“The Man in the Woods,” by Shirley Jackson (2014) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.18.2019
Read from: The New Yorker

I didn’t realize that Shirley Jackson’s children were still discovering unpublished stories of hers; the New Yorker has published two in recent years, “The Man in the Woods” and “Paranoia.”

“The Man in the Woods” is a delightful choice for a stand-alone publication. Sense, elegant, and cryptic, its dense mythological and folkloric allusions beg for toying and unpicking – even if its determined evasiveness means that it is not sharply compelling as a work of psychological fiction. If it were presented in a collection, it would likely sink into the shadow of any of Jackson’s more spectacularly psychological stories. But even taking it simply as a sort of playful, appreciative remix of a handful of dark folkloric tropes, it stands out as being pretty much perfect on a line-by-line level: economical, vivid, and singing with tension.

The cat had joined him shortly after he entered the forest, emerging from between the trees in a quick, shadowy movement that surprised Christopher at first and then, oddly, comforted him, and the cat had stayed beside him, moving closer to Christopher as the trees pressed insistently closer to them both, trotting along in the casual acceptance of human company that cats exhibit when they are frightened.

The two stories that immediately popped into my head when reading this: Angela Carter’s “The Erl-King” (a previous, brief appreciation here) with its likewise claustrophobic trees and its building towards the inevitability of kingly sacrifice; and Hansel and Gretel. In fact, with regard to Hansel, I was sure at first that this was going to be “just” a witch-story, and that the two otherworldly women whom Christopher meets in the stone cottage in the woods would be joined by a third – Hecate. So it was a strange little thrill when the third in the house turned out rather to be a Mr. Oakes: a green-man, and a sacrificial priest-king straight out of Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

Fans of Elizabeth Marie Pope’s Tam Lin retelling, The Perilous Gard, will be well familiar with the reading of “Christopher” as “Christ-bearer” specifically in the context of pagan sacrifice. Her Christopher, like Jackson’s, is a youth who offers up to pagan captors the temptation of a double sacrifice – an intermingling of two different sacred powers – through the symbolic weight of his name.

Though Jackson’s protagonist Christopher offers this tantalizing symbolism (“‘Christopher,’ [Mr. Oakes] said softly, as though estimating the name”), he’s otherwise strangely devoid of anything resembling narrative or, let’s call it, a symbolic system. He carries the modernish signifier of having been at “college,” and allows that that loosely qualifies him to be deemed a “scholar” by Mr. Oakes, but he doesn’t know why he left college and started wandering, and he doesn’t know what to name a cat other than “kitty.” So far as personality is concerned, he is careful, courteous, and expresses glints of humor and curiosity, including a faint appetite for the younger woman, Phyllis. But it’s all diffused through a screen of something like mild dissociation, or at least ennui. He seems like a refugee from the modern world, stripped of meaning and motivation.

His encounter with the household in the wood seems destined to force him into meaning, just as his unnamed cat attains the witchy title of “Grimalkin” by displacing the household’s original cat. In the end, Christopher follows along with a sort of tranced acquiescence. But even assuming that his challenge of Mr. Oakes will be successful, it’s unclear whether this new (ancient) system of meaning will be any more compelling than whatever he left behind in his old life. Phyllis, Circe, and Oakes seem listless and weary. (Circe alone, appropriately, shows a trace of defiance: “Circe I was born and Circe I will have for my name till I die.”) Oakes, despite his name, doesn’t seem any more fond of the woods than Christopher is; he plants roses as a challenge to their oppressiveness. Civilization, it seems, erects various defenses against the void, but over time they all grow, as Hamlet put it, flat, weary, stale, and unprofitable – oppressions of their own.

Final note: they were totally eating the previous challengers –

“…Phyllis, sent to fetch a special utensil from an alcove in the corner of the kitchen, came back to report that it had been mislaid “since the last time” and could not be found…”

“…Aunt Cissy disappeared into the kitchen alcove again and came back carrying the trussed carcass of what seemed to Christopher to be a wild pig.”

Related reading:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (1962): review by Emera
Angela Carter’s “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”
A very happy October to all
“Where is Rowan Morrison?”

Tamsin, by Peter S. Beagle (1999) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.20.2013 
Book from: Personal collection

Arriving in the English countryside to live with her mother and new stepfather, Jenny has no interest in her surroundings, until she meets Tamsin. Since her death over 300 years ago, Tamsin has haunted the lonely estate without rest, trapped by a hidden trauma she can’t remember, and a powerful evil even the spirits of night cannot name. To help her, Jenny must delve deeper into the dark world than any human has in hundreds of years, and face danger that will change her life forever.

This is the book that restored my Beagle-faith after I bounced violently off of The Innkeeper’s Song; frankly I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem, given how little I’ve seen it mentioned or discussed. I cannot recommend this more for fans of spooky English/Celtic fantasy, like Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard, or even Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. It is also quite queer, in a very sweet, nondramatized way. (Jenny remarks on her head-over-heels reaction to Tamsin by saying, “I’d never been the type to get girl-crushes before,” and that is the full extent to which she dissects any issues of sexual identity; the rest of the time she just goes on loving Tamsin.)

The initial few chapters – when it’s not clear yet what sort of haunted universe Jenny has stepped into, and her encounters with the uncanny are glancing and inexplicable – are by far the creepiest. But even once the central mystery is mostly laid bare, the combination of characters and world, both fantastical and actual-historical, are terrifically compelling.

Continue reading Tamsin, by Peter S. Beagle (1999) E

Mythology Anthology: Katabasis/Anabasis (2010) E

Date read: 4.28.11
Book from: Personal collection. Now available as a PDF.
Reviewer: Emera

Home-brewed comics, yum. The is the second comic anthology published by artist collective WHIRR WHIRR WHIRR. I never got my hands on the first volume, also mythology-themed. This one is specifically themed around katabasis and anabasis – descent and ascent, most often used in a literary/mythological context to refer to a hero’s journey to the underworld, but here interpreted with pleasing variety and in a range of mythological traditions. The bold, Dürer-remixing cover art is by Hunter Heckroth; evocative inset illos rendered in pencil by Kris Mukai draw upon the myth of Isis recovering her slaughtered husband’s body parts. My favorite was a surprisingly sinewy Isis mid-flight, viewed from behind – all of the illustrations in Mukai’s series seem to keep the drama focused somewhere offstage, creating a sense of suspension and quiet intensity.

Laura Kovalcin starts off the comics in the collection with the melancholy, slightly saccharine, but beautifully rendered tale of a lonely banshee:

I greatly admired her fluid linework, and her use of negative space creates wonderful atmosphere – I was reminded faintly of some of Charles Vess’ work on Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. (Maybe it’s the hair, too.)

Erica Perez follows with an interpretation of a Taino death/creation myth from Puerto Rico; her quirkily simplified figures capture the myth’s absurdity and sublimity equally well. The scene below, for example, illustrates the reactions of a pair of parents to the discovery that the body of the son they’ve murdered has been transformed into fish (don’t you hate it when that happens?):

Continue reading Mythology Anthology: Katabasis/Anabasis (2010) E

The Folk Keeper, by Franny Billingsley (1999) E

Date read: 12.19.10
Book from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

book folkkeeper

“Here in the cellar, I control the Folk. Here, I’m queen of the world.”

The Folk Keeper is much darker and stranger than I expected based on the title and cover art alone – which is awesome, since that’s the way I prefer it. Corinna Stonewall is a proud, vengeful orphan girl who by wit and trickery earned the position of Folk Keeper. In subterranean dark, she appeases the anger of the vicious, cave-dwelling Folk – described as “mostly wet mouth and teeth.” Summoned by a dying lord to be Folk Keeper of his island estate, where the Folk are particularly voracious and mysteries abound, Corinna sets about uncovering any secrets that might give her more power, whether over the Folk or the estate’s various inhabitants. At the same time, it comes clear that she must begin to come to terms with her own secrets: her unknown parentage, her odd powers and desires.

Billingsley’s angular, vivid prose is an absolute pleasure, full of sharp dialogue, intriguing detail, and unsettling, obliquely beautiful imagery; she’s one of the most successful stylists I’ve encountered in recent years. If you have any familiarity with Celtic folklore, the key to Corinna’s secrets is pretty obvious, but Billingsley puts a number of creative spins on this and other traditional elements within the novel. Some are more convincingly organic than others, but all are beautifully described. And Corinna’s friendship with Finian, the estate’s eccentric, ship-loving heir, is genuinely endearing, with his good heart and gentle quips countering and eventually thawing her chilly Machiavellian pragmatism. I would gladly welcome a sequel just to read more of their [ADORABLE] exchanges. (<— ill-concealed fangirling, exhibit A.)

The only point on which I was less happy: the last few pages seemed overburdened by their obvious instructive agenda and labored symbolism, which cost the narrative some of its earlier leanness and fluidity.

Nonetheless, The Folk Keeper is destined to become part of my permanent collection, and likely the subject of numerous re-reads. Fans of traditional fairy lore, Patricia McKillip, Holly Black, or Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard, go forth and read! In the meantime, I’ll be eagerly anticipating Billingsley’s next YA novel, which is apparently slated for spring 2011…

Go to:
Franny Billingsley: bio and works reviewed
Author’s Note for The Folk Keeper

“Where is Rowan Morrison?”

In which Christopher Lee is amazing

I’ve always wanted to see the 1973 drama/thriller/sorta-horror classic The Wicker Man, and it ended up being a rollickingly fun watch for last week’s summer solstice.

In the film, straight-laced Sergeant Howie is dispatched to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison on Summer Isle, a remote Scottish island, only to find that not only does every villager on the island deny any knowledge of Rowan Morrison, but that his visit coincides with the island’s highly enthusiastic and – to the devoutly Christian Howie – unwholesome May Day preparations. Cue an increasingly frenzied search by the valiant but humorless Howie, a collision of equally blind faiths, and more references to to Celtic folklore and fertility symbolism than you can shake a Maypole at. There’s an inn named the Green Man; a sweet shop stocked with pastries and chocolates in the shape of women, leaping hares, and what look like rams’ heads; lots of nubile gamboling in graveyards and stone circles; a lush estate encircled by phallic topiaries… Oh, and Christopher Lee as the island’s erudite neo-pagan lord, who enjoys nothing so much as wearing a kilt and soliloquizing about the joys of the animal world while intercut with footage of glistening snails intertwining and set over a soundtrack of hypnotically pulsating drums and recorder.

Christopher Lee, plus kilt

No, I didn’t have too much fun watching this movie, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Continue reading “Where is Rowan Morrison?”