Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Two Anniversaries -- Edgar Poe

So, today is the anniversary of Edgar Poe's death back in 1849. I didn't manage to swing by his gravesite in Baltimore on our trip to Silver Springs and D.C. this summer -- maybe another time -- but it is ironic that he's buried not where he lived most of his life but simply where he happened to have been overtaken by unexpected disaster (the details of which we shall never know) and suddenly died. I commemorated the event ('celebrated' is not the right word) by re-reading his last, unfinished story, "The Light-House", about which we know nothing other than it was found in his trunk after his death. A fitting mystery to end his remarkable career on, I think.

Thought I wd share a more recent tribute to Poe, a poem by Ray Bradbury I found when I picked up Bradbury's WHERE ROBOT MICE AND ROBOT MEN RUN ROUND IN ROBOT TOWNS [1977] on my first visit to a Half-Price Books (March 21st, 1987, in Austin Texas, in the company of Douglass Parker). Just about everybody knows how good a short-story writer Bradbury is (he's the means whereby 'science fiction' escaped the pulp ghetto into literature, giving him an importance in the 20th century matched only by Wells' in the 19th), but not many folks realize he's a pretty good poet as well. Here's some excerpts from a playful little piece he wrote about our debt to E.A.P.:

"I Have A Brother, Mostly Dead"

I have a brother, mostly dead
And angels curled upon his head
Most of my life, mostly unseen,
And yet I feel with him I've been
A cohort playmate friend of Poe
Who tours me where live friends can't go . . .

And so my brother, dead, you see
Is wondrous literate company.
Thus if my Muse says: Nevermore!
I hear a tapping at my door;
My brother comes to saviour me
With graveyard biscuit, rictus tea . . .

So Idea Ghosts sit up again . . .
And shape themselves with words for clothes.
All this my long lost brother does
This sibling spent before my cause . . .

[He shouts:] sweet brother, flower my tomb
With words so rare and phrase so bright
They'll bonfire burn away the night.

All this to me lost brother is
And I his live sweet Lazarus.
His shout ignore? his cry refuse?
No, no! Much thanks, long-dead fine Muse.

--Ray Bradbury


Two Anniversaries -- TSR

So, seventeen years ago today (Monday October 7th 1991) was my first day of work at TSR, back in the days when there was still a TSR, at Lake Geneva, back in the days when the folks who made D&D were still based in Lake Geneva. There's been a lot of coming and going, a lot of good people I'm glad to have had the chance to work with, a lot of projects I'm proud to have been part of. The hundreds of hours spent commuting in the worst Wisconsin winters had to offer, and only spinning out backwards across four icy lanes of interstate traffic once. All the unofficial overtime, and all the extra work we put in to make projects better. A whole department full of smart, creative, talented people who were in it for the love of the thing, not the money. The most disfunctional upper management I've ever encountered anywhere (far worse than the worst academic politics I came across, worse than government bureaucracy), and the smart, savvy lower management who did the best they could under the radar to help us turn out adventures and sourcebooks, the best of which were the best of their kind in the world.

I started the same month as Rich Baker (10/14-91), Thomas Reid (ibid), and Wolf Baur (10/21); Tim Beach came on in the RPGA about a month later. Of us all, Rich is the only one still at TSR > WotC > Hasbro; he's now been there longer than icons like Zeb Cook or Jeff Grubb had been when we first arrived, and last time I checked was still turning out first-class material that shd have long since ranked him as one of the legends of the industry. Thomas moved up into management, then out into freelance fiction and, later, working on the computer gaming side of the industry. Tim drifted out of the industry, unfortunately, though he had a good run (about five years) and still puts in a good appearance at the occasional con. And Wolf had the savvy to see the writing on the wall and shift from TSR to Wizards of the Coast before the Day of Doom in Lake Geneva, then similarly moved on from Wizards to Microsoft a few years later before WotC became a 'brand' of Hasbro; more recently he's staked out his own territory with the Open Design project and his own magazine, KOBOLD QUARTERLY.

So, here's a cup of tea (Keemun) raised to colleagues past.

--John R.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Alan Parson Project

So, I've been a longtime fan of the Alan Parsons Project since discovering their second (and still best) album during my summer at Fayetteville in 1978. Recently I've been trying to track down various odds and ends that I hadn't been able to find before, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet just over the last week or so I've finally gotten three new things.

The first was KEATS, which I first heard of about five years back. A friend (hi Rich) had loaned me a tape of Eric Woolfson's FREUDIANA, which I'd liked v. much and was trying to find a copy of for myself. Woolfson was Parson's partner in all of the albums they made together up through about 1987 or so, after which the two split (which is why there hasn't been an 'Alan Parsons PROJECT' album since, although there have been four 'Alan Parsons' albums, three of wh. have been good, one of them a match for the Project itself in its glory days.

Anyway, I first heard of KEATS as a second Woolfson solo project, in which it (and, puzzlingly, FREUDIANA) was described as a 'soundtrack'. After years of hoping I'd come across it somewhere, even taxing the expertise of the good folks at Silver Platter Records, a renewed search showed it was (a) not by Woolfson, and (b) not a soundtrack. Instead, it was Alan Parsons' studio musicians joining up with a singer to put out an album by themselves.

The results, regrettably, sound like content-free Alan Parsons Project: the sound is there but no concept; song flows into song without leaving an impression behind. You know you're in trouble when the best thing on yr album are the two commentary tracks added years later to the cd in which a member of the group and Alan Parsons himself reminisce about the attempt. So, pleasant enough background noise but only for completists.

The second recent purchase was a newer [2003] album I'd completely missed: a sequel by Woolfson (without Parsons) to their first album together (TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION, aka the Poe album) and still one of their three or four bests. Woolfson's follow-up (unimaginatively titled POE: MORE TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION) sounds much more like FREUDIANA than it does any Alan Parsons Project album. The main problem is that, while some of the songs are good or at least interesting or amusing, most of them have nothing to do with Poe. Whereas the original Parsons album had all its songs based on Poe stories and poems, that's the case with only four of the twelve songs here. The rest are filled with songs Woolfson somehow feels appropriate to Poe's life and times, like a lullabye his mother might have sung to him as a small child ("Tiny Star". The best song on the album, "Train to Freedom", about building the railroad, has nothing whatsoever to do with Poe, so far as I can tell (other than that they DID build railroads in his lifetime), but is a sort of John Henry spiritual with hints at the underground railroad (wh. Poe, I'm sorry to say, wd probably not have supported). "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is Poe-based, but gimmicky (it rather resembles the much better "It's Funny You Shd Say That" from FREUDIANA) and sounds like a production number from some musical; "Goodbye to All That", which seems to be inspired by Dunsany* rather than Poe, wouldn't be out of place as an out-take from EVITA. So mark this one down as interesting but not really good; perfect for a completist who enjoys both the musician and his topic (as I do).

The third purchase, and best of all, came courtesy of Itunes. In the course of poking around to find out what Alan Parsons material might be out there that I didn't know about, I came across two songs included in recent deluxe re-releases of classic Alan Parsons Project albums: "Edgar", a song by Woolfson that predates TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION (the first Parsons Project album), and "No Answers Only Questions", a Parsons Project song that didn't make the cut for some album, now released as part of a greatest hits package (one of the group's many). Neither is so outstanding that you'd feel robbed not to have had them all these years, but both are unmistakably the real thing, and v. welcome.

And, best of all, all this new music has had me listening to my old Parson Project/Alan Parsons albums more than usual.


*I'm thinking of the devastating little story "In the Twilight", a first-person account by a drowning man, from THE SWORD OF WELLERAN [1908].

UPDATE (W.10/8): A closer listen and a look at the lyrics shows I was wrong about "Goodbye to All That", which is more a cynical counterpoint to Paul Stookey's "Wedding Song" than anything else. The liner notes for the cd claim it's about Poe's marriage to Virginia, but nothing in the lyrics supports that. --JDR

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Marquette Tolkien Lecture

So, it was exactly a year ago today that I gave the 2007 Blackwelder Tolkien Lecture at Marquette. It was and remains a great honor, for which I'm very grateful, and I'm immensely pleased that my talk is to be published next year.

I had hoped to be able to make it to Marquette again so as to attend this year's lecture, but as it turns out I've done too much travel already this year (including the recent unexpected sojourn in Montana) to be able to manage another trip to the Midwest. Which is all the more pity, since it looks to be a good one; the Speaker this year is Matthew Dickerson, who is mainly known for having written FOLLOWING GANDALF [2004], one of a group of books on Tolkien from a theological point of view that came out several years ago, and more recently co-authoring (with Jonathan Evans) ENTS, ELVES, AND ERIADOR: THE ENVIRONMENTAL VISION OF JRRT [2006]. The latter, which seeks to place JRRT in a tradition of Xian environmentalism, got a scathing review from Patrick Curry, who himself had written what was previously the most well-known book on Tolkien and environmentalism (DEFENDING MIDDLE-EARTH [1997]) -- but that's a review mainly notable for its constant complaints that Dickerson and Evans didn't quote from him enough.

The title of Dickerson's talk is to be "Beyond Romanticism: J. R. R. Tolkien's Practical Agrarian Romance"; it'll be presented at Marquette University library at 4 o'clock on Thursday, October 23, 2008. It's described on the library website as follows:

"Professor Dickerson will explore one element of Tolkien's comprehensive ecological vision expressed in his Middle-earth legendarium: the agrarianism of the Shire, and its contrast in the industrialized agriculture of Sauron and Saruman. While Tolkien's works might be dismissed as mere romanticism--idyllic fantasy with no implications to our world--the talk will defend a claim that the underlying ecology in these works is fundamentally practical (at many levels)."

here's the link:


If someone who does live in the area makes it to the lecture, I'd enjoy hearing about how it goes.


Thursday, October 2, 2008

Open Circle Theatre's NECRONOMICON

So, it's October again, my favorite time of year. And that means it's time again for this year's Lovecraft play from Open Circle Theatre. Most years they adapt a trilogy of Lovecraft stories, sometimes with an original Lovecraft-esque tale of their own or framing story thrown in.

This year's something different: not an adaptation of an actual Lovecraft story but a wholly new piece loosely inspired by HPL. In this it's more like a typical Lovecraft movie than one of their earlier plays.

For those who live close enough to the Seattle area that they might be able to see this, it opens on Friday October 10th (a week from tomorrow) and runs through Thursday November 15th -- essentially over six weekends. Here's the link:



God Bless Russ Feingold

So, Senator Feingold once again steps forward when no one else will.

It turns out I was one of the lucky ones. I took our laptop with me on the research trip to Oxford last October, where it proved invaluable for my research in the Bodleian. What I didn't know at the time was that it could have been confiscated upon my return. Here's the quote summarizing the law as it currently stands:

"Most Americans would be shocked to learn that upon their return to the U.S. from traveling abroad, the government could demand the password to their laptop, hold it for as long as it wants, pore over their documents, e-mails, and photographs, and examine which Web sites they visited--all without any suggestion of wrongdoing," Feingold said. "Focusing our limited law enforcement resources on law-abiding Americans who present no basis for suspicion does not make us any safer and is a gross violation of privacy."

Here's the link to the newstory:


It's good to know that Adam Smith, my congressman here in Kent, co-sponsored the bill. Also that Maria Cantwell, who was a massive disappointment her first four years in office, continues to show that she's finally become the senator people thought she'd be when she was first elected.

It'll be interesting to see if Feingold can roll back the Homeland Security people.


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pictograph Cave

So, probably the most interesting thing we saw while in Billings, Montana, with the possible exception of the Rimrock (a cliff wall that stretches for miles and miles all along the north side of the city) was the Pictograph Cave, which is in a rimrock-like formation about five miles east of the city.

Although it's called a 'cave', that's actually something of a misnomer, since they're actually more like rock shelters -- recesses in the cliff where the rock is deeply undercut by erosion (in this case, from above; at Meadowscroft in Pennsylvania, from a nearby river that flows past). And there are three of them, not just one: Ghost Cave on the left, Pictograph Cave on the right, and Middle Cave (the shallowest of the three) between them. When we visited, Ghost Cave, Middle Cave, and the path between them were all fenced off, presumably because of rockfalls from the unstable clifftop above.

Despite having the Worse Signage Ever for any state park or historical site I've ever visited,* it's a fascinating place and well worth a visit if, like me, you like this sort of thing and happen to find yrself in the area. In addition to being a beautiful sight, we enjoyed watching the local rabbits (which pull themselves up into balls, like little boulders, rather than lay flat, like Kent rabbits), a hawk, some moo-ey nearby cows, and the antics of a small flock of ravens (who clearly roost atop the cliffs to the right and mightily objected to the hawk's hanging around over the cliffs to the left). Unfortunately, what they don't tell you till you reach the rock-shelter itself is that hardly any pictographs are left. There used to be plenty of them, but that was before they decided to do a restoration of the rock-paintings. With sandblasters. These days there are only a few faint markings left on the cave walls, with a display for you to compare what was once there and try to puzzle out where. In a way it was remarkably like the sun-bleached original copy of the Declaration of Independence we'd seen a month earlier, which is so faded that you can just tell there was once writing on it (well, on most of it) but not actually read any of it. Alas.

Since the rock-art shown on the mounted display was really unusual, I wanted to find a local postcard, or poster, or booklet, or anything of the sort showing the site and/or the pictographs. In this I was utterly unsuccessful. In fact, the guy at the best local/independent bookstore I found in Billings, said he'd never seen anything of the sort, and he had a good section on local Indian material.**

Luckily, sometimes the internet will provide. Turns out there's a pretty good website devoted to the Pictograph Cave, which includes both pictures of the area and tracings made of the pictographs before they were destroyed. Here's the link:


Click on the "Park Images" button on the left to see photographs of the site. For the lost pictographs themselves, click on the "Tracings" button a little further down on the left, then click on each icon to enlarge the picture. The only one of these that is still visible today, at least to someone with my eyesight, is the third one from the left on the top row, the images of seven rifles in red (which must have been some of the last added, given the topic).

As a Tolkienist, I was fascinated by how much the stranger and sillier of these Native American doodles reminded me of the 'goblin scribblings' mingled with the Neolithic cave paintings in Tolkien's famous painting in the 1932 Father Christmas Letter.


*Most such sites -- e.g., the various geyser basins at Yellowstone -- have little pamphlets you can pick up for a dollar that guide you around, but the equivalent here just pointed out interesting plants and the like in a vague way. Worst still, each little sign along the path bore a pictograph and was positioned so as to point you towards one of the surrounding cliffs. Therefore we quite naturally spent a good deal of time staring at the cliffs, trying to see the image before us in that rock wall. Turns out once you get to the display outside the main 'cave' that almost all those icons are of pictographs inside the cave, not on the surrounding cliffs. They were just added to those lookout signs as a decorative element, not because it was anything you could see from there. Gah!
These folks could have learned a lot from the people who set up the petroglyph walk near Kona in Hawaii (on the dry side of the Big Island), which (a) had some modern reproductions of petroglyphs near the parking lot for those mobility-impaired visitors who cdn't manage the walk to the actual site) and (b) had that actual site clearly marked.

**[I picked up an interesting oversized monograph on the Crow at the time of their contact with Lewis & Clark, along with a little book of troll legends which included the turned-to-stone-by-sunlight motif, and what must be Thor Heyerdahl's last book, which I'd not seen before.]