Posts Tagged ‘The Willows’

Where the Ceiling Is

January 23, 2010

A good friend, being complimentary of my writing, once said, “In your stories I always know where the ceiling is.” We were discussing settings and descriptions of place in the books we loved, and she meant (and I agree) that in my stuff, a firm grounding in the physical surroundings is essential. I’ve said it before on this blog (probably dozens of times now, in various ways), but I am truly a writer of place.

Almost invariably, my story ideas start with places I’ve been to . . . or places I’ve read about . . . or places I imagine. I’m often inspired by pictures — ones seen recently or remembered from childhood — photos, illustrations in books. Some settings just beg to have stories to take place in them.

I frequently linger and gaze into some lonely ditch where water gurgles from a culvert as if from the mouth of a cave — or where weeds stand thick in the tepid mire, a jungle in miniature laid out there just beside some ordinary road. I stop in mid-stride to peer into a thicket on the university campus (Niigata’s is wilder and woodier than most). The shade is deep under certain trees, with light shimmering somewhere beyond, as if somewhere among the tangles, a door into Faery has been left standing ajar. I know I’ve written before of the staggered line of potted pine trees on the traditional Japanese Noh stage — the differences in distance from the viewer meant to suggest passage into another world. These trees border the covered walkway by which certain characters enter and exit. If a ghost passes the trees, it is coming into this world from the realm of spirits. And that leads me to think about how so many writers throughout history have made use of forests as the avenues of passage into a supernatural dimension. Shakespeare, Hawthorne . . . I’m sure you can come up with a better list than I can.

And for what forests can’t handle, we’ve got caverns! And then there are rivers, the sea, and mountains. Do you follow me? My point is that, with the natural world on his/her palette, the painter of fantasy can do anything!

But coming back to “I always know where the ceiling is”: it’s not enough simply to evoke a setting and tip the hat to it only occasionally. I believe it has to be an inseparable part of the story’s fabric. The setting is always there from beginning to end, influencing — often determining — the things that happen. We can’t forget it any more than we can deny the real spaces we occupy in our lives. Oh, we can get lost in conversations or ideas, for sure, and that’s good to do. A story isn’t a real estate brochure, and if you stop with the setting alone, you don’t have a story yet. But if we forget where the ceiling is, we’ll bump our heads sooner or later. And we daren’t forget the yawning stairway.

Whoever does not fully appreciate the crucial importance of setting to story would do well to read Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” or most of Lovecraft’s stories, or watch Lawrence of Arabia or Field of Dreams. . . . Again, I’m sure you can make a more intelligent list than I can.

What I find quite often is that a vital consciousness of the setting helps to generate story ideas every bit as much as the actions and personalities of characters do. Having a map — and thinking about all that it was telling me — helped me immensely with the writing of Agondria. So did having my cousin’s graphite sketches, which spoke volumes about the characters’ surroundings.

I recently came up with this advice when another good friend and I were talking about writer’s block: I’m sure this isn’t original with me, but I suggested gathering some pictures that the writer found intriguing or inspirational — magazine photos, pictures from the Internet, whatever — and pretending that they were illustrations for the story under construction. There’s something delightfully satisfying about such a technique, isn’t there? It’s like making a mold of some object, then pouring some substance into the mold, then breaking the mold when the substance has hardened. We’ve made use of the intermediary vehicle — the visual images — to create something else, something of our own.

During the year that “The Star Shard” was being serialized in Cricket, I had the delightful privilege of answering questions from young readers on the magazine’s website; and a good many readers of Cricket are themselves aspiring writers. One question I was asked over and over again was, “How do you keep a story going? How do you know what to write once you’ve started?” My advice is that a stalled story can quite often become unstalled by the writer’s imagining him/herself to be in the story, a part of that described world. Look around, and pay careful attention to the details. Chances are good that, within minutes, you’ll know what has to happen next for your characters — and what has to happen after that, and after that. . . . I’ve noticed that, at times when the writing is going badly or I don’t know where the story should go next, it’s quite often because I’ve lost a sense of being in the setting — I’ve begun writing from some outside point. If the story becomes an abstraction, it suffers — at least in my writing.

“Where the ceiling is” makes me think of two other titles that put “Where” to good use: Where the Wild Things Are, which I’m planning to go see about 90 minutes from now. (It was one of my mom’s pet peeves when she’d ask schoolkids if they knew [she'd say the title of some wonderful book], and the kids would say, “Oh, yeah! I saw that!” — It bothered Mom that they knew the story only from its movie or TV incarnation, and had no idea that it was a book at all. Of course she didn’t take her irk out on the kids, but you can be sure she made them aware.)

For the record, I have read Where the Wild Things Are, so I’m allowed to see the movie. Yes, I’ve read the whole book! Yes, cover to cover. More than once!

And the other “Where” is Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein. Isn’t that a perfect title for a book of fanciful poems for children? That title alone should win prizes. It evokes the little grassy areas where kids play, where order and adult-determined pathways end. We all have such places somewhere near our homes when we’re kids — those pebble-strewn verges where dreams begin. The ground is always uneven there, isn’t it? It’s never level, and the grass doesn’t grow uniformly. There are taller clumps, there are old stumps, there are places worn bald by stones or by our feet, there are squishy places when it rains, and there are bright places that the sun bakes. I remember coming upon one such place in Niigata years ago, when a friend and I were making a bicycle odyssey to follow the entire perimeter of what’s called “Niigata Island” in a complete circle, heedless of typical routes. There was a place, on a windy ridge facing the sea, where the paved sidewalk just . . . stopped. The wind blew, and the grass riffled, and the sun sparkled on the waves — and there was simply no more pavement. It was pretty cool, and I thought at once of Shel Silverstein.

In all this issue of settings, I was thinking again of The Lord of the Rings. (How often our discussions of great stories lead us back there!) It’s been said by more than one scholar that The Lord of the Rings isn’t primarily a character story; it isn’t even really a plot story at heart. It’s a milieu story, and that means that we re-read and re-read it because what we love is Middle-earth. We want to go again to those wonderful places and hear the poetry and steep ourselves in the legends and histories and interconnectedness of it all. Tolkien knew where his ceilings were . . . and where the mountains were . . . and what was beyond them . . . and what the other names for everything were . . . and why. . . .

And I’ll go you one step further. (Is that even a legitimate expression?!) Much of what we’re enjoying in Tolkien’s settings isn’t something fantastic, exotic, or overtly magical. It’s an echoing stone chasm, a mighty waterfall, a mountain range, light slanting through quiet forest spaces, or landscapes rolling away under shifting clouds. Tolkien recognized that what is most numinous about the world is right here in our own world, and he knew it intimately. Tolkien, too, was a gazer-into-woody-corners. (I wonder if the Oxford of his day had any brushy nooks between buildings?) The story is told of how, when Tolkien and C.S. Lewis would take walks in the countryside together, Lewis preferred to stride along at a good clip, but he was forever having to stop and wait as Tolkien gawked at a tree or crouched to study some leafy shoot or patch of moss.

I’m going to quote here from Ted Nasmith, in his remarks prefacing this year’s extraordinary Tolkien calendar, which Nasmith illustrated:

“Other authors have well-developed descriptions of the lands their characters move through, both real and invented worlds alike, but somehow the combination of Faerie Tale structure wedded to a distinct delight in the minutiae and moods of nature has raised Tolkien’s sub-creation to a level few authors achieve. Some have even commented that Tolkien’s landscape constitutes a character of sorts, and this may be partly due to the tendency of the author — in fine faerie tradition — to blur the lines between his characters and creatures and their environment. . . .

“Clearly nature and animals interact with ‘people’ repeatedly as a central motif in Tolkien’s invented world, and since nature has long been a universal source of artistic and creative inspiration, visual artwork inspired by Tolkien’s works would not be satisfactory without making sure that illustrations also integrate the characters with the settings.”

What other writers do this well? This would be a good time to tell us, dear readers, about the authors and books you love. What are some other tales in which you always know where the ceilings are? Examples are quite welcome, too!

Boo

October 2, 2009

“It was getting very late when we came to a certain house that was not at all like the others on its block.”

–from “Boo,” by Richard Laymon

 

October is in the chair, as Neil Gaiman might say — and has said! — check out his story “October Is In the Chair” in his collection Fragile Things. But seriously, it’s October now. Much as I love the summer, much as I believe the hot months are the real incubator of the imagination, and that they are the closest months we get to Paradise in this life . . . I have to admit that October is the single most focused imaginative month. After we’ve charged far afield and frolicked and absorbed as much sun as we could through the warm months, it’s sober October that sits us down before the fire and makes us gaze into the darkness of things. We catch our breath, and we shiver. We remember how good it is to be scared by a scary tale — so much better than being scared in real life! In stories, we just can’t resist seeking what’s out there — what’s down there. What might be coming, even now.

I have fond memories of growing up with tales of weirdness and fear. First, Andersen’s fairy tales: whenever I was sick as a kid, lying on the blue velvet sofa, shivering and sweating and unable to hold liquids down, Mom would get out the little blue hardback collection of Andersen and read to me. Strange and scary things happened in those stories. There were witches and magic, dogs with eyes as big as saucers, and my experience of them came with the mingling of physical discomfort, delirium, and the wonderful glow of love, care, security, and relief. My mom was there, taking my temperature and bringing me Seven-Up. And that, I believe, is fundamental to my perspective on horror. If I didn’t have a core belief that things will be all right, I’d have no reason to enjoy horror.

Bloodcurdling LovecraftThen there’s H.P. Lovecraft. I think I’ve mentioned before how I used to see the covers of his books on the racks at our family bookstore, and they looked like the perfect books to me as a nine- or ten-year-old boy: hideous monsters, tentacles, crumbling stonework, etc. Oh, how I wish I had an image here of the very first cover that drew me to Lovecraft! I’m pretty sure it was a collection called The Dunwich Horror and Others. At any rate, the edition you read doesn’t matter too much, as long as it’s Lovecraft, and as long as you read enough stories to get a feel for him. I particularly recommend The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited and with an introduction by S.T. Joshi. There’s also a More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, annotated by S.T. Joshi and Peter Cannon. Although I’m talking October books here, my childhood recollections of Lovecraft are of the dusty back room of our bookstore, reading and drinking Pepsi with my knees propped up against the edge of the battered desk . . . and of reading him outdoors at Annotated H.P. Lovecrafthome on hot, hot summer days — heat and light all around me, heat waves shimmering in the fields, leaves whispering in the breeze — and in the pages, coldness and subterranean darkness, moldering crypts, secret rooms, sagging gambrel roofs in ancient New England towns. . . .

Lovecraft is one writer I enjoyed as a kid and kept right on reading as I grew up. Back in about 1995, I lived and taught in the town of Shirone, but I also had a couple classes once a week in Sanjo. To get there, I took a bus to a tiny train station in the middle of nowhere (a town/station called Yashiroda), where sometimes I had to wait well over an hour for a train to come along. I would sit there at the station reading H.P. Lovecraft — outdoors in the summer; in the winter, cozied up to the kerosene stove inside.

In gradeschool we used to have Book Fairs in the “All-Purpose Room” — a big gray chamber at the heart of the building where lunch tables and seats folded down out of the walls, then retracted again when it was time for an all-school assembly, band practice, a play, a film, or p.e. class. Such Fairs were a delight: there were tables stacked with books, and you could browse among them and buy them for ridiculously low prices like five cents or ten cents. (At least that’s how I remember it now — any North School kids out there want to correct me?) It was at one such Book Fair that I bought a morbidly grim volume called The Creature Reader. And one of the stories in it was “Wendigo’s Child,” by Thomas Monteleone. It was about a boy in Arizona who rides his bicycle to a nearby archaeological dig, hoping to find cool artifacts, and he finds a little, leathery, wizened mummy that seems half human baby and half bird. Ill-advisedly, he takes the thing home and hides it in his basement, finding out along the way from a native American friend (to whom he doesn’t show the mummy) that such creatures were guardians of the burial grounds. Yes — what you’re imagining — that’s what happens in the story. The book gave me nightmares for months afterward. I loved it!

There was also a story in that book called “Godosh” [the author escapes me], about a sleeping giant inside a mountain who wakes up and wreaks a terrible vengeance when heartless land developers come to bulldoze the forest. Very satisfying to a pre-teen nature lover’s sensibilities!

I don’t know what ever happened to my copy of that book. I’m one who takes very good care of books, and I rarely lose track of ones I like. But the fate of that one is a true mystery. It vanished without a trace at some point.

There was a book called Shudders on the shelf in my bedroom for years and years. (When I visited my Cousin Phil’s parents back in 2006, I noticed a copy also shelved with his old books, which didn’t surprise me. We tend to gravitate toward many of the same books, even if they’re really obscure.) I honestly don’t know whether it’s a good collection or not, because I never got past the first story: “Sweets to the Sweet,” by a young Robert Bloch. That story scared me so badly as a kid that I stopped reading, put the book back into the bookcase, and didn’t touch it for what I think was a couple years. When I opened it again and read the Bloch story, it scared me again and I put it back on the shelf. I’d say there’s a fairly good chance that if I found the book again today, I still wouldn’t make it past the Bloch story.

As a teenager, I got into much of the earlier work of Stephen King. I devoured The Shining, I loved his short stories in Night Shift, and ‘Salem’s Lot is still one of my favorites of his — and one of the best vampire books around. But my favorite Stephen King is the novel It. (The novel, I stress: don’t even bring up the visual dramatization of it!) I read It at a major transition time in my life: I started it in the early summer of 1988, my final year in the States; I finished it in Tokyo in the winter of 1988-9. So my memories of it are bound up with both Illinois and Japan, and that time of moving to a new phase of life. It — to my thinking, this is the very best of Stephen King. All the pulse-racing, skin-crawling horror is there, but it’s tempered by an achingly beautiful nostalgia for childhood in a vanished era and a portrait of lifelong friendships — friends who will stick with each other though their lives hang in the balance. It’s a wonderful book.

Best Ghost Stories of Algernon BlackwoodDuring one of my first few summers in Japan, I found my way to the stories of Algernon Blackwood. In those years of my early twenties — a searching, angry, passionate, lonely, joyous, discovering time — I used to sit astride the seat of my parked bicycle on some forest trail near the sea, and in the green glow of filtered light, I’d read books. That’s where I read Blackwood’s “The Willows,” one of the scariest stories of all time. It was at around this time — 1990 or 1991 — that I had a very close brush with publication. A now-defunct small-press magazine titled Midnight Zoo expressed strong interest in my story “Iowa Mud,” but asked for revisions. I immediately subscribed to the magazine, revised the story, and sent it back. As I recall, they liked it still more, but wanted more revisions. So I obliged them. I loved reading the magazine — it was well put together, and the stories were right up my alley. They accepted the story, but before it saw print, they got into financial problems, as small-press magazines almost inevitably do. They asked if they could pay me in contributor copies instead of money, and I said sure. Then they ceased publication and disappeared altogether, and I never heard from them again. The story never made it into print. (Which may be a good thing.) [Oh -- the point of telling about this near-publication experience {NPE} is that I sat around in that same pine forest revising "Iowa Mud," so my memories of that time are all interwoven -- my story, Blackwood, and Ambrose Bierce.]

About Blackwood: in the same collection, he has a story called “The Other Wing” which I always thought completely surpasses any notion of “genre.” It ought to be anthologized in college freshman literature survey textbooks, along with Lovecraft’s “The Strange High House in the Mist.”

The years have gone by, and I’ve always been on the lookout for good, scary tales. I know some people just don’t “get” horror, but given the choice between any two stories, I’ll almost always take the frightening one. (Like I said a few posts back: our oldest fully-English piece of literature is the story of a hero battling monsters — it’s in our blood.)

October Dreams coverMy first novel Dragonfly was/is an ode to Hallowe’en. And speaking of that holiday: THE BOOK to read in this season (while you’re taking breaks from Dragonfly) is an anthology entitled October Dreams, edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish. What makes this one so wonderful is that it isn’t just a compilation of great Hallowe’en stories by a whole host of writers, some extremely famous, some virtually unknown — but it also includes, between the stories, mini-essays by many of the writers on actual memories of Hallowe’ens in their lives. If you read it, you may even decide you like the essays best of all. In fact, I’d love to see a whole book dedicated to that. Someone should solicit Hallowe’en memories from about fifty speculative fiction writers, ranging from the bestsellers to those in the small press — wouldn’t that be excellent? Anyway, in that book is my favorite short Hallowe’en story ever: “Boo,” by Richard Laymon. I won’t spoil it by giving away particulars, but I will say that this story captures pretty much everything I love about Hallowe’en. It’s beautiful and nostalgic; in places it makes you laugh out loud — partly at what’s happening, and partly at your own memories it evokes — it makes you ache with longing, not only for the Hallowe’ens of your youth, but for childhood itself — and, like any proper All Hallows tale, it packs a deeply disturbing wallop. “Boo,” by Richard Laymon — I dare you to find better! (And if you find better, please please pleeeease tell us about it here!)

Finally, two movies I’ve seen recently, which represent a tip of the hatDog Soldiers to those two mighty pillars of the horror genre, the vampire and the werewolf. . . . Several friends had been recommending to me the film Dog Soldiers (2001). It is a genuinely creepy and entertaining story, and it’s the sort that I think I may like better on subsequent viewings. (To be 100% honest, after the way so many trusted friends raved about it, I was a tiny bit disappointed on my first watching; it’s a good film, but it had a lot of hype to live up to. But I liked it enough that I’m talking about it here, aren’t I?) A group of soldiers on training maneuvers in the Scottish highlands end up trapped in an isolated farmhouse, desperately trying to hold off the werewolves until dawn. What I found at once surprising — and ultimately unsettling — about this movie was the lack of movement on the part of the werewolves. I believe (don’t quote me on this; I could be wrong) that they were depicted by using people in costumes — people in unnatural postures, on stilts, perhaps; and given all that, the actors actually had very limited mobility. There’s almost no lunging or pouncing. What we have are instantaneous glimpses of nearly motionless werewolves — monsters frozen in terrifying silhouettes, looming in the shadows. And whether intentionally or not, this taps right into our childhood fantasies and nightmares. Think about it: as kids, the imagined images that scared us the most weren’t lunging enemies — they were the things that lurked . . . that watched us from the shadows . . . that towered over our beds. Capitalizing on that fear, Dog Soldiers delivers quite a bite!

Let the Right One InBut far and away the best movie I saw this summer, irrespective of genre, was the vampire film Let the Right One In. It’s a Swedish film, so you have the option of watching it either in Swedish, with English subtitles, or dubbed into English. So far I’ve watched it once each way, and there are things I like better about each version. It’s dark, haunting, beautiful, sad, and it uses the canon of vampire mythos to help us ask some profound questions. Some critics call it a “fairy tale.” Perhaps. Again — without giving too much away — it’s the story of the bonding and love between two lonely children — one living, one a vampire. It’s skillful and subtle, and it’s so thought-provoking that some of us discussed it for weeks after I saw it.

All right: that should give you puh-lenty of scary stories to chew on as we go into October (and it’s only the second day!). My plea for reader participation this week offers you two options. (Heh, heh — I hope this one fares better than my mythology quest, which went over like a lead balloon!) The first is obvious: tell us about great scary stories you’ve run into. What are your favorites? Under what circumstances did you experience them? How can we find them?

The second, if we can get a little creative, is this: we’re just now starting October. . . . If we act now, we can set up next week’s post. Use your imagination and come up with a sentence that suggests a spooky paragraph. Give us the first line. Evoke possibility. You don’t have to tell everything: the challenge is to suggest, to set questions exploding in the reader’s mind. Look back up to the very top of this post: that would be a perfect example. What makes that house different from all the others on the block? Surely you can think of one provocative sentence. If you devote some time to it, you’ll probably come up with five or ten set-up lines. You will probably have a hard time shutting yourself off. One of my own examples (which I’m probably misquoting) is the first sentence of my story “Shadowbender”: “Aunt Estelle wasn’t so bad; it was her house that bothered Shan.”

I’m inviting you to post a line — a sentence — that may yield a good, scary paragraph. Next week I hope to line up all these sentences and let readers choose one and try writing the paragraph it suggests.

As always, please remember that some younger people are reading the blog, too.

Meanwhile, happy October!

Earth-Rim Walkers and Those Who Love Them

August 2, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell us your stories! Tell us, tell us!


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