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.

Dark Promotions

Am I the only one who still associates “Black Friday” with the stock market crash and people jumping out of windows?

Anyway, it seems that we all must celebrate this newfangled mercantile holiday, so I’ve scheduled promotions on my two older books.

Robin Hood: Wolf’s Head is on a Kindle Countdown deal from November 22nd to November 29th ( in both the U.S. and U.K. stores).

The Road to Hel will be free from November 23rd to November 27th.

Also my celebration of a much older holiday is just out:  Father Winter: A Yule Story.

Found Books and Lost Opportunities

When I was young, my family went to the library fairly often. I would always scan the shelves for books by my favorite authors, which definitely included Fritz Leiber. There was no Internet yet, of course, and I didn’t subscribe to publishing newsletters or own a copy of Books In Print, so the only way I knew that he had a new book out (well, new to me, anyway) was if it turned up in the library (or possibly, if a title was mentioned in the book’s end matter). Later, when lawn mowing brought me in a bit of cash, I would also check bookstores–of the brick and mortar variety, naturally–in the same way.

It was always a thrill when I found that one of my favorites had written something that I’d never read before–especially if the author had shuffled off his or her mortal coil, and I never expected anything new from them this side of the afterlife. I remember feeling this way when I came across C.S. Lewis’ The Dark Tower, for instance. But now that I’m older and living in an environment saturated with information, that kind of thing can’t happen any more…right?

Wrong again. A couple of months ago Colette and the kids and I went to a library book sale. The fiction shelves didn’t offer much that appealed to me, but I did spot a hardback copy of Leiber’s The Big Time that looked brand new. (Now free on Kindle, by the way!) I almost didn’t get it–I did have a copy of that book already, a signed British first edition, in fact. But Colette convinced me to get it anyway–after all, the books were only costing us maybe 50 cents each, and we still had at least one space to fill in some forgotten corner of a spare room bookcase. Also this edition (which turned out to be from the Science Fiction Book Club) included an introduction by Leiber, which wasn’t in the one I had.

Well, in that introduction, Leiber mentioned that he’d written a sequel to The Big Time–a novella that I’d never heard of before: No Great Magic. This being the information age, it was quick work to find it and order a copy–in fact, a copy of ChangeWar, which includes all of Leiber’s Changewar stories (including at least one other that I’d never read).

My review is here.

Finding this book reminds me of a long-ago lost opportunity. While I was living in San Francisco in the eighties, the famous City Lights bookstore hosted a Leiber book signing–The Ghost Light had just come out (it seems to be out of print now). I didn’t have enough money at the time to buy a copy–this was before credit cards, too, at least for me–and though I looked in at the window, I was too diffident to go in and talk to him. I’ll always regret that–at least I could have shaken his hand and told him how much his stories had meant to me. Not that I’d know from my own experience, but I’ll bet an author never gets tired of hearing that.

Halloween Reading: Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk was probably the greatest American conservative political thinker of the 20th century. He also wrote ghost stories and threw, by all accounts, one hell of a Halloween party (see here and here).

Kirk wrote several books of political history and philosophy, as well as the only auto-biography I’ve ever read that was written in the third person. But the books I keep coming back to are his collections of ghost stories (The Princess of All Lands and Watchers at the Strait Gate are the two I’m familiar with) and his three more or less Gothic novels: Old House of Fear, A Creature of the Twilight, and Lord of the Hollow Dark.

It’s a strange and unaccountable fact that these books have even fewer reviews on Amazon than mine do. Lord of the Hollow Dark is the hardest to find–I’m lucky enough to have a nice hardback copy.

Here are my recent reviews of the latter two.

A Creature of the Twilight blends Gothic romance and geopolitical thriller. Told in a mixture of voices, including diary entries, letters, newspaper articles and broadcast transcripts, there’s a nineteenth-century flavor to its style–something like Dracula, if Stoker’s vampire prince had still taken an active hand in the wars and political maneuverings of the day. Indeed, Kirk’s hero Manfred Arcane, collector of souls damned or nearly so, has been given the title ‘Father of Shadows’, which I suspect Vlad himself would have been proud to own.

The wars and political intrigues in the story wouldn’t seem too out of place in a modern newspaper (which is a bit sad when you consider the implications for American foreign policy in the last fifty years). There are satisfying revenges, narrow escapes, desperate battles, loves both doomed and destined, and hints of the occult. Kirk’s writing is erudite; you may have to look up a few words, some of which might join your list of favorites–how did I ever survive without knowing what ‘crepuscular’ means, for instance?

Then there’s the amazing scene where Arcane rallies his motley troops who are about to face the Russian-backed Communist forces, giving the mother of all speeches to inspire Christians, Muslims, and Pagan jinn worshipers to fight as one. Not to be missed!


I’m on my fourth or fifth re-reading of Lord of the Hollow Dark. Each time, there is something new to appreciate. If you like mazes and labyrinths, archaeology, ghost stories, history, spelunking, metaphysics, Gothic atmosphere, or a combination of all of them, you will love this book.

In this story, Manfred Arcane, the central figure of A Creature Of The Twilight, returns to battle powers and principalities in a moldering Scottish mansion, trying to head off a diabolic ritual set in the underground caves of a medieval Purgatory. Along the way he finds allies among the dead and the not-quite-so-dead. He also adds to his collection of rescued souls, though that requires some very tough love (the best thing he can say to one of his proteges is ‘at least your vices are natural vices’.)

Note that there are two prequels to this book among Kirk’s short stories: ‘Balgrummo’s Hell’ and ‘The Peculiar Demesne of Archvicar Gerontion’. It isn’t required to read these before Lord of the Hollow Dark, but it would add to one’s enjoyment.

As other reviewers have noted, the story moves slowly, and there is no overt horror (though a few chills are delivered along the way). Actually, I appreciate that; my imagination is quite capable of filling in the blanks if I feel like it.

There’s a strong Christian element in the story, but the conflict boils down to good vs. evil, and all of us (I hope) have a dog in that fight. And the uplifting ending makes Lord of the Hollow Dark a book for all seasons: good reading for the Spring as well as the darkening Fall.


Cover reveal: Father Winter

Coming in November:



What can Holly do for a big brother who’s decided to be Naughty? Her plan is simple: find an elf, convince him to take her to the North Pole, and change the List so Connor will be Nice.

Connor follows, and the journey will test both her faith and his unbelief. They travel through a dark landscape where bears turn into men and dreams drift over the ice. Their quest leads them to an Inuit village, the den of the crafty Snow Fox, a secret paradise for retired reindeer, and finally to Father Winter’s magical palace and the hidden chamber where the List waits.

But to get what they really want, they must learn all of Father Winter’s Rules. And the most important one is: there are no guarantees.

My review of “50 Stories 50”: Something for Everyone

The flash review:
Fifty stories. Two short of a full deck. Which cards are missing?
Not the wild ones, that’s for sure.

The micro review:
Reading this book is a bit like having a traveling storyteller show up at your door. You try to say, “I gave at the office” or something equally inane, but he just begins telling a story. You have a lot of things to do, but somehow you decide to put them all off. You just sit there listening to this stranger. As soon as he ends one story, he begins another.

After a while, reality starts to blur. You can’t tell if that voice is inside or outside your head. Are you really sitting here alone, imagining the storyteller, talking to yourself? In that case, you might be crazy.

But on the plus side, you’re a lot more talented than even your mom ever thought.

The short review:
As promised, this is a grab bag of all kinds of fiction: short, shorter and shortest. It’s structured something like a concerto, starting with very short pieces, expanding in the middle to traditional short story length, then ending snappily with some more ultra-shorts. There’s fantasy, science fiction, literary surrealism, Westerns of a sort, fairy tales both fractured and sweetly whole, and possibly some new genres that I could identify if I were an expert in the field–think of finding out that bug you just flicked out the window was an entirely new species and would have made you famous. There’s one story that’s like Riddley Walker meets Billy the Kid. Another one reads like Beowulf transposed to a football field. Yet another, written from the point of view of an artificial intelligence, takes you on a journey way past the Third Law of Robotics. Then there’s a fairy tale that might have come straight from someone’s great-grandmother sitting by an Eastern European hearth.

It’s easy to read quite a few of these at one sitting, though you risk having a kind of mild hallucinogenic effect set in, possibly similar to the kick Sheridan Le Fanu got from drinking green tea. If you disregard this, the effects might build to the point where all of a sudden, you’re riding on a unicorn and swapping stories with Randolph Carter, without really feeling that anything out of the ordinary is going on. It might be better to read and savor these stories one at a time, with world and time in between, but I couldn’t do it that way.

Of course, I liked some stories more than others. There were a few where I could have done with more resolution in the ending, for instance. But with this collection, if you find something you don’t care for, you can always just move on to the next story…and the next.

Cave of the Fire Giant

As the author of one-third of a trilogy based on Norse mythology, I couldn’t pass up this Archaeology Magazine article on a cave in Iceland called Surtshellir (“Surt’s Cave”).

Surt is, of course, the ruler of Muspelheim, the fire giant who is said to destroy all of creation in accounts of Ragnarok, notably the Voluspa.

Surthshellir is a lava tube cave, an eminently desirable residence from a fire giant’s point of view. The cave used to be nearly inaccessible until relatively recent times, when a partial ceiling collapse opened up a sort of “skylight”. As a bonus, the cave boasts an underground stone wall and caches of smashed bones (one of the side caves is called “Beinaheller”–Bone Cave.)

The Icelandic settlers apparently recognized this early on, when Thorvald Thordarson traveled there to offer a drapa to Surt.

I found it interesting that the archaeologists researching the site can’t quite agree about what went on there. Some favor the hypothesis that it’s the abandoned lair of a famous outlaw band. (There are stories in Iceland to this effect–actually a good many over the centuries.) This contrasts with what some other archaeologists think, which is closer to their usual position when they don’t understand something: wave your hands vaguely and mutter ‘It must have had religious significance.’

Well, in the case of Surtshellir, I’m going to side with the wavers and mutterers. Let’s start with Thordarson’s drapa. I think that incident fits right in with other accounts of Iceland’s new settlers immediately recognizing some sites on the island as sacred (for example, Helgafell). In Surtshellir’s case, ‘unhallowed’ might be a more appropriate designation. So why a drapa, which is usually a poem of praise? Why would Thordarson celebrate a world-destroying fire giant? I would guess that it’s the same tendency that led those who feared fairies to refer to them as ‘The Good Folk’. Thordarson may have reasoned that if he praised Surt, the giant might stay put and rest on his fiery laurels.

The smashed bones piled up in the cave certainly seem like the remains of sacrifices. The bones weren’t cooked, but what need is there to pre-roast offerings to a fire giant? He can obviously handle his own cooking.

Then there’s the little detail of the fortress wall built across the cave, eight hundred feet away from the entrance. When it was built, there would have been no natural light down there. And no signs of human occupation have been found past that point. So I don’t put much stock in the idea that the wall was some outlaw’s defense structure. It was built to keep something in, something that might otherwise erupt (literally) from the dark places under the earth.

There’s also the incident of Snorri Sturluson’s son being mutilated, then left on the wall to die (amazing that he didn’t–even post-Viking Age Icelanders must have been pretty tough). It’s really hard not to see this as his enemies killing two birds with one stone, combining revenge with a sacrifice to Surt.

As for the stories about the cave being an outlaws’ hideout, I’m guessing that tradition arose to provide a convenient explanation for avoiding the cave, after Christianity had driven heathen culture and religion underground (no pun intended). The only thing I wonder about is, why not a tradition that the Devil lived there, at the entrance to the Christian Hell? Maybe just because outlaws were better characters for sagas.

Anyway, the cave is still there, Iceland is still there, so the strategy to contain Surt must have worked!