Three Ways of Looking at Howard Waldrop (and Then Some)

By Jed Hartman, et alia

"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 multi-part article you're reading introduces Waldrop, for those unfamiliar with his work. We're also featuring a reprint of one of his stories, and a review of his new e-book collection.

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's 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.

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.


 

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Jed Hartman is Senior Fiction Editor for Strange Horizons.