Posts Tagged ‘Dragonfly’

Quiz, Q and A, Goodreads, and Toponyms

January 14, 2012

I’ve been working over the past week through various channels to prepare the way for the swiftly-approaching publication of The Star Shard. It’s an exciting time!

As part of this initiative, I’ve set up an author page on Goodreads. If you don’t know about the site, this is an unabashed plug for it! Believe me, I’m not a fan of popular Internet time-drains. But I think most of you would agree with me that Goodreads rises above the morass. If you love to read, the site is worth checking out. It’s free, it’s easy to sign up for, and it’s a great way to connect with people who like the same kinds of books you do — or simply to find out about books that you may not have encountered yet. In the first twenty-four hours after I got onto the site and started rating books I’ve enjoyed and marking books I’d like to read, an acquaintance of mine (a friend of a friend) noticed one of the books I’d tagged and was delighted to discover it — he hadn’t known it existed, but he’d been wishing it did. That’s one way the site can work.

Anyway, I’ll end the commercial there. If you’re interested, you can explore the wonders for yourself. I just wanted to bring a couple things to your attention:

1. I wrote a quiz on Dragonfly that (I think) is a lot of fun. It has 13 questions, and some are apparently trickier than I thought — last time I looked, no one had gotten a perfect score. If you’ve read Dragonfly and would like to test your knowledge of the book — or even if you’d like to enjoy the questions and multiple-choice answers, which I had a GREAT time coming up with — then I’d encourage you to get onto Goodreads and take the quiz! I think the best way to find it is to look up Dragonfly on the site, click on the book, and if you scroll down on the book’s page, you’ll find the quiz.

2. Also on Goodreads, I’m leading a Q&A session from now until the end of January. I seeded it with four discussion threads, but discussion members can introduce new ones. If anyone is at all inclined, this is something I’d greatly appreciate your help with! I’m trying to generate a buzz for the new book’s release. If you can spare a few minutes to drop by and ask me even one question, that would help! If people start participating, I think it could get quite interesting. To find the discussion, either search for me on Goodreads or click on my name wherever you see me listed on the site, and on my page, (again) if you scroll down, you should come to the discussion; then just click on the topic you want to follow. If you’re able to help out with this, thank you very much!

Finally, let’s talk about some interesting words. (Yes, this is a groink, a major change of subject.)

I’ve been thinking lately about the phenomenon of toponyms, those words in our language that began as the names of places (topos is the Greek word for “place”). For example:

solecism — This has come to mean “an ungrammatical combination of words in a sentence; also, a minor blunder in speech”; “something deviating from the proper, normal, or accepted order”; or “a breach of etiquette or decorum.” But did you know that the word comes from the ancient Cilician city of Soloi, where “a substandard form of Attic was spoken”? So a soloikos, an inhabitant of Soloi, was a “speaking-incorrectly-one.”

gasconade – “bravado, boasting” — This word has come from the Gascony region of southwest France, bordering Spain; the Gascons were apparently known for boasting and exaggerating their successes. The word became common in English in the 1700s.

Cimmerian – “very dark or gloomy; stygian” — The Cimmerians were a mythical people “described by Homer as dwelling in a remote realm of mist and gloom.” Another source I found adds that this land was “in the west” (from the Hellenic point of view), and that the Cimmerii (the people there) were nomadic and were mentioned by Herodotus.

laconic – “using or involving the use of a minimum of words; concise to the point of seeming rude or mysterious” — I remember once reading a great story about the origin of this word. When the enormous Persian army came to the gates of the Spartan city of Laconia, the Persian envoy, in an attempt to get the Spartans to surrender, yelled: “If we take this city, we will kill all the men and lead the women and children away as slaves!”

The Spartan general returned the one-word answer: “If.”

As the story goes, the Persians were unable to conquer the city, and they eventually withdrew.

[The definitions I've written above are from my Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary.]

What got me thinking about toponyms was good old Dictionary.com, which led me to a couple of these. So, yeah, I guess this is another commercial! In the brief time I’ve been receiving Dictionary.com’s free daily word, I’ve written down several ideas for use in books and stories. I would highly recommend the word-a-day to writers and to anyone who loves words!

I’ll close with a couple more cool ones:

Words such as “sense” and “sensibility,” which have a common root, are paregmenons.

And the shape of a 20-sided die (a 20-sided polyhedron) is an icosahedron.

Yes, I get a little crazy when I haven’t written fiction for too long! I can feel the charge building . . . it’s going to arc any day now, and we’re going to have some lightning!

October Sun

October 18, 2011

The days of October tumble down and swirl away on the breeze, just like the leaves all around. I park my car under some trees that have been dropping bushels of leaves for a good month now, and they still have quite a few more to lose. I don’t mind at all that my car is always covered with the red, green, orange, and yellow foliage every time I go out to it. I clean the leaves off the windows and leave the rest (heh, heh, heh!) — they make a festive, autumnal decoration for my vehicle. On wet days, the leaves are pasted to the hood, trunk, and roof; on balmy dry days, they’ve mostly fluttered off by the time I turn the first corner.

I greatly appreciate the weather we’ve been having, with the warmth hanging on. I love not being cold. I love seeing the sun, though I noticed today how low it hangs in the sky in October, even at high noon. I’ve watched it slowly changing its mind on where to set. In summer, it went down behind the giant cross at St. Mary’s Cemetery; these evenings it’s falling into the woods.

On gray days, mist hovers and floats.

A dark day in October

I have new neighbors who moved in downstairs, and they’re very nice people! I’m glad the lower floors are occupied now. I feel less like a ghost haunting a vacant building.

Anyway, here’s another book that’s good for October:

A Night in the Lonesome October, by Roger Zelazny

A Night in the Lonesome October, by Roger Zelazny (Avon, 1993), comes to us courtesy of my friend Nick, who remembered loving the book years ago. It’s a little hard to acquire these days; but Nick, like another well-known adventurer/scholar, is — how shall one put it? — an “obtainer of rare antiquities.” He relocated a copy for himself and even an extra one for me, which he most kindly sent! The idea is that several of us are reading the book together (though we’re in far-flung places) during the month of October, after which we’ll compare notes.

The book lends itself well to that, because it’s divided into 31 chapters, named “October 1,” “October 2,” “October 3,” etc. Most are just a couple pages long, so it’s something even I stand a good chance of getting through (though not quite on time — I’m already well behind schedule). I’m reading a few pages just before bed each night.

Zelazny dedicated the book this way: “To — Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Albert Payson Terhune, and the makers of a lot of old movies — Thanks.” Pretty cool, huh? Isn’t that dedication quite an endorsement? The work also includes delightfully strange illustrations by Gahan Wilson.

Anyway, like some other October books we know, this one is a loving tribute to the Hallowe’en season: in particular, to the iconic characters of horror, mystery, and spookiness. In this tale you will find Jack the Ripper, a terrifying Count, a Good Doctor who harnesses lightning for his questionable experiments, Mr. Larry Talbot who keeps a close eye on the moon, a Great Detective who smokes a pipe, and even some betentacled Great Old Ones. Some of these characters are “Openers,” bent upon letting horrors out of mirrors and closets when the time is right, which will unleash devastation on the world; some are “Closers,” dedicated to keeping the evils locked away and the world safe for humankind. It’s fascinating to find out which are which — the book is full of surprises.

What caught my attention right from the start was the skillful rendering of the tale’s narrator, a watchdog named Snuff. This faithful and formidable canine deserves a place among the ranks of the all-time great non-human protagonists such as Hazel-rah and Chaunticleer.

I understand that it’s pretty expensive to buy nowadays, but there are perhaps library copies to be found.

Anyway, let’s head back on out into October (foggy nights and days of the lowering sun) with a few photos and random flotsam:

One of my jack-o'-lanterns this year, 2011

 From my story “The Bone Man”:

“John is a skeleton,

John is dead,

All bony fingers,

Bony head;

No life in him,

Not a breath.

Lazy in life,

He’s restless in death.

All bony fingers,

Bony head –

Hope he’s not standing

By your bed!”

The other of my jack-o'-lanterns, 2011 (If I'm carving two, I usually try to make a friendly, happy one and a darker, less charitable one; Good Cop, Bad Cop . . . a Closer and an Opener, if you will.)

From “The Bone Man”:

“The skull’s eyes and triangular nose were simply the orange of the paper showing through, but they suggested a glowing, infernal light inside, like a jack-o’-lantern’s flame. The mouth was an exaggerated comb-like grid of orange lines. The image triggered a memory . . .”

"Sometimes I would rest my chin on the warm lid of a jack-o'-lantern and gaze out over the waving millet, searching the blue crystal stars . . ." -- from DRAGONFLY

From “The Bone Man”:

“The skeleton was just standing there, close enough to touch, but not reaching out, not bending forward, not really even seeming to look down at the kid. Just standing, standing. No skin, no rags of clothing — just two or three wisps of hair stuck to the skull, wiggly black lines . . .”

"We gave them scary faces, happy, sad, laughing, scowling, crescent-eyed, zigzag, mouths fanged, toothless, froggish. Then, with the falling of the dark, we set them aglow . . ." -- from DRAGONFLY

From “The Bone Man”:

“It was dark ahead of him, though fire still hung in the vanished sun’s wake.”

"We definitely had a problem. There were unearthly noises almost every night, increasing in volume and frenzy as the lightless bottom of the month drew nearer . . ." -- from DRAGONFLY

From “The Bone Man”:

“All around him, it was as if veils dropped away, and Conlin was walking back into the streets of his childhood. Here, under the breeze-shivery maples and oaks slouching toward cold, it was no longer the age of the Internet and little phones in your pocket . . .”

Illinois oaks, 2006

“Besides the autumn poets sing,

A few prosaic days

A little this side of the snow

And that side of the haze.”

– Emily Dickinson

We’re still in the market for Hallowe’en thoughts, stories, eerie tales, descriptions, autumnal musings, howls, sepulchral mutterings . . . and to that we’ll add an invitation to quote us a passage from a well-loved autumn book (scary, beautiful, or otherwise [or both]) . . . a favorite Octoberish poem . . . or just to tell us about a time when a storyteller gave you a chill for which you were grateful!

Happy Hallowe’en!

Paintings in the New Year

January 6, 2011

The new year began with two more paintings. These were done in four days: the first on January 1-2, and the second on January 3-4.

So here we go. The first is called The Hungry Hills.

Fairly bizarre, huh? As with stories, I often don’t know how a painting is going to end when I start it. I would even say usually there’s something I discover along the way that gives the picture its real focus. With this one, I set out to paint a fantasy landscape. I knew I wanted it to have caves, stairs, and a central chasm (because I liked those parts of the Balrog painting — see previous post).

The Hungry Hills

 

The Hungry Hills -- gray daylight shot

As I worked, I wasn’t happy with the painting at all. It had no theme, no central focus, nothing that interested me, and it didn’t even seem to be underground as I’d intended. Then I thought, “Hey! Those caves with their white stalactites look like mouths with teeth!”

The Hungry Hills -- a sunlight shot like the first

In this one, although you still can’t see quite to the bottom of the canvas, you can glimpse the stairway inside the mouth of the very lowest figure.

So then I realized that the cave areas should be faces, and they should have eyes and, in some cases, noses. At that point, I started liking the painting.

Detail

The face in the top right corner looks fish-like to me. I’m reminded of Dagon, who appears in the Old Testament as a god of the Philistines, and who may have been a god of the sea. He is also featured in the horror tales of H.P. Lovecraft.

The cavern beneath him, with the red eyes, looks just plain evil. If the top figure is Dagon, I would name this red-eyed fellow “Malev.”

Did you notice the winding stairway on that tower in the top center?

The top left figure has no eyes. He’s a blind hungry hill. The tree-faced tower next to him is wild-eyed, howling and mad, but probably not as dangerous as most of the other caverns.

The cavern beneath them on the left I call “Bomarzo.” Who or what is the gargoyle-like figure who seems to be gazing down at our heroine? Are his intentions good or ill?

A dark journey through the hills

Would you believe that putting in our heroine was a last-minute inspiration? It seemed to me that the hungry hills were all watching, waiting . . . their attention seemed focused inward on someone journeying among them. Then it hit me — of course! Someone is on that stairway! Someone is alone, and courageous, venturing into these hills on a quest!

I don’t have a name for the deep green one in the abyss, though he’s the one whose gaze told me exactly where our heroine was.

The face with a stairway where his ear should be looks Mayan to me, or maybe like a Kachina doll of the Hopis. He has two stairways in his gullet, climbing in two directions. The figure above him looks very cobra-like. I guess that’s Nagaina (remember Riki-Tiki-Tavi?).

Nag and the Lamia

Over here on the right are Nag and beneath him Lamia. Do you see the face on the wall of the chasm? It’s the only figure with a closed mouth. I think that because of its position, no one can possibly pass into it; no path leads there. So this hungry face has to draw its nourishment from the entire hill country of which it is a part. It’s a bored, resigned, frustrated face.

Lantern-Bearer

And our heroine, she who journeys above the hungry gorge . . . this may well be Dragonfly, or someone very much like her. Her coloring is certainly like Dragonfly’s. Maybe this is an illustration for that Dragonfly sequel, the very first manifestation of the yet-unwritten story! Certainly I love the title “The Hungry Hills,” which may be a chapter! The atmosphere of this painting truly captures the spirit of Dragonfly, doesn’t it? She carries the sword in her left hand. Does that mean she’s left-handed, or that she thinks she’ll need the lantern more than the sword? I like the fact that she wears a skirt: the best heroines are courageous, strong, capable, and feminine — just as the best heroes are courageous, strong, capable, and yet sensitive and gentle in their masculinity.

The Hungry Hills

A final thought on this: in the media of the near future, wouldn’t it be interesting to design an on-line storytelling format in which you’d have a picture like this, and you could click on each cave, each section of the image, and you would be ushered to a different story? A collection accessed through a single painting! Something like an Advent calendar, with wonders hidden behind each window waiting to be opened!

Our second painting is simpler: Three Princesses.

It’s a comedic image, a play on “Rapunzel.” Here, the prince is imprisoned by some sorcery in the tower deep in the forest. By the look of the plant life, he’s been in there for years, though he never ages. Three princesses have come to rescue him, but they’re engaged in a heated argument. The prince is unhappy, and the quest is at a standstill.

Three Princesses

 

Three Princesses

What is the nature of their altercation? Is the prince not quite so charming as they were led to believe? Or is he charming enough, but the three (who pooled their resources and skills to have made it this far) are now realizing that there’s one of him and three of them? Or does the argument concern whose responsibility it was to have brought a rope, or a ladder, or the spell to enter the doorless tower?

the owl

High above the characters’ heads, quite remote from them, perches an owl, who appears at a loss. My theory is that the owl represents wisdom. The meaning is that wisdom is all too often lacking in human endeavor.

Princesses

I love the color called “country tan,” which I used for the lighter backpack, the blonde girl’s pants, and the middle girl’s moccasins. It goes smoothly onto the canvas and dries with a wonderful soft quality.

Three Princesses

This painting was a lot of fun. I love doing dark forests with no sky visible, but those stones in the tower wall were a pain.

When I was younger, I was embarrassed to draw women that were shaped like women. On these princesses, I pulled out the stops and made them as feminine as my abilities allowed.

If anyone wants to, why not try writing us a very short story to go with either painting? Just a paragraph or two would be enough! What quest brings our heroine into the hungry hills? What are the princesses arguing about, and what will the outcome be?

DRAGONFLY: Historical Notes and Pictures

October 16, 2010

In honor of the recent round of comments and questions about Dragonfly (see the previous post for some wonderful stories of how readers first encountered the book), I wanted to give you a few more glimpses into the book’s origins. In a long-ago post (still available for reading/viewing on this blog) called “Dragonfly: The Commentary Track,” I posted a couple photos of the “Dragonfly Grove” at Niigata University — the little grove of trees under which I had the first concrete sparks of the idea for the novel. But of course, the book began to percolate long before that. As Tolkien wrote: “[A book such as The Lord of the Rings] grows like a seed in the dark, out of the leaf-mould of the mind.” The “mould” of fallen autumn leaves that produced Dragonfly lies back across the decades in the little prairie town of Taylorville, Illinois, where I grew up.

Taylorville is the seat of Christian County. Here's the famous courthouse. This is the angle from which I most frequently saw it, from the corner nearest our family's bookstore.

In the book’s opening chapter, the eponymous main character, Dragonfly, walks down an alley after a school open house. That alley was based directly on the alley I walked down every afternoon, after school, to get to our bookstore.

The DRAGONFLY alley, looking west. The section I frequented runs from the offices of our local daily paper, the Taylorville BREEZE-COURIER, straight to the back door of our old bookstore, The Book Center.

In that chapter, Dragonfly encounters mysterious figures lurking near the back entrance of the bank.

The name of this bank has changed many times, but in my childhood it was the First Trust and Savings. This is where the mysterious strangers in Chapter One of DRAGONFLY lurked.

Dragonfly’s Uncle Henry owns and operates a funeral home. From the back door of our bookstore, I could see Shafer’s Funeral Home. I remember the visitation for my Grandma Emma there. That experience features largely in the part of the book in which Willie is captured by the denizens of Harvest Moon. I was picturing the interior of Shafer’s.

Shafer's Funeral Home is in downtown Taylorville; Uncle Henry's is more at the outskirts of town, next to a millet field.

Can you picture a jack-o'-lantern aglow in every window?

Here's the building in which we had our bookstore. I had forgotten how steeply-sloped the street is!

The Book Center in May of 1970. Along that left-hand wall, I made the discoveries of H.P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Richard Adams.

The white storefront was our bookstore. Eddy's Studio was next-door on the left, a photographic studio and camera shop.

And Eddy is the guy who took these pictures of me, right behind our store. I'm leaning on the hood of Mom's car. This would be in about the era that my head was full of The Planet of the Apes, soon to give way to Jaws.

Heh, heh, heh!
 
 
 
 

 

This photo was taken by Phil Jacobs for the DECATUR HERALD & REVIEW in the summer that DRAGONFLY was first published by Arkham House, 1999. Mr. Jacobs chose our old chickenhouse as the background.

This was taken in Tokyo's Kinokuniya Bookstore, when the Ace edition of DRAGONFLY was on the shelves there. I was excited!

Since I'm throwing pictures of me around, here's my favorite fairly recent one. This was taken in the summer of 2009, I believe.

This photo by Chris was taken in 1979. That is not my bicycle. (I wish I could claim the clothes weren't mine, either.)

Under the Tower of Rejection: A Story’s Odyssey

August 16, 2009

We hear it all the time from writers, writing teachers, and the trade magazines: if you’re going to submit your stories or book manuscript for publication, learn to handle rejection. Develop a thick skin. Learn to discriminate among rejection letters, because there are bad ones, so-so ones, and very good ones. Glean what you can from them, and live to submit another day.

I thought it might be interesting to chronicle the journey of what I believe has been my most-rejected short story. This odyssey took place mostly in the time before everyone was using e-mail, and before most editors wanted anything to do with electronic submissions. So this story made its trips back and forth, back and forth across the Pacific in battered manila envelopes; it came back coffee-stained, just like in the stereotypes, to be printed out and sent forth anew. May this account of its rocky road to publication serve as encouragement to any who labor in the trenches, who plod onward because writing is what they do . . . and especially to those who wonder “Do I have what it takes? Will my writing ever see the light of day?” To all who love the arranging of words on paper — to all who would sell your words that others may read them and have an experience and see in their heads the pictures you see — I say: Persevere! Don’t give up. We continue to learn, and the road we’re on leads somewhere. The bottom line of my entire experience so far is this: Things happen when they’re supposed to, in the order they’re supposed to. Be the best you can be. Keep loving stories, keep loving people and life, and keep writing.

This is just about the season when, in high school, we would start marching band practice. In the sweltering heat of the middle of August, we would gather on the football field to learn the new half-time show. In that era, they were written for us — the music and the marching choreography — by a well-known professor / marching band leader from a university. As the football team grunted and crashed into each other in the distance, we band members would practice keeping our intervals measured as our lines swung and crisscrossed. With sweat stinging our eyes, we went through the bars of the Spanish Opener or Spirit of the Bull eighty times, ninety times, first just learning the movement on the field, then doing it with horns in our hands, then doing it as we played.

It’s quite a different thing to play on a marching field or in a parade than it is to play in the band room or in a concert hall. I suppose it’s something like the difference pilots feel between landing at an airport and landing on an aircraft carrier on the high sea. When you’re marching, your feet hit the ground, bam, bam, bam. The mouthpiece is going all over the place, mashing your lips, chipping your teeth. And none of that can affect your sound — if you’re playing a long, unbroken note, it has to be long and unbroken. If you’re a trombonist, you have to watch that you’re not whacking woodwind players in the back of the head with your slide. You have to keep your horn up parallel to the ground. You have to see the notes printed on that little flapping paper clipped just beyond your mouthpiece as you watch other moving people from the corners of your eyes — and oh, yeah, you’re supposed to watch the conductor, too. You’re burning up during the August practices, but you’re freezing during first-period band class on mornings in October and November, and at the late-season football games, your toes are nearing frostbite in those hard black shoes. You have to play loud enough so that the people in the stands hear more than drums. (I think that’s why there’s such a high burnout rate among marching-band clarinetists.)

Anyway, we had the best band teacher in the world, whose name was Jim Smith. That was really his name; it’s not an alias. In his marching band uniform, he looked exactly – exactly — like the band leader in the Funky Winkerbean comic strip (Harry Dingle?). Anyway — here comes the point of my story — we’d be slogging through this routine for about the third day, tired and irritated and wishing it were the beginning of summer instead of the end. And then Mr. Smith would order us to do the routine better each time. Don’t just mindlessly go through the motions the same way again and again. Every time you do it, he’d say, try to improve something. Concentrate. Or, as he would famously yell through his megaphone: “Find it! Find it!”

Mr. Smith’s patience and dedication, his excellence and attention to detail are still with me as I walk the writerly path. Don’t give up. Don’t go through wooden motions. Do it better each time. If a section is rough, take it home and practice it. If a section in your story is rough, spend the time — work the problem out. Write what you mean. Be conscious of what you’re putting on the page. Find it!

I also have to say this about Mr. Smith: he was one of a very few of my teachers who came to my local book-signing when Dragonfly was first released. He is a prime example of how the very best teachers teach much more than the particular discipline of their profession. They teach with their whole lives.

ANYWAY (I may have to pay the Pun Fund there for a very long, tangential story, but Mr. Smith is more than worth it. . . .) — here’s the journey of my most-rejected short story, “Under the Tower of Valk.” I’ll keep the editors anonymous so that I can quote from them.

1. First Submission: January 21, 2000

No response. On May 19, 2000, I sent a follow-up query.

No response. I waited until June 27, 2000 — well beyond the magazine’s posted response time, and then sent a last-resort follow-up by e-mail (a radical step with that magazine in those days — the editors were still pretty touchy about having their e-space invaded).

June 30, 2000: E-mail response from the editor: “O Frederic: No record at this end of either your manuscript or your follow-up inquiry. To save further time, and to avoid the risk of putting still more paper into the placid waters of the Pacific, I suggest the following: convert your story into a pure text file. Mark the beginning of any italics/underlining with ** and the end of any italics/underlining with *  Indent each paragraph five spaces; and Just In Case, put a blank line after each paragraph. Remind me, at the top of the e-mail, that I asked you to do this. Then (preferably) paste the text into the body of an e-mail to me — or if that doesn’t work, attach it to an e-mail to me. I look forward to your story.”

I did as I was told and re-submitted the story his way.

No response. On August 9, 2000, I sent a follow-up query by e-mail.

In response that same day, they rejected the story and sent me a copy of their guidelines (which, of course, I’d had from the beginning). The editors felt the horror was effective, but that too little happened on stage, and the story had no supernatural element. They also mentioned that they were very heavily stocked and buying very little.

2. Second Submission: August 11, 2000

There’s a missing reply in my records, but the editor expressed interest and asked for a revision. I revised accordingly (overall tightening and making the ambiguous ending more clear) and re-submitted the story on October 30, 2000.

On November 29, 2000, the editor rejected the story: “Dear Mr. Durbin: I can’t remember if I got back to you about “Under the Tower of Valk,” which most likely means I didn’t. (Sorry about that — my workload is formidable right now.) Anyway, I think the new version is definitely less opaque at the end, but I’ve got to pass on it simply because the story doesn’t need to be fantasy. It could just as well be an historical story. [Yes, Chris, he wrote "an historical story." Phooey!] (In fact, this explains in part my confusion over the ending in the previous draft — I was looking for a fantastic twist or aspect to the conclusion.) I do think it’s a good story, I just can’t use it in _____. You might try it out with ____ _____ at _____ Magazine or with ____ _____ at _____; I think it might fit into one of those magazines better than it does in _____. Meantime, I appreciate the revisions you made at my request and I’m sorry they ultimately didn’t pay off here. I hope I’ll see more from you soon.”

3. Third Submission: December 12, 2000 (I mentioned, of course, that I was submitting the story on the advice of the previous editor.)

No response. I sent a follow-up query by e-mail on April 27, 2001. (It was becoming more acceptable by then to do so.)

In May 2001, I heard that the editor’s significant other had passed away. I sent a letter of condolence. Never heard from the editor again.

4. Fourth Submission: June 4, 2001 (Submitted to the second editor recommended by Editor #2.)

On June 15, 2001, the editor sent me a nice e-mail saying he’d resigned as the editor of that magazine because the publisher could no longer pay him. He told me how to submit it to the right person, but he advised me that the publisher was really not buying now — was in deep financial trouble, etc.

5. Fifth Submission: June 21, 2001

Handwritten rejection on August 29, 2001, scrawled on the back of the bottom third ripped from my cover letter: “Thank you  for submitting your story UNDER THE TOWER OF VALK to ____. Apologies for the delay in responding. It is not for us, I’m afraid. A striking line at the end but a [illegible word] middle passage that failed to convince: not sure the prisoner ever thought like that. Sorry.”

6. Sixth Submission: October 1, 2001

Rejection on January 21, 2002: Form rejection letter with two boxes checked: “We have considered your story, but find that it is not suitable for our publication.” — and then a long one about how they received a number of fairly good stories each month that just didn’t do enough original things, and this was one of those. But there was also a handwritten scrawl (which is generally a good thing to get): “This is more of a vignette, with very little to call it ‘SF’. We’re not sure why you have a flashback positioned between the two ‘present’ scenes. Doesn’t really suit us.”

At this point, it would have made very good sense to retire the story or else overhaul it in a major way. But I was keeping myself busy with other things, and I just wanted to keep trying with this one, which I thought was original and well-done. (I wrote “Under the Tower of Valk” at the same general time as “The Place of Roots.” I thought “Valk” was the stronger story, but “Roots” was snapped up by the first place I sent it — Fantasy & Science Fiction — and you can see what happened with “Valk”!)

7. Seventh Submission: February 4, 2002

Nice personal, handwritten rejection on March 5, 2002: “Dear Frederic, Nicely written piece that nearly makes it for us. In the end, I wasn’t completely won over by the ending. I’ll pass on it, but please do try us again soon.”

8. Eighth Submission: March 14, 2002

No response. Followed up by e-mail, and was asked to re-submit, which I did on July 25, 2002. It was rejected with a form letter in August 2002.

9. Ninth Submission: September 25, 2002

Very nice rejection letter on July 15, 2003: In part — “While we all found the writing excellent and the psychological study a compelling one, we don’t feel it’s suited for ____’s younger readers. In fact, we urge you to send this to an adult publication; it’s excellent writing, but it’s just not suited for our publication.” [Take an important lesson from that: I was getting desperate here, but don't. If you think the story is probably wrong for the magazine, it probably is -- it's better not to waste your time or the editor's.]

10. Tenth Submission: July 25, 2003

The story came back unread with a note that the magazine was on hiatus until sometime in 2004.

11. Eleventh Submission: September 26, 2003

Came back quickly and unread: too short for the anthology I’d submitted it to. [Take another lesson from this: do your homework and follow the rules. Again, I wasted my postage, my time, and an editor's time.]

12. Twelfth Submission: October 10, 2003

Came back with a photocopied form rejection, no note, no signature.

13. Thirteenth Submission: January 29, 2004

The rejection came on March 29, 2004 with handwritten notes from three different editors:

A. “I really liked this story. The realism of the prisoner with no name, his thoughts so different than ours, his complete lack of recognition of what was happening. Your heart attack description was powerful, along with the unnamed prisoner’s complete ignorance of what a chair was or what another person’s arms would really feel like. The commander’s understanding and much too late compassion also moved me.”

B. “The opening was quite catchy. I think you started the story at the perfect place. I was disappointed when you switched to the “He who had no name” part. I had a very difficult time understanding the two stories. I couldn’t quite figure out how they were related. I needed more of a clue to the two parts. The conflict and resolution of the plot was really fuzzy to me.”

C. “This story had some great imagery. The scene where the prisoner escaped was great stuff. All the story really needs is a better plot line. At first I thought it was about the jailer and whether he’d be punished, then the plot suddenly turned to the prisoner and left me hanging. Why is the commander asking who killed the man when it’s obvious a breeze could’ve? Why does the commander suddenly turn to pity? Why is the jailer so afraid of him? What’s his reputation? Other than this your story really was quite good.” [Hee, hee, hee, hee, hee! I know that editor was trying to be kind and helpful with that last line, but isn't it hilarious, in context? "Other than everything about it, your story is quite good!" -- Thanks, I'm so happy to hear that!]

At this point I finally got the picture through my thick skull and did some serious revision of the piece.

14. Fourteenth Submission: April 12, 2004

The rejection came on May 6, 2004: form rejection to “Dear Contributor” saying that it wasn’t quite right for them, and that due to the overwhelming number of submissions they were receiving, the magazine was closing to unsolicited materials.

[Clarification here: "no unsolicited materials" doesn't mean you don't have a chance with that market or that you need an agent. It just means they don't want you to send them a story they haven't asked for. You can send them a query (formatted and worded properly, based on your study of their published guidelines). If they write back and say, "Yes, we want to read the story," then you are sending them a "solicited" submission.]

15. Fifteenth Submission: August 12, 2004

Form rejection came back (postmark illegible): two boxes checked — the story lacked sufficient elements of the dark fantastic, surreal, bizarre, or strange, and the plot offered nothing new or interesting.

16. Sixteenth Submission: September 1, 2004

Undated form rejection came back apologizing for being a form letter and wishing me good luck.

17. Seventeenth Submission: September 18, 2004

Never heard a peep back from that editor . . . and by this point, I was tired of sending follow-ups for this story. I had pretty much come to the realization that other people didn’t like the idea as well as I did. And that’s also a lesson we need to learn, at some point, as writers. Not all our ideas are brilliant. Some, no matter how much we love them, may never really “work” for most other people. (I do think such cases, though, are the exception rather than the rule. Usually a story can be made reader-friendly with the right repairs.)

Don’t misunderstand the moral of this posting: I’m not advocating blind stubbornness. As a more mature writer than I was in 2000, I now know that I want my stories to appeal to most people who read them. You’re never going to please everybody, but if three or four knowledgeable readers have serious reservations — or if they think the story is, well, okay, but they’re clearly not wowed — then I believe it’s time to rethink and rewrite. So in a way, this little chronicle is a mini-course in What Not to Do. Don’t send one tired story around and around and around. That doesn’t mean get discouraged and hide the story in the bottom drawer. It doesn’t mean throw the story away. It means be open to suggestions. It means get feedback; rework the story until people are liking it . . . a lot.

“Under the Tower of Valk” was finally published in Ozment’s House of Twilight, Issue 7, Winter 2007. I know it was published chiefly because the editor is a friend of mine, which gained the story a kind, sympathetic reading. BUT it wasn’t a “mercy publication.” The editor has integrity, and he wouldn’t have published the piece if he hadn’t believed in it. And yes, before it went into print, I revised the story — very heavily.

This has been an extreme example. Most stories don’t get rejected this much, because one of three things usually happens: 1.) They’re good enough that they get accepted right away. 2.) The writers give up and stop submitting them, which is the saddest possibility. Or, 3.) The writers learn from the rejections they’re getting, revise accordingly, and the stories get accepted.

How do my books compare? I think The Threshold of Twilight had about as many rejections as “Under the Tower of Valk” did. I finally decided to stop working on it, since I knew it wasn’t publishable in its present state, and I was no longer the high-school and college student I’d been when I was writing it; there was nothing further I could do to make it publishable without writing an entirely new book — so I turned to writing entirely new books. Dragonfly had also garnered some 12-13 rejections, I think, before it hit the right editor at the right time.

So, the last words: Be open and willing to revise. And don’t give up!

Line-edits are going well here: I’m 75% of the way through the book!

Earth-Rim Walkers and Those Who Love Them

August 2, 2009

I find it gratifying and delightful that our oldest existing story native to English — the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf — is unabashedly a monster story. Isn’t that wonderful? It’s generally dated to the eighth century, which means it has stood the test of time to reach us well over a thousand years later; we study it in our schools; our scholars analyze it anew in each generation; it has inspired novels, music, and films. And it’s a monster story.

It’s told well, of course. It’s a poem. It uses language that conjures pictures in our heads and brings music to our ears. It has characters we can relate to and it takes us fully into their world; in short, it does everything that good literature is supposed to do. And it’s a monster story! It satisfies the college profs, but it also satisfies the little kid in us who yearns for creatures that pad up to the door of the mead-hall and smash it  asunder.

What does that tell us about fundamental, archetypal storytelling? All those of us who love a good creature tale can hold our heads high. Our kinds of stories were there at the beginning; they’re still there behind it all. Things go bump in the night, and all we who huddle around the fires want to hear about them — from a safe distance, if possible.

The title of this post comes, in part, from a phrase used in Beowulf to describe the monster Grendel. (In John Gardner’s 1971 novel Grendel, told from the monster’s viewpoint, Grendel describes himself as “a shadow-shooter, earth-rim-roamer, walker of the world’s weird wall.” Nice, huh?) The original epic Beowulf emerged at a time when Christianity was spreading among the pagan cultures of Europe, and the poem is a fascinating blend of Christian and pagan elements. [I remember reading another poem from the general era in which Christ was portrayed as a warrior-king, conquering death for His people in the same way that Anglo-Saxon kings conquered enemies. In the poem, Christ leaps up onto the cross, grips it in His brawny arms, and hangs on tight until He has strangled the last breath out of death, thus winning salvation for the thanes He protects. That's a world different from the pale, suffering Christ depicted in later years, but they're both aspects of the work He accomplished.]

In Beowulf, one manifestation of the Christian element is the poet’s painstaking effort to connect Grendel with the Biblical Old Testament. Grendel is descended from Cain, the first murderer. There is also some association with the fallen angels who warred against God and were cast out of Heaven.

Interestingly, there’s a correlation in our own times. Just as the early tellers of Beowulf felt a need to fit the monster into their Christian world-view, I’ve heard of a similar phenomenon going on today in Christian fiction publishing. (I’m talking about books published under the label of “Christian fiction,” not simply books by Christians such as The Hobbit.) A good friend of mine has spoken at length with editors and agents who work in this genre, and apparently the rule in place among many (most?) of them is that any supernatural element a writer uses has to be supportable with Scripture — in other words, if you use a monster, it has to be one from the Bible.

Where this comes into particular play is in vampire fiction. Believe it or not, my friend tells me that certain Christian publishers are actively seeking vampire fiction. It’s just that they require it to “have its theology right.” Really, it’s always been my theory that the older vampire stories in the western canon are inseparable from a Christian understanding. Vampires (traditionally) can’t endure crosses and crucifixes, right? They avoid churches. Why would this be, unless we’re acknowledging the power of God and God’s opposition to evil? (When people ask me what Dragonfly‘s category is, I say “dark fantasy, or maybe Christian horror.” Heh, heh!)

But, as my friend reports it, you can’t say a vampire is a “vampire” in official Christian fiction and leave it at that, because there are no vampires in the Bible. (Well, actually, there may just be a hint of them, but that’s a whole other posting! We can get into that if anyone’s curious.) So you have to say that vampires are demons masquerading as vampires. My response to that is, why can’t a vampire simply be a kind of demon? That’s the way it’s handled in Buffy: vampires are frequently referred to as “demons.” The soul of the human departs from the body at death, and the body is taken over by an evil, demonic spirit who is wholly other than the departed human, yet with an awareness and command of the residual mind and memories of that human. So it’s that human in a way, but without the most important part — the soul — and with something extra and evil added in — the demon. That, to the best of my observation, is the way it works in the Buffyverse, and that model works fine, theologically, for me! So there you have it: on this point, Buffy has its theology straight. (We won’t get into Willow’s religion. . . .)

But back to the creatures that walk in the night (not just vampires) — stories about them have sprung up all across cultures and throughout history. We humans can’t leave them alone. Theories abound as to why. Perhaps these tales grow out of our fear of the dark and the unknown; we give faces and physical forms to our fears, because any monster, no matter how terrible, is somehow easier to deal with than the truly faceless and unknown. Once we know it’s a dragon, we can work on how to defeat it.

Or maybe the stories are one way of dealing with the forces we know about but can’t control: storms . . . enemies . . . unexpected violence . . . illness . . . loss . . . death. Give it a face, let it pursue you for a while through a harrowing tale, and then overcome it. Escape.

Maybe the monsters somehow represent the mystery, power, and vastness of nature itself. This is a recurrent theme in the stories of Algernon Blackwood, particularly “The Wendigo” and “The Willows.” (Even my mom — my mom, who never went out of her way to read any horror — remembered “The Willows” as “the scariest story [she'd] ever read.”)

Or yet again, maybe our monsters are our way of separating out the bad parts of ourselves. The truth is, there’s darkness, greed, and malice inside us — monsters give us scapegoats. They siphon out this badness from inside us, and we can point our fingers at them and drive stakes through their hearts. That certainly may figure into stories of werewolves, which explore the notion that there can be beasts within us that sometimes emerge, terrible and separate from the part of us that is human. That all may be part of it. . . .

Or maybe we know that we really do live in a world where lonely things howl in the desolate places, and to tell their stories is as natural as telling our tales of journeys and discoveries, of courage and love and triumph.

Isn’t it interesting, though, how many of our monsters have been changing over the years? Vampires were once utterly evil, alien, and repulsive. Remember Nosferatu, with his pointed ears, his bald, bulbous head, his rat-like demeanor, prominent fangs, and the stark, twisted shadows he cast on the wall? Then came Bela Lugosi, who still portrayed an evil vampire, but was also charming and seductive. Ditto with Christopher Lee. Decades went by, and then came the Anne Rice vampire books, beginning with Interview with the Vampire, in which vampires were the main characters — we were inside their heads, sympathizing with them, understanding why they did what they did. We rooted for the good ones and hissed at the bad ones. When Joss Whedon gave us the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we had vampires who — under certain conditions — could be noble and heroic.

And now we have an explosion of vampires in the pop culture, and in many instances the good-aligned vampires aren’t even sorry to be vampires — no one is sorry . . . they altruistically find ways to feed without harming humans, they help people, they’re beautiful and romantic, women and men swoon over them, and they’ve essentially become like Tolkien’s Elves: the species that we’d be if we were a little better — if our limitations and infirmities were taken away.

Mary Shelley undoubtedly helped to bring about this shift in the role of the monster. In her 1818 novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, the monster, though he behaves monstrously, is the victim; his creator is the true monster, the source of the harm and tragedy.  So, too, in the latest retelling of Beowulf — the 2007 film written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary — the monster is both terrifying and greatly to be pitied; he is not so much ravenous as he is tormented. (And whoever thought back in the eighth century that Grendel’s mother would one day look like that — like Angelina Jolie covered in gold, wearing high-heeled feet?! Oh, the roles of monsters are a-changin’ . . . but perhaps not so much. There have always been sphinxes and lamias and succubi, so I guess even with gold, seductive Grendel’s mother, there’s no new thing under the sun. Or under the wan moon.)

Sooooo . . . something wicked this way comes, and if you’d prefer not to talk about it, then don’t. Turn back while you still can! But does anyone care to tell about the earth-rim walkers that particularly chilled and delighted you when you were small?

I’ll start us off with a few. First of all, my nextdoor neighbor Chris and I were convinced that there was a Bigfoot-like monster haunting the creek behind our field. (Or if we weren’t absolutely convinced, we worked hard to convince ourselves.) Since every monster needs a name that sounds both innocuously childlike and yet sinister and creepier the more you think about it, we called him “Funnyface.” We knew that he came up through the cornfield at night — we knew, because now and then we’d find a cornstalk that had been knocked down . . . by something obviously big and heavy. Any oddly-shaped depression in the field’s dirt became a partial footprint . . . any strange sound from the woods became his yowl. We found some scratch-marks high in a tree that we declared had been made by his claws. And the clincher — the final proof of his existence — came when we tied a piece of lettuce (was there some ham, too?) by a string from a tree limb — high enough from the ground, in our reasoning, that no small animal could get at it. And when we came back a day later, the lettuce was gone!

I won’t embarrass Chris with our other demons here, but I’d love to hear his recollections of them if he can be goaded into telling about them. (If not, I’ll understand!)

But also, a group of friends and I had a kind of club that gathered, during recess, under the apple trees at the far edge of the schoolyard. While other boys were playing “Kick That Ball” (that’s what they called it!), we sat under those trees and talked breathlessly in hushed voices about the monsters we had personally seen. And we saw them often! Talk about Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World! In our childhood, monsters were always popping out of hedges and shambling along roadsides, just barely visible in the twilight.

I told about Funnyface, of course. He didn’t just stay in the cornfield, either. Sometimes he lurked in the barn and watched Chris and me playing outside. Every now and then, we’d get an eerie feeling that we shouldn’t go into the barn. Those were the times when he was there, so we kept to the yard and peeked at the barn through weeds or over the edges of roofs.

I also had an Alien that poked his helmeted head above the multiflora rose bushes in the northwest corner of the yard — and always in the last gleam of twilight. He wore dark shades like sunglasses and had a long, hooked nose and protruding chin. I think his skin was blue.

And I had an Old Lady Ghost who is a separate topic unto herself — let’s save her for another time.

G. lived in a house where the yard backed against the railroad tracks. So his childhood was always full of the roars and rattles of passing trains, the mournful whistles in the night. His monster was a humanoid thing with long hair sprouting from its shoulders. G. always saw it only from the back (which we thought was just plain creepy!), and in the gathering dusk, the thing would jump up and down in place, away down the tracks. Up and down, up and down, in some bizarre monster ritual or dance, until it got too dark to see it anymore.

R. had a Deer Man — a furtive, tawny, human-like figure with big antlers on the top of its head. When R. looked out into his moonlit yard just before he went to bed, the Deer Man would climb over the fence, run lightly across the grass, looking around nervously, and then climb over the opposite fence and vanish into the night.

H. told of a giant frog named Old Smiley that inhabited the marshy creek behind his parents’ trailer court. H. would creep down there among the weeds and see Old Smiley sometimes, who was as big as a coffee table. Smiley would look at H. with his enormous round eyes, say “RIVET!” and hop into the water with a tremendous splash. What made this monster truly great was H.’s imitation of him. H. was a gangly kid, all bony elbows and knees, and his mom used to dump so much tonic on his hair that we called him “Syrup Head.” H. would show us how Old Smiley jumped: he’d crouch low against the playground and then uncoil himself, shouting “RIVET!”, and bound into the air. We laughed at how funny it looked. And then we’d look at one another and go “Ooo” in subdued voices, thinking about how it would be no laughing matter down in the weeds and the dark and the mud, with only a few lights from the trailer court off in the distance.

Finally, S. had a disembodied eyeball called Big Red who prowled in the bushes behind S.’s house. S. would part the bush-branches at times, gaze into the depths, and Big Red would be staring back at him.

Ah, Earth-Rim Walkers! Gotta love ‘em!

Tell us your stories! Tell us, tell us!

Reels in the Dark

July 11, 2009

First, news from the writing front couldn’t be better! The Sacred Woods is entering the home stretch. I’ve been smashing personal records right and left for words written in a day. First there was the 3,315-word output on July 4th (fitting, huh?) — then came a few days of “real” work (the kind where you have to make a living); then 3,827 words on Thursday, 3,121 yesterday, and 2,795 today. The book is now at 57,242. [It's easier to write faster near the end of a book or story, because you have the momentum and focus; you're no longer trying to figure out what it's all about.] So you can see what I’ve been up to, and that’s why this posting is coming at the bottom of the weekend instead of at the top, as I’d prefer. I’m still hoping to have the book’s first draft finished by about the end of the month. This is one of those cases in which the story is practically writing itself: it knows where it wants to go, and I’m just careening along with it, holding onto the bridle for dear life with one hand, opening doors for it and smashing down fences with the other. This has very little to do with my abilities or lack thereof; it’s one of those best instances that we writers always hope for in which an idea finds you and comes pouring through.

I was struck tonight by the words from Proverbs 3:5-6 — “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”

When writing is going well, it truly is an experience of the Divine — a sacred experience. And so little of it seems to come from “my own understanding.” It’s a “trust-with-all-your-heart” thing all the way, and you just rejoice and give thanks when the paths are straight. A good (writer) friend once quoted this line to me from Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, and I’ve kept it right here on my desk ever since: “God made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.” That’s what it’s like as a writer, when you’re writing. Worries about your life and the future pale away to almost nothing, because you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing. You try not to get hit by cars when crossing the street, because you feel you have to live until you get this story finished. I suspect it’s something like the feeling a pregnant mother has when she’s carrying around a baby inside her. She knows what she’s supposed to do. The world is remarkably clear.

You may think this is all purple and hyperbolic, but it’s not, really.

Since we’ve talked about Anne of Green Gables — another line from it that has stayed with me through the years — and I’m quoting from memory here, so this will be inaccurate — is something like, “And, as usually happens when duty is looked squarely in the face, she had looked duty in the face and found it to be a friend.”

There’s a line at the end of The Untouchables spoken by Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, in which he tries to put his role into perspective when he’s asked by a reporter to give a comment as “the man who got Capone,” the one who put Al Capone behind bars. Ness says: “I was just there when the wheel went ’round.”

I think that’s true for anything good we accomplish in life, writing or otherwise. But Stephen King makes the point in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that you have to put yourself in that place where the ideas can find you. You have to show up at your keyboard or your notebook (or whatever your particular life’s canvas is). You have to be ready. Writing is a guy who may show up at that place, if he knows you’re going to be there and have the lights on and be hospitable.

That being said, I’m definitely not suggesting that we should sit through our lives waiting for inspiration to strike. Inspiration needs people who are in shape enough to handle the work — to open those doors and smash those fences out of the way. By the same token, you can turn out good, salable stories that are solidly crafted but not necessarily inspired. Nor should we worry too much about what is inspired and what isn’t. Is it a good story? — That’s the more important question.

So, anyway, keep thinking about what Eliot Ness says about being there when the wheel comes ’round. . . . I’ve been thinking this week about how some aspects of life move in circles.

1. As a kid, I read Cricket Magazine. Mom got me a charter subscription when the magazine launched back in 1973. I had the LP record album they put out in those years and practically wore it thin listening to it so much. I remember sending them a story when I was in my early twenties, which came back with a form rejection. I really hadn’t learned my craft well enough yet — the wheel hadn’t come ’round. A little over ten years ago, I started sending them stories they accepted.

2. As a kid, I was fascinated by the covers on the H.P. Lovecraft paperbacks in our bookstore — grotesque monsters with scales and tentacles and eyes in strange places. I would sit in the yard on long summer days, in long summer twilights, delighting in the smell of mown grass around me and the reek of noisome swamps and unspeakable crypts and squamous horrors emanating from the Lovecraftian tales. I used to look at the name “Arkham House” on the copyright pages, never dreaming that one day my own book would be published by Arkham House.

3. As a kid, and increasingly with every decade of my life, I read FATE Magazine. It was my dad’s favorite periodical. (Mom was all Cricket and The Smithsonian.) My very first professional acceptance was a non-fiction article I wrote for FATE back in the April 1998 issue. I still remember literally jumping around the room for joy when I opened their acceptance letter. That’s a good story in and of itself: I was living in Japan and got this idea for a wonderful surprise for Dad. I knew he looked forward to his subscription copy of FATE each month. So without breathing a word to my parents about what I was doing, I researched a mysterious phenomenon in Japan, took the pictures, wrote the article, and sent it off to FATE. That was during their “good” years, when they were doing the large-sized magazine instead of the little digest-sized one that they’ve done before and since. They accepted it, I got to experience being paid for writing (!!!), and the first my parents knew about it was when Dad starting flipping through his copy when it came in the mail. As I heard the story later, he kept repeating “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it!” Then he asked Mom if there could be more than one Frederic S. Durbin teaching at Niigata University. “No,” she assured him, “that’s him.” When I talked to him, he asked me how I got those amazing pictures, and I was able to tell him, “With your old Minolta camera.” That was a very happy circle that came ’round — and I even managed to do it again a couple years later. (“There’s sure a lot of weird stuff in Japan,” Dad said the second time around. Yes, there surely is. Mom said, “You sure can keep a secret!”)

I still read FATE, by the way, and aside from the fascination and escapism, it yields some really good ideas for stories. I won’t tell you which ones — because I sure can keep a secret.

So . . . by grace, in the fullness of time, I got published in Dad’s favorite magazine, and then in Mom’s. And by august old Arkham House, the pulp-era book publisher that has endured.

There’s one more “circle” story: back in high school, I went to my first writer’s conference, held at Illinois Wesleyan University, a conference later known as the Blooming Grove Writers’ Conference. The fiction workshop leader that first time I went was Paul Darcy Boles. (I still use a quote from his workshop in my writing classes. I’ll bet you can find it back in the archives of this blog!) At that time he was a hale, white-haired gentleman with twinkling blue eyes. We discovered a mutual love of the movie Dragonslayer, and he read two manuscripts I’d sent in: one was a little Tolkien-derivative story, and one was the beginning of what later became The Threshold of Twilight. He liked the Dwarf in my Tolkien-derivative story — he said it wasn’t a “Disneyfied” Dwarf; he said I didn’t poke fun at my characters. About the Threshold piece, he said the only thing wrong with it was that it wasn’t finished. Very much the right things to say to a high-school kid wanting to write! He signed his wonderful book Night Watch for me with the words: “For Fred — A fine writer who knows about enchantment.” I learned a few years later that he had passed away. I’ve never ceased to be grateful for the early encouragement he gave me. (And to Mom, for taking me there!)

What makes that a “circle” story? Two things: one is that just last week I found his book Glory Day on-line and ordered it. He talked about it all those years ago, and the idea fascinated me, but I’ve never thought to try to get a copy. (During the years before the Internet, I doubt it would have been possible.) The second is that I’ve used the title for both a poem and for a  short story that I’m trying to whip into shape for Cicada but don’t really know how. The editors there liked it, but it’s really not a story yet — they’d like to see it again if I can figure out what the story is.

So I’m going to close out this post with a rather lengthy extract from that story (my story, not Boles’s) — because it’s appropriate for summer, and because it brings the Boles circle around — and because the title of this entry is “Reels in the Dark,” and this excerpt is about home movies and what they represent.

I’ll just say that this story is intensely autobiographical. The “John” character is me, and there’s almost nothing in this passage that’s made up. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

At full dark, the home movies began. John had long since become the projectionist, his dad having turned over all the equipment to him. But Dad still governed the proceedings, ensconced in his recliner. Dad’s movies were from the era of eight millimeter film, almost unheard of these days. Watching them was like traveling to the past in more ways than one. TVs, no matter how big they got, could never match the ambience of a darkened room, the whir of celluloid and sprockets, and the bright, flickering images on the tall tripod screen. Dad’s movies distilled the sunlight of long-past days, the green of vanished summers, the faces of relatives now old or gone.

The reel most in demand was a compilation of home movies shot over many years, spliced together in no particular order, one section even having gotten put in upside-down and backwards, with horses galloping in reverse in the sky, consuming their dust-clouds like living vacuum cleaners. Scenes of Mom and Dad’s courting blended with family baseball games (lots of swings-and-misses, and then a long, panoramic shot of a dozen guys searching for the ball in high weeds; but the dramatic hit that had sent the ball there was, of course, the one moment not captured). Picnics in the park gave way to more horses (these right side up); Dad looking like a movie star, young and straight; flowers in the park; and a Labor Day parade. Toward the film’s halfway point, there was a silver dot high in the sky, passing behind a transformer and power lines — an unidentified silver dot which never failed to generate obliging speculation from the audience about just what it WAS. Always Dad nodded gravely and knowingly in his chair, his gaze intent on the screen until the scene changed to the digging of the lake, which Dad had helped to survey.

“We saw more snakes than you’d believe,” Dad would say. “We tramped all through that bottomland, and I bet we saw a snake every twenty steps. They can hide anywhere there’s a blade of grass. Once some of the guys and I were sitting on the ground to eat our lunch. We were in a circle with our feet almost touching, and a snake crawled right out from between us. We never dreamed it was there.”

Dad told stories about the images in the same way every time, and the audience’s questions themselves followed a time-honored ritual. That, too, was a part of the enchantment of old silent eight as opposed to videos or DVDs. No music, no audio required the discipline of being quiet — not that any soundtrack could have competed with the cousins all together in a single room. The audio was supplied anew by the audience each time, viewers interacting with glimpses of the past.

It was almost, John thought, as if all the generations of the family were still here; as if those who had gone before somehow overflowed the screen and occupied the room’s shadowy corners, not ghosts but warm and chuckling presences, not morbidly returned from beyond but rather never gone in the first place — as comfortable and worn as the furniture, as solid as the bookcases, filling a space that must be filled for completeness, but unregistered in the sight.

There came shots of dogs, the wild fox cub Dad had found and cared for until it had been big enough to return to the wild, and then a full seven minutes of nothing but cigarette smoke in a sunbeam at the little house, where Mom and Dad had first lived when they were married — just cigarette smoke filling the frame, curling and swirling above an ash tray. “Now wait,” Dad would always say, holding up a finger. “Now watch. There’s a place where the smoke looks just like Aunt Opal’s face.” An obedient solemnity would settle over the group, and for a few minutes the summer night would take on a suggestion of chill. And this was the only point at which the movie litany varied. For sometimes Dad himself would miss the face, and would mutter, as the footage went on to other things, that somewhere in there Aunt Opal’s face was as clear as day; and at other viewings Dad would shout “There!” in triumph and point at the screen. And the kids in the audience would see only smoke, because they’d never met Aunt Opal; and a few of the cousins might give a start and cry “I saw her!” and rub at the gooseflesh on their arms. But whether Dad or anyone else saw or didn’t see Aunt Opal in the smoke, if anyone suggested rewinding and re-watching, Dad would say, “Oh, let’s go on. It’s getting late.” And even the most curious were secretly grateful, because the curling, drifting smoke was a little sinister.

Years ago, Dad had introduced the trick of running the film backwards in a certain part to the wild amusement of the audience. It was a scene of the cousins as kids, the oldest no more than ten, swimming in a plastic backyard pool. The ritual exclamations were always the same: “Look at Jack!”; “Look at my braces!”; “Can you believe I wore my hair like that?”; “J.T.’s trying to drown me — look, he keeps pushing my head under!” Interspersed with these lines came the frantic identifications of swimmers among all the splashing and submerging. “Is that you, Mom?” a little cousin would ask, standing up in front of the screen and reaching out a hand to touch the past — but blocking the very part of the image that held the most interest. The child would blend with the picture, its glowing colors projected on the hair and skin and T-shirt back, until everyone cried “Sit down!”

There would be the inevitable explanation for the young ones who hadn’t been there: “Dad threw in a bunch of nickels and pennies, and we were diving for them.” The “Dad” the cousins meant was Uncle Rick, and the film’s highlight was when he dashed across the yard in his swimsuit, the pool empty now of kids. Uncle Rick, all berry-brown and with jet-black hair, a scrawny Tarzan, dove into the pool, displacing a prodigious amount of water. At that point, John’s dad would switch the projector into reverse. The tidal wave would return from the lawn to the pool, and Uncle Rick would fly out backwards, land on his feet, and sprint away across the grass, receding into the distance. It was a delight that never grew old, when the whole group would shriek with laughter. This was what they came to see year after year, bringing new spouses, new girlfriends and boyfriends, new babies. In fact, the film had its identity in this scene: the request was always for “the movie where Dad jumps out of the pool,” as if it had been recorded that way.

Maybe the past, John thought, it what we make of it. Once it’s happened, it belongs to us, for our re-shaping. All these decades later, Uncle Rick’s jumping out of the pool was far more important than his jumping in. It was better-remembered, better loved. It became the reality.

John’s favorite part came just at the end, when the audience had had their fun, when the little ones were starting to fall asleep, and the moms were collecting baby bottles and socks, and the dads were jingling car keys. It was a slow pan across a front-yard Fourth of July party in a distant time. Distant, for the film, though it was in color, had a slightly washed-out look, and the cars in the driveway had fins like Batmobiles, and some of the old men wore straw hats or fedoras, and the women had Catwoman glasses with heavy black frames.

The scene always recaptured the crowd’s flagging interest and spawned arguments about who was under that tree, whether or not that car was Uncle Rick’s (Uncle Rick fiercely denying it if he were present), and whether that could really be Cousin Liz at the end of the table. (“When did Liz ever have hair like that?” someone would roar in genuine indignation.)

At the end of the pan, the camera would be pointing at the porch steps. Someone had set down a paper plate there, and the food on it was now being gobbled up by Tag, Dad’s matronly beagle. As the plate slipped to the ground and Tag hurried down the steps after it, the camera went back to the party.

What fascinated John even more than the long-ago people he’d never met was the yard, the trees, the buildings, and the background fields, all of which he knew intimately. Here, though, he was seeing them as they had looked thirty years ago, the landscape more open, the giant oaks younger, the barn roofs straighter-edged. He stared past the picnickers at the root cellar, its concrete dome free of the trees of heaven it now wore, whose roots were destroying it. He gazed in wonder at the ingrown gate — the last remnant of some dismantled corral fence. In John’s own time it was half-swallowed by the trunks of the maples against which it rested, but in the film, the gate was newly leaned in place, its boards smooth and solid.

Okay, wake up! Thanks for wading through a long post! As for comment direction this time — any comments are welcome — but some possible jumping-off points are:

1. Circles of life: tales of things in your own experience that have come full circle.

2. Questions about any of the above. I welcome questions.

3. Stories of things families do together: family rituals, celebrations, traditions, etc. Do you have your own version of the “home movie” experience?

4. Tales of your own “doing what you’re meant to be doing” experiences. Is it writing for you, or something else?

5. Theories on our interactions with the past. Is the past fluid, as John comes to suppose in this story? I think this could be a really interesting topic.

Dark Doorways

May 29, 2009

Updates first: This week I made a good exchange with Emily, the illustrator of “The Star Shard.” I sent her a signed copy of Dragonfly and she sent me a signed print of Minstrels’ Song, the picture of Cymbril, Bobbin, and Argent singing in the wagon bed. (I still believe that’s my favorite of her illustrations for the story, but several are right up there almost even with it.) If anyone else is interested in the artwork for this story, keep watching Emily’s website (see the blogroll at right); I think she plans to make prints available for sale in the near future.

This is not really an update, but I’m on something of an Enya kick lately. I just got her CD The Celts and like it a lot. (When I go to karaoke, which is not often these days, “May It Be,” “Only Time,” and “Orinoco Flow” are in my regular repertoire.) What impresses me about Enya is that she seems to see herself as just one component of the musical tapestry. The instrumental parts are often as important as the vocals; it’s about the whole, not about her being the star.

Third, my current project has now passed the 20,000 word mark (20,450 words as of quitting time tonight; 1,300 new ones today). I’m happy with it; it’s going well, by grace! Looks as if it will probably be a novella — possibly a novel — magic realism for about a teenage audience and upward. No caverns and no balloon craft — I know, that’s weird, right? Don’t ask me anything else, because I never talk much about works in progress — always afraid of jinxing them. [Unfortunately for everyone, I talk endlessly about projects that are finished. Blah, blah, blah, blah. . . .]

Groink. On to the main event: as an intro, I’m going to quote two passages. (In answer to my recent poll, one reader asked for occasional glimpses of works on the drawing board. This is a good chance to deliver just such, because they’re to the point.) These are from my manuscript Agondria, which is currently out under consideration. It’s a bigger story made up of smaller stories. In both of these excerpts, note that the characters are venturing over dark, perilous thresholds into the unknown. . . .

1. From “The Heir of Agondria”:

Beneath the arch, the reek was stronger. Even Ancaea seemed loath to go onward. She glanced at Lorian and paused at the edge of shadow, squinting up the dark track to the next patch of daylight.

“The air is foul,” murmured Iphys, behind Sarath. “There is a part of night that remains here, even in the day.”

“It’s the way of tunnels and caverns,” said Peleagar, his mace upon his shoulder. “They’re dark, and bats foul them.”

Elina, blue-eyed and slight, drew her sword in a slow, ringing glide from the scabbard.

Arlas leaned on his spear. “Should we return, and bring a greater strength of arms?”

Lorian considered, then shook her head. “Until we know what danger may be here, I would not lead our crew into it. Wait here, all of you. I will go a little farther on—“

“No, my Lady.” Ancaea glanced around at the others, and several chuckled. “Do not tell us to wait while you go on, for all will disobey. You must get used to that, before you put on a High Queen’s crown.”

Lorian smiled back. Arms akimbo, she surveyed the other warriors. She started forward, and again Ancaea and Arlas preceded her.

 

2. From “Lucia’s Quest”:

Hand on her sword-hilt, Lucia could feel the tension of the warriors around her, though all held their peace.

Then, in the rocky vaults ahead, a light began to grow. Red and flickering, it cast wavering shadows over great piers and buttresses of stone.  “Forward,” called Ethani, and the oars dipped again into the waves. Passing beneath a last stalactite-fringed arch, the bireme emerged into a subterranean harbor — a wide, calm lake in the caverns.

An uneven ceiling hung near the limit of vision. All around the harbor at varying heights, tunnels led away into obscurity. Beside these dark mouths, upon ledges beside endless stairways carved into the rock, torches flared. Even as the ship arrived, dim figures were carrying these lights, setting the last of them in place. These shrouded shapes must be the Chalybes, though the firelight did little to illuminate them. They wore black cloaks with peaked hoods, but their white arms protruded from the garments — spindly, sinewy arms so long they nearly reached the floor, the hands doubly broad.

The place was loftier and more terrible than the Temple on Vorcyra, even though Lucia recalled that edifice from her childhood’s perception, which made all structures larger. More frightening this cavern was, for it felt hidden from the sight of the gods, its dark masters a race who held no fear of Olympus or of any mortal army.

Ethani gave an order, and again the rowing ceased. Behind, a second gate groaned shut within the tunnel, as mighty and ponderous as the first. When silence reigned again, Ethani paced forward along the deck, hands on her waist, her cloak trailing. The firelight limned her bronze helmet with its tall comb of dyed and stiffened horse-mane. The Vorcyrans flanked her. At the bow they halted and waited, searching the shadows.

. . .

Ethani turned her rain-gray eyes on Iloni. As the leader of this quest, appointed by the Oracle, it was Iloni’s place to speak.

Taking and expelling a deep breath, Iloni moved another step closer to the prow. “Hail, Chalybes!” she cried, her clear voice ringing into the vaults. She spoke in Anren, the language of Vorcyra, Shandria, and the lands to the west, a tongue generally understood upon the rims of Middlemere. “Hail, sons of the Earth, lords of fire and iron! We come to you with honor and reverence for the great King Agetychus, whose name we know: may it please the Sea and the Rock that he still rules here, and shall till the mountains fall!”

The echoes of her brave shout faded. Stillness returned. Iloni’s Shandrian helm turned right and left as she scanned the cavern. She drew breath for another cry, but Ethani laid a hand on her arm. “It was well-spoken,” the captain murmured. “Let them see that we can wait as well as they.”

And well we may wait until the mountains fall, thought Lucia. The silence was oppressive, disheartening. She had the sudden notion that the indistinct figures might be no more than wraiths, the ghosts of a people long dead, with no more power to answer than the stones.

But at last, from a balcony at the head of a steep stair, one of the smith-folk replied in a voice dry and cracked, also speaking in Anren. “A fair speech, seafarer. Agetychus reigns indeed, and has for fourteen lives of the kings and queens under the sun.”

. . .

“It gives us joy,” Iloni continued, “to know that he who was mighty in our grandmothers’ days is mighty still. We have brought him rich gifts, beseeching one kindness in return.” Iloni spread her arms, bowed her head, and knelt on the deck. Ethani and Lucia mimicked the obeisance, though Lucia sensed it ill-pleased the captain to kneel.

 

The Doorway

The Doorway

Back in my junior high days, my Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set came with a playing module called “Descent into the Depths of the Earth.” It had me hooked with its very name. What could be more appealing than that? That is the essence of fantasy role-playing . . . and, in a broader view, the essence of fantasy reading, isn’t it? — the question of what lies beyond the dark portal ahead — of what’s around the next corner or just past the circle of torchlight.

Westering LightIt occurs to me that the passage of dark doorways is a primary element in the vast majority of these stories we hold so dear. Sometimes it’s a literal door, and literally dark. Sometimes it’s a figurative doorway, and the “darkness” is rather the mist of the unknown. Let’s consider a few examples, right after the following pertinent side note.

Traditional Japanese Noh play often deals with ghosts and the supernatural. The Noh stage doesn’t use painted flats or furniture; it’s very austere. But an essential element is the placement, along one runway leading to the main platform, of three small pine trees. These are set in a staggered line. They’re not all equally distant from the viewers; and this variance of depth represents an open passage into the spirit world.

I won’t even mention the authors and titles: you know them.

Max wears his wolf suit, and that night in his bedroom, a forest grows. He sails away through a year and a day to where the wild things are.

Children who don’t want to go to bed are given the chance, instead, to fly with a mysterious boy out the window into the starry night, all the way to Neverland.

The one good thing about being sucked up by a tornado is that it might plunk you down unharmed into the land of Oz and take out a major bad witch in the deal. (What darker doorway can there be than the dirty, freight-train-roaring, snakily-writhing, unpredictable, unstoppable vortex of a twister? Those things are the nightmares of kids growing up in the Midwest. You may run and you may hide, but you can’t take your house with you: it’s either in the tornado’s path or it isn’t.)

Alice slides and tumbles down a rabbit hole to Wonderland.

After a long voyage to the Island of Tangerina, Elmer Elevator walks along the coast until at last he locates the string of ocean rocks described by the cat, and he leaps across them one by one to Wild Island.

Lucy pushes her way through the coats in the wardrobe, and what does she find?

At King’s Cross Station, Harry finds his way onto a train platform that isn’t supposed to exist, and the train departs from there.

Beneath the Paris Opera House stretch flight after descending flight of stairs, dungeon after dungeon, down to a subterranean lake, and a boat, and beyond that. . . . (I’m just now realizing what an influence this book had on Dragonfly. I read it just before or after I came to Japan, at the end of my college years — immediately preceding the writing of Dragonfly.)

The Sumatra makes a long sea voyage for reasons unknown even to her captain, and within a perpetual fog bank she reaches an island bisected by a cyclopean Wall . . . and in the Wall there is a colossal gate. . . .

The U-33 limps along with her seething, conglomerate crew to the beachless, cliff-walled island of Caprona.

Before the coming of the white man, two Mandan Indian youths wander into a cave, become hopelessly lost, and eventually emerge into the Lost Land, a valley world beneath the desert, where prehistoric life still thrives in all its carnivorous glory.

When Ray Kinsella takes the suggestion of a disembodied voice and carves a baseball field out of his corn field, a magical world emerges from a door that is not dark, but whispering and green. (This one’s quite a reversal: build the door yourself, and they will come. This story appealed to me so much because I’d grown up knowing that cornfields were doorways into Faerie.)

Professor Challenger leads his expedition up the side of a South American plateau, at the isolated top of which is — you guessed it — a primordial world untouched by the passage of time.

In Jules Verne’s book, our intrepid heroes descend into the crater of Mt. Sneffels, an inactive volcano, following the promise made by an earlier explorer that they can “reach the center of the Earth. I did it.”

Burroughs again: the mole machine burrows into the ground, gets out of control, and takes its two occupants down, down, down to Pellucidar, at the Earth’s core.

The airship Hyperion braves the snows and storms of the frozen north to reach Astragard, a lost paradise of warmth and green growing things, populated by a colony of Norsemen.

Gandalf realizes at last the trick to the inscription above the gates Narvi made, and the wonder and terror of Moria is unlocked.

In my own stories:

Ren climbs the bell rope of a church steeple at the hour when the full moon is passing overhead; and so he comes to the frozen realm within the lunar shell. (“Ren and the Shadow Imps,” Cricket, October 2003 – January 2004)

The nameless narrator undertakes a journey no living person has ever attempted: to climb down the trunks of the mighty trees to a place described only in myth — the Place of Roots. (“The Place of Roots,” Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 2001)

And so it goes. And so our childhood games involved imaginative forays into these otherworlds, always beyond a dark door of one sort or another.

It’s impossible to show this correctly in movies. When it’s done in cinema, the world completely changes around the child, and he’s in another place, with a different landscape, with 100% visual realism. But that’s not how it works, is it? When we’re really playing as children, we don’t actually leave our mundane surroundings. We can still see them as they are; but they become charged with a special significance, a symbolic meaning. The living room wall remains a wall, but it is also a cliff wall; the carpet remains a carpet, but it is also a perfectly rectangular bed of molten lava. How marvelous it is that these things can carry so much enchantment! They can, because we have passed through those dark doorways into the lands of shadow and wonder, silhouette and dream.

My cousin Phil and I used to play Journey to the Earth’s Core at Grandma’s house. The space behind the sofa was always the entrance crater. At times we would even force parents, aunts, uncles, and Grandma to watch this as a play: the scientists would clamber up the rocky sofa, surmount its summit ridge, and descend, descend, into the infinite depths behind it. And they would emerge into the world at the Earth’s center, where recliner chairs were great boulders, where closets were cavern mouths, and where, yes, carpets were pools or beds of lava that must not be stepped into if one valued one’s life.

So . . . questions for discussion [and you're by no means required to comment on all three -- or any]:

1. What are the elements of a good passage to an Otherworld? (In a good story, what aspects or conditions are present to make it “work,” to make the passage feel right, plausible, and attractive?)

2. Are there stories anyone cares to tell about your own childhood imaginative forays into Otherworlds? (Or those of your kids, if you’re a parent? Are you now being forced to watch intrepid scientists climbing the stone-strewn sofa to get at the fathomless depths behind it?)

3. Are there other good fictional examples I missed (or covered inadequately)?

Books, Part 2: Fred’s Lists

May 15, 2009

It occurred to me this evening that I have now been a professional writer for ten years: a decade of selling fiction. So miracles do happen. For years and years, I seriously doubted I’d ever be published at all. But if you stay the course, things happen when they’re supposed to. If you’re a writer aspiring to make your first sale, don’t give up.

(How was that for a really short sermon?)

Anyway, more about books! For anyone who has not yet been there, I strongly encourage you to back up to the previous post and especially to read the reader comments beneath it. The readers of this blog have been answering the call to recommend favorite books. You’ll find wonderful titles there to keep you busy for a good long while. And everyone: you can keep right on recommending books in response to this post — or at any time. On this blog, good books are always on the subject!

The Book Center, May 1970. In the early 1980s, many a D&D meeting was held in this store's basement -- a D&D group that was also part book club. . . .

The Book Center, May 1970. In the early 1980s, many a D&D meeting was held in this store's basement -- a D&D group that was also part book club. . . .

[Aside: the phrasing of that last sentence is an echo from our years of playing Dungeons & Dragons back in junior high, high school, and college. To keep the game focused, we set up something called the Pun Fund. It was a can with a slot in the top. When it started out, as the name implies, if you made a pun, you had to pay a fine by dropping a coin into the slot. Quite soon, though, we expanded to a whole system of fines for anything that held up the game. If your character went on an "Ego Trip" (meaning he talked too much about himself or otherwise behaved like the center of the universe), that cost you a nickel. If you used "Logic," you had to pay up. (A "Logic" violation meant that you stopped the game cold by arguing that a particular pit trap, for example, violated the laws of physics.) The catch-all offense was "Off the Subject." That one's self-explanatory. But in the interest of decency, we soon established the rule that certain things were always on the subject and could not be fined -- most notably, food. Any mention of when we'd be taking a food break or what we'd be eating was always, always to the point and welcome. (And for reasons I never understood and never agreed to, Bugs Bunny was always on the subject. You could be in the middle of the most harrowing adventure ever, with the city about to go up in flames, and if you said something in a Bugs Bunny voice, you could not be fined! Go figure. . . .)]

My, do I digress! One more topic before I get to The Lists. . . .

My house from the air, July 1970: My house is just to the right of the road in the center of the picture, surrounded by the little ring of trees. Note that our pond wasn't dug yet, and the farm across the road was still standing. (Don't die of nostalgia, anyone!)

My house from the air, July 1970: My house is just to the right of the road in the center of the picture, surrounded by the little ring of trees. Note that our pond wasn't dug yet, and the farm across the road was still standing. (Don't die of nostalgia, anyone!)

I was happily surprised to discover some on-line reviews of Dragonfly I’d never seen on a site called “goodreads.” What made me even happier was that some of the reviews were quite recent! The book was first published in 1999 — a decade ago — and the mass-market Ace edition is out of print. (It’s still easy to acquire for pennies on Amazon. Yes, you can buy this book for about the price of a Pun or an Ego Trip!) But now and then, people are still finding it, and even better, they’re still liking it! Here are a few lines from some of my favorites, and notice the dates!

In April 2008, “Woodge” wrote: “I found this while browsing in a bookstore and I must admit that the arresting cover caught my eye. Upon a closer look, the cover would seem to appeal to a Young Adult audience but an even closer inspection revealed that to be misleading. (There’s a moral here somewhere.) . . . Well, it was as advertised. This imaginative, original story gets cracking from the very first pages. The imagery is lush and painted with a rich vocabulary. There’s nothing cutesy about the story . . . and it manages to include all sorts of beasties. Vampires, werewolves, gypsies, and other various ghouls all make an appearance in this unpredictable tale. And when the action is really moving it brings to mind thrills you might find in a summer blockbuster. Good times.”

In October 2007, “The other John” wrote: “(Had to re-read this one and get my fix of Midwest October…) Dragonfly is a great read. The premise is nothing new — a child has adventures in a mystical realm. But unlike Dorothy, Meg Murry or the Pevensie children, Bridget Anne (also known by the nickname Dragonfly) heads down to a dark realm — the essence of Hallowe’en. Not quite hell, but much closer than any other ‘faerieland’ of which I’ve read. But it’s not all blackness, either. There is love and hope and faith amidst the suffering and death. Mr. Durbin does a very good job of bringing the story to life, weaving together the plot and the characters. Nothing is wasted — details that I just thought of as embellishment suddenly turn out to be important to the plot. One of the folks who reviewed Dragonfly at Amazon.com said that the book reminded him of Ray Bradbury. Me, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis, partly because of the basic premise, partly because of the underlying Christianity of the heroes. . . . But despite Mr. Lewis’ skill in portraying good and evil characters, his fiction comes across as a weekend gardener — a tad dirty, but still very prim and proper. Dragonfly, to continue the metaphor, is more like a real farmer, for whom sweat and dust are a part of daily life. I really enjoyed reading this and I’m going to put it on my shelf so I can read it again. I suspect it will only get better the second time around.”

On January 1st of 2009, “Jaymi” said: “I remember picking this book up on a lark. It was the name and the cover that caught my eye. We were just about to leave the store when I saw it and knew I had to have it. I’m glad I got it. Imagine Neil Gaiman meets H.P. Lovecraft and this is one possible reality. Dragonfly is the story of a 10-year-old girl who foolishly adventures down into a horrible realm (much like Lovecraft’s Dreamlands). Dragonfly follows a strange ‘exterminator’ down into her basement. . . .”

This is probably my favorite: on April 25, 2009, “Crystal” wrote: “I find it hard to believe this book is not more popular. Far from being overwritten or too descriptive, the narrative is perfect. Death is not off limits, nor does the author try to dumb the story down. So far, it’s as d**n near to perfect as I have come across.”

Finally, on September 10, 2008, “Todd” said: “It is very dark and complex. . . . I really enjoyed the writing style. It is imaginary and literary, with lots of allusions to mythology, great books, and the Scriptures. But they are very very subtle. This is no Left Behind kind of cheap Christian novel. The author, a Lutheran, does a wondrous job of weaving elements of the Christian faith in . . . . I hope he writes more soon.”

There’s also a review in a language I can’t read and my computer can’t reproduce, so I won’t quote that one.

Groink! On to THE LISTS!

I’m going to give you three separate lists here (you’ll see why as we go along). Obviously, I’m not making any attempt to identify the greatest works of literature in the history of humankind. For that, I commend to you The New Lifetime Reading Plan, by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major, though the authors aren’t as focused on fantasy and horror as most of us are. (The weirdos.) Heh, heh. What I’m going to list here are the books that, for whatever reasons, have meant the most to me, have influenced me the most, and/or that people who know me well have recommended to me. In general, the books appear in no particular order: if they make the list, they make the list. Without further adieu, then (lest the referee declare us Off the Subject, and we all have to fork over a nickel or a dime):

List #1: My Treasured Books (The Small Shelf):

1. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

2. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

3. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

4. Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees

5. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

6. My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett (This is a children’s book, but its influence on me is immeasurable: it’s the very essence of mystery and exploration, penetrating the unknown, adventure in exotic places, friendship, and doing things for the right reasons. The illustrations and those wonderful maps are at least half of the enchantment.)

7. Collectively, the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Where to begin? Among my favorites are The Dunwich Horror, A Shadow Over Innsmouth, At the Mountains of Madness, and “The Dreams in the Witch-House.” My absolute #1 favorite of his short stories is “The Shunned House.” And finally, his story that I believe supersedes genre and belongs in every college freshman English lit survey course textbook, right alongside “A Rose for Emily” et al., is “The Strange High House in the Mist.” I’m telling you, Lovecraft. . . . I grew up reading him, because the covers intrigued me in our family’s bookstore. As a kid, as a grownup, I read him perennially, and he’s one of the few authors whose stuff I’ve read most of. Even now, when spring comes around and the weather warms up, I itch to dig out a volume of Lovecraft, go outdoors, and read until the sun sets. Lovecraft in the dusk is the ultimate reading experience! If you don’t own any Lovecraft books yet and are wondering what to buy, I’d point you toward the annotated Lovecraft editions edited by S.T. Joshi, who is probably the world’s leading Lovecraft scholar. [I've personally met him -- he shook my hand at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, and he gave Dragonfly a wonderful review in Weird Tales!]

Peter S. Beagle, signing books at the World Fantasy Convention in Texas, 2006.

Peter S. Beagle, signing books at the World Fantasy Convention in Texas, 2006.

8. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

9. The Book of Wonder, by Lord Dunsany (To protect the very guilty, I won’t tell you how I acquired my copy of this. But it’s worth acquiring, even if you have to venture into a Peruvian temple and outrun a gigantic rolling stone sphere and a tribe of angry Hovitos.)

10. Bertram’s Fabulous Animals, by Paul T. Gilbert (This is another children’s book, but it gave me endless hours of entertainment as a kid. In a nutshell, the protag, Bertram, is a kid who keeps finding out about various fantastic creatures, and he always wants to get one as a pet. His mama always kind of misunderstands what he’s talking about and says okay. He gets one, and pandemonium ensues. Finally, Bertram’s daddy comes home (he’s always in Omaha on business) and straightens things out and sends the destructive and/or selfish fantastic creature packing. It’s that delicious combination of funny and fascinating and terrifying that makes for the very best of children’s books. I remember almost having nightmares about one of the creatures . . . and laughing really hard many a time.)

11. Enchanted Night, by Steven Millhauser (This is my most recent discovery on this list. But it belongs here. I found the book in Tokyo, because of its beautiful cover. Now I read it almost every summer. But I implore you: read it only at night, during the very hottest season you can manage in your part of the world. It’s pure magic. The whole book [which is quite thin, an easy read] takes place during a single summer night; it follows the nightly adventures of a group of people linked by the fact that they are all residents of the same New England town. Wow, just thinking about it makes me want to take it down off my shelf right now. . . .)

12. The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough

13. Jaws, by Peter Benchley (Go ahead and laugh, but everything I’ve written has been colored in some way by Jaws. I’ll never forget the happy hours spent on my Aunt Emmy’s back stairway, just off her kitchen, reading Jaws. Yes, this is a rare case in which the movie is better. But the movie wouldn’t exist without the book. The book was first.)

14. Beowulf, by the Beowulf poet

15. Andersen’s Fairy Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen (My mom would read these to me whenever I was really sick, so I will forever associate them with fevers and vomiting and delirium — but also with tenderness and love and the comforting presence of a mom . . . and release from all responsibility, because you’re sicker than a dog . . . and the hope of recovery, and the delight of water or ice cubes to a dehydrated mouth . . . and fantasy, and dreams. . . .)

16. October Dreams, edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish (This is a hefty collection of stories about Hallowe’en by many different writers, some famous, some you’ve never heard of. And what may be even better than the fiction is that between the stories are short recollections by the writers of their favorite Hallowe’en memories. I get this book out every October and read around in it.)

List #2: Honorable Mentions:

1. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury (His best book — and the single greatest influence on Dragonfly — there’s even a balloon.)

2. The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (I’ve met him and heard him preach at the church he once served [he's a Lutheran pastor] in Evansville, Indiana.)

3. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (I remember crying in Miss Logan’s first grade classroom as I finished this book. It’s the book that taught me that stories that make you hurt can be among the most effective — and that really good endings are what you should aim for as a writer.)

4. The Charwoman’s Shadow, by Lord Dunsany (My Cricket story “Ren and the Shadow Imps” is a tribute to this one.)

5. The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories, by Steven Millhauser (Wonderful, wonderful stuff — Millhauser finds the details that recapture all our childhood longings — longings, perhaps, as C.S. Lewis said, for things that do not even exist in this temporal life.)

6. It, by Stephen King (In my opinion, this is Stephen King’s best work: it doesn’t get any better than this. I read most of this book in the summer just before I left for Japan, and finished it up in Tokyo.)

7. ‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King (His second-best book. Vampires!)

8. The Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling (Ever heard of them? They’re kind of obscure, but you can probably find some somewhere. . . .)

9. I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven

10. Annapurna, by Maurice Herzog (This book inspired my next-door neighbor and me to climb everything in sight: the barn, trees, buildings. . . . And to take grainy photos of ourselves at the summit.)

11. The Book of Lies, by Agota Kristof (Search for her name, not for this title: I don’t think the three short novels that make it up were released under this title in the States. This book is not for everyone — it’s very disturbing in places. But for virtuosity of technique and construction, it’s brilliant!)

12. Zothique, by Clark Ashton Smith (Happy memories of dusty crypts and sere mummies that creak as they walk. . . . I saw a new release on Amazon of some of Smith’s stories.)

13. The Lost World, by Arthur Conan Doyle (A South American plateau on which dinosaurs still live . . . for a pre-teen boy, Heaven.)

14. The Land That Time Forgot and its two sequels, The People That Time Forgot and Out of Time’s Abyss, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Fun, fun, fun, fun!)

15. The Man-Eaters of Kumaon, by Jim Corbett (He was a big-game hunter hired by the local governments of India’s Kumaon district whenever they had a problem with a big cat that turned maneater. It’s a factual account of his showdowns with various tigers and leopards. Not a “chick flick” at all, but I’ll bet some of you chicks would like it. . . .)

16. The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (Never would have read this if I hadn’t gone to college. Glad I did.)

17. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare (I saw this performed, too, outdoors on a summer night. Just as much fun as the play was seeing the cast milling about under the trees before and after the show — all these people dressed as fairies in the light of the moon, taking part in this magical experience that is a theater production, which happens briefly in life and then is gone forever, but never forgotten. . . .)

18. The Mothman Prophecies, by John Keel (If you’re going to read just one book on Fortean subjects/the paranormal, this should be the one.)

19. Shiokari Pass, by Ayako Miura (A story of what it means to be a Christian in Japan. I’ve been there — I’ve stood in the actual Shiokari Pass on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido. If you’ve seen the movie — I was there!)

20. Run, Melos! by Osamu Dazai (A collection of short stories by one of Japan’s darkest writers — when I was a young, tormented twentysomething, I loved it — “He understands!“)

21. Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne (Um, yeah. Doesn’t take much to see the influence this has had on me.)

22. Kwaidan, by Lafcadio Hearn (The title means Weird Tales. Hearn was a westerner who moved to Japan and spent the end of his life there, documenting the ancient, strange folklore of Japan for English readers. In your readings of ghost stories from around the world, if there’s ever a Japanese ghost story, I guarantee you that it came to you via Lafcadio Hearn. This book’s shadow falls large across Dragonfly.)

23. The short stories of Algernon Blackwood and Ambrose Bierce (Particularly “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” by Blackwood and “The Damned Thing” by Bierce. I have delightful memories of reading these in the pine grove in my first years in Niigata.)

24. In Evil Hour, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

And finally:

List #3: Books Recommended to Me by Those Who Know Me and Whom I Greatly Respect:

1. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg

2. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

3. Zod Wallop, by William Browning Spencer

4. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

5. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo

6. The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson

7. The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer

8. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

9. Montmorency, by Eleanor Updale

10. Inkheart and Inkspell, by Cornelia Funke

11. Cloud Atlas,  by David Mitchell

12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller

13. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

14. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder

15. The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

16. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

17. The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Graham

18. Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

19. Roverandom, by J.R.R. Tolkien

20. Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson

21. Stravaganza: City of Masks, City of Flowers, City of Stars, City of Secrets (4 books), by Mary Hoffman

22. Surprised by Joy and Till We Have Faces,  by C.S. Lewis

23. Phantastes, by George Macdonald

24. “The Golden Key,” The Light Princess, and The Princess and the Goblin, by George Macdonald

25. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

26. House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski

27. “The Door in the Wall,” by H.G. Wells

28. The Garden of Forking Paths, by Jorge Luis Borges

29. The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen

30. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

31. “The Mezzotint,” by M.R. James (Actually, I think I may have read this one: was it reprinted in Mooreeffoc?)

32. Fingerprints of the Gods, by Graham Hancock

33. “The Lonesome Place,” by August Derleth

34. The Shadow Year, by Jeffrey Ford

35. No Clock in the Forest, by Paul Willis

36. Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons

37. Song of Albion, by Steven Lawhead

38. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

39. Unlundun, by China Mieville

40. The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Think that’ll keep you busy for awhile? Happy reading!

The Terrible Power of Story

June 23, 2008

There is something we don’t normally think about as writers: the fact that we hold lightning bolts in our hands. This Heaven’s-fire can light up the sky, dazzle, electrify, and inspire; but it can also lay waste and devastate. Consider: since the dawn of time, we humans have hungered for stories. We crouched around the fires, intent upon the words of the old one, who evoked for us places and people and deeds . . . wonders and terrors that we had not touched or tasted ourselves, but of which we partook through the magic of language and imagination.

We escape into stories. They transport us from our workaday lives to places where everything is more focused, usually more intense. The hardships and the triumphs are greater than ours. The colors are brighter, the passions are stronger, the resolutions more satisfying and meaningful. In stories, life makes much better sense. The wicked are punished. Virtue and perseverance are generally rewarded. Dreams come true — or if they do not, there is dignity and nobility in their not-coming-true.

Listen to anyone who loves a great book: “I felt I was there,” s/he says. “I want to go there.” “I want to live there.” “I didn’t want it to end.” Why are series books so popular from age to age? — because we never want it to end. We don’t want to come back from those places we love. We don’t want to say goodbye to those people.

This offering of an escape, a refuge, is a great service to readers. Sometimes it’s greater than we could possibly imagine. I was absolutely floored when a person — now a close friend — told me the story of how my book Dragonfly saved her life. That sounds like a ridiculously grandiose claim for me to make, and it would be, but for two reasons: 1.) it’s true, and 2.) the credit doesn’t belong to me. Dragonfly is not an “inspirational” book. It doesn’t have any “message” of encouragement, and the part that encouraged my friend isn’t a particularly encouraging part — in fact, it’s the book’s most tragic moment. But this person read it at precisely the time in life that she needed to read it. All the events of her life worked together — and yes, I believe that certainly God worked — through the medium or filter of this book, this scene — and this person was inspired to keep on living. She took one path instead of the other at a very, very dire crossroads in the darkest stretch of life. And she got to a place that was much better. Again, I had nothing to do with it. But God, working through her life’s circumstances and through something I left lying around out there in the world (the book) . . . saved a life. That’s an extreme example, but the point is, we never know. When the stories leave us, they have a life of their own. They’re like children in that sense. They’re made from parts of us — they have our blood in them — but they pass beyond our reach and our knowledge. They encounter people we never will. Tennyson wrote in The Princess: “Our echoes roll from soul to soul, / And grow for ever and for ever.”

All good and fine, right? Who wouldn’t want to be a writer? On the first day of class, I usually tell my writing students, “If you want to change the world, you’re studying the right thing.” But there is a grim side to it all.

Writing transports us into other worlds . . . wonderful, enchanting worlds. But think of the old stories in which people make forays into the realm of Faery. “Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand-in-hand, / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” Or in another poem, Goethe’s, the Elf-King comes and snatches away the child, and the child’s father is left holding a corpse. Faery is an alluring place, but humans who enter it do not come back — or if they do, so much time has passed in their own world that everyone they knew and loved is either very old or long dead.

There is a cost to visiting elfland. The song of the Sirens lures sailors to their deaths. And are not these wonderful and well-loved books Faery to us? Take note of this next sentence, because it’s the gist of this lengthy exposition — it’s the one-line summary of this posting:

I have been as tormented by stories as by anything “real” in life.

Perhaps . . . no, probably . . . no, definitely — moreso. The joy of a story that gets into our hearts is a savage joy. A cruel joy. It’s devastating, and we have no defense against it.

First example: Watership Down. In fifth grade, I remember crying and crying when I finished reading it. The world for me had changed, not entirely in a good way. I had loved the book so much, and now it was over, and I knew that I might re-read it later in life, but that I’d never again have the experience of reading it for the first time. And I knew that, although I’d carry the book around in my heart forever, I couldn’t live inside the book. I’d have to go to school, grow up, work, etc. — those perfect moments of traveling with Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, et al. were not where the bulk of my life would lie.

That’s the reality: beauty — true and perfect beauty — makes us miserable. We encounter it, but it’s like the food in those all-you-can eat buffet restaurants: we can’t take it with us. And we have to leave; we always have to leave.

Second example: The Thorn Birds. Colleen McCullough published the book in 1977. In 1983 it was made into the TV miniseries, which made history for being second only to Roots in popularity. I first experienced it as the miniseries, which captivated me so much that I read the book. I was in high school. The story sent me into the wildest delight and worst agony I’d ever known. I was head-over-heels in love with Meggie Cleary. Not Rachel Ward who played her, but the character, Meggie. I wanted to live on Drogheda in the Australian Outback. I wanted to raise sheep. The story, along with the Mel Gibson / Sissy Spacek film The River, affected the way I thought — I saw rural, agricultural life as sacred, pure, and to be desired above all else. These stories affected the way I dressed. I had some hand-me-down clothes from my uncle, who was a farmer. I insisted on wearing these gray and khaki-colored, oversized shirts, pants, and floppy fedora hats even when I went away to college in the Chicago area. Stories — fiction — had given me an ideal. Or perhaps they had helped me to realize my innate ideals; I was a country boy, so country life was my birthright.

I bring this up now because recently I’ve been revisiting the film version of The Thorn Birds on DVD, and it’s amazing how it’s all come back to me in its grandeur, wonder, and searing pain. I’m in high school again. It’s astonishing how these scenes are etched into my mind and heart — it’s like I’ve never been away, and yet all these years have gone by in the interim. I’m still in love with Meggie Cleary. I still want to put on a fedora and go herd sheep. My friend S.F. will remember me saying back in college that I wanted the theme music of The Thorn Birds to be played at my wedding and my funeral. I still want that.

Oh, the power of these stories! And they do, as I said earlier, have their own life. I read an interview with Colleen McCullough, and she said she didn’t like the film version of The Thorn Birds at all — she said she didn’t like anything about it. Rachel Ward has said that she didn’t enjoy filming it at all, even though she met her husband during the making of it. So the woman who created the story and the woman who gave Meggie a face both disliked this film version that enchanted me. The story cut through — it has its life. It is what it is, and it’s bigger than the sum of everyone who brought it to us, including the author herself.

Incidentally, Rachel Ward is about 50 now. She’s an attractive 50-year-old, but that face that was Meggie in 1983 exists now only in pixels and perhaps on celluloid somewhere. But it does still exist there, and it’s as powerful today as it was then. I challenge any man to look at that face, to hear that soft voice with its accent, and not be thoroughly miserable.

And the book goes on — and all the great books go on, changing the world in each new generation, making a difference in the life of every unsuspecting reader who stumbles upon them. “What’s this about?” I asked my dad, picking up a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. “Oh, it’s a long, involved story about a ring,” he said. “Everyone wants the ring.” “Hmm,” I said — and the rest is history.

So get out there, writer, and fulfill your sacred task. Save lives, but know that you will also break hearts. But . . . I guess we readers want that, don’t we? It’s like that legend that gives The Thorn Birds its title: the bird that, all its life, seeks a long, sharp thorn; and finding it, the bird impales itself on the thorn and dies. But dying, it sings a song of unimaginable beauty . . . “and all the world stills to listen. And God in His Heaven smiles.”


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