Strange Monsters of the Recent Past

Since the alternate history series is continuing, I return to Howard Waldrop.

Raw Feed (1992): Strange Monsters of the Recent Past, Howard Waldrop, 1991.strange-monsters-of-the-recent-past

“Foreword: The Left-Handed Muse”, Lewis Shiner — Shiner details Waldrop’s writing method: long bouts of research while he talks endlessly about the story he’s going to write then a burst of (usually) single sitting writing to make a story — usually he needs to write it down so it can be read at a convention).

All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past” This story has a fun premise: every single monster and alien menace from 1950s sf movies comes to Earth to wreck death and destruction. The ending was just ok: our protagonist decides to go out fighting the giant ants from Them!. This story illustrates why Waldrop is, in some ways, the quintessential example of what some consider sf’s genre shortcoming: interesting setups and premises with little attention paid to plot or character or theme, a lingering feeling, beyond the initial description of setting, of what’s-the-point?

Helpless, Helpless” — An interesting, ok story of the Artificials Plague which strikes the robots, androids, and artificial intelligences of a future society. The tone reminded me a bit of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (with some bits of humor from psychotic, sometimes violent machines) which is perhaps inevitable given the subject matter. Waldrop never explains the reason or origin of his plague but, as he explains in the introduction, that’s the point of the story: a sf recreation of all those historical plagues which had so much effect on their societies but couldn’t be explained by the members of those societies. I’m not sure the story would have been as enjoyable without the introduction.

Fair Game” — This story of Ernest Hemingway hunting a Wild Man plaguing a Bavarian village had more emotion in it than usual for a Waldrop story and made me realize that he’s capable of adopting his style to the subject matter. It was a story that held my interest, and one of his better ones. I’m not sure what to make of the ending. Has Hemingway been transported to Bavaria in the afterlife to become a sort of ghost (the story originally appeared in an anthology with an afterlife theme)? The more probable interpretation seems to be the story is an hallucination between the time Hemingway puts the shotgun to his head and when he pulls the trigger (a lá Ambrose Bierce’s “The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge“). The Wild Man, “unfettered, unrestrained by law and civilization … pure chaos,” seems to symbolize the ideal Hemingway has pursued all his life, and, he realizes at he sees the Wild Man with his face, it is an ideal that has left him with little. So, he will kill himself as he killed the Wild Man.

What Makes Heironymous Run?“- — One of the most pointless Waldrop stories I’ve read and a major disappointment since I was looking forward to seeing what Waldrop would do with Heironymous Bosch. The premise of the story is that two time travelers go to a Netherlands that resembles the landscape of Bosch paintings (and other painters of the time I think), not the historical Netherlands. What follows is an exercise in surrealism and not a very inventive exercise either. How clever is it to just describe, in prose, a Bosch painting? The ending so obscure as to be meaningless. Has the Little Ice Age started up or is the white symbolic of a new canvass forming? One of the worst stories of Waldrop’s I’ve ever read.

The Lions Are Asleep This Night” — This is the second time I’ve read this story, and I liked it better this time and think it’s one of Waldrop’s best. Sure the idea — a boy writing a Jacobean style (Waldrop does a pretty good job of recreating the style) revenge drama around African history — is pretty simple but the execution was nicely done in both the details of this alternate history and the protagonist’s character. It seems somewhat improbable that a black slave revolt would not be defeated by the European colonizers of the New World. On the other hand, Bolivia broke from Spain, Washington from England. Surprisingly, Waldrop, who makes mention of William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples elsewhere, doesn’t cite the obvious advantage large numbers of blacks would have over native populations in a rebellion — immunity to most European diseases. In Waldrop’s defense, he has the slave rebellion start with the formation of Freedom, a country who then exports revolution. So maybe it’s not that improbable. Waldrop’s starting point for this alternate history seems much like Harry Turtledove’s Sim World: a New World devoid of humans. He also seems to imply that the Spanish Armada was a success — England produces at least three popes, and Oliver Cromwell discovers the New World.) From what I know of Zimbabwe literature (a bit about themes and titles is about all) and Jacobean drama, the literary details were well-handled. It had a lot more warmth than the usual Waldrop story.

Flying Saucer Rock and Roll” — For the life of me, I don’t know why this story was popular enough to be nominated for Nebula and Hugo awards. I found the basic idea rather trite though at least the ending was understandable with Leroy be taken away by flying saucers. Granted, the style and dialogue suited the story well. I thought the best part of the story was the transliteration of doo-wop sounds.

He-Who-Await” — This story left me cold. I liked the build-up: the detailed descriptions of mummification, the secret society of He-We-Await, the strange tale of Sekhemetumi and what seems to be at attempt to rejuvenate him via cloning and Egyptian magic so he can see the “sun rise 5000 years from his time”, and the description of sherbert making in Egypt. (I still am not sure why this last was in there. Is the suggestion that the vast iceworks described were part of the preparations for Sekhemetumi? How did the ice last that long? Why were the iceworks and not his body discovered?) This story is frustrating because it almost works. But some of its elements, like the iceworks, seem to not really be an organic part of the story. The story is a bit too obscure. While it’s a nice bit of grim humor to have Bobby kill dad Sekhemetumi, what’s with the “last days of mankind” bit? Too obscure to be horrifying.

A Dozen Tough Jobs — This short novel is one of Waldrop’s better efforts. Here his energy wasn’t dissipated creating an alternate history but instead a clever retelling of Hercules’ Twelve Labors only in the Deep South of 1926 and 1927. Like any retelling of another story, it’s interesting to see what is changed, kept, and discarded from the source material. I liked the wonderful job Waldrop did in creating the world of this story which seemed so real, a South slightly tinged by what I suppose would be called “magic realism”. (There is a Diana-like character with a yard full of animals and a Cybil character who prophesizes and gates of ivory and horn.) One of the most interesting bits was his use of names, and I did like the idea of Pluto (Dees) reigning as a Kleagle at a Klan meeting, the Eumenides brothers as instruments of justice who release Houlka Lee, and the centaurs as a riding club always atop their horses. Guessing the allusions is a lot of fun, and I’m sure, given my slight mythological knowledge, I missed a lot. It was only by research in the encyclopedia that I caught the significance of Mr. Ness’ fishing vest and Miz Rio’s suicide (a whole mythological episode only hinted at in the final chapter and of which the narrator is ignorant). This story had style, coherence, emotion, and a point like none other of Waldrop’s that I’ve read except “Heirs of the Perisphere”.


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