NecronomiCon 2015

On Sunday I did something I swore I would never do: I attended a writerly convention.

I’ve mulled attending writers’ cons before but the programming — forums on television shows or movies I’ve never seen or academic panels hashing obtuse literary points — never appealed to me, and the current radioactive climate of genre writing is not an invitation to reconsider my apprehension. But when I learned of NecronomiCon 2015, a celebration of all things H.P. Lovecraft located in Providence, Rhode Island, just two hours up the highway from me, I was tempted. And when I realized NecronomiCon only happens every two years, and moreover 2015 was the 125th anniversary of HPL’s birth, I threw down $30 for a day pass and put gas in the car.

I don’t regret it. A panel on Clark Ashton Smith provided a wealth of biographical details I hadn’t known beforehand, and a later discussion on Lovecraft and philosophy, which ranged from existentialism to the Kantian sublime to Schopenhauer, was a hilarious high point of the day. Because a sure way to make a cynic laugh is to point out that Lovecraft’s monster-worshipping cultists were just millennialist Christians in bathrobes: the Rapture is great for them but a horror story for the rest of us.

Left to right: Jack Haringa, Phillip Gelatt, Scott Connors, and ST Joshi discuss Clark Ashton Smith's love of strange. And I mean that in the Urban Dictionary sense.
Left to right: Jack Haringa, Phillip Gelatt, Scott Connors, and ST Joshi discuss Clark Ashton Smith’s love of strange. And I mean that in the Urban Dictionary sense.

Over at the marketplace in the convention center, I met the super-nice artist Jason C. Eckhardt, who has done work for Chaosium as well as the illustration for the cans of Innsmouth Olde Ale. He said he had received enormous positive feedback at the con and was considering making prints of the Olde Ale artwork. Narragansett Beer also had a booth; their next offerings in the Lovecraft Series will be the Reanimator — a modification of their helles bock — and, in the winter, the I Am Providence stout. I bought some books and a T-shirt, which I suppose are connish things to do.

Reanimator Helles Lager

Yes, Lovecraft has his issues. But you know what else he has? Fun. As H.L. Mencken wrote,

The great artists of the world are never Puritans, and seldom even ordinarily respectable. No virtuous man — that is, virtuous in the Y.M.C.A. sense — has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading.

I love Lovecraft’s incredible descriptions of New England landscapes, I love his globetrotting mysteries, I love his Jazz Age atmospherics. Decades after first discovering him, I can crack open a Lovecraft story and still thrill as ordinary men become detectives, drawn to uncover dark secrets and cosmic conspiracies at the cost of their lives and sanity. There’s something powerful there, and it was worth $30 and a two-hour drive to reflect upon it for a day.

Declare the Pennies on Your Eyes

Last night I attended a public forum on taxes hosted by the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. The forum panelists consisted of Institute experts and local Republicans and was moderated by Joe Scarborough, who ran the proceedings much like his radio show, which is to say he mostly talked over his guests in his excitement to hear his own voice. The event was a commercial for the Republican party (we were told that Democrat invitees declined) but nonetheless they made their point: Republicans in Connecticut are a toothless minority and our economic tailspin will continue as long as control of the state budget remains in the hands of our one-party junta.

Consider:

  • Based on wages, taxes, cost of living, unemployment, and workplace illnesses and injuries, Connecticut is among the top ten worst places to live and work in the US (MoneyRates.com).
  • In 2014, Connecticut was ranked the worst state for job creation (Gallup).
  • Though declining, Connecticut’s unemployment rate remains above the national average (CT News Junkie).
  • Connecticut has the fifth highest gas taxes in the country (Tax-Rates.org).
  • Connecticut was tied with New Jersey for having the latest Tax Freedom Day in 2015 (Tax Foundation).
  • Although US population is growing overall, the population in Connecticut is declining; in 2013–2014, CT was one of just six states to lose people  (US Census Bureau).
  • Forty-nine percent of Nutmeggers would move out of the state if they could (Gallup).

Now, just weeks after passing the second-largest tax increase in state history, General Electric is considering moving their headquarters from Connecticut to Georgia. Governor Malloy is reportedly negotiating a package with GE to keep them here, but as my state senator Tony Hwang said last night, this kind of piecemeal approach — special tax breaks and corporate welfare for big boys, nothing for others — is not only patently unfair, it’s also a bald admission that broad tax increases damage our economy. GE pays an estimated $3.5 million in local property taxes annually, and the vacuum created by their departure will suck the loose change from the pockets of everyone living in my town. In their fervor to blast their favorite bogeymen, the Democrats aim their drones at the Taliban corporations but instead the bombs and missiles, as usual, fall on us luckless citizens sitting in our mud huts.

It’s All Papier-Mache

True Detective 62If Twitter is any metric, viewers have been struggling with this season of HBO’s True Detective. I discovered the show halfway through its first season and was immediately ensorcelled by its reinvention of pulp luridness into a contemporary setting: writer Nic Pizzolatto had stripped the genre of its fedoras and ratatat James Cagney patter but retained the outré crimes, dysfunctional protagonists, and hardboiled dialogue — this last refashioned from purple Chandler metaphors into philosophical, albeit sometimes plagiarized, poesy. It seems much of the disappointment stems from wanting a repeat of season 1, wherein Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson prowled the landscape of a Southern Gothic, uncovering decadent families involved in ancient conspiracies. But rather than retread the tires of the old Dodge Charger, Pizzolatto has damned his S2 characters to the wasteland of the California noir, where the politicans are crooked, the dames dangerous, and the cast of characters byzantine. This in particular seems to confound the Tweeple, though so far all of the chauffeurs have been accounted for. Some people can’t handle the deep trip.

Upon landing, film noir so reverberated on Gallic shores that it was the French who christened the genre; and Albert Camus deliberately wrote the first half of The Stranger in what he called “the American style,” perhaps best exemplified by Hemingway’s “The Killers.” Noir reflected an existential awakening on two separate landmasses. We are taught in school that existentialism was a Continental movement of the 1940s and 50s, and so it’s strange to think of noir as an expression of an American variety. But as George Cotkin argues in his book Existential America, the official canon of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, et al. was selected by American academics smitten with postwar Europhilia who deliberately ignored a homegrown strain reaching at least as far back as Hawthorne and Melville. “Existence precedes essence,” quoth Sartre, by which he meant there is no such thing as destiny, that God has no plan for us; we are born and proceed to invent ourselves by the millions of choices we make during our lifetimes. But noir — both the cinematic and the literary kinds — had been saying a similar thing long before Sartre formalized it.

“Man is condemned to be free,” Sartre wrote in Existentialism and Human Emotions. We are brought into the world without our permission, free to do anything we want, unrestrained by determinism or “a fixed and given human nature.” This, our universe, is not so different from the amoral dimension of noir, where there is no afterlife to punish crimes or reward good deeds — the only law is what you get away with. One of these worlds might have more chiaroscuro than the other, but in both we are free to murder our husbands for the insurance money, just as in both we are free to become fraud investigators and bring murderers before juries. We decide.

In a very tense opening to a recent True Detective episode, detective Ray Velcoro (played by Colin Farrell) confronts gangster boss Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) over whether Semyon knew the name of a man he had given to Velcoro — a man Velcoro believed to have raped his wife and whom Velcoro subsequently killed in vengeance — was, in fact, not the name of the actual rapist. Velcoro accuses Semyon of manipulating him into the murder to gain leverage over a cop. Semyon replies:

I didn’t get you to do anything. I gave you a name and you made your choice. And that choice was in you before your wife or any of this other stuff. It was always there, waiting.

There was no coercion or con; Velcoro had already chosen to be the kind of man who prefers vigilantism over the justice system: his wife’s rape just gave him an outlet to express it. “And didn’t you use that man to be what you were always waiting to become?” Semyon asks. We don’t need to actually visit the African savannah to know whether we will shoot the endangered lion; we’ve already chosen beforehand to be big-game hunters or not to be big-game hunters. “The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion,” Sartre added. “He will never agree that a sweeping passion is a ravaging torrent which fatally leads a man to certain acts and is therefore an excuse.”

True Detective 53Velcoro later tells his partner-in-investigation Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) that he’s a bad man. This isn’t exactly true; though he has done bad things, it’s after his confrontation with Semyon that he begins living authentically — he realizes he is responsible for his choices, which can no longer be foisted onto Semyon or circumstances. He sacrifices his custodial rights to preserve his son’s well-being; he refuses to take advantage of a drugged Bezzerides. Velcoro chooses to do good. The same can’t be said of Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), whose terror at being outed as the closeted homosexual he is ends up getting him shot. “You’d just been honest about who you are, nobody’d be able to run you,” Woodrugh’s lover and blackmailer tells him. Inauthenticity can leave you dead on the pavement as the end credits roll.

I have no idea how it will fall out in Sunday night’s finale; I have two competing theories of whodunnit. Afterwards I will miss Pizzolatto’s wonderfully overwritten dialogue and my Monday mornings will be robbed of the mp3 shopping by which I recreate T Bone Burnett’s moody soundtrack. I will just have to sit back and wait for the flat circle of time to revolve to season 3.

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Democracy on Deck

So the Treasure Was Divided by Howard Pyle, 1905Just because major finds like Whydah and the Queen Anne’s Revenge have been uncovered doesn’t mean there aren’t any more famous ships from the Golden Age of Piracy to track down. Case in point: Joseph Bannister’s Golden Fleece, the search for which is detailed in Robert Kurson’s new book, Pirate Hunters:

Bannister’s story was the catalyst for Messrs. Bowden, Chatterton, and Mattera’s determination to find the Golden Fleece, a quest smoothly described in “Pirate Hunters.” It would be churlish of me to disclose the result, but I can say that the three men become furious with one another, pore over time-worn archives in the U.S. and Europe, and confront armed robbers, money worries, rival divers, a mean barracuda and, perhaps most ominously, changing attitudes toward underwater treasure seekers.

Alas, WSJ reviewer Howard Schneider apparently felt a little dirty enjoying a summer read about high-seas criminality, scolding one of the wreck hunters for glamorizing the Long John Silver lifestyle:

Also problematic are Mr. Mattera’s belief that pirate ships operated on democratic principles. “The captain would exercise absolute authority only in battle,” Mr. Kurson summarizes. “At other times, he would guide the ship according to the pleasure of the crew.” For Mr. Mattera, Bannister “was a man enthralled by democracy,” and his metamorphosis into a pirate was occasioned by egalitarian idealism.

“[L]et’s not romanticize Joseph Bannister,” Schneider concludes, “Or pirates in general.” Full review here, behind the paywall.

Setting aside Bannister’s precise motivations, Schneider needn’t be so skeptical about Mattera’s claims; the fact that many buccaneer vessels were floating republics has been well documented. The command structure was exactly as Mattera described, and pirate constitutions included workers’ compensation and equitable sharing of prizes, with officers and skilled craftsmen earning more than common sailors but not enough to incite jealousy. The system was so successful it was still used among privateers during the Revolution. From Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer (pp. 91-92):

It is remarkable what little difference stands between Smedley’s covenant with his sailors and those from the golden age of piracy. Loss of an arm or leg, “or be otherwise so disabled as not to earn his Bread,” was compensated with £1,000 onboard Hibernia. Under his English letter of marque, Henry Morgan granted “six hundred pieces of eight or six slaves” for a lost leg or hand. With Smedley, “[W]hoever shall first enter an Enemy’s Ship, after orders for boarding is issued, he shall receive three hundred pounds as a Recompense for his Valour.” Morgan rewarded the same with 50 pieces of eight. And, as captain, Smedley was entitled to eight shares of the half-prize awarded to officers and crew — the exact same portion given to captains sailing under Morgan’s flag a century prior.

Recognition that 17th- and early 18th-century pirate vessels were islands of democracy in a sea of autocratic empire explains why pirates had such an easy time recruiting sailors. A poor young man standing on the docks of London or another European port didn’t have many options. He could toil in the fields or streets living hand to mouth; or sell himself into indentured servitude in the colonies. Either way he had almost no chance of ever accruing enough capital to buy land or start a business, which were the only real paths to bettering himself. Many opted for the relative security of three hots and a berth onboard a ship but then had to suffer the sadistic discipline of the navy or, worse, the sadistic discipline and starvation rations of the merchant marine. Admiralty archives burst with transcripts of those who leapt to join pirate crews when overtaken, and pirates devised cunning ways to disguise this volunteerism in case they should later be apprehended and tried in court. As Peter Leeson observes in The Invisible Hook (pp. 154-155):

Contrary to popular perception, most pirates were volunteers, not conscripts. Pirates sought willing companions instead of forced men because of simple cost-benefit considerations, not because of a principled objection to using force to get what they wanted. On the one hand, in many cases pirates simply didn’t have to resort to coercion to increase their numbers. The better treatment and opportunity for vastly superior pay on pirate ships was plenty incentive for many sailors to sign on under the black flag when given the opportunity. The benefit of conscripting ordinary sailors was therefore quite low. On the other hand, the costs of pressing sailors could be very large. … They could escape, informing authorities, or leaving the remaining crew too small to take advantage of the ship. Even if conscripts didn’t manage to escape, a crew with a sizable portion of forced men was less likely to succeed since conscripts didn’t have the same incentive to participate as volunteers.

Often only surgeons and skilled craftsmen were pressed into pirate service and that was because their incomes were already secure; they had more to lose than gain by going on the account. But the exact opposite was true for common sailors.

So Mr. Schneider, the next time you pull up your skirts and stand on a chair at the sight of someone extolling the benefits of fifteen men on the dead man’s chest, imagine this scenario:

You are at your bullpen desk, tapping away at your latest review, when a group of Rikers Island inmates bursts in, clad in orange jumpsuits, tattooed and pierced and armed six ways to Wednesday. Some are murderers and rapists but all are thieves as they proceed to loot the Journal offices. This done, they then ask for volunteers — and to your marveling eyes, interns and receptionists and copy boys and Starbucks runners scramble to join. And why? Because the lives of these people you’ve ignored and mistreated are so awful that running off with a gang of thugs is an improvement for them.

That’s the Golden Age of Piracy in a nutshell. To acknowledge good things about Bellamy and Blackbeard isn’t to praise pirates — it’s to condemn the world that fashioned them.

Top image: So the Treasure Was Divided by the inimitable Howard Pyle, 1905.

Kelo @ 10

The Grasping Hand by Ilya SominA few years ago, George Mason law professor Ilya Somin asked me if he could use photos I had taken in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, the disputed site in the infamous Kelo v. City of New London legal battle, for a book he was writing on the decision. Of course I said yes. His book, The Grasping Hand: “Kelo v. City of New London” and the Limits of Eminent Domain, is out now.

Has it been a decade already? In a series of posts for the WaPo to promote the book, Ilya has been analyzing the decision — he believes it runs counter to both originalist and living-document interpretations of the Constitution — while reminding us of the details in danger of fading from common recollection. One thing that particularly irritated me at the time was Pfizer’s hand-washing press releases claiming they had nothing to do with the condemnations. Don’t you believe it:

The NLDC produced a development plan that would revitalize Fort Trumbull by building housing, office space, and other facilities that would support a new headquarters that Pfizer, Inc. – a major pharmaceutical firm – had agreed to build nearby. The development plan produced by the NLDC was in large part based on Pfizer’s requirements, which NLDC leaders (some of whom had close ties to Pfizer) were eager to meet. Pfizer would not be the new owner of the redeveloped land, but did expect to benefit from it. I believe that NLDC leaders genuinely thought the plan would serve the public interest, as did the city and state officials who supported it. But it is also true, as one of those who worked on the plan put it, that Pfizer was the “10,000 pound gorilla” behind the project.

Pfizer’s fecklessness was revealed when it left New London as soon as a ten-year tax break expired which the city had used to lure the company there in the first place. It was the shiny red cherry on top of the kleptocrat sundae spilled into our laps by our elected soda jerks.

In his book Ilya also discusses the ramifications of Kelo, which he believes will eventually be overturned. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

Space Invaders

Garlic mustard.Our little castle finds itself under siege once again:

Alliaria petiolata is an aggressive invader of wooded areas throughout the eastern and middle United States. A high shade tolerance allows this plant to invade high quality, mature woodlands, where it can form dense stands. These stands not only shade out native understory flora but also produce allelopathic compounds that inhibit seed germination of other species. Alliaria petiolata is native to Europe and was first introduced during the 1800s for medicinal and culinary purposes.

Though a member of the mustard family, when crushed or rubbed the leaves of A. petiolata generate a garlic scent — hence its more common name, garlic mustard. Apparently its leaves make a tasty pesto, a recipe I’m willing to try since I have so much of it growing on the edge of our woods.

I’m skeptical of the whole concept of invasive species; what some may see as imperialism by the exotic, I see as natural selection. A species using what it’s got to get what it wants is the engine of evolution. The first mudskipper who crawled onto land was an invader; so too are the first seeds to germinate in the black sands of a new volcanic island. Concern about invasive species here in the U.S. is less about conservationism and more about restoring it to an imagined pre-Columbian ideal. We know that American Indians altered the environment to suit them, drastically changing the Western Hemisphere as they found it, and yet we fantasize about furbishing the land to how it appeared in 1491.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If we buy an old house, we may admire aspects or details from an older period (like, say, the original hardwood floors) and strip away modern additions that obscure them (wall-to-wall carpeting). But we’re conscious of making those choices and acknowledging those preferences. When we label a species as invasive, we intend it pejoratively. We mean that we simply don’t like them. The Earth is a garden, a place where we discriminate between species: we water the elephants and weed the smallpox. What’s so wrong with admitting that to ourselves?

For a few short hours in this lifetime, our acre is my garden — and I don’t like garlic mustard. The stuff spreads like a brush fire and seems headed straight for our lawn; thus I’ve started the four-to-five year process of eliminating it from our yard. It’s notable that some studies showed that outbreaks of garlic mustard didn’t damage species diversity, so the stuff is hardly kudzu. But it’s easily recognizable with its serrated heart-shaped leaves and white cruciform flowers and pulls easily, especially after a rainstorm. I think Connecticut has already lost the battle — or at least is in the process of evolving — because I see it everywhere I go, and who’s going to yank it from public land or along the roadsides and in the abandoned lots? No one. But I mutter a prayer to Saint Jude and pull it anyway.