I Am a River to My People
Lucius Shepard Excerpts
(Posted by Bruce Chrumka)
“The way things happen, not the great movements of time but the ordinary things that make us what we are, the savage accidents of our births, the simple lusts that because of whimsy or a challenge to one's pride become transformed into complex tragedies of love, the heartless operations of change, the wild sweetness of other souls that intersect the orbits of our lives, travel along the same course for a while, then angle off into oblivion, leaving no formal shape for us to consider, no easily comprehensible pattern from which we derive enlightenment...I often wonder why it is when stories are contrived from such materials as these, the storyteller is generally persuaded to perfume the raw stink of life, to replace bloody loss with talk of noble sacrifice, to reduce the grievous to the wistfully sad. Most people, I suppose, want their truth served with a side of sentiment; the perilous uncertainty of the world dismays them, and they wish to avoid being brought hard against it. Yet by this act of avoidance they neglect the profound sadness that can arise from the contemplation of the human spirit in extremis and blind themselves to beauty. The beauty, I mean, that is the iron of our existence. The beauty that enters through a wound, that whispers a black word in our ears at funerals, a word that causes us to shrug off our griever's weakness and say, No more, never again. The beauty that inspires anger, not regret, and provokes struggle, not the idle aesthetic of a beholder. That, to my mind, lies at the core of the only stories worth telling. And that is the fundamental purpose of the storyteller's art, to illumine such beauty, to declare its central importance and make it shine forth from the inevitable wreckage of our hopes and the sorry matter of our decline.
"This, then, is the most beautiful story I know.”
—"Barnacle Bill The Spacer "
“In 1853, in a country far to the south, in a world separated from this one by the thinnest margin of possibility, a dragon named Griaule dominated the region of the Carbonales Valley...”
— "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule"
"What's true remains unknown, what's false is abundantly clear."
— "Dagger Key"
“…well, time has taught me that it too may be an autobiography, not in the sense that it’s a past life, a memory of my passage through the Nineteenth Century, but that it has every bit as much reality as the fiction I am living, a narrative that becomes less real second by second, receding into the past, becoming itself a creation of nostalgia and self-delusion, of poetry and gesture, of shadows and madness and desire.”
— "Rose Street Attractors"
“And so we are born, we breed, we are happy, we are sad, we deal with consequential problems of our own, we have cancer or a car crash, and in the end, our actions prove insignificant. Some will tell you to feel guilt or remorse over the vast inaction of our society is utter foolishness; life, they insist, is patently unfair, and all anyone can do is look out for his own interest. Perhaps they are right; perhaps we are so mired in our self-conceptions that we can change nothing. Perhaps this is the way of the world. But, for the sake of my soul and because I no longer wish to hide my sins behind a guise of mortal incapacity, I tell you it is not.”
— "A Spanish Lesson"
“I was merely wishing that I could forgive myself for knowing, that I could be empty and drifting and high, that I could suffer a magical reversal and, no matter how dismal the circumstances, once again inhabit the unexamined life here in this place of endless possibility, in the city so nice they named it twice, in the borough of sharks and towers.”
— "Skull City"
“Shit happens, like they say. You know how it goes. The cops are looking at you for every nickel-and-dime robbery they can't solve, and the landlady hates your guts for no good reason except she's a good Christian hater, and everything in the world is part of a clock you got to punch or else you'll be docked or fined or sentenced to listen to some ex-doper who thinks he has attained self-mastery explain your behavior as if the reasons you're a loser are a mystery that requires illumination. Otherwise it's been a kicked dog of a week.”
— "Hand’s Up! Who Wants to Die?"
“I know you’re out there, Delta Sly Honey,” he went on. “I can see you clear, walkin’ the high country near Black Virgin Mountains, moving through twists of fog like battle smoke and feeling a little afraid ‘cause though you gone from the world, there’s a world of fear between here and the hereafter. Come back to me, Delta Sly Honey, and tell me how it’s going.” He stopped sending for a bit, and when he received no reply, he spoke again. “Maybe you don’t think I’d understand your troubles, brothers, but I truly do. I know your hopes and fears, and how the spell of too much poison and fire and flyin’ steel warped the chemistry of fate and made you wander off into the wars of the spirit ‘stead of findin’ rest beyond the grave. My soul’s trackin’ you as you move higher and higher toward the peace of everything, passin’ through mortar burst throwin’ up thick gouts of silence, with angels like tracers leadin’ you on listenin’ to the cold white song of incoming stars. Come on back to me, Delta Sly Honey. This here’s your good buddy, Randall J., earthbound at Noc Linh. Do you read?”
There was a wild burst of static and then a voice answered, saying, “Randall J., Randall J.! This is Delta Sly Honey. Readin’ you loud and clear.”
— "Delta Sly Honey"
“I hate this fucking polluted, murderous shithole. Everybody's packing, gangs predominate, the rich travel about with armed bodyguards. I didn't know we were coming here, and it was a bad surprise. Last time I was in the capital, I came close to being robbed in the weekend market next to the soccer stadium. Some guys were trailing me, at any rate. There's a sinister feeling to the streets, or maybe it's just my paranoia. But according to people we talked to there was a gun battle earlier today near Colonia Palmira, the wealthiest neighborhood in the city, a few miles from here. So I'm staying in tonight. There are all kinds of American franchises in Teguz. Tony Romas, Fridays, Wendys, Burger King, KFC, etc, etc. They recently passed a law that franchises are tax-exempt for their first ten years of operation. Aren't American corporations fortunate? I mean, what a lucky break! Anyway, we avoided the franchises and ate at a little restaurant that specialized in these big shishkabobs and pupusas, which are kind of a Honduran calzone. Now here I sit in the hotel bar, my natural environment, with a friend's laptop and a drink. The bar, however, being part of Teguz, also sucks. Half the people in here look like cops; the other half, I'm fairly certain, are hookers. We're next door to a casino, and they come here for a break. The hookers, not the cops. They're all wearing sunglasses at night--the cops, not the hookers. Most of the cops have that cold Latino macho villain thing down. If you lived in this hotel, it'd be like living in a B-movie. Tomorrow, thank Christ, we're out of here.
"They started playing CDs, Latin pop, and so I put on the earphones and am listening to Chris Whitley. Man, that guy was good. There's a line in "Living With the Law": "...They got a romance made for doing time." It reminds me of this bar. I'm also half in the bag. Probably going to bed soon. In the morning we're off to La Ceiba, and from La Ceiba to Miskitia. It'll be grim, but not end-of-days grim like Teguz. No matter how apocalyptic the scene, it'll be more alive than Teguz.
"Tequila is good, especially the expensive blue kind. The bartender just bought me a shot. I don't believe I've ever had a bartender buy me a shot before in Honduras, but then I don't usually stay in the good hotels. We're only staying here this time because we wanted to seem prosperous to the assholes we're dealing with. Anyhow, the bartender...I wonder if he's trying to set me up, if he slipped something into the shot. See? Paranoid. But this is a country where Columbian coke dealers have been operating as the good guys in the post-Felix devastation--they have really fast boats and no fear of being outgunned and it's in their interests to help. Paranoia is inevitable.
"Thanks for the good wishes. I'm off to the airport.”
“Stuck in La Ceiba . . . which beats the hell out of Teguz, but still ain't where I want to be. We may be here through the weekend, and I need to get back by next Friday.
I have a certain affection for La Ceiba. First of all, it's the jumpin' off place for Roatan, an island fabled in story and song--my story and song, anyhow--and secondly, it's a pretty cool place, tropical sleaze abounds, the bars are for real people mainly, the whores and the cops are funkier, gentle breezes play among the palms and when the wind dies white men sweat like old cheese. It is the absolute classic banana town. Standard Fruit de Honduras, a Dole subsidiary, has its headquarters here. Not much tourism, except for the usual run of backpackers, pedophiles come for the kiddies, and people on their way to the Bay Islands.
We’re staying with a guy, a useful guy albeit somewhat deranged, who is/was a successful professional man up in the States (doctor, lawyer, Indian chief—I don’t know who’s reading this and don’t want to compromise him). He’s typical of a kind of ex-pat down here. Has a compound behind a high whitewashed wall topped with broken glass, with guard dogs and automatic rifles (paranoia has become the la turista of the 21st century), and several young indigenous women who serve as cook/maid/sexual providers. He owns a largish boat and has done us favors in the past. If you let him, he’ll talk your ear off about conservative politics, yet down here he lives as a liberal, even performs some acts that might be considered revolutionary. I’ve never figured this out (maybe it’s a cover that’s become a reflex), but there seem to be quite a few people like him down here, kind-hearted assholes—or could be that’s just how I see the human race. The house is nice, if a bit tropical austere. Every wall whitewashed, cheap metal twin beds that squeak when you lie down and sound like Ornette Coleman when used for anything except sleep. Unvarnished wood floors downstairs, pigeons and chickens wander in and out. The living room is the only part of the house that’s decorated. Some locally produced water colors hung about, a few easy chairs, a gun rack, a TV always tuned to the weather—it’s sunny now, but there’s a fifty percent chance of thunderstorms, and I can see clouds moving in from the Picos Bonitos, the hills that hem the town in against the ocean.
I went down near the docks last night and walked along the Avenida de la Republica. It was like old times. The street hasn’t changed that much since I first came here thirty years ago. It was thronged with drunks, whores, vendors, farmboys in new stiff blue jeans and straw hats, the odd gringo, sailors, etc. The air was hot and glossy black, the asphalt shiny with rain, and the bars with their open facades (roll-up corrugated metal walls instead of doors) looked like rows giant tv sets all tuned to the Party Channel. I had a couple of beers, talked to some folks, but my heart wasn’t in it. I’m ready to go to Miskitia.
We’ll be heading to the boat soon. If things are ready, it’ll be quiet this end for a week. If not, I’ll post tomorrow.”
— Reflections on Honduras (Tegucigalpa, La Ceiba) – Sept. 21/22, 2007
“He let the Cuban slump to the floor, but before he could turn loose of the machete, a shudder passed through the body, flowed up the hilt, and vibrated his left hand. It continued to shudder inside his hand, feeling dirty, sexy, like a post-coital tremor. Something, some animal essence, some oily scrap of bad life, was slithering around in there, squirting toward his wrist. He stared at the hand, horrified. It was gloved in the Cuban's blood, trembling. He smashed it against his hip that seemed to stun whatever was inside of it. But within seconds it had revived and was wriggling in and out of his fingers with the mad celerity of a tadpole.”
A Prayer for Elizabeth Elko's Divorce Action
The hour of midnight is the hour of strange guidance.
The stars are diamond pockmarks on a tight black skin,
and serpents burrow like corkscrews into the earth
seeking secret meats packaged in tiny pockets far below,
animals with no names no eyes no souls,
treasures of pure protein.
Wolf spirits howl in the high places
when the wind brings them the scent
of petroleum products, not game.
The Devil is killing Africa.
These things are known to you
who pray for less deliberate a fate,
for release from an old promise
made in a moment of pain,
from a marriage gone sour and yellow
as milk curdled in its carton,
from a life into which you’re fitted
like a clipper ship in a bottle,
plying no current and sailing no sea,
a perfect model of your kind.
The tigers that come at the end
to carry you off, to weave you in and out
like a fiery thread through all the universe,
they care nothing for your heart.
for your sacrifice, for your forsaken dreams.
Their compassion is a knife in winter.
Look up through the foliage of your days
to no god, not even he who keeps lovers apart
by crooking his little finger,
the one with its nail painted black.
Pray to know the things you know
as if they were written in lightnings.
Pray to go forward through the world,
to abandon the stalled suburban utility vehicle
and the soul-killing ancient mortgage.
Pray for this at the hour of strange guidance
when old men in the air-conditioned heaven of their bars
are mesmerized by baseball, presidents, and wars,
and headlights stab out from the void to touch
a young beast emerging from moonshadow,
freezing her to stone, into another twisted figure
carved by wind and magic, forever tormented
by the stillness of her lapsed blood.
Pray for a single drop of undiluted joy
to be slipped into the strong drink of your life.
— A Handbook of American Prayer
Instant replay, ten trillion and two, almost eleven o’clock at night,
Slow motion, living color,
The first fog of burning gases fans out from the solid fuel booster,
A point of livid fire blooms beneath the shuttle, explodes into
marbled smoke and flame.
The seven enter a heretofore undiscovered universe of black suns
with golden hair,
Where the voices of angels are visible as shadowy fans and orchids,
Where birds fly to heaven and back, bearing bits of the Primum
Mobile in their beaks,
And there they enlist in mystic conscious causes with all the other
Voyaging outward on a mission too unfathomable to be
entrusted to the living.
Or so it is to be hoped.
-- "Challenger as Viewed from the Westerbrook Bar"
“The things that came to him then were not the things that he would have assumed he would remember, the memorial moments, the birthdays, the promotions, the successes, but were lesser, brighter, and more convivial bits of living. Eating fish stew from a can on a Marseilles dock and trading insults with the fishermen. Spending a night in a cave in the sun-browned, god-thronged hills above Corinth. Drunk in the company of other students, diving into the Seine off the morning bridges to impress a girl. Another girl with whom he had lived for a summer, a dancer in one of those tiny family circuses that passed back and forth across Europe like gaudy platoons; the kid from Reims who sold him a gold watch without any works inside; the lady who invited him in when he had been hiking near Strasbourg, cooked him a meal, prayed over him for an hour, and then - as if this had effected a sufficient purification - took his virginity; the old soldier serving now as a cook in a country inn near Avignon who had prepared fresh trout with mushrooms and told bloodcurdling tales of the Napoleonic wars. Meeting a woman who had just been released from an asylum in Quercy and claimed she was on her way to keep a rendezvous with her dead husband in a bistro near Les Halles; meeting a group of albino children whose parents were educating them to be psychics; meeting a priest who hated God, a Gypsy who refused to read his cards, a drunken dog trainer whose trick-performing animals had been stolen. Wrestling a giant in Irun and getting his arm broken. Going to the cockfights in Salamanca, a night under olive trees lit by torches, and winning a thousand pesetas on a black cock whose guts at the end had hung from his belly like fringe off a general's epaulets. The great cathedral in Koln where he first heard The Messiah; a cantina near San Sebastian where cryptic designs were painted on the doors to ward off evil, as if evil were an incompetent lout who might be sent fleeing by the sight of a few daubs of color and some misspelled Latin words; a riverboat owned by a young widow whose windows were all of stained glass and whose walls were illuminated by crude murals of the saints; a waterfront bar in Calais where one night, while having his first after-dinner calvados, he watched a ten-year old girl pierce her cheek with steel needles in return for whatever change the patrons tossed her way.”
— The Golden
“I remember little about the creation of this story, mainly because I was under the influence of the neighborhood where I wrote it. I lived during the early and mid-Eighties in the Georgetown area of Staten Island, the neighborhood closest to the ferry terminal, on Westervelt Avenue, a street that aspired to be a crime wave and was populated by drug dealers, hookers, small-time monsters, a few brave souls who considered themselves the vanguard of a movement toward gentrification and would talk rebar with you for hours, and, oddly enough, a handful of genre folks: the horror writer Craig Spector, Beth Meacham and Tappan King (at the time, editors at Berkley and Twilight Zone respectively), me, and Maureen McHugh, all living within a block of one another.
"Two townhouses down from me was a crack house, its front yard littered with rusted lawn-chairs and motorcycle parts, run by a fake Rasta guy from Brooklyn, Nicky, who had dropped a dime on someone higher up the food chain and in exchange had been given carte blanche by the cops. Every morning the school-kids would stop by for their rocks and sometimes the cops would pass the house and wave to Nicky, who—the soul of expansiveness—would return the salute. He also ran an illegal taxi service and maintained a string of hookers who operated out of the abandoned cars along New York Bay, and most nights would get into screaming fights on the street out front of my house. Drug dealers wearing Just Say No T-shirts made plaintive cries beneath my window at every hour of the day. I handwrote most of a novel called “Kingsley’s Labyrinth,” stopping only when I realized I had filled eleven notebooks with an indecipherable script that resembled seismograph readings, and I hung out with people whom I would normally run from—Uzi-toting Cubans and so forth. There were frequent gunshots and each morning when I walked out, my footsteps crunched due to the empty crack vials littering the sidewalks—it was as if a kind of glassine hail had fallen during the night.
"My downstairs neighbor, a beautiful black transsexual named Renee, constantly fought with me over her right to play Connie Francis albums on her deck beneath my bedroom window at 6 AM, an argument ended when someone cut her throat, broke all her LPs, slashed her pretty blouses and put bleach in her fish tank. These and other neighborhood tragedies came to occupy my attention, and I grew increasingly paranoid and unsound. The then-New York City mayor, Ed Koch, would once a month herd together a bunch of the most deranged homeless people in Manhattan and ship them over to Staten Island on a late-night ferry—his way of cleaning up the city. We’d wake the next morning to find a fresh crop of schizophrenics wandering the streets, talking to the CIA, to aliens, making phone calls to heaven. Most drifted back to Manhattan, but a few took up residence, including this one guy who was given a home by someone and spent considerable time building a life-sized, authentic-looking electric chair and would every Fourth of July weekend would drag said chair out onto the traffic island on Victory Boulevard, strap himself in and grin at the commuters. No one to my knowledge tried to stop him—it was as if the authorities accepted this as an appropriate comment. To top it all off I was dating an apparently level-headed business woman who, three weeks into the relationship, started breaking into my apartment to clean it and one night announced that she was a ninja and capable of starting fires with her eyes. We didn’t last too long. In my condition, the last thing I wanted was a woman who could incinerate me on a whim.
— "The Dragon Griaule (Story Notes: The Father of Stones)"
“Between two department stores, two great, diffuse masses of white light, there’s an alley, a doorway, a dark interval of some sort, and as they pass, Mears draws Arlene into it and pulls her tightly to him, needing a moment to get his bearings. The blackness of street and sky is so uniform, it looks as if you could walk a bleak curve up among the blinking red and green lights and as Arlene’s breasts flatten against him, he feels like he is going high, like it feels when the man in the tuxedo tells you that you’ve won and the pain is washed away by perfect exhilaration and sweet relief. Then, as if jolted by the sound of the bell, he steps out into the crowds, becoming part of them, just another fool with short money and bad health and God knows what kind of woman trouble, who in another time might have been champion of the world.”
— "Beast of the Heartland"
“An emotion swelled in my breast, nourished beyond that fundamental vista, and I felt, as I had not in years, capable of belief, of hope, of seeing beyond myself. Jane linked her arm through mine and rested her head against my shoulder, and whispered something that the wind bore away. And for that moment, for those minutes atop the hill, we were as happy as the unhappiness of the world permits.”
— "Rose Street Attractors"
“Anecdotes about El Salvador? I hardly know where to begin. Most of my anecdotes about Salvador are personal. I worked as a stringer down there in '81, 82 and I saw shit I didn't need to see. Salvador put the brakes on my becoming a War Tourist, one of the journalism guys--guys like the ever loathsome Peter Arnett--who book from pisshole to pisshole just so they can snort the fumes. I was getting to the point where I liked that kind of action. But Salvador was demonic, as I imagine Chechnya and Serbia-Croatia must have been. People weren't just killed, they were turned into Devil art. Once this friend of mine, her daughter turned up missing, and since the daughter was political, she was worried the death squads might have taken her. We used contacts at the prison to learn is she was there. We searched at El Playon and other places where bodies were commonly dumped. Nothing. Days went by. My friend was freaking out. She kept hoping that her daughter had fled to Mexico. About a week passed. She went to the butcher shop and bought some ground beef. The butcher wrapped it up for her. She took it home and when she unwrapped it, she found two of her daughter's fingers, identifiable by rings, stuffed into the meat. The guy who arranged this atrocity was an army officer with the nickname of Satan. One of Robert Daubisson's main men. Daubisson, as you may recall, was the head of the death squads who ran for president. We supported him. Satan's best known prank is the murder of six priests in the cathedral at San Salvador. Not only did he have them tortured and killed inside the church, he had his men remove their brains. Who knows what he did with the brains. There's a lot of weird religious shit down there. Maybe the act had some ritual purpose, maybe it was a whim. Satan was unpredictable that way.
"The worst thing I saw was a flight of US Air Cav choppers land outside a village in the hills of Morazan province. They disgorged a small force of Salvadorian troops and a handful of American-looking men with military haircuts and civilian clothes, carrying side-arms. The Americans stayed outside the village with a couple of officers. The rest of the troop entered the village. We heard a few gunshots. After about 45 minutes, one of the troops came and beckoned to the officers, the Americans, who followed him into the village. Maybe a half hour passed. Then there was scattered gunfire. Then they all left the village, got into the choppers, all grinning and shit, and flew away. I watched this through binocs from a hilltop with two members of the FMLN, guerrillas, who had been taking me to that village to hook up another group. I'm not gonna get into graphic detail about what we found in the village. I'll just say that the majority died by bayonet and knife slash. Most of the young women had been tortured and shot. Some of the children had been drowned in a trough. But this kind of relation is meaningless unless viewed in context with what was going on at the time in the hemisphere. It was morning in America, but in Central America it was the witching hour. The slaughter of hundreds of thousands was drawing to an end in Guatemala, and the second most popular political party, a party that many said really held most of the power, was the Party of Organized Violence. In Guatemala City, NAFTA without the official sanction of the name was running all the mills and factories. I interviewed the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Guatemala City at his textile plant and as we walked he pointed to his workers and said proudly, "These people'll work 15, 16 hours with asking for a break. They don't care about any of those environmental things.” In Nicaragua, the contras were using kidnapped El Salvadorian teenagers whom they tortured in Honduras until their wills were broken as snipers, and the boys targeted teachers and social workers in the rural sections of the country, gradually destroying the recovery of a country who had suffered not only through a civil war but also volcanic eruptions and a major earthquake. In Costa Rica, the CIA was funneling cocaine into the States, constructing airstrips there and in Honduras though which to funnel cocaine into the US to fund the contras, orchestrating the slaughter of thousands of Indians. In Panama, working hand in hand with the gov’t, field ops were facilitating a cocaine presidency, and the School of the Americas in Boca del Toro was churning out highly trained internal security troops to serve in death squads and quick strike forces. The shadow of the United States was spreading over Central America like the shadow of Mordor. Atrocity was the rule of law. It was the weather people lived. When you were down it, though horrid, it also smacked of the ordinary, the expected...uh, I don't think I want to write any more about this today.
"I had a root canal the other day, which went badly, which is why I'm not working (painkillers). I've been thinking about personal stuff, and about King's The Night Flier, which could have been a cool story if it hadn't been overburdened with pop culture elements and was at least partly narrated from the vampire's POV...but I keep coming back to this thread. So yeah, Michael, I think that our self-absorption, our cluelessness, was once more-or-less the product of our nation's youthful aggressiveness, but since has become consciously induced, both self-induced and media-induced, the latter being the heavy blinding from which it will be all but impossible to emerge. I don't doubt that there is also at work the natural human inclination to look away from anything that may disturb his peace of mind, his moral satisfactions, but the corporate media dumb down of the country that's been going on for a while, that's been accelerated since the OJ trial, since that event effectively ratified the news-as-entertainment philosophy that was gaining credence in the biz...that's the culprit we have to struggle against now, and I don't see anyone struggling too hard.
"It’s not just a blindness to the Third World. Look what's happening to our troops. They go over to Iraq, they die, and Bush tells the media to shoot no footage of coffins, flag-draped or otherwise. Downplay the dead. Wounded troops are forced to pay for hospital meals. The men are treated like shit and yet the nation still sees Bush as this patriotic soldier boy and not the grasping business monkey that he is, because that's how the media paints him. Right now the media is the greatest cultural villain going....
"Gotta get to work here. More later.”
— "Reflections on El Salvador"
“However, it is said of her – as is said of all those who perform similar acts of faith in the shadows of other dragons yet unearthed from beneath their hills of ordinary seeming earth and grass, believing that their bond serves through gentle constancy to enhance and not further delimit the boundaries of this prison world – from that day forward she lived happily ever after. Except for the dying at the end. And the heartbreak in between.”
— "The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter"
“Of my many failings, the most galling was that I had wasted my gifts on genre fiction. I could have achieved much more, I believed, had I not gone for the easy money but, like Cradle Two, had been faithful to my muse. Typically, I didn't count myself to blame but assigned blame to the editors and agents who had counseled me, to the marketers and bean counters who had delimited me, and to the people with whom I had surrounded myself—wives and girlfriends, my fans, my friends. They had dragged me down to their level, seduced me into becoming a populist. I saw them in my mind's eye overflowing the chambers of my life, the many rooms of my mansion, all the rooms in fantasy and science fiction, all the crowded, half-imaginary party rooms clotted with people who didn't know how to party, who failed miserably at it and frowned at those few who could and did, and yearned with their whole hearts to lose control, yet lacked the necessary passionate disposition; all the corridors of convention hotels packed with damaged, overstuffed women, their breasts cantilevered and contoured into shelf-like projections upon which you could rest your beer glass, women who chirped about Wicca, the Tarot, and the Goddess and took the part of concubine or altar-slut in their online role-playing games; all the semi-beautiful, equally damaged, semiprofessional women who believed they themselves were goddesses and concealed dangerous vibrators powered by rats' brains in their purses and believed that heaven could be ascended to from the tenth floor of the Hyatt Regency in Boston, yet rejected permanent residence there as being unrealistic; all the mad, portly men with their bald heads and beards and their eyeballs in their trouser pockets, whose wives caught cancer from living with them; all the dull hustlers who blogged ceaselessly and MacGyvered a career out of two ounces of talent, a jackknife, and a predilection for wearing funny hats, and humped the legs of their idols, who blogged ceaselessly and wore the latest fashions in the emperor's new clothes and talked about Art as if he were a personal friend they had met through networking, networking, networking, building a fan base one reader at a time; all the lesser fantasists with their fantasies of one day becoming a famous corpse like Andre Breton and whose latest publications came to us courtesy of Squalling Hammertoe Woo Hoo Press and who squeezed out pretentious drivel from the jerk-off rags wadded into their skulls that one or two Internet critics had declared works of genius, remarking on their verisimilitude, saying how much they smelled like stale ejaculate, so raw and potent, the stuff of life itself; all the ultra-successful commercial novelists (I numbered myself amongst them) whose arrogance cast shadows more substantial than anything they had written and could afford, literally, to treat people like dirt; all the great men and women of the field (certain of them, anyway), the lifetime achievers who, in effect, pursed their lips as if about to say "Percy" or "piquant" when in public, fostering the impression that they squeezed their ass-cheeks together extra hard to produce work of such unsurpassed grandiloquence . . . Many of these people were my friends and, as a group, when judged against the entirety of the human mob, were no pettier, no more disagreeable or daft or reprehensible. We all have such thoughts; we find solace in diminishing those close to us, though usually not with so much relish. And while I kept on vilifying them, spewing my venom, I recognized they were not to blame for my deficiencies and that I was the worst of them all. I had all their faults, their neuroses, their foibles, and then some—I knew myself to be a borderline personality with sociopathic tendencies, subject to emotional and moral disconnects, yet lacking the conviction of a true sociopath. The longer I contemplated the notion, the more persuaded I was to embrace the opinion espoused in The Tea Forest that Thomas Cradles everywhere were men of debased character. The peculiar thing was, I no longer took this judgment for an insult.”
— Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life
“It's raining now, a gray, driving rain that seems a form of dire interference, a chaos of streaks and smears that occludes the transmission of some universal pattern, and a heavier weather yet is beginning to lower around me. Indeed, it has been drawing closer and closer for several days. I am frequently visited by a din of voices, a tumult of colors, of tactile impressions. Odd fluttering things appear in mid-air and vanish when I try to see them clearly. My eyes deny the rightness of once familiar shapes, and strange logics assail my brain. Even now the world is growing tenuous, becoming a place whose only sense is the distorted sense I contrive of it. Birds with shattered glass eyes are plucking a rusty music from the barbed wires atop the asylum wall, and the shadows in my room bend toward me with the benedictive air of black saints. Everything is moving, shifting, aligning itself to the new conformation of my spirit. Gravity will be a dream, history a song, sex a white flower the size of heaven. The love I feel at this moment is the delirious love of a martyr whose soul is a suicide, perfect, without direction and soon I will welcome the stupendous loss of feeling that not even the knives of light can pierce.”
— "The Last Time"
“Been watching a lot of post-mortems on the election and pretty much every show I turn to features a perky blond GOP woman in a red power dress spinning her heart out -- but cracks are starting to show. Their relentless talking point spiels have been getting loopier and loopier. Take a show last night -- this one woman was trying to defend Romney's shifting stance on abortion and all of sudden she gets this terrified look and becomes incoherent for a brief period and then starts babbling about fracture plate drilling (I think that's what she said, anyway). The host had to cut her off and I could just see some guy offstage, her handler, talking on his cell phone, telling someone they were going to have to get her back into the factory because she was in need of re-wiring. I assume there's a factory -- otherwise there wouldn't be so many nearly identical models. And I expect there's a massive room inside the factory with soothing piped-in music, pastel walls, and it's filled with blonds in red dresses doing robotic things, walking into walls, talking nonsense, their hands moving mechanically up and down, their heads jerking side to side, and all smiling non-stop while a dude in a lab coat walks around, marking the hopeless ones with a red slash that signifies their imminent destruction. They keep turning up on the political shows, these women, acting more and more desperate and spewing their rote lunacy --the election was lost because of Sandy, because Romney wasn't conservative enough, because whir buzz click skreeeek mama I'm coming time to die because Chris Christie is a race traitor, because serpents inhabit the moon. Someone should help these women. Start a charity or something. Save The Power Blonds. Save Our Blonde Spinners – SOBS. But then, maybe they'll be OK. Maybe all they need is some quiet time, a nice lie-down, and before too long they'll emerge from their rooms wearing lace peignoirs, clutching to their breasts the little bundles of joy to which they've given birth, litter after litter of infant Ann Coulters.”
— "Election Post-Mortem"
“She smelled of violets and derangement.”
— "Skull City"
“You can actually feel yourself growing stupider while you watch Daredevil. As the bright and dark flicker-flickers on the screen, you have a growing sense of vacancy and agitation such as a chicken might endure when it realizes its legs are bound, it’s on a moving conveyer belt, and something sharp up ahead is flashing down and doing truly creepy things to other chickens. You’re not suggesting here that seeing Daredevil would prove fatal, but the vagueness and frail apprehensiveness that come after suffering through it seem redolent of—at the least—a Near-Death Experience.”
— "Flat Affleck"
Whatever the case, white trains move silent
as thought through the empty field,
voyaging from nowhere to nowhere,
taking on no passengers, violating no regulation
other than the idea of order,
and once they have passed we shake our heads,
returning to the mild seasons of our lives,
and perhaps for a while we cling more avidly to love and loves,
realizing that we inhabit a medium of small magical transformations
that like overcoats can insulate us
against the onset of heartbreak weather,
hoping at best to end in a thunder of agony
and prayer that will move us down through
archipelagoes of silver light to a morbid fairy tale
wherein we will labor like dwarves
at the question of forever,
and listen to a grumbling static from above
that may or may not explain in some mystic tongue
the passage of white trains.
— White Trains
“I flirted with cocaine for ten years before I finally got serious about her. I met her at parties, we had intimate moments, and yet I always went home with someone else. She was patient, though, knowing that one day my life would grow suddenly empty, as all lives do from time to time, and I would be ready for the wounds and rituals of her affections. And when at last that day came, following the suicide of my teenage son, the child of an unfortunate marriage, I found her waiting faithfully for me. It may seem a conceit to refer to cocaine as a woman, to personify an addiction, but cocaine is the drug with soft hands and a lover’s touch, with a personality in which the submissive and the manipulative become mingled, with a mental accent of compulsion and sexuality such as attends the deepest of emotional involvements, and my usage of her had the obsessive single-mindedness and convulsed introspection of a man overwhelmed by an unhappy passion.”
- The ‘Velt (first draft), Seattle, December, 1999
“…where I parted company with the old man and caught the bus north, sadder and wiser, free both of hate and love, though not of trouble, returning home to the ends of the earth.”
— "The Ends of the Earth"
This bunch of neckties drop into the bar for a boost before dinner
and start bullshitting about the war like it was the NFL or something,
tossing off casualty figures, arguing tactics, and I’m amused, right,
So I pull up a chair and say I’d be glad to fill them in about the war, because
I can’t stand to let ignorance flourish…which sets them to muttering.
but before they can work up real hostility, I order a round of drinks
and get to talking about the time the patrol was on recon in Nicaragua,
following the course of the Patuca through thick mountain jungle,
just after a flight of Russian choppers had laid down a cloud of gas.
I found myself alone, feeling relaxed, grinning like a saved Christian.
I’d never been at home in the jungle, but there I was, spacing on the scenery,
wondering why orchids had faces and monkeys were screaming my
and not a bit worried by the fact that the rest of the patrol had vanished.
— Pictures Made of Stone
1 — At the age of 13 I knocked my father out when he tried to beat me and hid from the cops in a Baptist Church under construction, which may have been responsible for me feeling that God had marked me for breaking a taboo. I spent the bulk of Christmas day in a holding cell at the county jail, where a middle-aged guy charged with manslaughter taught me how to make a cigarette rolling machine out of a plastic Gillette razor case.
2 — Aboard an Irish freighter in a storm in the middle of the North Atlantic, the ship tossed about by huge waves, heading for Belfast. Christmas night we drank with the radio officer in his cabin (he'd written several Fawcett Gold Medal paperbacks, detective novels), watching a barometer suspended on the wall swing back and forth between two marks, coming to within an eighth of an inch away from each. I asked what would happen if the barometer touched one of the marks and he told me the ship would go over. I realized an eighth of an inch on the wall equated to far more in actual distance, but it brought home the notion (corny, but it has stood me in good stead ever since) that we're all an eighth of an inch away from oblivion at every moment of our lives.
3 — On location, a Roman epic being shot in a valley in Asturias--my first wife and I were extras (I was a Goth, she was a camp follower) paid five dollars a day, living with hundreds of other extras in a tent city that doubled in the film as a Roman encampment. In the late afternoon we took a sleeping bag and climbed up on the hillside to get some privacy, and when we came back down at twilight we found that almost everyone had put on their costumes and were engaged in Bacchanalia.
4 — A Belgian girl named Renee, with whom I planned to go to India, and I smoked ourselves stupid, watching the patterns on the blue and white tiles on our hotel room walls shift from one configuration to another. Around noon AM we took a streetcar out to the Cairo Zoo and sat drinking lemon sodas at a cafe in the zoo center, watching the crowds. That night we attended a party in the Khan Al Khalili bazaar at some rich Egyptian's place, an event of which I recall very little, only that I woke up back in the hotel with a girl named Tracy and that Renee had gone off with someone else. Two days later I asked Tracy if she wanted to go to India.
5 — Outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, snowed in, my second wife, myself and my four-year-old son. We couldn't even get out of the driveway, and thus, with no demented uncles, racist cousins, or psychopaths of various stripe to interfere, we had our happiest Christmas ever in our little country cottage.
6 — My band was stuck in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Xmas Eve because of a blizzard. We started drinking in a dive bar around six PM and were joined by about a dozen men and women who had been laid off from a big department store, given their pink slips on Christmas Eve, and were in a foul mood. Their pissed off-edness and our depression meshed in a good way, and we kept the party going early into Christmas Day at our hotel. Nothing really changed, just the one night, but that was more than any of us expected.
7 — Tibet. A village not far from Dolpo. Little twisting rocky streets, stone houses with slate roofs and black mastiffs barking atop them. Thunder and snow falling. My wife and I felt abandoned by the familiar and very far from home, so we went and drank beer with the Chinese cadre, the sole law in the place. We talked about America, we exaggerated its bounty and its villainy. He was so drunk he understood only about every fourth or fifth word, even though my wife spoke Tibetan. "Oh yes," he kept saying, and laughing. "Oh my, yes!"
8 — A tiny mountain village in Morazan Province, El Salvador. Clouds had moved in during Christmas Eve and you could scarcely see a foot in front of you. Banana leaves stirred like feelers in the white mist. I sat outside a little whitewashed house, while beside me a 14-year-old girl cleaned her rifle and two gnomish children passed a paper sack back and forth, its bottom soaked with glue. It was like a dream someone else was having about the world I lived in.
9 — Christmas day, I went with my girlfriend Katie to Siddha Yoga Dam temple on Staten Island to reclaim the last of her possessions. She had been a cult member. The Swami, Swami Guruja, persuaded us to stay for dinner, which was very good--I have to say that religious fanatics in general make great cooks and interior decorators. During dinner the Swami became belligerent and started to call Katie "wanton”. I began calling him Swami Kruckerman (He was a Jewish guy from Brooklyn) and threatened his life. Walking home, past the crack houses and hookers on Westervelt Avenue, there were so many empty crack vials on the sidewalks, it was like a kind of glassine hail we crunched underfoot. We stowed Katie's stuff in my apartment and went into Manhattan, where we found a room in a midtown hotel and drank vodka in a Russian restaurant in the Village until Staten Island was a distant continent and New York Bay an ocean.
10 — Phnom Penh. Met friends at the world's greatest bar, The Foreign Press Club, which looks like the bar every Hollywood set designer assigned to a far eastern project has been trying to get right forever and keeps getting wrong. That evening had my fortune told by a famous fortune teller, his shop at Wat Phnom a masterpiece of kitsch, neon and day-glo Buddhas and so on. He advised me not to seek happiness, to strive for accomplishment instead. That night I ignored the advice and strived for both and a taxi girl stole my passport. Yet still I try.
Have a great one!
— (10 Christmases)
“Here it comes,” I whispered. “Here. It. Comes.”
“ Waldrop, a man to whom truth has the alchemical valence of a red goat dressed in a Chicago Bulls sweatshirt sitting on a hillside, watching a burning city, moves like a technicolored shadow through the literary underclass of science fiction, either its first saint or its most relevant madman.”
— Introduction: Going Home Again by Howard Waldrop – “Some Varieties of Approach Toward an Introduction to the Fiction of Howard Waldrop, or… Three Shots of Sour Mash and a Beer Back”
"You're shocked to discover America is a racist cesspool? Really? Wow, where did you think you were living? An alternate America where all the people are purple and everyone is in love? I grew up in Florida, not too far from Sanford. It's a truck farming region, the high school sports teams used to be called the Celeryfeds--essentially it was a redneck town. In recent years it's gained a bullshit veneer of sophistication, but it remains at heart an extension of the Florida Panhandle, which is your basic rifle rack in a pick-up truck country.
"What disgusts me most about the Zimmerman verdict is not the result, not the stunning incompetence of the prosecutors, but the fact that so many have seized upon the case as a cause celebre, an opportunity to beat their breasts and excoriate the other team... because that's what the case became, a sporting event in which people who normally don't give much of a shit developed a rooting interest, buying Trayvon Hoodies and Free George T-shirts, and now that the trial is over, most of the millions who bemoaned and bewailed or cheered and yeehah-ed will completely forget about the whole sorry mess, after first mouthing some garbage about how we all need to come together and heal. Are you kidding? Heal? After all the man in the street interviews have played out, people parroting what some idiot pundit opined on the tube, the trailer park moms and suburban housewives will stop exclaiming to their best friends about Evil George, suck down a few gin-and-Frescas, switch channels from MSNBC or CNN, and go back to watching their stories. As for the men in their lives...well, hey, it's almost football season son and that should clog their moral arteries sufficiently, so they can comfortably ignore the thousands of kids who get offed in the good ol' US of A every year. No healing is necessary and coming together is not an option.
"Of course us intellectual types are better than that. We'll carry on for a couple of weeks, anyway, before the normal racial weather returns and our outrage will lie becalmed.
"A lot of us in this little corner of Facebook are writers. If you are truly outraged about this, might I suggest that you don't let yourself become prisoners of the news cycle and write about race, guns, some element of what has pissed you off. It may not do any good but you never know—if enough people make the effort, the spark might catch a fire. A major reason why the country—hell, the world—is in such a state is that people have stopped trying to effect change in places like the USA. We use events like the Zimmerman trial to voice our frustration, but most of us don't have the moral stamina to sustain our passion. You know. "the best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity." That has to change before anything else can change. Carpe diem, baby, or else this moment will pass without lasting memorial just as has the outrage over the massacre in Connecticut.
"Over and out."
“During my adolescence, despite being exposed to television documentaries depicting men wearing ponytails and wife-beater undershirts, their weightlifter chests and arms spangled with homemade tattoos, any mention of prison always brought to my mind a less vainglorious type of criminal, an image derived, I believe, from characters in the old black-and-white movies that prior to the advent of the infomercial tended to dominate television's early morning hours: smallish, gray-looking men in work shirts and loose-fitting trousers, miscreants who—although oppressed by screws and wardens, victimized by their fellows—managed to express, however inarticulately, a noble endurance, a working class vitality and poetry of the soul. Without understanding anything else, I seemed to understand their crippled honor, their Boy Scout cunning, their Legionnaire's willingness to suffer. I felt in them the working of a desolate beatitude, some secret virtue of insularity whose potentials they alone had mastered.”
“Soon they would have to confront a world devoid of magic; soon they would have to speak, to break the spell of heated silence woven by the dragon’s circling flight; and they would win at love, or they would lose. And loss was probable, for love is an illusion with the fragility of glass and light, whose magic must constantly be renewed.”
— The Glassblower’s Dragon
“There are legends in the pit.”
— "Only Partly Here"
“Having trouble sleeping, I find myself considering the topic of true love and fiction, which have been mainstays of my life, its constants. All stories, in one way or another, are love stories. Even the misdeeds of the vilest, most despicable characters are perversions of love or, perhaps better said, are expressions of love's perversity, sublimations of love into acts of murder and violence. When I wrote Viator, I knew I was writing a love story, a very personal story, yet in the midst of writing, the underlying story, the personal love story, hit a bump and--perhaps partially as a result of this--I suffered a breakdown and was unable to finish the book to my satisfaction. Coming back to the book a year later, having added twenty thousand words thus far, it's been a very weird experience. I'd been through a lot, clinical depression, the apparent loss of half my vision, and one would have thought that some bitterness might attach. Such was my assumption. I assumed that I would not finish the book as I had hoped, that it would be a hybrid of what I had felt and what I had undergone. I had not worked out an ending, I had no idea where the story was going. But as I proceeded I realized, I knew with absolute certainty that I was writing the book exactly as it was originally intended to be, as if the story had kept itself alive in the back of my brain through a year-long hiatus, without any oxygen to sustain it, without any sort of fuel, and was spinning itself out, desperate to get onto paper before it became exhausted. The power of narrative at work, or the power of love? Both, I think. The two have become so intertwined in me during the writing of this book, I don't think I could ever write a story again without it being an act of love, of love given specifically. It's as if, like the lentivirus that bonds with my protagonist's DNA, a different sort of virus has bonded with my drive to tell, to narrate. We all tell stories about ourselves. We lie, we embellish, we embroider. We don't understand much. We're flimsy as the paper we're printed on. We have to tell these half-truths about ourselves to survive, to keep breathing. Those of us who don't do this are bad writers. More pertinently, the inner voice that captions our existence is a narrative voice, and is intimately involved in this process. We cannot look at ourselves without wearing a mask that helps to sustain the shape of an acceptable face. Viator, the narrative, no matter how "good" it is, has saved me from myself, from my base instincts, by expressing what I truly felt, what I feel, unadulterated by notions of injury or injured pride, unalloyed by any residue of pain, by showing me the purity of those feelings. In effect, I have become my narrative, entered into my own story and become inextricably bonded with it.
"This is rough, and I don't know where it's going, but I'm going to leave it up and maybe add to it from time to time. Maybe it'll wind up meaning something.
— "Reflections on Viator Redux"
“There were, she said, rivers that sprang from enormous crystals, birds with teeth, bats as large as eagles, cave cities, wizards, winged men who inhabited the thin Andean air. It was a place of evil grandeur, and at its heart, its ruler, was the dead Hitler, his body uncorrupting, his death a matter of conjecture, his terrible rule maintained by a myriad of servants in hope of his rebirth.”
— "A Spanish Lesson"
"He hewed to this logic, letting it build an inspiring edifice within him, gothic and noble, with great arches and vaults into which he could pour his faith, a statue of a redheaded Virgin upon its altar, and, hearing the faint sounds of pursuit at his back, with love in his heart, he began to run."