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Pilgrimage, Heroic Fantasy, and Robin Hood

Pilgrimage, Heroic Fantasy, and Robin Hood

The difference between wanting to write and having written is…hard, relentless labour. It’s a bridge you have to build all by yourself, all alone, all through the night, while the world goes about its business without giving a damn. The only way of making this perilous passage is by looking at it as a pilgrimage. ― Shatrujeet Nath

What a pilgrimage it has been — and it’s far from ended.

I meant to write a blog post last month, or perhaps the month before, about the most influential character I ever encountered as a reader, and thought the character and the words would come pouring forth with ease.

I shoulda known better.

My imagination went into hiding, I seemed to forget every story I’d ever read, and all the words evaporated like summer rain in the desert.

HFQ 6x9 front cover ONLY-croppedAdd to that sudden betrayal by my brain the equally sudden request from my friends at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly: They’d finalized the stories and poems for their anthology, and were ready for me to do my part — design and format the book.

I’d been preparing for this event for about two years. It is one of several reasons I published Dragon’s Rook after almost throwing it away. Needing material on which to practice, I heavily revised the novel and restructured it, then learned how to format it for print and e-book, and then — with the artwork and cover design from a friend — published it independently. The experience and skills gained from that process has been put to excellent use in helping bring HFQ’s anthology to the public.

Words may have hidden from me, but book formatting is a different kind of creativity.There wasn’t much time to bemoan the lack of storytelling or blog posting — there was a cover to design, and text to manipulate, and fonts to sample. And a deadline to meet.

Still, I pondered which character(s) could be considered “the most influential”, but didn’t know the answer until it strolled onto the scene in a private message exchange on social media. A fellow writer said he was preparing to read my book, but had lost some of his enthusiasm for the genre.

There’s more to his message, and more to my reply, but this is the portion pertinent to this post:

(I)f you proceed, I hope you’re pleasantly surprised. People see swords and dragons, and they form opinions without knowing how those items are used in the story. Rather than being a Tolkien knock-off or a GRRM wannabe, Dragon’s Rook is its own thing.

Couldn’t duplicate GRRM or Robert Jordan or most others, even if I tried, because I’ve never read them. My reading is mainly in other genres — detective mysteries, for example.

The main stylistic influence is Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, a book which led to trouble one summer when I confessed to having read it x number of times and was about to read it again. Dad decided I needed to get out more, so he made my brother and me cut and haul pine on BLM land that needed to be cleared, and then we stacked it at our house in preparation for winter. (Yes, I have stories about stories.)

Bingo! Robin Hood! How did I not realize that before?

a photo of the rough front cover of my beloved Velveteen-Rabbit-ed copy (KB)

a photo of the front cover of my beloved Velveteen-Rabbit-ed copy (KB)

He isn’t the only character who has influenced my life once I read his/her story, but Robin i’ the Hood certainly had an impact on my plans that summer.

My dad meant to make me exercise and soak up sunlight, but he’s also the one who introduced me to this edition of the book, and he used to read portions aloud, so — loving it as he did — what did he expect but that I would love it, too?

I loved it so much, in fact, that the copy pictured here has begun to fall apart. Several years ago, I purchased a replacement copy — in much better shape, almost pristine — of this very same edition. It is the best, mimicking an illuminated text, and rich with color and action.

I’ve read other versions by other authors, but none beats Howard Pyle’s. It’s robust, full of humor and tragedy and exploits, and it fired my imagination until I composed pale imitations of the adventures of Robin and his merry band.

In seeking for something Robin-like, I stumbled upon other classic tales, such as Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel.

You guessed it. That book’s falling apart, too.

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Annotated Dracula (part 1)

(Below is a revised re-post from January 27 and February 7, 2010.)

‘You are early to-night, my friend.’ The man stammered in reply: —

‘The English Herr was in a hurry,’ to which the stranger replied: —

‘That is why, I suppose, you wished him to go on to Bukovina. You cannot deceive me, my friend; I know too much, and my horses are swift.’ As he spoke he smiled, the lamplight fell on a hard-looking mouth, with very red lips and sharp-looking teeth, as white as ivory. One of my companions whispered to another the line from Burger’s ‘Lenore’: —

‘Denn die Todten reiten schnell.’ —
(‘For the dead travel fast.’)

I picked up a copy of Bram Stoker’s classic novel after I finished NaNoWriMo 2009 (during which I worked more on what’s probably my darkest effort to date), and re-acquainted myself with one of the foundational vampire tales. Dracula is far removed from the modern re-imaginings of the mythology — and, strange as this may seem, it was refreshing.

Anybody else tired of hearing about Bella and Edward and whoever else they hang with? Anybody else look with a canted eye at Buffy and Angel?

But the suckers — ahem — critters have populated frightening tales for centuries, and I don’t expect them to leave anytime soon.

On occasion, I participate in the CSFF Blog Tour, which has featured modern vampire novels: Shade by John Olson, and Haunt of Jackals by Eric Wilson. (My blog posts about each can be found here: Shade 1, 2, 3 and Jackals 1, 2, 3.) Both books are in series, and are different takes on the mythology. Shade presents more of a “psychic vampire” image without the traditional blood-letting, but Jackals is much more graphic and offers a twist on the ability of vampires to shape-shift.

I read those books, sampled some television series (those mentioned above, also Forever Knight and Moonlight), listened to teenagers — and even adults — rave about the Twilight books and films, and experienced the strange sensation of being lost, of being pressed under the weight of all those versions and the various leaps (or chasms) in logic that made me unable to suspend disbelief for long, if at all.

Dracula coverSo I went back to what many might consider source material: Bram Stoker‘s Dracula. He was not the first to cover this ancient ground (other well-known stories include Polidori‘s The Vampyre, and Le Fanu‘s Carmilla), but he is very likely the most well-known and most-referenced author of vampire fiction. The copy I chose is the Simon & Schuster Enriched Classics edition, with notes and commentary by Joseph Valente, a Professor of English.

[Though I enjoy books in which such additional information helps provide historical, social, political, or religious context, or discusses why something may have been important or overlooked by characters in the book, and so on, I sometimes wonder how much of the commentary is really just the commentator’s twisting of the text to fit an opinion, and how much is straight-forward observation of the material.]

Vampires and sex, an age-old coupling. The reasons are obvious: attacks that happen at night, usually on victims who are of the opposite gender to the vampires doing the attacking, and (in Dracula the novel) after the victims are in bed. And there’s the whole neck-biting schtick—which, as we all know, is more than a flirty little nibble.

There’s a lot of writing out there concerning vampirism and Victorian views of sexuality, and there’s a realm of scholarship that sees Dracula the character as freeing women sexually while Van Helsing, et al, try to suppress them. And, though the women seek help from their friends and send up prayers to God, they are drawn to the immortal count because their subconscious supposedly really, really wants him.

While such arguments might be made, there’s not much in the novel itself to support them. Yeah, vampires may work their mojo, but they’re presented as evil, and not all that sexy. Sensual, maybe, but not freeing. They’re rapists—even the females. After all, rape isn’t about sex or mutual expression or love. It’s about power and control.

Dracula controls Lucy. He controls Mina. Neither woman wants what he’s offering, and the men do what they can to stop him. Sure, they make some bonehead mistakes, like leaving Mina alone while they scout the count’s London digs, but I never get the impression they are trying to suppress either woman. In fact, Mina and Jonathan seem quite happy with their marriage. Until Dracula gets involved, of course.

to be continued

UPDATE: Last year, I read John Whalen’s excellent Western twist on vampires, Vampire Siege at Rio Muerto. You can read my review of his well-received novel here.

 

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The End? (Examining Famous Novel Endings While Trying to Write My Own)

Today I return to the final bits of writing before a book is published: the acknowledgements, the back cover summary, the author bio (the dreaded bio), and more.

In so doing, I am drawn back to an old blog post from April 2009, in which I addressed endings from classic novels, as well as the endings for two of my own novels. Perhaps I should not have struggled — those two endings have yet to be written.

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I’ve been considering endings. Writers are constantly being advised about the best ways to begin their tales, though what comes after may be less than stellar, but a strong ending can redeem a weak opening (not that I’m advocating such).

What makes a story work, beginning to end? All writers have the same tools, but each wields them differently, so that time bends in one writer’s hands, but is linear in another’s. One writer excels in action, another in dialogue or description. But one shouldn’t only play to one’s strengths; all writers should — in my occasionally humble opinion — practice to add muscle to their weaknesses, turning them into strengths.

TCOMOne way is to study other writers and other stories. I often go back to the classics. For instance, the classic revenge tale, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, begins thus:

On February 24, 1815, the watchtower at Marseilles signaled the arrival of the three-master Pharaon, coming from Smyrna, Trieste, and Naples.

A deceptively quiet first sentence, it still has the tang of mystery about it. Why the importance of the date? The word watchtower has more than one implication, the arrival of a ship also signals the arrival of people and goods, and the cities are ports of call where intriguing events might have occurred that will affect the story.

Just as the book opens with a ship’s arrival, it ends with the sailing of another vessel:

“Look,” said Jacopo.

The two young people looked in the direction in which he was pointing. On the dark blue line separating the sky from the Mediterranean they saw a white sail.

“Gone!” cried Maximilien. “Farewell, my friend, my father!”

“Gone!” murmured Valentine. “Farewell, my friend! Farewell, my sister!”

“Who knows if we’ll ever see them again?” said Maximilien.

“My darling,” said Valentine, “the count just told us that all human wisdom was contained in these two words: Wait and hope.”

I’m not a fan of all those exclamation marks, but that last line is as strong an end as a story needs.

Some Danger InvolvedFast-forward a couple centuries, and Will Thomas writes an excellent series of mystery novels featuring Barker & Llewellyn. The first book, Some Danger Involved, begins thus:

If someone had told me, those many years ago, that I would spend the bulk of my life as assitant and eventual partner to one of the most eminent detectives in London, I would have thought him a raving lunatic.

It ends thus:

I mused for a moment. “We did it, didn’t we? We actually solved a case. Well, you did, anyway. Racket tried to throw us off the scent, but you saw through it all. There’s just one thing that puzzles me.”

“What is that?” he asked.

“Who’s this widow you haven’t mentioned before?”

He didn’t say anything, but I knew I’d struck a nerve. His pipe went out.

Humor and mystery, even at the end. Perfect.

The Queen of Bedlam 260x420The Queen of Bedlam, another mystery, this one by Robert McCammon, begins with a bit of philosophy and history:

‘Twas said better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, but in the town of New York in the summer of 1702 one might do both, for the candles were small and the dark was large.

And it ends with a bit of rumination:

Matthew held the glass close to the fingerprints and narrowed his eyes.

How like a maze a fingerprint was, he thought. How like the unknown streets and alleys of a strange city. Curving and circling, ending here and going there, snaking and twisting and cut by a slash.

Matthew followed the maze with his glass, deeper and deeper, deeper still.
Deeper yet, toward the center of it all.

Again, a book that ends but a story that doesn’t, as the main character, having survived and solved a case, still seeks a killer who eluded him.

Hobbit-bookHow about another classic? JRR Tolkien‘s The Hobbit, my introductory drug to the whole fantasy genre, begins with a now-famous paragraph:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat; it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

Hmm. Exactly how does a hobbit-hole mean comfort? And what in the world is a hobbit?

“The the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.

“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.

A cozy ending to a rousing adventure, coming (almost) full circle, for the hobbit at the end, while still enjoying his comforts, is a different hobbit from the fussy little man at the beginning.

The Meaning of NightThis last illustration is from The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox:

After killing the red-haird man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.

The first time I read that line, I didn’t want to read the book, because such a sentence could only be a trick, a flamboyant barker’s call to ride the rollercoaster, and the rest of the ride would be disappointing. Not so. And, just as in The Count of Monte Cristo, the quest for revenge turns the man seeking the revenge:

This, then, is what I have learned, since writing my confession on this final shore:

Honor not the malice of thine enemy so much, as to say, thy misery comes from him; Dishonour not the complexion of the times so much, as to say, thy misery comes from them; justifie not the Deity of Fortune so much, as to say, thy misery comes from her; Finde God pleased with thee, and thou hast a hook in the nostrils of every Leviathan.

I long for sleep, and for soft English rain. But they do not come.

E.G.

Regret, lessons hard-learned, and desires unmet: Was the revenge worth the cost?

As for my own writing, I know where I want a fantasy story to end — the final scene has been written for years — but there’s still a manuscript-and-a-half to finish first. However, because of what the three characters endure before that scene, the quiet ending will carry the weight of all the adventures and sacrifices, all the dreams and losses, that have gone before it.

In the science fiction serial novel, I don’t know the ending. I know the conflicts and the characters, and the broad brush-strokes of the background, but the minutiae I’m learning as I go, right along with the readers: the less-obvious motives of the characters, the various reasons the colonies exist and are in conflict with the rebels, what’s going to happen next.

I just don’t know how it’s going to end.

Having a work in progress even as it’s being published is a disquieting circumstance for me. It keeps me writing, and it takes me on a journey. Maybe I’ll only know the ending when I get there, and not a moment before.

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UPDATE:

The two novels remain unfinished.

Life, you see, has a way of imposing roadblocks.

But roadblocks are only delays, not final destinations.

After all, one need not use roads to achieve the goal. Sometimes one must blaze a trail.

The “manuscript-and-half” mentioned above has become merely one manuscript. The trilogy has been shrunk to a duology, and the first book should be coming soon. Dragon’s Rook was expected in the summer, but I’m hoping it will be available in e-book form by winter. A cover is forthcoming.

 

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