Dueling Holidays

Happy April Fools’ Day, Ostara, Easter, and the beginning of National Poetry Month!

I’m including some poems in my forthcoming short story collection, Dragon Scales & Other Tales. To celebrate the day(s), here are three that didn’t make the cut.

This one is the most recent, and the most self-explanatory.

PAINTING

As I’m painting the bathroom walls,
I think of Michelangelo.
Okay, so he was painting
A ceiling, and there are a few
Other differences. But I have to wonder,
Did he, while putting the final touches
On a face or cloud, worry
About water damage, chips and dings
Just waiting to happen,
All the ravages of time?
Did he see himself picking up
That old brush again
To patch things up, years down the line?
I doubt it.
Genius flashes, then fades with grace.
Only mediocrity needs maintenance.

This is one from decades ago that I still like.

BREAKFAST

The phone, ringing
In an empty room,
Makes no sound.
Leaves stick
To the cobblestones.
Sorry, the sun
Can’t appear today,
So we give you the moon,
Who’s been losing sleep
For years
Rehearsing this part…

You startle me
Before the mirror—
Narcissus, deflowered.
The sun pokes
A bright fist
Through morning clouds.

Once, when I was out running some errand in downtown Seattle, I noticed a woman walking across the street. All of a sudden a loud voice said, seemingly from out of the sky, “Ma’am, you’re jaywalking!” It was a cop with a loudspeaker, I guess, up in one of the buildings, but it seemed more like some angry god obsessed with the small sins of humankind. The woman ignored the voice and continued on her way. Later, I wrote this.

JAYWALKING IN SEATTLE

City of back alleys
And dead-end ecosystems,
City of ten thousand smokes,
City where homeless men
In ragged clothes
Wait under the freeway ramps,
Looking out over the Sound,
For the next Messiah
To forget them again;

To get around you
I must bend the rules,
Step on cracks,
Cross painted lines,
Ignore the megaphone voices
Of patrol cars
And the Metro buses
Bellowing like bulls in rut.

Your flashing red hand
Holds no terrors for me,
Your little man
Made of white light
Is no friend of mine;
Like a cat I keep
The right of trespass,
And go against the flow
Of space and time.

Can Spring Be Far Behind?

Shelley obviously didn’t live in New England. There’s still a foot of snow out in my yard and the temperature fell into the single digits (yes, that’s Fahrenheit) last night.

But still, spring is in the air, and from March 23rd to March 30th I’ll be running a spring sale on The Road to Hel and Robin Hood: Wolf’s Head. The sale will also run on Amazon UK here and here. I’m leaving Father Winter out of it, since I don’t expect anybody to be yearning for Yule-themed stories about travel to the Arctic until, say, July.

Also, I forgot to post a link to my recent interview with Michael Gardner. Thanks, Mike!

 

The Blind Barber

This is possibly John Dickson Carr’s finest story. It’s definitely his funniest. There’s a murder, of course, but it happens offstage. In fact, much of the book concerns the protagonists’ attempt to prove that the murder even took place. It’s something like Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, if it were rebooted as a musical comedy.

The classic closed room becomes, in this mystery, a closed ship–to be precise, an ocean liner on the high seas between New York and London. Somewhere aboard, possibly disguised, is an international thief and cold-blooded killer. On the side of the good guys is a motley group of friends including Henry Morgan (Dickson Carr’s mystery writer character), an American diplomat, his fiancee whose French father runs an acclaimed puppet show, and an eccentric Norwegian sea captain. Between bouts of sea-sickness they pursue a valuable statuette that keeps appearing and disappearing, drink oceans of champagne and whiskey, and cause the ship’s skipper headaches (both figurative and literal). Oh, and their offhand sleuthing eventually unmasks the murderer, although to clinch the deal they need the assistance of arch-detective Dr. Fell, who is not–to his own everlasting disappointment–even a passenger on the voyage.

A note on my book’s edition: it dates from 1934, and at that time Harper apparently put out a series of ‘sealed mysteries’–until you broke the seal, you couldn’t finish reading the story, and if you decided to bail out you could (theoretically, at least) return the book for a full refund. Here’s the challenge page from my book:

At the end of this book, there’s another intriguing offer. I wonder if Harper would still honor it today?

20180308_100938

 

In Praise of Back Roads

When it comes to back roads, New Hampshire takes a back seat to nobody. I remember driving somewhere in the Monadnocks one summer and winding up on what was described, by a helpful sign attached to a tree, as a “Class 6 unmaintained road”. In other places, this would have been called a “hillside”.

Another time, heading out to a dairy farm to buy some milk, my wife and I drove over a rickety bridge across a fast-running stream under the shadow of a mountain. That was picturesque enough, but a bit later in our trip, while studying the map (this was back when “maps” were still a thing), we decided to try a way that looked even farther off the beaten path. About a mile in it turned to a dirt road. A mile further on, and we were steering around pits and huge rocks that turned up in our path. Then we came to a sign that informed us: “Vehicle damage possible. Proceed at your own risk.”

Apparently, nothing up to that point had warranted a warning. That was our cue to make an extremely careful U-turn.

Undeterred by these memories, I chose the other day to take a state highway, instead of the interstate, to drive up to a visit with my doctor in Concord, New Hampshire. (Not to be confused with the Concords in Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont. New England was colonized smack in the middle of the Great Place Name Shortage, and the thrifty Yankees had to re-use the few names they had left.)

The trip took me just about ten minutes longer than usual. For that bit of extra time, I got a quality of life upgrade and possibly even some writing ideas. Well, ideas come up when you’re driving on the interstate too, but they usually lead to stories about soul-crushing dystopias.

On the state highway, the landscape isn’t blurred, and you’re part of it. There are people out working in their yards, checking their mailboxes, or walking around. Strangely, none of them are standing inside toll booths. All the houses you pass look like they have histories, and could be interestingly haunted. Everything feels more like it’s on a human scale. You could imagine taking a walking tour around this countryside, like people in vintage English novels were always doing.

You see signs that tell you “Historical Marker Ahead”. Sometimes, you even get to see the
historical marker. One of them advertises the historical glories of a Revolutionary-period “Watering Trough”. If I’d been riding a horse, I’d probably have stopped there. You come across town boundary signs, some with quaint mottoes meant, I guess, to entice people to settle there. One reads “Where neighbors and rivers meet”, which has some funny implications if you think about it.

There are none of the clusters of fast food restaurants and gas stations that plague the interstate, but you pass plenty of quirky little businesses: gun and ammo shops (“Gunsmith on Site”) or ice cream shacks, or farm stands (“Grown in NH. Period!”). One small building, set well back from the road, had a sign up saying simply: “So long, see you in the spring.”

I couldn’t even tell what they’re selling. But I’m pretty sure I’ll see them in the spring.

 

A Good Man for an Outlaw

I don’t usually even like Westerns, but Jonathan Eaton’s A Good Man for an Outlaw is in a class by itself. You might call it the Supernaturally Enhanced Southwestern Gothic Epic genre. (If you can make a catchy acronym out of that, be my guest.)

The story’s unusual narrator is the ghost of a freshly killed outlaw, who’s surprised when he doesn’t go to Hell, but stays in Texas as a disembodied spirit instead. As the story unfolds, though, rife with murder, vengeance, love, suspicion, and betrayal, the reader might justifiably conclude that Hell is actually just a part of Texas. There might be a little bit of Heaven in there somewhere too, but the Hell part is for sure.

In other words, this is a dark story. There’s plenty of violence, and a high body count, though I guess you can’t exactly call it a tragedy by the old test, since not everybody dies. The narrative doesn’t shy away from graphic descriptions of battles and death wounds. I’m reminded of some slightly better-known epics: definitely the Iliad, and many of the Norse sagas as well. (Another relevant comparison, considering the nature of the local critters, might be to the Cattle Raid of Cooley.) And there’s a lot of deadpan humor, too, again like the Norse sagas, though not the Iliad–the Greeks, or Homer anyway, didn’t find such things quite as funny for some reason.

The characters are well drawn–among them Hayes, a (mostly) heroic lawman; Fowler and the appropriately named Litch, lawmen of a considerably less heroic stripe; the crafty widow Murray; Matthew, a young man framed for murder; Bronco Joe, an escaped indentured servant; assorted cowboys, miners, outlaws, and strolling circus performers; and a tribe of Indians who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time–that is, America in the nineteenth century. Their adventures are all absorbing, and you’ll even feel a touch of sympathy for the black hats, now and then.

The dead outlaw makes a perfect omniscient narrator. He can go anywhere to follow the action, and he can even see part-way into people’s thoughts, so we get multiple points of view as well. His unique, unpunctuated voice is perfect for the story he tells. Take Riddley Walker, give him a quick spelling course, drop him onto the prairie with a cowboy hat and a six-shooter, and you’ll have some idea of what to expect. Eaton does a great job maintaining this style; I didn’t notice any missteps at all.

If there were more justice here and now than there apparently was in Old Texas, this book would make a best-seller list or two. As it is, A Good Man for an Outlaw is highly recommended by this blogger, whose burgeoning follower count has now reached four three (Hey, George? George, where did you go? Was it something I wrote?)

Stations of the Angels

Someday I’d like to organize a writers’ party for Raymond St. Elmo. Most of the guests
would be dead. Well, Peter S. Beagle might make it, but he is getting along a bit.

Still, the evening would be lively. R.A. Lafferty would be sipping whiskey by the
fireside, swapping tall tales with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Jorge Luis Borges, after the
third glass of wine, would provide an entertaining explanation of why he is not
actually Borges, but everyone else is. And possibly Rene Daumal might stop by, though
he’s a troublesome guest, tending to pour whatever he’s drinking into the nearest
potted plant.

Reading a St. Elmo story is much like entering a labyrinth. When you finally emerge you find yourself, usually, in some place resembling Texas. Well, it might be an island, or some kind of odd otherworld, but then Texas does have close affinities with islands and odd otherworlds. In any case, there will be a protagonist, likely named Clarence, who pursues the eternal feminine in the form of a young lady named K, like some sort of mathematical constant of romance.

Which brings us to Stations of the Angels. This story introduces Angelica, a little town in Texas not far from Hell, while Theory is another piece down the road. The town was apparently founded as a Utopian community of sorts, with this critical difference from the many failed Utopias that litter the landscape of America: it tapped into some source of magic that made everything work.

Thus did Circle Street come into being: an image of all creation, a sort of orrery that mimics the dance of the spheres, and perhaps even calls the tune. A wild zodiac of houses here embodies Platonic (and some not so Platonic) ideals: among them the House of Knives, the House of Fire, the House of the Lion, the House of Lust, and the most thoroughly Haunted House you can imagine.

Those who are fated move to Angelica and take possession of one of these houses. Sometimes the houses take possession of them.

Otherwise, Angelica is like any other small town, with people complaining that nothing ever happens. But all the while, children are growing up and coming of age in these magic houses. We hear many of their stories, told in their own voices. Along with such everyday challenges as screaming ghosts or burning bedrooms, they suffer the usual adolescent humiliations: homework, gym class, shame-faced crushes, feuding siblings.

But as the story goes on, something changes, some balance is disturbed. Romances flower and wither (yes, including the aforementioned Clarence and K); a certain Egg stirs and threatens to hatch apocalypse; and there is an epic chase scene from house to house, from one state of being to another.

There are several possible outcomes: the end of the world as we know it (and you have to wonder if we ever really knew it at all); an underground (literally) party to end all parties; or perhaps we’ll awaken and find that all along, it was only a dream.

Or it could be some combination of all of these things.

After all, many sages have held that existence itself is a dream. But if we dream as vividly as St. Elmo, then when we finally awaken, we’ll have few regrets.

The Other Road to Hel

Okay, so I was actually the second person to use ‘The Road to Hel’ as a title. It really wasn’t fair, because H.R. Ellis published her book in 1943, before I was even born. However, I haven’t allowed my personal feelings to affect the following review in any way whatsoever…:)

The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature by Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson

As the author of the only other book titled The Road to Hel (on Amazon, at least) I felt compelled to review this one. I was already familiar with the author from her Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, which outlines many parallels between old Norse and old Celtic religion. Although she was not a Heathen, her love of the Norse lore is evident, and she was as sympathetic to Norse religion as someone whose focus is primarily academic can be. She understood, for example, that for anyone who was devoted to a particular god, he was not a ‘fertility deity’ or a ‘war deity’, but simply the lord and friend who they asked for help in all areas of life.

That said, I was disappointed with this book in some ways. The impression I took away is that there were only three things, in the pre-Christian North, to look forward to after death: 1) becoming a draugar, an (usually) evil animated corpse; 2) lying in the ground forever getting rained and snowed on; or, if you happened to be a seeress when you were alive, 3) lying in the ground getting rained and snowed on until somebody calls you up to pick your brain. The picture is, in other words, a bit on the bleak side. There are just a couple of mentions of people expecting to be with the gods and goddesses after death–notably Egil’s daughter saying that she will “sup with Freya”. Even Valholl gets short shrift, as the author relates Odin’s realm back to stories of an everlasting battle of dead warriors going on beneath the earth–more animated corpses, basically.

Part of this is no doubt due to the scarcity of non-Christianized Norse texts, and part might be because this was the author’s first book. Later on I think she might have cast her net a bit more widely, and spent more time with Celtic and other European sources to help interpret the scanty source material. For instance, I think of the many Irish stories where people who recently died were seen among the fairies (which makes me remember reading about a Norse warrior whose relatives see Freyr welcoming him to a feast set inside his grave mound–not sure where I got this, and it isn’t mentioned in The Road to Hel).

Other parts of the book are more fun–specifically the accounts of ‘sending forth the fetch’ and the section on valkryies, hamingja and disir. The fetch-sending part is pretty much a universal belief that is probably the source of the stories about werewolves, were-hares, and were-whatevers that you can find in all cultures all over the world. (It does make me wonder, if the spirit can leave the body during life, doesn’t it seem logical it would go some place else after death rather than hanging in the grave mound?)

As for the disir et al, I think the author’s academic bias shows in her conclusion that all these “supernatural women” are likely the same. For an analogy, consider what future scholars might conclude from the few fragmentary writings left by our own culture, in a future where dogs and cats have become extinct. I can see them looking at the evidence–here were two mythical creatures, both furred, both valued for companionship and for hunting vermin–and concluding that there was really only one supernatural animal being described, worshipped by a unified cult until things became confused as the culture disintegrated.

Despite these shortcomings, The Road to Hel is a valuable book to have as a guide, so one can follow her references and do one’s own research about the vision of the dead and their world(s) in the Norse lays and sagas. Also, here and there the author has some interesting insights–such as comparing the trance of a living seeress to the death from which the volva of the Voluspa is grumpily awakened–that prefigure her later, and in my opinion better, work.