Exploding Heads and the Endless Story…

I think my head’s about to explode… again.

I’ve been training with my new publisher’s marketing director, learning how to network with other writers for promotional purposes. (THANK you, Callie!)

Now, I’ve done this before. But back when I was a player on the ‘indie book’ scene, promoting your work meant MySpace posts and Amazon.com reviews. Well, times have changed since then! By the time the dust settles and I fall into a routine, I’m gonna have more accounts than an offshore bank. FaceBook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter…

What’s really blowing my mind, though, is something that I didn’t quite pick up on years ago: There are a LOT of writers in the world! I’m almost overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people with whom I interact. A part of me wonders, how on earth am I gonna peddle my own work amidst such an endless sea of ink?!

On the other hand…

It’s also comforting to know that I am part of a very, very large community. In some sense I’m e pluribus unum (one of many), but it’s the ‘ones’ that give the ‘many’ its power. With every new writer, the world’s tapestry of stories grows richer and more varied. Each new tale opens up possibilities for another, and every established writer is another pair of hands helping to pull the fledglings into the nest.

Every writer is unique…

And yet, somehow, we’re all plugging away at one epic tale… the tale that will define our age long, long after its people have been forgotten.

Regarding Comfort Zones…

I have a new novel coming out

This still strikes me as somewhat surreal. I’ve published three before, but always through self-publishing/small-print venues. Having a proper publishing company accept my work – under a traditional contract, and not some dodgy ‘hybrid’ deal – is a new one on me.

I’m very grateful for my blessing. God engineers all of our lives, and I’m thankful that He’s nudged mine in this direction. I’m grateful…

And I’m also very, very nervous!

During my small-press days I was a ‘big fish in a small pond’, easily one of the more popular writers in the circles among which I ran. Now I’m just a minnow… in a really big pond!

But that’s okay.

I’m out of my comfort zone, but I also know that I won’t grow unless I challenge myself. I know this as a person, as a Christian, and as a writer. So here I go, learning how to network alongside my publisher’s established writers so I can effectively do what writers are supposed to do: Bring their work to the people who wanna read it!

I’m nervous, sure…

I’m also very, very excited!

And that’s a good feeling. It’s hard to be excited in a comfort zone…

Regarding Another Novel Novel…

I read Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel yesterday…

I read it all in one day; I just couldn’t bring myself put it down. It was like being fourteen all over again, and reading Rebecca for the first time.

It’s similar, in some ways. Like Rebecca, it’s narrated from a first-person perspective, and set in Cornwall ‘high society’. But the narrator, this time, is a man (as opposed to the nameless bride in Rebecca). 

Rebecca, in some sense, was a tale of moral absolutes: The nameless narrator-bride is pure and innocent, while Rebecca was pure evil. My Cousin Rachel is murkier, and more morally ambiguous. Is Rachel truly a heartless manipulator, as her deceased husband made her out to be? Or is she simply a misunderstood victim of circumstance?

Maybe Dame Daphne answers those questions, or maybe she doesn’t. In any case, the same brooding, haunting tone that defined Rebecca defines this tale as well. There’s a movie, too, starring Rachel Weisz. I’ma hit Best Buy tomorrow, and pick it up.

And if the movie sucks… I’ll hafta go have words with the director, ‘cuz the novel was pure gold.

Go read it!

Regarding Poetry…

‘Here I sit, broken hearted / tried to @#%! and only farted’ – Poem I once read on a bathroom wall

I ALWAYS wished that I could write poetry…

Alas, it ain’t exactly my forte. Even ‘bathroom-wall’ poets’ are better than I am.

And it’s not that I don’t like poetry, or admire poets. Yes, a great deal of poetry is indeed pretentious nonsense. But I am also connected to numerous talented poets via my webpage, and I enjoy reading their work a great deal. (One of my favorites is Harman Kaur. Check out her WordPress page!)

I’m also a big fan of the classic poets, my favorites being Kipling, Stevenson, Poe, and Lewis Carroll. I quote them all quite often, and re-read their work all the time. I also appreciate musicians who write profound lyrics: Ozzy Osbourne, Dave Mustaine, Axl Rose, James Hetfield and Nina Gordon are at the top of my list… but there are numerous others that I love as well!

So why can’t I write poetry?

I think it’s my lack of patience, honestly. I’m all about the best possible verbal nuance, exactly the right word in exactly the right place, every single time. But poetry goes beyond even that. Poetry is all about exactly the right word in exactly the right place… penned in a manner that exactly fits the cadence of the poem.

That’s a whole extra layer of artistic demand, right there!

So here’s to all you poets, be you famous or be you not… and sadly, most of you are not but that doesn’t dim your artistic star one whit. You have the patience to plug away at an art form that completely befuddles me

But I admire you all nonetheless. Be well, and thank you for all that you do!!!

Regarding Writing…

I am very interested by this question: Where do stories come from?

The answer, of course, varies from writer to writer.

As Timothy Hutton’s character (in the brilliant film The Kovak Box) said, ‘a good story is a virus’. It plants itself within its intended host, and then it begins to reproduce. At some juncture a ‘tipping point’ is reached and the unwitting host at last surrenders to the virus, bringing it to full-blown life.

My first three published novels were born from my teenage role-playing days, during which I learned to tell stories with my best friends.

My later full-length novels were actually less complex in their origin: They were all born out of varying single, over-arching philosophical concepts. Once the concept dujour became cemented in my mind, everything else (as the late, great David Bowie once put it) was ‘just structure’. Characters, scenarios, foreshadowing, settings…  Everything falls into place once one has developed a clear concept around which to build a tale.

But those are my novels. My short stories…?

Dreams. They all come from dreams, every single time.

Sleep – or lack thereof – is my eternal curse. Chronic Insomnia, Restless Leg Syndrome, Sleep Apnea… If it’s a sleep disorder, I have it! A local sleep specialist actually said this to me (after a couple of overnight studies): ‘You don’t go into deep sleep. Like, ever. How, exactly, is it that you’re still alive?!’

I’m still alive ‘cuz the Good Lord wants me to be. And I ain’t gonna croak ’til He jolly well feels like I should! ‘Nuff said.

I don’t really sleep; I just change realities. Asleep or awake, my mind hums along at ninety miles an hour. It sucks, but I’m used to it.

That means my dreams are brutally vivid, and more than a little bizarre. Every short story that I’ve EVER written (including the ones on this site) was born from a dream. I wake up in a cold sweat, grab my bedside notebook, and begin feverishly scribbling down an outline before the memory of my latest dream fades away.

What’s great about being me is that my personality is rare dichotomy: I’m a 50/50 split between Melancholy and Phlegmatic. That means that I am moody and artistic, and yet I am also capable of sorting out my maudlin visions in an orderly, logical fashion. I’m a strange cross between a hippie and a lawyer.

But ya know what? That works for me!

Writers are a strange breed, and every writer has a different system within which he/she works. Mine is ‘have a weird dream, jot down the outline at dawn, let the idea fester for a week, and finally write the story at three a.m. after a glass of wine’. Other writers have different methods, but that’s the beauty of writing: Authors are like flowers. No two are alike.

So yeah, I’ve shared MY method…

Now go find yours!

Hopefully That WAS the ‘Last’ of the Mohicans: An Analysis of a Literary Hack (who’s not me)

Don’t get me wrong, people… I loved the film The Last of Mohicans as much as the next guy. (I mean, it had Madeleine Stowe. Ooooh, yeah!) But let’s be honest here. I blew through all of James Fenimore Cooper’s work when I was fourteen, and yeah… the dude’s writing needed some help.

So here’s a critique of his novels, delivered by none other than the god of American literature himself: Mr. Mark Twain!

It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English Literature in Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper’s literature without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.

Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in ‘Deerslayer,’ and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction—some say twenty-two. In Deerslayer Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the Deerslayer tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in the air.

2. They require that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the Deerslayer tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.

5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the Deerslayer tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the Deerslayer tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the Deerslayer tale.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the Deerslayer tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the Deerslayer tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the Deerslayer tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the Deerslayer tale this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the Deerslayer tale.

Cooper’s gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of stage properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go. A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of the moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was his broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leather Stocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

I am sorry there is not room to put in a few dozen instances of the delicate art of the forest, as practised by Natty Bumppo and some of the other Cooperian experts. Perhaps we may venture two or three samples. Cooper was a sailor—a naval officer; yet he gravely tells us how a vessel, driving towards a lee shore in a gale, is steered for a particular spot by her skipper because he knows of an undertow there which will hold her back against the gale and save her. For just pure woodcraft, or sailorcraft, or whatever it is, isn’t that neat? For several years Cooper was daily in the society of artillery, and he ought to have noticed that when a cannon-ball strikes the ground it either buries itself or skips a hundred feet or so; skips again a hundred feet or so—and so on, till finally it gets tired and rolls. Now in one place he loses some “females”—as he always calls women—in the edge of a wood near a plain at night in a fog, on purpose to give Bumppo a chance to show off the delicate art of the forest before the reader. These mislaid people are hunting for a fort. They hear a cannonblast, and a cannon-ball presently comes rolling into the wood and stops at their feet. To the females this suggests nothing. The case is very different with the admirable Bumppo. I wish I may never know peace again if he doesn’t strike out promptly and follow the track of that cannon-ball across the plain through the dense fog and find the fort. Isn’t it a daisy? If Cooper had any real knowledge of Nature’s ways of doing things, he had a most delicate art in concealing the fact. For instance: one of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think), has lost the trail of a person he is tracking through the forest. Apparently that trail is hopelessly lost. Neither you nor I could ever have guessed out the way to find it. It was very different with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped for long. He turned a running stream out of its course, and there, in the slush in its old bed, were that person’s moccasin-tracks. The current did not wash them away, as it would have done in all other like cases—no, even the eternal laws of Nature have to vacate when Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of woodcraft on the reader.

We must be a little wary when Brander Matthews tells us that Cooper’s books “reveal an extraordinary fulness of invention.” As a rule, I am quite willing to accept Brander Matthews’s literary judgments and applaud his lucid and graceful phrasing of them; but that particular statement needs to be taken with a few tons of salt. Bless your heart, Cooper hadn’t any more invention than a horse; and I don’t mean a high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes-horse. It would be very difficult to find a really clever “situation” in Cooper’s books, and still more difficult to find one of any kind which he has failed to render absurd by his handling of it. Look at the episodes of “the caves”; and at the celebrated scuffle between Maqua and those others on the table-land a few days later; and at Hurry Harry’s queer water-transit from the castle to the ark; and at Deerslayer’s half-hour with his first corpse; and at the quarrel between Hurry Harry and Deerslayer later; and at—but choose for yourself; you can’t go amiss.

If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper’s proudest creations in the way of “situations” suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer’s protecting gift. Cooper’s eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of course a man who cannot see the commonest little every-day matters accurately is working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a “situation.” In the Deerslayer tale Cooper has a stream which is fifty feet wide where it flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to twenty as it meanders along for no given reason; and yet when a stream acts like that it ought to be required to explain itself. Fourteen pages later the width of the brook’s outlet from the lake has suddenly shrunk thirty feet, and become “the narrowest part of the stream.” This shrinkage is not accounted for. The stream has bends in it, a sure indication that it has alluvial banks and cuts them; yet these bends are only thirty and fifty feet long. If Cooper had been a nice and punctilious observer he would have noticed that the bends were oftener nine hundred feet long than short of it.

Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a “sapling” to the form of an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are “laying” for a settler’s scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by a rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions “it was little more than a modern canal-boat.” Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of “greater breadth than common.” Let us guess, then, that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it had only two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low-roofed log dwelling occupies “two-thirds of the ark’s length”—a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms—each forty-five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa’s bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream’s exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians—say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper’s Indians never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.

The ark is one hundred and forty feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him, and when he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he judged, he let go and dropped. And missed the house! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in the stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The fault was Cooper’s, not his. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.

There still remained in the roost five Indians.

The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did—you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still farther astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat—for he was a Cooper Indian. In the matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigarshop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of the details throws a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper’s inadequacy as an observer.

The reader will find some examples of Cooper’s high talent for inaccurate observation in the account of the shooting-match in The Pathfinder.

          “A common wrought nail was driven lightly into the target, its

          head having been first touched with paint.”

The color of the paint is not stated—an important omission, but Cooper deals freely in important omissions. No, after all, it was not an important omission; for this nail-head is a hundred yards from the marksmen, and could not be seen by them at that distance, no matter what its color might be.

How far can the best eyes see a common house-fly? A hundred yards? It is quite impossible. Very well; eyes that cannot see a house-fly that is a hundred yards away cannot see an ordinary nailhead at that distance, for the size of the two objects is the same. It takes a keen eye to see a fly or a nailhead at fifty yards—one hundred and fifty feet. Can the reader do it?

The nail was lightly driven, its head painted, and game called. Then the Cooper miracles began. The bullet of the first marksman chipped an edge off the nail-head; the next man’s bullet drove the nail a little way into the target—and removed all the paint. Haven’t the miracles gone far enough now? Not to suit Cooper; for the purpose of this whole scheme is to show off his prodigy, Deerslayer Hawkeye—Long-Rifle—Leather-Stocking—Pathfinder—Bumppo before the ladies.

          “’Be all ready to clench it, boys!’ cried out Pathfinder,

          stepping into his friend’s tracks the instant they were vacant.

          ‘Never mind a new nail; I can see that, though the paint is

          gone, and what I can see I can hit at a hundred yards, though

          it were only a mosquito’s eye.  Be ready to clench!’

“The rifle cracked, the bullet sped its way, and the head of the nail was buried in the wood, covered by the piece of flattened lead.”

There, you see, is a man who could hunt flies with a rifle, and command a ducal salary in a Wild West show to-day if we had him back with us.

The recorded feat is certainly surprising just as it stands; but it is not surprising enough for Cooper. Cooper adds a touch. He has made Pathfinder do this miracle with another man’s rifle; and not only that, but Pathfinder did not have even the advantage of loading it himself. He had everything against him, and yet he made that impossible shot; and not only made it, but did it with absolute confidence, saying, “Be ready to clench.” Now a person like that would have undertaken that same feat with a brickbat, and with Cooper to help he would have achieved it, too.

Pathfinder showed off handsomely that day before the ladies. His very first feat was a thing which no Wild West show can touch. He was standing with the group of marksmen, observing—a hundred yards from the target, mind; one Jasper raised his rifle and drove the centre of the bull’s-eye. Then the Quartermaster fired. The target exhibited no result this time. There was a laugh. “It’s a dead miss,” said Major Lundie. Pathfinder waited an impressive moment or two; then said, in that calm, indifferent, know-it-all way of his, “No, Major, he has covered Jasper’s bullet, as will be seen if any one will take the trouble to examine the target.”

Wasn’t it remarkable! How could he see that little pellet fly through the air and enter that distant bullet-hole? Yet that is what he did; for nothing is impossible to a Cooper person. Did any of those people have any deep-seated doubts about this thing? No; for that would imply sanity, and these were all Cooper people.

          “The respect for Pathfinder’s skill and for his ‘quickness and

          accuracy of sight’” (the italics [”] are mine) “was so

          profound and general, that the instant he made this declaration

          the spectators began to distrust their own opinions, and a

          dozen rushed to the target in order to ascertain the fact.

          There, sure enough, it was found that the Quartermaster’s

          bullet had gone through the hole made by Jasper’s, and that,

          too, so accurately as to require a minute examination to be

          certain of the circumstance, which, however, was soon clearly

          established by discovering one bullet over the other in the

          stump against which the target was placed.”

They made a “minute” examination; but never mind, how could they know that there were two bullets in that hole without digging the latest one out? for neither probe nor eyesight could prove the presence of any more than one bullet. Did they dig? No; as we shall see. It is the Pathfinder’s turn now; he steps out before the ladies, takes aim, and fires.

But, alas! here is a disappointment; an incredible, an unimaginable disappointment—for the target’s aspect is unchanged; there is nothing there but that same old bullet-hole!

          “’If one dared to hint at such a thing,’ cried Major Duncan, ‘I

          should say that the Pathfinder has also missed the target!’”

As nobody had missed it yet, the “also” was not necessary; but never mind about that, for the Pathfinder is going to speak.

          “’No, no, Major,’ said he, confidently, ‘that would be a risky

          declaration.  I didn’t load the piece, and can’t say what was

          in it; but if it was lead, you will find the bullet driving

          down those of the Quartermaster and Jasper, else is not my name

          Pathfinder.’

          “A shout from the target announced the truth of this

          assertion.”

Is the miracle sufficient as it stands? Not for Cooper. The Pathfinder speaks again, as he “now slowly advances towards the stage occupied by the females”:

          “’That’s not all, boys, that’s not all; if you find the target

          touched at all, I’ll own to a miss.  The Quartermaster cut the

          wood, but you’ll find no wood cut by that last messenger.”

The miracle is at last complete. He knew—doubtless saw—at the distance of a hundred yards—that his bullet had passed into the hole without fraying the edges. There were now three bullets in that one hole—three bullets embedded processionally in the body of the stump back of the target. Everybody knew this—somehow or other—and yet nobody had dug any of them out to make sure. Cooper is not a close observer, but he is interesting. He is certainly always that, no matter what happens. And he is more interesting when he is not noticing what he is about than when he is. This is a considerable merit.

The conversations in the Cooper books have a curious sound in our modern ears. To believe that such talk really ever came out of people’s mouths would be to believe that there was a time when time was of no value to a person who thought he had something to say; when it was the custom to spread a two-minute remark out to ten; when a man’s mouth was a rolling-mill, and busied itself all day long in turning four-foot pigs of thought into thirty-foot bars of conversational railroad iron by attenuation; when subjects were seldom faithfully stuck to, but the talk wandered all around and arrived nowhere; when conversations consisted mainly of irrelevancies, with here and there a relevancy, a relevancy with an embarrassed look, as not being able to explain how it got there.

Cooper was certainly not a master in the construction of dialogue. Inaccurate observation defeated him here as it defeated him in so many other enterprises of his. He even failed to notice that the man who talks corrupt English six days in the week must and will talk it on the seventh, and can’t help himself. In the Deerslayer story he lets Deerslayer talk the showiest kind of book-talk sometimes, and at other times the basest of base dialects. For instance, when some one asks him if he has a sweetheart, and if so, where she abides, this is his majestic answer:

          “’She’s in the forest-hanging from the boughs of the trees, in

          a soft rain—in the dew on the open grass—the clouds that

          float about in the blue heavens—the birds that sing in the

          woods—the sweet springs where I slake my thirst—and in all

          the other glorious gifts that come from God’s Providence!’”

And he preceded that, a little before, with this:

          “’It consarns me as all things that touches a fri’nd consarns a

          fri’nd.’”

And this is another of his remarks:

          “’If I was Injin born, now, I might tell of this, or carry in

          the scalp and boast of the expl’ite afore the whole tribe; or

          if my inimy had only been a bear’”—and so on.

We cannot imagine such a thing as a veteran Scotch Commander-in-Chief comporting himself in the field like a windy melodramatic actor, but Cooper could. On one occasion Alice and Cora were being chased by the French through a fog in the neighborhood of their father’s fort:

          “’Point de quartier aux coquins!’ cried an eager pursuer, who

          seemed to direct the operations of the enemy.

          “’Stand firm and be ready, my gallant 60ths!’ suddenly

          exclaimed a voice above them; wait to see the enemy; fire low,

          and sweep the glacis.’

          “’Father? father!’ exclaimed a piercing cry from out the mist;

          ‘it is I!  Alice! thy own Elsie! spare, O! save your daughters!’

          “’Hold!’ shouted the former speaker, in the awful tones of

          parental agony, the sound reaching even to the woods, and

          rolling back in solemn echo.  ”Tis she! God has restored me my

          children! Throw open the sally-port; to the field, 60ths, to

          the field! pull not a trigger, lest ye kill my lambs!  Drive

          off these dogs of France with your steel!’”

Cooper’s word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but it is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he doesn’t say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate word. I will furnish some circumstantial evidence in support of this charge. My instances are gathered from half a dozen pages of the tale called Deerslayer. He uses “verbal,” for “oral”; “precision,” for “facility”; “phenomena,” for “marvels”; “necessary,” for “predetermined”; “unsophisticated,” for “primitive”; “preparation,” for “expectancy”; “rebuked,” for “subdued”; “dependent on,” for “resulting from”; “fact,” for “condition”; “fact,” for “conjecture”; “precaution,” for “caution”; “explain,” for “determine”; “mortified,” for “disappointed”; “meretricious,” for “factitious”; “materially,” for “considerably”; “decreasing,” for “deepening”; “increasing,” for “disappearing”; “embedded,” for “enclosed”; “treacherous;” for “hostile”; “stood,” for “stooped”; “softened,” for “replaced”; “rejoined,” for “remarked”; “situation,” for “condition”; “different,” for “differing”; “insensible,” for “unsentient”; “brevity,” for “celerity”; “distrusted,” for “suspicious”; “mental imbecility,” for “imbecility”; “eyes,” for “sight”; “counteracting,” for “opposing”; “funeral obsequies,” for “obsequies.”

There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now—all dead but Lounsbury. I don’t remember that Lounsbury makes the claim in so many words, still he makes it, for he says that Deerslayer is a “pure work of art.” Pure, in that connection, means faultless—faultless in all details—and language is a detail. If Mr. Lounsbury had only compared Cooper’s English with the English which he writes himself—but it is plain that he didn’t; and so it is likely that he imagines until this day that Cooper’s is as clean and compact as his own. Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language, and that the English of Deerslayer is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.

I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that Deerslayer is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that Deerslayer is just simply a literary delirium tremens.

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are—oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.

The Top Ten Metal Albums of All Time (Thus Far…)

Anyone who knows me well knows that when it comes to music, I LOVE the ‘hard stuff’! The louder the better. I tend to think of music as a cathartic thing, a medium through which to purge one’s pain and angst.

An Australian study showed that people who listen to Heavy Metal suffer from fewer neuroses and enjoy better mental health than those who do not. Life… is not always pretty! Sometimes ya just gotta get that nasty stuff out of your head, you know?

So here – in no particular order – are my top ten metal albums of all time…

Ozzy Osbourne – Ozzmosis:If you don’t like this album, you’re on crack. It came out in my late teens, and it was a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky. It’s darker than most of Ozzy’s work, and more heartfelt. It’s also (arguably) guitarist Zakk Wylde’s finest piece of work, at least with the Oz-man.

Stryper – To Hell with the Devil:The title track never fails to give me the chills; Michael’s Sweet’s vocals are second to none! Robert Sweet’s drumming is right up there with Mike Portnoy’s, in my book, and no two guitarists ever played in sync like Michael and Oz Fox. It’s a testament to this album’s quality that it was the first Christian metal album to ever achieve ‘mainstream’ success.

Megadeth – Cryptic Writings: ‘She-Wolf’. Need I say more? This is also the first album in which I began to admire Dave Mustaine for his vocals as well as his guitar playing. The way he sang ‘Use the Man’ just blew me away.

Nevermore – Dead Heart in a Dead World: ‘The Heart Collector’ is an underrated classic. Nevermore is second to none when it comes to vocals, lyrics, composition, and guitar work. (Honestly, I had a hard time choosing between this one and ‘Dreaming Neon Black’.)

My Dying Bride – The Angel and the Dark River: My Dying Bride has never released a bad album… but this is unarguably their opus. Not only is it heavy and angst-ridden, the piano and violin tracks truly make it stand out as a metal masterwork.

Metallica – St. Anger: This controversial record is Metallica’s only ‘flop’, since it only went triple platinum. Awww!!! The fans just didn’t get it. James Hetfield had just come out of rehab, and the band was going through some major therapy in the slim hope that they might stay together. Most fans didn’t get it, but I did; this record comes from a place of raw pain and desperate self-exploration. The song ‘The Unnamed Feeling’ is well worth the selling price, and ‘Some Kind of Monster’ is pure-dee Metallica.

Pantera – Cowboys From Hell: The metal album that truly defined the nineties. Singer Phil Anselmo bridged the gap between the high-pitched vocals of the eighties and the darker style that would come to define the nineties. ‘Cemetery Gates’ is truly Dimebag Darrell’s finest piece of guitar work. (May you rest in peace, Dime. We miss you!)

Black Sabbath – Cross Purposes: Black Sabbath’s forgotten gem. Tony Martin’s vocals were off the charts, and this is some of Tony Iommi’s finest guitar work. Sadly, the same lineup would go on to record ‘Forbidden’, which was a total dud… which is probably why ‘Cross Purposes’ tends to get overlooked.

Iron Maiden – Brave New World: Every song is based on a classic book. This album was inspired songwriting on a level that even Maiden had never before achieved. Much like Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’, albums are best when their writers actually have something to say!

Black Sabbath – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath: The demi-gods of metal’s finest release, a unique blend of blues, classical, and good ol’ hard rock. Recorded in an abandoned castle in England, this record is one part Creepy and three parts Beautiful. Sadly, it was Sabbath’s last good album before Ozzy’s departure… but it left a lasting legacy.

So there you have it! That’s some of the music that has shaped me as a person, and defined who and what I became. Every person has a unique soundtrack to his or her own life… so go find yours!

Be well!

The Masque of the Red Death

In the wake of American journalism’s latest crisis ‘du jour’ – the Coronavirus outbreak – I felt the need to post a similarly-themed tale. It was written by a far better writer than I’ll EVER be! So, my dear readers: I give you the immortal Mr. Poe…

THE “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avator and its seal — the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

   But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”

 It was toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.

It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held. There were seven — an imperial suite. In many palaces, however, such suites form a long and straight vista, while the folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either hand, so that the view of the whole extent is scarcely impeded. Here the case was very different; as might have been expected from the duke’s love of the bizarre. The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whose color varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That at the eastern extremity was hung, for example, in blue — and vividly blue were its windows. The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were the casements. The fourth was furnished and lighted with orange — the fifth with white — the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue. But in this chamber only, the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet — a deep blood color. Now in no one of the seven apartments was there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of golden ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the roof. There was no light of any kind emanating from lamp or candle within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors that followed the suite, there stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire, that projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room. And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances. But in the western or black chamber the effect of the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.

It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to harken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,) there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.

But, in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel. The tastes of the duke were peculiar. He had a fine eye for colors and effects. He disregarded the decora of mere fashion. His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not.

 He had directed, in great part, the moveable embellishments of the seven chambers, upon occasion of this great fête; and it was his own guiding taste which had given character to the masqueraders. Be sure they were grotesque. There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm — much of what has been since seen in “Hernani.” There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust. To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams. And these — the dreams — writhed in and about, taking hue from the rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as the echo of their steps. And, anon, there strikes the ebony clock which stands in the hall of the velvet. And then, for a moment, all is still, and all is silent save the voice of the clock. The dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand. But the echoes of the chime die away — they have endured but an instant — and a light, half-subdued laughter floats after them as they depart. And now again the music swells, and the dreams live, and writhe to and fro more merrily than ever, taking hue from the many tinted windows through which stream the rays from the tripods. But to the chamber which lies most westwardly of the seven, there are now none of the maskers who venture; for the night is waning away; and there flows a ruddier light through the blood-colored panes; and the blackness of the sable drapery appals; and to him whose foot falls upon the sable carpet, there comes from the near clock of ebony a muffled peal more solemnly emphatic than any which reaches their ears who indulge in the more remote gaieties of the other apartments.

But these other apartments were densely crowded, and in them beat feverishly the heart of life. And the revel went whirlingly on, until at length there commenced the sounding of midnight upon the clock. And then the music ceased, as I have told; and the evolutions of the waltzers were quieted; and there was an uneasy cessation of all things as before. But now there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bell of the clock; and thus it happened, perhaps that more of thought crept, with more of time, into the meditations of the thoughtful among those who revelled. And thus too, it happened, perhaps, that before the last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, there were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before. And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise — then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.

In an assembly of phantasms such as I have painted, it may well be supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation. In truth the masquerade license of the night was nearly unlimited; but the figure in question had out-Heroded Herod, and gone beyond the bounds of even the prince’s indefinite decorum. There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion. Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made. The whole company, indeed, seemed now deeply to feel that in the costume and bearing of the stranger neither wit nor propriety existed. The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood — and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.

When the eyes of Prince Prospero fell upon this spectral image (which with a slow and solemn movement, as if more fully to sustain its role, stalked to and fro among the waltzers) he was seen to be convulsed, in the first moment with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage.

“Who dares?” he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood near him — “who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him — that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!”

It was in the eastern or blue chamber in which stood the Prince Prospero as he uttered these words. They rang throughout the seven rooms loudly and clearly — for the prince was a bold and robust man, and the music had become hushed at the waving of his hand.

It was in the blue room where stood the prince, with a group of pale courtiers by his side. At first, as he spoke, there was a slight rushing movement of this group in the direction of the intruder, who, at the moment was also near at hand, and now, with deliberate and stately step, made closer approach to the speaker. But from a certain nameless awe with which the mad assumptions of the mummer had inspired the whole party, there were found none who put forth hand to seize him; so that, unimpeded, he passed within a yard of the prince’s person; and, while the vast assembly, as if with one impulse, shrank from the centres of the rooms to the walls, he made his way uninterruptedly, but with the same solemn and measured step which had distinguished him from the first, through the blue chamber to the purple — through the purple to the green — through the green to the orange — through this again to the white — and even thence to the violet, ere a decided movement had been made to arrest him. It was then, however, that the Prince Prospero, maddening with rage and the shame of his own momentary cowardice, rushed hurriedly through the six chambers, while none followed him on account of a deadly terror that had seized upon all. He bore aloft a drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three or four feet of the retreating figure, when the latter, having attained the extremity of the velvet apartment, turned suddenly and confronted his pursuer. There was a sharp cry — and the dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet, upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero. Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.

 And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

Another Gem from the Poet King…

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Regarding the Coolest Comic-Book Story Ever…

The Goblin tried to destroy my mind… but what did his evil really do? Open a door to the good… to the two of you. All those years I tried to shut you out. So afraid to even think of you. Feeling so GUILTY… so responsible for your deaths. But now, MOTHERFATHER… I can let myself remember. Now I can love you. Now I can grieve.’ And in his grief he finds new freedom, and that freedom lifts him up and carries him off… into the DAWN.

J. Marc DeMatteis (from The Spectacular Spider-Man #183)

Have you ever read a story that just blew your mind from its very first line?

Let me back up a bit…

I… have read a BOATLOAD of comic books in my day! From Neil Gaiman’s seventy-issue run on The Sandman to the epic Batman: Knightfall, I’ve been around the newsprint block more than a few times. I’ve read thousands of books, including series that date back to the nineteen-forties. When it comes to ‘sequential artwork’, there ain’t a whole lot that I don’t know.

But there is one story that will always remain my favorite: The Child Within, by writer J. Marc DeMatteis and artist Sal Buscema.

Now, I have Sal Buscema’s entire run on The Spectacular Spider-Man. I re-read through the run once a year (along with Sam Keith’s epic series The Maxx, and Gaiman’s The Sandman.) The entire run is amazing, but it kicked into overdrive when writer Peter David handed the baton to J. Marc DeMatteis. And within that run lies The Child Within, my favorite six-issue tale of all time.

The trick with writing comics, I think, is that a writer must take them seriously. One cannot focus over-much on the costumes and the super-powers, lest one’s tale de-evolve into a cheesy Power Rangers rip-off. This truth DeMatteis understands in spades: The Child Within is possibly the most harrowing, disturbing tale ever to grace the four-color page. It sucks you in like a Hitchcock film, pulling you deep into the dark recesses of each character’s mind.

Buscema – easily one of my favorite artists – was the perfect illustrator for DeMatteis’ nightmarish tale. His style is sharp, clean, almost bare-bones, and yet remains extremely vibrant and expressive. His work really stood out in the nineties, when more ‘sketchy’ styles were trendy due to artists like Todd McFarlane.

Most Spider-Man fans would tell you that Spidey’s best stories were Kraven’s Last Hunt (by DeMatteis and Bob McLeod) and Torment (by Todd McFarlane). The Child Within smokes them both, in my opinion; it was a true stroke of genius.

The Child Within ran in The Spectacular Spider-Man #178-183, in late 1991. All six issues can be readily purchased for a couple of bucks apiece; in fact, you’ll probably pay more for shipping than you will the actual magazines. For some odd reason, The Child Within was never collected into a trade paperback.

It should have been!

So go hunt it down and read it. Seriously.

You’ll be glad you did…