American Magic–Loose Transcript of Library of Congress Presentation

NB: I’ll be editing this text, but for now, here’s the rough of the transcript of today’s talk (with the power point slides here–AMERICAN MAGIC):

[1] AMERICAN MAGIC: The Continuing Influence of the Classic Stories of the Fantastic or Uncanny

I think this topic is more than appropriate to this venue. First, a warning: my talk is going to contain some mild spoilers regarding my first book and even some details regarding my second book that might be spoilers for the first. But I figure this is my last best chance to annotate one aspect of my novels before I forget too much of the research I did. So if you’re very spoiler adverse, be warned.

In my debut novel, American Craftsmen, Captain Dale Morton is a magician soldier, a “craftsman”, fighting against a treasonous cabal at the heart of the Pentagon. American Craftsmen has also been called “a book haunted by other books” because I’ve created a backstory from the early American stories of the fantastic. The Mortons and the other craftspeople are the secret magical descendants of real-life founding figures (such as John Endicott and Anne Hutchinson), and their fictional family histories are interwoven with American history and literature.

[2 Baum picture] To my own surprise, one of my initial inspirations for this book was L. Frank Baum. When he began telling children’s stories, he had the notion of discarding the existing European folk tales and building a fantasy that was modern and distinctly American. [3 oz cover] That’s how we got The Wizard of Oz.

I wasn’t going to write a children’s story, but the thought of confining myself to a U.S. mythos for an adult fantasy was oddly exciting. With plenty of books retelling European myths and folklore, it seemed like our own stories had been neglected. I looked at American folklore, but I ended up spending more time with the great early American writers of the fantastic.

Today, I’m going to discuss ten authors and their classic American stories of the fantastic or the uncanny (well, eleven if you count my mention of Baum). I’ll note how their stories have continued to influence us, and also what I took from them to create the background for American Craftsmen and for its sequel, The Left-Hand Way (the Left Hand is the euphemism for evil in my story). I used these authors as if they were all writing about a single world of the American occult from different angles, and that’s not completely off-base, in that there are lineages of influence running from the earlier to later authors here. If I seem to move quickly early on, it’s because I’ll be giving more attention to the last two writers on my list, Hawthorne and Poe.

[4-Gilman picture] My first author is Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Gilman was a social activist and suffragette. Most of her work was poetry, literary fiction, or nonfiction related to her activism, so we might not have expected a classic genre story from her, yet Gilman has given us “The Yellow Wallpaper.” [5 book cover] Do you know this one? In this semi-autobiographical account (published in 1892), a woman suffering from post-partum depression is kept mostly isolated by her husband for her “health” in a room with the titular nasty wallpaper. The woman descends from depression into psychosis. (Note the clever design of this cover here.)

Is this truly a story of the fantastic? While it makes a clear point about the role of women in society and has become a regular part of courses in women’s studies, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is also a horror story. The descent of a seemingly sane person into madness due to confinement or mistreatment is a standard horror trope–[6 Shining image] for example, in The Shining, the degenerating cabin fever of Jack Torrance  

I didn’t really use that trope myself, but as a tribute to this feminist horror story, I have yellow wallpaper decorating one of the rooms in Dale Morton’s House, and unlike the wallpaper in the original, it really does have a supernatural predatory power. As I describe it: “Even if the guest avoided looking at the wallpaper, in the corner of one’s eye it seemed to breathe like a tired old woman.”

[7 James] Henry James is another author that, for most of his work, we don’t associate with tales of the fantastic–or indeed much in the way of action. He is the stylist’s stylist of literary fiction. [8-title page] But he was fond of ghost stories, and if one takes The Turn of the Screw (published in 1898) at face value, it is about ghosts possessing children. In my novel, such possession is a skill of certain evil ancestral Mortons, and the villains even recall once possessing children to disturb a governess, just for kicks.

(If one doesn’t take it at face value, it’s about a mentally disturbed governess causing the death of a child.)

[9 photo from Screw] The theme of possessed or evil children has, if anything, grown more common with time, and with considerably less ambiguity—Village of the Damned, The Omen, The Bad Seed, and of course The Exorcist. Adaptations of and homages to Turn of the Screw also abound, including one of the tales within Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. I like this picture with the creepy children as almost like the twins from Diane Arbus or The Shining.

[10 Chambers] My third author, Robert W. Chambers, switched careers from painting to writing (and he often wrote about artistic types). [11 book cover] The first four stories in his collection, The King in Yellow, (1895) are united by references to a play, The King in Yellow, which drives its readers mad and which seems to spread like a virus. (What is it about the color yellow anyway? Yellow Wallpaper, King in Yellow? Apparently the color had an association with decadence in the 1890s.)

These stories by Chambers form a link between Poe (for example, the figure of the king in yellow appears to be partly inspired by the Red Death), and H.P. Lovecraft (as both Chambers and Lovecraft are concerned with otherworldly or otherdimensional evil, which puts them in the subgenres commonly called “weird fiction” and “cosmic horror”). The King in Yellow stories have gained some recent notice through their use in HBO’s True Detective (though that show never delivers on such supernatural hints). I quote Chambers’s work in my book two, The Left-Hand Way (as it’s the second book in the series, I used a title that, in the jargon of my world, basically means “The Empire Strikes Back).

A fact about Chambers I didn’t use was that he’s a direct descendant of Roger Williams, the founder of Providence, Rhode Island.

[12 young Melville] Herman Melville may have been the first fanboy of American letters in his effusive and somewhat obsessive friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne. He’s looking pretty young in this painting compared with the big bearded fellow of later years. [13 whale hunt] Moby-Dick (1851) is not an overtly supernatural tale. But in his novel, Melville alludes to secret society rituals and dangerous obsessions, and it’s clear that Melville’s whale may be much more than an animal. Is he a stand-in for nature? Evil? In my novel, the black ops section of the Pentagon’s craft command is color coded with the whale’s ironic white.

Also, my ante-bellum Endicott character, Abram, obsessed enemy of the Left-Hand Mortons, was in my own mind a sort of “Ahab Endicott,” but I thought a direct link by name would go too far for reader and writer alike.

One story of Melville’s that I wasn’t able to use was “Benito Cereno.” In that story, enslaved persons take over a transport ship and put on a performance of continued enslavement in an effort to fool the captain of another vessel. This story about slavery is subversive, but to the modern eye, perhaps not subversive enough without explanation, and the rest of the early American canon seems similarly problematic regarding slavery and race. Though I touch on the role of slavery in craft family history, I really don’t take it on with appropriate attention until book 2.

[14 Bierce] Ambrose Bierce has been called the major American writer of horror between Poe and Lovecraft. His forte in horror was the ghost story, but his most famous story doesn’t technically have a ghost. [15 title page] That’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” (1890). Do you know it? OK, spoiler alert: this is a Civil War tale about a man who, about to be hanged, experiences a vision of escape and return home in the seconds prior to death. [16 comic illustration] This story is famous for its representation of how subjective consciousness can stretch time. A similar near-death experience sort of stretching was later used in such diverse works as Jacob’s Ladder and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. In contrast, my craftspeople are able to objectively enter a time-stretched, accelerated mode for combat, as in this scene:

“The time sense of Sphinx’s bodyguards slowed as I moved between them with craft-enhanced speed. Sphinx spun on her heel to face me. She adjusted time’s rush with the ease that flowed from its constant observation. She exactly matched my speed, two blurs in a land of statues. “Hello, Casper,” she said.

The guards were reacting now, reaching for me and for their hidden weapons. Eddy crouched for some crazy leap. Sphinx held up a hand to restrain them. She smiled again, baring her terrible, brown-stained teeth. “Are you ready to die?”

[17-Time cover] And here’s a man that Bierce is often paired with: his friend Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. He wrote a few stories of the fantastic (when he wasn’t simply exaggerating beyond all bounds of reason). He is also the author that I use the most for my section quotes (whether the source is fantastic or not)–as you might expect. He’s a very quotable guy. The continued influence of his work is obvious–for example, the central time travel conceit of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has been riffed on countless times (perhaps most notoriously in the Evil Dead 3).

[18 Stranger scene] But the novel of his that influenced my books more was his late in life project, The Mysterious Stranger. (1916, but written 1897-1908). In that book, the nephew of Satan visits 16th century Austria and exercises a power of command over friend and foe alike while declaring that nothing is real. Some of my craftspeople, particularly the Endicotts, have such a power of command.

A final Twain note: when my characters find themselves scattered overseas in book two, I title that section “The Innocent Killers Abroad.”

[19 Irving stamp] Our ride number six: Washington Irving. He’s one of the first major American writers, and perhaps as such a transitional figure it’s not surprising that a substantial part of his writing came from filing the serial numbers off European stories and giving them an American setting. Other authors have engaged in the same retelling of European folklore and mythology on a U.S. stage–witness Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (but this was exactly what I was trying to avoid in American Craftsmen).

[20 Sleepy Hollow] As you all probably know, “The Legend of Sleep Hollow” (1820) is now a TV series. I’m not sure if Irving would have laughed or cried at hearing that Ichabod Crane has been re-imagined as a hero of anything. Due perhaps to its retellings for children, this is a frequently misinterpreted story. The greedy Crane is the villain of the piece, vampirically hungry for the town’s food and wealth, particularly in the form of the daughter of a wealthy farmer, and the town was right to drive him out. In my world, Ichabod would (will) be one of the evil Morton ancestors.

One can see the influence of this plotline on stories such as Saki’s “The Open Window,” in which another interloper is scared off by a well-executed ghost story.

Also, Irving popularized the name “Gotham” for New York, so at least two currently running TV series owe him a debt.

[21 Rip Van Winkle] Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” (1819) is the story of a man who sleeps through the American Revolution and awakens quite confused by the changes. The story continues to live in numerous adaptations and in most any story with time travel to the future. From this classic yarn, I’ve taken the name of a family of farseers in my book two, the Van Winkles, as I’ve creatively misread the story to be about the sense of being unstuck in time that a farseer might experience.

[22 Lovecraft] And now we approach the Mountain of Madness himself: H.P. Lovecraft. He was a native of Providence, Rhode Island, which was one of the reasons I chose it as a main setting for my first book (though once I did, I soon noted its connections to other authors–Poe, Gilman, Chambers). I went on the HP Lovecraft walking tour of the city, and saw the monument to him just outside of Brown University–one of my villains laughs at it as if some bad joke has been played upon the author. I also chose Providence because if my non-believing, magic-practicing Mortons chose to remain in European-settled lands at all, they would have chosen the relatively tolerant city of Roger Williams to lie low in.

Lovecraft is an author that, as a person, has fallen out of favor due to his god-awful racial views, even as the world of his horror continues to expand under other pens.

[23 Peanuts] Here’s a funny story: when I wrote American Craftsmen, I was of course familiar with various works in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos (e.g., The Call of Cthulhu 1828, At the Mountains of Madness–1936). Those works concerned other dimensional beings who ruled our world in the distant past and who threaten to reawaken and resume their reigns, bringing slavery and madness to all humans. In my story, such beings are apparently worshipped as the Left-Hand gods.

But one Lovecraft story I wasn’t familiar with was The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (first published posthumously in 1941, written in 1927). This saga of a New England family with an evil sorcerer ancestor who finds a key to immortality might have scared me away from the topic altogether. But reading it after I’d finished writing my novel just convinced me that I’d been on the right track.

I’m far from alone in having played (if only briefly) in Lovecraft’s world. One other recent example is Charlie Stross, whose Laundry series concerns the British secret agency in charge of protecting humanity from incursions of Lovecraftian beings.

Now we reach of the two main sources for my American Craftsmen mythos. [24 Hawthorne] First, Nathaniel Hawthorne (who we briefly met earlier as Herman Melville’s sometime friend).

[25 story list] Hawthorne is important to my world building because, even more so than Lovecraft in “Charles Dexter Ward,” he grounds his fiction in New England historical details. American Craftsmen is in part a cryptohistory–all the facts we know remain true, but with an occult narrative running beneath the official surface. But in choosing my facts, I often use a history that’s already been mediated by fiction, particularly Hawthorne’s stories about real Puritans (versus the more fantastical Scarlet Letter).

Two of his historical stories in particular were important to me. [26 May pole] The first, “The May-pole of Merry Mount,” concerns the colony founded by Thomas Morton in an area neighboring the colonies of the Separatists and Puritans in Massachusetts. Thomas Morton is the historical ancestor of my fictional Mortons, both good and evil. He has been called “America’s first rascal.” He opposed the Puritans, and the Puritans didn’t like his religious views and his close relationships with Native Americans (he sold them guns). “The May-pole of Merry Mount” is Hawthorne’s fictional account of an attack that John Endicott and other Puritans mounted on the Morton colony during its paganish May festival.

John Endicott of Salem is another historical ancestor of some of my fictional characters–the Endicott family, represented by Major Michael Endicott in the present day. John Endicott represented some of the worst extremes of Puritanism, advocating veils for women and brandishing his sword against the dissenter Anne Hutchinson. [27 red cross] But in Hawthorne’s story, “Endicott and the Red Cross,” John Endicott cuts the cross of St. George from the English flag in what some have called “America’s first declaration of independence.”

In my first book, the sword John Endicott used is still in the hands of his descendant, Michael, who puts it to bad and good use.

Also in my story, the Morton and Endicott descendants have continued the family feud for hundreds of years, and in the present day Michael Endicott suspects that Dale Morton has turned to the evil Left-Hand ways of some of his ancestors.

By the way, when the artist was asking about the type of sword for the cover of book two, I could point him to images such as this one–one of the advantages of using an item known both history and literature.

[28 flaming A] Hawthorne was an excellent chronicler of the darker side of the Puritans’ story. In works such as The Scarlet Letter and “Young Goodman Brown,” he is particularly concerned with Puritan hypocrisy and a psychologically driven supernaturalism that doesn’t fit well with Puritan theology. In The Scarlet Letter, the adulterous Hester Prynne has to wear a scarlet “A” indicating her sin, but more supernatural seeming As pop-up elsewhere in the story. In that vein in my novel, one of the Morton powers is to see sins as glowing letters radiating from a person’s body.

Here’s Dale’s description of what his strike force looks like to him immediately before a mission: “But with my power running high, one of my natural gifts showed itself without effort. The team’s auras flickered around me; the small letters of their sins, scarlet a’s of petty fornications and k’s of military duty, tried to distract me. I ignored them.”

Also, a craft oracle reporting a soon to arrive threat says “the dark man in the woods, Papa?”—a reference to Scarlet Letter’s Black Man (the devil), which I altered slightly to avoid any confusion with skin color. Also, the secret name of one of my characters is Pearl, in a nod to the elf-like child of Hester Prynne.

[29 Easy A] Most recently, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter was re-imagined as a teenage rom-com, Easy A. Which just goes to show how times have changed.

[30 House] Another story of Puritan hypocrisy and guilt is The House of the Seven Gables. The story concerns a family whose ancestor was an accuser in the Salem witch hunt, and the curse which may or may not be upon them. One of Hawthorne’s own ancestors was a judge during the witch hunt and the reason for Hawthorne adding a “w” to his name. “Seven Gables” was influential on H.P. Lovecraft, particularly with the Charles Dexter Ward story I discuss earlier. Also, when first constructed, my House of Morton in Providence, RI had seven gables to allow for sympathetic magic against the Morton’s enemy’s “House of Seven Gables” in Salem.

[31 Rappaccini] In book two, I take Hawthorne’s story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” about a woman who, by exposure to poison, has become poisonous to others, and extend the idea to a woman who has been deliberately weaponized in this way. This idea also used in for comic book character. Poison Ivy.

[32 Poe] And now, drumroll please, we come to the main event–the biggest influence on the tone of the background story to American Craftsmen. Edgar Allan Poe wrote in many genres, invented the detective fiction story, and contributed to the development of science fiction. [33 list of stories] But he’s primarily know for his Gothic horror, for his tales of mystery and macabre.

From Poe, the first important source story for my novel was “The Fall of the House of Usher.” [34 Madeline] I’ve reimagined the House of Usher as Dale’s ancestral home, the House of Morton. The twins Roderick and Madeline Usher become Mortons as well, and they were the leaders of the evil, Left-Hand branch of the family. As in Poe, Madeline ended up being prematurely buried, but it was by Roderick’s deliberate design to see if her spirit could escape from the sealed coffin into another body.

I also title one of the sections of the book “The Fall of the House of Morton,” and I there quote from a poem in the House of Usher story. At the end of that section and the beginning of the next, I use language very similar to the end of the House of Usher story:

“With a tumultuous shouting sound like a thousand rivers pouring into the abyss, the House of Morton fell.” And then: “Through the still open door, we fled, appalled, from that chamber. The booming of the Morton home echoed after us. The storm was at its wild peak as we left the unkempt grounds for nearest side street. Suddenly, the rain and wind ceased and a wild light shadowed us from behind. Still gripping the stone in my hand, I turned to see where the ghastly gleam came from. It was the full, setting, and blood red moon, which now shone vividly through sullen and silent fragments of the House of Morton.

“How could you fuck things up so quickly?” said Scherie.”

Given their history of burying others alive (even their own family), it’s perhaps not surprising that the Mortons commonly suffer from taphephobia, the fear of being buried alive themselves. This was of course inspired by Poe’s “The Premature Burial.” For the Mortons, closed underground spaces are a lot like snakes are to Indiana Jones–something they’d rather avoid, but always seem to be running into.

By the way, this illustration and the ones that follow were all done by the Irish artist Harry Clarke for a 1923 edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination–very cool and creepy, like an earlier, nastier version of Edward Gorey.

[35 Red Death] Another important source for me from Poe is “The Masque of the Red Death,” about a ruler who attempts to isolate himself and his peers from the plague. Thinking himself safe, the ruler throws a fancy costume party, only to have the uninvited plague show up personified. This story supplied my inspiration for the evil Roderick’s ritual killing garb.

Again, to quote my own riff on Poe: “The guest descended the stairs like a king in procession. He was tall and gaunt, dressed in a gray robe resembling a funeral shroud that covered his legs, making his movement look like hovering. He wore a mask of a stiffened corpse with a rictal smile, a likeness of death that even I couldn’t quite see through. His robe was dabbled in blood, and his broad brow and face were sprinkled with scarlet horror. The motherfucker was dressed as Poe’s Red Death.

“You goddamned idiots,” said Endicott. “You brought him back.”

This was the attire of Roderick Morton as high priest to his gods. This was what Roderick wore when he would murder every motherfucking soul in the room.”

I also like Poe’s Masque because it’s about how the Decameron fails; that is, storytelling fails when we attempt to isolate it from the dark aspects of the world.

[36 Ligeia] Three of Poe’s stories helped me create two variations on evil’s attempts at immortality. The first method of immortality, involving metempsychosis or reincarnation, was inspired by “Morella” and “Ligeia” (1838) (“Ligeia” also gave me Madeline Morton’s middle name). In “Ligeia,” a man’s dead wife returns to life by taking over the body of his second dying wife; in “Morella,” the dead wife returns through the daughter.

[37 Valdemar] The other Left-Hand method of immortality involved creating a trance to sustain a spirit’s bond to a body even as it decays. This method was inspired by “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), where mesmerism is employed on a dying man to truly disgusting effect–this drawing isn’t the half of it. As an aside, you can see how the name Valdemar may have helped to inspire the name Voldemort in Harry Potter.

[38 Man of Crowd] Besides direct murder, the Left-Hand Mortons engaged in mass psychic vampirism. One of my models for this is an interpretation I’ve heard of Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd.” (1840) In this story, the narrator tracks an old man as he goes with the flow of human activity in a major metropolis. The old man is seemingly innocent of any wrong doing in his wanderings, though he may have some secret guilt that impels him to always roam in a crowd. But at least one academic thinks the old man might be feeding off the crowds he follows [Weinstein at Brown in, of course, Providence].

Various items from Poe decorate the House of Morton. The grandfather clock in the main hall has a pendulum with a sharp blade at the end, as an homage to “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The subbasement of the House of Morton is like a theatrical props warehouse for the evil side of the family, and there one can find a mummified black cat from Poe’s story, as well as the skeleton of the ape from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the still-beating heart from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and bricked-off rooms as in “The Cask of Amontillado.”

In my book 2, a character obliquely refers to Poe’s brief story “Silence: A Fable” with the phrase “poisoned land of Poe.”

With Poe’s stories, it would be difficult to list all the adaptations, homages, and influenced works, but to note just one: Ellen Datlow recently edited an anthology called Poe, in which the authors each wrote a new story inspired by a different Poe story.

My characters are aware of their literary connections, somewhat like the characters in Don Quixote. The Morton library holds the draft manuscripts and notes of authors such as Poe and Hawthrone, as those documents reveal too much about the craft and its practitioners for outside attention. So my military characters are all in a sense poet-warriors–literature for them is as much of family history as stories of long ago wars.

(One thing I noted in putting together this presentation was that the material I borrowed seems to have been clustered in two time ranges 1835-1851 and the 1890s (fin de siècle)–with Irving and Lovecraft as outliers. Not sure what that means yet.)

[39 Book two] I’ve noted that there’ll be a book 2 in this series—in fact, there’ll be at least three books. Having established my American mythos in book 1, in books 2 and 3 I can expand outward, and give the same treatment to, for example, English history and literature as I’ve given to American. But I also continue to add to my American literary references. In book 2, I introduce the Gales (as in Dorothy) as another family of magician soldiers. On meeting a Gale, the main protagonist of book 2 remarks that: “I could tell her flat accent and corn-fed farm-girl looks resembled those of the Gale Family line, notorious for their countercraft assassinations and fine-tuned weather control.”

By the way, this cover is still a draft, so you’re some of the first to see it.

I left a lot out of my literary stew. Because of concerns about copyright, I avoided using 20th century works, so there’s not much Southern Gothic here, and despite the military elements in my story Hemingway only makes a stylistic appearance in parts. I also kept to older American works to give the sense of a primal common myth, but my choices have been problematic not just in terms of geographical representation, but in terms of race (they’re all white) and sex (only one woman). I’ve tried to make up for that lack with the characters and situations I describe, and as I noted in passing regarding Melville’s Benito Cereno, I expand not just geographically in book two, but also deal more directly with slavery and women’s issues.

As a final thought, I’m all in favor of strong copyright, though it does restrain writers in the dialogue we can have with more recent works. But we can have an unrestrained conversation with the early American fantastical canon. And that’s really how these stories continue to live–not through required reading in schools (though that certainly helps), but through their influence on and antagonism with today’s writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

[40 website] If you’d like to read or listen to some of my stories, you can go to this website.

American Craftsmen was published by Tor and is currently available in hardcover and e-versions wherever books are sold, and I guess the folks from the Library’s book store have some when we’re done here. I’ve also got these cards with just some of the many generous blurbs the book has received. The mass market paperback will be released on June 30th, 2015. The sequel, The Left-Hand Way, will be released in August 2015.

Thanks again to Helen and the “What If” forum for having me here, and thank you for coming.