Monday, February 22, 2010

Darkness on the Edge of Fabletown

I just finished Peter and Max by Bill Willingham, an extremely well-written tale set in Vertigo Comics' "Fables" universe where fairy-tale characters exist in a sort of vast commune called "Fabletown." Moving, intense and gripping, I'd love to recommend it without reservation, but I can't. You see, it's dark: the kind of trendy Dark Knight-dark that everyone wants now. And truthfully, as a reader, a writer and a parent, I'm worried about, and wearied by, this trend. I mean, if everything is dark, then what is there to see?

Consider the tales of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, Little Bo Peep and Peter Piper, the core stories at the heart of Peter and Max. "Peter Piper" is a pretty innocuous tale, a basic tongue-twister with no real ulterior meaning. "Little Bo Peep" is a simple rhyme about a shepherdess and her lost flock, who will return when they're ready. Not only are they not "dark," they're innocent. They have no ulterior meaning.

"The Pied Piper," now, is a whole other thing. Depending on the version, the Piper charms the rats from the city of Hamlin, then when the city refuses to pay, does the same to their children. In some variations, the city repents and the children are returned. In others, the children die as the rats did. Either way, as a story intended for children, the morals are clear: don't go along with the crowd; beware of charming strangers; pay your debts. All important lessons for later in life.

So what's my problem?

Simply this: by darkening every single goddamned bit of childhood lore and harmless nonsense, we're in danger of giving our kids a literary and emotional future bereft of innocence, delight and hope.

Over-reaction? Maybe. But look at our super-hero movies. The successful ones (The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Spider-Man) are all violence-laden PG-13 epics one "F-bomb" away from an R rating if they weren't major studio productions. Yet each supports a tsunami of marketing aimed at an audience both theoretically too young to see the movie, and completely unequipped to fully comprehend it. Many of these kids do see them, of course, and what they experience are conflicted, uncertain heroes with barely any moral difference from the villains they pursue. When your own moral sense hasn't had time to fully form, what context can you provide for these things? And what do you take away from them?

Which brings me to Peter and Max, and the plundering of fairy tales.

Disney has received a lot of criticism, some of it justified, for watering down their source material. Yet for years, the name "Disney" told parents that the subject matter would not cross any tacitly-accepted social or moral borders. They would entertain, provide a bit of excitement, and any moments of darkness (i.e., Bambi's mother) would be redeemed by the end. Most crucially, the moral borders would be clear.

So is our world simply too jaded, too cynical, too marinated in its reality-TV/remake-laden navel gazing to have room for this any more? Even for our kids?

Look around. Tim Burton has a new version of Alice in Wonderland, with a grown (i.e., sexy) Alice in place of the innocent little girl. The film version of Where the Wild Things Are expands a simple bedtime story into an elegy for lost childhood. Fairies have gone from Tinkerbells to Jezebels. And for me the worst offender of all is George Lucas, who has an animated TV show to get kids invested in Anakin Skywalker, knowing full well that those same kids will eventually see their beloved hero murder helpless Jedi children in Revenge of the Sith.

None of these, individually, are necessarily bad story ideas. A few, in their execution, have been transcendent (Neil Gaiman's work, for instance). Collectively, though, I worry that they indicate we no longer have the capacity as a society to embrace and appreciate the pure innocence of the source stories (not to mention our apparent inability to invent our own, which is a whole other topic). And as a writer, a reader and a parent, that makes me sad.

As did Peter and Max.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Giants of West Tennessee: Jesse Hill Ford, part 2

NOTE: This is an occasional series about notable figures from my home region. These are personal reminiscences and opinions; where available, I'll include links so interested readers can find out more.

Part 1 of this entry can be found here.

Even as a child I wanted to be a writer. Unfortunately, I lived in a town where literacy was viewed with the same cross-eyed suspicion as Communism and homosexuality. When I got beaten up in fifth grade for reading a science fiction novel, the community consensus (including my family's) was that it was essentially my own fault for being "weird." Yet writing was something hard-wired into me; I remember turning comic books into prose stories on my dad's old manual typewriter.

When I got older and my family accepted that this "weirdness" wasn't going away, they urged me to contact our own local best-selling author Jesse Hill Ford. I had connections: his first father-in-law was the doctor who delivered my older brother and sister, and I'd occasionally crossed partying paths with his youngest daughter. He would, everyone assured me, respond to such an eager young man. So I wrote him.

I don't recall the exact wording of my letter, but I'm certain it was both polite and hugely deferential. As people I've corresponded with will attest, that's my default setting anyway. I believe I introduced myself, mentioned our mutual acquaintances, explained my interest in being a writer, and said I'd be honored by any recommendations or advice he'd care to give. I'm not sure, but I may have included a self-addressed stamped envelope for his reply.

The response I got back changed the way I thought about writers forever. I've only been literally sucker-punched once, in junior high school. This metaphorical one, though, hurt a lot more.

Ford's reply was so unbelievably snarky that, after I read it, I just sat and stared at the floor for half an hour. Then I threw it away, although now I wish I hadn't. The gist was that his own writing was too important for him to take time away to help a beginner, especially one who lacked the common decency to pay for one of his writing seminars. But it was the tone, the unbelievable mix of arrogance and condescension, that made the biggest impression.

And the worst part was that at its core, it was a lie.

According to Tennesse Authors: Past & Present (2003, University of Tennessee Libraries): "The sudden success of Lord Byron Jones, and his trip to Hollywood to co-write the screenplay for the movie...destabilized Ford's relationships with his wife and neighbors. Already a heavy drinker with a mercurial temperament, Ford became dependent upon amphetamines and cheated on his wife during his stay in California." Following his acquittal for murder, "[h]e finished the novel he had been writing when the trial began, The Raiders, in 1975. He remarried, to Lillian Pelletierre, in the same year. His new wife had money that allowed them freedom from financial worries...Ford wrote little or nothing during this period, and he appears to have been obsessed by the earlier shooting. These ruminations embittered him and hardened his social views. When he returned to print in 1985, writing essays and later a column for USA Today, his columns were rabidly conservative and often paranoid."

So at the time I contacted him, he wasn't writing anything.

And none of this would've mattered had he simply been polite about it. That's something every Southerner instinctively knows how to do; we even use the benign phrase "bless your heart" to mean, "you're so stupid." All he had to say was, "I'm sorry, I'm incredibly busy, I wish you the best of luck." But instead he tossed in contempt and mockery. When I encounter stories of how other famous people helped newbies in their fields (for example, I recently read how Pete Seeger responded to folk singer Michael Johnathon's letter), I'm even more outraged.

(I should reiterate this is strictly my story of Jesse Hill Ford. Others no doubt have different ones. Author Richard North Patterson, for one, credits Ford's classes with turning him into a real writer; of course, he was already a successful attorney, so he had no trouble affording them.)

So, to conclude: what did I learn from Jesse Hill Ford?

Obviously, I didn't give up on writing. But I promised myself that, if I was ever lucky enough to be successful at it, I would never treat anyone with the cavalier contempt Jesse Hill Ford showed me. I try to always see myself in anyone who asks me for writing help.

And I've collected signed copies of all six of Jesse Hill Ford's books, video files of his interviews on public television, and an audio tape of one of his vaunted writing seminars (see photo of my collection at the top of this blog post). I've corresponded privately with some of his friends. I have a scrapbook of articles about him. I keep looking for the reason that a man like that would be so blithely cruel to a kid looking for encouragement.

I haven't yet found it.

Leave a comment telling about a celebrity or hero who's let you down, and be entered to win a signed copy of BURN ME DEADLY.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

My 2010 convention schedule (so far)

This year I'll be attending four conventions for certain. No word yet on panels, signings, and/or readings, but I'll post my schedules closer to the dates.

The conventions are:

Odyssey Con, aka OddCon, April 16-18, 2010 in Madison, WI.

WisCon, May 27-31, 2010 in Madison, WI.

MadCon, September 24-26, 2010 in Madison, WI.

World Fantasy, October 28-31, 2010 in Columbus, OH.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Hear samples of The Sword-Edged Blonde on audio

Listen to snippets of the great Stefan Rundicki reading The Sword-Edged Blonde in this podcast review by Susan Dunman.

Monday, February 8, 2010

"Shady Grove" and the tradition of living songs

Jean Ritchie (with Pete Seeger watching) performing her version of "Shady Grove":

We think of songs, in the current popular sense, as fixed points: once the lyrics are written and the music composed, that's it. Our vast music industry supports this notion, because that's how they make their living (organizations such as ASCAP exist entirely to enforce the idea that "this is the song.") But historically, before songs could be fixed in either documents or recordings, this wasn't the case. Songs changed each time someone sang them, and especially when they were brought to new areas. An example: "Shady Grove."

This little ditty is a bluegrass/country/folk standard, having been recorded by the likes of Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs and the Everly Brothers. I first encountered it on Jennifer Goree's self-titled debut album. And to show how fascinating it is, I'd like to compare Goree's version with folksinger Michael Johnathon's version, both from 1997.

Musicological scholarship says "Shady Grove" originated with the song "Matty Groves," That song dates reliably to the early 1600s. As it traveled from Europe to the US, it grew more abiguous and mysterious. Is "Shady Grove" a place, or a person? Evidently the answer is, "Yes."

In the two versions I'm comparing, Shady Grove is clearly a person, a female character very dear to the singer. But the lyrical differences are significant. Here's an example:

Goree sings:
Well, I went to see my Shady Grove, she was standing in the door
Flowers and beads all in her hair, and little bare feet on the floor

"My mother sang it to me as a baby," she says. "I don't think I'd ever heard a 'real' version of it before I recorded mine. It's just a lovely melody and I kind of made up my own version of the lyrics since I didn't have much to go on. That is the beauty of such songs!"

In this version, Shady Grove seems to be a child dear to the singer. There's a tenderness and wistfulness to it, not least because it's done a capella. When I asked her, she agreed that she sees Shady Grove as a child, "Yes, that is what i think too: a little girl standing in the doorway of an homesteader's house."

She continues, "But there is something a little more romantic /grown-up about the second verse: wish I had a big white horse corn to feed him on pretty little girl just to stay at home and to feed him when I'm it is a little mysterious as to whether shady grove is a daughter or a lover...maybe that is why it is an compelling song."

Michael Johnathon's version is much darker, played with a full, almost rock-band arrangement. In his book WoodSongs II he says, "The old chestnut 'Shady Grove' is actually about an abusive, over-protective stalker. Yet thousands of folks sing it as if it was a simple mountain tune." This evokes all those happy couples who play "Every Breath You Take" at their wedding.

Jonathon sings:
The first time I saw Shady Grove, she was standing at the door,
Shoes and stockings in her hand, little bare feet on the floor.

The image is blatantly sexual, post-coital and possibly illicit. The meaning, Jonathon says, depends on which verses the singer chooses. "To me, Shady Grove was a young woman literally stalked and possessed by her lover. She was probably very lonely, very humble, very scared. If you listen to the lyrics of the verses I chose for the song, it is a reflection of violence and spousal abuse."

He first encountered the song in grammar school in upstate New York. "Can you believe this is taught in schools? That's why I love folk music. Then I moved into the Appalachian Mountains and traveled up and down the hollers with my guitar and banjo hearing scores of verses to the song I never even knew exsisted. I collected over 38 verses before I stopped."

In recording his version, he says, "Because of the dramatic nature of the lyrics, I wanted the song to be more powerful than just a simple Appalachian ballad. Jean Ritchie starts the song off with her lap dulcimer, the way folks played it in the mountains for two centuries ... but then we power in ast her and bring the song forward. I play it in drop-D on the guitar, which gives it a deeper, ominous tone."

How could two, let alone hundreds, of variations of the same song exist? It's significant that both Goree and Jonathon first learned the song not from records or the radio, but from other people. For centuries that was the way people did it, a process that couldn't avoid change. "Matty Groves" becomes "Shady Grove," and if technology hadn't codified it on record, CD and digital file, it might've mutated further. It stands as a fascinating artifact of a time when the music was as alive as those who played it.

I'll leave you with the Stray Cats in Paris, circa 1989:

(Special thanks to Jennifer Goree and Michael Johnathon for sharing their insights.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

New Poem, "Haze," at the Poetry Juice Bar

My poem "Haze" is now online at L.K. Thayer's Poetry Juice Bar. You can read it here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"What's the weirdest book you ever read?"

The Mad Hatter Review asked me (and a bunch of other authors) "What's the weirdest book you ever read?" See the answers here.