedia collage/narrative that’s more like a movie than a book. And it’s so information-rich that it puts the “crammed prose” of the cyberpunk movement to shame. It presents the tradition of African American culture -- that is not a “minority” subculture, but a driving force behind American culture -- and pioneers an Afrocentric viewpoint that comes close to a documentary manner -- it has a “Partial Bibliography.”
It set my head spinning and my imagination soaring. The world looked different after I read it. What more can you ask from a book?
I became a fan of Ishmael Reed, sought out this other writings. And I felt compelled to re-read Mumbo Jumbo. Again. And again. Yeah . . . maybe something downright hoodooistic is going on there.
I scoured the bookstores and libraries, hoping to find a writer who was doing for my culture what Ishmael Reed did for his. He’s said over and over, “it’s not a ghetto -- it’s a galaxy.” Could a Chicano do the same?
After a while, I stopped looking. I realized that as a writer, and a Chicano, it was up to me. I don’t think I’ve succeeded, yet.
The closest I’ve come to my own Mumbo Jumbo is High Aztech -- my “cult” novel. I quoted Ishmael Reed (along with Carlos Fuentes) in the epigram. A reviewer attributed the quote to Mumbo Jumbo, but it’s actually from “Black Power Poem.” Tor probably wouldn’t have published it if I had cited that title.
Come to think of it, an exercise in cultural necromancy disguised and published as sci-fi is a bit of a miracle. Maybe Neo-HooDooism is alive and well.
Meanwhile, I’ve got some lost galaxies to recover.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Take the strange case of Desi Arnaz and his most popular song.
Everybody from Quickdraw McGraw to Howard Stern seems to think that Babalu is a Mexican name, despite the Afro-Cuban beat. What Desi is actually doing is evoking Babalu-Aye, an African healing god who made it in the Americas, and is often called upon in the age of AIDS. There was Santería on I Love Lucy, and America still hasn’t caught on.
Sometimes the hardest things to see are what’s nearest to you.
Which brings us to Saint Patrick, who chased the snakes out of Ireland, in whose name people eat soda bread, corned beef & cabbage, and get drunk and dye rivers green on March 17.
Wherever slaves from Africa were introduced to the Catholic Church and all those saints, with their mass-produced visual aids, they were used to stand in for the African gods. The snake is what forged the association between Damballah and Saint Patrick, even though the two have very different relationships with the reptiles. Damballah’s signature is the serpent. He is identified with snakes, often depicted as a snake -- a world-creating serpent.
None of the traditional Saint Patrick’s Day rituals involve snakes . . . we can only speculate why.
Contrary to pop culture manifestations, Damballah doesn’t have anything to do with zombies -- look to Baron Samedi and Baron Cimitère for that. Damballah is the source of life, peace, harmon; he is associated with water and rain.
People are beginning to celebrate Damballah on Saint Patrick’s Day, and not just in tsumami-shattered New Orleans and earthquake-ravaged Haiti. They are wearing green to voodoo rituals in Flatbush. Like the sacred, life-giving H2O molecule, the serpent is working its way into the feast and the globalizing culture of the Twenty-First Century.
So, when you’re crashing around in inappropriate green attire, consuming alcoholic beverages in that fine Irish tradition, take some time to remember Damballah. Hear the drumbeat, pay homage to the African god who could not be enslaved.
As Zora Neale Hurston said in Tell My Horse: “One comes to Damballah for advancement and he is approached through beauty. Give Damballah his sweet wine and feed his wisdom with white pigeons.”
I think my Irish ancestors will understand. Quetzalcoatl, that other wise old snake, too. We need all the creative forces we can get in these twisted times. It’s the only way to a better future.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, and may the Serpent God send some peace and harmony your way.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
I’ve always lived in the Southwest, the Wild West, Aztlán . . . names, labels, languages, they change as time goes on. The landscapes we think of as timeless are actually just frames in the movie of spacetime. When we look at places where we live, there’s a lot we don’t see.
“Modern-day Phoenix is aptly named, as it is indeed a city which has risen from the ashes of an earlier metropolis, a city whose name we do not know. The name may have been Cibola.”
That’s from David Hatcher Childress’ Lost Cities & Mysteries of the Southwest. Childress has become one of my favorite writers, along with Tahir Shah. They have revitalized the travel genre, and show that adventure is still out there.
Childress is often described as a “real-life Indiana Jones,” and “maverick archeologist.” You can often catch him on the History Channel singing the dubious praises of Erich Von Däniken. He is responsible for Adventures Unlimited Press, and the World Explorers Club.
He approaches travel writing with a sense of fun and adventure that doesn’t steer away when things get weird. If things start to seem like old-fashioned pulp science fiction -- so much the better.
He also does his homework, speaks fluent archeology, reads the musty old tomes, then goes out to scenes and investigates. I find myself wanting to read those tomes (which he often has reprinted and has for sale). I also get the urge to check out the scenes.
Lost Cities & Mysteries of the Southwest is a treasure trove of weirdness that I can drive to. Maybe sometimes it will take a few days, but what the hell! There’s lots of interesting geology for Em to look at along the way.
There are strange lights in the sky, lost gold mines, tales of Egyptians in the Grand Canyon, underground civilizations in the Superstition Mountains and Death Valley, strange artifacts, and of course, monsters. Some of it is roadside tourist-trap stuff -- a great American tradition -- but others may have more to them.
Like The Thing, off I-10 near Tuscon. I’ve been avoiding it for years, but now that I know that it’s actually two mummies, it’s on my list of places to see.
Why do people keep finding mummies here, anyway?
Then there’re the Hohokam canals that I crisscross daily. I’ve been to the Toltec-style ballcourt by Sky Harbor Airport. I can understand why Childress says, “where Phoenix stands today, was once the center of a great civilization that turned the desert into an agricultural paradise . . .”
The Seven Cities of Cibola may have been located in the Metro Phoenix Area. They were also known as the Seven Cities of Gold. While driving to work, I’ve experienced a curious phenomenon -- when there’s a rare morning mist, and sun slants in just right, for a few precious seconds, the mist turns gold. The city turns to gold.
I have found what eluded the conquistadors. I live in Cibola, Aztlán. Thank you, David Hatcher Childress.
Monday, March 8, 2010
Most pulp fiction -- science, or otherwise -- from the Nineteen-Thirties was about WASP heroes rescuing pale heroines from guys who looked like me. But there is no single, universal audience, or market. Pulp adjusts itself to the consumers. Minorities, majorities, good guys, bad guys -- it all depends.
Take the case of George S. Schuyler. He’s best known for his novel Black No More, a science fiction satire about a black man turned white, who then becomes a white supremacist leader. Schuyler pioneered as a black conservative commentator. He wrote pulp fiction for a black audience, including Black Empire, a remarkable work of sci-fi.
While working for the Pittsburgh Courier between 1936 and 1938 -- when the Nazis were flexing their muscles in Germany -- Schuyler supplemented his income by a serial episode or a short story every week. These stories ran the full range of pulp genres: love stories, crime (possibly the earliest examples of “blaxploitation”), adventure (lost cities in Africa), horror (a mad scientist experimenting on Harlem showgirls), and even science fiction.
Black Empire, published in book form by Northeastern University Press in 1991, consists of two serials, The Black Internationale: Story of Black Genius Against the World and Black Empire: An Imaginative Story of a Great New Civilization in Modern Africa. They tell of Dr. Henry Belsidus, who has a lot in common with Fu Manchu, Dr. Mabuse, and other pulp evil geniuses.
Dr. Belsidus is first shown murdering a white woman. He makes an allusion to Petronius’ Satyricon, and enlists the reporter/narrator in his conspiracy to advance the Negro race. “We have science of which the white man has not dreamed in our possession. We have courage. And we are ruthless.” So ruthless that black traitors are executed and dissolved in a vat of acid.
This is not the usual satire that Schuyler, a disciple of H.L. Mencken, is known for, but action-packed pulp. Schuyler must have been familiar with the pulps and science fiction of the times. The difference between Black Empire and other science fiction of the era was that it was about war against white people -- a town guilty of a lynching is fire-bombed into oblivion, and that’s only the beginning.
The book bursts with ideas -- solar power, hydroponics, a vegetarian/raw foods diet, fax machines, an Egyptian-style Afrocentric love cult, and electric death rays. He didn’t take it seriously: “I deliberately set out to crowd as much race chauvinism and sheer improbability into it as my fertile imagination could conjure. The result vindicated my low opinion of the human race.” The result is more fun and cleverer than some of the futuristic novels that have become required reading in the schools.
Dr. Belsidus conquers Africa, then with the help of his Mata Hari-ish white mistress, cripples Europe with bacteriological warfare. The Twentieth Century in this alternate universe is quite different. It would be interesting to see a novel set in that world, a few decades later, say the Sixties . . .
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
My favorite news source is the Breaking News page of ForteanTimes.com. I had to buy Charles Fort's The Book of the Damned (actually an omnibus that includes that title, plus New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents). That fact that it has an incredible cover painting by Anton Brzezinski, from Forrest J Ackerman’s collection, based on the work of Frank R. Paul, was pure gravy.
I spent months reading the fat, now-dog-eared trade paperback. It helped me through a tumultuous year. The amusement and chunks of mind-stretching materials made it worth plowing through those old-fashioned, convoluted sentences.
It’s good to expose yourself to styles that are unfamiliar and require extra effort. People who need everything they read to be in a simple style tuned in to their generation are numbskulls. They’re almost as bad as those folks who only understand one language.
Compared to many of today’s advocates and fans of all things paranormal, Fort comes off as a skeptic. He doesn’t really ask you to believe anything, which is refreshing. He’s reporting things from the press and from scientific journals. He’s hard on science, especially when it thinks it knows more than it actually knows. His sense of humor, in today’s paranormal scene, could get him burned at the stake.
Or as he put it: “I do not know how to find out anything new without being offensive.”
Much of the phenomena he describes are the same as things that are reported today. Ghosts, strange creatures, objects in the sky, rains of peculiar things, mysterious appearances and disappearances -- all seem to have been with us as long as human beings have been exposing their sensory arrays to the universe. There's a problem there. We don’t seem to be able to take in what’s around us in its entirety without weird things happening.
Or appear to be happening.
I’ve called it the Monster Reflex, and the Chupacabra Effect, and as long as it's mutating and splitting off into new variations on a theme, I’ll probably have to think up new names. This is because these phenomena change as time goes by and according to who’s observing them.
Or to quote Fort again: “Witchcraft always has a hard time, until it becomes established and changes its name.”
Today, unidentified things in the sky are believed to be spaceships, or time machines. In the 19th century, they looked like airships. Or marching armies.
Nobody sees marching armies in the sky any more. Too bad. It makes me wonder about the origin of the song “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”
Photographs of celestial phenomena all look like featureless blobs of light. Some people prefer to think of these as angels, devils, or witches.
Wouldn’t it be funny if all our attempts to explain these things were wrong, and the truth is something we just haven’t figured out yet?
Meanwhile, Charles Fort’s work provides us with a record of weirdness past and a warning not to assume we've figured it all out.