Howard Waldrop stands out as a unique voice in contemporary science fiction, who despite numerous award nominations, has never received the popular attention he deserves. Some of this neglect derives from the fact that he’s primarily written short fiction, which tends to be read by ardent fans and critics but rarely brings popularity. Also, Waldrop’s work possesses a unique voice and a great deal of humor and, according to publishers, humorous SF does not sell. Many writers, even if they deviate from standard genre fiction, have a trademark style they produce over and over. Waldrop doesn’t even do that: his stories differ from one another as much as his work differs from genre standards. The way to fame and fortune seems to be producing work derivative of bestselling writers, or at least to hit on a formula and stick to it, but Waldrop goes his own way.
Waldrop likes to joke that he always sells his work to the publisher who pays the least. He’s been broke enough that at times he’s been reduced to writing stories on a friend’s kitchen table. There are anecdotes of him surviving off unlikely things like string beans and popcorn much like a latter day Lovecraft.
Waldrop’s work is often compared to other erudite writers such as R.A. Lafferty and Avram Davidson. Both Davidson and Waldrop love to express unusual learning in their work, the more esoteric the better, reminiscent of Borges with his classical and medieval references.
Waldrop sometimes spends six months researching a story, generally only producing two or three stories a year. How he manages to eat is unknown, but this level of craftsmanship, orneriness, and individuality deserves greater renown. As Waldrop puts it:
I write about stuff I love—dodos, the 1939 World’s Fair, fishing. . . . I knew from age 18 or so I was going to write a story about the ’39 World Fair. That ended up being Heirs of the Perisphere. Mound builders went into Them Bones. I can almost get fascinated by anything. I can whip myself up into a frenzy after I come across some fact, and then another and another. Eventually it all surfaces, but I have to convince myself that other people should be fascinated too. . . . When I do all the research on a story, even after I finish I’m still reading in that area for another year or two, because I’m still fascinated by it. Then slowly I’ll get myself away from that, onto something else. It’s a lot of work, is all I can say.
Much of Waldrop’s writing is readily available; a good smattering of it—ten stories—is actually free on the Internet. New readers can try Waldrop's free stuff, and then buy his books if they find they like him.
An excellent example of how Waldrop channels his erudite obsessions into humorous oddball fiction is his most famous story, the winner of the World Fantasy and Nebula Awards, The Ugly Chickens.
He recounts in Howard Who? that it took him the first half of 1979 to compose The Ugly Chickens surrounded by notes and piles of books. The tale contains an intellectual history of the dodo and its influence on Western civilization. In many ways the story is the unusual learning. The Ugly Chickens cannot be reduced to a plot summary: the story’s importance resides in the telling, the laid back humor and the way the characters uncover information.
It’s set in the Deep South, mostly Mississippi, among unpaved roads and "dirt banks red as Billy Carter’s neck" which is also the home of the last dodos. The Southern setting stands out as one of the unusual characteristics of Waldrop’s writing. SF writers often create a sense of place on distant worlds or in the future. Waldrop incorporates SF into a Southern American setting—which only a few genre writers have done successfully—making Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas as much his world as Herbert makes Arrakis his.
One Horse Town, co-written with Leigh Kennedy, is a tale about the Trojan war, told from three points of view and time periods united by the Trojan setting: one part of the story is narrated by Homer, the blind poet who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey; another by a soldier during the Trojan war; the third by Heinrich Schliemann, the archeologist who unearthed Troy. The stories merge in Schliemann’s viewpoint when he sees the ghosts of the other two narrators. Waldrop knows biographical detail about Schliemann, historical facts about the archeological dig, and Greek and Trojan cultures well enough to depict both. He put a level of research into the story that most writers would only apply to a novel—if that. The tale demonstrates why Waldrop produces high-quality but rare work.
The title One Horse Town is a pun referring to the Trojan horse and reflects the Waldrop-esque humor running through the tale.
I was also struck by Waldrop’s colloquial language. Most writers setting a tale in ancient Greece would write in a pseudo-archaic formal language without contractions or slang to evoke a sense of the past and to imitate epic writers such as Homer and Virgil. Waldrop’s ancient Greek soldier says: "Most soldiers want adventure, a chance to see the world, meet some girls, have a bit of gold to spend on a good time if the chance comes up. I’m not so different from the other guys." Waldrop possesses the ability to evoke what’s universal about human experience with every day language, while at the same time demonstrating the cultural differences between the past and the present.
Waldrop’s colloquial style works well in stories with Native American protagonists. Green Brothers deals with the Lakotas during the Civil War. The Lakotas lay siege to a fort and the grandson of a medicine man has a vision quest about a T-Rex. They dig up the T-Rex, which again brings back Waldrop’s fascination with archeology and extinct animals. Mary Margaret Roadgrader is a Nebula award-nominated post-apocalyptic story about Indians and road races. The humor and portrayal of Native American culture are effective in both.
God’s Hooks is told from the point of view of the 17th century minister and author of The Compleat Angler, the first famous book about fishing. Waldrop shares Walton’s fascination with fishing:
Fishing is one of the main things in my life. Writing and fishing—that’s about it.... One of the reasons I moved back from Washington State after living there seven years was because they started closing the river down from March through June. I lived 100 feet from the river and I had to drive 20 miles to a lake to fish. I had enough of that after three years.
—Locus, November, 2003
The story also co-stars John Bunyan, the author of A Pilgrim’s Progress, as well as an encounter with a giant devil fish. Waldrop demonstrates immense knowledge of minor writers like Walton and quite a bit about 17th century culture and history.
Der Untergand des Abendlandesmenschen highlights some of the weaknesses of Waldrop’s writing. He sometimes includes so many esoteric references that he loses his readers. He has stated that he expects his readers to do a lot of work in reading his stories. I don’t have a problem with that and for the most part his ability to obsess over an unusual topic gives his work its unusual quality; however, at times it can produce work self-absorbed and uncommunicative. This tale involves Sherlock Holmes, German expressionism, Nazis, Westerns, and Nosferatu. The title means, "The Down-Going of the Men of the Sun-Setting Lands, or End of the Cowboys." If you lack Waldrop’s enthusiasm for old or B movies, you won’t be as thrilled by this story.
Dr. Hudson’s Secret Gorilla also demonstrates Waldrop’s love for B monster movies. I enjoyed the campy opening when the protagonist realizes his brain has been transplanted into a gorilla’s body. The characters are intentionally flat: beautiful daughter, mad scientist, and evil assistant. And Waldrop knows gorillas, even their relative penis size (small, actually). My patience with camp has its limits, and this story pushed those limits. The conclusion gives a sense of the camp and surrealism that runs through the story; the intelligent gorilla decides to revenge himself on mankind:
I have the machine gun. They will not take me alive. You have sent me after the Three Stooges. You have visited my nightmare form on Abbott and Costello. You have run me across a footbridge where I snarled at Laurel and Hardy.
I am funny. Gorillas are funny.
I will show you funny.(74)
Heirs of the Perisphere is a story about the 1939 World’s Fair and robots of Disney characters in a post apocalyptic environment. After a freak lightning storm a long dead factory builds three robots, cartoon characters designed to work in Disney World (although Disney is never mentioned by name). The robots go off to find out what happened to all the people in a story that is strangely touching at the end.
Waldrop has written a number of brilliant alternate history tales. Winter Quarters is influenced by archaeology and anthropology, contains a heavy dose of humor, and is set in a near future in which wooly mammoths have been cloned from frozen remains. Its opening sentence contains a great narrative hook:
Perhaps I should start "When he was twelve, he ran away from the circus."
Maybe I should begin "As circuses go, it was a small one. It only had two mammoths."
In a thesaurus or taxonomy of Waldrop themes, one would have to include extinct animals: not just the dodo but also the passenger pigeon and other losers of evolution such as the wooly mammoths. Both Them Bones and The World, as We Know’t contain depictions of schools of passenger pigeons. In Them Bones the narrator takes refuge under a tree when a flock of over a billion passenger pigeons pass over him. Moving at 100 kph an hour, they take over two hours to pass overhead and drop a blizzard of little white lumps, a shit storm.
The World, as We Know’t is set in 18th century America and in an alternate world where the discredited scientific theory of phlogiston is true. Phlogiston is the flammable substance within any combustible body. This theory is scientifically false, although 18th century scientists spent years working to prove its existence. Waldrop’s chemist protagonist manages to isolate phlogiston—the essence of fire—and destroys the world as fires rage out of control.
Let’s also not forget that Waldrop is fascinated by history’s losers, groups such as Jews and the Mound Building Indians. Horror, We Got is a satirical response to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that describes a plot by Jews for world domination. He writes a story imagining that the theory is true. I found it an interesting concept, but he’s taking the same chance Swift took in A Modest Proposal: irony is lost on some people. Let’s add historical frauds to the list of Waldrop obsessions.
Waldrop’s sporadic novel writing has not helped his career financially. According to the "about the author section" on SciFiction Waldrop is writing two novels: Moon World (10 years and counting) and I, John Mandeville (28 years). Although Waldrop is hardly the first writer to struggle to finish a novel, he may be one of the few genre writers to have this particular problem. Many genre writers are known for cranking the novels out every few months or so to pay the rent. Existential angst and writer’s block are often confined to the literary establishment. Personally, I'd like to see him finish the Mandeville novel. Mandeville, the medieval compiler of a book of travels, claimed to be an English knight living in France who had traveled much of the world. His description of other lands is fantastic and historically inaccurate. His book was a hoax (remember Waldrop’s interest in hoaxes), one of the world’s first fantasy novels published as fact, possibly written by an Englishman who never traveled farther than France. This idea gives Waldrop quite a bit to work with.
He has published three novels: The Texas-Israel War (1974), Them Bones (1984), and A Dozen Tough Jobs (1989). The Texas-Israel War I read years ago before I knew who Waldrop was and did not find it as enthralling as his later work; I remember few details, other than finding it readable. A Dozen Tough Jobs is a retelling of Hercules’ labors set in Mississippi. Although I have not had an opportunity to read it, the colloquial title and setting sound like vintage Waldrop.
Them Bones was published as one of the Ace Science Fiction specials, the ground breaking series edited by Terry Carr. It is an alternate-world time-traveling novel that only Waldrop could have written. The novel involves a fascinating take on the Mound Builder Indians, one of those topics he has obsessed over.
The novel has three view-points in different time periods united by the setting, much like One Horse Town. Each set of chapter contains one viewpoint: Bessie I-XV, Leake I-Leake XVIII and The Box I-XVIII.
Bessie is an archaeologist digging up mounds in 1930s Louisiana (the Huey Long era; Kingfish makes a cameo near the end of the novel) who starts finding things in the mounds that couldn’t be there, like a horse (there were no horses in North America until the Spanish settled the New World, and that was after the building of the mounds), dogtags, and bullets.
The second storyline involves Madison Yazoo Leake, a time traveler who has journeyed from a future world largely destroyed by nuclear war. He has traveled backward in time to try to change history and prevent the war. The plan is for him to land in 1930s Louisiana, but something apparently goes wrong and he ends up in the time of the Mound Builder Indians.
The third story line tells the story of the rest of Leake’s expedition, which is in a different time, although still among the Mound Builders. Their remains are the ones that Bessie is digging up in the future.
The above summary doesn’t convey the novel’s imaginative brilliance. Waldrop portrays Mound Builder society as pretty attractive—a leisurely life punctuated by some work. The portrayal may be broadly accurate: after all, there are numerous accounts of whites captured by the Indians and not wanting to leave captivity, that can undoubtedly be attributed to Stockholm syndrome in part, but many Indian tribes must have lived pleasant lives. Stone Age cultures involve much less work than civilized societies since the civilized luxuries require economic surplus.
Leake eventually discovers that he is on an alternate world in which Western Europeans did not discover North America or become the dominant civilization. In this world Carthage defeated Rome, Mohammed’s son became the prophet, and 20th century America is populated by Mound Builder Indians and Aztecs who trade with Arabs and their Viking allies. Greek science has brought the world into the steam age.
As Waldrop points out:
Someone said all alternate history used to be about the big events that change things – the battle of the Alamo, or the Civil War . . . or Lincoln not dying. I mostly write about small events where things led up to some different world. I don’t think it all has to be about the big changes. Of course, it’s a lot more work than when you’re talking about little changes. People have to figure out what happened from what you give them, instead of you just telling them what’s changed, so I’ve made more work for myself than talking about some big deal.
—Locus, November, 2003
Them Bones does posit monumental change, but we don’t find out until later in the novel about Carthage and Rome and the effect that change has on world history. The experience of reading Them Bones is to be introduced to the daily life of another culture. Leake becomes good friends with Took-His-Time, an Indian who speaks Greek he learned from traders, and who got his name because his mother was in labor for a long time. The Mound Builders hunt manatees and occasionally run into wooly mammoths. They have an outdoor latrine appropriately named Shit Hill. They’re shocked to see that Leake’s dong has been whacked. They think his horse is a giant dog. Misunderstandings and understated humor abound as we get a sense of the texture of this world, the language, the dialogue, and the customs.
Waldrop’s uncompromising writing habits and tendency to follow his interests will probably result in him having a body of financially unremunerative work that will be remembered and read by erudite oddballs and individualists. Eileen Gunn wrote a genre-blending essay/short story Alternate Waldrops in which she imagines the Waldrops of other realities. She even includes faked and altered pictures. She posits a Waldrop who is a wealthy ad exec, a general with a dodo tattoo, and a director of independent movies. Gunn’s idea is weird enough for me to steal it, but I like to imagine an alternate Waldrop writing traveler’s tales about wooly mammoths on papyrus codices while trading with the Mound Builders.