The Stranger: Vanishing Hitchhikers and Other Possibilities

The Stranger, the ghostly figure who picks up Seeger and delivers him back to Malpais in episode seven, is an echo or a remix of several figures throughout literary and holy texts. He is, possibly, the most folkloric figure within Perdition's Teeth: more rooted in the American -- and, admittedly, some older -- legends than many of the other characters.

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Down The Highway of the Damned: American Gothic

Perdition’s Teeth borrows from many sources — it is consciously formatted as an epic, it draws from Hardboiled and Road Fiction (most obviously Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and — indirectly, Whose Names are Unknown, by Sanora Babb, the woman who did all of the research for both novels.) The one well that Edgar and I kept coming back to is that of regional American Gothic.

North America is a vast continent, spanning thousands of miles — the tag line comes from the distance between Oklahoma City (where the second episode begins, at the chronological beginning of the series) and Goldfield, where the first episode begins in media res. Between these two places, the heroes meet dangers both mundane and fantastic, and it is in this borderland that the gothic thrives — the tension between two poles, and the irreconcilable conflict between them.

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No-Man's Land: World War One and Its Aftershocks

In episode five of Perdition’s Teeth, “Homestead,” the narrator informs us that, as he traipses across a barren expanse of farmland, Seeger is reminded of Flanders’ field and no-man’s land, the colloquial term for the space between the trenches of the Allied and Central powers. The dust-driven plains of the Great American Desert, and the waste land of mud and barbed wire that characterized the Western Front, on which Seeger fought, bear some clear similarities: their hostility, their alien appearance, and their silent threat of imminent danger would parallel one another in Seeger’s mind.

But what did World War One mean for America? For Americans? The United States didn’t join the war until April of 1917, after the release of the Zimmermann telegram (a drama of high intrigue by itself), though after the sinking of the Lusitania by German submarines, a movement towards “Preparedness” emerged. But initially, US popular opinion was against joining the war, with many different groups favoring neutrality for different reasons (Irish Americans because they were loath to aid the British, for the example, and many German Americans still had ties to Germany). Woodrow Wilson won a second term in 1916 in part thanks to the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” And even when the US did enter the war, they were beset by a variety of problems: the standing army at the start of the war was not large, and racial relations within the US military were fraught, to put it mildly. But, as David Smith noted last year in The Guardian, “[T]he war had seismic implications for the US economically, socially and culturally,” pointing out that in many ways US involvement in World War One paved the way for the cultural shifts of the twentieth century.

For Seeger, much as for John Dos Passos or Ernest Hemingway, his enlistment would have come about as the US hastily assembled almost five million troops to ship out to aid the Allied forces. With the French and British militaries in poor morale, the arrival of a bunch of Americans was looked on as a godsend. As Vera Brittain writes in her memoir, Testament of Youth:

“Look! Look! Here are the Americans! ”

I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the War, so god-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army.

Although American involvement in the war was relatively brief, and casualties relatively low with respect to raw numbers, it nonetheless affected a generation of writers — and disaffected many of the people called to enlist.

Though the American deployment only lasted a year and a half, American soldiers met the same horrors that their British, French, and Commonwealth allies had been enduring for three years when they entered the fray. The scars would last a lifetime, and within the fiction of Perdition’s Teeth, we can see those traumas lingering on Seeger’s mind. He puts on a blase attitude, but his actions show a desire for the world to make sense and for things to go back to making as much sense as it did when he was younger.

Many of the men who came home were hollowed out by the experience, and they fought with the government for their pensions for years afterward. Many of these soldiers, while they had been paid at the time of their service, were required to wait for their whole payment — they were promised $1.25 for each day serving overseas, and $1.00 for each day serving in the United States (roughly $15 and $12 in 2018 dollars.) The exact amounts were agreed upon in 1924…but were not to be paid out until 1945, twenty-seven years after the war ended.

In the summer of 1932, a year before the events of Perdition’s Teeth, 17,000 out-of-work veterans, and 26,000 sympathizers, marched on Washington, D.C. under the banner of the Bonus Army, demanding immediate cash payment of the money they had been promised. On the 27th of July, former Major General Smedley Butler, in Washington to advocate for the Veterans, walked through the camp, ate with the protesters and stayed with them. The following day, he delivered an off-the-cuff speech to them. He told them that they were within their rights, and that they were fine soldiers. He told them that they needed to keep their humor and be mindful that the public eye was upon them.

This would prove to be an important moment.

Later that day, the protestors clashed with the police, and two of them were shot, but the police were driven off. The army was then dispatched: General Douglas MacArthur and then-Major George S. Patton personally led the 12th Infantry Regiment and the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, supported by six M1917 light tanks against the protesters. It was thought by many that the army was coming out to parade in honor of the veterans, and a crowd of spectators assembled to watch. They were quickly disabused of this notion when Patton ordered a cavalry charge, leading crowd to cry out:

Shame! Shame!

The protesters were then set upon by infantrymen with fixed bayonets and tear gas, who pursued them back to their camp in the Anacostia Flats and brutally demolished it. Fifty-five veterans were injured, one hundred and thirty five were arrested, and the violence resulted in one miscarriage and the death of a twelve-week-old infant.

Burning of the Bonus Army Camp, 1932. (Image: Signal Corps/National Archives)

Burning of the Bonus Army Camp, 1932. (Image: Signal Corps/National Archives)

MacArthur claimed that they had assembled and attempted to overthrow the government, but this was a transparent lie. This event led to the ouster of President Herbert Hoover, and the election of President Roosevelt, but it had more and further-reaching effects.

It is possibly this event that was the final nail in the coffin for Smedley Butler as a military man, leading him to eventually write in the Socialist magazine Common Sense:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer; a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

It is not only the war itself, but its still-unfolding half-life, that would come to mind for Seeger as he makes his way towards the barn, and although he hasn’t yet — at the time of the story — become as disillusioned as Butler, he can no doubt sense his world crumbling around him.. The impact of the First World War, not only on our imagined detective or his historical context, but to this very day, continues to turn itself up, like long-buried landmines uncovered live (article dates from 2014).

Writers' Room and Recording Booth: The Headspace of Collaboration

(Edgar wrote an excellent piece on the cowriting process here.)

In many ways Perdition’s Teeth belongs to me — but I don’t consider any of those ways important, and everyone who took part in the process owns a vital piece of it. I would never have it any other way, and it is all of ours.

I’ve mentioned many times that it all started with a misheard lyric in the shower, but before it became a podcast, I ran it as a tabletop game. Edgar was one of my players, and regular guest star Erik Pitcock was another. From the very beginning, it was a collaborative story.

When we shifted over to making it into a podcast, Edgar became my cowriter, and we all agreed that they should be the director. I was playing the narrator, and I did not feel that I could write, act, and direct effectively. That’s more hats than I care to wear.

And all through the process, Alex was asking questions. Key, important questions, about what makes an audio drama an audio drama, about how it should function and come into the world, and while I was immovable on some things, being forced to answer the question of why things were being done the way they were was key.

From the beginning, Edgar and I were firm in the idea that everyone have a voice in the direction. We talked over each of the characters with each of our actors, we gave them our ideas, our outlines, and we took their feedback to make it work. This, I feel, is the lifeblood of collaboration.

When I was in graduate school — down in New Mexico, with the groundwork for this project being welded into my mind — I made a point to read widely, on a number of subjects. Two of the books I read that had a profound and lasting effect were from the 33 & 1/3 books on Slint’s Spiderland and Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones. Both of these books deal heavily with cowriting and collaboration, and both depict radically different ends of the spectrum.

Slint, famously, recorded the album Spiderland in two weekends. The first weekend was recording, the second was editing. Everything was a single take. To prepare for this, the members of that band devoted everything to preparing. They slept. They worked. They practiced. That was essentially it. They had long and involved discussions of the minutiae of each song. The book even noted that they spent hours debating the benefits and drawbacks of stroking upward on the guitar as opposed to downward.

Tom Waits, on the other hand, would get studio musicians to come in and would just begin describing what he wanted, playing what he had written thus far, improvising the rest, and allow the studio musicians and collaborators to slot themselves in as they wanted. It was a loose, improvisational style that lent itself to mutation and generated difference.

And so, between these two poles, you have almost the entire universe of collaboration.

My struggle, as a collaborator and, in a very real sense, as the creator, was trying to figure out how to work with other people productively. My struggle is that, while I dearly love Tom Waits, Spiderland is light years beyond Swordfishtrombones.

In the end, though, I couldn’t go with Slint’s approach. While Spiderland really is transcendantly good, the fact of the matter is that there’s only ever been one Spiderland. Slint broke up immediately after the record was released; one member committed himself. On the other hand, Swordfishtrombones was a trailhead, a new direction in an already-long career that has covered more territory than I can even dream of.

If Perdition’s Teeth serves the same role for us, I would be happy. I cannot abide it being unique: I want to follow it with other works.

On Americana

I've heard it often said that Americans don't understand what a long time is, but we have a strong grasp of what a long distance is, while Britons have a much better grasp of long histories and struggle to conceive of the distances that Americans regularly grapple with.

I don't think this is to say that America has a short history.  It just has a short history that modern Americans care about.  Cahokia was, after all, once the largest and most prosperous city in the world, overlooking the muddy breadth of the Mississippi mud.

(I wanted to acknowledge this in the show, by having the characters hear a snatch of a Navajo radio broadcast.  Unfortunately, as I don't know any Navajo speakers and don't know where to begin getting a translation, let alone have any idea where we would find anyone able to deliver these lines.  What could have been!)

But when we hear the word "Americana" what do we think about?  George Washington and the Cherry Tree; Ben Franklin and his patronizing smile; Abraham Lincoln and his stovepipe hat; settlers and the (whitewashed, sanitized) cowboys pushing west...but also Route 66 and roadside kitsch; strange lights in the desert and things from other worlds; roadside diners where the food is greasy and unsanitary but you eat it anyway, and the waitress is beautiful and friendly and the coffee she pours is for you and you alone.

Clearly, there is very much going on here, and not much of it hangs together.  I would argue, personally, that there are either three or five periods of Americana.  The five periods, I would say, are: Colonial-Antebellum; the Old West; the Gilded Age; the Hardboiled period (including everything from the 1920s-1940s;) and the Pax Americana, which includes everything from 1950 to the First of September, 1993.

The more useful model, since I'm not communicating this to a bunch of academics, I would say, goes as follows:  Fireside Americana; Radio Americana; and Television Americana.  The Fireside and the Television are the two biggest stretches for our storytelling, with the Radio as the transitional, hopeful-monster-intermediate between the two longer periods.

While there are probably scholars who have a lot to say on it, and who might strongly object to my classification, here's my take:

Fireside Americana is everything that goes from the Founders of the United States and Washington Irving all the way through Mark Twain (the Pre-Republican era is another matter, a largely forgotten field upon which strange events play out and we only really think about it in the context of it leading to the Revolutionary War.)  It's a hardwood, warmly-lit sort of aesthetic, smelling of smoke and tinged with road-dust and sea salt, a quarrelsome style for the country once known as the "alcoholic republic."

Television Americana is everything from the end of World War II to the opening of the internet.  It's Jack Kerouac and Buddy Holly through John Hughes.  It's chrome and plastic, smelling of petrochemical fumes and summer days in the city, with all of the attendant filth, it's roadside kitsch and pink plastic flamingos, it's long roadtrips taken for the hell of it and probably ends up on a beach somewhere.  It is, by and large, an aesthetic of individualism and consumption.

Radio sits between the two.  Faulkner looks backward but sits here firmly, and you also have Steinbeck and Raymond Chandler carving out their own niches.   Hardwood, but with electric lights strung up.  It's the Americana of the Private Eye, the Carny, and Okie; it's the Little Red Songbook and the Tommy Gun. It's travel by road through treacherous country to escape hardship, but done by car.  It's less summery, less sunny, more night-time.  It's an aesthetic of obscurity, with hard positions popping up and thrusting up like high-rises emerging from the mist.  It ended with World War II and the start of the Cold War (I would say a big part of this was the general rightward turn of American Culture, and possibly even the specific institution of the Taft-Hartley Act, but I digress.)

Perdition's Teeth is, in many ways, an attempt to marry contemporary trends in storytelling and weird fiction to the aesthetics of Radio Americana.  There's the general fact that it's an audio drama, but there's also the prominent appearance of the IWW, the Pinkertons, and a westward journey that nods a bit to The Grapes of Wrath.

It is, in short, an attempt to recapture those early days of Mass Media, and draw upon an aesthetic tradition that has been buried beneath the chrome-and-plastic veneer, but lies buried there, ready to have a layer of varnish applied and start singing "Bread and Roses" again.