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.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Alan Turing in South Carolina, 1937

In December 1937, while at Princeton, the young mathematical genius Alan Turing traveled with his friend Venable Martin to visit Martin's hometown, which Turing's biographer calls only "a small town in South Carolina."

Turing wrote home that it was "quite as far south as I had ever been -- about 34 degrees."

This is good for only seven lines in Andrew Hodges's Turing biography, but of course it interests me, as my hometown of Batesburg, S.C. is on the 33rd parallel. Nearby Columbia, the capital city and home of my undergraduate alma mater, is on the 34th. I wonder where exactly Turing was?

Incidentally, Turing wrote home of South Carolina: "The people seem to be all very poor down there still, even though it is so long since the civil war."

Source: Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma (Burnett Books, 1983; Princeton UP, 2014), p. 180.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

P.S. to Politics in sf, or, which side am I on?

(Just posted to Facebook -- after hundreds of Likes and scores of comments -- and reposted here.)

Folks, y'all have ranged far beyond the topic of my original post. May I ask those who'd like to debate Will Shetterly to do so on his blog, his Facebook page, etc.? 

My purpose at the outset was simply to share King's letter and state my allegiance with the marginalized in our field, lest anyone be confused on that point; and based on all the responses pro and con, I do seem to have done that. 

I have no illusions that the field is my own ten toes to wiggle as I please, and I feel no need whatsoever to wear down in debate everyone who disagrees with me, on this point or any other point -- especially since what we're debating here, at base, is Right and Wrong, the most personal and individual of classifications. 

I am content that I have examined, and spoken, my own conscience; I invite others to examine, then speak, their own -- using their own pages, their own blogs, their own panels, their own writing. It is -- I say this once more, for emphasis -- a necessary conversation. 

And if you'd like to have a face-to-face talk about all this, next time you see me shambling about the Circuit, you'd better buy me a drink first. Politics is thirsty work. 

In the meantime, I'll be pruning subsequent comments in this thread as needed, to keep this spiky hedge we've planted together from overrunning the place. 

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm on deadline. -- Yours in our great work, Andy D.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Politics in sf, or, which side am I on?

(Just posted to Facebook, and reposted here.)

Many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances in the science fiction/fantasy trades, assuming that I will agree with them because I have known them for years, or because I admire their work, or because I seem in sync aesthetically, or (sometimes, I sense) simply because I am a white man with a Southern accent and gray in my beard, have expressed to me lately that sure, diversity and sensitivity are great, but what's gotten into all these youngsters and LGBTQ folks and people of color and -- especially -- women? Why do they keep picking on us? Why are they complaining so loudly? Whatever happened to civility? Why does everything have to be political, since we're all just storytellers, comrades around the fire? Why do they act like we've done something wrong, when in fact we have done nothing wrong? What's their beef, anyway? Aren't these "politically correct" people (the argument continues) the REAL bullies? And who are these people, anyway? We've never heard of them, so what right do they have ... ? 

And so forth. 

I've been hearing all this a lot. 

So, to save time, let me respond to all of these people -- the ones I know well and love, the ones I barely know and dislike, and everyone in between -- all at once. 

Simply put, here is my position on all this. 

First: The increasing diversity of our field is an unalloyed good. There is nothing at all wrong with it. 

Second: This ongoing discussion about the field and how it treats all its members -- a discussion instigated and driven by all these newcomers -- is likewise an unalloyed good. There is nothing at all wrong with it. It is the necessary growing pains of a field moving from awkward adolescence into maturity. 

And if you're still feeling bruised and resentful and don't understand where all this unrest, this agitation, this backlash is coming from, may I suggest that you re-read, as I just did, Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from the Birmingham, Ala., jail. It was addressed to you, to me, to us.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The story of "Beluthahatchie"

I'm delighted that the May issue of Clarkesworld reprints my 1997 story "Beluthahatchie," alongside new stories by Maggie Clark, Matthew Kressel and E. Catherine Tobler, plus another Southern reprint -- Howard Waldrop's "Night of the Cooters" (1987). I'm in great company.

To honor the occasion, here is the afterword I wrote for my out-of-print collection Beluthahatchie and Other Stories (Golden Gryphon Press, 2000). Re-reading it makes me realize that in pairing "Beluthahatchie" and "Night of the Cooters," Gardner Dozois, Clarkesworld reprint editor, paired a Strother Martin/Dub Taylor story with a Slim Pickens story. Science fiction editors don't get to do this very often.

This story began in one of my graduate classes at North Carolina State University: Short Story Form & Theory, taught by Angela Davis-Gardner. Each student was required to do a presentation on the technique of one short-story writer. I don’t remember what writer I picked, but one of my classmates picked Zora Neale Hurston – whom I never had read – and specifically Hurston’s “Story in Harlem Slang,” accompanied by Hurston’s own glossary. That glossary, drawing upon African-American folklore much older than 1920s Harlem, included several vividly named suburbs of Hell, the most vivid, to my mind, being Beluthahatchie. My first thought was, “I’ve read a lot of stories set in Hell, but never one set in Beluthahatchie.”

Months passed, during which I toyed with various terrible ideas for a story set in Beluthahatchie and titled “Beluthahatchie.” At one point, I decided to write the story of a boundary dispute between the sleepy suburb of Beluthahatchie and the bustling city of Hell, and wasted time looking into the intricacies of annexation law before blessedly losing interest. My salvation, if I may use that word in this context, began when I started researching African-American folklore about Hell, figuring I needed to know a lot more than a list of place names. This research led me to the folktales of the slave John and his owner, Old Massa, who forever played cruel tricks on one another, united only in rascality and in mutual terror of the Devil. My research also led me to the Lake of the Dead, a myth apparently widespread in my homeland of central South Carolina that I, growing up white, had never heard. But most crucially, my research into African-American visions of Hell led me to the songs of the late Delta blues artist Robert Johnson – and once I realized my suburb-of-Hell story also needed to be a Robert Johnson story, all the story’s main elements clicked into place in my head. (I’m glad I didn’t know then, as I know now, that enough fantasy stories about Robert Johnson have been written in recent years to fill an anthology; I might well have abandoned the idea, assuming it had “been done.”  Advice to writers: It’s never been done, until you do it.)

I didn’t attempt to write the story down until several months later, during the first week of the six-week Clarion West writers’ workshop in Seattle in summer 1994. We were expected to write a story a week, and I had come prepared, with a suitcase full of notes. What made me turn to “Beluthahatchie” first was, I am ashamed to admit, spite. During the first day or two of the workshop, one of the manuscripts we discussed was a fine Devil story, set in the Louisiana bayou, by my classmate, Syne Mitchell. One of our classmates, I forget whom, announced that he/she was prejudiced against Devil stories, was in fact heartily sick of Devil stories, hoped indeed never to read another Devil story in her/his life. I thought, “Well, you’ll read ONE more, like it or not.” 

I went back to my dorm room and started the draft of “Beluthahatchie” that very afternoon, banging away on the typewriter I had borrowed upon arrival from Eileen Gunn. (My computer hadn’t arrived yet.) I found out later that my start-and-stop typing at all hours of day and night, loud enough to be heard up and down the dormitory corridor, drove many of my classmates nuts – though they were too polite, that first week, to say so. But Eileen had told me this was a Lucky Typewriter, on which she had written her first published stories, and so my hopes were high.

Flash forward to the following January, and the registration table at Chattacon ’95, a science-fiction convention in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Standing in line near me was one of my Clarion West teachers, Michael Swanwick, whom I greeted happily. “Hello,” Michael said, “and congratulations.”
“Congratulations on what?” I asked.

“Gardner is buying your story,” Michael said.

I had submitted “Beluthahatchie” to Gardner Dozois at Asimov’s months earlier, but had heard nothing. Sure enough, I came home from Chattanooga to find Gardner’s acceptance letter waiting for me. It was my first fiction sale. 

Three years later, the membership of the World Science Fiction Convention named “Beluthahatchie” a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story of the year. And now it’s the title story of this, my first book. A lucky typewriter indeed, Eileen!

While I’m acknowledging people, I should note that of all the comments I received on the story at Clarion West, the most helpful were Syne Mitchell’s exhortations to work in as much of the applicable legendry and folklore as possible – to make the story, in short, Mythic with a capital M. “If you don’t take Syne’s advice,” Eric S. Nylund said at the time, “then you’re a fool.” Eric and Syne are married now; how could she resist? 

A final note: People ask me where my idea of the Devil came from. It mostly came from the late actors Dub Taylor and Strother Martin – check out Bonnie and Clyde and Cool Hand Luke, respectively. But when I read his lines aloud, I sound a lot like Strom Thurmond, whose South Carolina hometown is about a half-hour’s drive from mine. As my grandmother would say about a family likeness: I get it honest.
Cutting and pasting this, I just remembered one more relevant anecdote.

After the story first was published, many people stumbled badly when trying to pronounce the title. People introducing me at readings simply gave up and asked me to do it. Granted, no one from the Southeastern United States had any trouble, because Southerners are used to place names ending in hatchie, which means "river" in the regional Native American tongues. Still, a lot of people had trouble.

Nevertheless, when I told my editor-publisher at Golden Gryphon, Gary Turner, that I didn't know what to title the collection, his instant reply was, "We're going to title it Beluthahatchie and Other Stories."

"But Gary," I said, "no one can pronounce the title."

He retorted, "They pronounced it onto the Hugo ballot, didn't they?" And I had no answer to that. In fact, they soon pronounced it onto another ballot, as Beluthahatchie and Other Stories won the World Fantasy Award for Best Collection. A decade later, I titled my second collection The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories. Why tamper with success?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I'm a Hugo and Nebula finalist

My co-writer Ellen Klages and I are finalists for the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award, both in the Best Novella category, for "Wakulla Springs" (, October 2013). illustration by Gary Kelley.

We're delighted, of course, and thank all the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America members who put us on the Nebula ballot and all the World Science Fiction Convention members who put us on the Hugo ballot.

Congratulations, too, to everyone on the ballots. The only other novella up for both a Nebula and a Hugo this year is Catherynne M. Valente's Six-Gun Snow White, published by Subterranean. Other Nebula finalists in our category are Vylar Kaftan, Nancy Kress, Veronica Schanoes and Lawrence M. Schoen. Other Hugo finalists in our category are Charles Stross, Brad Torgersen and Dan Wells.

According to Mark R. Kelly, who keeps track for me and everyone else, "Wakulla Springs" is Ellen's second Hugo nomination and my third, while it's Ellen's fourth Nebula nomination and my eighth. We each have one Nebula win but no Hugos -- yet!

Nebula winners will be announced May 17 at the SFWA banquet in San Jose, Calif. Whatever happens there, I'll still have three months to savor being a Hugo finalist; the Hugo winners will be announced Aug. 17 at Loncon 3, the 72nd Worldcon, in London. Ellen and I both plan to be at both these events. Y'all come, too.

Coll's "King of the Khyber Rifles" (1916)

I can't afford to bid on this 1916 Joseph Clement Coll illustration -- one of a series that accompanied Talbot Mundy's King of the Khyber Rifles on its original serialization in Everybody's Magazine -- but I sure did enjoy clicking the Large view, at the auction site, to study the penmanship up close. Wow!

The auction is for a worthy cause, the Locus Science Fiction Foundation. The illustration is from the collection of the late Locus publisher Charles N. Brown.

Mundy's adventure stories, many set in a mysterious and mystical India during the Raj, have influenced a number of fantasists: Leigh Brackett, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Andre Norton. S.M. Stirling's The Peshawar Lancers (2002) is a more recent homage.

Coll was just as influential among fantasy illustrators, for his pen-and-ink wizardry and his iconic visualizations of Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger and Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu. Al Williamson is one obvious descendant. As collector Jim Vadeboncoeur puts it on his Coll appreciation page:
There were science fiction stories before The Lost World ... just as there were authors before Mundy and Rohmer who wrote horror and adventure stories. What there wasn't, before Coll, was the illustrative style and technique to match the literary ones. Coll invented that style, developed it, popularized it, and disseminated it to the coming generations of artists who saw it and knew that it was right.