Three Ways of Looking at Howard Waldrop (and Then Some)
By Jed Hartman, et alia
29 January 2001
"It's not what the reader expects. . . . You can't get that from a Howard Waldrop story. The wise Waldrop reader leaves his or her expectations in those little lockers that management has provided near the beginning of the story. You can reclaim them afterward, if you still want them. Most people don't bother." --Eileen Gunn
This week is our first Author Focus week at Strange Horizons, featuring Howard Waldrop.
The authors of the other introductions (see below) know Waldrop and his work better than I, and can introduce him better. So I'll just provide a brief overview to prepare you for the other introductions.
Howard Waldrop is one of the most unusual writers in the speculative fiction field. He's primarily a short-story writer (though he's published a couple of novels, and has been writing another -- I, John Mandeville -- for many years now); he's written about sixty stories over the course of about thirty years of selling fiction. He doesn't have a telephone, much less email. He lives in rural Washington state these days, where he spends his time fly-fishing and writing. He occasionally teaches at Clarion West.
A fair number of his stories are incredibly detailed and thoroughly researched alternate-history stories -- of a sort quite unlike what most people think of as alternate-history stories -- but he's also written quite a few totally unclassifiable stories. He's probably best known for the award-winning "The Ugly Chickens" (a.k.a. "the dodo story"), and perhaps for "Thirty Minutes Over Broadway!", the Jetboy story from the first Wild Cards anthology; also perhaps for having co-written The Texas-Israeli War: 1999 back in '74.
His stories are odd and wonderful. Some examples:
- "A Dozen Tough Jobs": A modern version of the twelve labors of Hercules set in the American South.
- "The Sawing Boys": An utterly brilliant roll-on-the-floor-laughing retelling of "The Bremen Town Musicians" mixed thoroughly with Damon Runyon.
- "Der Untergang des Abendlandesmenschen" ("The Down-Going of the Men of the Sun-Setting Lands," or, loosely, "The Decline of the Cowboys"): A German-Expressionist Sherlock Holmes vampire Western.
- "Fin de Cyclé": Proust, Jarry, Rousseau, and Méliès create a groundbreaking film to exonerate Dreyfus. Plus, a duel on the Eiffel Tower, featuring a velocipede!
(I should note that Waldrop's stories are not always entirely accessible -- they're sometimes filled with obscure references (most of which enhance enjoyment if you get them, but don't get in the way if you don't), and they rely on the reader to do, as Waldrop puts it, "between 40 and 50 percent of the work." If you want straightforward stories that will hold your hand at every step, Waldrop's work is probably not for you.)
Oh, yes, and he loves old movies and television, as shown clearly in several of his stories -- like the one in which Peter Lorre, Zero Mostel, and Shemp Howard are working as stage actors in Bertolt Brecht's widow's Communist theatre troupe in an alternate postwar Switzerland. (See what I mean about unusual alternate histories?) All of his stories and articles about movies and TV have now been collected in an e-book from Electric Story -- see our review for details.
But the best thing about Waldrop's stories is that they're often, if you look at them right, about something. "The Sawing Boys" (one of my favorite stories in the entire world) is a perfect example: it's not just sidesplittingly funny, it's not just a fairy tale retelling, it's not just the best Runyon impression this side of Runyon, it's not just filled with subtle touches that you can safely miss without harming your enjoyment of the story (for example, the Runyon gangsters are named obliquely after various fairy-tale writers and collectors); on top of all that, it manages to be about the changes in society brought about by the rise of mass communication.
And then there's the Keystone Kops/movie-monsters story, which also has to do with Spengler's The Decline of the West. . . . But I'll stop here. 'Cause why should you listen to me? I'm just some upstart editor. So go read what some other people have to say.
Note that the Dozois and Martin introductions were originally published in print collections, over a decade ago. Some things have changed -- for example, Waldrop now lives in Washington state, not Texas -- and some bits of the introductions talk about the books they were originally published in. But they still provide good overviews of, and introductions to, Waldrop's work.
So without further ado, I'm very pleased to present to you:
George R. R. Martin's introduction to Waldrop's 1986 collection Howard Who?
Gardner Dozois' introduction to Waldrop's 1987 collection All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past.
Eileen Gunn's "Alternate Waldrops," with photo-collages by Leslie What. (I suspect that at least one of the vignettes recounted here is true.)
Finally, if you want more samples of Waldrop without having to shell out the price of the new e-book (cheapskate!), there are several on the Web, thanks to Ellen Datlow:
- "Mr. Goober's Show" was the last story published in Ellen Datlow's now sadly defunct online version of Omni. What if you saw an old TV show that nobody else seems to know existed?
- "US" originally appeared in Ellen Datlow's now sadly defunct online magazine Event Horizon and was later reprinted in Year's Best SF. It's the only story I've heard Waldrop read out loud; I agree that he's a superb reader of his own work. The story provides three views of the Lindbergh kidnapping.
- "The Ugly Chickens" was reprinted last year in Ellen Datlow's happily still-running online magazine Sci Fiction.
- "Winter Quarters" -- in which Waldrop revives mammoths -- is original to Sci Fiction.
And for a little more about Waldrop, including a now-mildly-outdated bibliography and a couple of essays, see the Howard Waldrop Web site that Janna Silverstein and Eileen Gunn put together a while back.
Also, a new Waldrop novel, The Search for Tom Purdue, is due out this summer from Subterranean Press.
by George R. R. Martin
Let's begin with some riddles. What do Dwight David Eisenhower and the dodo have in common? How are Japanese sumo wrestlers like Disney cartoon characters? What's the common link between Izaak Walton, Abbott & Costello, and George Armstrong Custer? If you ran into a gorilla in a powdered wig at a tractor pull, what would that remind you of? And while you're pondering all that, just who was that masked man anyway?
The last one is easy. The masked man is Howard Waldrop, a short squinty-eyed fellow with an atrocious accent and a wardrobe like Mork from Ork. He was born in Mississippi, grew up in Texas, and has bounced around the Lone Star State most of his adult life, from Arlington to Grand Prairie to Bryan to Austin, where he now resides. He knows everything there is to know about B movies, he can sing fifties rock and TV theme songs all night long (and often does), he likes to fish, and he just happens to be the most startling, original, and entertaining short story writer in science fiction today.
The word unique is much abused these days, but in Howard's case it applies. We live in a derivative age, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the books we read. Every new horror writer is compared to Stephen King. Our fantasists all seem to write in the tradition of J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, or Stephen R. Donaldson. The hot young talents in SF are routinely proclaimed as the next Robert A. Heinlein, the new Isaac Asimov, the angriest young man since Harlan Ellison, unless they happen to be female, in which case they are dutifully likened to Andre Norton, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. If you listen to the blurb-writers, these days it seems that everybody writes like somebody else.
Howard Waldrop's short fiction is squarely in the tradition of Howard Waldrop. There's never been anyone like him, in or out of science fiction. His voice is his own; singular, distinctive, quirky, and -- once you've encountered it -- more than a little addictive. I'm tempted to say that the only thing that's like a Howard Waldrop story is another Howard Waldrop story, except that it wouldn't be true. Howard's stories differ as much from each other as from your run-of-the-mill SF and fantasy. The only thing they have in common is that they're all a little bit different.
Howard doesn't like to write the same thing twice. Well-meaning friends keep telling him that the best way to get rich and famous is to write the same thing over and over and over and over again, to keep frying up those robot duneburgers of gor and serving them to a hungry public, but Howard keeps wandering off and getting interested in Groucho Marx, Chinese proletarian novels, and the mound-builder Indians. Suddenly books start piling up in his office, a maniacal gleam lights his tiny little eyes, and he begins to talk incessantly about a strange new story he's going to write. Meanwhile, he consumes those piles of books during breaks in his daily regimen of building bookcases and watching old movies on television. Then, when all of his friends are just about ready to skin him alive, out it comes all in a rush: the latest Waldrop wonderment.
It's an odd way to work, but it's Howard's way, as uniquely his own as the stories it produces. He's been doing it for a long time. People have been paying him for it ever since 1970, but he started long before that, writing stories just for the love of writing. I couldn't tell you just when Howard began to scrawl words on paper, but I suspect that it was about nine seconds after he first learned to hold a Crayola in his stubby little fingers.
I do know that he was born in Mississippi on September 15, 1946 (a date he's immortalized in one of his recent short stories), that later on his family moved to Texas, and that he's been a thorough-going Texan ever since. He was already writing up a storm by the time he first came to my attention.
That was in 1963; we were both in high school, him in Arlington, Texas and me in Bayonne, New Jersey, and both of us were publishing our juvenilia in the comic book fan magazines of the day, tiny publications printed in purple with fast-fading ditto masters and circulated to literally dozens of eager readers, most of them high school kids, like Howard himself. Even then, Howard was unique. Everyone else who wrote for those tiny little fanzines (including, I blush to admit, myself) imitated the professional funny-books and wrote about superheroes. Howard wrote detective stories set in France at the time of the Musketeers. The readers loved him, but didn't quite know what to make of him, and they'd write in puzzlement to the fanzine letter columns to say, "Boy, Howard Waldrop's story was really great, but it was all about Cardinal Richelieu. What powers did he have, anyway?" He's been pleasing and puzzling readers ever since.
Everyone who read him back then knew right off that Howard was too good to stay an amateur for long, and sure enough we were all right. He made his first professional sale in 1970, just before he got drafted. The Army sent him to Georgia, gave him a typewriter, and taught him all the words to "I Want to Be an Airborne Ranger," but otherwise did him little good. The story had more lasting effects on his life and career. It was a little thing called "Lunchbox," and the editor who bought it was the legendary John W. Campbell, Jr. During the decades that he had edited Astounding (later Analog), Campbell had discovered and introduced an astonishing number of SF greats, and in fishing Howard Waldrop out of the slush pile, he demonstrated that his eye for talent hadn't deserted him. Campbell's untimely death came before he could actually print Howard's debut story, but in a very real sense it can still be said that Howard Waldrop was Campbell's last great gift to science fiction.
Two years as an army journalist slowed him down a little, but there was no stopping Howard permanently, and once he was discharged he returned to Texas to begin to write and sell all sorts of things. He even wrote a novel, a collaboration with his landlord. It was called The Texas-Israeli War, by Jake Saunders and Howard Waldrop, and it's still in print today.
Those were heady days in Texas, for reasons entirely unconnected with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Hot young writers were popping up all over the Lone Star State, and selling stories to every contemporary market, large and small. The brilliant Tom Reamy was just beginning to publish, Lisa Tuttle was turning heads with her early stories, Bruce Sterling was in the process of becoming a Harlan Ellison Discovery, and all of them -- along with Howard and a half-dozen others -- were part of a loosely organized floating workshop they called the Turkey City Neopro Rodeo. Collaboration was endemic among the Turkey City writers, and Howard shared bylines with a number of them, producing some forgettable journeyman stories and others that are still being talked about, most notably "Custer's Last Jump," about the way Crazy Horse and the Plains Indian Air Force destroyed Custer's paratroops at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. It was berserk, brilliant, and an omen of the things soon to come from Howard's clanking manual typewriter.
It was around then that people finally started noticing Howard Waldrop. He was nominated for two Nebulas in 1977: for "Custer" and again for "Mary Margaret Road-Grader," Howard's solo tour de force about post-holocaust tractor pulls, which you'll find in this collection. He didn't take home any trophies that year, but it was only a matter of time. Other nominations for other awards followed, and in 1981 his classic story "The Ugly Chickens" (that's also included here) won both the Nebula and the prestigious World Fantasy Award, and came within a dodo feather of copping the Hugo as well, for a rare triple crown.
Nowadays, Howard seems to be just about everywhere. Once, to find the latest Waldrop stories, you had to buy Terry Carr's distinguished hardcover anthology series Universe, or seek out small circulation semi-professional magazines like Shayol, Chacal, and Nickelodeon. These days Howard is publishing in Omni and Playboy . . . but you'll still find him in Universe and Shayol as well. He's not the kind who forgets where he came from. His name turns up monotonously on the shortlists for every major award in the field and most of the minor ones, and no wonder. The stories keep getting stranger and stranger, but they're getting better and better too.
He even had another go at a novel recently, this time without any help from his landlord. The end result was called Them Bones, time travel as only Waldrop would write it, and it was published to loud huzzas as part of Terry Carr's revived Ace Specials line.
As good as it was, however, Them Bones still wasn't a patch on Howard's short stories. Short fiction remains Waldrop's forte, and believe me, nobody does it better. You've got a damned fine sampler of Waldrop in the pages that follow, the famous stories and the obscure ones, plucked from magazines with hundreds or hundreds of thousands of readers. The only thing they all have in common is their quality. If this is your first taste of Howard, I envy you. Bet you can't read just one.
Oh, yes, you'll be wanting the answers to the riddles. Howard Waldrop. Howard Waldrop. Howard Waldrop. And finally, Howard Waldrop. There's only one of him, but -- lucky for us -- he spreads himself around.
George R. R. Martin is the Hugo- and Nebula-award winning author of the bestselling fantasy-series A Song of Ice and Fire. He's been a story editor for Twilight Zone, a consultant and producer for Beauty and the Beast, the editor of the popular Wild Cards series of anthologies, and a vice president of SFWA. He currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The above introduction originally appeared in Howard Who? (Doubleday, 1986).
By Gardner Dozois
Back in the dear dead days of 1976, gone now with the dodo and the dinosaur, I attended the 34th World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, MidAmeriCon, otherwise known as Big Mac. Big Mac was a memorable Worldcon in several respects, but one of the highlights for me occurred in the SFWA suite on, I believe, Friday night. A short, stocky man wearing a Zippy The Pinhead tee-shirt and a cowboy hat (can this possibly be true? God Only Knows, but this is the way I remember it, anyway) walked up to me in the middle of the crowded SFWA party, stuck out his hand, and said, "Hi, I'm hard." I eyed him warily. Before I could tell him that I sympathized with his condition but lacked the proper glandular bias to want to attempt to do anything about it, he added, "You know. Hard Waldrop," and the dime dropped for me at last.
I had heard of Howard Waldrop before then -- he'd had a couple of stories here and there, Universe, Galaxy, during the first few years of the '70s, and had co-authored (with Jake Saunders) an uneven but interesting novel called The Texas-Israeli War -- but 1976 happened to be the year when the first Really Good Waldrop Stories started to appear, work a quantum jump better than anything he'd produced before. I was in the middle of doing the reading for the first of my Best of the Year anthologies, and had already put Waldrop stories from Orbit 18 and Universe 6 down on my Short List (ended up using both of them, too, even though I had room for only eight stories in the book), so that I was somewhat more intrigued by meeting this strangely-dressed fellow with the truly atrocious Texas accent (I, of course, being, as everyone knows, Nearly Perfect, have no accent at all . . . except for an occasional but entirely justifiable tendency to render "foghorn" as "forghahn") than I might have been in 1974 or 1975.
At any rate, we hit it off well, and spent a good portion of the rest of that evening sitting on the windowsill in the SFWA suite with our feet in the pizza on the table below. (It -- the pizza -- had been ordered earlier by hungry SFWAns; now, only partially eaten, it had been used liberally as an ashtray as well as a squashy footrest. At some point in the festivities, a Famous Writer, somewhat the worse for Strong Drink, foggily pushed our feet aside, plucked the cigarette butts from the cold pizza and began to eat it, chewing it in a thoughtful, even contemplative manner in spite of our appalled cries of warning . . . but that, as they say, Is Another Story.) I seem to recall that there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other people sitting there on the windowsill with us as the night wore on. Certainly George R. R. Martin was there, and Pat Cadigan, and Ed Bryant, and Elizabeth Lynn, and Joe Haldeman. (Probably Cardinal Richelieu and Buddy Holly were not really there after all, although at this remove it's difficult to be sure.) Wit flowed like wine. Wine flowed like wine. The rest is history.
The years rolled relentlessly by after MidAmeriCon, and I found that I subsequently seemed to have somehow become associated with Howard in the public mind. (No doubt why I've been asked to do this Introduction in the first place.) At any rate, during the past decade I have frequently been asked to appear on convention panels with Howard, culminating in our twice being asked to put on a display called "The Howard and Gardner Show" at the Worldcon. These activities have gained me the honor of being known, in western circles at least, as "The Howard Waldrop of the East." (Rather unfairly, Howard is not referred to, when at an East Coast convention, as "The Gardner Dozois of the West.") More importantly, though, those years of doing panels with Howard have also given me some treasured memories of Howard In Action:
Howard standing on a table wearing a strange conical hat, as part of an extravaganza during which he and I were supposed to pretend to be Somtow Sucharitkul (don't ask me why), doing a bizarre capering jig that he claimed was "the Royal Thai Coronation Dance." Howard standing on another table (he seems to do this a lot), telling the Pope joke to a wildly-cheering convention throng. Howard taking part in a Dating Game panel in which a young woman was supposed to select either him, me, or Joe Haldeman for a Dream Date -- Howard participated in this debacle while wearing green pants decorated with a multicolored floral print, a red-checked shirt, a green zoot-suit jacket, a very wide red bow-tie with grotesquely-pointed ends, a black fedora several sizes too large, and dark sunglasses; when the Lucky Contestant, who had selected Howard, came around the curtain and saw just what she had selected for a Dream Date, she screamed and clapped her hands to her face in horror. Howard acting out the worst of the old Monster Movies of the '50s -- without a doubt the single funniest presentation I've ever seen anywhere. (Several memory-slices from this one, to give you a bit of the flavor of Howard's unique sense of humor: Howard acting out Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers by setting up a handmade styrofoam Washington Monument and crashing a styrofoam Flying Saucer into it, while making Distressed Spaceship Noises; Howard acting out Steve McQueen's famous debut movie by holding up a cup of red jello and letting it run slowly down his arm while screaming, "Arrggghh! The Blob! The Blob!"; Howard, for a capper, handing out actual 3-D glasses to the audience, and then crumpling up balls of paper and throwing them by everyone's head, all the while saying, "See how real these effects are? You can almost feel those meteors whooshing by. . ." Well, I guess you Hadda Be There, but it's a real shame that nobody videotaped that very strange half-hour.)
All these instances, and many more, no doubt go to prove that Howard is a genuine Character, which he is -- but if that were all there were to Howard, you would not be holding this book in your hands at this moment.
There are other scenes I remember from many of those same conventions that bring us nearer the heart of the matter: Howard reading "The Ugly Chickens" to a convention audience so rapt that you really could have heard the proverbial pin drop. Howard reading "Flying Saucer Rock and Roll," not only doing all the voices, but doing all the doo-wop parts as well, including, in Howard's own words, "the organ break of 'Runaway,' done with the human voice . . . half mechanical, half Martian cattle call." Howard reading "God's Hooks," and getting an audible gasp out of the audience when John Bunyan suddenly cuts Izaak Walton's fishing line. Howard reading "Save a Place in the Lifeboat for Me" so effectively that the same audience that had been laughing hysterically moments before were literally in tears by the end.
Now, as far as the art of reading your own stories aloud is concerned, Howard is one of the best in the business, rivaled in this ability only by Harlan Ellison (producers of story cassettes take note; someone is missing a very good bet here) -- still, no amount of dramatic reading ability is sufficient to explain the effect hearing those stories can have on an audience.
What explains it is the stories themselves.
Although Howard would shrug this off with an embarrassed laugh, there are quite a few people -- including at least one of the publishers of this collection -- who will forthrightly tell you that they think that Howard is a genius. I tend to agree. This does not mean that he is incapable of writing a bad story -- in fact, he has written several of them. But if one definition of genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, then Howard indeed fits the bill. His capacity for incredibly detailed research is legendary -- he frequently spends six months or more in intensive research for his stories; for one of them, he spent three years, on and off. When he's ready -- or when they're ready -- he then writes the stories out longhand, frequently on someone else's kitchen table, working long into the night. In this fashion, he manages to produce, usually, two or three stories a year. Sometimes more . . . but also, sometimes less.
In answer to the inevitable next question, How do you get rich -- or even stay solvent -- like that, the answer is, You don't. Even selling semi-regularly to Omni and Playboy, as Howard is now doing -- you don't. But Howard steadfastly resists all pressure to change the way he writes, to become "efficient" and cost-conscious about the amount of time and effort he puts into a story, to settle for anything less than his own finicky brand of perfection, "totally accurate, every detail exactly right" -- and has persisted in this even through periods where he has had no place to live except on someone else's porch and nothing to eat for weeks at a stretch except popcorn and canned string beans. There is something heroic about this kind of transcendental stubbornness, the dogged integrity of the handcraftsman in an age of shoddy mass-production, something admirable in this refusal to compromise, something pure and almost inspirational about what must surely be the most suicidally anti-commercial bent of any writer since H. P. Lovecraft. Sure -- hell yes! -- he'd like to have money . . . but you get the distinct feeling that, in the final analysis, the money just doesn't mean that much to Howard. Other considerations always, and unarguably, come first, and Howard has probably made fewer concessions to Mammon than just about any other writer I know. (Because Howard often plays with the icons of our popular culture -- the stuff of comic books and old movies -- he is sometimes accused by intolerant highbrow critics of doing hackwork. You must understand that if Howard writes about Giant Bees, it's because he passionately wants to write about Giant Bees, not because he thinks that Giant Bee Stories will move well on the market. This is about as far from the hack mentality as you can get. Howard always follows the peculiar urgings of his own peculiar Muse, and lets the chips -- and the salability concerns -- fall where they may . . . as demonstrated by how long it took him to sell what he used to refer to as "the piss-drinking story." ["Flying Saucer Rock and Roll"]) ((Included herein.))
Howard's friends worry about him, and sometimes nag him to be more commercially savvy about his work, but I doubt that any of them would really be happy to see Howard suddenly cave in and start cranking out dozens of Star Trek novelizations instead of what he does turn out, even if that meant that he was financially secure at last.
Because the result of those months of painstaking research, filtered through Howard's bizarrely eclectic imagination, gonzo sense of humor, and rich depths of human compassion, is -- magic.
As a writer, Howard is a Unique. You have never seen anything like the stories collected here; you will never see anything like them again. This is another sign of a genius -- good, bad, or indifferent, nobody but Howard could possibly have written one of Howard's stories; in most cases, nobody but Howard could possibly have even thought of them.
Howard's work is characterized by strong, shaggy humor, offbeat erudition, and bizarre fictional juxtapositions. In the past, he has given us a first-rate SF story about dodos ("The Ugly Chickens"), a tale set in an alternate world where Eisenhower and Patton are famous jazz musicians and Elvis Presley is a state senator ("Ike at the Mike"), a story in which the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy travel back in time to attempt to prevent the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly ("Save A Place in the Lifeboat for Me"), a story about telekinetic Sumo wrestlers ("Man-Mountain Gentian"), and a stylish fantasy in which Izaak Walton goes fishing in the Slough of Despond with John Bunyan ("God's Hooks").
And, although I won't spoil your pleasure in the strange surprises they contain by describing them here, the stories in this collection, the one you are currently holding in your hot little hands (unless you too have telekinetic powers), are every bit as resonant and strange, as eclectic and richly-imagined, and as diverse.
In fact, no Waldrop story is ever much like any previous Waldrop story, and in that respect (as well as in the panache and individuality of the writing, the sweep of imagination, and the depth of erudition), he resembles those two other great Uniques, R. A. Lafferty and Avram Davidson. In an age where originality is feared and only the familiar is wanted, where popular entertainment is dominated by sequel after sequel (Rocky XXI, anyone?), perhaps that alone is enough to explain why these pungently individual writers -- eccentrics in the very best sense of the word -- are so often underrated, if not flatout ignored . . . while writers inferior in mind and skill and heart march on to garner the Big Bucks, and the audiences of millions.
It will be cold comfort to them, no doubt, but somewhere down the road, the works of all of these gentlemen will be critically re-evaluated, and they will come to be appreciated at last for the masters of the modern American short story that they are. Davidson's day will come, Lafferty's day will come, and surely -- certainly -- Howard's day will come.
Already it is clear that he has produced one of the most original and consistently excellent bodies of short work of any "new" writer of the 1980s. "The Ugly Chickens" will probably stand as one of the single best stories of the decade, and there are two or three other Waldrop stories almost as good.
Long after Howard has died from the rigors of trying to subsist on popcorn and canned string beans, academicians will be poring over his work to find material for doctoral dissertations. Perhaps someone will make a Big-Budget Movie out of "God's Hooks." Like Lovecraft, like Phillip K. Dick, he'll no doubt be much more successful after he's gone.
Sorry -- but this does make me mad.
In the meantime, while the royalties will still do him some good, buy this book. Then buy his quirky and fascinating novel Them Bones (Ace Special). Then -- in spite of the dumb title and the truly hideous cover, surely one of the year's worst, featuring two disembodied Cowboy Heads, and a dodo vomiting in one corner -- go out and buy Howard's previous collection, Howard Who? (Doubleday), which is already being recognized (by some, anyway) as one of the landmark collections of the '80s.
Then read all this stuff.
When you've finished, I guarantee it, you will not be the same.
Gardner Dozois has won 12 Hugo Awards as Best Editor, and two Nebula Awards for his own short fiction. He is the editor of Asimov's Science Fiction, and the editor of the annual anthology series The Year's Best Science Fiction. He is the author or editor of over 80 books.
The above introduction originally appeared in All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past (Ace, 1987).
By Eileen Gunn, with photo-collages by Leslie What
I was just a kid, fresh out of a marketing major at UT, standing outside his office with my shabby portfolio -- some quarter-page ads I'd written for small-town stores and shops, a few fullpage mockups I'd laid out myself in Adobe PageMaker. Ward Waldrop, in his iridescent sharkskin suit, was standing by the bookcase, idly surveying his wall full of titanium-framed award certificates. He turned and looked over at me, tilting his head to peer over his hornrimmed glasses, the bigtime creative director focussing all his attention on little me. He shook his head, slowly and sadly. "Honey," he said, and it was a sentence all by itself. "Y'all want a advertising job in this town, you gotta lose the mohawk, y'know what I mean?"
The Old Man, he can be one scary dude. Scars on scars, man. Steel balls. And the man really has done it all, come up through the ranks all the way from E1. Went career, and then got a commission the hard way. Fighting ribbons from Nam, Haiti, the Storm, Somalia. That weird thing between Texas and Israel. He's done some bad times.
But there's this one thing I just couldn't gouge, and nobody else was able to clue me on it either. It was that tattoo. There's some things you don't ask a man about, especially your CO, but not knowing about that tattoo was drivin' me up the fuckin' wall.
So one day I pull duty as his driver, his regular guy is sick in quarters, and, you know, I figure this is my chance. Sometimes you just got to do it.
"General Waldrop, sir? I don't mean no disrespect, sir, but I have a question, sir? I just gotta know. Sir."
He looks at me over his glasses, you know how you do, so the guy you're talking to can see your eyes. Not angry, not threatening, just making the connection. "What is it, Specialist Duncan?"
"The tattoo, sir. It's a great tattoo. Awesome, sir. But, begging your pardon, sir, I can't help it, sir, why a dodo?"
After making a name for himself with his Emmy-winning, nostalgia-filled commercials for Lone Star Beer and Ralston-Purina (My faves: "A Longneck for Old Blue" and "Bass-Fishing with Cerberus"), Howie Waldrop almost single-handedly invented the music video in the 1980s. Who doesn't remember the stunning Tod Browning homage from Madonna's "Pappa Don't Freak" video?
After two stormy marriages, to Angelica Huston and Carrie Fisher, Howie has now developed something of a privacy fetish, and spends most of his time hanging with buds Randy Newman and Joel Coen, avoiding any contact with the press.
So it was with some trepidation I approached him at Sundance, and asked for a 10-second sound bite about the rigors of filming the indie classic I, John Mandeville in Central Asia with a cast of amateurs. He stood there in his vintage biking leathers, head down, arms akimbo, glowering and giving off the rich animal smell of celebrity. "I got two words for you," he said in a surly tone. "For you and your whole class of web-surfing dot-com dilettantes." He paused. "Uleg Beg," he said, stretching the vowels out long and mean.
We had come a long way, me and Pete, with our flyrods and tackle. Up the Amazon first, to the blackwater Rio Negro, where peacock trout lure anglers into the green jungle, then to Tierra del Fuego, for a run of ocean-going non-native browns, and finally to Arroyo Pescado in Argentina, Butch Cassidy territory, home to broken-down gauchos and struggling llama ranches, to find the Hostería los Tres Stooges, and the elusive Jouardo Waldrop, the legendary angler/hermit of the Andes.
We were greeted with a hearty wave of the hand and a cheery "Buenos días!" and invited inside to dine on crusty bread and hard cheese and the dry red wine of the Argentine. Jauardo built the Hostería himself out of scrap lumber and local stone, and there is not a line out of true or a carelessly driven nail in the entire building. Inside, the small, brightly painted space is arranged for a life devoted to trout and doo-wop: there is just enough room in the tiny kitchen for a fly-tying table, a collection of 45s, and a half-dozen plastic action figures of masked Mexican wrestlers.
There was no time to sit about. Jauardo had already sent for the llamas to be packed up, and barely were we finished with our simple meal than we were out the door again and off into the mountains for the fishing experience of our lives.
A few hours later, knee-deep in a fast, frigid stream, engaged in battle with a brutish 20-inch South American rainbow, Jauardo gave me one of his huge saurian smiles, and silently mouthed to me a phrase of joy. I picked up on it immediately, and Peter was not far behind. Silently, against the noise of the river, we sang together a song of triumph that neither we for the fish could hear. "Doook doook doook doookuv," Jauardo sang, and I joined in with "dook dook dook dookov" and Pete, who never missed a cue, came in right on time, "dook of earl."
It was Christmas, when, 1997? Howard had moved up from Austin and was living in the dark, wet foothills west of Darrington, with tumbledown barns and Doug firs and fishing shacks with ferns on the roofs, and the dumbfounding snowcovered mountains looming over him to the east. And, of course, with two year-round trout streams a few hundred yards away. In our cozy Seattle social whirl, we thought he might need company, so five of us, Greg and Astrid and Leslie and John and me, decided we would go up to see him.
We brought a tiny Christmas tree, maybe two feet high, some lunch, some beer, and a big tub of peanut butter. We drove an hour or so up I-5, then headed east on winding two-lane blacktop along the valley of the Stillaguamish River, which flows out of a glacier in the Cascades. When we came to Howard's snug little three-in-line fishing shack, behind the general store, we barrelled out of the car and descended on him en masse.
He was gracious, and, I think, a little tickled, even though he didn't really need the peanut butter just then. We decorated the tree. We drank the beer and ate lunch. Howard made coffee. Then he took us for a walk up to the river, past huge scrawls of past-season blackberry canes growing over cabins, cars, and anything else that got in the way. We stood on the modest bridge, and I tried to think like Howard thinking like a trout. Walking back to Howard's place, just about sunset, we saw the elusive blue light, das blaue licht, flash from west to east among the mountains. A lovely afternoon, I thought, bucolic, and surprisingly normal.
We stopped at a little antique shop, next to the llama ranch, just before Howard's tidy shack. Among a stack of old photographs, I found a photocard from the 1880s, taken in Brooklyn, of a small family group. The father was a human skeleton, tall and impossibly thin, wearing tiny velvet shorts and a matching vest, his limbs encased in tight white silk. He gave off an air of confidence and happiness. His wife and son were wearing their Sunday best. I wondered how their picture ever came to be in rural Washington, then put down a dollar and a quarter, and took them home with me. They looked urbane, and surprisingly normal.
Eileen Gunn's stories and articles have appeared in Asimov's, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other magazines and anthologies. She is the editor of the newly launched online science-fiction magazine The Infinite Matrix, and is at work on a biography of Avram Davidson. Since 1988, she has served on the Board of Directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her fiction has been nominated twice for the Hugo Award.
Leslie What is a Nebula Award-winning author whose work has appeared in many journals, anthologies, and magazines, and been translated into Greek, Russian, and German. With Nina Kiriki Hoffman, she developed the "Writers On Rugs Photography Studio." She likes to dress people up and then take pictures of them. For more about her, see her Web site.
Photo of Eileen Gunn copyright © 1998 Victor Gonzales.