I had heard of Howard Waldrop before then -- he'd had a couple of stories here and there, Universe, Galaxy, during the first few years of the '70s, and had co-authored (with Jake Saunders) an uneven but interesting novel called The Texas-Israeli War -- but 1976 happened to be the year when the first Really Good Waldrop Stories started to appear, work a quantum jump better than anything he'd produced before. I was in the middle of doing the reading for the first of my Best of the Year anthologies, and had already put Waldrop stories from Orbit 18 and Universe 6 down on my Short List (ended up using both of them, too, even though I had room for only eight stories in the book), so that I was somewhat more intrigued by meeting this strangely-dressed fellow with the truly atrocious Texas accent (I, of course, being, as everyone knows, Nearly Perfect, have no accent at all . . . except for an occasional but entirely justifiable tendency to render "foghorn" as "forghahn") than I might have been in 1974 or 1975.
At any rate, we hit it off well, and spent a good portion of the rest of that evening sitting on the windowsill in the SFWA suite with our feet in the pizza on the table below. (It -- the pizza -- had been ordered earlier by hungry SFWAns; now, only partially eaten, it had been used liberally as an ashtray as well as a squashy footrest. At some point in the festivities, a Famous Writer, somewhat the worse for Strong Drink, foggily pushed our feet aside, plucked the cigarette butts from the cold pizza and began to eat it, chewing it in a thoughtful, even contemplative manner in spite of our appalled cries of warning . . . but that, as they say, Is Another Story.) I seem to recall that there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other people sitting there on the windowsill with us as the night wore on. Certainly George R. R. Martin was there, and Pat Cadigan, and Ed Bryant, and Elizabeth Lynn, and Joe Haldeman. (Probably Cardinal Richelieu and Buddy Holly were not really there after all, although at this remove it's difficult to be sure.) Wit flowed like wine. Wine flowed like wine. The rest is history.
The years rolled relentlessly by after MidAmeriCon, and I found that I subsequently seemed to have somehow become associated with Howard in the public mind. (No doubt why I've been asked to do this Introduction in the first place.) At any rate, during the past decade I have frequently been asked to appear on convention panels with Howard, culminating in our twice being asked to put on a display called "The Howard and Gardner Show" at the Worldcon. These activities have gained me the honor of being known, in western circles at least, as "The Howard Waldrop of the East." (Rather unfairly, Howard is not referred to, when at an East Coast convention, as "The Gardner Dozois of the West.") More importantly, though, those years of doing panels with Howard have also given me some treasured memories of Howard In Action:
Howard standing on a table wearing a strange conical hat, as part of an extravaganza during which he and I were supposed to pretend to be Somtow Sucharitkul (don't ask me why), doing a bizarre capering jig that he claimed was "the Royal Thai Coronation Dance." Howard standing on another table (he seems to do this a lot), telling the Pope joke to a wildly-cheering convention throng. Howard taking part in a Dating Game panel in which a young woman was supposed to select either him, me, or Joe Haldeman for a Dream Date -- Howard participated in this debacle while wearing green pants decorated with a multicolored floral print, a red-checked shirt, a green zoot-suit jacket, a very wide red bow-tie with grotesquely-pointed ends, a black fedora several sizes too large, and dark sunglasses; when the Lucky Contestant, who had selected Howard, came around the curtain and saw just what she had selected for a Dream Date, she screamed and clapped her hands to her face in horror. Howard acting out the worst of the old Monster Movies of the '50s -- without a doubt the single funniest presentation I've ever seen anywhere. (Several memory-slices from this one, to give you a bit of the flavor of Howard's unique sense of humor: Howard acting out Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers by setting up a handmade styrofoam Washington Monument and crashing a styrofoam Flying Saucer into it, while making Distressed Spaceship Noises; Howard acting out Steve McQueen's famous debut movie by holding up a cup of red jello and letting it run slowly down his arm while screaming, "Arrggghh! The Blob! The Blob!"; Howard, for a capper, handing out actual 3-D glasses to the audience, and then crumpling up balls of paper and throwing them by everyone's head, all the while saying, "See how real these effects are? You can almost feel those meteors whooshing by. . ." Well, I guess you Hadda Be There, but it's a real shame that nobody videotaped that very strange half-hour.)
All these instances, and many more, no doubt go to prove that Howard is a genuine Character, which he is -- but if that were all there were to Howard, you would not be holding this book in your hands at this moment.
There are other scenes I remember from many of those same conventions that bring us nearer the heart of the matter: Howard reading "The Ugly Chickens" to a convention audience so rapt that you really could have heard the proverbial pin drop. Howard reading "Flying Saucer Rock and Roll," not only doing all the voices, but doing all the doo-wop parts as well, including, in Howard's own words, "the organ break of 'Runaway,' done with the human voice . . . half mechanical, half Martian cattle call." Howard reading "God's Hooks," and getting an audible gasp out of the audience when John Bunyan suddenly cuts Izaak Walton's fishing line. Howard reading "Save a Place in the Lifeboat for Me" so effectively that the same audience that had been laughing hysterically moments before were literally in tears by the end.
Now, as far as the art of reading your own stories aloud is concerned, Howard is one of the best in the business, rivaled in this ability only by Harlan Ellison (producers of story cassettes take note; someone is missing a very good bet here) -- still, no amount of dramatic reading ability is sufficient to explain the effect hearing those stories can have on an audience.
What explains it is the stories themselves.
Although Howard would shrug this off with an embarrassed laugh, there are quite a few people -- including at least one of the publishers of this collection -- who will forthrightly tell you that they think that Howard is a genius. I tend to agree. This does not mean that he is incapable of writing a bad story -- in fact, he has written several of them. But if one definition of genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, then Howard indeed fits the bill. His capacity for incredibly detailed research is legendary -- he frequently spends six months or more in intensive research for his stories; for one of them, he spent three years, on and off. When he's ready -- or when they're ready -- he then writes the stories out longhand, frequently on someone else's kitchen table, working long into the night. In this fashion, he manages to produce, usually, two or three stories a year. Sometimes more . . . but also, sometimes less.
In answer to the inevitable next question, How do you get rich -- or even stay solvent -- like that, the answer is, You don't. Even selling semi-regularly to Omni and Playboy, as Howard is now doing -- you don't. But Howard steadfastly resists all pressure to change the way he writes, to become "efficient" and cost-conscious about the amount of time and effort he puts into a story, to settle for anything less than his own finicky brand of perfection, "totally accurate, every detail exactly right" -- and has persisted in this even through periods where he has had no place to live except on someone else's porch and nothing to eat for weeks at a stretch except popcorn and canned string beans. There is something heroic about this kind of transcendental stubbornness, the dogged integrity of the handcraftsman in an age of shoddy mass-production, something admirable in this refusal to compromise, something pure and almost inspirational about what must surely be the most suicidally anti-commercial bent of any writer since H. P. Lovecraft. Sure -- hell yes! -- he'd like to have money . . . but you get the distinct feeling that, in the final analysis, the money just doesn't mean that much to Howard. Other considerations always, and unarguably, come first, and Howard has probably made fewer concessions to Mammon than just about any other writer I know. (Because Howard often plays with the icons of our popular culture -- the stuff of comic books and old movies -- he is sometimes accused by intolerant highbrow critics of doing hackwork. You must understand that if Howard writes about Giant Bees, it's because he passionately wants to write about Giant Bees, not because he thinks that Giant Bee Stories will move well on the market. This is about as far from the hack mentality as you can get. Howard always follows the peculiar urgings of his own peculiar Muse, and lets the chips -- and the salability concerns -- fall where they may . . . as demonstrated by how long it took him to sell what he used to refer to as "the piss-drinking story." ["Flying Saucer Rock and Roll"]) ((Included herein.))
Howard's friends worry about him, and sometimes nag him to be more commercially savvy about his work, but I doubt that any of them would really be happy to see Howard suddenly cave in and start cranking out dozens of Star Trek novelizations instead of what he does turn out, even if that meant that he was financially secure at last.
Because the result of those months of painstaking research, filtered through Howard's bizarrely eclectic imagination, gonzo sense of humor, and rich depths of human compassion, is -- magic.
As a writer, Howard is a Unique. You have never seen anything like the stories collected here; you will never see anything like them again. This is another sign of a genius -- good, bad, or indifferent, nobody but Howard could possibly have written one of Howard's stories; in most cases, nobody but Howard could possibly have even thought of them.
Howard's work is characterized by strong, shaggy humor, offbeat erudition, and bizarre fictional juxtapositions. In the past, he has given us a first-rate SF story about dodos ("The Ugly Chickens"), a tale set in an alternate world where Eisenhower and Patton are famous jazz musicians and Elvis Presley is a state senator ("Ike at the Mike"), a story in which the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy travel back in time to attempt to prevent the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly ("Save A Place in the Lifeboat for Me"), a story about telekinetic Sumo wrestlers ("Man-Mountain Gentian"), and a stylish fantasy in which Izaak Walton goes fishing in the Slough of Despond with John Bunyan ("God's Hooks").
And, although I won't spoil your pleasure in the strange surprises they contain by describing them here, the stories in this collection, the one you are currently holding in your hot little hands (unless you too have telekinetic powers), are every bit as resonant and strange, as eclectic and richly-imagined, and as diverse.
In fact, no Waldrop story is ever much like any previous Waldrop story, and in that respect (as well as in the panache and individuality of the writing, the sweep of imagination, and the depth of erudition), he resembles those two other great Uniques, R. A. Lafferty and Avram Davidson. In an age where originality is feared and only the familiar is wanted, where popular entertainment is dominated by sequel after sequel (Rocky XXI, anyone?), perhaps that alone is enough to explain why these pungently individual writers -- eccentrics in the very best sense of the word -- are so often underrated, if not flatout ignored . . . while writers inferior in mind and skill and heart march on to garner the Big Bucks, and the audiences of millions.
It will be cold comfort to them, no doubt, but somewhere down the road, the works of all of these gentlemen will be critically re-evaluated, and they will come to be appreciated at last for the masters of the modern American short story that they are. Davidson's day will come, Lafferty's day will come, and surely -- certainly -- Howard's day will come.
Already it is clear that he has produced one of the most original and consistently excellent bodies of short work of any "new" writer of the 1980s. "The Ugly Chickens" will probably stand as one of the single best stories of the decade, and there are two or three other Waldrop stories almost as good.
Long after Howard has died from the rigors of trying to subsist on popcorn and canned string beans, academicians will be poring over his work to find material for doctoral dissertations. Perhaps someone will make a Big-Budget Movie out of "God's Hooks." Like Lovecraft, like Phillip K. Dick, he'll no doubt be much more successful after he's gone.
Sorry -- but this does make me mad.
In the meantime, while the royalties will still do him some good, buy this book. Then buy his quirky and fascinating novel Them Bones (Ace Special). Then -- in spite of the dumb title and the truly hideous cover, surely one of the year's worst, featuring two disembodied Cowboy Heads, and a dodo vomiting in one corner -- go out and buy Howard's previous collection, Howard Who? (Doubleday), which is already being recognized (by some, anyway) as one of the landmark collections of the '80s.
Then read all this stuff.
When you've finished, I guarantee it, you will not be the same.
The above introduction originally appeared in All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past (Ace, 1987). Reprinted with permission.
Gardner Dozois has won 12 Hugo Awards as Best Editor, and two Nebula Awards for his own short fiction. He is the editor of Asimov's Science Fiction, and the editor of the annual anthology series The Year's Best Science Fiction. He is the author or editor of over 80 books.
Jed Hartman's Three Ways of Looking at Howard Waldrop (and Then Some).
George R. R. Martin's introduction to Waldrop's 1986 collection Howard Who?.
Eileen Gunn's "Alternate Waldrops", with photo-collages by Leslie What.