by Howard Waldrop
(Brought here by the generous assistance of Jonathan Strahan and
The title of this column is "Crimea River." Your antipodal proprietors have
asked me to do it frequently; nay, all the time. For which I shall endeavour,
What I proposed to do in it is to write about the wonders, terrors and
heartbreak of this world in which we live, ie. whatever I want.
And this first column did not turn out to be the one I thought I was
going to do; that one was why we, the USA, pretended to be shocked , shocked
when the USSR exploded its first A-bomb in 1949, and arrested and fried the
Rosenbergs even though we had been listening for the explosion since late 1945,
and what that had to do with the Roswell, NM, saucer crash of 1947 . . . It
would have been a great column, and set off an international flurry of
hard-hitting investigative articles that would have won someone a Pulitzer. You
would have been intrigued. Tough Beans.
Instead, I wrote about something I can't let go of.
"Flatfeet!" appeared in the February 1996 issue of Asimov's, and was, we
blush to say, in my Eidolon Publications collection Going Home Again (Jan.
1997)-and will be in there in your hardcover edition from St. Martin's Press
when you buy it in July of this very year. [ed. Note: And is in the collection Dream
Factories and Radio Pictures.]
So much for preamble.
Trying to Say
In Faulkner's Sound and the Fury, Benjy the idiot is always "trying to
say" something; what comes out is bellows and yells misunderstood by those
around him; all they know is that he's upset.
I know how he felt.
I knew I was going to write the story "Flatfeet"; I also knew right from the
start that I was going to try to do what Connie Willis did in her story "In the
For those of you who haven't read it, the story's about: 1) the small
palaeontology department of a cow college being reorganized due to funding
cuts; 2) the extinction of the dinosaurs in the Late Cretaceous die-offs. The
two stories are one and the same, without ever saying it.
I heard her read it at some convention just after she wrote it. It's a funny
story, besides everything else, so people were laughing. But none of them,
between laughs, sat there, like me, with their mouths hanging open at the sheer
audacity of what she did in the story. The subtext was not only on the surface;
it and the text were the same (which, as I tell Clarion students, means that
the real subtext is somewhere else, even if, as may be the case, it's
only "this was a hard-as-hell story to write and I did it").
* * *
Sometime in the early '90s, as I said in the afterword to "Flatfeet!" in Going
Home Again, I was reading about the Palmer Raids (of the first Red
Scare in America, in the early '20s: the one that netted Sacco and Vanzetti's
friends) and realized that they would have been carried out by people like the
That lead me to research early Hollywood (the town, not the industry: I already
knew all that movie stuff); strange and forlorn, a dry town separated
from LA, before most of the film people came there to escape the clutches of
the Motion Picture Patents Trust in the East. It would have stayed a sleepy
residential/farming town until Los Angeles ate it, like all the rest, if the
movie business hadn't set up there. (Cecil B. DeMille rode a horse out each day
from LA; he wore a pistol because people from the Patents Trust potshot at him
from the hills . . .)
Colonel Wilcox had set up his planned residential community in the 1880s. It
would have been named for him if his wife hadn't overheard a man on the train
from Chicago talking about visiting someone's estate called "Holly Wood". . .
So the jumping-off point was Wilcox, the real town, run by movie-comedy cops,
and everything took off from there.
The more I thought about it, the bigger it got, until in my mind it was a
novella, somewhere around 20,000 words. (I usually know before I begin
writingwithin 2,000 wordshow long something will be.)
I also knew I wanted to revisit Spengler-Land. Oswald Spengler, who I'd first
read about as a teenager in Fritz Leiber's "Fafhrd and Me" in Amra, and
who wrote a book Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1918; translated and
published over here as The Decline of the West, two volumes, 1922 and
1926), was a cranky German high school teacher who, as early as 1911, saw it
All Coming Down. What's more, he said that it always had; every culture,
every empire, went through birth, growth, maturity, and death, or, to complete
the analogy, spring, summer, autumn, and winter.
It was in those years the story's set1912 to 1920that the US found
itself a world power. We'd already killed all the Native Americans who'd give
trouble. We'd had a brush with internationalism with the Spanish-American War
("that splendid little war"); when it was over we tried to sell off, or make
independent (as long as it was US-friendly and independent), whatever
possessions we'd gained that we couldn't immediately use (and with the
"Christianizing" of the Philippines, setting the style of the brush-fire wars
of the coming century). Suddenly we had world leadership by default; we were
the last guys left standing at the end of WWI.
Spengler foresaw that. He said: Europe's time's over; time now for Russia and
the US (and after, China). The fact that all this was written in
sleep-producing German mumbo-jumbo didn't matter, or stop the book from
becoming a bestseller wherever it was translated.
So, how to impose the overlay of Spenglerian world-view on what is essentially a
cops vs. monsters story. (I'll get back to the monsters in a minute.)
I needed an objective correlative to Spengler. Spengler could be handled in the
dialogue, but I knew that the earliest it could be used was in 1918, in the
German original, so the ideas had to be introduced earlier, by other means.
Fortunately the idea of cyclical history's been around a long time; one of its
most concrete expressions was made in the 1830s: Thomas Cole's series of
paintings, The Course of Empire. These showed, as described in the story, the
birth, rise, consummation, destruction, and aftermath of a Classic-looking but
unspecified ancient empire and that bay on which the capital city sits; or, to
complete the analogy made specific by painted suns on the five-painting
installation and thus the fall of the light within the paintings themselves,
the dawn, morning, noon, late-afternoon, and sunset of the culture.
So now I had primitive visual aids, an idea, a time, a setting.
Now for the cops. They're analogs to Mack Sennett's Keystone Cops (or
Kopsit varied), who were called in at the end of Fatty Arbuckle-Mabel
Normand comedies to chase someone, wreck cars, be dragged careening seemingly
to their deaths, or explode locomotivesin general to have violent
slapstick silent fun. Most of the actors who played them were ex-vaudevillians,
acrobats and the like. The job of stuntman was unknown; if the gag called for
Arbuckle (who was one of the cops before he got his own series) or Normand to
fall off the paddy wagon and be dragged fifty yards, that's what you got. All
the cops, or people just like them, are in the story under their or their
characters' names. For some I invented biographies; some needed none.
I wanted a world-view that opposed the Wilcox view. One way was through the
movies. (As I said in the afterword, history should have been different so that
D. W. Griffith made Intolerancefour world-historic storiesbefore
he made Birth of a Nationone US Civil War/Reconstruction
storyso "Flatfeet!" would have been all neat and tidy; but it was the
other way around, so tough beans for me.) The other was through the postcards
from the former chief of police, Angus (or Wandering Angus, if you will). Those
were the first things written, four months before the rest of the story. I read
them to students at Clarion in 1994 as a warm-up before reading "The Sawing
I wanted to see if I could bring across the shape of a time in a postcard form
of each incident, also and always with another referent in the PSs.
So here was the narrative that was making itself: 19121920, Wilcox, CA,
the police station, the town, the moviemakers. Overlaid on this a Spenglerian
view of history, backed up by The Course of Empire across from the
sergeant's desk, with a reference to US and world events in the postcards.
Enter the monsters; later, Enter the Others.
As I said in the afterword, even the monsters are Spenglerian.
The first is the mummy, from Egypt (and Africa, where we all came from), ancient
history, the dim recesses of human time.
The vampire is a medieval Eastern European figure (and he's done in by a
Louisville Slugger baseball bat, which was first manufactured for the older
brother of Tod Browning, who directed Dracula).
The werewolf, in received form, was a high-Renaissance pan-European piece of
folklore, bringing us further forward in time.
The lowland gorilla was revealed to Europe during the 19th century colonial wars
in Africa. (The pickelhaube helmet and the Kaiser as a gorilla were
staples of British and American WWI propaganda.)
The automaton with the "Q" on its chest is modern Western technology (from Harry
Houdini's serial The Master Mystery) that brings us up to the story's
As the story goes along, the monster incidents have an increasing tempo. The
mummy scene is fully developed, police procedural, methodical. The vampire
one's a little shorter, sharper. The werewolf section starts with a three-line
paragraph that tells you everything you need to know and goes on a page. The
gorilla/automaton part is less than a page. Sort of like the increased pace of
life in the 20th century, huh?
And I tried to do lots of other stuff; to show change by Teeheezal's
transportationhorse to streetcar to car; by the changing slang on the No
Sparking signs in the park; the Pancho Villa scare and the stoning of
the dachshund, which are the first time the world comes to Wilcox except
through postcards and movies; the changing of the street names and names of new
As I began to write the first draft (Oct 59, 1994) and then the rewrite
(Oct 1011), I realized I had barely a novelette, not a novella; at just
7,500 words it was a third as long as I'd imagined.
Part of this compression, I know, was working so close between all the things I
wanted going on in the story, and telling the story I wanted to tell. I trusted
my instincts when things got shorter, when things I thought I'd be doing
differed from what was coming out the end of my pen. And I did have to read it
to an audience at Armadillocon on October 9th, so there wasn't time to beat
myself up about it.
After the convention, and the rewrite, I sent if off to Asimov's, and Gardner
With a postcard from Angus.
It was the last story I wrote before leaving Texas and moving up here to Oso,
Washington. A swell valedictory, I thought.
But not good enough.
Doing the story made me stand more in awe of what Constance Willis did, how she
handled "In the Late Cretaceous."
She did all the stuff I did in "Flatfeet!" and she did it first, better, and, if
I remember correctly, shorter.
I'm sure she wrestled with the same problems: can you get away with doing this
in these modern times? Can you tell a story where the parallels are absolute,
concrete, and at the same time wholly necessary to the story you're writing?
Can you tell a story where the reader's on to what's up from the very start
without having it be a po-mo deconstructivist job, that is, clever me,
what amounts to a mindgame with the audience, which never did a writer or a
reader any good?
Fortunately for us all, Ms. Willis answered them just by writing her story; I
tried to put the nail in the coffin of discourse with mine, and I'm sure ten or
fifteen other writers have done the same kind of thing without reading either
of ours, without even knowing the questions they were asking themselves.
As I tell all people who want to be writers: Writing is Hard.
Take it from me, and carve this backwards of your forehead, so you'll see it
every time you look in the bathroom mirror:
Connie Willis only makes it look easy.