Case Studies Regarding
the Psychology Beneath
Fantasy & Science Fiction
Wally Lee Parker
(Copyright © 2013 Wallace Lee Parker)
As the practicum of daily life teaches, the difference between sanity and psychosis is not so much a matter of diagnosis as of degree. If so, it might explain why a little insanity is good for the creative juices. And a lot will make you either a mass murderer or Stephen King.
The most common form of insanity is “magical thinking.” It’s a residual artifact from the dawn of each human’s self-awareness — an expected part of everyone’s childhood. Lingering traces of magical thinking likely form the foundations upon which artists, musicians, and writers construct our most beautiful dreams and troubling nightmares. In fact, the intertwining of magical thinking with these arts is likely what allows the absurdity of poetry to become literature and the psychosis of love to become the root of our most engaging comedies and enduring dramas. How else could one explain, “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, who is already sick and pale with grief.”
The hypothesis of magical thinking is drawn from observing a very young child attempting to hide. In a child’s purely egocentric world the way you hide is by placing your hands over your eyes while tightly squeezing your eyes shut. From a young human’s point of view, it’s a logical hypothesis — a hypothesis that assumes, “Since I’m the center of the world, dissolving everything outside my perception leaves me alone in the world.”
Now an artist — either a fine artist or a scam artist since they’re often pretty much the same — might take that little chink in developmental human psychology and make something of it.
Assuming that both artists and politicians — politician being among the above noted scam artists — often stealthily reference the more primitive bits of human nature in order to rouse their target audience, it’s well within reason that an abstractionist such as Pablo Picasso and a tyrant such as Adolf Hitler can figuratively be seated in the same demonstrative pew — at least when they’re engaging in some artful though not so subtle audience manipulation. Of course each clearly “uplifts” their audience to different purpose — this clarification hopefully assuaging the sensitivity of anyone finding the juxtaposition of an artist and a mass-murderer troubling even as a matter of example.
It should be noted that both Hitler and Picasso were known to throw what were described as “childish tantrums” when they didn’t get their way — which suggests something similar in the egocentrism of their psychological makeups. And both demonstrated at least some skill at creative draftsmanship — though critics tend to fall all over themselves anti-fawning at Hitler’s artistic expressions, as if to assure everyone of their non-approval regarding his larger agenda.
As for the principal difference between the two; one’s masterwork was a depiction of the destruction of the Basque village of Guernica by Nazi warplanes, while the other’s masterwork was the construction of the killing factory at Auschwitz. And this suggests how much difference a little empathic reinforcement can make to one’s future course. After all, Hitler might have stayed in Vienna long enough to have starved to death had the critics at the Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien been a little nicer when adjudicating the Führer’s potential as a budding Rembrandt.
But how about those that practice the art of the wordmonger?
One writer possessing a peculiar skill for lifting the scales covering our primeval psyche was Jerome Bixby (18 years old at the beginning of America’s involvement in the above alluded World War II). In 1953 Jerome published a disturbing short story titled “It’s a Good Life.” On the 3rd day of November, 1961, Rod Sterling’s teleplay of Jerome’s story unnerved CBS’s audience so effectively that the half-hour drama continues even today to be rated as one of the Twilight Zone’s best episodes ever. And a case study for writers and directors in the psychology of manufacturing a deep and lingering dread.
The story’s premise is quite elemental. Other than driving adults crazy, the egocentrism of children seldom does permanent damage to the larger culture simply because very young children don’t have the physical or intellectual power to widely broadcast such damage. And if they appear to be trying, their behavior can often be modified through discipline — various reasonable forms of discipline having been proven to be very effective at getting across the idea that actions have consequences, and that some of those consequences are likely to be very unpleasant.
But — author Jerome Bixby asks — what if a relatively young child did have the power to successfully retaliate against any and all attempts at discipline? What if a child manifested the power to reach out and alter the physical environment through his or her force of will alone — by magical thinking? What if a child screaming “I wish you were dead” resulted in your being forever banished into the ground beneath some semi-mythical place called the cornfield?
The protagonist of “It’s a Good Life” is six years old — and by all appearance a very young six at that. He’s also a mutant with godlike powers. And by that I mean the Old Testament’s style of hardcore godlike powers.
Our protagonist, Anthony Fremont, is wrathful, vengeful, jealous, expectant of worship, and intolerant of defiance. He isolates his hometown from the rest of the world by either removing it to some other dimension or by destroying everything in the universe other than his tiny community. Exactly which has occurred is not made clear, and it’s totally irrelevant to the plot anyway since, as with most journeys into the Twilight Zone, there’s not likely to be a happy ending despite such clarity.
If you’d like to read Jerome’s original story, downloadable public domain PDFs are scattered across the web.
I have a suspicion — purely a guess — that at least a few published psychoanalytic papers and postgraduate thesis have referenced “It’s a Good Life” as a case study in consequences of early onset narcissistic personality. And because of that, it’s probable that most any competent child psychologist — read not nuts themselves — could at least paraphrase the story’s most salient points. After all, the author walked into the shadow-lands of something we adults should be able to recall, if only dimly. His writing picks at a stressful scab every parent at least subliminally feels when confronting their younger selves via their own children’s manifestations of self-centered behavior.
As a matter of fact, confronting these dusty images of prior selves is quite often embarrassing enough to make a good number of parents want to pull the covers up over their heads and wish the world away — which, if you’re traversing “the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition,” just might work.
The history of televised science fiction had another major collusion with Jerome Bixby’s craftsmanship in the late 1960’s when Bixby penned the teleplay for an episode of Star Trek’s original series titled “Mirror, Mirror.”
Once again Jerome is launching the viewers into an alternate dimension — this one reached when a transporter malfunction swaps Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura for their doubles from a parallel universe. It’s soon discovered that in this other universe the crew’s alternate selves are members of an Imperial force of rather bloodthirsty killers. The alternate Commander Spock is a coolly bearded assassin, Uhura — overtly sexual in thigh boots and bare midriff — a knife wielding hellcat, and Kirk even more prone to overacting than he is in our universe.
And likewise paralleling Bixby’s work on the Twilight Zone, the “Mirror, Mirror” episode consistently rates among the top five fan favorites from Star Trek’s original series.
Within literary circles, science fiction is often entwined with fantasy — which would explain why Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life” could be classified as either sci-fi or fantasy. The essential difference between the two genres is that fantasy is usually framed by plausible variations or extenuations of humanity’s collective mythology, while science fiction follows plot lines suggested by the imaginative potentials of scientific development or practice. Both hold elements of magical thinking. — the suspension of disbelief required of the fantasy reader being based on an acceptance of the magical or spiritual elements of the story, while science fiction asks the readers to accept that everything within flows from some rational premise that can be formalized within a scientific principle — though oddly enough, hypothetical or purely imaginary principles are quite acceptable.
For example — what exactly is the difference between the mental telekinesis “It’s a Good Life’s” Antony Fremont used to permanently banish his aggravations of the moment and the Tantalus device hidden in the wall of Captain Kirk’s cabin? Star Trek’s “Mirror, Mirror” never made clear where the Tantalus device sent people after they appeared to wink out of existence. Were they dematerialized, shifted to another dimension, or perhaps they rematerialized in the cornfield of author Jerome Bixby’s imagination?
The point of all this being that a sprinkling of invented terms — telekinesis, teleportation, or Tantalus device — allows a writer to change what appears to be magic into something else. As to what that something else is; Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction stated, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And the alchemy of swapping magic for advanced technologies, if done skillfully, allows even the most critical to suspend their disbelief for at least the length of the story.
An example of this magical technology was the seemingly endless technobabble on television’s Star Trek — especially those versions coming after the original series where most every problem seemed to be solvable by the creation of a sub-space tachyon bubble. And as for Star Wars, we need not even mention the “Force” emitted by large collections of midi-chlorians — this fictionalization apparently patterned after the energy producing function of cellular mitochondria; they themselves theorized within scientific circles as being pre-animate life forms residing symbiotically within all living tissue.
This brings us around to a classic example of splitting the difference between magic and science — in this case by creating a world of technically explicable magic.
Bear with me.
It seems evident that there’s something contrarian in the makeup of most really good writers. The argument as to what generates this habitual opposition to the accepted opinion, style, fad — whatever — will inevitable come down to that classic psychological conundrum of “nature versus nurture.” As to which it is within those compelled to write either as a hobby or for a living, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud would doubtless opine that it must have something to do with a deep rooted conflict between the writer and his or her mother. And in the case of Poul Anderson, considered one of the true Grand Masters of science fiction, Sigmund might just have touched on something — though the word “conflict” doesn’t justify the actual dynamics.
Born in Pennsylvanian and spending his early childhood in Texas, Poul Anderson was of Scandinavian descent — the name Poul being a Scandinavian variation of the common Paul. Choosing her son’s first name, Poul’s mother, Astrid, reportedly insisted on the Scandinavian spelling/pronunciation in response to the fact that her husband, Anton, had changed the family’s last name, Andersen, to the more Anglo spelling of Anderson.
Astrid’s apparent rebellion against Anton’s desire to blend with the Anglophiles seems to suggest contrarianism as a family trait — at least on the maternal side.
According to Poul Anderson’s 2001 obituary in the New York Times, whenever he considered changing his first name to the less distracting “Paul,” he’d just need to recall that his more insistent grade school teachers had made a habit of telling him he wasn’t spelling his first name right. The Times article quoted Anderson’s reaction as, “I got my back up about it.” So — it appears that his insistence on keeping things as his mother wanted was indicative of an inherited quotient of pure Scandinavian contrarianism.
Well — maybe not “pure” in the sense of such being based only on the emotionally satisfying as opposed to the rationalizing side of contrarianism. Meaning something else may have also influenced his decision to retain his Scandinavian name.
Early on Anderson had developed what turned out to be a lifelong love for the languages, culture, and history of his Nordic ancestors. Though generally classified as a science fiction writer, in the very early 1950s he began drawing on that heritage to fabricate a series of fantasy stories. 1953 saw the publication of a four part serial in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction titled Three Hearts and Three Lions. An expanded version of this story was printed in book format in 1961.
In this novel a mid-20th century man, at a moment of military crisis, is transported to a parallel world still steeped in the mythos of northern Europe's middle ages. On this alternate Earth the story’s protagonist finds that magic, witchcraft, and numerous other forms of metaphysical phenomenon are the essence of reality — and himself a long-lost feudal knight of said realm. The thematic substrate within the novel is that in this parallel world the hero must defeat the moral equivalent of the enemy he left back home — Nazi Germany. Though much, much better than this short synopsis would suggest, the novel uses a unique twist when it comes to how a rationalist from our world might cope when attempting to rationalize what appears to be actual magic.
With a degree in physics, Poul Anderson — like Isaac Asimov (biochemistry), James Blish (biology), and Arthur C. Clarke (mathematics and physics) — was well grounded in the physical sciences. In Three Hearts and Three Lions the author — speaking through his protagonist — used his scientific knowledge to suggest some degree of physical explicability for the magic confronting his hero. As a result, the story has the kind of firm narrative edge most science fiction readers prefer. And as such, it allows the sci-fi reader to enter a realm of trolls, elves, and the like without the self-consciousness adults often find in elfin play.
This implies that fantasy and science fiction are just forms of guided make-believe. And in turn implies that writers are in a manner just tour guides for the imagination. As for the quality of said guidance; sci-fi and fantasy writers traditionally trend toward being among the most creative of wordsmiths, though not always the most poetic or emotionally evocative.
To act as a guide, a writer must scribe words across a page in a manner that reduces the generality of that jumble of words to the point of explicability. Everything that can be expressed through words is floundering just beneath the bland uniformity of any unwritten page. Startling stories, erotic fantasies, disturbing exposés — all these things are hiding in the dense fog of a blank page, just waiting to be dragged to the surface. The writer’s task is to snare the exact words needed to tell a story without leaving things too general to lead the reader to the correct conclusion, or becoming so specific that the reader’s imagination drowns within an inky swamp of unnecessary letters. This is to say that a large part of the art of writing is the ability to know when the above noted generality has been reduced enough that any residual implications slithering around the margins aren’t solid enough to derail the story’s thread — and then to quit embellishing.
This is part of self-editing.
Being able to edit through the critical eye of the eventual reader implies that a writer’s success at creating literary magic depends on the ability to review his or her own work as if a dispassionate observer. This may explain why most writers talk to themselves. Authors may excuse such symptomatic behavior as a bit of necessary weirdness — a bit of transient psychosis handily summoned just long enough to edit a phrase or to work through several different perspectives on a specific bit of plot. But verbalizing to edit only works if the author is able to split his or her mind — is able to hear their own voice as if it’s coming from another room.
Of course an alternative possibility is that such verbalizations are just a writer cursing his schizophrenic muse for the hours spent trudging down this or that red-penciled path and ending up with a sooty mass of words demanding the sweet mercy of total redaction. Haven’t we all been there?
All this said; no matter how fanciful the framework or how precise the editing, the grist within any story is that specific part the reader can relate to — or more precisely, that part the reader is in the mood to relate to.
Writers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to set the mood — trying to seduce the reader into a more receptive state of mind. But sometimes the reader brings his or her own mood along when they plop down in the lakeside lounger and crack the cover of #4 on the New York Times’ list of bestsellers. But if the writer’s intent and the reader’s endemic mood coincide, the results can be a passage or scene that will remain imprinted in the reader’s memory forever.
For example …
Being primed for future fandom by televised afterschool screenings of old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, in the later years of the 1950s I became acquainted with what would become a lifelong addiction — the science fiction novel. Our 7th grade library had a small assortment of sci-fi hardbounds — including, oddly enough, the second volume in a set of classics from the early 1930s. Well patched with cloth binding tape, the worn and somewhat begrimed condition of the second novel suggested the probable fate of its missing precursor. And yet, a short synopsis in the front of the sequel outlining the events from the missing first tome allowed the book in hand to stand alone. It was the sequel’s title that jumped off the shelf. “After Worlds Collide.”
One thing I learned early on, titles can be deceptive. Too many times my eyes have run across a title suggestive of science fiction that turned out to be a religious tract or some such. So the act of pulling a volume from the unsorted books in a secondhand store, or the musty rows of a bookshop where only the generic term “fiction” marks the shelves, always seems to have a bit of anxiety added to the anticipation. After all, After Worlds Collide might be an economic treatise on the effect of first world capitalism on third world economies. But in this case it most certainly wasn’t.
As to what it was and continues to be; After Worlds Collide, and its precursor, When Worlds Collide, are volumes most properly ranked within the one hundred most important works of speculative fiction ever written. Though the science is dated, as most classic sci-fi is — and with some slight forgiveness for the literary idioms and geopolitical realities common to the earlier 1930s — both novels remain extremely readable.
The premise behind the Worlds Collide novels was drawn out of one of the two general hypothesis of planetary formation vying for acceptance in the first part of the 20th century. Today a variation of the condensing solar nebula theory is generally accepted, but in the early 1930s several “encounter” theories — near collision theories — were still in the running. These assumed that the gravitational tides induced by the close passage of two stars would pull sufficient matter from the surfaces of both stars to form planets around each, and that the planets condensing from said matter would retain the angular momentum caused by the speed of passing — thusly explaining the orbital velocities of the planets.
Since the chances of such “just right” near-hits were considered abysmally low, the potential for finding planets elsewhere in the universe was assumed to be nearly non-existent within the “encounter” hypothesis. On the other hand, the condensing nebula theories seemed to suggest a planet rich universe — though, outside of the heavily populated star-fields of speculative fiction, the acceptance of this “abundance” of planets viewpoint seemed remarkably slow even after the condensing nebula model was widely adopted as the most likely.
Thanks to the pioneering work of Edwin Hubble, during the 1920s the scientific visualization of the size of the universe and probable number of stars in it expanded exponentially. Prior to Hubble’s revision, the known universe consisted solely of our own galaxy — the Milky Way. Hubble discovered that the majority of a substantial smattering of small, barely detectable luminous smudges then classified as stellar nebula (possibly the condensing kind) were actually distant galaxies — distant conglomerations of hundreds of millions to billions of stars that were themselves formed into island universes similar to our own Milky Way. Since Hubble's time the estimated number of such distant galaxies has grown to half a billion.
Within Hubble’s massively larger universe, the authors of the Worlds Collide novels, Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, set up a statistically improbable scenario in which a near collision similar to the one hypothesized as the mechanism of creation for our solar system had also occurred long ago to some distant star. Sufficient materials were dragged from the stellar body to create a solar system. And then, eons later, a second stellar encounter ripped those evolved planets from their orbits and flung them into the immensity of interstellar space.
As a gravitationally bonded pair, two of these rogue planets — the larger named Bronson Alpha and the smaller Bronson Beta by the astronomer that first detected them — eventually entered our sun’s system. Bronson Alpha collided with Earth, essentially evaporating both itself and the Earth, while Bronson Beta was captured by the Sun’s gravitational field and assumed Earth’s prior orbit, though only in the sense of an elliptical exaggerated of the Earth’s original.
Appearing as a magazine serial in 1932, the first story — When Worlds Collide — dealt with the discovery and naming of the incoming planets, and of the efforts of the human race to build “space arks” capable of jumping from the doomed Earth to the smaller of the approaching planets — the one calculated most likely to escape destruction. It ends with a few of the arks landing on this new world, and the discovery that the planet had once been inhabited by an intelligent species.
The serialized version proved so popular it was quickly reprinted as a novel.
The prior inhabitants of Bronson Beta had constructed a series of domed cities. And then, before the deep chill of interstellar space first liquefied and then froze the atmosphere, said builders seem to have mysteriously disappeared. Through untold millennia of interstellar flight, the cold and dark of deep space had perfectly preserved these massive structures — only now slowly rousing as the frozen atmosphere thawed and automated machinery, drawing power from deep in the planet’s interior, turned on the lights and heat. The cities were apparently constructed by the original inhabitants in the belief that it might be possible to survive what was about to befall their world. Whether these first and as yet undiscovered inhabitants had somehow contrived to remained viable after what was likely to have been a multi-million year deep freeze is one of the consuming questions this second novel deals with.
After Worlds Collide was first published in 1933 — again, like its precursor, as a magazine serial. A short time later it was likewise reprinted as a hardbound novel.
Regarding these two authors: Edwin Balmer, though trained as an engineer, worked primarily as a magazine editor and writer; while Philip Wylie — a Princeton dropout — became a controversial essayist, novelist, and short story writer. Judging by the amount of biographical materials available for the two, Wylie’s greater output, acidic wit, and willingness to gore sacred cows has made him the more enduring within literary circles. And among the fans of his more vitriolic essays, there appears to be an ongoing desire to place him within the most legendary of said literary circles, the “vicious” inner “circle” of the Algonquin Roundtable — though the actual evidence for such membership seems scant.
Just to refresh your memory (as I did mine) — beginning around 1919 and lasting through the ‘20s, a group of notables within New York’s literary ghetto would gather for lunch at the city’s Algonquin Hotel for repast and repartee — with a certain portion of the resultant verbal zingers finding their way into columns within the various newspapers and magazines the participants wrote for. This gathering became ritualized as the Algonquin Roundtable, or, as the participants reportedly labeled it, the vicious circle. To be included was to be honored as a certified member of New York’s avant-garde.
It’s probable that Philip Wylie was well acquainted with the vicious circle. Reportedly Wylie was “on staff” with the initial issue of a new weekly, The New Yorker, when that magazine launched in February of 1925. Also on staff from the beginning was the Roundtable’s sharpest tongue — theater critic, short story author, and poet, Dorothy Parker.
While Parker’s often scathing theatrical reviews became something her readers expected, after The New Yorker received a particularly well-connected complaint regarding one of Wylie’s theatrical reviews, he was fired. With the end of his magazine career in 1927, Wylie became a well-respected and often published freelance writer, and continued as such until his death in 1971.
Though his membership in the Algonquin’s vicious circle is questionable, Wylie did the group’s venomous reputation an honor in 1942 with the publication of his collection of slams at everything American. Generation of Vipers brewed a slew of reactionary responses that continue even to this day; and may explain why the majority of Wylie’s works, covering a wide swath of subjects, have been largely forgotten — possibly buried by the ability of his toxic words to offend large numbers of people in a single phrase; thusly suggesting that his banishment into literary obscurity is just a retroactive punishment for such inflicted barbs.
Through the rest of their respective lives, at least some type of continuing social intercourse between Parker and Wylie is suggested by a notation appearing in the summer 1956 issue of The Paris Review. In the introduction to this piece — the piece being an interview with Dorothy Parker — the author, Marion Capron, noted that on the wall of Parker’s New York apartment there hung a “portrait” of “a sheepdog owned by the author Philip Wylie, and painted by his wife.” Which suggests Parker wasn’t among the overly offended at Wylie’s above noted sarcastic — and bestselling — dissertation on the hypocrisy of American’s “viperous” values.
What may be coincidental is that both Parker and Wylie — each considered a highly creative and skilled short story writer with a reputation for a sniping wit — reportedly suffered an eerily similarity of damage during childhood.
Philip was born in 1902. HIs mother, popular novelist Edna Edwards Wylie, died when he was 5. Philip’s father, a Presbyterian minister, soon remarried. Philip didn’t get along with either his father or stepmother. Part of that dislike may have come from his stepmother’s misdiagnosis of his childhood appendicitis as something else (possibly malingering), resulting in a rupture and prolonged recovery at the ripe old age of 8. Already something of a reclusive, this event is suggested to have alienated him even further from his family.
As for any genetic predisposition from having a novelist mother, all three of Edna Edwards Wylie’s sons published at least one novel under their own names — with Philip publishing about fifty novels, collections, and book length dissertations all told.
Dorothy (Rothschild) Parker lost her mother just a month before her fifth birthday. Her Jewish father was a well to do garment manufacturer; emotionally distant at the very least, and quite possibly physically abusive — her punishment for being late to the dinner table being to have her wrists “hammered” with a silver spoon. (Solid silver spoons — the kind burglars prefer — are quite heavy.) Soon after her mother’s death, her father remarried. Dorothy’s stepmother was a devout Roman Catholic that Dorothy grew to detest — likely because she insisted Dorothy attend a boarding school run by nuns.
John Keats, one of her biographers, encapsulated the emotional trauma of her upbringing by suggesting it was the equivalent of being raised in an “orphanage administered by psychopaths.” It was not made clear if that phrase came from Dorothy herself, though, as with any number of quotes rightly or wrongly attributed to her, it sounds like something she might have uttered.
In the research material I’ve previewed, it’s not specifically stated if either Parker or Wylie verbalized to themselves while editing their copy — though with psyches clearly scarred at a tender age, at least some mumbling would seem excusable.
Digesting the above, it does suggest that the ability of at least some of our better writers to probe into the darker corners of human fears and foibles has something to do with the way they’ve been psychologically bruised, especially early on — such bruising possibly causing an inward drawing, an emotional internalizing that becomes the root of a given individual’s literary compulsion.
As for readers, could it be some similar literary compulsion that draws them into a novel’s pages?
In After Worlds Collide, Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie are describing the first exploration of an alien city by survivors of the American expedition to Bronson Beta. I’m surprised at how few pages are actually used for the description. I first read the passages nearly sixty years ago. My recollection is of twenty or so pages of high tension. Now it’s miraculously shrunk down to just a few pages of print.
Is this a demonstration of Einstein’s suppositions regarding time dilation? Or is it an example of the effect the reader’s mood has on how they interpret what they are reading? Or is it evidence of the power of surprise when it comes to twisting otherwise ordinary things into art?
It was our farmhouse in William’s Valley, early spring, about 1959. It was late afternoon — nearing twilight of what had been a blustery, cloud strewn day. I was sitting at the dining room table, engrossed in Balmer and Wylie’s sequel — walking along a strange, metallic roadway (at least I recall it being metallic) — approaching the towering transparent dome of the alien city. Just then thunder rolled over the farm. Through the dining room window I see the fields darken as light is rapidly squeezed out of the sky. Rain begins to shotgun against the windows. Something snaps and the lights sputter out. Doubtless a power line down somewhere.
I retrieve our coal-oil table lamp. Light the wick. And in the dim light, with wind howling, rain smattering, thunder peeling, and an occasional twig from the tamaracks skittering across the roof’s tarpaper shingles, I go back to reading.
Somehow the alien city’s lights have come on. Who has turned them on? The city is remarkable clean — as if the residents had tidied up before leaving for the night — though in this case it was a night of a million years at least. So where are they, these long-ago inhabitants? Where are the bodies? If no bodies, are they somehow still alive? Have they risen from a frozen sleep to peer out of seemingly eyeless windows, scurrying back into the shadows just as the Earthmen turned to look?
It seemed to last forever — the search. Each corner approached with the expectation that aliens are waiting to pounce. Each corner passed revealing nothing but some new expanse of sleek towers, deserted streets, and empty doorways.
I was well through the next several chapters before power was restored and the farmhouse lights blinked on. What that storm left behind was a memory that still haunts — the actual sensation of dread upon entering what may have only appeared to be a deserted city.
Acting as guides, Balmer and Wylie were only suggesting the images I encountered. Reconstructing those images with my own embellishments required my willing and active participation. And the thing that drives any reader to the next page is the same thing often driving the writer to the next page — that thing being either a shared psychosis or a shared curiosity.
Such leads me to suspect that Balmer and Wylie were just as anxious (or potentially just as dreadful of) as I when it came time to peer around the city’s next corner. Such apprehension plays well when bounced against the myriad of times this or that author has attempted to describe the urgency they feel when about to discover what their character is going to do next.
Oh sure, the writer knows where the story’s going (well, some do anyway) — but the details are often just as surprising to the writer as to the reader. Most any writer will tell you this. But doesn’t this suggest that an author’s characters are actually disembodied entities possessing at least a partial free will — disembodied entities that must be hiding deep in the crevasses of the author’s cerebrum? Might such an admission be sufficient evidence to suggest a diagnosis of clinical schizophrenia?
I don’t have a problem with that analysis of my favorite authors. As long as I get my money’s worth, why should I give a damn if the story’s word-smiter — one who smites words into some semblance of explicability — is nuts?
As for why humans write things or read things or both, perhaps it’s just as Dorothy Parker quipped, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. (But) there is no cure for curiosity.” Making curiosity dichotomous — being both the curse and the cure.
Before moving on, one last set of thoughts regarding Parker and Wylie.
Dorothy Parker’s association with Hollywood’s Screen Writers Guild, with the anti-Nazi league, and with various organizations supporting union rights, civil rights, and equal rights, made her a person of interest to J. Edgar Hoover — earning her a 1000 page dossier with the FBI and, eventually, a place on Hollywood’s infamous blacklist.
Wylie on the other hand was placed under house arrest in the spring of 1945 as a security risk. This for submitting a story to his publisher detailing the detonation of an atomic bomb several months before that had actually been done. Though Wylie’s publisher rejected the story, The Paradise Crater, as “too fantastic,” the publisher also submitted it for government inspection — resulting in an investigation as to how Wylie had derived the essence of the most secret of a plethora of top secret government projects. After it was explained and the explanation triple checked — and after some serious lobbying by his friends — Wylie was released. And then, after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, Wylie submitted the story once more — this time to his new publisher since he was really pissed at his old one — and it was accepted; accepted not only into Wylie’s literary dossier, but also into the pantheon of sci-fi’s most retold anecdotes.
Philip Wylie wasn’t the only science fiction writer to write about atomic energy or atomic bombs in the decades before Hiroshima, but as far as we know he was the only one to be arrested — even if it was only house arrest.
Not that political or social controversy is anything new to science fiction and fantasy. Think Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Animal Farm. But eons ago it was discovered that controversial subjects sell — especially if at least one of the topics making it controversial is sex.
In this age of permissiveness, it’s hard to fathom just how pervasive literary censorship was for much of the 20th century. This of course created a pent-up market for all things forbidden. By the 1950s it was requisite for paperback novels to suggest a “racy” content by splashing cautionary blubs across the front and back covers. For example, “A high voltage story of violence and vice among over-privileged teen-agers,” or “A torrid new novel,” or “exposing the hypocrisy hidden behind the guise of the respectable.” As should be expected, despite the suggestion of some sort of graphic exposé intended solely to inform the reader of some imminent threat to civilization’s very structure, often the most “torrid” part of these novels were the blurbs on the covers — which is just as well considering that censorship was still very much a part of life in mid-century America.
But after World War II a new collection of bohemian counter-culturist — later labeled Beatniks — were coming to the fore. Among them writers William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, poet Allen Ginsberg, and the founder of San Francisco’s City Lights Books, publisher and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The various cultural and legal battles that swarmed around these men resulted in a loosening — and in some cases total suppression — of censorship laws. And considering how tainted by political, religious, racial, and social-class considerations the application of these laws were, in balance that was a good thing.
What is generally agreed within literary circles — though often very begrudgingly — is that when this often quite toxic bloom of postwar counterculture began seeping into American arts and letters, it regenerated —possibly by acting as a much needed irritant — the creativity energies of most everything and everyone else.
Speaking of creative energies, one of the young writers starting his career in 1950 was WWII veteran and recent college graduate Salvatore Albert Lombino. And as regards that diploma; it was earned at New York’s Hunter College while majoring in English and psychology, with minors in dramatics and education. The term Phi Beta Kappa, the academic honors society, is also noted on his educational résumé.
Among other things, S. A. Lombino was noted for the number of pseudonyms he used during his literary career. Best known when writing as Evan Hunter and Ed McBain, he also wrote as Hunt Collins, Curt Cannon, Richard Marsten, Ezra Hannon, John Abbott, D. A. Addams, Ted Taine and, possibly, a few more. As for why so many names; a literary agent advised Salvatore Lombino that he’d have problems selling his works if he kept his Italian name. So in 1952 he legally changed his name to an appropriately white, Anglo-Saxon sounding Evan Hunter. He was then advised that publishing too much low-brow crime, sci-fi, and the like under his new legal name would curb his ability to sell quality fiction. Therefore he began publishing different types of fictions under different nom de plumes.
Of course Lombino/Hunter did have a few best sellers. In 1954 he did a little book titled The Blackboard Jungle. He also wrote the very popular the 87th Precinct crime series as Ed McBain. He’s responsible for three novels in the 1950s juvenile Winston Science Fiction series — Find the Feathered Serpent as Evan Hunter, then Rocket to Luna and Danger: Dinosaur! as Richard Marsten.
Though incredibly prolific as a novelist and short story writer, it’s likely most everyone is more familiar with his television and movie screenplays — despite the fact that a screenwriter’s name is seldom recalled, even if noticed at all. And one of his screenplays in particular tends to suggest that Lombino/Hunter’s degree in psychology from New York’s Hunter College (the name of his alma mater not coincidental to the spelling of his adopted legal name) was put to good use.
In the fall of 1955 a new half-hour anthology series premiered on television. And for the next 267 episodes, with each showing hosted by the namesake himself, Alfred Hitchcock Presents made television history — a history that continued for another 93 episodes as the expanded Alfred Hitchcock Hour. As a spinoff of the television series, a series of literary anthologies were printed, also under the collective title Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
In the summer of 1961, while still basking in the success of his blockbuster Psycho, Hitchcock occupied himself looking for his next movie project. Eventually he recalled a short story that had been included in his print anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents: My Favorites in Suspense. This particular bit of fiction, The Birds, was first published in 1952 by English writer Daphne du Maurier in a collection of her own stories titled The Apple Tree. The story detailed the fate of a community along the Cornish coast as it was being slaughtered by an unrelenting flocks of murderous birds.
On the 18th of August, 1961 — as Hitchcock was mulling how to turn Daphne’s story into a movie — an article appeared in California’s Santa Cruz Sentinel under the headline “Seabird Invasion Hits Costal Homes; Thousands of Birds Floundering in Streets. The article recounted how coastal residents in the upper Monterey Bay area — specifically along an approximate 4 mile stretch of beach between Pleasure Point to the southeast of Santa Cruz and further on east to Reo del Mar — were woken in the early morning by the sound of “a rain of birds” colliding with the sides of their houses. Many of the residents reportedly grabbed flashlights and rushed outside, only to quickly retreat as the invading horde of birds flew toward the handheld lights. As dawn arrived, thousands of dead and dying birds were found littering the streets.
As for an explanation; the birds, identified as Sooty Shearwaters, were assumed to have become disoriented in the early morning fog and to have flown toward the lights of the seaside homes. Considering that Sooty Shearwaters are fairly substantial — 40 inch wingspans, 17 or so inches in length, and weighing an average 1.7 pounds — a flock of cruising birds splashing head-on against walls or slicing through windows would be shocking, to say the very least.
In its August 21st edition, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that they’d received a telephone call from Alfred Hitchcock himself, asking for a copy of the paper’s report on the incident.
Out of hand I’d likely have been hesitant to accept the “lost in the fog” explanation. It seemed so eerie; surely there must have been something more to this event. But then, just this last September, something occurred within my own family to suggest it might be accurate.
I, my wife, daughter, and granddaughter were spending the weekend at Ocean Shores on the Washington coast. Early that Sunday morning my daughter called me to the window of our room on the hotel’s third story.
“Can you see what I’m seeing,” Gwendolyn asked? (It was an aging eyesight question.)
Low over the surf line, paralleling the beach, glided a narrow line of dark colored birds. Five or six birds seemed to pass over any given point each second, all flying south. And they kept coming, and coming, and coming.
“I’ve been watching for five minutes at least,” she said, “and I’ve not noticed a single significant break in that stream.”
“That’s really odd.” I observed.
“It’s not odd, Dad. It’s scary. It’s creepy like in one of those tsunami movies where the birds know something’s coming and all clear out.”
We watch for another 10 minutes — enough total time for six or seven thousand birds to stream by. When we left the window they were still speeding south. We checked again 15 or 20 minutes later and they were gone. But the tsunami sirens hadn’t gone off. Nor had the tide withdrawn a mile or two further out than normal. Nor was there a huge wave visible along the horizon. So we didn’t abandon the hotel in a panic and head inland — though that might have been a reasonable precaution.
Later that afternoon we visited the community’s natural history interpretive center. I explained what we’d seen to the center’s naturalist, and he said it was not at all unusual.
“The birds you saw, were they fairly big with chocolate brown plumage?”
“They must have been good size for us to see them from that far away. As for color, all we could say was dark.”
“From the way they were acting I don’t think there’s any doubt they were Sooty Shearwaters,” the naturalist said. “They’re diving birds, knifing down into the water after small fish and the like. They’re excellent underwater swimmers too. Sometimes you’ll see them floating in mass out beyond the surf, and sometimes you’ll see them gliding along the beach in seemingly endless strings just as you described. They’re long-distance migrators, coming up from as far south as New Zeeland, up to Alaska, and then back down to New Zeeland during our winter. But they weren’t migrating this morning. Likely they were just moving to a better hunting spot.”
So — let’s suppose on that long-ago August morning a mass of Shearwaters floating in the dark waters just west of Santa Cruz are roused by the lights of the town up-illuminating the 3 a.m. covering of fog. (At that time of year, actual sunrise at Santa Cruz would have been about 5 a.m. in standard time, or about 6 a.m. in daylight saving time.) Maybe confused by this reflected light — confused into thinking it’s close to dawn — they rise in mass and begin their occasional pattern of streaming in a line along the surf. Gliding south, they round the city, flying along the beach as it curves east into Monterey Bay. As the flock, flying low and fast as is their habit, leaves the densely populated oceanfront, the luminosity of the fog lessens and the leading Shearwaters respond by moving inland, drifting over the beach and toward the scattered street and porch lights to the north. What happens next is just a confluence of circumstances that lead to a consequence — the really spooky consequence of a long thread of following-the-leader Sooty Shearwaters dashing themselves into the upright obstructions — walls, windows, cars, trees, whatever — rising from the beachfront properties.
Roused by the muted thuds, a multitude of robed homeowners ease out into the shadow filled pre-dawn mist with flashlights in hand. Inhaling the wet air in short, shallow breaths, they sweep beams of light through the fog, watching the barely visible droplets drifting down as if a granular flow of slowly falling dust. And in this damp shroud they hear the rustle and squeak of broken birds — hundreds upon hundreds of broken birds flopping on the sodden lawns.
Suddenly the chill air, dimly luminous under the streetlamps, ricochets with ghostly shadows. And among the shadows swoops a hail of hard black edges — fast moving edges driving toward the flashlights. Near hit! Near hit! The searchers run for the safety of their doors.
Slammed and locked, one homeowner asks, “What the hell’s wrong with the birds?” Others demand a more elemental answer, as they wondered, “Why are those damn things after us?”
That was the first impression the residents had. The birds weren’t after the lights; they were after the people behind the lights. And if that were true, maybe it represented the awakening of a long suppressed racial memory. Maybe it’s a recollection of the eons old battle between feathered egg layers and furry nest robbers. Maybe it’s the bird’s ancient dinosaurian heritage speaking to them. Maybe it’s a wisp of recollection — a wisp recalling that long ago this planet belonged to the velociraptor kind — their kind.
Or maybe it’s as simple as Revelation 19: “And I saw an angel standing in the sun: and he cried with a loud voice saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves unto the supper of the great God; That ye may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great.”
But I digress.
At about the same time as the incident in Monterey Bay, Hitchcock contacted Lombino/Hunter (a.k.a. Hunt Collins, Ed McBain, etc., etc., etc.) about doing a screenplay for The Birds. Hitchcock was well acquainted with Hunter’s work in Hollywood, especially the dozen or so screenplay adaptations he’d done for Hitchcock’s television show — including some scripts the writer had adapted from his own materials.
Hitchcock told Hunter he wanted to move the location from Daphne du Maurier’s Cornish coast on the very southwestern tip of England to a small town some 60 miles north of San Francisco called Bodega Bay. In fact, Hitch wanted most everything except the downbeat mood of the piece changed — everything except that and the basic bones of a few exceptionally well-drawn scenes.
Which is to say that though Daphne’s disturbing story is well structured and well told — a solitary farmer battling for the survival of his family in a community that is, before story’s end, composed of corpses — Hitchcock wanted a less provincial — meaning a somewhat less rural — feel to the story.
But the one thing Hitchcock was intent on was that the rationale for the bird’s attack would be left unresolved; leaving only, as the original story had suggested, a hint that it might be some ancient instinct inherent in “those little brains” compelling them to use their “stabbing beaks” to gnaw away everything human, and do so with “the deft precision of machines.”
Daphne’s original story also displays the deft precision of a machine — using the mechanics of suggestion to forever alter one’s perception of the world’s feathered population.
Thought Evan Hunter developed the movie’s script in close collaboration with Hitchcock, the ending the screenwriter wrote was even darker than the rather ambiguous close Hitchcock actually shot. In a slow last drive through the town, the script made clear that most of the citizens of Bodega Bay have been slaughtered by the birds. As to whether the rest of the world remains, Hitchcock once reminisced that he had toyed with the idea of ending the movie with a shot showing the Golden Gate Bridge covered in birds. In the taped interview exposing such, Hitchcock was heard chuckling at the recollection.
Posters for the movie bear a quote from Hitchcock. “It could be the most terrifying motion picture I have ever made,” they say. While close to right, this quote also suggests that advertising for this movie, as for movies in general, is kindred in kind to the advertising for paperback novels in that they both display a degree of suspect hyperbole thinly stretched over at least a modicum of truth. Still, advertising aside, cinematic history agrees that The Birds is a classic movie drawn out of a near-perfect script — meaning Evan Hunter should get a fair portion of the praise as regards any quotient of “terrifying” the movie might actually possess.
Under the nom de plume Hunt Collins, the multi-named writer penned a novel eventually called Tomorrow and Tomorrow. I say eventually because its genesis was a short story appearing in the January 1954 issue of the long running magazine If: Worlds of Science Fiction — there printed under the title Malice in Wonderland. In 1956 an expanded version of this story was published as a hardbound novel branded Tomorrow’s World. It reappeared in pocketbook format in 1961, this time rebranded Tomorrow and Tomorrow. And then once again in 1979 as Tomorrow and Tomorrow, but this time under what was at that time a much more recognizable penname, Ed McBain.
My copy is the 1961 Pyramid pocketbook. On the first page, my hand-scribbled note relates that I’d purchased the book in 1963. As for why; the cover art displays a partially nude woman, her breast painted pale blue. In keeping with the times, the quite explicit illustration is very small. However, having been blessed with near terminal nearsightedness, I’m able to lift my glasses and by peering beneath the lenses crisply focus on objects only three inches away. So yes, I can certify that the young lady is not wearing anything above the waist. And yes, I can also certify that her bare boobs are indeed painted pale blue. (And yes, I can thread needles very handily.)
Thusly having had my literary interest piqued, I moved on to the printing on the cover.
Small print above the title bears the all-cap banner, “Battle of Strange Cults for Control of the World.” And the back cover is sprinkled with phrases such as “savage satire,” “perverse thrill-seekers,” “cruelly logical exposé,” and of course the near requisite “a world gone mad!”
The very first page — normally the unprinted fly page in hardbound novels — notes, “A searing satire on today’s amorality.” And then, “This is a future that could happen to us!”
Being that I was nearing the end of my teens — and considering that all the truly salient points regarding the book’s alleged contents seems to have been illustrated or otherwise revealed on the cover — the sale was more than made.
As for the author’s writing style; it’s a clear, crisp, third person narrative — purely expository. He uses a fair amount of dialog. All said, whatever direction his plot is taking, he writes in a manner intended to make it understood. In other words, his style is professional grade expository.
The “strange cults” noted above are neither that strange nor cults; at least in the proper sense of the words. In this particular future — the last half of the 22nd century — society has simply divided into two supposed extremes.
One group is the Realist — dressing conservatively, acting conservatively, railing against smut, drugs, and everyone else’s lack of family values. At the same time said Realist are imbibing alcohol at a ferocious pace, engaging in sexual affairs at the drop of the hat, and doing just about everything their supposed polar opposites are doing, just doing it in what they believe to be secret. In other words, it’s pretty much a portrait of today’s conservative ideology.
Now the other side, the Vicarions, have their own set of values. With the advent of Sensos — movies in which the viewers are able to feel everything occurring on screen — things such as actually having physical sex have become unnecessary — and in fact repulsive. As for the group’s name, since they prefer to experience things such as the above noted sex vicariously, they’re called Vicarions. Drugs are legal; being produced and marketed much like alcohol or cigarettes (remember, this was written in the mid-1950s, so the fact that most of these futuristic characters smoke in not a big deal). And near nudity for the Vicarions’ medically enhanced and sculpted bodies is all but mandatory — which of course necessitates that women apply makeup to more body parts than just their faces (thusly explaining the various tints of breast rouge). Extrapolating from their preference for vicarious sensations, it seems normal things that remind people that they are in fact animals — eating food in front of other people for example — are considered rude in the extreme, and therefore eating, like toiletry, is only to be carried out in private.
The culmination of the struggle between the two social forces comes when the Realist manage to convince Congress to once again outlaw drugs. How could they manage such a thing you might ask? Well, since government works about the same way in this highly permissive future as it does now, the Realist simply pool their resources and pay Congress off.
By today’s standards there’s nothing particularly explicit about this book. However, it’s interesting both as a bit of social commentary written during a particularly repressive period, and as a bit of classic science fiction. As for myself, I was actually hoping the Vicarions would win the “battle of strange cults for control of the world” — especially since I’ve always had a fondness for feminine boobs.
And even though those portions of the author’s future society that we might consider analogous to today’s political rightwing won the culture war, what little we know of Lombino/Hunter/Collins’ personal life suggests that had the quirks of his Tomorrow and Tomorrow plot allowed otherwise, he also may have preferred the Vicarions win. After all, the Vicarions were obviously the more fun set of characters.
When developing a fondness for the works of a particular writer — the subjects that writer has chosen, the plots they’ve created, the characters they’ve embellished — it’s quite natural to also become at least mildly interested in the author’s personal story — if for no other reason than to find out how much of the author has seeped into the characters. Though the mechanics of writing on the professional level tends to washes most of the author’s private subtext out of any given script, the nature of dipping into an internal creative well for inspiration assures that bits of the scribe’s self will still somehow creep in. For anyone who knows the writer personally, small hints of the author’s private persona may appear as artifacts within the conscious or unconscious tone, style, and so forth of the work. But it’s still the nature of professional level writing that most such hints are worked and reworked so often that only the writer’s innermost circle can puzzle out such private references.
The truth is that due to the various forms of psychosis that compel a good portion of our writers to write, we sometimes find the personal lives of writers more interesting, or at least more accessible, than anything they’ve written — just as we often find the personal lives of painters more interesting, or at least more accessible, than anything they’ve painted — especially in the modern era. This is to say that knowing the backstory of a particular painting — especially if we find that backstory intriguing — usually compels a deeper interest in the painting itself since we thereafter tend to believe we can see the scandalous story beneath the pigment. Substitute a novel, short story, whatever for the painting, the same tendency to believe we can read between the lines still applies.
Sometimes this desire to know a creator by means other than his or her creations can become baroquely incestuous. And by this I am of course referencing the most incestuous of all kinds of writers, those insidious biographers.
I’m told one place to find the souls of writers, painters, and a telltale biographer all mashed together is within the works of Gertrude Stein. I keep promising myself that one of these days I’m going to try to read some Stein — emphasis on the “try.” Likely I’ll look at her reminiscences of Pablo Picasso and some of her lesbian stuff. After all, like most men I’m always interested in Picasso and lesbians — though not necessarily in that order. The thing is; I’m told reading Stein in the original tends to leave one fuzzy in the brain. I’m also told it’s best to let a good biographer interpret both Stein and Picasso. I’m told this is especially important when it comes to interpreting Stein when she’s interpreting Picasso — and since she was Picasso’s personal friend and an early promoter of his work, her voice is a good source for biographical interpreters to draw from.
All this is just to suggest that people are interested in Stein and Picasso primarily because they were characters with depths far beyond what they created. What they have created is merely the locus around which we hinge the satisfaction we feel when meddling into their well-documented private lives. The fact that both were artists — a writer and a painter — seems to give us that right. And I suspect there’s more than a small measure of moral rectitude in this viewpoint. After all, if they didn’t want to be examined in such intimate and well footnoted detail, they shouldn’t have exposed themselves artistically.
Which draws us back around to the writer with many names, and an examination of another of his nom de plumes. It is alleged — take careful note of the word alleged — that Lombino/Hunter authored a series of “sleaze” novels under the name Dean Hudson. To be fair, of the sixty or so titles attributed to Dean Hudson, only a few of the first twenty are actually believed to have been by Lombino/Hunter — all of those published after 1964 were assumed to have been penned by others. Within those first twenty titles, Sinville, Las Vegas Lust, Wall Street Wanton, and The Casting Couch are among those attributed to Lombino/Hunter. As for why such a prolific writer would crank these smutters out at a supposed thousand dollars a pop, that’s a bit involved.
Supposedly these novels were published “off the books;” meaning no records of Hunter’s involvement were kept. All payments were in cash and under the table. As for why; the story goes that Lombino/Hunter was something of a Lothario. And since he was married, he needed a secret income to finance his romantic endeavors. The quality required of these sexploitation scripts was so low he could continue writing his mainstream materials without rousing suspicion due to a drop in his overall literary production. And in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, a thousand dollars was a fairly hefty sum. For example; in the 1950s room rates at New York’s Waldorf Astoria began as low as $20.00 per night. The same room would cost $320.00 nowadays.
The above allegations of moonlight pornography were vehemently denied by Hunter of course. And since records were not kept — that being the whole point — it comes down to examining writing styles to guess who wrote what.
As for how this might affect our perception of his novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow, the writer with many names seems to have had such a clean, non-nuanced style that trying to read between the lines is likely to produce few insights. In other words, he’s like a bottle of wine with a screw-on cap — functional at the dinner table, but not particularly useful to anyone wanting to impress others with their esoteric insights into the winemaker’s soul. Unlike with a specific year of California pinot, adjudicating that the essence of one of his novels is a bit tannic with just a hint of roasted chestnut won’t work when it comes to describing a vintage Evan Hunter. His prose is too workmanlike for that.
As for understanding the psychology of writers in general — and sci-fi and fantasy writers in specific — since writers cover a spectrum of personal idiosyncrasies likely as wide as the subjects they write about, that would seem an improbable task. However, as far as the overall art of writing is concerned, we could speculate that there are two types of writers — those that write to be read (and maybe even get paid for allowing such) and those that write to be noticed.
At first glance it might seem that being read and being noticed are essentially the same thing. Well, yes they are — but not quite. And within that subtle little fissure of meaning dwells the difference between being a serious student of the compositional arts, and being a dabbler — meaning a pudknocker.
Which is to say; writing is the art of being understood. If that requires the total sublimation of self into the needs of the story, then that’s what the artist does. A dabbler writing merely to be noticed has little interest in the needs of the story — which tends to negate the chances of his or her work being taken seriously by anyone expecting a story of at least passable quality.
The objective of most serious writers is to get published. As noted above, some may have the expectation of getting paid for their work, but people good enough to make a living or even a few extra dollars at writing are few and far between. Most of us are satisfied just to have appeared in print — as long as the publisher is a legitimate outlet such as a magazine, newspaper, anthology, or the like.
Having appeared at least once in print, and therefore ever after classified as published writers, we’re occasionally approached for an opinion regarding a novice manuscript. At that point we have a choice. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best to ask one question. “Do you have a writing style?” If the one that approaches professes to having a “style,” it’s best to pass the proffered script by.
My suspicion is that a writer’s style is simply a residue rising organically out of the way the writer handles the art of being understood — said residue being the remaining traces of the unique mannerisms and methodologies the individual applies when handling plot, structure, composition, word usage, and so forth — a residue that sometimes remains on the script’s surface even after the script’s been highly polished.
If the above is true, having a discussion regarding a particular writer’s “style” before that writer has managed to create at least one publishable script seems somewhat premature — and again, by published I mean having a story printed by a legitimate outlet.
Which draws me to that often ruminated about piece of psychodrama called stream-of-consciousness writing. As a psychoanalytic tool, this is in the same school as free-verse poetry. It doesn’t need to be good. It doesn’t even needs to be revealing. It just needs to be perplexing enough that the author can spend endless hours talking about it.
As to its relationship to literature, most stream-of-consciousness is tantamount to dredging the muck from the bottom of a writer’s collection of unorganized notes — tantamount to slurping those free-floating bits of serendipitous thought that writers of all genera tend to jot down on restaurant napkins and/or handy strips of toilet paper. But the essence is, even accomplished writers need to transfer their toilet paper musings — highlighted with clarifying embellishments — into their journals and such within several days of generating said beer-infused quips, since even the original author tends to lose track of the meaning of such stream-of-whatever blurbs over time.
One of the problems with stream-of-consciousness writing is that the interior monologue the writer is supposedly tapping can only be fully understood when the reader has a clear understanding of the writer’s intent. Clarity of intent is the reason the English language uses sets of traditional idioms organized into an agreed upon grammatical structure. Without the careful editing needed to translate the unique forms of word usages, the nonverbal grammatical structures, and the mental fragmentation of stream-of-consciousness to a more traditional grammatical structure, gross misunderstandings will likely occur. In other words, reading someone else’s unfiltered internal dialog is the equivalent of reading a foreign language translated by using a duel-language dictionary while having no understanding of the underlying grammar of the original language. While you may get within a ballpark or two of the general gist, without understanding the grammatical conventions you’ll lose the nuance inherent in the original language — nuance clearly apparent to most any native speaker of that original language.
All this would imply that the depth one occasionally sees in stream-of-consciousness writing is illusionary — like those angular bits of inside-out cows one often finds littering a Picasso.
A tendency toward stream-of-consciousness is the kind of thing that makes Gertrude Stein a “hard” read — or so I’m told. And that’s one of the reasons it’s her notes on members of the “lost generation,” rather than the merits of her own writing, that makes her a feast for biographers.
If the intent of most stream-of-consciousness writing is to draw attention to the writer rather than the material being written, then being offered such a missive for opinionating is almost invariably an invitation to a dull and fruitless slog. The advantage to the writer is that it takes neither talent nor creativity nor any great amount of labor to crank out a few dozen pages of this drivel. Nor — since editing stream-of-consciousness is contraindicated by its very nature — none of the self-editing skills most writers hone during countless hours of trial and error are necessary. In other words, stream-of-consciousness seems an easy way to invite oneself into many hours of literary discussions without paying any of the prerequisite artistic dues. Whereas creating a piece of work with the intent of the work being understood without at least an evening of subsidiary conversation usually requires countless hours of solitary and largely unnoticed work — such being the prerequisite artistic dues.
As a clearly structured literary device, internal monologues displaying some superficial resemblance to stream-of-consciousness have proven their artistic worth. However, such devices bear little relationship to what most amateur writers appear to believe stream-of-consciousness writing to be. Due to this common ignorance, examples of “interior dialogs” are often clipped from this or that bit of classic literature and proffered with a smug “Here! This is what steam-of-consciousness looks like.” Well, yes. That’s what stream-of-consciousness — or at least specific bits of highly polished and exceptional literate examples selectively stripped from hundreds of thousands of pages of otherwise indecipherable crap — looks like.
What I’m seeing when confronted with these select bits of classic literature is something quite different than the example-clippers intend. What I’m seeing are bits of prose so lyrical they can be defined as excellent examples of poetry without obvious rhyme. And there’s the rub. These bits aren’t stream-of-consciousness. These are highly polished bits of expository prose worked thoroughly through by gifted writers and then presented as representations of their character’s interior monologue. And if an aspiring writer fails to recognize these superb examples as something far, far beyond the literary equivalent of verbatim musings from the psychoanalytic couch, it tends to suggest that said writer needs to put a little more time into understanding the basics of the craft he or she is aspiring to.
In the meantime, foisting any unpolished stream-of-consciousness scripts on an unwary reader is the equivalent of having a lascivious relationship with your laser-jet and then bragging how accomplished you are as a lover. In other words, your magical thinking has gotten the better of you. If so, now would be a good time to self-administer a round or two of electroshock therapy, or a prophylactic dose of English 101.
But I digress.
Within their prose, one thing science fiction and fantasy writers should be especially adept at is clarity. The acuity needed by the expository writing within these two genera is among the highest in all of literature. After all, the author is required to make totally invented worlds seem real. This requires both a precision of vision, and a high degree of invented detail within the literary descriptions of those visions. There’s no room for pudknockers here.
Perhaps it’s the simple clarity of prose within the best of sci-fi and fantasy that suggests it’s easier to write than other forms of fiction. As for the disdain certain aspiring writers have for any form of writing other than fiction; perhaps it’s the illusion that none of the drudgery associated with nonfiction writing — drudgery such as researching subjects or checking facts — are necessary when writing fiction. Such illusions would suggest that fiction is a low-labor path to fame and fortune. And it would seem that the fraction of people professing a preference for writing in an experimental stream-of-consciousness style are seeking a path even lower in labor and commitment than that. If that’s their collective assumption, then there’s more than a little magical thinking involved.
Removing those that consider fiction in general and science fiction and fantasy in specific some kind of literary dodge, it leaves the question as to what motivates those that remain and eventually do well at the craft. And that reminds me of another Alfred Hitchcock story.
Reportedly an actor, perplexed at the rationale beneath a particular scripted scene he was being asked to interpret via the usual cinematic legerdemain, approached Hitchcock and asked, “But what’s my motivation?” To which Hitchcock replied, “Your paycheck.”
Even those that have made a profession of magical thinking have to admit that within this particular manifestation of the universe — within reality as we understand it — life is corporeal. One needs to eat. And other than a genetic predisposition to dreaming out loud, or a deep rooted need to be noticed, the need to make a living is probably the primary psychological motivation underlying the creations of some of the world’s best fantasy and science fiction.
Yes. It might be as simple as that.
——— end ———