a magical world

July 12, 2020

Some years ago I had a conversation with a man who thought that writing and editing fantasy books was a rather frivolous job for a grown woman like me. He wasn’t trying to be contentious, but he himself was a probation officer, working with troubled kids from the Indian reservation where he’d been raised. Day in, day out, he dealt in a concrete way with very concrete problems, well aware that his words and deeds could change young lives for good or ill.

I argued that certain stories are also capable of changing lives, addressing some of the same problems and issues he confronted in his daily work: problems of poverty, violence, and alienation, issues of culture, race, gender, and class…

“Stories aren’t real,” he told me shortly. “They don’t feed a kid left home in an empty house. Or keep an abusive relative at bay. Or prevent an unloved child from finding ‘family’ in the nearest gang.”

Sometimes they do, I tried to argue. The right stories, read at the right time, can be as important as shelter or food. They can help us to escape calamity, and heal us in its aftermath. He frowned, dismissing this foolishness, but his wife was more conciliatory. “Write down the names of some books,” she said. “Maybe we’ll read them.”

I wrote some titles on a scrap of paper, and the top three were by Charles de lint – for these are precisely the kind of tales that Charles tells better than anyone. The vital, necessary stories. The ones that can change and heal young lives. Stories that use the power of myth to speak truth to the human heart.

Charles de Lint creates a magical world that’s not off in a distant Neverland but here and now and accessible, formed by the “magic” of friendship, art, community, and social activism. Although most of his books have not been published specifically for adolescents and young adults, nonetheless young readers find them and embrace them with particular passion. I’ve long lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people from troubled backgrounds say that books by Charles saved them in their youth, and kept them going.

Recently I saw that parole officer again, and I asked after his work. “Gets harder every year,” he said. “Or maybe I’m just getting old.” He stopped me as I turned to go. “That writer? That Charles de Lint? My wife got me to read them books…Sometimes I pass them to the kids.”

“Do they like them?” I asked him curiously.

“If I can get them to read, they do. I tell them: Stories are important.”

And then he looked at me and smiled.

Terri Windling
Myth & Moor

Bypasses

July 11, 2020

Bypasses are devices that allow some people to dash from point A to point B very fast while other people dash from point B to point A very fast. People living at point C, being a point directly in between, are often given to wonder what’s so great about point A that so many people from point B are so keen to get there, and what’s so great about point B that so many people from point A are so keen to get there. They often wish that people would just once and for all work out where the hell they wanted to be.

Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, traveling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator — marked by her forever — remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.

The author of the story I’ve described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. Lichberg later became a prominent journalist in the Nazi era, and his youthful works faded from view. Did Nabokov, who remained in Berlin until 1937, adopt Lichberg’s tale consciously? Or did the earlier tale exist for Nabokov as a hidden, unacknowledged memory? The history of literature is not without examples of this phenomenon, called cryptomnesia. Another hypothesis is that Nabokov, knowing Lichberg’s tale perfectly well, had set himself to that art of quotation that Thomas Mann, himself a master of it, called “higher cribbing.” Literature has always been a crucible in which familiar themes are continually recast. Little of what we admire in Nabokov’s Lolita is to be found in its predecessor; the former is in no way deducible from the latter. Still: did Nabokov consciously borrow and quote?

[….]

Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time. When I was thirteen I purchased an anthology of Beat writing. Immediately, and to my very great excitement, I discovered one William S. Burroughs, author of something called Naked Lunch, excerpted there in all its coruscating brilliance. Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to offer. Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever had as strong an effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing. Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers’ texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism. Some of these borrowings had been lifted from American science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, adding a secondary shock of recognition for me. By then I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was central to whatever he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Burroughs was interrogating the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors was no plagiarist at all.

Jonathan Lethem
The Ecstasy of Influence

On the surface, I was calm: in secret, without really admitting it, I was waiting for something. Her return? How could I have been waiting for that? We all know that we are material creatures, subject to the laws of physiology and physics, and not even the power of all our feelings combined can defeat those laws. All we can do is detest them. The age-old faith of lovers and poets in the power of love, stronger than death, that finis vitae sed non amoris, is a lie, useless and not even funny. So must one be resigned to being a clock that measures the passage of time, now out of order, now repaired, and whose mechanism generates despair and love as soon as its maker sets it going? Are we to grow used to the idea that every man relives ancient torments, which are all the more profound because they grow comic with repetition? That human existence should repeat itself, well and good, but that it should repeat itself like a hackneyed tune, or a record a drunkard keeps playing as he feeds coins into the jukebox…

Must I go on living here then, among the objects we both had touched, in the air she had breathed? In the name of what? In the hope of her return? I hoped for nothing. And yet I lived in expectation. Since she had gone, that was all that remained. I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.

Stanisław Lem
Solaris

It is a still morning, misty and dappled, and where the light touches flesh or linen or fresh leaves, there is a sheen like the sheen on an eggshell: the whole world luminous, its angles softened, its scent watery and green.

Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall

If I create a female character, I would like to be able to show her having the emotions all human beings have – hate, envy, spite, lust, anger and fear, as well as love, compassion, tolerance and joy – without having her pronounced a monster, a slur, or a bad example.

Margaret Atwood
The Curse of Eve – Or, What I Learned in School

Absolutely drained

June 16, 2020

Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great.

Roald Dahl
Boy: Tales of Childhood

Those knives for slicing open a man’s skull, those needles for sewing up the lips. Just what kind of skins had we seen? And now I thought about the large pots in the kitchen, large enough to contain a whole head…

I steadied myself on the stack of tea chests. “What is Eaton involved with?”

“Does this mean he’s killing people?” asked Flossie…

Sam’s white face was now glistening with sweat. “Wait…not so fast! There has to be some rational explanation for all this.”

There was a click. Followed by a humming sound. We all jumped. Then I realised it was coming from a small fridge in the corner that none of us had noticed before.

We all stared at it. “OK,” I said. “Who’s brave enough to look in there?”

Fiona Dunbar
Divine Freaks

He talked about terrible meetings in lonely places, of cyclopean ruins in the heart of the Maine woods beneath which vast staircases led down to abysses of nighted secrets, of complex angles that led through invisible walls to other regions of space and time, and of hideous exchanges of personality that permitted explorations in remote and forbidden places, on other worlds, and in different space-time continua.

H.P. Lovecraft
The Thing on the Doorstep