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I didn’t realize that Shirley Jackson’s children were still discovering unpublished stories of hers; the New Yorker has published two in recent years, “The Man in the Woods” and “Paranoia.”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

Archival comics dump: Daredevil, Hellboy

I’m trying to do something about the massive backlog of 60-98% complete post drafts. It’s scary in there! For example, both of these bits are from (gulp) 2012.

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Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (1993), by Frank Miller & John Romita Jr.

While Daredevil has long been my favorite single superhero, I wasn’t the right kind of fan to be the target audience for this. This is an origin-story miniseries that fills in gaps and juicy details (the rise of Kingpin, Matt’s childhood training, and his initial relationship with Elektra in college). I grew up with 4 or 5 single Daredevil issues around the house – much obsessed-over, but far from exhaustive enough for me to be able to appreciate the back-filling that Miller does. Since Miller compresses over a decade into 5 issues, the pace was also too breakneck for me to feel like I could really sink my teeth into the narrative, until Miller slows down enough to focus on a crucial kidnapping incident at the end of the series.

General thoughts: the style is strikingly noir, which is not surprising given that it’s Miller. Matt’s rage is always simmering in the background, and his rough upbringing in Hell’s Kitchen lays down the basic growth medium and texture for his character. Miller emphasizes in his intro that Daredevil could easily have been a supervillain. The emotional hook of the miniseries is that Matt’s righteous anger and physical prowess aren’t enough to make him a hero (there’s a really awful moment where he accidentally kills a prostitute while trying to attack one of his father’s killers); he must also learn self-mastery.

I warmed very slowly to Romita’s art, as it’s sort of blockily formless a lot of the time. However, there are occasionally really effective panels that made me okay with him by the end – in particular, the poetic silhouettes of Daredevil bounding across the Manhattan skyline, and one creepy close-up of Kingpin’s chilly eyes.

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Hellboy: Wake the Devil (Vol. 2) (1993), by Mike Mignola

Paranormal folkloric bingo! On top of the evil Nazis + Rasputin + cosmic/Revelations-flavored menace from last time, there are a Napoleonic-era vampire lord kickin’ it old school, Thessalian witches, Baba Yaga, an iron maiden broken in by Elizabeth Bathory, Lamia, Hecate, a homunculus… Honestly, it got overwhelming at times (I felt whiplashed), and occasionally I questioned the lumping of so many mythologies together, given that it really did start to feel like “lumped together” instead of “woven together.”

But the goofy dialogue lightens things up well, and Mignola’s art always sells it. There’s a spectacular cosmic setpiece of about 5 pages towards the end of the arc that actually had me reading with my mouth open. And then – emo Rasputin! Because even villains bent on universal chaos have to question themselves sadly sometimes, even if it’s just to ask if they’re being selfish enough.

Plotwise, this is really just expanding on the “evil Nazis/Rasputin plot for cosmic chaos” direction. Not too much more character development, sadly, although there’s plenty of character exposition.

– E

 

Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman, illus. Bret Helquist (2009) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.31.2012
Book from: Personal collection

Photo previously featured in the post “Some additions to the horde.”

In a village in ancient Norway lives a boy named Odd, and he’s had some very bad luck: His father perished in a Viking expedition; a tree fell on and shattered his leg; the endless freezing winter is making villagers dangerously grumpy.

Out in the forest Odd encounters a bear, a fox, and an eagle—three creatures with a strange story to tell. Now Odd is forced on a stranger journey than he had imagined—a journey to save Asgard, city of the gods, from the Frost Giants who have invaded it. It’s going to take a very special kind of twelve-year-old boy to outwit the Frost Giants, restore peace to the city of gods, and end the long winter. Someone cheerful and infuriating and clever . . . Someone just like Odd.

I did not expect to like this as much as I did. I wasn’t wild about the cover illustration (Helquist’s style ended up doing a lot more for me in the black and white interior art, where his lumpy-craggy shapes and light, scratchy hatching really shine), and was feeling a little surly and hacklesome when I decided to give the novel a try. (“Book, I dare you to charm me…”) But I came away from the read smiling, and kept smiling for a good long while afterward.

Odd and the Frost Giants is the tale of a wise fool, with Norse mythology woven in with surprising density. Careful descriptions of historical and natural detail (food, architecture, Odd’s means of survival in the Norwegian wilderness) deepen the thoughtful, inward-looking feel of the narrative, and as typical for Gaiman, the writing is elegantly compressed. I was moved by the sensitivity of his portrayals of Odd – an ingenious, plucky, but quietly sad child – and the singular Frost Giant whom he eventually meets, who in his anxious pathos bears a good deal of resemblance to Wilde’s Selfish Giant. Odd’s story is ultimately about looking deeply at other people, and understanding their needs and suffering.

Gaiman mentions in the author’s bio that he’s considering further Odd tales – I definitely wouldn’t say no to more.

Go to:

Neil Gaiman: bio and works reviewed

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

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin (2009) E

Date read: 12.16.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is as much a joy to hold (literally – it’s the nicest size for a hardback) and look at as it is to read:

The insides are just as beautiful, with colored text and chapter headers, and more of Grace Lin’s ornate, exuberant, full-color illustrations scattered throughout, complementing her detailed, lively prose.

The story follows the adventures of Minli, a young girl who leaves her home in the shadow of the Fruitless Mountain to seek out the Old Man in the Moon, and learn from him how to change her family’s unhappy fortune. On the way, she helps and is helped by a varied cast of characters with cleverly interwoven stories to tell, including a talking goldfish with ambitions, a flightless dragon, and an orphan boy who lives with a water buffalo.

Minli is sort of generically plucky and lovable, and occasionally the story’s sweetness borders on sappiness, but it’s all so clearly coming from a place of genuine caring that I can’t really complain. Lin’s attention to the grief of Minli’s parents after her disappearance is particularly striking and moving. Among children’s books, I can’t remember reading another Hero’s Journey that also gave page time to those left behind. Watching her parents (her mother in particular) come to their own realizations about their relationships with Minli, and then witnessing the family’s eventual reunion – again, just genuinely sweet, loving, and ultimately joyful.

All in all, I felt like I was being given a hug and a bowl of hot soup in book form. (It doesn’t hurt that Lin clearly enjoys describing details of food as much as she does fantastical scenes of red-silk bridges and monkey-infested peach groves.)

As always with really good YA, I wish I knew younger persons I could gift this to. Older readers looking for more books set in mythical China would do very well indeed to look up Barry Hughart’s rumbustious, madcap adventure-fantasy-mystery-everything-awesome series, The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, beginning with Bridge of Birds.

Go to:
Grace Lin: bio and works reviewed

“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?”

“Hi Bugan ya Hi Kinggawan,” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (2010) E

Date read: 4.4.08
Read from: Fantasy Magazine
Reviewer: Emera

… The Mumbaki came, as did the elder warriors, and they sang of Bugan the sky goddess who descended to earth to marry the warrior Kinggawan. They sang of how the lovers lost each other and how Kinggawan seeks his Bugan to this day. When the Mumbaki poured the wine over your head you did not cry.

It was a good sign, the village people said. But no one could explain why. It just was so.

After this, there was more dancing and feasting, but your mother took you away to the quiet of her hut where she stared into your face and tried to read your future while you suckled at her breast.

“Hi Bugan ya Hi Kinggawan” is inspired by the mythology of the mountainous Ifugao region of the Philippines, where the author was raised. It’s both thematically and aesthetically satisfying, playing on personal and cultural anxieties through parallel narrative threads: the emotional and sexual coming-of-age of a young woman named Bugan, after the Ifugao sky goddess, and the upheaval in her small village as contact is made with Western colonizers.

Loenen-Ruiz’s language is vibrant and wonderfully rhythmical (I’d love to hear the story read aloud), and she skillfully conveys the turbulence of the forces working on the protagonist and her culture. Against the themes of loss and disruption, Loenen-Ruiz sets the heady sensuality of the story’s resolution. Renewal of tradition is coupled with the building of new unities; an act of sexual transgression becomes an act of cultural resistance.

Also, the love interest is hot. Just sayin’.

Go to:
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
Fantasy Magazine Author Spotlight with Rochita Loenen-Ruiz