myths

Readings: Visitors by Simon Sylvester

‘I am going to tell you a story,’ I said, ‘because stories explain the things we can’t control.’

I seem to be reading a lot of books about windfucked places lately. Windfucked they might be, but they are also places where one can almost feel stories wander about and get under one’s skin. Last time I went to Aran Islands, lay down on the edge of a cliff, and looked down at the foaming sea, I had this feeling. I also had that feeling when I climbed into a tiny cave in Roscommon. I am quite certain that a tiny Scottish island is one such place, which is why The Visitors by Simon Sylvester doesn’t seem fantastical to me. Of course there would be any number of strange things afoot.

NNJE3941I have an obsession with weirdness in fiction. I’m drawn to environments that seem ordinary but then turn out to be slightly askew. This doesn’t really mean urban fantasy, where the weird is actually explicit, made manifest fairly early on in the form of fairies or vampires or werewolves. No, it’s the slightly uncertain weirdness — someone may or may not be a mythical creature, and it could work either way. This is one of the reasons The Visitors worked for me, and if uncertain strangeness is your idea of a good story, it will probably work for you.

I felt as though I could thrust out my arm and break through the crust, reach a hand into another world. It felt so tangible, growing stronger by the hour, yet I somehow never touched it.

The Visitors is narrated by Flo, a teenage girl who is counting down days until her escape from the island named Bancree (‘Our traditional industries were fishing, whisky and peat. Only the whisky had survived.’). There is indeed a lot of water and a lot of peat, even where you don’t expect it: ‘his eyes were peatbog blank’. It’s atmospheric to the point that I felt cold and sort of regretted not having any decent single-malt in the immediate vicinity while I read the book.

An odd father and daughter pair moves into a house on an even tinier island next door, and Flo, not having much luck with finding friends at school, befriends the daughter. There are also a number of strange disappearances on the island, which initially trick the reader into thinking that The Visitors is going to be mystery novel. But while it might be cataloged as such in a library, the mystery is rather in the background for most of the book, whereas myth is very much front and center. Flo gets assigned an essay on Scottish myths in her history course, and with that, The Visitors is not really a whodunit anymore, if it ever was. While Sylvester uses the usual mystery novel elements, his real purpose is to demonstrate the power of myths over our minds and make them the reason people do what they do. Incidentally, I am also listening to Stacy Schiff’s Witches right now, and it creates a fascinating perspective on what one’s mind can envision. The fantastical might be real, but there is always this uncertainty because human mind is uncertain and because often people who know the secret deny it or feign ignorance.

But that’s when Fergus falls into the loch and drowns himself, and old Mary sees a seal around the same time, and all of a sudden there’s a story to tell.

There is a story in one of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s collections called For One Who has Lost Herself. It’s about a selkie looking for her sealskin that had been stolen by a human. When I first read it, it affected me so much that it’s still the only story I remember from that collection. I have a weak spot for selkie myths because they are about transformation and loss. Not just the loss of sealskin, but what it means, freedom and loss of an identity. While selkies seem to move effortlessly between two states (seal and human), they hate losing one for another. It is as if their true self lies in change itself. They will escape safety if it means having an identity to claim as their own (something that rings quite true to me as a transman).

And this is what Simon Sylvester has created, a mystery novel that is also a story about stories, about strange things lurking nearby. It’s a story of change, and loss, and place, and about how we want there to be a home and an identity we can claim as our own.

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‘Body of a myth’: Preparing the Ghost by Matthew Gavin Frank

PreparingtheGhostMech.inddI don’t generally review non-fiction, but Preparing the Ghost was so odd, so delightfully peculiar, so genre-bending, that I have to talk about it. At its most basic, it’s a story of Harvey Moses, who, in 1874, obtained a dead giant squid from some fishermen and paid them to deliver it to his house. He then draped the squid over his bathtub and got a local photographer to take the first known photo of what until then had been largely considered to be a mythical creature.

This by itself is a kind of story so Lovecraftian and unsettling that it’s enough to give you strange tentacle-filled dreams. But Frank makes it even stranger. His book is a collection of odd facts and, at first, seemingly unrelated connections between events, objects, and people. You learn quite a bit about the giant squid and people who search for it, but you also learn about how calamari came to be an item on American menus, how ice cream gained popularity, and where latex comes from (no, not from a squid). There is an entire part on how much St. John’s changed since Harvey’s time. The book made me look up trips to St. John’s simply so I could take it there and read it while munching on fish and brewis (just one of the words you learn from the book) and gazing at the sea.

Preparing the Ghost is itself like an antique photograph — vaguely disturbing and fascinating, with a complex story behind a single image. I could say that this book is simply a collection of bizarre historical facts, but it is much more than that. It is part history and memoir, but it is also a philosophical study. There is a section on pain and empathy. There are reflections on migration, home, and belonging. There is also a sense of impermanence throughout the little volume. Grandparents die, towns change, squid specimens disintegrate, myths get destroyed.

Preparing the Ghost is, most of all, a study of myth-making and myth-destroying. It is an autopsy report of sorts for the giant squid and its place in our imagination. The fact that the squid was dead and that there was now a photo of it did not make the giant squid any less mythical. Frank’s own obsession with the animal and people who hunted it becomes most apparent towards the end, when the book turns on itself, becomes meta-fictional, with the author questioning his own descriptions of what transpired when Harvey obtained the squid. Frank writes his own myths and, in turn, inspires a whole new wave of obsession (myself included).

I leave you with notes I took while reading this book, because I no longer have sentences that can convey what this book is:

– spaghettical

– campanulate

– ‘while real, can best be captured in theory’

– ‘Newfoundland saw its first road in 1825’

– squid-skinning machine

– tenacious ejaculatory apparati

– auks

– Giant-Squid Erotica

– scapulimancy

– suicidal Newfoundlands

I also leave you with this page from my notes:

0719142111

 

 

‘The sun sank in accordance with the old ritual…’: The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

vintage-sf-badge

Vintage Sci-fi Month is still going on, and here’s my official post for it. For more vintage goodness, including some good essays on what the hell vintage sci-fi is, head to Little Red Reviewer’s blog.

The Dying Earth is such an integral part of the genre that it feels as if you’ve read it even if you haven’t. It’s like getting all the Star Trek references in conversation even if you haven’t seen a single episode. You absorb it by osmosis, though in this case the message got a bit garbled, methinks. Let’s look at the Wikipedia page for The Dying Earth, shall we? Turns out, it was voted one of the best novels in the 1987 poll conducted by Locus magazine. Novels? Wait a second. Sure, all the parts of it are set in the same world, and there are the same people who keep popping up, but really, if you go into it expecting a novel, you will be very confused. What is even more confusing is that the omnibus edition I own says ‘All four Dying Earth novels in one volume’. I suppose that’s because short stories and novellas don’t really sell. Plus there is this new cover. It’s beautiful, but somehow does not match the contents.

dyingearthAll of the above shouldn’t really matter, except that expectations do affect your reading experience, and I can just picture people starting The Dying Earth and throwing up their hands, going ‘WTF is this? And why do I feel like I’m reading some ancient sagas?’ Well, it’s because you are. Reading sagas, that is. The Dying Earth is not a novel. It’s not really even a collection of short stories. It’s a collection of myths. People obey strange unwritten rules and speak in riddles. Archetypes abound. People go on quests. There are wizards. It’s like Silmarillion, but for a different universe and mythology. Once you know that, you can relax and immerse yourself in the Dying Earth universe. And it’s a fantastic place. Vance is a master when it comes to the creation of setting and atmosphere. In The Dying Earth, his writing has a lyrical, wistful quality to it. It’s the style perfectly suited to the content, to the idea itself of the sun being slowly extinguished. It has a certain finality to it, and a sense of loneliness. Anything is possible and yet the time is running out. People are ‘feverishly merry’.

The stories all have a common theme (besides the Earth dying), and that is acquisition and preservation of knowledge and how to use it in the time remaining. The first story starts by Turjan of Miir going on a quest because he is promised knowledge at the end of it. The other stories continue with the idea of traveling to gain wisdom, to find something new, to boldly go, as it were.

As fun as these stories are, I don’t think the omnibus is for reading from cover to cover. I myself found it easier and more enjoyable to read Vance in small doses. So that’s my caveat to the reader: Vance is for tasting, not for binging.

Oh, and if ‘you can only hold four spells in your head’ idea takes you back to your D&D days, here’s a great little piece on The Dying Earth as it relates to gaming. My friend said he was reading The Dying Earth books in order to know his ‘geek heritage’.

Finally: is it actually sci-fi? Or is it fantasy? You see, the lines were much more blurry in 1950. It’s both, or it’s neither. See my note about it being a collection of myths.