Posts Tagged ‘Steven Millhauser’

The Piper in the Woods

May 12, 2010

“This is the night of revelation. This is the night the dolls wake. This is the night of the dreamer in the attic. This is the night of the piper in the woods.” — Steven Millhauser in Enchanted Night

Spring comes on little goat feet. . . .

If I were a scholar fixin’ to write a research paper, I would like to explore the use of Fauns, Satyrs, and the god Pan in English literature. This is a topic that has long intrigued me. These enigmatic figures dance through the shade and the starry darkness of our consciousness, but what is our fascination with them? Bear with me — no, goat with me — if you will, gentle readers, and let’s embark — embark — on a little walk among the trees. (I’ve just paid about ten bucks to the pun fund — at this rate I’ll be broke by the end of the next paragraph.) I’d like to do a little defining, a little comparing of examples, and finally a little theorizing about our wild friends, the horned pipers in the glens.

Detail from Self-Portrait by Frederic S. Durbin, March 2010.

First, let’s look to J.E. Zimmerman’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology. (This is the dictionary we used in Professor Froehlich’s Greek & Roman mythology class at Concordia, and it’s one of the few books that, as a writer and reader, I would never want to be without.)

Zimmerman tells us that Pan (Greek) is the same as Faunus (Roman).

Pan is the son of Hermes and Dryope. He’s the “Greek god of flocks and shepherds, forests and wild life, and fertility; patron of shepherds and hunters. Part man, part goat, with ears, horns, tail, and hind legs of a goat — playful, lascivious, unpredictable, always lecherous. He invented the flute with seven reeds which he called syrinx after the nymph Syrinx who had been transformed into the reed he cut for his first Pan-pipe. Shepherds loved his reed pipe, and Pan’s musical contest with Apollo is famous. He loved and pursued many nymphs. . . .” Zimmerman goes on to cite ancient sources of Pan references, which include the Aeneid, Herodotus, and Pausanias. “In English literature,” Zimmerman interestingly says, “poems about Pan are more numerous than distinguished; references to him are made by Spenser; Milton; Marvell; Cowley; Wordsworth; Shelley; Keats; Swinburne; Forster.”

So if I were that scholarly type fixin’ to do the research paper, I’d have my work cut out for me, chasing down all those references! Fortunately, I’m just a blog-tender, so I can deal in rumors, unsubstantiated “facts,” opinions, and whims. I can just tell you what I think. And that’s the beauty of a blog, right? We read and write them in order to talk about cool stuff — which, of course, sometimes has great applicability to our lives and our projects and our service, whatever it may be.

When we look up “Faunus” in Zimmerman, we’re told that he’s “Also Pan. God of agriculture, crops, prophecy, fertility, and country life.” The sole reference there is Aeneid vii. With that wording, Faunus sounds a little more staid and sober than Pan — sort of a Pan in midlife, a Pan who has settled down and become somewhat responsible. That may be because Faunus is a family man — er, god. He has a wife (or by some accounts a daughter) called Fauna, also known as Bona Dea or Bona Mater. She’s the goddess of fertility, nature, farming, and animals. “She never saw a man after her marriage with Faunus. Her uncommon chastity brought her rank among the gods after her death. Her followers are called Fauni.”

Note that point: the Fauni (Fauns) are followers of this nice, chaste goddess, not directly of Faunus himself. That may well be why Fauns seem to have a better reputation than Satyrs. C.S. Lewis’s Mr. Tumnus is a Faun. And in my own book The Sacred Woods, my Faun character is indignant when he’s mistaken for a Satyr. [“‘I’d like you better if you’d stop calling me a Satyr,’ said Mr. Girandole. ‘I’ve told you I’m a Faun. Satyrs are a vulgar folk. You won’t see me drinking wine by the skinful.’ / ‘And woman?’ R____ grinned waggishly. ‘You run catch woman?’ / ‘Mind your own business,’ said Mr. Girandole.”]

Well, what about Satyrs, then? Zimmerman reports: the Satyrs (or Satyri) are “sylvan deities that represented the luxuriant forces of nature; attendants of Dionysus.” (Dionysus! Say no more, squire! Eh? Eh?! Dionysus is the god of wine and revelry. [He’s that very same Bacchus, the youngest of the twelve great Olympians.] So the Satyrs were the ones having the keg parties.) “They were known for their orgies and lasciviousness. They looked like men, but had the legs and feet of goats, with short horns on their heads, and their entire bodies covered with hair. Some Satyrs were gods of the woods, and followers of Pan.”

Very interesting, huh? This would require more research, of course — and I may be reading more into the distinction than Zimmerman or any of the mythmakers intended — but based on these dictionary entries alone, it looks like the Fauns were followers of Fauna (the virtuous goddess), and the Satyrs were associated with Dionysus and Pan. Satyrs may also have been hairier than Fauns — hair over their entire bodies, Zimmerman says. So if that painting of mine is right at all, it must be a picture of a Faun, not a Satyr. (Pan also had the ears of a goat, which is overlooked by many artists.)

So much for the definitions: now we know whom we’re talking about; we know what the theme is as we consider the variations.

As soon as we get out of the classical myths and into English literature and into cinema, the lines start to blur, and I think it’s impossible to preserve the distinctions among Satyrs, Fauns, Pan, and Faunus. In Pan’s Labyrinth, for example: the movie’s title says one thing, but I’m pretty sure the Faun says he’s “a Faun.” (But when asked his name, he laughingly declares that he has many, most of them pronounceable only by the trees. That’s one of my favorite lines of the film.)

You all know I’m not one who can claim to have read widely; but I’d like to examine the treatment of Faun-esque characters in seven works: Steven Millhauser’s Enchanted Night (Crown Publishers, 1999); the movie Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, directed by Guillermo del Toro); two works of Arthur Machen (details to follow); C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia (my Collier/Macmillan edition of the first one of those is copyrighted in 1950; Lewis scholars, feel free to clarify); my own novel The Sacred Woods (me, spring/summer 2009); and Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows. My theory is that these stories assign to the Pan-like figures one or more of the following roles:

1. beguiler/enchanter

2. messenger/instructor in things magical

3. corruptor/the diabolic

4. helper

5. the Divine

Millhauser’s Pan-type figure in Enchanted Night is of the first type: he pipes in the dark woods on a summer night, and the town’s children are roused out of their dreams. The music lures them into the forest, where they ultimately encounter the man with goat-legs, dancing and dancing, playing his flute. It’s a dangerous scenario, but Millhauser’s piper doesn’t harm the children. He simply enchants them with his music, and they come to listen: “He turns and turns, bending almost to the grass, rising high, a moon-dancer, a flute-dreamer, as the children gather in the clearing to listen to the dark, sweet music of the piper in the woods. They must have this music. It’s the sound of elves under the earth, of cities at the bottom of the sea. In the clearing the children listen, their lips slightly parted, their eyes veiled and heavy-lidded.” When the night is over, “At the first glimmer of gray in the sky, the piper in the woods looks up, bends and spins once more, and breaks off abruptly. In the shocking silence he beckons toward the sky, then turns and vanishes into the woods. The children, waking from their long dream, look around tiredly and head for home.” Millhauser’s piper is mostly the magical allure of a summer night made manifest; Summer Night Itself given a body and a sound. It’s the season that invites: the particular season of life, and the warm, kind season of the year; the moon, the darkness, the fire in the blood, and the imagination it all works to unlock. And what better personification of such a night than a dancing Faun? (As I’ve said before, it was the cover that drew me straight to this book, and the cover with the jacket copy that compelled me to buy it. If anyone out there still hasn’t read it, its season is nearly here again: get it and read it some hot night this summer!)

I would say the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth fits role #2, that of messenger and mentor in things magical. I wouldn’t quite go so far as to put him in the “helper” (#4) category, because at times he’s downright scary, and I’m not altogether sure he cares about Ofelia or necessarily wants her to succeed — he’s just there to deliver the messages. (Does anyone want to disagree? I realize it’s quite open to interpretation — but he certainly seems heartless and creeps me out in some of his scenes.) He’s there to tell Ofelia what she must and must not do in order to get back to her kingdom beneath the ground. (Maybe deep down he cares, because he does get angry at her when she messes up and almost blows it.) He’s the face and the voice of the magical kingdom deep within the Earth, a kingdom inaccessible to humankind.

For the darkest uses of Pan-like figures I know of, we turn to the Welsh author Arthur Machen (1863-1947). Machen first published a story called “The Great God Pan” in 1890, which he revised and extended into a novella in 1894. It’s readily available today, and for anyone who considers him/herself a serious fan of fantasy or horror fiction, it’s an essential book.

Machen’s Pan may fulfill roles #1 and 2, but for sure he is #3, the corruptor, a totally harmful influence encountered in idyllic woodland settings. I would go so far as to say we can pretty much equate Machen’s Pan with the devil. One character in the novella, delving into the secrets of the Pan-encounters, writes on his manuscript this Latin inscription:

ET DIABOLUS INCARNATE EST. ET HOMO FACTUS EST.

Machen assumes his readers will be able to figure that one out; he doesn’t provide a translation, but I’m pretty sure it means “And the devil is incarnate. And he is made a man.” (Help me out, anyone who really knows Latin! Is that facere, “to do; to make,” or should we be thinking “true; fact”? Either way, we get Machen’s point.)

Encountering the devil in the woods: what early American writer does that make you think of? Hawthorne, right? Beyond the village lies the dark, fathomless woods, which is the abode of witches and the devil.

Pan in The Great God Pan is made all the more horrible by how subtly Machen handles things. We never see Pan in immediate narrative; in fact, a theme of the book is how the human mind cannot handle seeing “the great god Pan” directly. (And in that aspect, one can certainly trace the enormous influence Machen had on H.P. Lovecraft! Doesn’t that sound like vintage Lovecraft? The evil is so horrible that, if you see it, your mind is shattered, and you become a raving lunatic.) In Machen’s book, we glimpse Pan only through suggestions and secondhand accounts — and in a grotesque, ancient carving excavated from the wall of a house that sends a boy (who has earlier encountered a strange man in the woods) into paroxysms of fear. [“The head is pronounced by the most experienced archaeologists of the district to be that of a faun or satyr. [Dr. Phillips tells me that he has seen the head in question, and assures me that he has never received such a vivid presentment of intense evil.]”] Crossing paths with Machen’s Pan leads to madness, obsession, and death. Nor does Machen hesitate to plunge into the sexual associations of Pan-lore. I don’t want to give away the plot to any interested in reading it, so I guess I’ll stop there with my references to this book.

But I have to point you to one more Arthur Machen story, “The White People,” also regarded as one of his greatest works. This tale, rife with all sorts of imagery that was scandalous at the time, alludes to some sort of horrible stone carving, deep in the forest, a secret of secrets that the main character feels she dare not talk about. It’s worshiped by witches and has an extremely malevolent influence. Typical of Machen, we never find out exactly what the carving depicts, except that it’s likely “of Roman origin.” I’ll bet I’m not alone in my certainty that the image is a figure with the face of a man and the horns, ears, and lower body of a goat. It may indeed have been the same figure Machen had in mind when he described the monument stone at the end of The Great God Pan — which bears the words:

DEVOMNODENTI / FLAVIVSSENILISPOSSVIT / PROPTERNVPTIAS / QUASVIDITSVBVMRA

(I’m actually wondering if that’s a misprint in the book; I’d like to add a “B” three letters from the end and make it “SVBVMBRA” — “sub umbra.” Anyone? Help?)

Anyway, he does provide the translation this time: “To the great god Nodens (the god of the Great Deep or Abyss) Flavius Senilis has erected this pillar on account of the marriage which he saw beneath the shade.”

Now let’s move on to role #4 and fill our lungs with fresh air. Narnia! Faithfulness and friendship! The Faun Tumnus is a definite type 4, the helper. So is Mr. Girandole in The Sacred Woods. Like Tolkien’s Elves, like Mr. Spock the Vulcan, like some instances of the new face of the vampire in popular culture, benevolent Mr. Girandole represents a solid ally who is a little better than we are in nearly every way — stronger, wiser, older, more capable — and yet vulnerable and all too human in some surprising ways. Unlike type #1, which tantalizes us with unfulfilled — or only momentarily fulfilled — longing; and unlike type #2, which is only an interface with Nature for us, the kindest Fauns usher us not to destruction like the #3’s, but to a better state.

Heh, heh! I realize I left Mr. Tumnus out in the cold and am not really talking about him at all — maybe some of you Narnia fans can help me out with him.

But that leads us to #5: Kenneth Grahame’s Faun-like figure in his mysterious and perplexing chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” It’s been noted by scholars that this chapter seems somehow incongruous with the rest of The Wind in the Willows — what’s it doing here? And yet what I hear again and again from people who have read the book is, “That’s my favorite chapter.” Here, an unquestionably Faun-like presence is called “the Friend and Helper.” Without doubt, the presence is referred to in terms of holy awe: “Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror — indeed, he felt wonderfully at peace and happy . . . some august Presence was very, very near.” The characters see the baby otter sleeping in peace and contentment between the hooves of the Piper, and then: “‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet — and yet — O, Mole, I am afraid!'” (Like Aslan this Piper is: not safe, but Good.)

Ooh! Ooh! Something just now occurred to me! Look at the Kenneth Grahame quote! I would bet money that it’s no accident Grahame wrote “It was no panic terror.” Are you aware of the fact that our English word “panic” comes from — yes, you guessed it — the name of Pan? My Webster’s dictionary says of “panic” that it’s from the Greek panikos, literally “of Pan”: “of, relating to, or resembling the mental or emotional state believed induced by the god Pan.” What Arthur Machen creates in The Great God Pan could hardly be any more authentic or true to the ancient Greek concept!

So what is the appeal? Why do these figures haunt and inform our literature? Well, here are my theories: at their worst, they give an embodiment to terrible forces beyond our control — the Unknown, the Evil, the destroying impersonal onslaught of Nature. And they provide a not-quite-human face for the worst elements in us ourselves. Lust and debauchery . . . in this way, I think there may be some connection between Satyr myths and werewolf legends. Jekyll and Hyde. “We have met the enemy and they is us.” They give a face to the Forest, to its mystery and allure — and in this way, they may be related to the figure of the Green Man. At their most benevolent, they represent that holy awe we feel when experiencing Creation as God made it: the green spaces where we can practically hear Him breathing . . . where we are afraid, and yet not afraid . . . not of the Piper at the gates of dawn.

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Bright Regent of the Heavens

June 27, 2009

In case you missed it, our friend SwordLily shared with us this enchanting, original poem of hers in a comment on the last posting:

Midsummer Night

Under a silver moon

Heat sings the ground alive

Fey dance in rainbow shadows

Winter is only a fond memory of gray

 

Very nice, huh? We’ve just passed the solstice — did you all enjoy Midsummer’s Eve? I hope no one got your head turned into a donkey’s head — or if you did, I hope it got turned back. I spent the holiday writing away on The Sacred Woods, my new book. Today it broke the 40,000-word line, so it’s now officially a novel! 2,342 words today, 1,016 yesterday! How near am I to being done? I keep saying I’m about 2/3 done, but I realize I’ve been saying that for a couple weeks now.

But anyway, we’re in the last days of June, moving from early summer into High Summer. Deep Summer. The moon is waxing now, waxing toward the next full. Since the moon is such a big part of summer, I figured it deserved a posting all its own.

When I was a kid, my mom introduced me to the fun of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas — I balked at the idea until I realized how much they had in common with Monty Python. Here’s a quote (though not a silly one — sorry to have raised your expectations with that mention of Monty Python) from their operetta HMS Pinafore:

Fair moon, to thee I sing,

Bright regent of the heavens,

Say, why is everything

Either at sixes or at sevens?

And I don’t have a copy of Watership Down here, but I remember from it the line: O Slug-a-Moon, O Slug-a-Moon, / Grant thy faithful hedgehog’s boon! 

The moon rides the welkin. I suppose we’re more aware of it in the warm months because we have the leisure to notice the sky; we’re not huddled indoors. The moon has elicited the attention of man’s best friend — the dog — from time immemorial. That silver orb in the air is ever worthy of howls. And it has captured the attention of poets and writers, painters and lovers. We love the moon. It gives us a focal point in the deep blue. It casts a frosty, chromy light over a landscape that would otherwise be dark. The stars comfort us with their (relative) permanence, their fixed quality, their infinite number. But the moon is a more personable companion in a way: it’s so much closer, and it moves and changes all the time, like us. 

I remember my delight when I discovered that I could see my own shadow in moonlight, just as I could see it under the sun. It was unquestionably the moonlight: I was nowhere near any source of artificial light, alone among the fields, on the tar-and-gravel road near my Illinois house.

Here’s from Steven Millhauser’s Enchanted Night:

“She looks at the moon, up there in the sky. It’s almost perfectly round except for one side that looks a little flat and smudged, as if someone has rubbed it with a thumb, and she has a sudden desire to be there, in that blaze of whiteness, looking down unseen at the little town below, the toy houses with their removable chimneys, the little maples and streetlights, the tiny people with their tiny sorrows.”

Ah, Millhauser’s extraordinary book is filled with so many moon quotes I could be here all night:

“The moon, climbing so slowly that no one notices, shines down on Main Street. It casts a deep shadow on one side of the street and an eerie brightness on the other, where the sidewalk is bone-white and the little glass windows of the parking meters glisten as if they are wet.”

This is the time of year when I implore people to read Enchanted Night, by Steven Millhauser. It is a fantastic summer experience: a very short novel-in-discrete scenes, the adventures of a group of diverse people linked by their residence in the same New England town on the same summer night. The book takes place entirely within one night, under the almost-full moon. “This is the night of revelation,” says the Chorus of Night Voices: “This is the night the dolls wake. This is the night of the dreamer in the attic. This is the night of the piper in the woods.”

“From the woods in the north part of town there rises a sound of flute music, dark and sweet. It rises in slow ripples, falls, in slow ripples it rises, again falls, a tireless slow rising and falling, insistent, a dark call, a languorous fall. Perhaps it is only birdsong, there in the dark trees.”

And if you’ve read that book, and if you want more Millhauser, read The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories. From it, see especially the story “Clair de Lune” (though the whole book is amazing):

“The moon was so bright I could not look at it, as if it were a night sun. The fierce whiteness seemed hot, but for some reason I thought of the glittering thick frost on the inside of the ice-cream freezer in a barely remembered store: the popsicles and ice-cream cups crusted in ice-crystals, the cold air like steam.”

This is one of my favorite short stories ever. The main character, a 15-year-old boy, goes out walking late on a summer night when he can’t sleep. His steps take him, accidentally-on-purpose, past the house of a girl he likes.

“Oh, I knew where I was going, didn’t want to know where I was going, in the warm blue air with little flutters of coolness in it, little bursts of grass-smell and leaf-smell, of lilac and fresh tar.” . . . “I could not understand why no one was out on a night like this. Was I the only one who’d been drawn out of hiding and heaviness by the summer moon?”

When he gets to the girl’s house, he discovers her and three other girls playing ball in the backyard:

“They were playing Wiffle ball in the brilliant moonlight, as though it were a summer’s day. Sonja was batting. I knew the three other girls, all of them in my classes: Marcia, pitching; Jeanie, taking a lead off first; Bernice, in the outfield, a few steps away from me. In the moonlight they were wearing clothes I’d never seen before, dungarees and shorts and sweatshirts and boys’ shirts, as if they were dressed up in a play about boys.” . . . “The girl-boys excited and disturbed me, as if I’d stumbled into some secret rite.”

He is invited to play Wiffle ball with them, which he does, and they all have a great time, an enchanted time that is totally apart from their mundane lives and the societal roles they play out at school. He talks with one of the girls in the kitchen. And finally, he makes his way homeward:

“. . . All this was as unique and unrepeatable as the history of an ancient kingdom. For I had wanted to take a little walk before going to bed, but I had stepped from my room into the first summer night, the only summer night.”

[Don’t you love that?! “The only summer night”! That brings to my ear echoes of Doc “Moonlight” Graham’s line in Field of Dreams about the one single half-inning that he played professional baseball, how he didn’t know then that that was the only time he’d play. And so it is with so many moments in our lives — those moments that Shieldmaiden calls “flow moments” and I call chairos, a Greek word for “the eternal now.” The same one won’t happen the same way twice, so we’d better be watching and always in full absorption mode. Or again, it’s like the line Marquee Movies cited from Casualties of War: what we do in this moment matters, because it may be the only one. As Bilbo wrote: “In every wood, in every spring, there is a different green.” Or Robert Frost, choosing between his two famous roads in the yellow wood: “Oh, I left the first for another day, / Yet knowing how way leads on to way / I doubted if I should ever come back.” The blooming of the sakura is precious and transcendent because it is so brief!]

But “Clair de Lune”: I won’t tell you precisely how the story ends, though it’s pure magic and virtuosity of storytelling. Again — it’s one of the best I’ve ever encountered, and Steven Millhauser (in these two books, anyway) is Mr. Summer Night. I get the books out nearly every year at about this time. Read them by night, when the moon is in the sky. That’s what you must promise me. (You’re allowed to use artificial lights, and you can be indoors. I’m a reasonable man.)

Here’s a poem of mine:

Eclipse Enigma

They say a mirror is the Moon;

How strange it seems to me!

It’s silver-brilliant for the Sun

Who gazes in when day is done;

Yet when Earth takes the place

In front to see her shining face,

The silver mirror of the Moon

Is dark as dark can be!

 

I like that one because it’s mindful of the science of a lunar eclipse: the moon is a blazing silver mirror while the sun is “looking into it” — but when Earth crowds up in front of the sun to “look into” the mirror, her own shadow blocks the light and makes the mirror black. (As I said, I like this poem a lot, but the one time I sent it out, it came back with a form rejection. Well, well.)

In my early twenties, before I’d made any real professional fiction sales, I was writing stories that wanted so badly to be there but weren’t quite. There are three or four I remember that went pretty much like this: A character in the story (not the narrator) is odd, eccentric, but hauntingly admirable and seems out of place in this world. The character teaches the protagonist a thing or two about how to live better. At the end, the character vanishes under highly mysterious circumstances, leaving the protagonist to conclude that s/he has passed beyond the fields we know into another reality, the one in which s/he belongs. Ta-duummm!

Yeah, I know. That’s why they weren’t getting published. But isn’t it significant that I kept returning to that theme of passing through the doorway out of this world and into one where things are better? And, yep, I’m still writing about that: in The Star Shard, Cymbril and Loric want to escape from the world of slavery into the Fey Country. In “The Bone Man,” Conlin essentially steps through a doorway of sorts into the Hallowe’ens of his youth. In Dragonfly, you get two for the price of one: a trip down a laundry chute and a lot of stairs into a kingdom of dark magic, and then the struggle for passage back into the world of air and mercy, which turns out to be the better place after all — or at least the place you want to live, though Harvest Moon is nice to visit. (While we’re on the subject of Harvest Moon: there’s the moon again! That fiery moon balloon, the Jolly Jack, casts its lurid shine over the ground.)

But here’s what I was getting to when I brought up those early stories of mine: There was one called “A Tale of the Moon.” I remember writing it in one evening (it was quite short) outdoors on a tiny verandah (in Japan), with my word-processor set up on a folding table, and using an oil-burning camping lamp for light. Yes, I certainly went to a lot of trouble having fun in those days! The story had a somewhat fairytale-like tone to it — not grittily realistic. It described the plight of a group of children in a town who feel oppressed and overburdened with school. The world of the outdoors and adventures and books-for-fun calls to them, but they have to suffer through lessons and lectures and piles of homework.

One by one, individually, the children begin to notice (peering out from the high windows of their house-prisons) that the moon every night seems to be getting bigger in the sky — as if it were coming closer. At school, they whisper about this together when they get a chance, before some teacher orders them back into line. They all agree: the moon is coming closer! Somehow, it gives them hope, because they know the moon is coming to save them, but they don’t know how.

One night, the moon lands in a big field at the edge of town. The kids all break from their houses. [In the story, we get no glimpse of loving families — all the adults are Oppressors. I was exploring one narrow aspect of childhood, not going for a balanced picture.] They climb out of windows, scramble down trellises, burrow under hedges, hoist themselves over walls — and all, from near and far, from every corner of town, converge on the field, where the gigantic, glowing, beautiful moon sits.

A door opens in the moon’s side, a stairway folds down, and the children all pass inside. Then the stairway retracts, the door closes, and the moon lifts off again, gliding up into the dark sky.

Every day, the cruel old teachers sit alone in their classrooms and fiddle with their soulless teaching equipment, or pace the empty hallways in a daze — and every night, the moon seems a little smaller, a little farther away. [The End]

Heh, heh, heh! Yes, in a way, this story was a form of sweet revenge against the public school system. Don’t misunderstand me: I had many a wonderful teacher, and good friends, and I think the administrators meant well. But . . . you know. I was a kid. I’d rather have been reading and climbing trees.

Editors hated the story. (They were probably parents. Any parent, I think, on some level would be horrified by this story — it’s basically “The Pied Piper.”) It certainly wasn’t very well told. I remember one editor sending me a note that said it seemed like “much ado about nothing.” After all, school isn’t that bad, is it? [Well, yes. For some of us, it’s that bad.]

But . . . now we’ve got the idea of the moon as a doorway — my, how these posts interlink, an endless chain of daisies!

I recycled that idea, partly, in a story that did sell, “Ren and The Shadow Imps.” This story tells of a time when the moon was much closer to Earth, and if you were really determined, when it passed over a high mountain or the top of a tall building, you might just manage to get aboard the moon . . . and of course, there’s a frosty, magical kingdom inside . . . which Ren has to reach in order to secure help to save the world below. (Interestingly, the story provides a reason for why the moon is much higher in the sky now.)

Well. . . . This post is longish, and it’s more a ramble than anything coherent. But moonlight is like that, I suppose. Here’s the main focus for discussion (though you’re not limited to these questions — I think we’re often better off when you have minimal direction — so go ahead and clamber out the window and don’t listen to the cruel old teachers):

1. Are there uses of the moon, moonlight, or moonlit scenes from books or movies that you’d like to talk about?

2. I don’t want to invade anyone’s personal life, but are there any of your own moonlight experiences that you’d care to share with us all? (I realize some stories will be intimate and private — I’m not after those! Just the ones you see fit to tell us about: maybe the view from your window as a kid, and how the world looked different at night; maybe a restless walk you took in your student days . . . you get the idea.)

Finally, here are a few pictures:

I discovered an amazing place today -- within about a ten-minute walk of my apartment!

I discovered an amazing place today -- within about a ten-minute walk of my apartment!

 

This is the Toyano Inverted Bamboo Grove, declared a government designated natural monument on October 12, 1922.

This is the Toyano Inverted Bamboo Grove, declared a government designated natural monument on October 12, 1922.

 

It's "inverted" because, whereas most bamboo has branches that angle upward, this extremely rare variety, called <i>hachiku</i>, has branches that bend sharply downward.

It's "inverted" because, whereas most bamboo has branches that angle upward, this extremely rare variety, called hachiku, has branches that bend sharply downward.

 

According to legend, this priest, Shinran, founder of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, was spreading his doctrine here, in the Toyano region. . . .

According to legend, this priest, Shinran, founder of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, was spreading his doctrine here, in the Toyano region. . . .

 

In this very grove, Shinran thrust his walking-stick into the earth, and it took root and sprouted -- yet with down-bending branches, as if the bamboo were growing <i>backwards</i> out of the ground.

In this very grove, Shinran thrust his walking-stick into the earth, and it took root and sprouted -- yet with down-bending branches, as if the bamboo were growing backwards out of the ground.

 

Hence, the "inverted" part of the grove's name.

Hence, the "inverted" part of the grove's name.

 

This deep, dark grove, right here in my own neighborhood, is officially classified as one of the Seven Mysteries of Echigo! (Echigo is the old name for Niigata, just as Tokyo used to be Edo.)

This deep, dark grove, right here in my own neighborhood, is officially classified as one of the Seven Mysteries of Echigo! (Echigo is the old name for Niigata, just as Tokyo used to be Edo.)

 

Enchanted doorway, anyone?

Enchanted doorway, anyone?

 

It's surprisingly dark within: this picture was taken at about 3:00 p.m. today.

It's surprisingly dark within: this picture was taken at about 3:00 p.m. today.

 

There are springy, well-maintained paths all the way through it, and not a scrap of litter.

There are springy, well-maintained paths all the way through it, and not a scrap of litter.

 

Here's the temple half-engulfed by it near one end of the grove: the Temple of Inverted Bamboo.

Here's the temple half-engulfed by it near one end of the grove: the Temple of Inverted Bamboo.

 

The shadowy corners lookin' good. . . .

The shadowy corners lookin' good. . . .

 

This dragon presides over the water devout Buddhists drink (with the dipper provided) as they enter the temple grounds, to purify themselves.

This dragon presides over the water devout Buddhists drink (with the dipper provided) as they enter the temple grounds, to purify themselves.

 

So, yes, this dragon is definitely more "wise, powerful guardian" than "brute beast."

So, yes, this dragon is definitely more "wise, powerful guardian" than "brute beast."

 

This picture has no caption. Or . . . it <i>didn't</i>, a minute ago.

This picture has no caption. Or . . . it didn't, a minute ago.

 

I'll let this tree have the last word.

I'll let this tree have the last word.

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 Old Well

March 19, 2009

The following is an excerpt from A Green and Ancient Light, an unpublished collection of vignettes which I wrote in the summer of 1990. It has been slightly edited for readability.

The Old Well

Nothing can keep a secret like a well. Nor is anything or anyone half so skilled at dropping hints of the most sinister nature.

You stand in a closet, and everywhere you see light pouring in, seeping through the slatted door. But the old well lets in darkness. The well is a starless universe in the shape of a shaft. A peek inside it is a peek into the Coke-bottle eyes, the tin-can fangs of the Thing That Lives Down There. You see the concave wall of bricks from above. That Thing sees them from below.

He’d be delighted if you’d fall in. That’s what he’s waiting for. He’s sizing up your house, too, or at least the little bit of it he can see framed behind your tiny head when you move the stone. Maybe someday your house will fall in; it’s possible.

You and your best friend take a kind of morbid delight in watching that covering stone from day to day, because you know — you know — it moves periodically. It slides just the smallest fraction of an inch during the night, during the dew hours. When you find it, that cover is allowing just an insinuation in, just the merest shadowy film of darkness up along the corner of the stone. Just enough darkness for the slugs to see by as they slowly, methodically measure your house after moonset.

Where do slugs go in the daytime? Whom do they work for? You and your friend get three guesses.

You keep moving the stone back into place whenever you can; you always peek down there, and that Coke-bottle glitter never bats an eyelash. The Thing sees you whenever you come. He has nothing but time. He waits.

Boy, are you and your friend relieved when your dad decides to fill in the old well. You’re relieved, and a little sad. A ton of bricks, a half-ton of earth rains in and closes the door, closes the shiny glass eyes forever. The irrelevant capstone is the last to fall.

You walk back and forth over all that’s left of the Thing’s pit: a shallow depression in the grass, just at the corner of the confident new sidewalk. This hollow will never cave in, not ever, because it’s packed full and tramped down hard.

You’re old enough to help plant the flowers that grow over his grave.

Your legs are too long to let you hear his last whispering sigh.

 

Fun, huh? By the way, not long after I wrote this, I discovered an old Algernon Blackwood story called “The Other Wing,” which develops a similar theme — growing up, crossing the threshold out of childhood, and the bittersweet losses that brings. I highly recommend Blackwood’s story, along with Steven Millhauser’s “Flying Carpets” (same theme again), which can be found in The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories.

Here’s another invitation to unlock the treasure-vaults of your own tales and memories, dear readers! Share with us, if you will, your descriptions and recollections of those nooks and crannies in your childhood that didn’t feel quite right to you. Was it a closet? — a back stairway that always seemed a little too dark? — an attic, perhaps? — a lonely stretch of road? Was it a time of day? An abandoned house two streets over? We’ve still got more than half a year till Hallowe’en — let’s all do our part to tide one another over!

Enchanted Night

July 7, 2008

First of all, I wanted to include a visual or two as a kind of follow-up to the “Glory Day” posting. This is the view westward from the end of my driveway in Illinois. So the fireworks were happening in this direction, and more importantly, every evening, the sunset happens in this direction. Twilight has always been one of my favorite times. Perhaps it’s the edge-ness of it: it’s the boundary between day and night, so it seems a natural time for the boundaries between worlds to go all thin. I’ve always thought that one might see anything at all in the twilight. That thought fascinated me as a child — and scared me a little — but then and now (when I’m back there), every single twilight hour that I’m free, I’m wandering about outdoors. In rural Illinois, there are still fireflies winking in abundance. Lord Dunsany wrote a poem about wanting to go inside, because the evening is getting cold, but being held by the thought that he might miss something if he doesn’t stay to watch the whole sunset until it’s over. You never know what’s going to unfold in the sunset.

It may be those colors, too, that make the hour so magical. The sky throws off its responsible blue that it wears to work in all day. The sky does extraordinary things in the hour of dusk. And the Earth responds, dimming its own hues to black in awe. My parents told me that one of the words I learned to say very early on in my life was “silhouette.” I’d point at the oak trees in the gloaming, gazing at them in round-eyed wonder, and proclaim “Silhouette. Silhouette.”

Anyway, this is the time of year when I have to recommend the perfect book for this season:

Enchanted Night, by Steven Millhauser.

I discovered this book in a Tokyo bookstore. It was the title and the cover that compelled me to buy it. The moment I saw it, there was no question of not buying it. On the cover, we see a low-aerial view of a small-town neighborhood in the beautiful blues and purples of moonlight, punctuated by the warm yellow glows of some lighted windows and the effulgence of a big round moon in the sky. All over the picture are the characters from the book, some in the windows, some out in the dark. All the people and poses are suggestive of story threads that will intrigue and delight.

It’s a slim novella told in short episodes, glimpses into the lives of its diverse cast — all linked by the town they’re in and by the single summer night in which it all unfolds. Millhauser is a virtuoso. The writing is breathtakingly beautiful, the elements vibrant, nostalgic, and haunting. Here is a writer who understands that a summer night is something sacred, a time like no other. The book reminds me of how wonderful it is to be alive, and to be able to go through summer every single year.

I first started reading the book at 11:57 p.m. on Thursday, June 29, 2000 — a hot, clear summer night under a waning moon. I finished it at 2:04 a.m. on Saturday, July 29, 2000 — also a hot, clear summer night under a waning moon. I read the book entirely during late nights, and not a single word by the light of day; this is a book for summer nights. The hotter the season when you read it, the better.

I’ve also read Millhauser’s The Knife Thrower and Other Stories and loved it, too.

By the way, since I’m writing this on July 7: this is the Star Festival (Tanabata) here in Japan. According to an ancient legend, a prince and princess (not related to each other) were deeply in love, but circumstances kept them apart. They became stars in the sky, and once each year, the two stars meet; once a year, on 7/7, the lovers come together. So this is the time of year when what people desperately long for may be granted. In Japan, hopes and requests are written on strips of paper, which are then tied to the branches of a delicate bamboo tree. These aren’t pleas for objects (like a Christmas list), but generally less material things, such as prayers for healing, or for wisdom, or to pass an all-important test . . . or, in the spirit of Tanabata, to find true love.