I could have been really cheeky and declared that I couldn’t come up with an idea for this column.
That, after all, is the situation of Richard (aka Ric) Madoc in “Calliope” — he’s a writer who has published one novel, The Cabaret of Doctor Caligari (a title that would be, I must admit, just about enough to make me buy the book without knowing anything else about it), but who has run into total writer’s block. From an elderly writer, Erasmus Fry, Madoc gets a muse. Literally. He gets Homer’s muse, Calliope, the muse of heroic poetry. Fry has held her captive for decades, and trades her to Madoc for a bezoar.
A bezoar, in case you don’t know (I didn’t) is a hairball that has gotten stuck in a stomach. They’ve been prized over the centuries for their supposed anti-toxin powers.
Hairballs are one of those things that are both gross and hilarious. In “Calliope”, they’re mostly gross — or, perhaps, creepy. But the word hairball has something funny about it (unlike bezoar, which is little comic potential), and if you imbue hairballs with a bit of sentience, they immediately seem more amusing. Take, for instance, an excellent play by Mac Wellman, Sincerity Forever, in which Mystic Furballs bring chaos to the world. After the play caused some consternation in the U.S. Congress (certain Republicans didn’t like the character of Jesus H. Christ represented as a black woman speaking vernacular English), Wellman was forced by the National Endowment for the Arts to remove all indications that he had received funding from them to write the play, even though he had. This, too, could have been the fault of furballs. Jesse Helms, one of the Congressors who tried to punish the NEA for Wellman, achieved eternal fame as the dedicatee of Wellman’s next play, 7 Blowjobs.
I just adopted two long-haired cats, so furballs and hairballs and even bezoars are on my mind a lot these days.
Now, what were we talking about before I got sidetracked? Ideas? Ahhh, yes, ideas and the not having of them because of hairballs in the brain. Or something like that.
Clearly, I need a muse.
But I don’t think I’ll go about getting one the way Richard Madoc did, because it didn’t work out too well for him. “Calliope” is in some ways a story in the old EC Comics mode — a predictable tale of somebody punished for greed and general obnoxiousness. I don’t mean predictable as a bad thing, either; part of the fun of such stories is that we know, while we read, that this person will suffer some awful fate. Alfred Hitchcock famously said that real suspense comes from the audience knowing something the character doesn’t, and so, he said, it’s much more effective for us to see a bomb the character doesn’t know about than for us to be as ignorant as the character, because while, in the first case, we will be shocked by the bomb’s explosion, the filmmaker can gain a whole lot more sustained emotional power from the audience wondering when the bomb will explode. Similarly, we know things are not going to work out for Richard Madoc the way he intends, and one of the pleasures of “Callope” is watching gleefully — indeed, schadenfreudally! — as Madoc takes one step after another toward his doom.
In fact, “Calliope” is not only a little bit like an EC comic, it’s like a good episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. (You would think my favorite episode of that show was “The Cheney Vase”, I know, and it is, indeed, a good one — including a fine performance from the marvelous George Macready — but my real favorites are two adaptations of Roald Dahl stories, “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “Man from the South.”) There’s a symmetry to the story, too, as it begins with the marvelously multi-meaninged statement by Madoc, “I don’t have any idea,” and ends with him saying, “I’ve got no idea any more. No idea at all.” When he says it at the beginning of the story, it’s with regret and frustration; when he says it at the end, there’s a certain sense of relief, because The Sandman has punished him for imprisoning and assaulting Calliope by inflicting a torrent of ideas on his brain, and it is only through Calliope’s forgiveness of him that the torrent subsides.
The Dream Country collection contains a special bonus as an appendix: the original script Neil Gaiman wrote for “Calliope”. I discovered it after reading the completed comic, and it was fascinating, because I’ve never looked at a comic script before. A few things stuck out for me: one, how detailed it was. Gaiman’s script, at least, offers a closer approximation to the final product than does the average script for a play or movie — different media, certainly, but the script serves a relatively similar function of giving the other people involved in the project a blueprint from which to work. Super-detailed scripts tend to be frowned on, though, because of a perception that the writer is trying to do other people’s jobs for them, and a less-is-more approach generally prevails these days for playscripts and screenplays. Having these as my templates, I had assumed a comics writer saying, for instance, how many panels belong on a page would be as frowned upon as screenwriters trying to dictate the details of how scenes are shot, but this is not so in the “Calliope” script. And that makes sense — the shape and progression of panels determines much of how a story is paced and perceived.
I was also struck at how informal the tone of the script is. Instead of being a generic, impersonal document, the script is a friendly communique. The description of page 11 begins, “I dunno it’s half past five in the morning, and the TV is showing an ‘In-Depth Examination’ of the closing of a Canadian railroad; at four in the morning I was rung three times in succession by someone or soemthing who didn’t speak.” And it goes on for a few more sentences.
I am enchanted by this. Here is the sense of a communal endeavor that one gets with a good play or film production, but there is also the strong presence of a guiding hand in the details of the scripts — in which the writer is not only writer, but director. And because the cost is only pen and ink, the special effects can be anything imaginable. It seems like the perfect form to me, the ultimate joy for a writer who is also interested in collaborating with artists of varied skills.
The only question that remains for me, though, is what became of Erasmus Fry’s collection of hairballs?
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.