Archive for May, 2009

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)?

Trees

May 23, 2009

I’ve been thinking about trees. That’s probably because they figure largely into the story I’m working on now. The more I reflect, the more I become convinced that trees may well be our single most significant (natural) connection to the numinous. I say “natural,” because our other connection is books–or, more accurately, stories–which is a link we humans have made. But trees are there all around us, shading us and whispering to us, breathing out oxygen to make our air sweeter, and beautifying our landscape . . . and perhaps their gifts to us only begin there. Walk with me, if you will, as I expound my theory.

I’m going to quote from Hope Mirrlees in Lud-in-the-Mist. She’s talking about a “pleached alley” here, which is a path between two rows of trees, with the trees all intertwined and roofing the road over, so that you have a shady tunnel. Here’s the quote:

“There was also a pleached alley of hornbeams.

“To the imaginative, it is always something of an adventure to walk down a pleached alley. You enter boldly enough, but soon you find yourself wishing you had stayed outside — it is not air that you are breathing, but silence, the almost palpable silence of trees. And is the only exit that small round hole in the distance? Why, you will never be able to squeeze through that! You must turn back . . . too late! The spacious portal by which you entered has in its turn shrunk to a small round hole.”

To pass into the trees is to enter the realm of magic, mystery, and things beyond us. Is it any wonder that trees are so prominently placed in the cosmologies of so many peoples throughout history? Norse mythology tells of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, which supports and is itself the pathway among all the realms of gods, giants, monsters, and men. The Ragnarok, the end of the Universe, happens when Yggdrasil is eaten through by its enemies and comes crashing down.

Judaism and Christianity look back to Eden: the one time when the world was perfect was when the first man and woman lived in a Garden, and at the Garden’s very center were two trees. Trees sustained the lives of Adam and Eve by providing fruit for their food.

For a cultural anthropology class in college, we read a book about the Grand Valley Dani of New Guinea. A belief of the Dani people that I’ve never forgotten is that the human race was made from trees that were brought to life — trees given animation, eyes, and hands.

It’s often said by Christian scholars that all peoples throughout history have arrived at parts of the Truth; if you live in this world and look around and think, it’s nearly impossible to avoid figuring out some of it, even without divine revelation. And one thing that almost everyone “gets” is that trees are extremely sacred.

Then I began to think about trees and fantasy fiction . . . particularly, how trees relate to the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. There’s so much to be explored there that I wondered this evening if any scholarly research has been done on the subject. Seriously — someone should write a thesis or dissertation on Tolkien’s Trees. [Nicholas? Has it been done?]

In one real sense, I believe it was trees that drew me first to read Tolkien’s books. I remember illustrations in fairy tale books from when I was very young — enchanting pictures of the deep, dark forests in which various protagonists were either lost or out cutting wood. And when I saw the Ballantine editions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — those marvelous paperbacks whose covers bore illustrations by Tolkien himself — I knew I had to read them. It was the very same stuff from those childhood pictures that had captured my imagination. The Hobbit‘s cover was Bilbo riding his barrel down the River Running, gliding beneath those gorgeous, fantastic trees. The Two Towers had that picture which is probably my favorite of all Tolkien’s artwork, because it’s all trees, nothing but trees! Yes, it has two tiny figures down in the corner . . . figures who are, depending on which of Tolkien’s notes you believe, either Merry and Pippin in Fangorn Forest or Beleg and Gwindor in Taur-na-Fuin. (Tolkien adamantly resisted drawing clear or up-close pictures of his characters, because he wanted to leave them to the reader’s imagination: but he had no compunction about drawing his trees in every loving detail!)

So, then: Tolkien’s books, I say, are a journey from tree to tree to tree! That’s what drew me in, because I already knew as a child that trees were the real things: trees were the door-posts of Faerie. My favorite part in The Hobbit is the journey through Mirkwood. There are times even now when I think about Mirkwood and can still get that shivery, watery sense of delight in my lower chest that we feel all the time as kids but so rarely do in later years. You know the feeling I mean, right? Mirkwood and Fangorn and the Old Forest can still do that for me.

The Lord of the Rings — what is more beautiful and tree-filled than the descriptions of Lothlorien? But let’s go deeper still: the story begins and ends with a tree. Right? Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party takes place beneath the Party Tree, the symbol of all that is good and wholesome and stolid and warm and homey and peaceful and comfortable about the Shire. And at the end of the book, the terrible cutting down of that Party Tree is the last straw: that’s the signal that the world is irrevocably changed, that the wounds sustained in this vale of tears will not be healed on this side. It’s the sight of that tree cut down that brings Sam to tears.

The Silmarillion, with its Two Trees of Valinor: like Eden, that was the one time when the world was perfect and right, when those Two Trees gave their mingled light. It’s their light, mind you — the light of trees — that’s in the silmarils.

Back to LOTR: Gondor has its White Tree. When it withers, the realm is in deepest trouble.

What shows us that Mordor is the land of evil? What’s the one thing that Mordor has none of? Yup. No trees.

What does Saruman do when he goes bad? He takes down the trees. Then the trees take him down, when Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane, or . . . something like that.

And that brings us to the Ents. The Ents are “Earth-born, old as mountains,” second in antiquity only to the Elves. Treebeard refers to “young Master Gandalf” and “young Saruman down at Isengard.” [I love how Celeborn addresses Fangorn as “Eldest.” Man, that gives me goosebumps!] Ents are the shepherds of trees — tree-herders. Think of the implications of that. The function of these ancient sentient creatures in Tolkien’s world is to look out for the trees. It’s as if Tolkien meant the Ents to be representatives of the Earth itself.

My favorite Dr. Seuss book is The Lorax (and not just because of the Onceler). It’s for all sorts of reasons that tug at the dreamer’s heart: the fact that there’s a crumbling platform out at the end of town, overgrown by grass, which is all that remains to show where the Lorax stood, and from where he was “taken away” (by lifting himself into the sky by the seat of his pants) . . . but most of all, the fact that the Lorax “speak[s] for the trees.”

So, then, here are some of my tree memories:

I grew up on Old Oak Road, right, named for its abundance of ancient oak trees? I think I’ve told this story on this blog before, but near as we can figure from a perusal of very old maps, Abraham Lincoln himself may well have passed within sight of where my house now stands, as he rode along on his 8th Judicial Circuit route from Allenton (now vanished) to the up-and-coming little hamlet of Taylorville. And if he did, then it’s likely he looked right at the two trees that shaded my front yard when I was a kid. They would have been younger in Lincoln’s day, but they would have been there: oaks live a long time and grow slowly. Perhaps the lanky young lawyer even rested beneath one and drank from his bottle of Gatorade.

What impressed me about those oaks as a kid was how they harbored a whole other world up in their crowns, 20, 30, 40 feet above the ground — a world of limbs and leaves that I could glimpse from afar, but could never reach. (Isn’t it that precise longing for the misty realm on the horizon that has always fueled our romances? Avalon . . . Lyonesse . . . Mu . . . Lemuria . . . Shangri-La . . . Atlantis. . . .) The world was always there, always visible at the top of my tire swing’s chain. I climbed up that chain more than once — all the way up, scraping my bare feet, painting them orange with rust — I climbed up and clung for a moment to the earth-most giant limb of that world of squirrels and birds. But even I had the sense to go no farther, for it would likely have been the death of me.

There was a hole at the base of that oak tree, one of those little caves that often form in old trees. I imagined wee folk who lived inside the trunk in many-storied mansions. I used to go out with a lantern and look for them on Midsummer’s Eve. (You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.)

There was a willow tree in our north yard that my nextdoor neighbor and I used to climb. It had a friendly array of branches that were like a basket for holding little kids who wanted to play above the yard. That tree was like a Phoenix: its trunk snapped completely off at ground level during an ice storm, and my parents thought that was the end of it. But the whole tree grew again from the stump.

I had a reading grove in the northwest corner of the front yard. I’d sit in a lawn chair and put my feet in the fork of a young oak tree that is not so young now. I remember writing a lot of The Threshold of Twilight there and reading a lot of Stephen R. Donaldson. My good dog Hooper is also buried in that grove.

I remember gazing always at that great wall of oaks to the south of our property (see the aerial photo in the previous posting). It was a mighty, rolling green cliff, full of twilight caverns signifying mystery. That, to me as a boy, was the rampart of Mirkwood.

To the south of our place along the road there was a gigantic oak that I always called the Silhouette Tree. Apparently “silhouette” was a word I learned early on and especially loved, and I’d point to that tree at sunset and use the word. (That tree has just been cut down in the past year–I noticed it gone the last time I was there.)

In the middle of the field between my neighbor’s house and mine was another old, gigantic tree. We used to play there, building secret little clubhouses around its base. It was especially nice when the field was in corn, and we had to pass through the whispering stalks to get there, its towering height guiding us as a landmark as we navigated toward it, and the field shutting out all the world. My dad always cautioned us to be careful, that a lone tree in a field could indicate the site of a long-vanished homestead, and thus that there might be an abandoned well somewhere in its shadow, perhaps covered by a now-rotted layer of boards. (My dad was among the greatest worriers in human history.) That always added to the charm for us, that at any moment the ground might collapse beneath our feet. We used to prod and search and hope for that long-lost well, but with no success.

Mom had a grape arbor, and the vines quested out and climbed a maple tree at the back corner of the tin shed. In the arbor’s heyday, the tree itself was full of grapes. It was a grape tree. My nextdoor neighbor and I used to sit up there, high above the world, and eat them.

And here’s a story for you: at my grandma’s house in town, there was a birch tree. During a storm, the trunk shattered, and the tree was left leaning over the street and sidewalk. The trunk was completely severed, so it had to be cut down. Grandma enlisted me and all the neighborhood kids to do the job. That will forever remain as a “photograph of the heart”: there we all were, a scruffy, barefoot kid on just about every limb, each equipped with a saw, a hatchet, or a pair of clippers. Many of us were vigorously sawing through the limbs between ourselves and the bole. Every so often a kid would plummet earthward with a shriek. And down on the ground, there was the biggest boy in the neighorhood, methodically sawing through the trunk with the biggest saw. We all lived, and none of us were hurt.

So, dear readers — tell us your tree stories! Did you have a treehouse? Did you climb trees, maybe with a book in your pocket? Did you have a secret clubhouse sheltered by tree branches? If so, take us all there, so that those worlds may live again!

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!

Books

May 9, 2009

So, how is it that we’ve come along for more than a year without a posting dedicated entirely to books — especially since books are so central to the writing and reading life? Probably because it’s such a big topic. Well, now is the time to open that mighty can o’ worms, because it’s reading season!

"So many books, so little time."

"So many books, so little time."

In Japan, people say fall is the season for reading books. I’d guess most of us gathered here around this blog feel that books are always in season. For me, there’s no season like spring/early summer for making me want to immerse myself in a book. The love is there year-’round, but there’s something about the first arrival of warmer seasons — a time of so much promise and possibility — that makes it all the more urgent. Again, it’s all about doorways into summer — into the time of velvet nights and blazing sun, lost paths and silhouettes and icy blue shade.

I’ve always been extremely unusual as a reader/writer, because I’m such a walking contradiction. I absolutely love books — no one would deny that; but I’m also a glacially slow reader. Everyone else I know who loves books as much as I do tends to chain-read them: to devour book after book after book. I’m notorious for inching along. (A friend recently asked me with a cheerful smile, “So, what book are you going to read this year?”)

These two huge plastic drawers are also full of books waiting to be read. But the real book-trove, because of the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," is now back in Illinois: I have an entire room there stuffed with books. Oh, to have them all beneath one roof someday!

These two huge plastic drawers are also full of books waiting to be read. But the real book-trove, because of the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," is now back in Illinois: I have an entire room there stuffed with books. Oh, to have them all beneath one roof someday!

I think it has to do with how much I love books as objects. I love the idea of books. I feel better just knowing that books are around. I love the heft and feel of them, the covers and the pages, the paper quality, the way the words look on the page, those amazing things like tables of contents and forewords and dedications and title pages. . . .

When my cousin and I were little, we’d often read books together (different books, same room). It was like John Henry racing the steam drill. I’d be relishing a certain page, and he’d be zooming along, the bulk of the book steadily vanishing from his right hand and accumulating in his left. I’d enviously ask him how he did that. As he explained it, he’d sort of take in whole paragraphs at once instead of individual words. And he thought it was funny how I’d periodically declare “Cover-Staring Time” (that’s what I called it), when I’d close my book and admire the cover for awhile. [I guess that might have answered my own question: to get through the book, you have to be looking at what’s inside. . . .]

But it’s always felt so wrong to me to race through a book! There are all those beautiful words, with their sounds and nuances, and they’ve been arranged precisely as they are for a purpose. It’s always seemed crucially important to me to appreciate that purpose, to absorb everything from the text that the writer intended, and perhaps more.

My essential reference shelf: dictionaries (Oxford and Webster's), The Chicago Manual of Style, and Zimmerman's Dictionary of Classical Mythology.

My essential reference shelf: dictionaries (Oxford and Webster's), The Chicago Manual of Style, and Zimmerman's Dictionary of Classical Mythology.

Yes, two or three times over the years I’ve tried to teach myself speed-reading. I’ve read books on the subject (not just stared at their covers!), practiced the techniques and all. But when I’ve tried to apply that to a real book, I’ve inevitably slowed back down.

I’m not criticizing you, all you who read like the wind, like Hermes on roller skates. I know the beauty of what you do is that you can come back again and again to revisit the books you love. You can pass this way more than once! I do envy you . . . I want to be just like you when I grow up. I’m serious. That same friend who asked me about what book I’m going to read this year also advised me of one key to getting things read: “You have to make it a priority.” That’s true. I don’t have any fewer hours in the day than anyone else. I just don’t use enough of mine for reading. Maybe this will be the year that I can make a change!

On the other extreme, though, to give this discussion some balance: one of my high-school friends used to race through books, all the big fantasy series that abounded in that decade. We’d ask him what he thought of this one or that one, and he’d say, “Oh, I don’t know. I read it, but I didn’t pay attention to it.” So . . . maybe it’s better to just read one book a year, if you’re paying close attention to it. What do you think? You be the judge.

A famous writer whose identity escapes me now, in advising other writers, said, “Don’t read a hundred books. Instead, read your ten favorite books ten times each, really paying attention.” I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. “The mill-wheels of God’s justice turn slowly, but they grind exceeding fine.” I suppose I do that with books: I grind them exceeding fine.

Grrroinnk!

Knickknacks.

Knickknacks.

Room-Staring Time! This picture shows some knickknacks on my shelf. There’s Gandalf, of course, who needs no introduction. The cross was made from wood from the maple trees at the northeast corner of our yard in Illinois, under which I sat to write the poem “Glory Day,” which I still think is my best poem. The cross is standing in a spool from my mom’s sewing basket, and the base it stands on is a piece of plank from the barn I played in as a kid. There’s a thoughtful little gargoyle, a bean-bag cat, a terra-cotta warrior and his terra-cotta horse (bought at an exhibit I saw of the real things here in Niigata). There’s a box with a dragon on the lid. And see the little goat-man? That came as a premium, attached to a plastic jug of Diet Pepsi or Coke. It’s the “Goat Man,” part of a series of plastic replicas of paranormal beings. But for me, that figure became the character Gadmus in my NaNoWriMo novel Corin Booknose. Okay–ungroink–back to our regularly-scheduled discussion:

100_0352A week or two ago, a faithful reader requested reading lists. It’s a bottomless well, an insurmountable task, but let’s go there. We have to understand from the outset that there’s no way we’ll get everything essential onto the lists. But I think we can make helpful lists of some of the very best books out there. I think I’ve talked enough for this time around: I’m going to save my own picks for next time. But feel free to start jumping in: give us a list of any reasonable length — 3, 5, a dozen, 20 books — the books that belong on the small shelf; the best books you’ve discovered in your lifetime, be it short or long. Yes, this blog lies in the native country of fantasy, but you’re not required to limit yourself to that genre. You don’t have to worry about ranking them in order (unless you want to), and I think we all agree that The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down are there already.

Have at it! What book covers should I be staring at?