(Gordon Downie, jr, lead singer & songwriter for the Tragically Hip, Canadian icon. 1964 – 2017)
It’s August 2016 and I’m in Kansas City for MidAmeriCon II. It’s the last day and I’m both happy and exhausted, that enervated feeling you get when you’ve been talking to so many wonderful people for so long you have run out of words. In my moments alone, walking from panel to panel in the convention centre, I listen to the Tragically Hip, thinking about how they’ve been a constant soundtrack, a commentary running in the background of our lives for decades. As I walk through the big glass doors at the corner of 13th and Central, among the writers and fans and boba fetts, I hear “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken.” One line sticks in my head: the ferget yer skates dream. I think about what that dream might be: anxiety and memory and childhood.
The next day, at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, I read an email from a friend who watched the last concert– the one livestreamed by the CBC– in a bar in Nanaimo, and cried with strangers over the impending loss. While I walked around the convention centre, and probably while I was at the Hugos, 11.7 million strangers & friends watched the last Tragically Hip gig.
I missed it. I missed it and I am surprised by how much this hurts me. It’s a good life (if you don’t weaken).
It’s October 1999 and I’m in the bar in Muenster, Saskatchewan. It’s walking distance from St Pete’s College, where I am staying for three weeks of poetry workshop, so we go there a lot. I’m playing pool with Robert Kroetsch. I’m a terrible terrible pool player, but Robert is forgiving, and digs into his pocket for a handful of quarters and tells me to go put something on the juke box. That something is always– that night and other nights– “Bobycaygeon.”
“Bobcaygeon” while we drink cheap beer and watch the northern lights and talk about poetry.
It’s June 1993 and I’m at Western Speedway, just outside of Victoria, for Another Roadside Attraction: Pere Ubu, The Hot House Flowers, Midnight Oil, and the Tragically Hip. Only I’m not with a group of Hip fans, so we leave after Midnight Oil because our ride wants to get out before the traffic gets crazy. I am sad to leave them behind, because secretly I love “Courage” though for adolescent reasons I cannot remember, it is uncool at that moment to love “Courage.”
As we walk out across the parking lot, I hear them playing it, distorted by distance, bouncing over the walls of the speedway and over the asphalt and the cars and the bodies in the moshpit up front. I can hear the crowd, too, from whom I am separated and who sing along, Gord’s voice over them all:
courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time.
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?
So. After a slightly chaotic and blog-free summer, I thought I’d update with two things. First, we moved to Windsor for some teaching work. Second, I’ve added a page to keep track of forthcoming stuff. I feel this may be a little optimistic, considering I only have a couple of short stories coming out. That’s not actually a lot to keep track of.
I want to write about Windsor. Or, to be more accurate, I want to write about staring across the river at the Detroit Skyline, which leads to a lot of contemplation, especially regarding those disaster-pornish photographs of decaying public buildings that flood instagram and facebook. In pop culture Detroit seems to exist exclusively as a dreadful-but-fascinating warning, a place for post-Fordist disaster tourism, rather than an actual community. Creepy. It’s shockingly beautiful from across the water, especially at sunset.
As for the stories—I seem to have officially crossed some genre-line into the land of awesome known as contemporary Speculative Fiction, which was something I should have done a while ago, since Angela Carter, and Ursula K. LeGuin, and John Wyndham have always been important to me. One of the stories is about an AI suffering from debilitating nostalgia, and the other is about a cyborg. Fun!
My friend Kimmy Beach has a new book out this month called The Last Temptation of Bond (U of A Press). She’s started a tumblr for some of the material she collected as she was writing it. I’m looking forward to this book because I like the way Kimmy writes, but in this case her topic is also really intriguing to me. I’m interested in how we talk about espionage & covert actions, whether it’s cold war paranoia, or pop culture, proxy wars, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or The Prisoner. Bond manages to contain both the trauma and absurdity of that era, especially in the most recent film– Skyfall. I’m pretty sure The Last Temptation of Bond will also be full of labyrinthine psycho-sexual issues and black humour, too, because that’s what Kimmy does best. Her work is always sexy and fun, and it draws on the iconography of 20th-cent pop culture without turning into a catalogue of temporary culture. And did I mention “sexy”? And “fun”?
I was trying to remember when I first heard about the War of 1812, and I came up with two icons I must have encountered when I was very small, though I could not say exactly when: Laura Secord and Johnny Horton. Laura Secord has a pretty obvious 1812 connection, so obvious she even has her own historica minute. Johnny Horton might require an explanation.
When I was about seven I had Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits on a beige audio tape, without a case, one that a neighbour kid left at our house when he moved. It was an unfortunate oversight on his part, one that has, sadly, informed my sense of American history as much as L.M. Alcott or Herman Melville or Frederick Douglass. It’s a good thing I’m not an historian, because I’m pretty sure they’d take away my degrees for that.
So, as a seven year old I absorbed a peppy, post-war version of American history, much preoccupied with battles and heroic men: Johnny Reb fights all the way through the Civil War, Ol’ Hick’ry defeats the Red Coats with a weaponized alligator, Davey Crockett strangles a bear and dies at the Alamo, and even the Bismarck is imagined in Texan terms, with guns as big as steers and shells as big as trees. It’s Disney-history, nuggets of sepia-toned high adventure rendered as three-minute narratives in 4/4, with Horton’s band singing “Mush! Mush!” behind him, as Big Sam McCord goes north to Alaska (where the rush is on). Continue reading
In the building there I work there is a cinderblock staircase painted a very bright, very penetrating shade of yellow. The concrete steps are painted grey; there are no windows, and for a number of turns and landings between the fifth and third floors there are no doors, either, so for a long stretch you circle around and around as you descend, and there’s no way out. This makes me, at least, think existential thoughts.
The upper flowers are solid yellow, with only a few calligraphic flourishes here and there, graffitied in black marker. Drawings and words start to collect between the fifth and fourth, and by the time you’ve descended to the third the walls are full of images and words.