So social media is full of #metoo. Or, as one friend put it, “of course #metoo” and as many others have asked: is this any kind of a surprise?
A couple of years ago (at Clarion West) I wrote a story called “On Highway 18.” It’s about small towns and girls and cars and hitchhiking and the constant, pervasive, numbing threat of violence, which touches everyone directly or indirectly. It grew from my own experiences as a young woman, and I borrowed a few from other people as well.
It’s much easier to write fiction about this kind of pervasive, low-grade anxiety because in relating each lived example, I tend to downplay the hurt. They seem slight in retrospect, even if my skin crawled at the time, or prickled with anxious sweat, or I sprinted from the scene with my heart beating in my throat. If I described the facts of these sorts of events, I might add, I know other people have experienced much worse, or but you know I’m fine, or it wasn’t that bad… was it?
In fiction, though, I can try and capture the immediate, subjective experience, independent of whether the encounter was “bad enough” to count as trauma. In fiction there’s room for evocation and impressionism, to describe the way each encounter taught me something about what it means to be a woman, and the amount of power men had to define me, to tell me to smile, to demand my attention. To touch me. “On Highway 18” was therapeutic from that perspective, a whole catalogue of experiences that aren’t “that bad,” but nevertheless accumulate into a feeling of dread and smallness. At least, for one of the characters. Other characters aren’t so “lucky.”
I’m posting this paragraph, which is reportage:
Not that it was the first time someone had asked if she worked. It starts early. Fourteen on the sidewalk after the movie let out, waiting for Petra’s mom. A car pulled up close and the driver—some guy with a scrubby moustache and the ubiquitous baseball cap.
“You girls want to party?”
Jen giggled, and Petra said something like, Um. I don’t know? Her voice weak-sounding, the way it rose at the end. The guy pulled away without saying anything else.
Worse has happened since, and worse is happening this very moment, but I still hate that I didn’t know– as a fourteen year old– how to answer his question more powerfully.
ETA: The podcast is now available, for those who prefer audio.
I’ve written a lot about the appeal of the archive and library: ”Water Logic” over at Capricious, and The Paradise Engine describe my own experience as a researcher, and the confusing and frustrating labour by which we make meaning out of things left behind. They’re my attempts to capture the pleasure and anxiety of archive fever.
“The Fall of the Mundaneum” is part of the same impulse. I started thinking about it when I first read about Paul Otlet and his Mundaneum, which was a kind of world catalogue, infinitely extendable, and designed to—eventually—take in all human knowledge. It was part of a huge and ambitious project, and an international movement, parallel to (and at odds with) the European arms race that led to the First World War.
My Mundaneum is quite different: it’s a museum and a junk-drawer and a wunderkammer as well as a catalogue; it’s a temple to the utopian dreams of Europe before 1914; it’s a physical wiki-binge. My story follows a young man left in charge of the Mundaneum just as the Imperial German Army crosses the Belgian border, transforming the world in ways he cannot yet imagine.
There’s a peculiar effect that archives have on you when you’re immersed in them, one that produces both insight and disorientation. You want, desperately, to know, but there’s always far more information than you can manage, even after years of practice. That’s the illness of the archive, an obsession with organizing what you see, making it into something accessible like argument or narrative. But the larger the archive grows, the less likely you are to find a unifying theory for its contents.
“The Fall of the Mundaneum” is about that preoccupation with order at the moment of its destruction, since it’s also about the chaos of the twentieth century smashing into a fantasy of total human knowledge. My narrator is a man trained to organize information and culture, and we watch him collide with mechanized warfare, which is ineffable, and which by its nature disorders the world, despite the rationality of mass troop movements and industrial military production.
In the end, war leaves behind its own archive: one constituted in bodies and objects half-destroyed and unstuck from their provenance, like the very substance of meaninglessness overflowing into the golden summer of 1914, and the beautiful dream of the Mundaneum.
New story in Liminal 3. It’s about logging, the economic downturn of the early 1980s, and the Cowichan Valley. And the smell of Grand Fir. And a family with a peculiar relationship to the woods.
Like a lot of kids, I grew reading legends and myths. The ones I loved best were about encounters with gods and strangers (the not-quite-human kind):
…Baucis and Philemon meet two strangers and share their meager supper.
…The villagers of Woolpit meet two green children, who say they have come from a world underground and who speak no familiar human language.
…A human midwife attends a fairy birth, and accidentally touches an ointment that allows her to see through fairy charms. This ends badly for her eyes.
…Mark Antony hears an invisible procession leaving the city of Alexandria, and knows that Dionysos has abandoned him to his fate.
When you encounter these narratives in the stripped-down language of a legend, they are often a little disjointed. They lack the final revelation of what’s really been going on that we seem to require in fiction, but which is absent from the urban myth or the weird anecdote.
I like these stories best when they’re bare and conversational, the kind of story someone might tell you at a bus stop, or in a bar… one time, I met this guy who… Something weird happens, but the story ends before the weirdness resolves into something we can properly grasp, leaving us– the listener– unsettled not only by the events described, but by their incomprehensibility. The best versions of these stories provide no explanation but accident and the arbitrary rules of a universe we don’t actually understand. In the world of these stories, you might do nothing wrong and still end up transformed forever. You might just be walking in the woods at twilight, and find yourself making a life-or-death decision as you meet a fairy host. You might catch the eye of a god or a monster and be punished for your presence in no way you could ever plan.
I learned two things from these stories: first, that it’s not a good thing to be noticed by powerful, inhuman creatures, no matter what CS Lewis and Tolkien might tell me; second, that stories can give the reader an unsettled feeling by what they leave out. Most often, the why of an encounter. At their very best, M.R. James, Daphne Du Maurier, and Robert Aickman write about that place between revelation and mystery, where no human knowledge is complete, and all one can do is observe the strange encounter and hope to survive it.
I’ve been trying to write in this mode for a while—much of The Paradise Engine was driven by my love for those unsettling, incomplete tales. “Lares Familiares, 1981” is from my latest experiments in capturing that texture of unknowing. I also have a story forthcoming in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that fits the genre, too.
These stories are about that strange sense of a dislocation on an otherwise ordinary day. An encounter for which one cannot prepare, and which might redirect one’s life entirely by accident.
After a few years of alien parasites and “filigree cosmic horror” (I owe that designation to Julia August) I’ve gone back to The Paradise Engine. Not directly, but by association: “The High Lonesome Frontier” is a story about recording technologies, the strange vertiginous effect that music can have on us when we listen hard, the way a song can be found and lost again, but still hide out in the back of your mind, or on a mix tape in an old car, or a .flac on an external hard drive. It’s SF in the very broadest sense.
This is also the first story I wrote after I finished Clarion West last year. I wrote it last August, in a strange, exhausted haze between the six-week workshop and the defence of my dissertation. It’s the biography of a song called “Where Does That Water Run?” imaginary, but inspired by obsessive listenings to “I Wish I Was A Mole in the Ground,” tracked from its composition, through sheet music and player pianos, through performances and torrent files and broadcasts. Through– most importantly– the people who hear it, and remember.
Two relevant contexts (relevant to me as I wrote—possibly not to someone reading):
I like songs that only become folk music as they are repeated, gradually coming unstuck from their original authors. “Now is the Hour” was popularized by Gracie Fields after the Second World War—one of those songs of longing and separation that seemed so popular in those years. The melody was written by a theatre critic called Clement Scott and called “Swiss Cradle Song” until a Maori woman named Maewa Kaihau wrote the now-familiar words and renamed it “Po Atarau” and then “Haere Ra Waltz Song.” In the song’s global wandering it lost its original attribution, which is why Gracie Fields called it a “traditional Maori song” when she heard it in 1945.
“Wildwood Flower” started out as sheet music in 1860 with the title “I’ll Twine Mid The Ringlets,” but by the time the Carter Family recorded it in 1928, it was folk music—attributed only to “trad” until AP Carter got a writing credit when the work was republished after its success.
Ernest Seitz was a Canadian composer. He trained in Berlin before the First World War, but returned to Canada in 1914 for obvious reasons. While he devoted his life to teaching and concert performances, he’s probably most famous for a song that doesn’t have his name on it—“The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.” He was, according to some stories, embarrassed to have written a pop song. Nevertheless, it captured the imagination of so many performers: Fritz Kreisler to The Beatles, and Oscar Peterson to Neko Case.
Did he ever enjoy that remarkable accomplishment? Did he ever hear one of these versions on the radio and think that’s mine?
Yesterday the Sunburst Society released the shortlist for their 2016 awards. It’s the first year they’ve included short fiction, though they’ve had categories for adult and YA fiction for a while now. The formal title– Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic—is an appealingly broad category that celebrates work from magic realism to hard SF, which is one of the reasons I like the award– there’s room for Nalo Hopkinson’s Skin Folk, and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, and Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle.
I’m pleased to say “The Glad Hosts” is on the list along with these other remarkable stories:
Charlotte Ashley’s “La Héron” in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Mike Donoghue’s “Stuck in the Past” in Abyss and Apex.
Catherine McLeod’s “Hide and Seek” in Playground of Lost Toys
Kelly Robson’s “Two Year Man” in Asimov’s Science Fiction.
Peter Wendt’s “Get the Message” in Second Contacts
When I saw the list I ran through a series of peculiar sensations, from yay! to this is probably a mistake, I bet they update the website soon with the right names to Second Contacts looks like a fantastic anthology and Damn, Kelly Robson is on fire and I’m so glad Lackington’s published that story. The next day I’m no longer sure about the “it being a mistake” part, but the rest stands. I’m also glad Lackington’s got the nod by way of “The Glad Hosts,” considering what an excellent editor Ranylt is, and how much work it is to launch a magazine.
The award is named after Phyllis Gotlieb’s Sunburst (1964), a compelling piece of Cold War SF & nuclear anxiety. I have this additional, sideways joy in the name, because I used the novel in the last section of my dissertation, which was about the Cold War, with references to civil defence, the DEWline, spy novels, and Camp X, so Gotlieb’s novel fit in nicely between my creative & critical ambitions. Unfortunately the footnote got snipped at the very end, along with reflections on Graham Greene’s spy fiction, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (sad truth: my footnotes were wayyyy better than the body of my dissertation– all the cool stuff was in the footnotes).
Oh– and I wrote “The Glad Hosts” with the help of an Ontario Arts Council grant, so I’m additionally pleased to give the OAC their money’s worth. I mean, at least on that story…
New story called “The Journey and the Jewel” up over at Sockdolager (an excellent magazine published by Alison Wilgus and Paul Starr). I am always surprised by how consistent (not to say “repetitive!”) my stories are thematically, and this one covers a lot of familiar concerns. Forests. Grief. Families. Beaches. That’s pretty much my territory.
“The Journey and the Jewel” is also about that peculiar genre of the early 80s: the “armchair treasure hunt” book, something that reminds me of an ARG, an idea that arrived a little early, and that would have benefited from contemporary communications tech. The paintings in these books always remind me of Celestial Seasonings tea and the fantasy-and-science fiction section of the secondhand bookstore I used to visit in Duncan, BC when I was a kid. Unsettling high realism, sometimes, and dreamlike landscapes more strange than comforting.
Kit Williams seems to have originated the genre with Masquerade in 1979. We had a copy when I was little. I don’t know where it came from, but there were a few pages I found terrifying (I was just that kind of kid– I had to leave E.T. early because it was too scary). There was this one painting of the sun, a character in the story, who had been turned into a puppet and dropped on a beach at sunset, his limbs all twisted. I really didn’t like that picture. Because I was a bit of a scaredy-cat, the book ended up living in the top of the linen cupboard for most of my childhood.
It’s an interesting genre, though, and I can see why some of the other, unsolved examples have found a place online, where people can collaborate on their interpretations & theories. Over at the The Secret wiki people are trying to find ten jewels whose locations have been hidden (since 1982!) in paintings that remind me a lot of Kit Williams. I can see why they’re looking– an unsolved riddle, a still-lost treasure is appealing because the story remains unfinished, the end deferred. It’s made to be solved, right? So what happens to the story if it isn’t? “The Journey and the Jewel” is a kind of answer to the question.
Capricious published “Water Logic” back in December, in their second issue, but it’s now available for free. I hope that if you like it you’ll consider subscribing because it’s an interesting venture.
This is the second SF story I wrote, after “Lilacs and Daffodils,” when I was trying to relearn short fiction as a genre. It’s a bit painful to re-read because it’s so deeply embedded in the isolating obsessions of grad school. I have a friend who loves MR James because of the way he writes the pleasure of research, though his characters are often damned by their desire to know. I’m trying to get a little of that feel here: the way one can be seduced by research, or the possibility of really, truly understanding that complex, inaccessible thing that one has been pursuing through all those years of study:
Gabe had cultivated the monomaniacal perspective of the basement-dwelling graduate student, so it was easy to imagine a hydrospheric world-computer as vast as the index he had imagined. He reasoned that Dr Leukos had already begun it in the walls of the very building in which he sat, in the substance which he had drunk, and eliminated, and flushed away; in the city’s systems, its flora, the tender roots of grass, and the deep roots of black walnut and red oak, the nodes, the connections, the reservoirs in winter-dormant perennials, the memory of trees. His mind rushed outward through campus greenspace and city parks, the culverts and storm drains, the ravines.
It’s also about water integrators. Because those are pretty cool. And a poem I made up called “Arethusa.” And those summer rain-storms in Toronto, the kind of that flood the streets in a couple of minutes and are as warm as bathwater.