T.E.D. Klein is one of those writers whose disappearance baffles many lovers of weird fiction. After his celebrated novel The Ceremonies (which I have not yet read) and his collection of novellas titled Dark Gods, he seemed to go mostly off the radar, and to stay there (unless one was reading the right magazines, I suppose)… until Subterranean put out a collection of his short fiction, titled, Reassuring Tales, about six years ago. (That was a limited edition and I never see it online for less than $200, so I suppose I won’t be reading it till I get somewhere that has a functioning interlibrary loan system.)
Dark Gods is justly considered by many a classic of horror fiction, and discussions of it online inevitably turn upon either bemoaning the scarcity of work by Klein, or discussing which novella in this collection is the best — or, rather, which one is whose favorite.
I’m not sure, personally, which is my own favorite, but I do know I originally bought the hardback when I was living in Canada — and sought out a paperback last year — in order to read “Black Man With a Horn,” an explicitly Lovecraftian story that references (in passing) an image on a John Coltrane album cover, but also tells the story of an aging writer friend of Lovecraft’s who is, in the late 70s, tracking down a man for a series of murders… a man from a Malaysian tribe mentioned to him by a missionary fleeing Malaysia; the connection to Lovecraft being that the tribe is among those monstrous Cthulhu-worshippers mentioned somewhere in the Cthulhu Mythos. Klein does wonderful work here in depicting an aging B-list (if that) horror author doomed to live and die in Lovecraft’s shadow, and also builds up the horror quite well.
That doesn’t mean it outperforms the other stories in this collection. And while I’d love to explain why, my discussion of “Black Man With a Horn” above demonstrates why I shouldn’t do this: it’s pretty difficult to talk about a Klein story without getting into a plot dissection, and the problem with doing that is that I don’t want to spoil them for someone coming to them for the first time — since, honestly, I want to recommend this collection to people!
So I’ll zoom out, for this review, and talk about more abstract and general thoughts regarding these four novellas.
For me, style is an important aspect of what Klein does in these novellas. He is definitely writing in a Lovecraftian vein at times, especially in “Black Man With a Horn” but also, I’d say, in “Children of the Kingdom” (I’d swear there was a Mi-go reference in there someplace). And yet Klein’s narrative voice is quite removed from Lovecraft’s, his prose very modern, his characters’ voices very much of their time and place. Klein doesn’t wax florid, doesn’t trowel on the adjectives the way Lovecraft does; his voice is different, and yet he manages to invoke Lovecraft and his cosmic horror aesthetic very effectively.
Their time and place, by the way, is generally New York City in the late 1970s (or maybe the very early 80s at the latest, in one or two cases). Actually, that’s not quite true: one tale splits its time between a plane over the North Atlantic, and Florida — and yet New York seems to come up in each story; in “Black Man With a Horn,” the story that happens up in the air and in Florida, New York turns up only in memories of the times the narrator spent with H.P. Lovecraft there, during his short stay in Brooklyn. As Victor LaValle notes in a brief piece on the book, this is a very urban sort of horror — three of the four novellas are for the most part set in cities. LaValle notes that this was new to him, when he read it, and while I can’t say the same (when I was growing up, authors were writing horror set in metropoli), I have to say that Klein uses the urban setting to great effect, and it feels very real and lived-in. This is one thing I’ve often envied horror writers — they can write stories set in places where millions of people have really been, and rely on that sense of familiarity to heighten the estranging qualities of their fiction. Especially, in “Children of the Kingdom,” Klein’s use (in 1979) of the Blackout of 1977 as a moment that is horrific in itself — and it really was — but also as supernaturally charged, is a brilliant move. In Klein’s work, the horrors of the real world and the supernatural fantasies are inextricably tied together.
There’s also the complexity of the horror in his tales. I am usually not a fan of the horror tale that features a writer, whether working or blocked (ie. someone suffering from writer’s block), as its narrator — it’s been done and done and I am not interested anymore — but Klein does something interesting with this in the latter two novellas. In “Black Man With a Horn” — an explicitly Lovecraftian Mythos tale — Klein satirizes the pulpy Lovecraftian pastiche subgenre with a narrator who knew Lovecraft himself, and spent his whole writing life in the man’s shadow. It makes fun with (maybe, rather than of) the very thing that it also does itself. But the narrator here is a man who is no longer writing, whose creativity is gone, and who is haunted by his association with Lovecraft and the mediocrity of his own career. In “Nadelman’s God,” the protagonist has realized he is not a talented poet and also stopped writing — unless you count ad copy — but a crass and dreadful poem he wrote in his youth ends up playing a crucial role in the tale (after, amusingly, being turned into a heavy metal song).
What I find interesting about both these tales is the way that creative, artistic, and literary failures are in some sense powerful — whether in the gnostic sense where the artist is the only person truly equipped to summon up evil, or at least to understand it when it appears. In fact, there is a writer-figure in “Children of the Kingdom” who is in some sense a failure: a Costa Rican who has written and published interpretations of the gnostic text The Gospel of Thomas, but who has failed to get them translated into English and published in America. As in the other stories, this writer gets details wrong, but he is closer than anyone to understanding the true nature of reality for most of the novella.
Given Klein’s very limited output, one cannot help but wonder whether his fascination with failed writers (or writers who fail to live up to their own expectations, and give up) might be linked to his own struggles in writing. As a writer myself, I can definitely relate. But somehow, there’s something also fascinating in itself about this focus on literary failures: nowhere to be seen is the by now stereotypical best-selling author who can’t poop out his latest bestseller, and the book is much stronger for it. A dark power really does lie in one’s failings, in unfulfilled aspirations, and Klein seems to map those over onto the supernatural very effectively, and sympathetically too. (Failure is not judged here as it would be conventionally, and it seems to ring with mystical power in a way like how many think of artistic “success.”)
Race is another interesting thread in the book, especially prominent in two of the novellas — “Children of the Kingdom” and “Black Man With a Horn” — and I have to say, it’s handled in a way that unsettled me in ways I suspect Klein mostly intended, though I think this is one of the aspects by which we get a sense that the book has aged. Not badly, mind; somehow, it works. No doubt Klein is, in his characters’ fear of non-whites (the neighborhood Blacks and Hispanics in the former novella, and the Malaysian tribe known as the Tcho-Tcho in the latter), poking fun at Lovecraft’s notorious bigotries; but he also uses the racism as a kind of leaven in the horror, a kind of unsettling human awfulness that blends with and multiplies the supernatural elements of the horror. In other words, the fear of ethnic conflict, or of the supposedly-exotic, is quotidian, but it is also scary and horrific, in the same way an old house, even sans ghost, can be unsettling and disconcerting.
That said, I’m not sure I’ve seen anything quite like this done more recently. I suspect it would be hard to do what Klein does, effectively, today. I don’t think that there aren’t people who see themselves as liberal and fair-minded, but who harbor, quietly, fairly racist attitudes; of course there are, and I’ve read enough writing by them online, as well as enough responses to them by those who see through the self-justifications, to know that this kind of self-contradiction is rather common. In the narratives we consume today, liberal white guilt mingles with reflexive racism mostly in satirical contexts (I’m thinking of Liz Lemon on 30 Rock) than in being a naturalistic effect in a character; usually, when a character is a racist, he or she is well aware of it, doesn’t feel awkward about it, and so on. That character might be to some degree sympathetic, the way Daryl Dixon manages to become during Season 2 of The Walking Dead, though as he becomes more sympathetic he also seems to become less openly bigoted, with his actions contradicting moments of apparent racism.
(In a similar way, I get the sense that that the narrator of “Nadelman’s God” is a remorseless ad-man was a similar kind of shorthand for evil in the 1970s, perhaps in a way that doesn’t quite compute today unless its carried to a satirical extreme; we like Don Draper, and it takes something as nuts as Thank You For Smoking before we start to see the ad man as truly evil in nature… but remember Bill Hicks’ anti-marketing rant/routine? That sort of disgust seems to have gone out of fashion, now that we’ve decided to hate CEOs and bankers instead.)
I once told one of my classes that one of the things white liberals fear the most is being called racist, or, worse, discovering racist attitudes buried inside their own minds. (I know that I myself have occasionally obsessed about the question, when stupid things pop out of my mouth, forcing me to ask myself where those words came from.) In fact, I recall some discussion online that I read long ago, but can’t find now (was it part of that whole RaceFail thing? it feels like I read it much earlier than that…), which emphasized how it’s more strategically useful to talk about racist ideas than to call someone a racist — in part because white liberals tend to freak out and derail the discussion when they feel they’re being labeled “racist.”
Or maybe I’m just reading the wrong books? Lots of the SF I’ve read is by white males, and so maybe it’s not so surprising that a lot of it doesn’t engage with this stuff. (I am trying to diversify my reading, mind you, but until I leave Korea, I’ll be focusing on reading the books I have on hand. There are plenty of female and POC authors, including some I plan on reading next month, but I’ll admit the SF shelves in my house are in fact dominated by white male authors, and that’s as much a symptom of my trying to catch up on older SF as anything else.) Anyway, I’d be curious to see if this fits with others’ sense of how we use or depict racism in the course of character building.
At any rate, I highly recommend T.E.D. Klein’s Dark Gods. It’s a classic for a reason, and well worth your time. Oh, and thought it is (as of 29 Jan 2012) incomplete, this review of the book goes into much more depth and hits a lot of notes — such as regarding Klein’s engagement with the canon of weird fiction in general — that I wanted to in discussing the book. I feel the same envy as the reviewer over there, towards Klein’s work.
22 thoughts on “Dark Gods by T.E.D. Klein, and a Question About the Depiction and Significance of Racism in Characterization”
I’ve never read T.E.D. Klein, but you inspired me to go to the library and look him up. I found The Ceremonies and Reassuring Tales (signed limited edition, which makes me think Austin must have a pretty hip librarian in there somewhere). Dark Gods wasn’t available, but I’ll give the others a try.
Your comment about white liberals and racism reminded me of the thing going on right now in the skeptical community, where some feminist activists are trying to get the old-boy network to wake up to the fact that if they want more women to participate, then the male majority needs to stop acting like sexist dickbags. (Which apparently causes a lot of otherwise progressive, educated, intelligent guys to suddenly start acting like Rush Limbaugh clones in defensive outrage.)
Anyway, I found myself thinking about how I can’t really think of many SF books (other maybe than Octavia Butler’s and Samuel R. Delaney’s) that deal with matters of race with any specificity. There are allegorical treatments of racism all over the place, where some alien species is treated as an Other that just needs to be understood, but damn little that actually deals with the nuts and bolts of ordinary human-on-human prejudice.
Maybe it’s because it’s a fairly easy thing to deal with the idea of racism by acknowledging that it’s bad and resolving to be egalitarian in outlook, to vote with progressive values, and to assume that other people are basically just like me even if they look different. And that’s better than nothing, but it doesn’t contribute anything towards understanding how other people’s lives are different because of issues that surround race; it doesn’t help one unravel one’s own privileges and unconscious prejudices; and it doesn’t prepare you for the day when you find yourself stymied because, even though you’ve resolved not to hate, you haven’t actually bothered to try to understand.
So I wonder if white SF writers in particular are prone to writing about a future where they can assume that matters of race are mostly in the past for human beings, where ethnicity can be shown with a name or a description and then pretty much ignored when it comes to the formation of character because on some level the future is a monoculture where real variety comes from alien species rather than other people.
Let me know what you think of the other books. You can probably find DARK GODS used if you like THE CEREMONIES and feel like hunting a little… I got my copy for a buck.
(The responses I’ve seen to REASSURING TALES have been less enthusiastic, so don’t be turned off if it’s not your bag, “The Events at Poroth Farm” aside.)
As for white SF writers and race, yep, pretty much. There’s been a lot of discussion of depiction of race in SF lately — the RaceFail controversy a few years ago was one reason — but I haven’t seen much discussion of racism and how it is depicted (or used as a shorthand) in SF or other genre fiction.
It seems right now is a moment when, in a lot of “tribes” in North American society, people are starting to say, “Hey, white dudes! You’re not like the default setting!” and it seems that a disturbing number of them are really not willing to hear that. I didn’t know about that with the skeptical community, but there was a similar thing in the gaming world — I remember reading a few posts in a growing discussion last year — and in SF, it’s starting to be harder to ignore the racial slant.
I’m also wondering whether it’s just me, or racism is getting depicted in less nuanced ways now. Like, “racism = evil person” or “racism = amusing white liberal hypocrisy” rather than “racism = fucked up thinking” or whatever.
Which would, you know, contribute to the horror that white liberals would experience when being told that something they have said or written is racist; after all, that’s what TV/film/literary villains do, and nobody (almost) likes to seem himself or herself as being like those people… in other words, typologizing racist thinking as a trait of evil people probably makes the discussion of racist attitudes that much harder here in the real world.
It’s funny, I’ve not seen much about race at all in the Delany books I’ve read, though those were early and I’ve not read many. I do have some Butler on the shelf I’ve been meaning to read, and should do it this holiday, once I finish “finishing” books I’ve started and left waiting for the last year or two… I imagine reading more POC writers writing in the SF genre would help me get a handle on whether they’ve been treating this differently. (Books like Nora Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms deal with race and prejudice, but it’s a fantasy world and doesn’t map onto the particular historical and cultural prejudices and/or racisms of our world so directly.)
And as I say, my library is slanted, as I am aware, but I’m trying to hold back on new books, especially fiction, and read what I have on hand for the remaining time I have here in Korea.
So, at this point I’ve read all the stories in Reassuring Tales except for the last, “The Events at Poroth Farm,” which I might get to this evening or tomorrow. And I can understand the lukewarm reception they’ve received. They’re mostly gimmicky in a way that has long since gone out of style. A good illustration of the problem is “S.F.” where the central conceit is gradually revealed — and is indeed very sad-making and rather horrible — until it ends almost perfectly, and in better than average fashion for this collection, at the bottom of a page. And then you turn the page and discover that Klein has added several more paragraphs designed to make ABSOLUTELY SURE YOU GET THE GIMMICK and then you think, “Dammit! So close!” There are some good character moments in “Nat Crumley” and “Ladder,” but I’m definitely hoping for some improvement.
I might be misremembering Delaney on the race thing. Or maybe I read something in a nonfiction essay that I’m conflating with a story. It’s been a while.
As for handling issues of race in genre fiction, I’m now thinking that the only place I’ve seen it crop up with any regularity is in detective or mystery stories. A.C. Doyle wrote a very progressive story about racial prejudice in “The Yellow Face,” Robert B. Parker has the character of Hawk in his Spenser novels, with whom Spenser will sometimes have conversations about matters dealing with race, and then you’ve got someone like Walter Mosley who writes hard-boiled detective stories from an African-American point of view. And it’s fairly common for detective stories and police procedurals to mine minority communities for color (ugh — sorry about that) and sometimes to make a political or sociological statement.
Yeah, I’ve heard that from a lot of the stories in Reassuring Tales you can kind of tell he edited Twilight Zone magazine for a long time — and that the influence of the TV show is felt. But then, he’s pretty negative about the stories in the introduction, isn’t he? Anyway, Dark Gods is the one book I’ve read by him so far, and he is much more subtle there.
Well, while I’ve had Dhalgren on my shelf forever, I haven’t yet read it. Maybe I should try this year. I think that may have more about race, as well as some other later SF by Delany. (His earlier stuff doesn’t stick out in my memory as being particularly concerned with race, though maybe I was missing signals or just don’t remember enough.)
Race does get handled in genre fiction besides the detective stories (even the Raymond Chandler I reviewed recently had a bit on race) — sometimes embarrassingly badly in the speculative fiction field — but very often by POC authors, and not by white ones (especially white male). It’s getting better — Ian MacDonald and Paulo Bacigalupi come to mind as white male authors reaching beyond white characters — and more POC writers are bringing their perspective to the field. But I’ve heard a lot of times that SF is years behind both in race and gender.
That said, handling race is different than handling racism; and the latter, I don’t see brought up in SF by white authors all that often, except in the shorthand I mention above. Which troubles me.
Ok, the story about Poroth Farm was very good. You’re right that Klein is negative about most of the stories in his introduction, but never having read him I think I took that for polite self-deprecation and not editorial distance.
And now…The Ceremonies!
Hope you like it! (It’s the next Klein on my list, so I am looking forward to hearing what you think!)
Oh, and The Ceremonies is an expanded version of “The Events at Poroth Farm,” by the way, not sure if I mentioned that before…
Just finished Ceremonies. Enjoyed it…trying to think of a brief, spoiler-free summary. Like “The Events at Poroth Farm” it’s almost as much a bibliography of horror as it is a novel, but in a good way. I think. Need to think about it some more.
Hearkening back to the topic of your original post: although racism is not a major theme in Ceremonies, it certainly plays a role in establishing the personalities of several of the lead characters, specifically their relations to multi-racial New York City and with the idea of cosmopolitan urbanism. It has the effect of making them seem more real, and very ordinary, as human beings, in the sense that our “heroes” are not particularly exceptional in any way, and are very much products of their majority white culture. And it’s not a hateful or explicit racism, but the self-conscious and fearful kind that knows and suspects its own motives but still wants to be appeased.
An on reflection, I think this makes an interesting counterpoint to the character I’d call the protagonist, who’s probably the least racist person in the book precisely because his misanthropy has the virtue of being universal.
Those are interesting thoughts, and they connect to the things I was thinking about “Children of the Kingdom” in interesting ways. I can’t help but think that it’s a more honest way of writing certain kinds of characters, even though when I write characters who have a kind of latently racist attitude — even when they’re self-aware of it, or even when it ends up being ironic, or whatever — I always feel very nervous.
Once in the course of explaining about racial pejoratives in English to my (Korean) students, they asked me, “So, how do you feel when someone calls you ‘Yankee’?” I replied that I felt not much at all, except annoyed at meeting yet another bigot — a common experience for me in Korea. But I also told them that I’ve never really felt like any racial pejorative hurt me. Someone could call me whitebread, or cracker, or whatever, but it never hurt or deeply bothered me the way I know PoC friends of mine were hurt or deeply bothered being called racial epithets.
I told them, “For a white person of a certain level of education and political inclination — that is, your average white liberal — the horrifying things to be called are things like, ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ or ‘bigot’ or ‘conservative.’ If you want to drive us into a panicked outburst of guilt, fear, anger, apology — you never know which you’ll get — just call us one of those things.” I added that I think for stereotypical white conservatives, the anxieties tend to be triggered more by snipes at their ignorance, their poverty, supposedly-inborn stupidity, and so on.
I don’t know about the conservatives thing, but in my experience white liberals do seem to have those buttons pretty uniformly. And they know it, too — one reason they enjoy shows like 30 Rock or Community is that they acknowledge that sub-admissible consciousness anxiety about race and racism, and its inadmissibility. When Liz Lemon goofs up and says something that reveals latent racism, it’s like a public defense of all the stupid things we’ve thought or even said, and then regretted, but daren’t talk about.
(I think there’s a similar trend in sympathetic-yet-deeply-sexist male characters too; Barney Stinson is clearly one of the most popular characters on How I Met Your Mother for many reasons, but I think this is one.)
I can’t help but wonder whether that’s also why some PoC characters on TV lately had a penchant for oscillating occasionally towards hypersensitivity regarding racism in other characters. (I’ve been watching Community lately, so I’m specifically thinking of Shirley and Abed’s dad, on the one episode on which he shows up. (And Tracey Jordan does it, often more ridiculously, on 30 Rock.) The line between a sane reaction and a hyperdefensive one isn’t clear, though my vague sense of the characters suggests Shirley, at least, has crossed it (and Tracey Jordan makes a sport of doing so).
The more white audiences get shown black women or Middle-Eastern men who go “too far” in being sensitive to this stuff, the more comfortable they get with their own latent racisms, I suppose. I wonder, though, how nonwhite viewers feel seeing that kind of thing. Does it work comedically, reminding them instead of that one kooky friend who always chalks everything up to racism, or is it more often annoying (because, after all, somewhat stereotypical too) or unsettling? Individuals are all different, but it’s an interesting question in terms of, you know, audience and reception and stuff. Hmmmm.
Hm, I’ve never watched Community, 30 Rock, or How I Met Your Mother, so I can’t really comment on those shows. I think I’ve seen a little bit of the “making fun of hypersensitivity” trope on Big Bang Theory, but it’s so tongue-in-cheek I don’t know if it would actually tend to desensitize a person to real issues of racism. (But perhaps that’s a blindness that comes with being white.)
I think that conservatives are about as sensitive to charges of racism and sexism as liberals, but their sensitivity seems to come from a different place. Whereas liberals want to believe that they’ve overcome racist and sexist tendencies, conservatives (in my experience) seem to experience these accusations as a kind of Orwellian disinformation campaign or a tactic of character assassination employed by liberals to discredit deeper conservative issues. In both cases the self-perceived absence of an explicit feeling of hatred or contempt may provide defensive cover for racist/sexist attitudes and behaviors that have gone unexamined or unnoticed.
As for the stereotypical white conservative’s sensitivity towards accusations of ignorance, stupidity, poverty, etc…. I’m not sure how strong that is. It seems to me that rhetoric on both the right and the left has elaborate strategies for impugning the intelligence of the other side, and accusations of poverty have little effect unless you’re trying to fake it, or unless you’re so impoverished that you can’t spin a lack of wealth as a surplus of salt-of-the-earth decency. And being liberal certainly doesn’t make a person immune from worry about class and status.
But none of these cases seem to carry the flavor, if you will, of racist epithets. With racism we might be in a zone of genuine asymmetry. As a white guy from Texas, I can’t imagine anything anyone could call me, on the level of race, that would effect me the way the N-word might affect an African-American. I might perceive the anger or hatred behind the epithet, but it simply wouldn’t hit me the same way, and that’s just the privilege I enjoy by being a member of a group that did the colonizing and the subjugating and the categorizing and the labeling. Maybe if I spent long enough living in another country…but even then I’d probably immediately see racist epithets directed towards me as evidence of the stupidity of the other, and not as a reflection on my own status, not unless some other set of events really beat down my self-esteem.
I suppose the flip side of this might be that nothing about my in-group white-guy-ness will ever be edgy, alluringly transgressive, or cool the way black culture has often been. But I doubt that makes up for the privilege of dominance.
Argh! First draft of my comment lost to the ether.
I’ll keep it short, therefore:
1. Ha! Everyone I hang out with here watches those shows. Also, Dr. Who, which I don’t watch. Anyway…
2. I’m not sure the hypersensitivity trop (or the inverse — putting sympathetic characters in the hotseat by making them say vaguely racist things and then go through the paroxysms of proving they’re not racists, not really!) necessarily desensitizes people to their own latent racism, but it might. It would be exactly how I’d go about spreading such a sense, though I don’t think anyone is actually consciously doing so.
3. Ah, I was talking more about regular people on the right and left, than politicians. Though this wonderful post comes to mind when I think about the fact that, with racist epithets, it’s very hard for me to imagine having my intelligence impugned by a conservative in a way that actually made me wonder whether they have a point. (I imagine it rolling off my back the way anti-white racial epithets might roll off yours.)
That said, I get the sense the anxiety among the right tends more towards a kind of self-defensive dismissal of “pretension” — for which, anything other than what average working class white people like or do counts as pretension. It’s not so much sensitivity to being called dumb, as much as to the nagging suspicion one really is dumb, lower class, ignorant. Definitely people on the left feel this too, but they always have a good number of actually ignorant or stupid right-wingers they can point at and say, “Well, at least I’m not that gullible and ignorant!” Historically, those people ended up having nobody to point at but people of other races — namely blacks — to prove they weren’t at the bottom of the social heap, right? Anyway, I’m kinda basing this off Americans I’ve known abroad (who tend, even among the more conservative ones, to be more liberal and educated and bright), and probably also too much media for it to be quite tenable.
4. I doubt living abroad would make you more sensitive to the racist epithets used against whites — except, maybe, in a society where those epithets also bespoke an institutionalized system of oppression.
The Korean epithets used to denigrate white people may mean something emotionally to Koreans, but as you say, when someone says them to me, I tend not to find the word itself objectionable, so much as a sign of stupidity (as symptomatized by, and as interchangeable with, excessive nationalism or bigotry). I find actual negative treatment — threats, harassment, being ripped off, having the woman beside me threatened or insulted sexually or intellectually — objectionable, but tend to be quite able to laugh at morons who use their pathetically weak epithets on me.
And that is undoubtedly partly because I grew up not hearing those words, as well as because I’m white and even in many Koreans’ mind white is privileged. I imagine that some of the words that merely annoy me would be devastating to hear all of one’s life: being called “foreigner” makes me shake my head with weariness, but imagine being a half-Korean, half-Thai kid growing up in the countryside with a farmer dad and a mail-order bride mom? (Much less, being called a “dirty Southeast Asian” or a “migrant laborer” or the rough equivalent in Korean. I swear, once I had to fight an English textbook publisher NOT to have a Thai child who was visiting Korea and attending Korean middle school be called a “migrant laborer” in a textbook for kids. It was not evident how this was offensive to the people who’d written or edited it.)
But living abroad would also sadly throw into perspective how underappreciated black culture is in some places. I remember Eminem being the only (non-Korean) rapper I heard in Korea for at least the first six or seven years; even now, the jazz clubs tend to be named after (the white pianist) Bill Evans, or black jazz clubs; I’ve never seen one named Monk, or Bird, or Coltrane-land, or anything like that. And as much as jazz musicians here might appreciate black jazz musicians, most Koreans who listen to jazz tend more towards the (whiter) bossa nova forms, or to stuff like Jacques Loussier’s classical music/jazz fusions. The biggest jazz shows I’ve heard about the last few years involved Chuck Mangione (who is huge here and comes every few years), Chick Corea, Pat Metheny… mostly white men. Black artists have come — Pharaoh Sanders, Kenny Garret — but much less often as far as I can tell, and decreasingly often.
So the (inadequate anyway) consolation of white culture being less cool than black culture doesn’t even really apply here in Korea. Well, it does: they gulp down hiphop and jazz and urban wear and so much else, but in a way that makes it clear that the blackness of it isn’t really on the radar. (The exception being Beyonce, sort of.)
Weirdly, I noticed, when searching for examples of black celebrities married to Asians online the other day (for a story) that there are a ton of black celebrities I’ve never heard of, while I seem to be up to date enough on the white and Asian ones… while I may not have been a bastion of knowledge of black American celebrities before, I really am out of the loop now, and I figure part of that at least is that I hear about contemporary pop music culture mainly from my students. They know who Beyonce is, but are way more interested in talking about Lady Gaga.
I seem to be very bad at keeping up with hip new TV shows. The Sturdy Helpmeet and I have been neck-deep in BBC Sherlock and Downton Abbey, and I’ve been watching the old Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series from the 1980s, plus for some reason I’ve been rewatching some early X-Files. Basically I watch TV like a 16 year old girl with a Tumblr account.
Every now and then I’ll catch a bit of Big Bang Theory, but I don’t watch it regularly. I’m aware that I’m “supposed” to be hooked on Community, for instance, but for some reason I never get around to looking it up. And I have a soft spot for Doctor Who, but these days I find myself feeling more and more irritated by it. I miss the days when the Doctor had adventures that were about people other than himself.
Anyway, about the comedification of issues surrounding racism, whether it’s hypersensitive defensiveness or hypersensitive white guilt or whatever…I guess I’d have to watch some specific examples to make a judgment. I have a feeling that some writers just think its daring or funny to explore our discomfort and anxiety about the subject, but don’t feel obliged to actually think about it deeply (which I suppose is just another mark of the very-probably white privilege of the overwhelming majority of TV writiers).
Regarding #3 above, I was really just thinking of arguments I’ve seen between conservatives and liberals on the Internet, or even between New Age-y woo-spouting liberals and their more atheistic, empiricism-prone allies. But I think I agree that among the religious right there’s definitely a profound defensiveness about some strange (to me) concept of authenticity. People worry about being a real Christian, a real American, a real salt-of-the-earth good-old-boy you can have a beer with. And I suppose the disadvantage of buying into anti-intellectualism might be the half-suppressed fear that one has been tricked into being stupid for no good reason.
On the global appreciation of black culture…yeah. The social dynamics between class and ethnic groups won’t automatically translate across cultural borders, and being a member of a what’s perceived to be a race of conquerors carries more cultural credit than the opposite.
Maybe there’s some consolation in something I remember reading once on Andrew Sullivan’s blog: he described moving from the UK to the US and being shocked at how black Americans are no matter what their skin color happens to be. If Martin Luther King believed that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” then maybe it will also bend towards the soulful and the cool.
(The philosophical half of my brain is already rejecting such an oversimplification, but fuck it.)
Ha, I’m always behind on the cool shows. My (younger) writing friends make recommendations to me. Some work out, some don’t. (I was told that Two Broke Girls was funny, but I find it boring and off-putting.)
I’m curious what you’d think of the cases I have in mind… well, let me know if you ever do go watch 30 Rock or Community. :) I’d say there must be some self-consciousness there in both, since one show is very exuberantly and self-consciously intertextual, and the other is a TV show about a TV writer and the people she works with. (And she is often the one putting her foot in her mouth. And it seems a particular twitch of hers, as I’ve seen it in other things she’s penned too.)
Ha, so we were talking about the same thing re: debates between left- and right-ists. Fancy that. There’s a passage in a book I just finished reading (and will post about in a bit) that touches on that obsession with authenticity you mention… and its long history. I’ll try remember to add a link when that post is up.
EDIT: Here it is.
One thing I wonder about is to what degree Koreans’ attitudes towards African and African-American people and culture are rooted in what they perceived (during earlier periods) to be whites’ attitudes towards blacks, and how much they’re rooted in simple political and economic power. Certainly the (complex, and very situational) respect whites get here is linked to American ascendancy and Korean’s perception of America as “white”; but there’s also a legacy of positive white presence here in the wider sense, in the sense of charity work, Peace Corps, religious and medical missionaries, and so on. Some of the best universities, and many hospitals and orphanages, apparently were established during Korea’s darkest days by foreigners in Korea, often white Americans, and I have to think some vague memory of that lingers, albeit problematized by all kinds of postcolonial identity issues, politics, and more.
On the notion of the “blackness” of American culture in general, yeah, a lot of the more interesting writing on the US I’ve read in the last few years touched upon the Euro-African hybridity that swings, inescapable, at the heart of American culture. I don’t know how much of a consolation it is — oversimplification indeed, and it overlooks a lot complexities that might not matter so much to white Americans, but may be more important to African-Americans.
(Sort of like how, when the US State Department was sending jazz musicians out into the third world/fringers of the Communist world, authorities were bent on claiming jazz as “uniquely American” and were not happy when certain jazz musicians either criticized racism in America or suggested that jazz was a particularly African-American cultural tradition.)
I read “Dark Gods” in my freshman year of high school, I think, many eons ago, and I remember being spooked out by it pretty thoroughly. I got it from the public library; I looked for it again recently, but it was gone, without even a notation in the library database—such a shame.
But Kline’s real masterpiece is the “Events at Poroth Farm.” What a story! It really plays upon the primal fear you feel when you’re alone in the woods at night. Maybe that’s not an especially original idea, but it never gets old, and Kline handles it well. His writing is clear and easy to follow—he doesn’t dilute his prose with slang the way Stephen King does, and he doesn’t heap on the adjective like H.P. Lovecraft (Not that I dislike either King or Lovecraft). Overall, a great read. I read it before bed and it took me quite awhile to doze off afterward. Next up on my list is “The Ceremonies.”
Random thought: who designed the cover for “Dark Gods?” I don’t remember that it has much to do with the stories, but it’s kind of an evocative image. Why is there a human-shaped hole in the ground, anyway? And is the ground surface made of sand, dirt, or some kind of cake frosting? (It has a soft, creamy texture if you look closely). Hmmm. The cover is worth a story in itself.
I definitely want to check out “The Events at Poroth Farm” when I have time. I think I have it in something around here, I just haven’t had a chance yet.
There are a few covers for Dark Gods, actually: the paperback version in my possession now shows and evil face in the sky above a house:
… which I assume sort-of depicts something of the mood of “Petey” since the house is out in the countryside. (Though it feels more like “Nadelman’s God” as far as the evil face is concerned.) But the copy I owned in Canada — the hardback, and yeah, a library discard — had the cover you describe. I always assumed the cover was supposed to depict a kind of sense of “Children of the Kingdom” — the hole in the ground being, you know, like one of the various holes in the ground from which the white-worm beings emerge? Weird, yes. For those who missed it, that’s the picture above. And then there’s the Pan paperback cover, worst of the bunch:
Man, sometimes genre fiction gets bad covers.
I can’t remember whether I read Dark Gods in high school or early in my university studies, but it was around then for me. I will say I enjoyed the stories then, but got more of a kick out of them rereading them this year. I think I missed a lot when I originally read them.
By the way, you know that The Ceremonies is “The Events at Poroth Farm” expanded into novel length, right? Just checking! Enjoy it… I’ll get around to it sometime too… eventually.
Yeah, the top painting is probably referencing “Children of the Kingdom” indirectly. Sometimes I suspect that the cover artists don’t actually read the stories, or at least not very thoroughly. In spite of it, I kind of like the hardcover picture for “Dark Gods.” It’s stark and ominous, even if the ground looks like a Betty Crocker product. It could have been a second tier surrealist painting—something by Rene Magritte, maybe. I even like the Bantam paperback version too, but the final one (the Pan paperback) is cheesy, like a 70’s comic book.
I did hear that “The Ceremonies” was based on “The Events at Poroth Farm”—that kind of piqued my interest since “Poroth” was so good. I think I’ll even re-read “Dark Gods” while I’m at it.
The only other things I’ve read by Klein are “Growing Things” and “Curtains for Nat Crumley.” “Growing Things” isn’t really a horror story—or really much of a story. It’s more a fragment of a story. “Nat Crumley” is a bit of a black comedy with some supernatural elements. And I guess there’s not much more to his corpus of work than that, and a few more stories that I haven’t read. Maybe he’s like the Harper Lee of the horror genre: one good novel, and that’s the end. But I suppose quality is more important than quantity in the long run.
Anyway, I hope you write a post on “Poroth” when you get around to it. I’m curious to see your take on it.
There is a second collection of his shorter work, but I’ve heard mixed things and in fact supposedly he expresses mixed feelings about a lot of it in the book itself. (The introduction or something, I think.) I;d like to check it out anyway, but it was a limited print run and none of the libraries in Korea have a copy, so I’ll have to wait till I’m somewhere where an interlibrary loan is possible, since second-hand copies of that book are insanely expensive!
I will try remember to write something on “Poroth Farm” when I get around to it. It’ll be a while — I always end up too overloaded during semesters to get much pleasure reading in, which is awful.
Somehow, every year I always find the time to come back and check whether T.E.D. Klein has decided to write anything new. I picked up a copy of Dark Gods for maybe 20 cents after flicking through it briefly and noticing a Lovecraft reference.
I wasn’t expecting much from it, considering the sheer volume of Lovecraft imitations, but man – this guy did it right. He didn’t copy Lovecraft, rather he imported the quintessential Lovecraftian spirit of cosmic horror. I came to appreciate Klein that much more some years later when I embarked upon an obsessive study of techniques and devices of sinister suggestion in horror fiction. Klein was a guy who deconstructed the best weird tales of M.R. James, Machen, Lovecraft, Blackwood etc., isolated what worked and reproduced it in a modern setting. I’m embarrassed by what passes as ‘Lovecraftian’ these days – apparently you only need to throw in something with tentacles or the word ‘eldritch’.
I read The Ceremonies after Dark Gods, and although I certainly enjoyed it, I didn’t find it anywhere near as effective as any of his novellas. I found an atmosphere-eroding tendency towards over-explanation, which I couldn’t quite understand given the quality of Dark Gods.
If you haven’t read the so-called ‘strange stories’ of Robert Aickman, it needs to be done. I feel I need to always bring up Aickman whenever any discussion of obscure writers of effective supernatural horror arise, because so many lovers of finely-crafted weird fiction have never even heard of him. He really takes atmospheric weirdness and horror to a new level. Lovecraft could carve out magnificent and awe-inspiring visions of blood-freezing cosmicism, but Robert Aickman pretends to be taking you somewhere perfectly ordinary, and before you know what he is doing he gets right under your skin and creeping you out on a monolithic scale. He has some 70-80 short stories scattered in old horror anthologies. I most strongly recommend his stories ‘The Hospice’, ‘The Inner Room’ and ‘Ravissante’. Creepy, creepy shit.
Yeah, to the point where Ellen Datlow’s recent Lovecraft anthology specified that contributors not include tentacles or “eldritch.” I occasionally do Lovecraftian things, but my stuff is all sort of, I don’t know exactly how to put it except it’s sort of focused on the Dreamlands stuff, though there’s some bleedthrough the more familiar, Cthulhu-related stuff into it here and there. I found myself in a bit of Lovecraft rut and couldn’t write much else for awhile, and I kept doing Dreamlands-ish stories.
I haven’t read The Ceremonies, though it’s in my pile/list. To be honest, it might be that novellas and short stories are more suited to straight-ahead cosmic horror; I don’t know. A friend of mine (who I think commented on this post, in fact) found other of Klein’s stories less rewarding–the ones in the more recent, limited-edition collection that came out a few years ago. It happens sometimes that an author produces one book of amazing stuff, and then just kind of stops working at that level, but not having read the collection, I don’t know. I do wonder what Klein has been doing in all the years since… what he’s moved on to, and how he feels about it. Either way, as you say, Dark Gods is head and shoulders about most Lovecraftian fiction, and an achievement in itself. (Nothing to sniffle at, is what I mean.)
Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve added him to my essentials list, and will get to him as soon as I can. So many books, so many I’ve never heard of. (And yeah, I’d never seen mention of Aickman before, which, if he’sas great as you suggest, is sad. But then, it was only last year I finally got around to Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan.”)
@Marvin, I would say that most logical people view the Feminist Infiltration into both the scientific and the Atheist Word(Atheism +) the last few years as proof of how Feminism is the female equivalent of the self serving Manic Belief that have already long been condemned in the Straight White Male community(not that it was by any means just white males doing the condemning)
This old argument needs to go back to the “Freedom Before Equality” debate. A much deeper conversation about how lowering standards hurts everyone etc. Welfare might have been created to help the poor like many black women and children, but it is blamed for the Institutionalized Racist Destruction of the Black Family by many African Americans today.
Culture also often comes before race or sex but is never looked at honestly.
Course everything always goes back to Class. Not sure what planet some think we are on but the Few white 1% Rich Bastards didn’t get where they are by helping out and sharing with the 180 million other whites. Many more whites fought and and or died to end slavery then there were slave masters.(‘The Forgotten’ I call them) That same Higher Class ‘Rich’ attitude we know from Modern America that loves them some Cheap Labor. The Free Labor of the far past was their Wettest Dread come true.
But we all want to be rich(never trust someone who says they are not out for themselves)
Yet That only opens up deeper questions about us, Ones that most of us would (I feel) react much like our Damn Politicians when asked about our new afforded views on Class problems, and most likely respond (even to ourselves) with a “No Comment”
Gord, you mentioned having Honesty in Debate and maybe we should address the Issues instead of resorting to name calling. Sadly that day still seems very far away as it seems a institutionalized problem that.(at least in the vague but still powerful way we love to use that term)
Anyway Klein is or was one Damn fine writer. I hope he returns at some point.
G. Gordan Snooty
While I have plenty to say in response to this, er, “comment,” I’m holding off since most of it seems to be (mis)directed at Marvin. In case he doesn’t get email updates for this thread, I’ve let him know, although I’d understand if he’s not interested in responding to this.
I will ask, though, one thing: in that addressed to me, I have no idea what you’re responding to. Who is name-calling? Where did I mention Honesty in Debate? What “Issue” is it we’re discussing? I thought we were discussing the work of T.E.D. Klein, and specifically his (probably conscious) depiction of a kind of clueless racism in developing certain of his fictional characters. That’s certainly the discussion I started here. It has turned into a more general appreciation of the work of Klein, but I don’t really see the Skeptical/Atheist movement as germane to the discussion. (While, at the same time, I don’t see anything wrong with Marvin, or anyone, mentioning it… in passing.)
Are you complaining about name calling because of the passage I’ll quote below?
If so, well, I don’t see Marvin as engaging in name-calling. (Bear in mind that as I understand it, he is a white male member, however active or inactive, of the same movement mentioned. I don’t think he’s calling himself a “sexist dickbag,” do you? I think he’s criticizing unacceptable behaviour he’s seen among other men in the movement. Nuance.)
But maybe it’s not what you’re attempting to claim. I frankly can’t tell: there is too little clarity in your comment.
I’ll have more to say later, whether or not Marvin responds, but for now, the ball is in his court.
Okay, Maddog, Marvin’s noted that he’s busy and doesn’t mind me responding to your comment so:
1. It seems ludicrous to cry foul about name-calling when there’s a bunch of implicit name-calling in your own comment. After all, what are women in the Skeptical movement–and science[?!?!?!?]–who demand to be treated with equality (and thus with respect)? They’re apparently “Feminist Infiltrators”… because who else would have perpetrated a “Feminist Infiltration”?
Before you get all defensive, you’re clearly trying to equate feminism with fundamentalism. Assuming your IP isn’t spoofed, it looks like you’re in Texas, so I can understand being fed up of fundamentalist jackasses. But that isn’t an excuse to start labeling everyone who discomfits you as some kind of fundamentalist.
Most “logical people” are discomfited immediately by anyone who starts by throwing around a phrase like “Feminist Infiltration.”
2. Most “logical people” would also be baffled by most of the rest of your post. I was.
3. There’s a Straight White Male community? Seriously? Straight White Males have a community that doesn’t include males of other races or sexual orientations, or women generally? What kind of a community is that? The only such communities I know about of that nature are Old Boys’ Clubs, the Klan, and neo-Nazis.
No offense to straight white males, of course–I happen to be one myself–but I daresay I would not want to be in a community that was comprised solely of them. No doubt you imagine the feminist community is a kind of echo chamber in which stupid ideas resonate loudly because the only members are feminists. But your hypothetical “straight white male” community would be–and historically, when such has existed, has been–just as bad… indeed, worse, given the social privileges enjoyed by straight white males historically and in the present day.
Or are you arguing that skeptics were predominantly straight white males in the past? In which case, what makes you so sure? You might wish to read a little intellectual history before making that claim.
3. “Freedom Before Equality”: I presume you’re referring to the Milton Friedman argument, which is an economic argument. One can argue about “Freedom Before Equality” when it comes to economics, coherently. It seems much less sensible to argue “Freedom Before Equality” when it comes to social equality, however.
Here’s why. The idea behind “Freedom Before Equality” depends on a conception of wealth as exhaustible. This is why freedom–to pursue and to generate wealth, as much as anything–takes precedence over equality (because that inherently becomes the equal distribution of finite wealth). Not that we cannot debate that, mind you, but…
Even taking as given “Freedom Before Equality” holds true in an economic sense, there is no evidence that respect and social enfranchisement is exhaustible. That does seem to be a common assumption among conservatives, of course: if gay people are enfranchised to marry, or women are equally enfranchised in society, then white men lose out. The conception seems to be one of respect, social enfranchisement, and indeed of opportunity as an exhaustible resource, rather than as an infinitely renewable, inexhaustible one… a peculiar sort of belief.
This is what makes your ostensible “straight white male community”–which I suppose is a shorthand for social conservatives, isn’t it?–look like the Silas Marners of social enfranchisement: they’re hoarding something that more liberal-minded people see as non-scarce. It’s a bit like sitting on the public beach with a rifle, and, when someone from another part of town comes to swim in the ocean, shooting to scare them off, if not to shoot them dead, because, “If this goes on, where will I swim?” There is more than enough ocean for all of us to swim in, after all.
4. Lowering standards does hurt everyone. For example, lowering the standards for education has hurt your national discourse. (I’m Canadian, which is why I say “your”; but since America drags the rest of the planet around in some ways, I’ll add that it has hurt the discourse in many places other than the US, too.)
I would hold up your comment itself as an example of the effects of lowered standards of education. It is an example of painful inarticulacy and difficulty with basic reasoning and logic that result from how low our standards for education–specifically for reading and writing, and for rhetoric and argumentation–have all fallen.
5. I don’t know what the majority of African-Americans feel about the welfare system. I do wish you’d provide evidence for your claims. I can say that the few African-Americans I knew personally have nuanced and complex views on the state of African-American families and communities, involving lots of causal factors. It’s not just Welfare.
6. I think it is stereotypical to the point of bordering on self-parody when I hear an American decry things like welfare and health care. It betrays a singularly amazing lack of awareness of how things work in the rest of the developed world. I have many many Americans who assume that places like South Korea are “poor”; were I to tell them that the average South Korean enjoys greater economic freedom and far easier and more affordable access to health care–and that on the whole Korean society benefits from it–they would not believe me.
Meanwhile, South Korea lacks a functioning welfare system, and the social cost of this is tremendous. (Even in ways that conservatives would dislike: it stifles innovation and entrepreneurialism, by making it too risky for people who could start businesses to take the risk of their business failing, since there is absolutely no social safety net beyond family.)
7. I have no idea what this is in reference to:
Culture also often comes before race or sex but is never looked at honestly.
8. You are correct that not all whites are upper class. You are also correct that not all whites were slaveowners. However, as you say, everything comes back to class. Remember, at the time of emancipation, there was no class in American that considered itself “white”: there were English, there were French, there were Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, Germans, Dutch… and so on. And some of those groups were seen, by the “English” (Anglo-Saxon Protestant) majority as being of inferior races. Irish, for example, were openly called “white trash” because they were, as cheap freeman laborers, more disposable than slaves (who represented an economic investment). One didn’t want a slave to die if it could be avoided; an Irish laborer dying on a hired job, on the other hand, represented much less risk and loss to an employer.
So it should hardly surprise us there is a great deal of historical evidence that the “class” of “white people” was invented by the most disenfranchised European groups, as a way of distinguishing themselves from “blacks”… as a means of claiming superiority to someone.
Which is to say that while racism was central to the slave trade, the kind of racism we live amid now was in part formed when lower-class whites threw lower-class blacks under the bus to move up the ladder a rung. And to be fair, while we criticize them, most people in the same situation are likely to behave that way. People in absolute poverty behave horribly in order to escape it.
Again, I think you need to go back and read some more history.
9. Obviously, this claim is questionable:
But we all want to be rich(never trust someone who says they are not out for themselves)
If that were true and representative, we would not have so many teachers, we would not have so many artists and writers and poets, and priests and nuns and volunteer workers. You here are simply attempting to claim that people are inherently selfish, as if it is by force of nature. To which, I argue that while it is a widespread moral failing, that does not make it inherent; it does not eliminate the issue of choice. People often choose to be selfish. That doesn’t excuse the choice.
(For myself, I would be glad of more wealth, and am not adverse to working for it; but I have refused work in the past because I felt that taking it meant being complicit with systems I felt were predatory and were doing harm in the world, rather than doing good.)
And finally, I have no idea what in the bloody hell any of this has to do with the general discussion above. It looks to me as if you saw one offhand comment by Marvin, barfed up your little hairball of ill-considered opinions, and moved on. Which is in bad taste. I only respond on the off-chance that, by some bizarre twist of misunderstanding, I’m just failing to see something here that is pertinent to the issue of racism as consciously-deployed character trait in the writing of T.E.D. Klein.
(And, of course, trying to figure out whether the clueless sexism above is somehow satirically trying to parallel the clueless racism of Klein’s characters. Because, if so, your parody is not bad, if a bit overstated. Klein’s characters tend to at least sense there’s something off about their own anxiety-laced kneejerk reactions, in ways that your comment doesn’t suggest about you.)