EDITOR’S COCKPIT

EDITOR’S COCKPIT–  FROM TWILIGHT PATROL #6 (NOVEMBER 1935 ISSUE):

You’re probably wondering how the fine editors at PastModern Pulpblications ever got talked into publishing an obvious money loser like The Twilight Patrol.  Well, the guy who wrote it and drew it gave us the weirdest sales pitch we’d ever heard, and we decided to take a chance on him.  You never know for certain what’s going to work and what isn’t.  So much of the success of our pulp industry involves throwing stuff up against the wall and seeing what sticks.

The guy came to us because he found a kind of magic in the pulps.  He couldn’t really explain it, said it was kind of religious experience, which means it can’t be expressed in words.  And then he tried to explain it anyway.  While he was talking it out, he said maybe it would be better to call his experience one of myth rather than one of religion.  But he talked about the pulps like a true believer.

He said he had created, and was trying to sell to us, a mythology about Truth.  Well, that was good for a laugh.  Then he got serious, sort of.

He said a myth is a good way to understand the nature of truth, since it is a story that is understood to be untrue, but by its structure and details is understood to be essentially true—like parables and metaphors.  Because the nature of myth is based on contradiction, it is a mental tool for navigating the maze of reality whose essential nature is paradox and contradiction—except for those portions of that are not paradox and contradiction, which is all of it and none of it.  Religion works the same way as myth, except it is a story that is understood to be absolutely and irrefutably true even though its essential details and structure cannot be verified by human senses or ordinary logic.  According to this guy, myth and religion are among the many mental tools for navigating the maze of reality, and many of these tools yield contradictory results, owing to the nature of the maze.  These other tools include (without limitation, as the contract writers like to say) science, math, logic, philosophy, law, art, and their varied subdivisions.

It was interesting stuff, but we told him it didn’t sound like the kind of stuff that would sell pulp magazines, even if you’re the kind of person driven into religious rapture by pulp fiction. 

He said, back home there’s guy named Joseph Campbell who told everybody to follow their bliss.  Campbell was a college professor who taught courses in something called Comparative Religion, if you can believe that—and people actually paid good money to study it.  He gained some attention when he started peddling a bunch of myths—or ideas about myths and how they affect people and societies. 

What really got this Campbell guy famous though, was a series of films where a big studio took all his ideas, combined them with genre clichés and formula plotting to attract a huge cult-like following and make a fortune.  These films made billions of dollars.  Billions, according to our writer.  We figure our writer must come from a place where dollars are the same as pennies.

Our writer told us that he comes from a place where there’s a major cultural crisis.  Cultures are shaped by their myths, and all of the dominant myths in this place (we’re starting to think it is a mythical place) have lost their original potency and become weaponized by the use of marketing technology and formula driven methods. 

“The myths became toxic with commercialism, while spreading the myth that commercial success is the true measure of value, validity, and morality.  Sort of a worship of capitalistic Darwinism, accepted as gospel, even by people who don’t believe in evolution.  And that is the kind of myth I’m rebelling against.  Or at least trying to balance by creating a mythic counterweight.  The funny thing is, Joseph Campbell’s formulas for creating myths were incorporated into a bunch of commercialized products which ended up becoming a demonstration project of how new myths arise, gain ascendancy, shape their cultures, and then start to die.”

We told him we were much more interested in these story formulas that could make billions.

He responded, “There’s an adage taught in creative writing classes—any fool can write a masterpiece.  All he has to do is tell the truth.

“So I set out to write a masterpiece by telling the truth about truth, which isn’t exactly true, to tell the truth (a phrase associated with people trying to convince you of their candor by admitting they don’t always tell the truth).”

“What do you have against making money?” we asked him.

“I like money just fine.  I’ve got a problem with art being about only making money.  Maybe part of my problem has to do with a sweet tooth for art that doesn’t make money.” 

When he was younger, this guy did everything he could to live off his writing and art.  He just couldn’t do it, and you can see why. He didn’t give up completely, but to earn a living, he took a job with a hospital located two blocks away from his boyhood home.  He had worked there in a variety of positions when he was in high school and college, but at this point, he was a lawyer.  They hired him to set up an in-house hospital legal department, an arrangement not unheard of at the time he first started, but not as common as it would later become.

Over the years, the outfit he worked for grew from a single hospital to one of the largest public healthcare systems in the country.  Locally, it was viewed as a community treasure, winning countless awards.  The way the guy described it, this was a charity famed for employee satisfaction and outstanding care.  It was a public institution, able to collect taxes, but through efficient management, it made enough money so that taxes could be slashed year after year.  Making money was important, but it was only one of multiple interdependent and competing priorities.  It was balanced against other aspects of its mission. This was government done right, the way the guy told it.

Sounded to us like a mythical organization.

The writer said, “Yeah, sounds that way, but it was real.  People used to ask me, what’s the magic sauce that makes you guys different.  And I would say, the culture—the extraordinary corporate culture.  It was government, but it wasn’t about Democrats or Republicans.  The governing body would change political affiliation from time to time, depending on Governor appointments, but the corporate culture didn’t change.  The amazing corporate culture.”

The more he talked, the more it sounded as unreal as his other fiction.

Working as a healthcare lawyer for close to 40 years, he claimed to have gotten an insider’s view of an extraordinary organization.  Got to see its stumbles, its growing pains, its terrible mistakes as well as its triumphs. 

“I wish I could say there was never a dull moment, but there were plenty of dull moments.  What could be more boring than reading contracts and writing policies and procedures?  I was also dealing with patient care matters, real life and death stuff, and transactions with millions of dollars at stake.  So the tedium was interrupted by instances of white knuckle terror– and every now and then, entertainment like you cannot buy.”

We told him we’d be much more interested in stories about that kind of stuff.  Dr. Kildare type doctor stories, or Perry Mason type lawyer stories.  Stuff that people actually want to read.

“Yeah, I could do that.  But it was too much like the job I was mostly doing just for the money.  It was too much like the job that wasn’t following my bliss.”

Our writer tells us that his bliss was in writing and illustrating weird horror adventure literature. 

“There’s magic in the pulps,” he said.  “You guys don’t even realize what you’re sitting on.  Where I come from, they study H.P. Lovecraft and Dashiell Hammett with the same kind of serious attention and reverence some reserve for hallowed writers like Tobias Smollett and John Greenleaf Whittier.

“Part of the magic of the pulps is that you guys would just throw stuff up against the wall, no matter how weird it might seem, and see what sticks—as opposed to the world I had to deal with—where the publishers made up their minds about what people would want– or should want– and they had the market dominance and sophisticated tools for making sure their ordained products sold.”

We told him that the problem with his stuff is that it was too weird, too unreal.  Really really really unreal, and that he put off his readers by throwing stuff at them that was so disconnected from ordinary experience.  It was impossible to relate to.  The first time we read it, we all felt confused disoriented, like he’d slipped a mickey into his prose. 

“Well,” he said, “Read it again.

“The series flows from a variety of disparate sources.  I believe the pulps of the 1930’s represent the core of a uniquely American mythology.  I used that mythology the way Tolkien used Nordic Mythology in “Lord of the Rings,” or the way Joyce used Homer in his “Ulysses.”  David Lindsay’s “Voyage to Arcturus” was an influence as well—a philosophical novel separated from human experience.  And Colin Wilson’s “History of the Occult” and “The Outsider.”

“When I was 17, a friend of mine handed me the first book of a trilogy titled “All and Everything,” by a guy named Gurdjieff.  The title of the trilogy says it all.  ‘Many say the book is a masterpiece of esoteric mysticism,’ cautioned my friend, ‘or a masterpiece of malarkey.’  Gurdjieff had a reputation for being a con artist, offering to trade glimpses of a few pages of dense befuddling prose for exorbitant costs.  The second book in the trilogy, “Meetings with Remarkable Men”, contained numerous anecdotes in which Gurdjieff bragged about his ability to con the gullible, with a wink and nod granting the assurance that present reader did not belong in that category.

“I breezed through the first book of Gurdjieff’s trilogy, another title that really says it all: “Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson”.  The book fluctuated between haughty incomprehensibility and nonsensical playfulness.  It didn’t impress me at all, but I kept reading it until I was finished in more than once sense of the word.  I didn’t think much of the experience, didn’t think it had taught me anything– until I picked up again forty years later.  Then I found the wry humor, the mixing of fantasy, myth, and philosophy and the preoccupation with trying to explore the nature of reality through jokes, parables, dreams and nonsense had seeped into my own writing.

“And the really funny thing is—Gurdjieff warns the reader upfront that this might happen. 

“My mythology about the nature of truth is also animated by the spirit of a legendary paper titled “Information Theory, Photosynthesis, and Religion.”  The Twilight Patrol has the kind of range and ambition suggested by the title, an all-encompassing methodology for understanding and explaining the universe—all the big important philosophical questions.  All and Everything.  But the legendary paper, Information Theory, Photosynthesis, and Religion did not actually exist, and it appeared only as a reference in an entirely different article.  The title was intended to deride these kinds of ambitions.  It was intended to satirize the appropriation of information theory by other disciplines that misunderstood and misapplied them.   

Information Theory, Photosynthesis, and Religion was a joke, the same way that the grand pretentions of the non-existent Twilight Patrol are a joke, even as it misappropriates information theory in the way satirized by the title of the non-existent article.  Think of the Twilight Patrol as Information Theory, Pulp fiction, and Religion. 

“This is exactly why your stuff doesn’t sell.”

“Yeah, no one wants to read a book that seems like it is a joke being played on the reader.  It is a joke, but it isn’t a joke.”

“Now, that is the kind of joke we would expect a lawyer to make.”

“My legal training has a lot to do with the nature of this book.  And the book isn’t a joke and it isn’t a myth in the sense that the whole time I was writing it, I was dealing with complex, challenging, and extremely consequential problems.  I knew –literally– my own life and the lives of those I loved the most were at stake while I was doing my lawyer job, because if any of us became ill or injured, he or she would end up being care for by the healthcare organization I was advising.  Over the course of decades, I had contact with just about every aspect of operations—from working at the bedside as a nurse’s aide, to dealing with the contracts, to the policies and procedures, the by-laws, insurance, risk management, the credentialing of professionals, hiring and firing.  All and Everything.  The organization had its own myths and legends and folklore promoting its corporate culture.  I was watching the way every aspect of care and management fed into the final results at the bedside, where even the smallest of errors could yield horrific results.  I could see the overwhelming importance of all individual contributions, the necessity of functioning as a team, the importance of balancing competing and contradicting priorities, and maintaining the organization’s extraordinary corporate culture that supported these efforts, all from the unique vantage point at which I served—the juncture of two competing and contradictory disciplines, law and medicine.

“It surely wasn’t my bliss.  But it ended up being the very best way to make money in a meaningful and rewarding way so that I could follow my bliss and create art that was about something other than making money.  You have to understand, art is almost a religious experience for me.”

We told him we kind of figured that out.  Your musings about religion is another reason your stuff doesn’t sell.  Information Theory, Pulp Fiction and Religion.  It doesn’t really work, you know.

“Sorry, how was I supposed to write a book about the ultimate nature of truth and not deal with the heavy stuff?”

We told him we would rather read pulp fiction about photosynthesis.  “Pulp fiction is the way this organization puts food on the table.  Don’t make light of it.”

“Yeah, I understand completely the need to put food on the table.  That was what the law job did.  In what passed for my spare time, which wasn’t much, I still tried to follow my bliss.  I would escape the tedium and stress by escaping into escapist literature.  I was a dreamer, and this was a coping mechanism for me since early childhood.  I had my own methods for shutting out reality.  In the Twilight Patrol, I created a medium where everything was abstracted and unthreatening—the inconsequential realm of the non-existent, the dreams of a bygone age, in which I could explore all the questions and concerns that troubled me, with the final result being a journal of the tension between my fantasies and my realities, a preposterously ambitious work.

“All fiction contains elements of autobiography, just as all autobiographies contain elements of fiction.  The Twilight Patrol isn’t so much a fictionalized version of my life, but a mytholgized version of what I learned in balancing these two aspects of my life, the reality and the unreality, all woven into the fabric of a patrol into the twilight.

“What I found was this.  Something I can sum up very simply.  Everything is true.”

“That can’t be true.”

“You’re right, because if you weren’t right, not everything would be true.”

“Okay, I get it.  It’s a joke.  It’s a con, like you’ve been telling us all along.”

“Everything is true.  Really. 

“Actually, it is a simplified version of the way the first amendment of the U.S. constitution works.  That’s true.  Take it from me, I studied this stuff in law school.  All speech is allowed—every statement being treated the same, whether it is absolutely and perfectly true or whether it is absolutely and perfectly false.  It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s true—only what result it brings about.  Life is like that.  You don’t have to understand the world around you in order to succeed.  You don’t have to be good.  You don’t have to be smart.  You don’t have to know what is real and what isn’t as long as you keep doing the right thing.  Evolution is like that—an organism can remain utterly ignorant as long as it is able to stay alive and propagate. 

“First amendment freedom of religion works the same way.  All religions are treated the same, as if all of them were perfectly true…  And then we’re back in the territory Joseph Campbell explored, the rich variety of mankind’s religious experience and the many masks of God.”

“So that’s why the Twilight Patrol is like Information Theory, Pulp Fiction, and religion?”

“It isn’t real.  Epic unreality.  The journey takes us to the Western Front where mystic cults are playing both sides of World War I to breed destruction as the source of their power, then we go to the shores of America infiltrated by demons and tearing itself apart.  The first three issues form a trilogy involving a villain who is able to control vast hordes of flesh-eating flies.  Although I didn’t know it at the time I created this character, the name Beelzebub means Lord Housefly, and was originally coined to satirize the Canaanite god Baal. 

It was another joke, Gurdjieff tapping me on the shoulder.  We then go to dragon haunted burning skies, then to the foundations of eternity, stretching from the moment of creation to the entropic death of the material universe. We witness most unbelievable dogfight in pulp history.  In the City of Magic, where the buildings are made of paper and set aflame, where reality is shaped by mere expectation, and what you think is what will be, aces duel with bullets and beliefs, each hoping to shape the thoughts of their opponents.  The perspectives of killers and victims cascade into one another in a mad whirl of literary Escher illusions.  Then we go to an absolute void where nothing rules, then to floating islands in the far east shrouded in mercurial silvery mists where medical science runs mad, finally arriving in a rebuilt Tower of Babel, renewing the ancient assault on perfect understanding.  The foolishness of trying to tackle All and Everything.

“It isn’t supposed to be real.

“I created a pulp magazine that didn’t exist so that it could function as a petri dish, isolating its elements from the constraints of the physical world, to see what would grow.  What I imagined when I first started this project was a masterpiece of exploration into true nature of reality, and that’s what I ended up with, in my imagination.

“Look, I’m no good at selling my stuff.  I was trying to give an introduction so you’d read the whole damn thing.  Give it a chance,” he said.  “It probably won’t change what you believe, but it might change the way you view what you don’t believe.”