Howard Who?

Posted by : atcampbell | On : October 17, 2006

Howard Who? by Howard Waldrop

Nine people gathered at A. T.’s house in north Austin for this meeting. Our topic was Howard Who?, the recent 20th anniversary edition of local author Howard Waldro’s first collection. Six of us had read Waldrop before, and four had heard him read his work aloud at ArmadilloCon. Seven of us read this book for the discussion.

The book contains Waldrop’s best known early story, “The Ugly Chickens”, which is about a graduate student’s search for a fowl that had been thought extinct. We found this story to be surreal, unusual, and memorable, with the most classic sf story structure in the book. The researcher and the people he interrogates are realistic characters. The information about the “extinct” bird is presented painlessly. Most of us found this to be among our favorite stories. One member suggested that we also should read Avram Davidson’s “The Odd Old Bird,” which covers similar territory well.

We liked “Green Brother” and “Mary Margaret Road-Grader,” two stories with Native American themes. Both stories had clever ideas, were well-told, and were just the right length.

The strongest reactions were elicited by “Horror ,We Got,” a Holocaust conspiracy story with time travel elements. Many people used the word “uncomfortable” in describing their reading experience. The author achieved his intended results too well here. When a few of us who had read this book over a decade ago noted that we had forgotten the story in the meantime, the others in the group felt relieved. They want this story gone from their heads.

Other stories in the book explored ideas alternate history, alternate science, vampires, cowboys, music, and Sumo wrestling.

The final story in the collection is one of its best, “Heirs of the Perisphere.” It explores the postapocalyptic adventures of animatronic characters from a theme park. A couple of people commented that this resonates with the work of Waldrop’s friend Chad Oliver.

We found that a few of the stories contained so many obscure (to us) cultural and historical references that footnotes would have been a huge help in understanding them. “God’s Hooks!,” in particular, went over all our heads. Some of us felt that the unconventional structure of some of these tales (particularly “Ike at the Mike”) did not technically qualify them even as stories.

We had an interesting time wrapping up the discussion of the book as a whole. We liked the clear prose style and strong Southern voice, and we appreciated the many places this book took us. We did not find any unifying themes. Most of the stories could be called surreal. We felt that many of the stories contained enough fresh ideas to make ten or more stories. And these stories were so dense that it was hard to read several of them in one sitting.

We did not feel comfortable calling Howard Waldrop a science fiction or fantasy author, and decided that he is a Southern fabulist. We disagreed about how the stories in this book fit within Waldop’s body of work. Some of us feel these stories are his early accessible best stuff, and others feel that these works have been surpassed by the stories he wrote later as his craft matured.

After the meeting, several of us had a nice dinner at Pok-E-Joe’s.

— A. T. Campbell, III