All posts by etanafon

Living in the Past

These days, especially if one happens to be working on a story involving alternate timelines*, one thinks a lot about history, about wrong turnings. For instance, what would have needed to happen to head off our current, nearly full-blown, dystopia? I don’t know, and the fact that it all seems so unreal doesn’t help. We all live in a fictional world now. Bad fiction, true—a world of weaponized fear and poisons both physical and spiritual—but still, fiction. What strange turn will the plotline take next? What will we be told when we’re locked down and decimated anew? Will it be nuclear war, an invasion by space aliens, or just the time-honored trope that humanity is the cause of all the earth’s problems, and therefore we have no right to even exist?

People can and do respond with fictions of their own. Many seem to believe that ‘everything is fine and we’ll eventually get back to normal.’ That sounds like a tall tale to me. I would prefer to tell a story that recognizes the evil forces at work in our world and gives people heart to fight them. In the actual fiction I’m writing right now, though, I’m (so far) simply not admitting that recent history actually happened. At the very least, I’m not going to have my characters wear masks and hole up in their homes. If even our fiction admits these insanities, we will be completely lost. So at the moment, that makes my writing firmly metaphysical—even my “base” reality in Sean’s latest adventure, The Well of Time, is already itself an alternate world, one where the Black Death Lite© was never a thing. And I think I’m far from alone in this. 

Another small rebellion I’ve been indulging in is to read some old classic stories. C.S. Lewis says somewhere that if you have limited reading time, you should concentrate on reading books that were written in a different age, as a counterbalance to the influence of the prevailing zeitgeist. And what are the hallmarks of our zeitgeist? Contempt, even hatred, for the human and rosy visions of the “transhuman”**. And not so incidentally, a hatred of history, of things past. Old statues, old religions, old buildings—they just have to go. Otherwise, people might be able to compare the past to the dystopic present, and maybe even figure out the wrong turnings that got us here. 

And that, of course, would threaten the wonderful Cultural Revolution that’s just getting into full swing now. So now we have two excellent reasons for reading old books.

Recently I read three books from the past, and I offer some short takes here. Everyone knows the first two, and (almost) nobody knows the third. They are: Robinson Crusoe, written in the seventeenth century; Moby Dick, from the mid nineteenth century; and Collector’s Luck, written here in New Hampshire in the early twentieth century and appropriately enough, found in a local antique shop.

We’ll take them in order of age. Robinson Crusoe, it turns out, is really a cautionary tale. Early on in the story, Crusoe’s father sits him down for a serious talk about his son’s desire to go to sea, see the world, and make his fortune. The father points out that his fortune is already made—his family is upper middle class, so not wealthy and powerful enough to be consumed with duties and politics, but able to choose whatever career he wants, live well, and be respected in the community.

If you were to just read this part of the story, reflect for a moment on how sensible that advice is, then close the book and read no more—you’ll be doing a lot better than Robinson Crusoe did.

Of course, he does go to sea, and to no reader’s surprise at this point, is shipwrecked. What follows is his famous extended staycation on the desert island he manages to reach, alone at first and later with the original Man Friday. This is the only part of the story most people remember, but really it’s only about half the book. 

In the other half he proves that he didn’t learn much from his experiences. The colony he helps establish on his famous island, made up of convicts and reformed cannibals, eventually collapses. Crusoe himself goes on more voyages, gets Friday killed, and winds up getting shipwrecked again and having to cross Russia to get back to Europe, which sounds like one of those classic mistakes military historians would tell you not to make. There, he comes across a town that holds to the old Pagan ways, and being a “good Christian” he decides to sneak in to their temple under cover of night and vandalize the awful “idol” that these woefully ignorant people worship. 

Hmm, seems like we’ve run into that hatred of the past thing here again. Maybe all the Cultural Revolutions started when monotheism came in. If I get a chance, I’ll interview the former librarians of Alexandria and see what they think.

On the other hand, I’m glad I finally read Moby Dick. This really could be, in fact, the great American novel, which may or may not come as a relief to those who are still trying to write it. 

What makes it so great? Okay, I can list a few things. The fascinating historical details about life on a whaling ship. The sweep and intensity of the central theme, as obsessive as Ahab’s own quest, and the sense of brooding Destiny at work. As far as religion goes, no wimpy New Testament stuff here—instead we have the God who taunted Job with his Leviathan-taming prowess, and prophets popping up to foretell certain doom, just like in the good old days. In fact, Moby Dick could work just as well as a completely Heathen story, with the white whale waiting for Ahab at story’s end, inescapable as Beowulf’s cursed hoard and its guardian dragon.

The style mixes first person narratives from several characters (with stream-of-consciousness touches), mini-essays, and even one chapter written as a play, complete with stage directions. I don’t read criticism these days, but I can’t be the only one who thinks that James Joyce probably picked up a few of his own tricks from reading Moby Dick.

In effect, Melville creates an entire world from the bodies and skeletons of the great whales, like the gods making Midgard, the oceans and the skies, from the body of the primordial giant Ymir. 

I’m not tempted to re-read Robinson Crusoe, but I will most likely visit that world of Melville’s again.

The last book, Collector’s Luck, is, for a change, not a work of fiction. It’s the memoirs of a lady who lived in western New Hampshire in the first decades of the young twentieth century. She talks about her love for history and especially her search for collectable antiques, which take her from Boston to the wilds of New Hampshire, which she visited in a horse-drawn carriage, apparently still the best way to navigate those hills and mountains in the nineteen teens. 

Time has made her story even more charming, even cute—will you look at that, an antique lady searching for antiques! But she knew something many people have forgotten today: the legacy left us by previous generations is a precious thing. Their crafts, their stories, deserve to be honored. 

Or maybe even revived. Her book closes with a description of an old New Hampshire farm house where the settlers had built a well in the middle of the kitchen. A brilliant idea, poetic and practical at the same time, whether the main aim was to protect against attack or enable the family to avoid going outside in winter to pump their water.

An idea whose time may soon come again.

* The Weil of Time, the next installment in Sean’s Saga. Cover reveal is coming when I’ve finished the first version.

** Where’s Nietschze when you need him? “Uberman” was a lot cooler, and really not a bit more Naziesque.

A Coyote Age

Ragnarok seems close enough these days–”a wind-age, a wolf-age, ere the world’s ending”. But is it really wolves that we need to worry about?

After all, wolves do have some pretense to nobility. Wolf-warriors were a thing, back in the good old days. “Wolf” was often part of someone’s name. If a wolf shows up and rips your throat out, you could imagine still retaining a sense of personal dignity, maybe even respect.

As Sean puts it in his self-named saga (the second book, The Well Of Time, is still coming along; thanks for asking): 

knew that wolves were really great, essential parts of the ecology and all, and should never, ever be hunted from helicopters. But I didn’t feel the same way about wargs.

Well, it turns out I don’t feel the same way about coyotes, either. A pack of them killed more than half our ducks and geese in one night (leaving the bodies, for the most part; so much for the notion of animals as noble savages who waste nothing). They’ve made hit-and-run raids on our chickens in broad daylight. We’ve had to get part of our house’s back wall reframed recently, leaving us virtually open to the elements for a while. Let me tell you, hearing coyotes howling in the night with nothing between you and them but a thin sheet of plastic tends to give you a new perspective on your place in Nature.

Wolves may be fierce and noble. Coyotes lurk and sneak and lure other animals in, then surround them. They attack on the run, like the animal kingdom equivalent of a drive-by shooting. If a coyote did rip your throat out, it would probably be from behind. 

So I’m thinking that a better name for what we’re going through now is a Coyote Age. The world is under attack, yes, but for the most part not openly. Most of the action is disguised. The air and water are full of poison. High-sounding policies lead to nothing but hunger and disease. People who speak the truth are censored, while lies are repeated over and over until free thought is destroyed. You can imagine George Orwell saying, “Hey, I was less than forty years off!”

This is not a good time for trust. Even our own leaders (in what used to be called the West, at least) are on the side of the coyotes, pretty much. If we’re lucky, they may follow in Wiley’s footsteps and construct elaborate contraptions that wind up failing and causing their own destruction. We still need to worry about the fallout, in that case.

If they’re more like real coyotes, the going will be even harder. A wind-age, a shield-age. Keep yours up!

The Death of Childhood

One of the most disturbing parts of our ongoing cultural suicide is what’s being done to children. Of course, things were bad even before the Black Death Lite came in. Already children were not being allowed to go out, except for school and carefully scheduled “play dates”. There is a ‘free range kids‘ movement that has arisen in response, but I would guess they’ve been set back considerably in the last year and a half. I can remember (yes, I am that old) that such restrictions weren’t really around when I was growing up. We didn’t exactly run wild, but going alone to get some candy at the “corner store” down the road, or playing in the nearby woods with no grownups around, was a normal thing.

One consequence of this is that most children don’t come into contact with children of different ages (increasingly, not even in their own home, what with the increase in “one-child-if-any” families). Why does this matter? Childhood games are (or used to be) typically taught to younger children by older children. I can still remember long summer afternoons when the older kids in the neighborhood taught me and others to play Red Rover, for instance. Jump rope rhymes were another type of lore passed on, though for obvious reasons I wasn’t as aware of them. Later, though, in another century during the Gulf War, I remember passing a yard where a little girl was jumping rope. She was chanting a rhyme in which Saddam Hussein’s name came up, just as girls in England, two hundred years before, might have woven Napoleon Bonaparte (or “Boney”, which scanned a lot better) into their chants. That day, I felt a strong sense of the continuity of culture, and its ability to transcend time.

That’s mostly gone now. Social media and online games seem to have largely replaced interactions in the real world. Anything to do with traditional culture is actively discouraged. And then there’s the coup de gras of Covid regulations–children must be encased in bubbles (sometimes literally) and at the least, masked. What does it do to children to never see others’ faces? No shared grimaces of disgust, no smiles? And to look on other children primarily as dangers, potential sources of infection? You can bet it doesn’t make them happier or more gregarious.

My family went to the zoo a little while ago and noticed a sign at the playground there: “PLAY AT YOUR OWN RISK. We cannot guarantee that you will not get COVID-19”. Well, no. And they can’t guarantee that you won’t get stung by a bee, or stub your toe on a rock, or skin your knee. But what they are doing their very best to guarantee is that our children will grow up lonely, twisted, and above all, always afraid.

Some things are OK, some aren’t

The first book of my Sean’s Saga trilogy-to-be, The Road to Hel, is available now on audiobook. Sean is voiced by the talented Kyle Adams, who cheerfully put up with pronouncing an egregious number of words from Old Norse. It’s on sale on Audible, ITunes, and Amazon.

Now, that’s okay. Also okay is that I’m making some progress on The Well of Time, the second book in Sean’s Saga (in chapter 5 currently; I’ve just about made it to the point from which the teaser excerpt at the end of Road to Hel was taken).

What’s not okay:
1) The fact that free speech is pretty much dead in the United States, with the government (working hand in hand with Big Tech) determining not only what is true and what is false, but what people will even be allowed to see and hear.
2) The fact that so many people seem to be okay with 1). I’m shocked that there are independent authors among those who cheer on the new censorship. I saw someone make this statement, more or less: “Free speech is not meant to protect lies.” Think about it for a moment (if in doubt, take another look at point 1) and then tell me if you can drive a monster truck through the hole in that “argument”.
3) The push for mandating a vaccine which isn’t really a vaccine, which sort of, maybe, might (or might not) protect against a virus which has a 99% plus survival rate, but by dint of relentless propaganda, has everyone scared senseless anyway. And, as an extra bonus: the demonization of those who refuse to participate in this needless, quite possibly dangerous experiment–“They’re the ones who are keeping us from getting back to normal!”. Cue the torches and pitchforks!

In short, it’s not okay that we are now being ruled by fear. And sadly, that makes it difficult, these days, to just put out an upbeat post about fantasy fiction.

The Fifth Element

Every now and then I’m seized with the urge to write about woodpiles. It’s as if I’m suddenly ambushed and possessed by the spirit of Robert Frost–which happens sometimes, let me tell you, if you live in New Hampshire. And if said possession also coincides with the Chinese New Year, then you get this blog entry.

In other parts of the world, it’s said that wood warms you four times–once when you cut it, once when you split it, once when you stack it, and once when you burn it. In my neck of the woods, we would scorn such wimpy timber. Granted, I buy my wood already split, but in my experience wood warms you when: you stack it, you throw it in the truck because you have to move the stack to a new house, you restack it, you throw it in the truck again because the pest control guy said you stacked it too near the house, you restack it again, maybe split it again because the woodstove wants some smaller pieces, and then finally you burn it. That makes seven times by my count. Firewood like that would be cheap at almost any price.

And that doesn’t even count going out to the pile, several times a day, and lugging the wood back to the smaller pile, ready for burning, inside by the woodstove. When you interact with wood as much as we do, it starts to make sense that in China it was included as one of the elements. Stacking the last couple of cords with my son and daughter, it was easy to feel like we were living inside a world of wood: we were surrounded by it, breathed it, got it on our skin and blown in our eyes. Piles of wood also create an ecosystem of their own, colonized by spiders, ants, mice, crickets, and the odd wasp, like the one that clung to my glove and then stung me when I brushed my hand across my forehead.

But all the pains seem worthwhile when glowing embers fill the stove or fireplace, and flames dance with the shadows they cast. We wouldn’t have it any other way, even when the wind comes down the chimney and blows smoke into the room. Our clothes may smell of wood smoke a bit, but that’s one of the best smells there is. And that, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, is proof that the gods love us and want us to be happy.

That Time Oscar Wilde Got It Wrong

I’ve just been re-reading The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. It’s a brilliant book, and full of the wit that made Wilde famous before he gained fame for less savory reasons. However, there is one passage that Wilde, who once said that he spent a morning taking out a comma and the afternoon putting it back in, didn’t take enough time to edit. Here Lord Henry Wotton’s uncle is being described:

In politics he was a Tory, except when the Tories were in office, during which period he roundly abused them for being a pack of Radicals. He was a hero to his valet, who bullied him, and a terror to most of his relations, who he bullied in turn. Only England could have produced him, and he always said the country was going to the dogs. His principles were out of date, but there was a good deal to be said for his prejudices. 

I think Wilde suffered a bit here from having too many witty phrases at hand. He wanted to get them all down, and he did, but the passage as a whole ends lamely and sounds like, well, a bunch of quotes strung together. Here is a better version, and please note that no punctuation was harmed in making this edit:

In politics he was a Tory, except when the Tories were in office, during which period he roundly abused them for being a pack of Radicals. His principles were out of date, but there was a good deal to be said for his prejudices. He was a hero to his valet, who bullied him, and a terror to most of his relations, who he bullied in turn. Only England could have produced him, and he always said the country was going to the dogs. 

There, Oscar, wherever you may be (and the presence of a strong autobiographical element in Dorian Gray gives us a pretty shrewd idea)–fixed it for you!

The Incredible Shrinking Library

My family is in the process of moving from a big, mid-1850s Victorian to a smaller, older house in the country. One big reason is that we have fewer people–just four of us left at home. But there’s still quite a bit of furniture. Especially bookcases. Bookcases full of books. Rooms full of bookcases.

There’s no way around it. We’ve got to thin this literary thicket. So how do you make the decision, if you can only keep half your books? Or even a third?

Getting rid of multiple copies is a start. We had a surprising number of duplicates–and this isn’t some collectible copy vs. reading copy thing, either; in our house they’re all reading copies.

The next thing I ask is ‘will I ever read this again?’ It’s a tough question to answer, with some books, but if the answer was ‘Maybe, years from now’ then I rounded that down to a ‘No.’ (If the answer was ‘Hey, I forgot I even had this,’ then that translated mostly to a No also…I’d been getting by, in effect, without having that book.)

Reference books often get the benefit of the doubt, though. Nobody reads Saxo Grammaticus for fun, but when you want to put your finger on that particular passage you need to quote in your seminal essay on Loki, you want him standing by somewhere on your shelves. Likewise books that are just plain hard to get, like The Long Lost Friend, a treatise on hexes that turns up in Manly Wade Wellman’s stories. Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth, his expose of the fairy kingdom that came out just before he was reportedly abducted by those same fairies. Or my 1848 edition of The Maypole of Merrymount. (Looking at that one reminds me that time is kinder even to houses than it is to books.)

Fiction is tending to bear the brunt. I went through my ghost story collection and concluded I could spend the rest of my life, and even my afterlife, without most of them. M.R. James and Russell Kirk survived, but not much else. Science fiction was already scarce, and in the future it will be nonexistent (ironic, that). Even favorite authors are being sacrificed. Anything by John Dickson Carr that doesn’t feature his G.K. Chesterton-inspired detective, Dr. Fell, came off the shelves. Fritz Leiber shed a few books and Tim Powers is being reduced to just two (The Anubis Gates and On Stranger Tides).

The books that survive have a few things in common, whatever the genre. I need to like the characters. Or at least one. Why should you spend time with people you can’t stand? Also, there’s got to be some humor in there somewhere–it’s one of the biggest things that makes life bearable. I guess that proves I agree with Herman Hesse’s great insight in Steppenwolf.

Not that I’m probably going to read that one again.

If you take it the right way, this is a worthwhile exercise. Sort of like ‘what books would you take with you if you were stranded on a desert island?’

Because the truth is, we’re always stranded on a desert island. It’s just that some islands have more room than others.

Saving Daylight

It’s that time again, in the U.S. anyway–Daylight Savings Time ends tomorrow. It’s a nuisance, but at least this time, we get to turn the clock back and get an extra hour of sleep. The real killer is in the spring when the clock moves forward, and we celebrate by having lots of traffic accidents.
While pondering this problem recently, I came up with an ingenious plan to fix the system.
In November, nothing changes. But in March, the ‘spring forward’ will be eliminated. Instead, everyone will simply set the clock back twenty-three hours.
So, when we reach 2 a.m. on Sunday, the whatevereth of March, it instantly becomes 3 a.m. on the preceding Saturday. This accomplishes the ‘light savings’ just as well as the current system, and also gives you a do-over for that Saturday, making it a three-day holiday weekend. Or you can choose to stay in bed and sleep your way back to Sunday.
Difficult people might point out that this would create a problem over time, as we’d gain a day and every year would become, in effect, a leap year, pushing the calendar out of synch with actual solar alignments. Not to worry. We simply decree that February now will have only 27 days, and 28 in a leap year. What’s the downside of trading a day in February for an extra day in March? We’ll just have to tweak the famous rhyme a bit, which should be no problem:
Thirty days hath September,
April, June and November,
All the rest have thirty-one,
Excepting February alone–
In leap years keeping twenty-eight,
Else twenty-seven–saves a date!

Any day now, I expect to receive the accolades of a grateful nation..