Saturday, August 19, 2017

Ever more just, every day

Some version of this likely is going on my syllabi this fall.

As a fiftysomething Southern white man, I am inevitably associated, by history and current events alike, with the most toxic elements of American society, including the fascists now literally on the march across our nation. Because my silence in the face of such horrors might imply complicity, and because merely cutting-and-pasting our university’s anti-discrimination policies would not be personal enough or strong enough, I hereby affirm to all my students, and to their friends, families and loved ones, that I abhor white supremacy, racism, sexism, nativism and misogyny, and that I work daily to be a mentor, friend, advocate and ally for all my students, including women; people of color; students who are queer, lesbian, gay, bi, trans, undecided, intersex and asexual; immigrants and the children of immigrants, including the undocumented; and people of all religious faiths and of no religious faith at all. Dr. Cornel West reminds us, "Justice is what love looks like in public." I pledge my support as we work to make our classroom, campus, community and nation ever more just, every day.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

New sale: "The Devil's Whatever" will be in The Book of Magic, ed. Gardner Dozois (Bantam, 2018)

I just sold a new novelette, "The Devil's Whatever," to Gardner Dozois for his upcoming Book of Magic anthology, which I believe will be a 2018 Bantam hardover with new work from Eleanor Arnason, Elizabeth Bear, John Crowley, Kate Elliott, Matthew Hughes, Megan Lindholm, Garth Nix, K.J. Parker, Rachel Pollack, Tim Powers, Ysabeau Wilce and Liz Williams, among others. I'm honored to be included. 
"The Devil's Whatever" is my third Pearleen Sunday story, after "A Diorama of the Infernal Regions" (2007) and "The Dragaman's Bride" (2009); it also is a sequel to "Beluthahatchie" (1997), the first story I wrote at Clarion West 1994. All three of those earlier stories likewise were bought by Gardner Dozois, whose encouragement has been invaluable to me, these past 20-plus years.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Man Against Myth by Barrows Dunham (1947)

On my groaning bookcases devoted to pseudoscience, urban legends and folklore in general, a battered first-edition hardcover, without dust jacket, has sat for years, since I blindly retrieved it from a library giveaway table: Man Against Myth by Barrows Dunham (Boston: Little, Brown, 1947).

I could use a higher-res cover image.
I finally plucked it off the shelf, at random, and read it. Dunham devotes a chapter apiece to 10 common beliefs that he argues are not only erroneous, but active obstacles to social progress. After I read the book, I learned the author became a cause celebre a few years later, when he refused to testify before the Un-American Activities Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. He was fired by Temple University, where he had been on faculty, and prosecuted for contempt of Congress; though acquitted, he did not teach again for many years. 

Here are Dunham’s chapter titles, listing the beliefs he seeks to rebut:
1. That you can’t change human nature.
2. That the rich are fit and the poor unfit.
3. That there are superior and inferior races.
4. That there are two sides to every question.
5. That thinking makes it so.
6. That you cannot mix art and politics.
7. That you have to look out for yourself.
8. That all problems are merely verbal.
9. That words will never hurt me.
10. That you cannot be [both] free and safe.

(Originally posted on Facebook, Aug. 4, 2017. Bud Schultz's 2012 photo of Dunham is here.)

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Piggie Park defense

(This is re-posted from my Facebook page, where many comments can be found.)

As I graduated from an all-white South Carolina private academy that my parents helped found in defiance of school integration, I have much to atone for on Martin Luther King Day, as on every day. Today I am thinking about the Piggie Park defense, an old Palmetto State tactic that some Christians are attempting to revive in the 21st century, as a weapon against queer people.
My first-edition copy of Bessinger's self-published 2001 book.
Piggie Park is a Columbia-area barbecue chain whose founder, the late Maurice Bessinger, refused to serve black people. Spurned customers filed suit in federal court in the year of my birth, 1964. The case, Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court on the narrow but important point of attorney’s fees. The larger point Bessinger had tried to make didn’t even reach the Supremes, having been a loser in the first round. To serve barbecue to black people, Bessinger argued, would violate his Christian beliefs; therefore, he argued, civil-rights legislation trampled his First Amendment religious freedoms.

The late William Price Fox, my undergraduate creative-writing professor at the University of South Carolina, loved telling this story, and always claimed the judge’s response to Bessinger’s argument was, “’Tain’t good enough, Maurice,” a sentence I sadly am forced to concede cannot be found in the published federal opinion. Fox was, however, vividly and accurately paraphrasing what the opinion does say, which is this:
Undoubtedly defendant Bessinger has a constitutional right to espouse the religious beliefs of his own choosing, however, he does not have the absolute right to exercise and practice such beliefs in utter disregard of the clear constitutional rights of other citizens. This court refuses to lend credence or support to his position that he has a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of the Negro race in his business establishments upon the ground that to do so would violate his sacred religious beliefs.
Let us fast-forward now to the 21st century, when the Piggie Park defense is being (pardon the pun) trotted out again by the “Preserve Freedom, Prevent Coercion” statement. The 80-plus “prominent religious and thought leaders” who have signed this – almost all of them men, among them Franklin Graham and the archbishop of Baltimore – argue that all civil-rights protections for queer people are inherently unconstitutional because Jesus. That’s a paraphrase, of course – one I hope Fox would appreciate – but hey, read the statement yourself, if you have the stomach. Then re-read Judge Simons’s opinion I quoted above, from 1966. Substitute for “Bessinger” any bigot du jour, and substitute for “members of the Negro race” the phrase “queer people.” That’s the best rebuttal to Graham et al, and it was written a half-century ago. You might mention that, the next time you run into the archbishop of Baltimore in the 7-Eleven, or into Franklin Graham at some inauguration or other.

It’s getting toward lunchtime as I type this, and I must confess, at the risk of my queer-allied soul, that if you set a plate of Piggie Park barbecue in front of me right now, I gladly would eat it. But I never again will swallow the Piggie Park defense, no matter what sauce you put on it. I’ve had my fill of that already.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A call for Western Maryland weirdness

As an ongoing research project, I hope to compile an exhaustive list of Western Maryland weirdness. Whether it’s factual, fanciful or in dispute, I’d like to know about anything in Garrett, Allegany, Washington and Frederick counties that might qualify as unusual, unexpected, anomalous, paranormal or legendary. Categories of interest include, but are not limited to:
  • Odd roadside sights, attractions or tourist traps, current or historical.
  • Ghosts, apparitions, poltergeists and hauntings, in public or private locations.
  • Cryptids, mystery animals and varmints.
  • UFOs, will-o-the-wisps and ball lightning.
  • Portents, omens, premonitions and predictions that came true.
  • Unsolved or unusual crimes or disappearances.
  • Hoaxes, pranks, wild claims and public stunts.
  • Eccentric organizations, businesses, causes, political candidates and individuals (present company excepted).
  • Conspiracies, scandals and parapolitics.
  • Odd historical episodes, distinctions, personalities and artifacts.
  • Anomalous geographies, geologies, landscapes and ecosystems.
  • Buried or hidden treasures.
  • Cameo appearances by the famous or infamous, whether natives, transplants or travelers passing through.
  • Odd or controversial place names.
  • Unusual disasters, deaths and escapes.
  • Unusual epitaphs, gravestones, tombs or burial sites.
  • Unique buildings, structures, statues, monuments and markers.
  • Outsider and visionary artists and their built environments.
  • Unique rituals, holidays or customs.
  • Unexpected course offerings, academic researches or experiments.
  • Manias, crazes and mass hysterias.
  • Urban legends, modern myths and beliefs that ain’t so.
I also seek recommendations for books, websites, archives and experts who delve into such local things. I need, obviously, all the help I can get.

Please feel free to forward this to anyone who might have a tip, or a story to tell. In any eventual publications that arise from this research, I pledge to give credit wherever it’s due, though I will honor requests for anonymity provided I know who the informant is.

I also concede that weirdness knows no borders, so if you know of such things in contiguous counties of Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, as well as other parts of Maryland, please pass them along, too. I am chiefly interested, however, in Maryland’s skillet handle, where the state is only one county wide, and yet so deep.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The legend of the belled buzzard

Illustration from The Sylva Herald.

Jerome Clark devotes a chapter of his book Unexplained!: Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena (Visible Ink, 2013; 3rd ed.) to the legend of “the belled buzzard”: a buzzard with a bell hung around its neck, which rang, as if in warning, as the bird flew overhead (pp. 233-242).

For decades in the 19th and 20th centuries, scores of sightings of the belled buzzard were reported in small-town newspapers in multiple states, mostly the Southeast. For example, Clark cites several here in Maryland:
  • ·         Hagerstown: “The original belled buzzard” captured “on the towpath of the canal,” 23 April 1930 (p. 240).
  • ·         Woodpoint: Belled buzzard seen in this Hagerstown neighborhood, February 1931 (p. 236).
  • ·         Harford County: Belled buzzard as a harbinger of a buzzard flock numbering “some 500,” presumably without bells, January 1935 (p. 236).
This creature belongs in the realm of folklore more than fact. Even assuming the existence of one such unfortunate bird, it could not possibly have lived so long or ranged so far, encumbered as it was. But the existence of multiple belled buzzards, in the numbers suggested by the newspaper reports, is equally unlikely.

An 1893 sketch, via Matt Jaeger's blog.
Various origins were claimed for the apparently-not-so-unique bird. Was the bell attached by cruel pranksters, or by a vengeful farmer, or did it get there accidentally, while the buzzard was feeding from a cow’s carcass? Most published reports offered no explanation at all. It was just one of those odd things people claimed to see, from time to time.

Given the mystery, I’m tempted to call the belled buzzard a UFO, one long predating the post-World War II UFO phenomenon in the United States. It certainly was an Unexplained Flying Object, if not an Unidentified one.

As with later UFOs, many of these reports could have been simple misidentifications. Once the legend of the belled buzzard was planted in people’s minds, simply seeing a distant buzzard while simultaneously hearing a ringing cowbell, dinner bell or school bell might have counted as a sighting, even though bird and bell were linked only coincidentally.

And of course, newspapers back then were prone to reprint tall tales and outright hoaxes, just to fill space and entertain readers. (Digression: Such observations are sometimes made in a superior tone, as if the media are more trustworthy now, but I’m not so quick to make that assumption, given how much preposterous “news” and other misinformation clogs our email inbox, our social-media feeds, our presidential debates. Our tools have evolved, but our tastes in reading, and our gullibility, are stubbornly unchanged.)

Still, the possibility exists that somewhere, someone did manage to hang a bell on a buzzard’s neck, before it flew away. Maybe that happened in more than one place, involving more than one person. Or maybe the person who initially managed the trick just kept doing it.

Whatever its origin, the legend percolated through popular culture for a while. An old-time fiddle tune is titled “The Belled Buzzard.” Irvin S. Cobb’s short story “The Belled Buzzard” (Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 28, 1912) makes fictional use of the legend. Blogger Matt Jaeger writes about Cobb’s story, provides a reproduction of the cover, and earns extra points for using the adjective “tintinnabulous.” Cobb’s story is here, but be warned: I counted 14 instances of the N-word.

Yes, I’m writing a story about all this. Thanks for asking.

And I noticed, only moments before I posted this, that the cover date on that “Belled Buzzard” issue of the Saturday Evening Post is Sept. 28, the same month and date on which I was unaccountably inspired to blog about this subject, exactly 103 years later. Some would dismiss this as coincidence!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Happy birthday, Sydney

Sydney in our Abingdon, Va., hotel room in August 2015, celebrating that she had, indeed, remembered to pack her jeans.
This is the time of year when I pick up, then discard, scores of birthday cards, because none is even half adequate to convey my feelings for Sydney Bowling Duncan.

Clarion 2016: I'm teaching Week Three

Caption: This is one of my favorite photos from Clarion 2013, my previous stint teaching the six-week workshop in San Diego. Patrick Ropp (right) clearly is not at all intimidated by Jessica Cluess (middle), while Marie Vibbert (left) hopes in vain that the instructor will intervene.
I'm honored to be teaching Week Three of Clarion 2016 in San Diego, in a lineup that includes (in teaching order) Kelly Link, Ted Chiang, Victor LaValle and the team of Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman -- plus, of course, the students.

I look forward to meeting my new colleagues!

Applications will be accepted Dec. 1, 2015, to March 1, 2016. If you're a seriously aspiring writer of science fiction, fantasy or horror, broadly defined, and you have time for a six-week immersion in the field in summer 2016, you should apply to Clarion -- and, while you're at it, to Clarion West, too.

If you're wavering, let me know, so that I can talk you into it.

For those keeping count, I am a Clarion West alum (1994) who has taught Clarion West twice before (2005 and 2015) and Clarion twice before (2004 and 2013). Clearly I haven't broken the thing. I consider these teaching gigs to be my top honor in the field thus far -- not that I don't appreciate the awards attention, too.

(Apologies for letting this blog lie fallow for so long. I thought this announcement was a good excuse for reviving it.)