Let's begin with some riddles. What do Dwight David Eisenhower and the dodo have in common? How are Japanese sumo wrestlers like Disney cartoon characters? What's the common link between Izaak Walton, Abbott & Costello, and George Armstrong Custer? If you ran into a gorilla in a powdered wig at a tractor pull, what would that remind you of? And while you're pondering all that, just who was that masked man anyway?
The last one is easy. The masked man is Howard Waldrop, a short squinty-eyed fellow with an atrocious accent and a wardrobe like Mork from Ork. He was born in Mississippi, grew up in Texas, and has bounced around the Lone Star State most of his adult life, from Arlington to Grand Prairie to Bryan to Austin, where he now resides. He knows everything there is to know about B movies, he can sing fifties rock and TV theme songs all night long (and often does), he likes to fish, and he just happens to be the most startling, original, and entertaining short story writer in science fiction today.
The word unique is much abused these days, but in Howard's case it applies. We live in a derivative age, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the books we read. Every new horror writer is compared to Stephen King. Our fantasists all seem to write in the tradition of J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, or Stephen R. Donaldson. The hot young talents in SF are routinely proclaimed as the next Robert A. Heinlein, the new Isaac Asimov, the angriest young man since Harlan Ellison, unless they happen to be female, in which case they are dutifully likened to Andre Norton, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. If you listen to the blurb-writers, these days it seems that everybody writes like somebody else.
Howard Waldrop's short fiction is squarely in the tradition of Howard Waldrop. There's never been anyone like him, in or out of science fiction. His voice is his own; singular, distinctive, quirky, and -- once you've encountered it -- more than a little addictive. I'm tempted to say that the only thing that's like a Howard Waldrop story is another Howard Waldrop story, except that it wouldn't be true. Howard's stories differ as much from each other as from your run-of-the-mill SF and fantasy. The only thing they have in common is that they're all a little bit different.
Howard doesn't like to write the same thing twice. Well-meaning friends keep telling him that the best way to get rich and famous is to write the same thing over and over and over and over again, to keep frying up those robot duneburgers of gor and serving them to a hungry public, but Howard keeps wandering off and getting interested in Groucho Marx, Chinese proletarian novels, and the mound-builder Indians. Suddenly books start piling up in his office, a maniacal gleam lights his tiny little eyes, and he begins to talk incessantly about a strange new story he's going to write. Meanwhile, he consumes those piles of books during breaks in his daily regimen of building bookcases and watching old movies on television. Then, when all of his friends are just about ready to skin him alive, out it comes all in a rush: the latest Waldrop wonderment.
It's an odd way to work, but it's Howard's way, as uniquely his own as the stories it produces. He's been doing it for a long time. People have been paying him for it ever since 1970, but he started long before that, writing stories just for the love of writing. I couldn't tell you just when Howard began to scrawl words on paper, but I suspect that it was about nine seconds after he first learned to hold a Crayola in his stubby little fingers.
I do know that he was born in Mississippi on September 15, 1946 (a date he's immortalized in one of his recent short stories), that later on his family moved to Texas, and that he's been a thorough-going Texan ever since. He was already writing up a storm by the time he first came to my attention.
That was in 1963; we were both in high school, him in Arlington, Texas and me in Bayonne, New Jersey, and both of us were publishing our juvenilia in the comic book fan magazines of the day, tiny publications printed in purple with fast-fading ditto masters and circulated to literally dozens of eager readers, most of them high school kids, like Howard himself. Even then, Howard was unique. Everyone else who wrote for those tiny little fanzines (including, I blush to admit, myself) imitated the professional funny-books and wrote about superheroes. Howard wrote detective stories set in France at the time of the Musketeers. The readers loved him, but didn't quite know what to make of him, and they'd write in puzzlement to the fanzine letter columns to say, "Boy, Howard Waldrop's story was really great, but it was all about Cardinal Richelieu. What powers did he have, anyway?" He's been pleasing and puzzling readers ever since.
Everyone who read him back then knew right off that Howard was too good to stay an amateur for long, and sure enough we were all right. He made his first professional sale in 1970, just before he got drafted. The Army sent him to Georgia, gave him a typewriter, and taught him all the words to "I Want to Be an Airborne Ranger," but otherwise did him little good. The story had more lasting effects on his life and career. It was a little thing called "Lunchbox," and the editor who bought it was the legendary John W. Campbell, Jr. During the decades that he had edited Astounding (later Analog), Campbell had discovered and introduced an astonishing number of SF greats, and in fishing Howard Waldrop out of the slush pile, he demonstrated that his eye for talent hadn't deserted him. Campbell's untimely death came before he could actually print Howard's debut story, but in a very real sense it can still be said that Howard Waldrop was Campbell's last great gift to science fiction.
Two years as an army journalist slowed him down a little, but there was no stopping Howard permanently, and once he was discharged he returned to Texas to begin to write and sell all sorts of things. He even wrote a novel, a collaboration with his landlord. It was called The Texas-Israeli War, by Jake Saunders and Howard Waldrop, and it's still in print today.
Those were heady days in Texas, for reasons entirely unconnected with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Hot young writers were popping up all over the Lone Star State, and selling stories to every contemporary market, large and small. The brilliant Tom Reamy was just beginning to publish, Lisa Tuttle was turning heads with her early stories, Bruce Sterling was in the process of becoming a Harlan Ellison Discovery, and all of them -- along with Howard and a half-dozen others -- were part of a loosely organized floating workshop they called the Turkey City Neopro Rodeo. Collaboration was endemic among the Turkey City writers, and Howard shared bylines with a number of them, producing some forgettable journeyman stories and others that are still being talked about, most notably "Custer's Last Jump," about the way Crazy Horse and the Plains Indian Air Force destroyed Custer's paratroops at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. It was berserk, brilliant, and an omen of the things soon to come from Howard's clanking manual typewriter.
It was around then that people finally started noticing Howard Waldrop. He was nominated for two Nebulas in 1977: for "Custer" and again for "Mary Margaret Road-Grader," Howard's solo tour de force about post-holocaust tractor pulls, which you'll find in this collection. He didn't take home any trophies that year, but it was only a matter of time. Other nominations for other awards followed, and in 1981 his classic story "The Ugly Chickens" (that's also included here) won both the Nebula and the prestigious World Fantasy Award, and came within a dodo feather of copping the Hugo as well, for a rare triple crown.
Nowadays, Howard seems to be just about everywhere. Once, to find the latest Waldrop stories, you had to buy Terry Carr's distinguished hardcover anthology series Universe, or seek out small circulation semi-professional magazines like Shayol, Chacal, and Nickelodeon. These days Howard is publishing in Omni and Playboy . . . but you'll still find him in Universe and Shayol as well. He's not the kind who forgets where he came from. His name turns up monotonously on the shortlists for every major award in the field and most of the minor ones, and no wonder. The stories keep getting stranger and stranger, but they're getting better and better too.
He even had another go at a novel recently, this time without any help from his landlord. The end result was called Them Bones, time travel as only Waldrop would write it, and it was published to loud huzzas as part of Terry Carr's revived Ace Specials line.
As good as it was, however, Them Bones still wasn't a patch on Howard's short stories. Short fiction remains Waldrop's forte, and believe me, nobody does it better. You've got a damned fine sampler of Waldrop in the pages that follow, the famous stories and the obscure ones, plucked from magazines with hundreds or hundreds of thousands of readers. The only thing they all have in common is their quality. If this is your first taste of Howard, I envy you. Bet you can't read just one.
Oh, yes, you'll be wanting the answers to the riddles. Howard Waldrop. Howard Waldrop. Howard Waldrop. And finally, Howard Waldrop. There's only one of him, but -- lucky for us -- he spreads himself around.
The above introduction originally appeared in Howard Who? (Doubleday, 1986). Reprinted with permission.
George R. R. Martin is the Hugo- and Nebula-award winning author of the bestselling fantasy-series A Song of Ice and Fire. He's been a story editor for Twilight Zone, a consultant and producer for Beauty and the Beast, the editor of the popular Wild Cards series of anthologies, and a vice president of SFWA. He currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Jed Hartman's Three Ways of Looking at Howard Waldrop (and Then Some).
Gardner Dozois's introduction to Waldrop's 1987 collection All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past.
Eileen Gunn's "Alternate Waldrops", with photo-collages by Leslie What.
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