Mourning Dove

Printing pressWhen I was a kid my dad had a playback typewriter. As you typed a document the typewriter would perforate a tape of green paper. When you were done, you flipped a switch and fed the perforated tape back into the machine, whereupon it would automatically type a copy of the document — useful, I guess, in an era when copiers were reserved for big businesses and copy shops were far between. Of course you had to type that initial document perfectly otherwise the tape would repeat a mistake in every copy, which to my mind restricted the machine’s utility to professional typists.

This strange artifact, so specific in time, sat large in my mind as I wrote “Mourning Dove,” which features a mechanical mashup of a printing press and a player piano. The story is a tight 3K, written late last year for Third Flatiron’s weird West anthology Principia Ponderosa.

A recurring thought at the time (you can maybe guess why) was whether knowing the hour and manner of your own death would be beneficial — you could live as if every day was literally among your last — or if the anticipation of death’s approach would be too anxiety inducing and therefore you would actively avoid knowing. Thing is, even in the absence of a prophetic machine we usually make one of these choices.

Story order is important to any collection, and I think as an opener for The Dead Ride Fast, “Mourning Dove”‘s fast pace and relative brevity make for a solid tone setter.

The Dead Ride Fast

The Dead Ride Fast coverRemember back in 2014 when I said I would publish a reprint collection of my short fiction the following year? Well, better late than never — The Dead Ride Fast will be available as an e-book next Tuesday.

The Dead Ride Fast collects six of my weird Westerns, all of them stories of existential dread on the 19th-century frontier.

I cannot express how much fun it’s been to put this book together.

There are many reasons why I wanted to publish under my own imprint. I try to live by P.J. O’Rourke’s maxim that a writer should always be paid at least twice for a piece of writing; and like the T-shirt says, What part of 70 percent royalties don’t you understand?

Yet what I enjoyed most was the absolute control over the entire product, from the cover to the typography to the interior layout. Writing can turn a little stale over time: you write something, it’s published, you receive a check. That two-beer buzz, so sharp when you’re in your early 20s, dulls as the years pass. The excitement I still feel when I write derives from the actual creation itself — that alchemy of writing and revision — but dwindles as soon as I send it off to the editor. That thrill of creating, that alpha-to-omega electrification, was something I felt the entire time while assembling Dead.

If you want to know the technical nitty gritty of how I did it, Daddy Jack will tell you after the jump jump!

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What Matters Is What You Believe

As an epilogue to my last post about Twin Peaks (among other things), director and cowriter David Lynch recently made some comments about the series and the nature of ambiguity itself, both in art and real life:

When it comes to the final moments of this season, he said, “What matters is what you believe happened. Many things in life just happen and we have to come to our own conclusions. You can, for example, read a book that raises a series of questions, and you want to talk to the author, but he died a hundred years ago. That’s why everything is up to you.”

If Robert Aickman was to be resurrected as a filmmaker, he would be Lynch.

My Twin Peaks Summer

Meanwhile
Meanwhile.

For someone who alleges he doesn’t watch a lot of television, I sure do post about it often. Such is life with a degree of OCD; the same logistical deftness and attention to detail is also the curse by which I cannot simply watch a TV show — I can only be obsessed by it. Thus much like the winter of 2013–2014 when True Detective‘s first season kept me sane while purchasing and renovating our current home, the revival of Twin Peaks has been a welcome distraction during what has been without a doubt the most fucked-up summer of my life.

I will answer your first and most pressing question immediately: Why has this summer been fucked up, Jackson? Well, my father died of cancer in late April, and as my mother predeceased him in 2009, it has been left to my brother and me to sell his multiple properties and close his estate. This task, however, has been impeded by the facts that (a) because of a deep denial regarding his condition my father refused to put his estate in order before he died and in some instances actually went out of his way to make our jobs more difficult; and (b) my father also had mental illness, the extent of which was unknown to me in his lifetime and only became more evident the deeper we dug his grave.

I knew my father had some eccentricities and obsessions, but in short order emptying out his house — it took four dumpsters and a shredding truck just to reach normal — melted into a never-ending stumble through the canyons of his diseased brain folds. Add to this a few lucid dreams and a handful of experiences that bordered on the supernatural and you can perhaps understand why during these past summer months David Lynch spoke to my soul.

I spent all summer shoveling my way out.

The original Twin Peaks ran in 1990–1991 when I was an underclassman in college. As I initially went to school as a film major, naturally a production by one of the gods of cinema meant I watched every episode — often more than once — allowing its mysteries and intrigues, surely and steadily, to bewitch me.

It was certainly a show of disappointments. I remember being disappointed by the revelation that Laura Palmer’s killer was a spirit named Bob, which I felt absolved the human agent of his evil — her father Leland — and blunted the crime’s seriousness. I was disappointed by how the series ended with Cooper trapped in the Black Lodge, which seemed like a massive Fuck You to the fans’ loyalty. I recall being disappointed by the redundancy of Fire Walk With Me, which failed to resolve Cooper’s story or even enlarge upon it,.

And yet I loved Twin Peaks. I loved its quirky characters and dialogue and especially its deepening mythology, a particularly American mythology which Lynch and Frost cranked up a thousand-fold in the latest series. Of course the other-world dimensions of Twin Peaks resemble gas stations and run-down motels and art-deco theaters — what else would American Hells and Heavens resemble? Of course there are numerous shots of headlights beaming down black roads, almost as if you were night driving to New Jersey to plunge once again into a ghost’s sickness. Of course there are monsters in the desert wastes of the southwest or the forests north of them; of course a road accident along a lonely stretch will be haunted by shadows and spirits. What else is out there in America except monsters? Of course evil travels through electricity and phone calls and radio waves.

As an aside, consider just a single facet such as numbers. Throughout the series, the Evil Cooper utilized an inexplicable witchcraft with numbers, using them to confuse tracking devices or short-circuit prison alarm systems. Philip Jeffries spouted them from his teapot. Numbers affixed to telephone poles begged the viewer to ask if they were relevant.

Numbers in Twin Peaks are a kind of sorcery, just as they are in our world. Take, for example, two-factor authentication. I want to log-in to a website. I enter my password. The website sends a number to my phone number. I then enter this number into the website — which is just an IP address composed of more numbers. If I’ve performed the spell correctly, I can pass through the gate to conduct some new magic within. The machine and I parrot numbers back and forth, teapot to tulpa, to work mischief.

“You think this shit is weird, look at that guy. I know, right?”

Girded by this history of disappointment, I was prepared for last night’s finale and although like many others I did not receive the conclusion I wanted, neither do I feel much of the frustration of 1991. A doubt that nagged me all summer was whether the Good Cooper could ever return to his rightful identity; after all, over the past quarter century the Evil Cooper had committed so many murders and rapes and other crimes that it would be impossible for Good Cooper to publicly assume the persona of Dale Cooper ever again.

Lynch seems to have asked the same question. After deciding to reset the timeline so that Laura is never murdered — which Cooper obliquely announces after Bob is finally defeated — Cooper’s face overlays the screen, implying that everything from that point onward occurs only in Cooper’s head. This makes a sort of sense. By altering the past, current events will have never happened, suggesting that only the meddler himself will remember them. The experiences of the other characters will effectively become a dream — they exist solely inside the mind of he who stepped upon the butterfly.

Cooper goes ahead and changes the past, though he loses Laura in the process. Later, upon exiting the Waiting Room (or does he?), Cooper meets Diane, who perhaps due to her long hiatus outside our world is also able to remember the train of events we’ve just watched. The pair decides to start a new life together by driving into — what? A new timeline? Yet another dimension? — via Cooper’s newfound ability to move between worlds. But as he says to Diane, things might be different after they cross over. He’s right. In the new world Diane no longer feels any connection to Cooper. She leaves him and perhaps even forgets their past lives entirely to inhabit her new identity as Linda. Meanwhile Cooper — or maybe now Richard — continues his search for the Laura he lost in the woods. He too seems different after the crossing, displaying a combination of his good and evil selves. Gone is the old special agent ecstatic over a cup of coffee. This Cooper is laconic and humorless, helping waitresses in distress by shooting assholes in their feet.

Cooper finds Laura only to discover she too has a new identity, then takes her to Twin Peaks, where everything looks the same but is different. Is this the story of the little girl down the lane? Doesn’t seem to be. Rather Cooper has jumped narratives into some fresh story involving a woman named Carrie Page who may or may not have killed a guy. Diane is now Linda, Laura is now Carrie. The faces are the same but the names have been changed, the actors reassigned.

None of this bothers me. Cooper is no longer trapped; he is still out there, somewhere, driven by his goodness to right wrongs. My interpretation is that he (and maybe Diane too) has become one of the Lodge spirits we’ve seen over the years, performing actions inscrutable to observers while moving through infinity. He seems to know where the doorways between worlds lie; upon exiting the Waiting Room, his hand waving causes the red curtains to shake, allowing him egress — a trick he didn’t know 25 years ago. Cooper simply may not yet realize his new status, his new transcendence. He’s become like Philip Jeffries and Mrs. Chalfont and Mike, beings who were once people but have now become something more. Maybe this season, in the end, was an explanation of where the Lodge spirits come from.

Did I mention my mom made and collected owl artwork?

Twin Peaks fans will never receive the explanations they want just as I will never receive the explanations I want about my dad. We are left only with our interpretations of events and how we act upon them. I don’t feel like the same person I was over a year ago, before my dad’s diagnosis. Like some Biblical patriarch I’ve returned from the desert transformed, my flesh mortified, aware of a greater cosmos, of layers previously unknown. I turn around to see T-shirts discarded on the bedroom floor, I look ahead to note others, clean and unworn, still in the dresser drawer. Like Cooper I am some alloy of multiple histories.

There’s still much to do regarding my dad’s estate but I can see the end now, something that was obscured back in June and July. A major goal was to have his house — the house I grew up in — empty and listed by Labor Day, an achievement we unlocked on Saturday.

This weekend is a bookend, a closing door. The people in my life who’ve helped me through already know who they are — I’ve thanked them effusively and will continue to do so. But there’s pixels to spare for a few more. So thank you, David Lynch and Mark Frost. Thank you, Kyle MacLachlan and the hundreds of cast and crew members. Thank you Twin Peaks soundtrack. Thank you for giving me a frame of reference, for being both a book of crossword puzzles and a dictionary, for being an entertainment and an Oracle at Delphi. Thank you all for playing a part in this very strange episode of my life.

If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be New Colonia

The hubbub over Confederate has spurred Amazon to reveal that they’ve been developing a new alternate-history series of their own which likewise has its point of divergence in the 19th century:

In the back story of “Black America,” the Confederacy was defeated. But instead of enduring the painful eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, African-Americans received reparations. The former slaves and freedmen claimed Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, a nation known as New Colonia.

That nation has a “tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship” with the United States, which is described as both an ally and a foe.

Black utopianism? Now that’s what I’m talking about!

I have to wonder if Black America is a replacement for The Man in the High Castle, which is entering its third (and final?) season. Regardless, the possibility of independent nations occupying the geography of the real-life Lower 48 is an alt-hist concept I adore — I’ve used it more than once in my short fiction. Amazon, you had my curiosity but now you have my attention.

No Bad Ideas

Last week Variety reported that HBO is developing a replacement for Game of Thrones: a counterfactual drama wherein the Confederacy successfully seceded. Suddenly everybody has strong opinions about alternate history!

“Confederate” chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone – freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.

My Twitter TL was awash in negative reactions, many of them authored by GoT fans. The sexy-time adventures of Dumblesticks the diddling dwarf? A-OK! But grays exiting the USA? NO WAY!

Wait a minute, you say. Isn’t there a popular what-if miniseries on Amazon Prime that posits an Axis victory over the US, based on an award-winning novel by Philip K. Dick that even has its own amazing album produced by Danger Mouse? Maybe HBO is trying to make a couple of Reichsmarks on the same sort of idea?

Nope! But don’t take my word for it — here’s TeenVogue, of all outlets, to piss on your Land O’Smiles:

To some, the existence of The Man in the High Castle effectively voids any initial criticisms people have regarding Confederate because they believe both shows are essentially the same. But to adopt that stance is to be woefully uneducated about the reality of how both events have been handled historically, in their nations and throughout the globe.

You see, the Germans are totally sorry for the Holocaust whereas Americans are like totally not sorry for slavery! That’s why a show such as Confederate is nicht gut! What are you, woefully uneducated? God!

To be fair, the reason why Man in the High Castle is well received and the mere suggestion of Confederate isn’t may be because the latter hits a little too close to home. After all, I’m unaware of any Nazis-win-the-war shows coming out of Germany. On the other hand, the fact that High Castle‘s point of divergence occurred more recently — there are still people alive who experienced the 1930s and 40s — suggests that familiarity isn’t the whole explanation either.

Now if you’ve just slid from the timeline where this blog is a one long string of poop emojis and you’ve never read my writing before, let me be glacially clear: the Civil War was initiated by bellicose and arrogant slave-owners for horrible, selfish, and stupid reasons. Outmanned and outindustrialized from the get-go, the Confederacy never had a chance of winning, and the fact the war lasted as long as it did is due less to any effort by the rebels than to confusion and Federal mismanagement early in the conflict.

That said, it’s certainly symptomatic of social-media’s outrage culture that the simple idea of a fictionalized southern secession drove folks to stuff the Internet’s complaint box.

Many of those instant-coffee Turtledoves seem unaware of the deep library of Civil War-based alt-hist literature already out there. How Few Remain alone spawned ten sequels. There’s Robert Conroy’s 1862. I can recommend Terry Bisson’s odd little novel, Fire on the Mountain. The most well-known is undoubtedly The Guns of the South. And most recently there’s Ben Winters’s 2016 novel Underground Airlines, nominated for several prizes. So many trees have been killed on the subject you need an entire page on Wikipedia to keep them straight, and I have to wonder if HBO, like Amazon, would be better off adapting and expanding an existing book rather than generating an IP whole cloth.

Among alt-hist writers, in fact, the what-if-the-South-seceded trope is so common it’s cliche. The first two alt-hist stories I ever wrote involved the Civil War. “Galveston” has Johnny Reb trying to enlist an independent Texas to the Lost Cause, while “Glorieta Pass” posits an underground abolitionist resistance in the post-secession territories. If those concepts sound familiar it’s because they are — I look back on those stories now and cringe at their banality. That recognition pushed me to write better stories.

But here’s the thing, a lesson that any true creative can tell you: It’s not the idea, it’s the execution. A monster terrorizing a group of people is the plot of countless schlocky horror movies but only one of those films is Jaws. For every million landscapes painted there’s The Starry Night. Every book or movie or artistic endeavor is, at it’s core, conceptually the same as something else, some other work.

Confederate hardly has a monopoly on iffiness. Hey! Wanna hear my pitch for a show about a bunch of inmates in a WW2 POW camp? It’s like The Great Escape only it’s a sitcom where the Nazis are a bunch of buffoons and the one guy goes, “I know nothing!” a lot! It’s funny because he’s fat and has a mustache! Ha ha!

And yet if you turn on TV Land or dig deep enough into your television’s channel guide, you can watch the execution of that concept right now, still in syndication years later.

The point is, it’s not so much the elevator pitch that matters, it’s how an individual work is rendered that distinguishes it. It wasn’t the ideas for my stories that stunk. It was my execution of them.

Personally I’m a hundred times more excited to watch Jordan Peele’s production of Lovecraft Country (which I reviewed here, BTW) than I am Confederate. Maybe Confederate will be terrible, in which case viewers will be sure to let HBO know. Maybe, like High Castle, it will be brilliant.

But it’s a little rich for dorks who nerd out over E.L. James-scribed Dungeon & Dragons fanfic to shut down an idea before it even steps across the drawbridge. It’s even more ignorant for some of those same people to be writers and artists. They ought to know better.