Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A Return to Cozy Dystopia

I'm back again after a month, but this probably won't last very long. There's always so much to do until there isn't anymore. I last wrote about the concept of the cozy dystopia in art. This is in contrast to the more common dark dystopia, exemplified, I think, in Blade Runner (1982), Brazil (1985), and the less well known Batman: Digital Justice (1990). The cozy dystopia is one in which things are clean, bright, and shiny, yet society and people's lives within it, all creations and outward manifestations of the State, are perfectly awful. In Cozy Dystopia, everyone has what he needs except a chance at happiness.

In my conception of it, the cozy dystopia runs parallel to Brian Aldiss' cosy catastrophe. Examples of the cosy catastrophe are pretty easy to come by. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959) is one. In thinking about it over the past few weeks, I have come up with a possible cozy dystopia, too. It is described in Player Piano by a fellow Hoosier, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Originally published in 1952, Player Piano has been reprinted many times, in English, Italian, German, French, and even Croatian. I had read a few years back about this book and eagerly sought it out. When I finally found a copy, I dove in and there began a long, long slog through one of the most boring and event-free books I have ever known. I suppose the eventlessness in Player Piano is in keeping with the idea of the dystopian society, which is, after all, one of complete stasis. Or, as D-503, the protagonist in We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, explains to the rebel and his soon-to-be lover, I-330:
"It is inconceivable! It is absurd! Is it not clear to you that what you are planning is a revolution? Absurd because a revolution is impossible! Because our--I speak for myself and for you--our revolution was the last one. No other revolutions may occur. Everybody knows that."
In other words, there can be no revolution after the one that introduces a completely stable and eventless dystopia into the world. 

* * *

By the way, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932) and Logan's Run (1976) might also be called cozy dystopias. In Logan's Run, as in our world of today, there is even a Tinder-like machine called "the circuit" for choosing sexual partners: in the dystopian future as in the world of today, the individual human being is both objectified and commodified. Reduced in the mind of the user to mere material, the object of his desire is literally materialized within and by "the circuit."

* * *

I wrote before about the bread-and-circuses component of the cozy dystopia. In thinking about these things since then, I remember that the place of origin of the bread (i.e., food) and circuses (i.e., entertainment) that currently arrive in such vast supply on our doorsteps is called a "fulfillment center." Yes, you will be fulfilled by buying more stuff, so keep at it, America. Keep climbing that asymptotic slope towards the mountaintop of your happiness.

* * *

So, I wrote last about dystopia. In the interim we have had instead in the real world a taste of apocalypse. The mob has emerged from all of its dark, fetid places and has fallen upon us like a horde of zombies, bent on our destruction. Dystopia and apocalypse are interrelated--there can be no doubt of that. In much of our popular culture, the latter precedes the former. Anthem by Ayn Rand (1938) is a good example of this. Sometimes dystopia grows out of apocalyptic conditions: the aspiring dystopian ruler simply takes advantage of disaster and disorder to construct his perfectly awful society upon the ruins of the previous, far less awful one. Other times, the tyrant and his minions actually bring about the destruction of the preceding society so as to build their new, dystopian version in its place, complete with a calendar reset to Year Zero. That seems to be the aim of our current breed of aspiring tyrants. Apocalypse first, then Dystopia. We have seen people like them before. We will again. We can gain some comfort in knowing that they have always been and always will be defeated. Nevertheless, we should know this: although reality may be arrayed against them, we can't really count on it to defeat them by itself, not, that is, without the customary heaps of rotting bodies, deep, vast mass graves, and chains of miserable gulags stretching from sea to shining sea. We have to take an active part in their defeat if we are to head these things off.

* * *

You're not supposed to give advice to your enemies, but the zombie hordes running through our streets, universities, and television studios should know two things. One is a lesson from history, and it is this: although you as a revolutionary may be the one pulling the trigger today, tomorrow you will be the one facing the firing squad. That's not just a figure of speech: it will really happen, as it has happened before. (Why do progressives always think they're doing something new?) Just ask the ghosts of Trotsky and Robespierre. In the worlds of art and entertainment, Jimmy Kimmel and J.K Rowling have had the mob turn upon them. Margaret Atwood, too, I think. Yesterday these people were progressives. Today they are dangerous reactionaries and counterrevolutionaries. The mob is unlikely to rest until they are destroyed, or at least rendered non-persons, or persons of little or no consequence. Just past his allotted threescore-and-ten, Stephen King has been cowed and now speaks nonsense so as to conform to the mob's orthodoxy. In the process he has made himself inconsequential as an artist and thinker. He probably imagines that he has saved himself. He should know, though, that his time before the firing squad will come, too. It's just that instead of tomorrow, it will happen the day after tomorrow. In any event, we might feel sorry for Mr. Kimmel, Ms. Rowling, and others like them who have been hoisted with their own petards. Then again, we might not.

The other thing that the zombie hordes and their tyrant-leaders might want to know is that there is a poison pill in each of us, poison, that is, to those who aspire to control us. However hard they might try to impose dystopia upon us, they must always fail because we each have within us the means of their destruction: each one of us alone has greater power than the entire State. Imagine that. Here is the explanation: Because the State is made by man, it is trapped within time and cannot endure. The spirit and nature of the individual, on the other hand, made as they are by something greater than man, exist outside of time and are thus eternal and imperishable. The Progressive believes otherwise of course, that the Perfect State is the end point of History and will thus last forever in its unchanging condition, also that the individual human being is negligible and eradicable, his spirit extinguishable.* The poison pill is of course our freedom, that unalienable, inseparable, and irrepressible condition of our very existence. The tyrant may have his run and murder millions, but in the end human freedom always wins and he is undone.

* * *

Sex, too, is a poison pill, a passion so great that it always undermines the efforts of the State. That's why the State always seeks to control it. See Orwell's 1984 or Anthony Burgess' 1985 for explications of the State's antipathy to sex. One of the problems with sex--from the point of view of the State, I mean--is that it is so completely powerful. It is meant to be that way, I would wager, by the one who planted the seed of sex within us. Another is that sex is inextricably bound to love, marriage, and the formation of families. The State cannot tolerate any of these institutions because they necessarily stand between it and the individual. In other words, if the individual loves and is devoted to another person or persons, then he cannot fully love or devote himself to the State--and he must so love and devote himself. He must prostrate himself before the State. Nothing must intervene between it and him, and there can be no other object for him. That explains the statist/socialist/progressive desire to undermine and ultimately destroy marriage and family. We have had that in rounds of recent supreme court decisions, deposited upon us and our Constitution like stinking piles of manure. Look elsewhere on the Internet for this quote: "We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement . . . ." From there it drones on and on as boring and tiresome socialists inevitably do. As Jahn in the Star Trek episode "Miri" might say, Blah, blah, blah. Anyway, too bad for all of them. The poison pill has been expertly placed and cannot be removed. You, the statist/socialist/progressive, can only choke on it. Excuse me if I don't offer you a glass of water or a pump for your stomach.

* * *

*A pertinent quote from George Orwell's 1984, pertinent not just here but to our current situation:
He [the protagonist Winston Smith] tried to make her [his lover Julia] understand. "This was an exceptional case. It wasn't just a question of somebody being killed. Do you realize that the past, starting from yesterday, has been actually abolished? If it survives anywhere, it's in a few solid objects with no words attached to them, like that lump of glass there. Already we know almost literally nothing about the Revolution and the years before the Revolution. Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right. [Emphasis added.]
Update (June 30, 2020): Here is another quote, from a digital flyer announcing a protest at the home of the multi-bezillionaire who sends us all the stuff we so crave: "Abolish the present. Reconstruct our future." Emphasis added again. Note the recurring use of the word abolish. At the protest itself, modern-day Jacobins set up a guillotine as a not-very veiled threat against him. My comment is this: You can't make this stuff up. My thought: I wonder if the protesters ordered their sign-making materials from the multi-bezillionaire himself and had it delivered to their doorsteps. My disclaimer: I did not pay anyone to do these things just so I might look oh-so-smart and my essay oh-so-prescient. Actually, you don't have to be very smart to see through these people and to understand that when it comes to humanity and its endeavors, there is nothing new under the sun.

Utopia 14 (1954), the Bantam Books edition of Player Piano (1952) by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The cover art was by Charles Binger (1907-1974), who also, as it turns out, did the cover art for the Bantam edition of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1953).

Revised during the day and into the evening, June 30, 2020.
Text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Cozy Dystopia

As you might have guessed by now, I'm really interested in utopias and dystopias. My friend Steve and I were talking about dystopia one evening, and he made a point that people could live in one without knowing it. To put it another way, I guess, they could live perfectly awful lives, not as individuals but as masses in a planned and organized society, and not be aware that their lives are perfectly awful or that their society is the source of that awfulness. There is some attraction in that idea, especially for the storyteller. On the other hand, it seems to me that if your life is perfectly awful because of the structure of your society--meaning, of course, because of the nature of the State--you would know it. You couldn't help but know it, at least at some level. That would seem inherent in the very definition of dystopia. Then I started thinking about the idea of the cozy dystopia and began to have some doubts.

Brian Aldiss coined the term cosy catastrophe, and so he got to spell it the British way. I'm coining the term cozy dystopia, and so I'll spell it like an American. I'm not sure how to define it yet, though. What got me thinking about all of this actually came in two steps. A few weeks back, before the world fell apart, I watched Blade Runner 2049 (2017). The movie has its flaws, but these are minor, I think. This is a guy movie, for sure, but it's also the kind of movie that is seldom made anymore, meaning a movie with artistic ambitions and made in an artistic way. The moviemakers had a vision, and their vision wasn't to make a blockbuster. When you set out to make a blockbuster, art usually goes by the wayside. Trying to make a blockbuster is going about things in the wrong way. Or, to paraphrase Victor Frankl, success is not a goal but a byproduct. You do the thing you're going to do and success or fame or happiness will ensue. (Or maybe will ensue.)

Anyway, that was step one. Step two came when I read a graphic novel called Batman: Digital Justice by Pepe Moreno (1990). I finished it last night. It's a fascinating book in visual terms, kind of a mix between Tron (1982) and Blade Runner (1982). (Think of that: Tron and Blade Runner are of the same vintage.) The art reminds me of Richard Corben's art, which is not digital, but I also saw a similarity to the work of Maxfield Parrish, and I wonder if Mr. Corben (like Hannes Bok) was influenced by Parrish and thereby a lineage was established. There are holdovers from 1980s pop-futurism (like Max Headroom) in Batman: Digital Justice, but there are also some innovations, including the term smart phone, used in a different context than today but there nonetheless in 1990. Another is an excellent term, wetware, applied as one of contempt for human beings by the digital Joker. (It made me think of wet markets.) And there is a 3D scanner that not only scans but digitizes an object, in this case the new Batman.

In reading Batman: Digital Justice, I thought of Blade Runner, both the original and the sequel. It occurred to me that visions of dystopia in our popular culture are always dark, not just in mood, but in literal terms. There is darkness and gloom, rain and smoke, sometimes flashing neon signs at night, also dark clothing, boots and butch haircuts, a general cyberpunk feel. I guess that's to be expected since so much contemporary dystopia is drawn from cyberpunk, I guess going back to William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), another dark dystopia. My idea is that Neuromancer is gothic science fiction, like Frankenstein, and a break from the shiny, utopian, Wellsian/Gernsbackian/Campbellian hard science fiction derived, I guess, from nineteenth- and early twentieth-century confidence, progressivism, and Scientism. Batman, being a gothic superhero, as opposed to the progressive, science-fiction superhero Superman (Batman lives in Gotham City, remember), could only find a natural home in a gothic dystopia.

What got me thinking about the cozy dystopia as an alternative to the dark dystopia is what has become, maybe without our noticing it, a cliché of the Neuromancer/Blade Runner/Batman: Digital Justice type. If the artist is supposed to be an innovator, why not get away from clichés and into something new? Why not a bright, shiny, happy, cozy dystopia? I wonder if anyone has tried it, and if so, what it might look like.

The first question, I guess, is this: Can there really be such a thing as a cozy dystopia? In Batman: Digital Justice, one of the digital overlords, Media Man, provides the people with what the narration calls the vital elements of a dictatorship: "Bread and circuses--it keeps the masses happy and busy, too involved to think about the real world--and things that are really important . . ." That may be comic book-level writing, but maybe it gets to a truth, which is that a perfectly awful society might be possible if the people can be kept well fed and entertained, thereby happy or at least satisfied, thereby also distracted from the problem of their own humanity, including the problem of their own freedom. I think here of the Parable of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamzov or of Brave New World

In every dystopia, the State affords the people their comforts and asks in return only for power over their lives:
"But here [the digital Joker says] in the wire world, we don't know about love. But that's just fine with us 'cause we have a substitute. It's called power! Get enough of that and you don't need love--or anything else."
In a cozy dystopia, the recipe would be the same, but the dish would have to be prepared in a different way. The dark dystopia might be a positive fantasy for some people in the real world of today, but most wouldn't go for it. You would have to offer them the cozy version before they would fall into it. Still, whether dark or cozy, dystopia requires the existence of the State. In dark dystopias like Batman: Digital Justiceperfectly awful societies are imposed only by an overarching State. A cozy dystopia would have to be, by definition, the same kind of arrangement. No overarching State, no dystopia. I think.

Last night I heard a man on the radio talking about moving to Atlanta. It struck me that he is driving to dystopia, to a bright, happy, cozy dystopia, but a dystopia nonetheless. That might be a little harsh and more than a little flippant. I have been to Atlanta, but only once, and that was at about three o'clock in the morning when the spaghetti-pile of interstate highways was pretty well clear and I could get through the place before daylight and snarls of traffic returned. But Atlanta isn't alone in this. There are places all across America that can seem almost dystopian sometimes, not in a dark, gloomy, rainy Blade Runner way, but in a bread-and-circuses, strip-mall, big-box store, restaurant-row kind of way. And when people go home, there they have their bread and circuses, too: takeout or delivery available from a hundred restaurants and entertainment from five times as many channels. But is this really dystopia? In one way maybe so, for if only we can be distracted, then we won't have to confront ourselves or our predicament. But neither the State nor any other institution has imposed that upon us. We have only done it to ourselves. So, no State, no dystopia.

The same question again: Do we live in a cozy dystopia? In the grumpy imagination of Bernie Sanders and his fellow travelers, the answer is yes. After all, he complains about how many brands of deodorant there are available at the grocery store. Imagine what he must think of 500 TV channels and you kids get off my lawn! As a socialist, he prefers to go unwashed, I guess, but he must also prefer the Soviet-style store in which the only things available are the things that people don't want or need. As I've said before, the utopia of the socialist is a dystopia for everyone else. He would impose it upon us, but only by the mechanism of the State, and so we would descend into dystopian darkness. A smarter idea might be to impose a shiny, happy, cozy dystopia, one that the people would welcome because it meets all of their material and entertainment needs. But would we welcome it? Or would our inherent freedom only assert itself once again with the result that even the cozy dystopia would be overthrown. In order to be happy as human beings, I think, we must be free. What the socialist understands pretty well, though--maybe it's the only thing that he understands--is that freedom can also be a source of unhappiness. The Grand Inquisitor knew that, too.

Anyway, should I back away from the idea that we may actually be living in a cozy dystopia? Maybe so. Like I said before, if you live in dystopia, you'll know it, because it will be perfectly awful. You can't be happy and cozy in awfulness. But maybe you can feel awful in coziness--and millions of people do in the real world of today. The self-destructiveness in our society is evidence of that.

There's a lot of sunshiny talk in the world. Too many people sound like Pangloss. Unfortunately a lot of them are or call themselves conservatives. Maybe more accurately they're libertarians of the numbskull variety. Anyway, the talk is of how materially happy and prosperous the world has become--as if materiality is the best or only measure of happiness. (I suspect that a lot of the sunshiny talk actually comes from materialists, atheists, and agnostics, who must believe, I guess, that happiness is caused by chemicals in the brain.) Yes, there is great material happiness and prosperity in the world. We wouldn't want to trade that away for poverty and misery, although millions of socialists, like the aforementioned Crazy Bernie, so want to. I think of the epigraph from Lonesome Dove: "What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream." We are living the dream of humanity throughout the ages: the dream of material comfort and the end of want. No threats of starvation, privation, exposure, war, invasion, or ruin hang over us. And yet we are discontent. And yet hundreds of thousands of people die every year of suicide, drug overdoses, drunken accidents, and diseases of emptiness, self-destruction, and despair.

I don't believe that dystopia in general, more accurately utopia/dystopia, is possible, the reason being that human beings are imperfect and cannot be forced into perfection by the State or any other overarching institution. Likewise, I know that we are free and are made free--we are free, Bernie and Bros, so choke on it--and so we will always rebel against attempts at control because it is in our very nature to do so. We and our freedom are unalienable. The founder of the Democratic Party understood that and committed the idea to paper for all of posterity to read it and live by it. (If only the Democratic Party of today would take it to heart.) In any case, a dictatorship can last for a while--oftentimes a man's lifespan of threescore and ten years--but it must always fail because people are and will be free. Just look at what is happening right now in our country as people rebel against the tiny dictators who have tried to set themselves up in control of our lives and livelihoods. And this is after only two months of lockdowns. Look at what will soon happen--we can hope--in China, the source of so much suffering and pain in the world today. Dystopia can't be made or forced upon us. I believe it's an impossibility, despite all of the trying. In addition, our current society may have its terrible flaws, but I don't think it can be called a dystopia of any kind. But in art there can exist the cozy dystopia, and I think that's an idea worth exploring, if only to break the cliché and try something new.

* * *

I'll be away again for a while. That's why I have given you so much to read. But don't worry, there won't be a test. When I come back, I'll pick up again on Earl Peirce, Jr., whose family is turning out to be a hard nut to crack. His is a really interesting story, though, and I'll have fun writing it. I hope you'll have fun reading it, too.

Speaking of seventy-year-old dictatorships, Dianetics appeared in its first iteration seventy years ago this month, in Astounding Science Fiction, May 1950. That's not Xenu or even a dero on the cover. It's just one of the myriad monsters and aliens of science fiction. The cover artist was Brush, about whom nothing is known or probably ever will be known: How are you supposed to do a digital search for an artist named brush?

Original text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Stars Upon Thars

We live in a science-fiction world, and the current situation is science fiction come to life. Who could have guessed that this would happen? Who else but an author of fiction, of course, a man of clear vision like Dr. Seuss (1904-1991), who wrote tales of what I think you can call science fiction, fantasy, and weird fiction during his long career--or you can call them that as long as you cast your nets widely enough. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database has cast its nets widely enough and has caught Dr. Seuss in its exhaustive lists. Curiously, the ISFDb doesn't list any of the stories you will find mentioned here. But for an example of Dr. Seuss' quasi-science fiction, try Horton Hears a Who! (1954), about a miniature world located on a speck of dust. (It's a nice pro-life allegory, too, if you decide to read it that way.) For fantasy, McElligot's Pool (1947) is worth consideration. And for weird fiction, you should read "What Was I Scared Of?" (1961), a story that will give you the creeps until it doesn't anymore.

There's another tale from the same book, The Sneetches and Other Stories, that is predictive in some ways of what's going on right now. We may not be there just yet, but by indications we soon will be. Soon there will be sharp divides between the two classes of people in America, all in at least three ways. First there are and will be the mask-wearers versus the non-mask-wearers. Masks are demonstrative of your elevated status, your virtue, your great moral and intellectual superiority. Never mind how idiotic it is to wear one when you're in your car--alone--with your windows rolled up! Never mind how ineffective it is to wear one over your mouth but tucked below your nose! Never mind how ridiculous it is to wear one outside--while you're walking in the fresh air and sunshine--alone--with no one else around! (Try to hear Sam Kinison's voice when you read those italicized parts.)

Anyway, not wearing a mask today may relegate you to second-class status in the mind of the mask-wearer. Soon, though, there will be the officially tested versus the officially non-tested, or more specifically, the officially positive-tested versus the officially negative-tested. One will be permitted to go about a normal kind of life while the other will have to remain in lockdown. Eventually testing will become compulsory and the documentation that you have been tested loaded onto your cellphone or your favorite social media platform. And it won't necessarily be just one test. You will actually have to be tested again and again until you have the antibodies necessary for your promotion into the ranks of the immune. In fact, if you keep failing to test positive, the number of tests you must take will become theoretically infinite in number and the intervals between them infinitesimally shorter because our whole society by then will have gone totally insane with OCD and anxiety. You have to test positive before you can go anywhere or do anything!

Finally there will be the vaccinated versus the non-vaccinated. The vaccinated will carry around with them a virtual list of all of the vaccinations they have received to date. They will also receive minute-by-minute alerts for all of the new vaccines that are coming on the market and available right now so don't wait to get yours because you deserve it! And yes, vaccinations and vaccines are plural here because why stop with just one brand? It can't hurt to have all of them, right? Anyway, make sure you carry your VaxPort with you everywhere you go, for only it will open doors for you. Or insert your chip-card into the reader for entry. Or allow the scanner at the door a look at your QR code. Or how about this: a ubiquitous advertisement-slash-public-service-announcement featuring a twenty-first-century Karl Malden who commands you: "The Vax-I-Dee App--don't leave home without it!" Meanwhile, the unvaccinated can't leave home with or without anything because their Crazy-Eyes Governor has posted the vaccination police outside their doors, forbidding them to leave foreverHere's a better idea, though: Once you're vaccinated, you should just get a tattoo as a kind of reverse scarlet letter signaling your elevated status. Only don't make it a letter. Make it a star. On your belly. Like a Sneetch. There's your proof.

The mask right now is only a suggestion. But what happens when positive test results are required for you to gain entry to the beaches where the immune may frolic? And what happens when you have to prove that you have been vaccinated by showing your star-belly to the bouncer at your local place of worship? I have one more prediction to make: the Plain-Belly Sneetches will start paying good money for blackmarket stars to be placed upon thars, and from then on chaos will reign.

By the way, the corona is the outer atmosphere of a star. That's not perfectly symbolic, but you can't have everything.

Copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Earl Peirce, Jr.-Aside No. 1

I guess I made a discovery the other day without realizing it. The subject is Earl Peirce, Jr. His first published story, "Doom of the House of Duryea," was originally in Weird Tales in October 1936. More than six decades later it was included in the anthology Acolytes of Cthulhu (2001). I guess the implication is that "Doom of the House of Duryea" takes place in the same universe in which H.P. Lovecraft's so-called Cthulhu Mythos is set. That implication seems to rest solely on Peirce's mention of a tome by Ludvig Prinn, a fictional historical character who is part of the Cthulhu universe. The problem is that Prinn was created not by Lovecraft but by his young pen pal Robert Bloch. Bloch and Peirce knew each other in Milwaukee. Both corresponded with Lovecraft. But the connection between Peirce's story and Lovecraft's universe appears to run only through Bloch. In other words, the Peirce bone may be connected to the Bloch bone, and the Bloch bone may be connected to the Lovecraft bone, but the Peirce bone is not directly connected to the Lovecraft bone, at least through "Doom of the House of Duryea."

My discovery, if you want to call it that, is that Peirce seems to have been the first writer after Bloch to have made reference to Ludvig Prinn. Bloch first mentioned the old sorcerer in "The Shambler from the Stars," published in Weird Tales in September 1935. (That's the story in which Bloch killed off his mentor Lovecraft.) Prinn's name next showed up in Bloch's story "The Faceless God," in Weird Tales for May 1936. Peirce's story "Doom of the House of Duryea" came along five months later, in the issue of October 1936. Lovecraft, then, missed it by two months, for his first published mention of Ludvig Prinn came in "The Haunter of the Dark," in Weird Tales for December 1936. (That's the story in which Lovecraft killed Bloch right back.) Prinn's name was mentioned later in stories by William Lumley ("The Diary of Alonzo Typer," with Lovecraft as ghostwriter, in Weird Tales, Feb. 1938), August Derleth, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, Stephen King, and so on. Peirce, though, seems to have been the first after Prinn's creator, Robert Bloch, and maybe he deserves a little credit for that.

Thanks to Wikipedia and the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.

Copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, May 11, 2020

Earl Peirce, Jr. (1917-1983)-Part One

Introduction

I first wrote about Earl Peirce, Jr., on May 17, 2017. I misidentified him then as Earl Monroe Pierce, Jr., based on his age and his residency in Washington, D.C., where Peirce/Pierce is known to have lived. A month later, an anonymous commenter let me know that I had the wrong person and provided a link to an online discussion about the right one. I removed what I had written and promised an update and correction. By then it was too late: my mistake was memorialized in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDb) and you can still find it there today. I pride myself on doing good work. It's not such a good feeling to do bad and to know that I have done bad. It's not a good feeling, either, to know that my mistake is flapping in the breeze of the worldwide web. I'm not a member of ISFDb and don't know anyone who is. I hope that once this new series is over, someone will let them know that the whole mess has been straightened out and that it's time to recognize the real Earl Peirce, Jr., for who he was.

The Peirces of Maine

One of the reasons I misidentified Earl Peirce, Jr., is that it just didn't seem to me that his surname was spelled correctly. We once had Franklin Pierce as president. We know Hawkeye Pierce as a fictional Korean War surgeon. (1) We even have Jeremy Duncan's pierced friend Pierce in the comic strip Zits. To complicate matters, Earl Peirce was also known as Earl Pierce. My mistake was in thinking that the correct spelling was a mistake and vice versa. (2) What I didn't know is that there are scads of Peirces who have called Maine home since the colonial era and that their numbers have included militia captains, wealthy lumbermen, a prominent artist, a well-known (in his time) archaeologist and art historian, and not one but two writers of genre fiction. Only one of them was Earl Peirce, Jr. I'll get to the other--his third cousin--before we reach the end of this series. 

To be continued . . .

The first story by Earl Peirce, Jr., to appear in Weird Tales was "Doom of the House of Duryea," in October 1936 (with cover art by J. Allen St. John). Peirce's byline wasn't on the cover, but his story has proved popular and enduring. It was reprinted in Tales of the Undead: Vampires and Visitants (1947), Far Below and Other Horrors (1974, 1987), Weird Vampire Tales (1992), and Bloodlines: Vampire Stories from New England (1997),  suggesting a New England origin for the writer himself . . .

"Doom of the House of Duryea" is also in Acolytes of Cthulhu (2001), in which Peirce's last name was misspelled (see, I'm not the only one to make that mistake) but which was graced by cover art by the late Gahan Wilson. (I apologize for the poor quality of the image: the Internet isn't everything it's cracked up to be.)

The main action in Peirce's story takes place in a cabin by a lake in northern Maine. If it is a Lovecraftian tale at all, it might be on account of a centuries-old family curse and secret knowledge drawn from obscure and forbidden books. Among the books mentioned are Episcopi (real), Nider's Ant-Hill (real, as Formicarius), and an unnamed work by Ludvig Prinn (not real). The last, De Vermis Mysteriis, was created by Robert Bloch as an addition to H.P. Lovecraft's list of grimoires, both real and not real.* Bloch was of course an acolyte of Lovecraft. Younger by a generation, he corresponded with Lovecraft, and together they wrote a series of back-and-forth stories in which they killed each other off. What is less well known is that Peirce also corresponded with Lovecraft and that he was friends with Bloch. At or about the time that "Doom of the House of Duryea" was published, Peirce was living in Bloch's hometown of Milwaukee. (Not long afterwards he moved to Washington, D.C., with his family.) I suppose that's why Peirce was called a "midwestern writer" in the introduction to his story in Weird Vampire Tales (1992).

Earl Peirce, Jr., seems to have been up on his lore. I had never heard of either Nider's Ant-Hill or Episcopi before reading his story. He also made a reference to an "Enoch" and "the terrible drawings by an ancient Dominican of Rome." I don't know and couldn't find for myself a reference for either. The word vrykolaka also appears in "Doom of the House of Duryea." That's not one you see very often in old weird fiction. There is also a word new to me--shocking and disturbing, too: INFANTIPHAGI. (Yes, it's capitalized in the original.) That word may be new to everybody else who reads it, too, for it seems to have been Peirce's own neologism. Maybe he used it for shock effect, as young writers and artists often do with such things. It's still shocking to me, more than eighty years after he wrote it, but the shock effect can only wear in our current age: I'm not sure that Peirce could have known that we would one day, once again, worship Moloch. One thing to consider here: the eating of offspring by parents (filial cannibalism) and of the mother by her offspring (matriphagy) occur in nature. As a forester, Earl Peirce's namesake--his own father--might have known of such things, or maybe Peirce read of them in his father's library, just as the fictional son in "Doom of the House of Duryea" reads of them in his own father's reeking, mildewy, yellow book of horrors on that stormy and fateful night by the lake . . .

*De Vermis Mysteriis by Ludvig Prinn was first mentioned in "The Shambler from the Stars," published in Weird Tales in September 1935.

Notes
(1) Hiester Richard Hornberger, Jr., better known by his nom de plume Richard Hooker, graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine and later practiced medicine in Waterville and Bremen. (Franklin Pierce graduated from Bowdoin, too.) Hornberger (1924-1997) served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and went on to write the original novel (1968) on which the movie and television show M*A*S*H* were based. I imagine he met more than one Peirce/Pierce during his decades in Maine. Maybe one of them provided him with the surname of his fictional counterpart. Hawkeye Pierce's real name, by the way, is Benjamin Franklin Pierce. Remember this: if you draw any line long enough it eventually becomes a circle. Here's another circle: Earl Peirce, Jr., came from a Maine family and died in New Jersey; Hornberger was born in New Jersey and died in Maine.
(2) The spellchecker in Blogger doesn't like the spelling Peirce, either.

Text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, May 8, 2020

Patterns of Force

Yesterday was golden under the sun and in the mild and breezy air. Light and atmosphere had a rare pure-and-crystalline quality. There were redstarts in the woods, flitting among low branches and not-yet-leaves just emerging from broken buds. There were scarlet tanagers, too, back in the Midwest after their winter run to South America. The showy orchis was just coming into bloom. Its emerging color has been foretold for weeks by the flowering of profusions of wild sweet William. People are out and cars are on the road. We saw a group of teenagers meet up at the start of a dirt road in their four-wheelers and mud buggies. A girl took a drag from a cigarette offered by her friend before getting on again. They all laughed and talked and were off, up the valley and on to a few moments of fun, taken, not seized, before a looming adulthood comes down to meet them. Later there was a barge boat on the river, plying its waters and pushing a half dozen great trays of cargo in unexpected quiet and serenity towards some port unknown to me. There is something still going on in America despite a winter of travail, fear, and anxiety.

Imagine another spring seventy-five years ago today when the world woke up, not so much from history as from a hateful, nightmarish vision of the future. For six years it had lived in the darkest of winters and now it was spring. For too long it had been a dismal black-and-white world and now there was color again--the colors of a new season. For a few moments, there was among the good people of the world a kind of joy and happiness seldom experienced in history. Nightmarish visions and fanaticism would return soon enough.

There are patterns of force in the world. Science fiction, a lowly form, has recognized that. Dystopia falls within the genre. In 1949, just four years and a month after V-E Day, George Orwell's seminal dystopia 1984 came out. Here is a prescient quote, put into the mouth of O'Brien, tormenter of Orwell's protagonist, Winston Smith:
"The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me."
That same year, East Germany, a worthy successor to Nazi Germany, was established, and communists came to power over all of mainland China: although the fanaticism of national socialism had been laid to waste, its international twin was thriving and growing, even unto today, spawning diseases of the mind and now of the body.

The events of the Second World War resonated for decades after its end. Although today its sounds have almost ceased, Nazis have run through popular culture from the 1940s into the present, including in science fiction, from high points (The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, 1962) to low (They Saved Hitler's Brain, 1968). On February 16, 1968, NBC-TV broadcast "Patterns of Force," a second-season episode of its popular series Star Trek. If you're a fan, you know the episode by its title. If you're not, you might call it "the one with the Nazis." In "Patterns of Force," a member of the Federation, John Gill, has been set up as the dictator of a planet run by new Nazis. In actuality, Gill is incapacitated: he has been drugged up and is merely a figurehead. The power behind the throne--actually an office chair--is Melakon, played by Skip Homeier, who, strangely enough, had played a Nazi Youth nearly a quarter-century before in Tomorrow, the World! (1944). Needless to say, the crew of the Enterprise helps to bring down the new-Nazi regime on the planet Ekos and hope is restored to its oppressed peoples.

We're now in an election year and a pattern--call it a prediction if you want--is being repeated. The pattern--or prediction--is from science fiction, specifically from Star Trek. Don't mistake my meaning by believing anything different. (My own prediction is that some of you will anyway.) The pattern/prediction is this: one of our major political parties is planning to nominate and hoping to elect John Gill to the presidency. He will be incapacitated of course and merely a figurehead. Real power will be held by his Melakon. So who will that be? A person or the party? The party, I suspect, one that "seeks power entirely for its own sake," for as George Orwell saw, "[t]he object of power is power."

I guess this scheme isn't exactly unconstitutional, but as some have sensed, most famously the Austrian logician and mathematician Kurt Gödel, the U.S. Constitution may have loopholes in it that allow for the establishment of a dictatorship, or at least of some oppressive form of government. In any case, it's a terrible, frightening scheme and it's hard for me to believe that any otherwise decent person would go along with it. But some will. In the end, we won't have John Gill as our president, but the fact that there are people planning for such a thing should give us all the shivers. It's springtime, people--springtime for us--and no time for shivers.



Original text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, May 4, 2020

The Mysterious Dolgov-Part Five

In the 1950s, what is now called the East Village began to attract writers, artists, beatniks, and bohemians, especially from Greenwich Village to the west. It may have been a natural place for an artist like The Mysterious Dolgov to land, if he wasn't already living there. The East Village was also once considered a part of the Lower East Side, a place in which Russian-Jewish immigrants settled during the late 1800s and early 1900s. I'm pretty sure that Dolgov's family were both Russian and Jewish. In addition, the East Village was home to the Yiddish Theatre District or Yiddish Rialto of the early twentieth century. That last fact leads us to another Dolgoff.

Lewis Benjamin "Lou" Dolgoff was a comedian and master of ceremonies who performed on radio and stage in the Yiddish Theatre District and other places around town during the early to mid twentieth century. He was born on June 29, 1892, in Manhattan to Benjamin Dolgoff (1848-1920) and Lena (Golub) Dolgoff (ca. 1856-1953). He was a regular at the Village Grove Nut Club in Greenwich Village (1920s), also at Kernel Lew Mercur's Nut Club in Miami, Florida (1940s). Dolgoff had engagements at the Swing Club, Arabian Nights, Boery (sic) Cafe, B and B Nut Club, and Sir Jimmy Dwyer's Sawdust Trail in New York. If I read things right, Dolgoff was also on the radio on WMCA, WPAP, and WPCH, all in the same city.

When he registered for the draft in 1942, Dolgoff was employed by the New Fulton Royal Restaurant in Brooklyn. He may have alternated between New York City and Florida, specifically Miami, at the time. It looks like Dolgoff divorced his wife Sally in early 1953, married Bertha Zeitlin in Dade County, Florida, sometime that year, then was widowed when she died the following year. He had emceed at the Red Barn in Miami prior to that and--who knows?--maybe after that, too. In any event, Dolgoff followed his wife to the grave on October 11, 1956, and was buried at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Flushing, New York, with his parents. His stone is marked "Dear Uncle."

So, that's an awfully long way to go following somebody who might not have had anything to do with The Mysterious Dolgov, but we're still chasing leads. I have just one more: I found an Oscar Arthur Dolgoff, later known as Oscar Dole, who, in the 1930 Federal census, while living in the Bronx, gave his occupation as advertising artist. He was born on November 29, 1911, to Philip and Bertha Dolgoff. In 1940 he was unemployed. I don't know anything more about him except that he died on February 17, 1980, and is at buried Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Glendale, Queens County, New York. The surname and age are about right, as are the place and occupation, but why would Oscar Dolgoff have gone by the name Boris Dolgov when he was already going by the name Oscar Dole? It just doesn't add up. What we should consider, though, is that "Boris" or "Dolgov" or "Dolgoff" was not the Weird Tales artist's real name or birth name, and that's why he has been so hard to find. Maybe, too, he was an only child or never married or never had any children, and so there aren't any remaining Dolgovs to set us straight. There is one thing available to us, though, that might clear all of this up:

New York City Death Certificate Number 23513
Name: Boris Dolgoff
Age: 48
Date of death: November 4, 1958
Place of death: Manhattan

Are you listening, RAE?

The Village Grove Nut Club was a landmark in Manhattan for drinkers, nightclubbers, partygoers, and other bon vivants. Here is a photograph from the exact date of February 18, 1933.

Located at 99 7th Avenue South, "In the Heart of Greenwich Village," the Village Grove Nut Club might have been a little too far west to be a part of the Yiddish Theatre District (I'm a Midwesterner with absolutely no knowledge of New York City, or its neighborhoods, culture, or history). Nonetheless, it must have been an attraction for Jewish performers and clientele from all over. (Above: A wine list from 1943.)

One of those performers was Lou "Judge" Dolgoff (1892-1956), whose parents, Benjamin and Lena Dolgoff (or Dolgov), were Russian-Jewish immigrants who spoke Yiddish and/or Hebrew as their native language. His father was a clothing presser. Lou escaped that by becoming a comedy performer and master of ceremonies. Here his name appears in a newspaper advertisement for Kernel Lew Mercur's Nut Club, from the Miami Herald, December 17, 1941.

One of my points in showing these images is that bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and other entertainments and businesses in New York City, as everywhere, would have needed art, cartoons, and illustrations, thus providing opportunities for young artists. It might help, too, if a young artist had a friend or relative who already worked in those industries. A foot in the door, an introduction, a kind word: "My brother's kid draws. How about if I bring him around this weekend and he can show you what he's got?"

I can't say that Boris Dolgov and Lou Dolgoff were related, but it might be instructive to look at the paths taken by the children of European-Jewish immigrants in early twentieth-century America: the first generation were laborers--Kirk Douglas' father was a ragman, the Marx Brothers' a tailor--who escaped the Old World into the New. The second made their own escape from common labor into entertainment and the arts. Could that have been Boris Dolgov's path, too? Unfortunately, we don't know and we're left with a lot of speculation in the absence of evidence. For now The Mysterious Dolgov remains so.

Text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley