Modern Tempests

As I prep for Witch Week 2021, for which my co-host (Calmgrove) and I have chosen The Tempest as our Read-Along, I’ve been working my way through some of the modern works that are either inspired by or adaptations of Shakespeare’s late play. These include an episode from the third season of Star Trek, a short story by Isak Dinesen, Julie Taymor’s 2010 film of the play, and the two modern novels discussed here. I’ve sampled but a small number of the works available, each focusing on one or two themes or elements from the play. Yet the little I’ve read and watched has given me insight into Shakespeare’s work.

First up is Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a 2016 addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series of modern adaptations. Atwood’s lonely island is a small town in Ontario where the hero, Felix Phillips, teaches a theater class to inmates at the local prison. He decides to direct his students in a production of The Tempest. Of course, Felix himself, ousted from the directorship of a Shakespeare festival by a conniving assistant, plays Prospero in his students’ production — while offstage Felix’s own life mirrors Prospero’s as he seeks revenge on those who ousted him.

In the discussions Felix has with his students, as well as with the professional actress who takes on the role of Miranda, Atwood gives us her take on some of the critical scenes in The Tempest — Prospero’s revenge, Miranda’s and Ferdinand’s love affair, Ariel’s scurrying about to win his freedom, and so on. One interesting idea that Atwood-as-Felix presents is the high number of prisons to be found in the play. For one assignment, the students create a list, and some surprising entries appear: the muddy pond that Trinculo and Stefano get stuck in; the madness that overtakes Alonso and the others; even the leaky boat that Prospero and Miranda are forced to sail in. But one prison Felix doesn’t reveal until the students have performed their play — the play itself. Prospero is trapped in his own creation, i.e., his own enchantment. As Felix explains, “He’ll be forced to re-enact his feelings of revenge, over and over. It would be like hell.” Perhaps even just once is a form of hell. Felix understands this well, since his need for revenge created the hell he needed to escape.

The eponymous Caliban, rather than being the hero, gets little attention until the end, when the students, as their final assignment, must explain the afterlives of the characters they played. Caliban’s group posit some options for their character’s future: Life as king of an island with no other inhabitants (rejected). Life as Stefano’s and Trinculo’s show-piece in a cage (rejected). They settle on the somewhat happier ending suggested by Prospero’s line, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

Caliban’s group read this line literally — Prospero is Caliban’s father. As the students explain,

Prospero’s learning that maybe not everything is somebody else’s fault. Plus, he sees that the bad in Caliban is pretty much the same as the bad in him, Prospero. They’re both angry, both name-callers, both full of revenge: they’re joined at the hip. So Prospero [cleans up Caliban and] sets him up as a musician, back in Milan.

This point about Prospero taking responsibility for Caliban ties in with something Mary Stewart brings up in her 1964 novel set in Corfu, This Rough Magic. The title comes from Prospero’s speech, when he closes his career as a magician: “But this rough magic/I here abjure” (V, i, 50-51). The “rough magic” in Stewart’s novel seems to be the theater, so we have another instance of a theatrical theme (if not setting).

The Prospero in Stewart’s novel, Sir Julian Gale, is in self-exile on Corfu with his son and a couple of local men to help with errands and chores. Sir Julian is a retired actor, whose final role before he abandoned the stage was Prospero. So, as with Atwood’s novel, there are opportunities for the-play-within-the-play trope, doubled over. Yet Stewart avoids that. The overlaps with The Tempest are occasional (a spy provides the treasonous MacGuffin, a cave hides an important clue, chapters are headed with quotes from the play), but the plot is typical Stewart: a young woman away from home runs across trouble and falls in love. Lucy Waring, visiting her sister in Corfu, gets caught up in espionage (with a villain who could rival Eric Ambler’s master spy, Dimitrios Makropoulos), and it all starts innocently with a friendly dolphin.

“Wait, what?” you say. “What’s a dolphin got to do with espionage or treason?” Well, actually nothing, except that its presence might attract curious crowds, which the villain doesn’t want. So he tries to shoot the innocent ocean-going mammal, Lucy gets outraged, and it all escalates from there.

But back to the point I wanted to make earlier. Early in the story, Sir Julian explains why he thinks Corfu is Prospero’s isle. It’s position, geography, and weather all support this idea. When challenged, Sir Julian digs deeper:

“I started at the wrong end. I should have begun not with the ‘facts,’ but with the play–the play’s kingpin, Prospero. To my mind, the conception of his character is the most remarkable thing about the play; his use as a sort of summing up of Shakespeare’s essay on human power. Look at the way he’s presented: a father figure, a magician in control of natural forces like the winds and the sea, a sort of benevolent and supernatural Machiavelli who controls the island and all who are in it.”

Nevermind that Sir Julian is noting a semblance between Prospero and St. Spyridon (“Spridion” in Stewart’s version), Corfu’s patron saint. What struck me here is the idea of “human power”. How do we get it? How do we use it? A director in the theater — whether fictional (like Felix) or real — has power over the world of the play. Costumes, setting, lighting, music, movement of actors, even the shape of the play itself (which lines are cut, for instance). It’s a tremendous amount of power, even if only in a small, limited world. But the question still stands — how do we use the power we’re given?

Felix uses his power to build a hell for himself. Not a wise choice, but at least he finds a way out. Sir Julian eventually returns to acting — but never to play Prospero again. Trinculo is more appropriate, he decides. Lucy, of course, wins her love, and the spy is suitably punished.

Prospero, however, still leaves me suspicious of his intentions. Sure, he gives his daughter a man to love, but isn’t it a bit too much of a coincidence that this man is the son of the king of Naples? What better revenge on your enemy than to make his son fall in love with your daughter?

BTW, I hadn’t planned on participating, but I’ve realized that This Rough Magic is a suspense novel, which means I can include myself in the RIP [Readers Imbibing Peril] XVI challenge. Hooray!

@perilreaders

Posted in Adventure, Mystery, RIP, Shakespeare, Witch Week | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Which Week Witch Week

Not long now until Witch Week 2021 comes to haunt us.

“What the boys did to the cow” (1908, Image No. 1587798, NYPL collections)

An event first begun by Lory Hess at The Emerald City Book Review (she now blogs at Entering the Enchanted Castle), Witch Week is an annual series of guest posts that I co-host with Chris of Calmgrove. Chris’s blog is where you’ll find the event this year, with guest bloggers from around the world. Literally. (And that’s a literal ‘literally’, rather than a figurative one.)

Our theme, TREASON and PLOT, takes its cue from Guy Fawkes’ Day, the last day of Witch Week, the 5th of November. That was the day Guy Fawkes and his treasonous crew planned in 1603 to blow up Parliament with all who were in it, including King James I. Thus bonfire night, and Diana Wynne Jones’ Witch Week, and this annual celebration of fantasy and witchy deeds that runs 31st October to 6th November.

Our read-along for this year is The Tempest. So dust off your Collected Works of Shakespeare and get ready to join us in what promises to be a fantastical exploration of wicked doings among the goblins, spirits and humans on an isolated island somewhere off the coast of Italy.

Oh, remember, remember, the fifth of November
Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Halloween, Mystery, Shakespeare, Witch Week | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Mythbusting: Part II

In my last post, I looked behind the curtain to bust the myth of the mid-19th-century “independent pioneer” during the western expansion of the US. Today I uncover the myth of the lonely autobiographer, who delves deep into memories to provide historical insight for us mere readers. All thanks to Caroline Fraser’s book, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I was young, no more than about 9 or 10, when I first read Wilder’s Little House series, and I can remember loving every book, finding it easy to imagine what Laura’s childhood had been like. Call this my unsophisticated phase as a reader. I never doubted the truth value of any sentence, never wondered how the events of nearly every book fell neatly and conveniently into a single year, never suspected Laura of wanting or needing help while creating the series. After all, who could have helped her write about her own life?

[I pause here to note the irony of how these two myths — the independent pioneer and the lonely writer — are essentially the same.]

I can happily say that, in various readings over the next 40 years or so, I began to recognize how Laura crafted dozens of memories into novels with dramatic highs and lows. In Farmer Boy, based on stories her husband had shared with her, Laura plotted events that no doubt occurred over several years into a neat coming-of-age tale. So what if Almanzo’s milk-fed pumpkin hadn’t won first prize at the state fair in the same year that he trained his own pair of oxen to pull logs through deep snow? Each of the episodes show the boy learning an important lesson such as honesty or perseverance, loyalty or patriotism. These lessons help us understand him as an adult trying to prosper on the prairie, making the novel fit neatly into the larger portrait of an era.

Rose Wilder Lane

Then bigger cracks started to appear. I can remember learning in the early 2000s that Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane (herself a journalist and author) had provided initial encouragement — the necessary prod to do something with the pages of notes Laura had written after her father’s death. Laura’s “autobiography”, written on yellow tablet paper, was published just a few years ago, complete with scholarly annotations, maps, photographs, a 9-page bibliography, and a 20-page index. Careful reading shows a much closer link between Laura as author and Rose as editor, but I was caught up in the maps and photos and let this other detail slide by.

But now Fraser has forced the cracks wide open in Prairie Fires, showing the extent to which Rose went beyond encouragement, very likely writing (by my very rough estimate) at least as much as 40% of each book.*

There are two things about this that make me sad. One is that Laura, whom I had long admired as a great writer, needed help from her daughter — not just the encouragement of “Oooh, that’s good” or “I want to know more about how you ….”, but everything from shaping plots and adding dramatic elements to correcting her spelling and punctuation. Here’s an example: that death-defying ride that Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland made, in The Long Winter, to find wheat for the starving residents of De Smet. Laura’s original version has the two young men returning well ahead of the next blizzard, but in the novel, the night and blinding snow crash down just as they spot a light in the distance, arriving safely back in De Smet only by sheer luck and determination. That’s Rose’s doing.

Rose preferred a “cracking yarn,” and she provided these throughout. Knowing the truth about Almanzo’s and Cap’s search for the wheat lessens neither their bravery, nor the desperate hunger of the townspeople. As Picasso wrote, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” But my admiration for Laura’s skills as a writer is lessened. She wanted to honor her parents in her autobiography, but no publisher would take her work until Rose had added drama and, I hate to say it, emotion. The Pa in Laura’s autobiography is recognizable, but only in the books, after Rose has put her oar in, does he become the restless man who wants to keep moving westward. According to Fraser, Rose suggested adding the lyrics of Pa’s many songs, and these are as much a part of the scenery as the open skies and prairie grasses. I can’t imagine the books without them.

The second matter is more distressing, and I suppose this is because I hate learning that people I admire hold beliefs that I find despicable. Rose Wilder Lane, early libertarian and acolyte of Ayn Rand, used her mother’s books to promulgate her own political beliefs, and Laura didn’t mind at all. Fraser doesn’t make clear how much Rose may have influenced her mother’s own politics, but it is clear that Laura and Rose convinced themselves that the Ingalls and Wilder families had made it “on their own”.

Knowing Laura’s and Rose’s libertarian leanings has given me something new to note as I reread the series. Certain scenes are now uncomfortable to read, with Rose’s political agenda front and center, for anyone paying attention. In Farmer Boy, after an Independence Day celebration, Almanzo asks his father how farmers could have made the US, when everyone knows it was the people who fought during the Revolution. His father explains:

“We fought for Independence, son,” Father said. “But all the land our forefathers had was a strip of country, here between the mountains and the ocean. All the way from here west was Indian country, and Spanish and French and English country. It was farmers that took all that country and made it America…. The Spanish were soldiers, and high-and-mighty gentlemen that only wanted gold. And the French were fur-traders, wanting to make quick money. And England was busy fighting wars. But we were farmers, son; we wanted the land. It was farmers that went over the mountains, and cleared the land, and settled it, and farmed it, and hung on to their farms.” (pp. 188-189)

No recognition of the native populations who lived on the land, no recognition of the government’s role in clearing these native populations to make room for the white settlers, no recognition of the trains and forts and schools paid for by federal tax dollars. As Rose typed up her mother’s manuscripts before sending them to the publisher, she tinkered and tweaked and shifted things around. (Fraser reports that Laura’s editor, who didn’t know of Rose’s contributions, was amazed at how good the manuscripts were, claiming that only E. B. White had needed less editing.)

In an Epilogue, Fraser partially answers my concerns: “The books endure. The Little House world belongs to the readers.” And later,

[Laura’s voice] speaks not about policy or politics but about her parents, her sisters, her husband, and her love for them. It speaks of her delight in nature, those glorious moments on untouched open prairies, watching the geese fly overhead.

Laura’s voice, without Rose’s tinkering, is certainly there in the descriptions of the wide-open prairies; the holidays with cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents; the everyday tasks of churning, washing, cleaning, and cooking. Rose added energy, but I think the sweetness is all Laura’s.

__________________________

Judith Thurman, in a 2009 article in The New Yorker, (“Wilder Women”, August 10 & 17, 2009; https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/08/10/wilder-women) refers to a 1993 study by William Holtz, who posits that Rose was Laura’s “ghost writer” (The Ghost in the Little House, University of Missouri Press).

Posted in Autobiography, Historical fiction, History, Memoir | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Mythbusting: Part I

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser, 2017 (NYPL e-book)

I inherited my love of “prairie fiction” from my mother: Willa Cather, O E Rølvaag, Hamline Garland, Sherwood Anderson. Top of the list, of course: Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957). Her Little House series comprises 8 books that cover about 20 years of Laura’s life on the Great Plains of the US, taking her from early childhood in the woods of Wisconsin to her marriage in Dakota Territory. As the crow flies, that’s a distance of just 300 miles, but the Ingalls family covered more than 2000 miles in a looping path that wandered south and north; west, east and then, finally, further west, all in a covered wagon.

When she was 44, Laura began writing columns for Missouri newspapers, about her life as a farm wife (chickens played a large role). It wasn’t until she was in her 60s, though, that her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, was published, in 1932. Eleven years later, These Happy Golden Years closed the Little House series, and since then her family — Pa and Ma (Charles and Caroline), Mary, Carrie, and Grace, and her husband Almanzo — have become ideals of courage, strength, faith, loyalty, and love. Personifications of the Pioneer Spirit, models of what it means to be An American. (Read those capitalized words with scare quotes.)

The Ingalls and Wilder families were all of these, and Laura’s childhood no doubt seemed idyllic to her. Living in sparsely populated areas, far from any town, she had little to compare her own situation to. She knew her parents worked hard, but she accepted this as a given. Life required work, and if things went wrong, your only option was to keep going. Being part of a family meant you didn’t have to keep going alone. And, of course, being white in America meant every door you came to was open to you.

But you have to read deep between the lines to understand that Pa and Almanzo were not financially successful. This is what Fraser, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Prairie Fires, does for us. By setting Laura’s life within historical context, we can begin to see how difficult life was for people like her family, despite the open doors. (And please note that I’m not forgetting how much more difficult life was for people of color. During Laura’s childhood, post-Civil War Reconstruction ended, and African Americans throughout the country faced horrors well-documented for anyone wishing to learn more.)

Pioneer Woman Monument, by Bryant Baker, Ponca City, Oklahoma

But back to Pa Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder: It turns out that being a homesteader on the prairie was a pathway to bankruptcy, and part of the reason Pa moved his family so frequently was his inability to make a go of it — whether in Minnesota (On the Banks of Plum Creek), Kansas (Little House on the Prairie), Iowa or back in Minnesota (these horrible years, which included one instance of ducking out of debts by leaving town in the middle of the night, weren’t included in the books).

The Homestead Act of 1862 (read more about this here) lured hundreds of thousands of white farmers into the western territories with promises of cheap or free land, easy farming, and future wealth (few Native American, African American, or Latinx people were allowed to take advantage of the Homestead Act). The Act turns out to have been a triple boondoggle — 1) the huge numbers of settlers led to bad-faith treaties (always broken) with Native Americans, forcing them off their ancestral lands; 2) settlers without financial means went deep into debt to plow and plant their 160 acres, then losing entire crops to hail storms, locusts and drought, and then going deeper into debt to start over; and 3) after the prairie grasses were plowed under, winds began blowing the topsoil away, consequently finishing off anyone without financial means to get through the difficult times. The Long Depression of 1873-1896 (which ruined farmers even in the east; Almanzo’s successful father was forced to move to Minnesota after crop failures) was worsened by a 10-year drought on the plains; 50 years later, the area became the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, which turned entire towns and counties into ghost-areas.

It’s amazing the Ingalls and Wilder families survived at all.

Fraser makes all this clear, in her portrait of Pa Ingalls. Multi-talented (husband and father, farmer, carpenter, churchman and town elder, justice-of-the-peace, etc.), he scraped together a living for his family, and they were never hungry (except for during The Long Winter, when the entire town of De Smet, SD, was cut off from food and fuel for nearly 8 months) and always sheltered. But “scraped” is the apt word. The homestead was never enough to support the needs of his family, and he subsidized the farm income with jobs in town — carpentry and carting for the most part. Laura herself went to work at age 13 or 14, sewing shirts for a dressmaker in De Smet; she began teaching before her 16th birthday. The money she earned helped her family, but also went towards her sister’s tuition at a school for the blind in Iowa. Much later, when she began her journalism career, she did it out of necessity. Even in Missouri, where farming was a bit easier, it was impossible to support a family on what the farm earned.

Crazy Horse Monument, South Dakota

Thus, one myth that Fraser busts in Prairie Fires is that a homesteader, if they work hard enough (there were women homesteaders as well), could succeed and make a life for themselves without help from anyone, including the US government. (Never mind the irony of the US government, having stolen millions of acres from the people already living there, offering it for “free” to anyone who can last 5 years on a claim.) Turns out, you really can’t make it on your own — not as a homesteader on the Great Plains in the 1880s (and probably not anywhere or anytime else). The Great American Individual needed a community — of relatives, friends and neighbors, and the government itself — to survive.

I’ll return to the myth of bootstrapping in Part II of this review, which will also address Fraser’s study of the collaboration between Laura and her daughter Rose as the Little House series was written. Coming to soon to this very blog!

Posted in Biography, History | Tagged , | 5 Comments

So long, hiatus

Dianthus, forget-me-nots, and columbine at Ft Tryon
Park Heather Garden, NYC

Well, she wrote grumpily, I suppose it’s time I added another post to my blog. Let people know I’m still around. Give my brain a bit of a workout …. especially with this new block editor on WP (WHY WHY WHY???????)!

But seriously, after months and months of ignoring this semi-obligation, I’m actually ready to reappear.

So (I’m certain you’re wondering), what have I been doing with myself? Mostly, I’ve been reading. Like a fiend. And, I’m happy to say, mostly books I haven’t read before, some even published within the past 5 years. Here are some highlights:

Barbara Pym, Crampton Hodnet and Some Tame Gazelle. These are two of Pym’s early novels, although CH was published after her death. Funny tales set in small-town mid-20th century England, featuring spinsters and lady’s companions, vicars, dashing young men and women, a few titled folk, citizens of Oxford, and various others. Quite funny, easy, escapist reading. Some have called Pym a “modern Jane Austen”, but her stories remind me more of Miss Read’s novels of village life in post-war England. Because Miss Read’s narrator is a teacher, school children (and the school’s charwoman) play important roles — in Pym, they barely appear as even side-mentions. As well, Miss Read features fewer aristocrats, and many more characters of uncertain means, than do Pym’s novels. Yet what Pym, Read, and Austen have in common is the fine brush work on a “little bit of ivory”.

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi. Others have reviewed this (see Calmgrove’s fine review here), so I’ll keep my comments short. Tough to get into, but absolutely worth the effort. With only a hint of Faerie, this is not at all like her previous work.

Imagine Piranesi, the MC, as a fussy middle-aged man, scrambling through rooms, across vast spaces, up and down innumerable staircases, all to maintain a dwelling he can never leave, where someone keeps leaving messes that he’s getting tired of picking up!

Clarke sets a puzzle, with Piranesi at the center of it. Yet he’s quite the opposite of the minotaur at the center of the labyrinth of Greek myth. (Clarke’s novel inspired me to reread Lawrence Durrell’s The Dark Labyrinth, all of whose characters get pretty much what they deserve).

Parable? Allegory? Object lesson? Mad romp? Probably all of these and more (although the last may be just my bit of fun).

And finally, this year’s stand-out read so far:

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. One of the funniest sci-fi books I’ve ever read, right up there with Doug Adams and Earl Mac Rauch (look him up).

Yu’s narrator/hero (also named Charles Yu, hereinafter referred to as CY) repairs time-travel machines that break down when the drivers try to change the past. According to CY, you can’t change the past because

The universe just doesn’t put up with that. We aren’t important enough. No one is. Even in our own lives. We’re not strong enough, willful enough, skilled enough in chronodiegetic manipulation to be able to just accidentally change the entire course of anything, even ourselves.

What is chronodiegetics? Simple: It’s “a theory of the past tense, a theory of regret… it is fundamentally a theory of limitations.” CY adds, “Life is, to some extent, an extended dialogue with your future self about how exactly you are going to let yourself down over the coming years.” And then,

The Foundational Theory of Chronodiegetics [posits that] within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine.

Note the critical phrase, “within a science fictional universe”. Yet much of what Yu gives us sheds light on the human condition. As CY tells us, “Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward.” It’s that backward look, aka “regret”, that powers our personal time machines. We are all walking chronodiegetic wanna-bes, time-traveling “even when we’re sitting still.”

Looming large in this novel are philosophical and psychological issues: what constitutes our sense of self? how do we cope with loneliness? what role does memory play in how we make choices? CY has to deal with abandonment issues — his father abandoned their family when he was young, and he has recently abandoned his own mother. His closest friend is his time machine’s computer, TAMMY, whose personality has been programmed as “depressed”. (Paging Marvin the paranoid android!) He’s lonely, yet won’t even commit to recognizing TAMMY as someone he needs.

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a “sci-fi reader”, you might be surprised by the layers in this book.

Oh, and now that I’m back to blogging (if one post in nearly 7 months counts as “back to blogging”), perhaps I’ll get back to work on that WIP.

We’ll see.

 

Posted in Am reading, Fantasy, Humorous, Science fiction | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

#WitchWeek2020: The end is nigh!

If you’re reading this, you’ve lived to tell the tale of Witch Week 2020. When you do, make sure it’s a tale with dark corners, collapsed towers, and horrifying specters. Not to mention lots and lots of shadows.

Chris and Lizzie are grateful for the help of everyone who participated:

e-Tinkerbell of eTinkerbell, who, in typical English-teacher fashion, introduced us to a fabulous classic of Italian Gothic/Romantic literature;

Jean of Howling Frog Books, for guiding us on a tour through the world of M R James’ gothic horror stories and for participating so energetically in our read-along discussion;

Kristen of We Be Reading, who drew our attention to a modern gothic masterpiece set in Mexico;

Lory of The Emerald City Book Review, who joined Chris, Jean, and Lizzie in a lengthy and wide-ranging discussion of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book;

Citizens of the social media world, too numerous to mention, who added comments and questions; Tweeted/Facebooked/Instragrammed links to our posts; and included pingbacks, links, and reviews on their own blogs;

Our readers across the globe;

And, finally, once again, a special nod of appreciation to Lory, who six years ago started this annual celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and fantasy fiction on ECBR.

I want to add my own PS of gratitude to Chris for all his support as we put together this year’s event, especially for his excellent kick-off post on Gothick towers. Also, during our stewardship of Witch Week since 2017, he has created our wonderful memes. I hope he enjoys the work, because it’s his job for as long as we do this.

For anyone who just can’t get enough, here are the links for the Witch Week Master Posts from earlier years.

Thanks again to all of you for sharing this event with us, and we hope you’ll join us next year, at Chris’s blog, when our theme will be …

TREASON AND PLOT

Contemporary engraving of conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe. Third figure from right is Guy Fawkes.

Posted in Gothic, Witch Week | Tagged | 14 Comments

#WitchWeek2020 Day 6: MEXICAN GOTHIC and the Classic Gothic Tale

Wrangling the specters today is guest blogger Kristen M, who has been blogging at WeBeReading.com for most of twelve years and is the creator of March Magics (which annually celebrates Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett). She lives in Seattle, loves baking, tolerates yard work, and hates laundry. In this post, Kristen’s review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2020 best-selling novel is framed within traditional Gothic tropes (similar to e-Tinkerbell’s use of classic plot arc to analyze The Betrothed), thus providing an excellent final post for this week of Gothick thrills.


When deciding on a gothic book for Witch Week (in my case, likely a reread since this is my most frequently read genre), I started getting curious about a book I was hearing a lot about and actually hadn’t read yet–Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.  The gothic tale is typically held to be a British and American custom, based on the restrictions and trappings of patriarchy, class, and religion. Could this Mexican-Canadian author tap into the heart of the gothic tradition even while setting her story in 1950s El Triunfo, a derelict mining town based on Real del Monte, Mexico?

Cover image photo credit: Kristen M, WeBeReading.com

When asked about specific books or inspirations, Moreno-Garcia said that “… I have read a whole slew of Gothic novels, too many to list”. I am always up for a challenge so I went through various online resources and my own library and created a list of more than 75 novels and short stories that I had read over the years. (This list can be found on my blog today.)

After being reminded of so many favorites, I was ready to reread some of the sensational gothic books I’ve loved over the years. Since I revisited Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) last October, I decided to start my list with that classic. What else made the list? Brontë‘s Jane Eyre (1847), Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1803/1817), du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), John Harwood’s The Seance (2008), the short stories “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (Hawthorne, 1844), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Poe, 1839), and “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1892), and most of The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (1993).

While reading, I kept a word cloud of the elements that felt essential to each story. What were these gothic building blocks, you may ask, and did they appear in Mexican Gothic (MG)? Let us compare.

First there is the young, dependent, educated but self-doubting Hero or Heroine. In MG, this is Noemí Taboada, a twenty-two year old debutante who can’t make up her mind about men or studies but who does want to go off to the university. She still lives with her father and is reliant on him for money and good will. He wants her to go check on her orphaned cousin, Catalina, who has married and moved away to live with her husband’s family and has sent a disturbing letter to the family. Noemí has no choice but to go. She is smart and strong-willed but also knows what she must do to eventually get her own way in life.

Then there is the primary setting, which is almost universally The House, be it Manderley, Thornfield Hall, or the titular Northanger Abbey. The house is usually old and dark and either physically or psychologically difficult to leave. High Place, the home of the Doyle family, is on a mountainside above the abandoned silver mines that the English family used to manage for generations. It is an English-style home, out of place in Mexico, and is dark and in disrepair. It is also isolated from the village below because of the narrow road and regular mists and rain.

There is also the requirement of a Physical Mood. This is rarely one of sunshine and warmth, at least not for long. Eventually there is always cold, damp, rain, darkness, decay, dust, and/or illness. The house’s location in the mountains means lots of rain and mist, and damp and darkness are inevitably present most of the time. Also, Noemí goes because her cousin is ill, supposedly with tuberculosis, although she seems to be having a mental breakdown of sorts as well.

But just as important is the Intangible Mood. This is always one of discomfort and sometimes even fright. It can be based on the actions of others, for example their secretiveness, misogyny, or hostility. It can be based on history: past events or deaths and the grief and consequences and suspicions that attend them. It can exist mainly in the minds of the characters, as through imagination or dreams. MG has almost all of these. There is the inherent misogyny of both the Mexican and English cultures of the time, the shady Doyle family history, and the unexplainable and bizarre dreams that Noemí has once she is in the house.

Even though these stories are usually bleak, sometimes there is a Romance, requited or not. I’m not going to tell you if there is one in MG. You’ll have to read it to find out!

And then there is usually an Influence based in science or the supernatural, for all of the strangeness and discomfort must be explained but only sometimes is there an earthly reason. MG skirts the line between science and the supernatural in a way that pushes the book toward the realms of a certain founder of the horror genre. Though Moreno-Garcia has named the author in many interviews, they will remain nameless here to preserve some surprise for future readers.

Finally, of course, there is an Ending. This is where the most variety within the gothic stories emerges. Some allow their characters to finally be happy or at least settle into a sort of melancholy contentedness. Others are decidedly sad and tragic. Some end with flight or escape, and a surprising number end in fire. Again, I have to let you, the reader, discover the ending that Moreno-Garcia has crafted.

As you can see, Mexican Gothic manages to gather all of the gothic elements that I found in the classics. Yet, though you could see some influences within, it didn’t feel derivative at all. There were hints, such as one about the chemical used in wallpaper that may have driven Napoleon mad, that an avid reader may have connected to a specific story but nothing that was copied or simply retooled.

One final thing to note is that most gothic novels and stories are written by white men and women. This was why I eventually chose this novel and why I think it is important to note how well it fits in the genre, regardless of the author’s nationality or the location of the story. In a deleted tweet from 8 July, Moreno-Garcia said that she “hope[s] publishing realizes POC don’t just tell stories of immigrant suffering, that we can write books of all genres and that Latino lit doesn’t = only magic realism.” I think this is a great take-away message that only adds to the pleasure of reading this book.

Mural, Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo credit: Lizzie Ross

Posted in Gothic, Horror, Witch Week | Tagged | 11 Comments

#WitchWeek2020 Day 5: Gothic fantasy, with puppets

Puppet shows! Fun times for all, right? Not in this chilling Newbery Honor book. In 2007, Laura Amy Schlitz had won the Newbery Award for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village. This 2012 gothic fantasy by the same author takes place a few centuries later, in an England those medieval villagers could never have imagined.

And remember those towers that Chris mentioned four days ago in “Gothic Dreams”? Well, Schlitz gives her readers one that’s full of menace. Here’s her take on the Victorian gothic novel:


Splendors and Glooms, Laura Amy Schlitz (2012, Candlewick Press; published in UK and elsewhere as Fire Spell)

1860, London, autumn. For days, fog thick as pudding envelops the town. To cross a street is to gamble your life, since carriage drivers can’t see you before you’re a bump under their wheels. Mud, urine, manure, and offal ruin the shoes of those without a penny or two to hire a street sweeper. The noise, the stink, the bad food and water, the diseases — there’s no escaping these. Just a few years earlier, all but one of the Wintermute family’s children died of cholera.

Fifty pages into this novel, the one surviving child goes missing. 50 more pages, and we know what’s happened to her. And there’s still almost 300 pages to go!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Schlitz’s novel starts in a nearly collapsed tower, where a witch is dying, albeit slowly. A former lover left her before explaining how she could free herself from the curse of the fire opal that powers her magic.

Back in London, the master puppeteer Grisini has two apprentices: the orphans Lizzie Rose and Parsefall. Lizzie Rose (nearly 15 years old) plays instruments and sews the puppets’ costumes; Parsefall (probably 11, but no one knows for sure) assists Grisini during the puppet shows. Both children are starving and maltreated. Parsefall is missing a finger and can’t remember how he lost it. Lizzie Rose has not yet learned to fear Grisini, but she doesn’t trust him. Though not brother and sister, Parsefall and Lizzie Rose spar and bicker like siblings.

At one point, we learn that Parsefall is haunted by “splendors and glooms” and has “an appetite for prodigies and wonders, for a world where spangles were stars and skeletons frolicked until their bones fell apart.” Lizzie Rose, with more education than Parsefall, corrects his grammar and pronunciation, shares her food with him (he never reciprocates), and dreams of a better life for them both.

The night that Grisini’s puppets perform at Clara Wintermute’s 13th birthday party, the girl disappears. Lizzie Rose suspects Grisini, but has no proof. When Grisini himself disappears, his apprentices are left destitute, wondering if he has simply deserted them. Lizzie Rose ends up drudging for their landlady to cover their rent, and Parsefall puts on puppet shows for the few pennies he can earn.

Fans of Gothic literature will find in Splendors and Glooms most of the familiar tropes: orphans, an evil wizard, a crumbling tower, a crypt, a cursed jewel, a doubtful legacy. There’s even a bit of Blackbeard’s castle, in a locked door the children are warned not to open. Of course they ignore the warning.

Readers will also find diabolical magic, two mages whose hatred for each other draws the children into a trap, and the cleverest use of puppets in any story I’ve ever read, including M. R. James’ “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” (1913), which features a too-lifelike Punch and Judy show in 1830s England. In a YouTube video advertising the Puppet Theatre Barge located in Little Venice, London, Stan Milton calls puppetry “ethereal magic”. That’s what Schlitz gives us in the few performances that occur in her novel. Audiences are enthralled — even hypnotized — by the dancing puppets, which include skeletons that slowly lose their limbs until there’s nothing left but skulls, their toothy jaws still chomping at phantom meals.

Part One of Splendors and Glooms takes place in London, Part Two near Lake Windermere. How Schlitz gets everyone up there is such a clever piece of plotting that you hardly see it happening. In this neo-gothic novel, she is the genius puppeteer, pulling the strings that place every character where they need to be, at just the right moments. So satisfying!

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#WitchWeek2020 Day 4: M R James and the Gothic Tradition

In this post, guest blogger Jean takes us to the world of M. R. James, famous for his creepy gothic tales, which have inspired several 20th and 21st century authors. Jean is a librarian blogging at Howling Frog Books who loves history, world literature, and anything involving textiles or embroidery.


M R James, 1900

Montague Rhodes James (1862 – 1936) spent his life as a scholar and medievalist, working at Cambridge and Eton, and he also wrote ghost stories on the side, for fun. He knew much of the Gothic tradition, and both drew upon it and departed from it, bringing new ideas to the scene; I think we can fairly call him a bridge from Gothic literature to the beginnings of modern horror. Being an antiquarian (enthusiastic does not begin to describe it), he enjoyed featuring ancient manuscripts, artifacts, or monsters, and his protagonists are often scholarly gentlemen, like himself.

James was the son of a clergyman, and his stories depict a society in which the unassailable centrality of the Anglican church is assumed (rather like Trollope). He also appears to have been a keen antiquarian from childhood. A friend’s reminiscences* include examples of what I would call pretty unusual behavior for a little boy:

[At age 6] …when recovering from a bad attack of bronchitis, he expressed a longing to see a certain seventeenth-century Dutch Bible which he had heard was in the possession of his father’s friend…

[At Eton] …A boy who could, out of the pound given him as his half’s pocket-money, spend on his way back to Eton sixteen shillings for the four volumes of John Albert Fabricius on the Apocrypha was obviously not as other boys.

Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories, Penguin Classics

Some of James’ favorite literary techniques came from Gothic literature. He often used the ‘found manuscript’ conceit, and even doubled it a time or two. Or, James would sometimes change things up and make the found object a picture, a piece of stained glass, or something else with a secret message to disclose. Ancient churches or ruins were, of course, favored settings; the older and more mysterious, the better.  

On the other hand, James departed from Gothic tradition by setting his stories in his own time, and usually in England instead of the wild unknowns of Italy; when they are set in a foreign land, it’s probably in ‘civilized,’ Protestant Scandinavia. And while cathedrals and churchmen are thick on the ground, they are, wicked or not, nearly always solidly Anglican. James liked to start with an utterly ordinary setting, and then gradually bring in the creepiness, which heightens the horror and brings it closer. You don’t have to go to Italy and be attacked by banditti in order to experience a Gothic tale; it can happen right at home.

One of my favorite stories is “The Tractate Middoth,” which features an elderly scholar coming into a library and asking for an obscure (but real!) book of Hebrew commentary. The young library assistant, Mr. Garratt, heads off to fetch the book … but it’s haunted by a terrifying specter that doesn’t want to give the book up. Mr. Garratt has to take a vacation in order to recuperate from the shock, and it so happens that he hears some information that might have some bearing on his experience. He learns who the elderly man is, and is in time to see him obtain the book and meet the specter himself.**

Illustration for “Count Magnus”, Rosemary Pardoe

Possibly one of the most traditionally Gothic tales is the very well-known “Count Magnus,” in which the narrator tells of a manuscript he has found, revealing the visit of a travel writer to Sweden. Mr. Wraxall stays with a prominent Swedish family, and becomes fascinated with an ancestral mausoleum attached to the church – but it’s locked. It houses the tomb of Count Magnus, a legendarily wicked lord of the manor who was said to have gone “on the Black Pilgrimage, and had brought something or someone back with him.” (Just what the Black Pilgrimage is, is only partly revealed, but it’s implied that the Count made a metaphysical journey to a cursed city and perhaps made some sort of covenant.) Mr. Wraxall eventually gains access to the mausoleum, and finds the tomb locked with three padlocks, which fall off one at a time…

Illustration for “The Mezzotint”, Loneanimator, DeviantArt.com

This is typical of James, to start with a modern setting, jump back 50 and then a couple of hundred years, and bring the ancient horror up to the present. His horrors, however, are not the typical Gothic kind of pale and elegant specters. James’ monsters are often short, hairy, skinny, and/or muffled in fabric. He must have had a horror of spiders, and he’s the only writer I’ve come across who can make white linen or flannel terrifying. His creatures are nearly always chiaroscuro figures of shadow and moonlight, and are described like engravings or woodcuts – antique illustrations in black and white – as in “The Mezzotint”, when a print of an engraving shows a figure “crawling on all fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back…” and later, 

the black drapery hung down over its face so that only hints of that could be seen, and what was visible made the spectators profoundly thankful that they could see no more than a white dome-like forehead and a few straggling hairs…. The legs of the appearance alone could be plainly discerned, and they were horribly thin.

Image created for BBC Radio series of M R James’ short stories

Since I’m a book person myself, I always like James’ constant interest in books. This time, I paid a little more attention to the footnotes and realized that since quite a few of the books he mentions are real, and I live in the glorious age of the internet, I might be able to find some of them and see if they interest me. Most of the ones I looked up were indeed on archive.org, and so I downloaded a book on alchemy and a few volumes of “Bell’s Cathedrals,” and looked at the works of Thomas Bewick (a famous and incredibly prolific engraver who illustrated a variety of works from natural history to Aesop’s Fables). I found PDFs of the Harleian Miscellany, which is a multi-volume collection of old pamphlets and looks kind of fun, but the pages are not very easy to read and the automatic OCR made absolute hash of them when I tried to get epub files. All of this, however, helped to remind me what it was like to learn things back in about 1900. If you wanted to know what Canterbury Cathedral, or Sweden, or what various sorts of owls looked like, you usually had to get a reference book and look at engravings, or at best a few black-and-white photos. No books stuffed with color photos, and certainly no Google Maps to bring you endless views of nearly every famous landmark on Earth.

The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, Penguin Classics

Other favorite stories of mine are “A Warning to the Curious” and “Mr. Humphreys’ Inheritance,” not to mention many others, but I will let you discover them yourself. James’ stories are most easily found in two Penguin paperbacks: Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories, and The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, which collect all the short stories together. Much of his work is also available for less money and slightly more effort at the Gutenberg Project. There are also quite a few BBC adaptations on YouTube; I’ve watched two so far, and plan to watch more.

Gilbert James’ cover image for “The Five Jars”, publisher Michael Walmer (MichaelWalmer.com)

I only recently discovered that James also wrote a charming tale for children, “The Five Jars”, which combines fun and shivers in about equal measure. I downloaded it from Gutenberg. The narrator (James himself) is led to an ancient buried case holding tiny jars of ointment, which allow him to hear, see, and speak with magical creatures of all sorts. He needs their advice, because there are evil forces trying to get the case too.  

Once you read James’ spooky tales, you’ll start to see his influence in innumerable later writers of creepy stories. I’m not a reader of Lovecraft, but I know he commented positively on James’ work. I’ve seen James’ plots adapted or even lifted outright for use in children’s and YA fiction (which is where my experience lies). John Bellairs, one of my favorite spooky children’s writers, often used Jamesian details; his successor, Brad Strickland, has been more overt about it. And in The Dollhouse Murders (1983), Betty Ren Wright rewrote “The Haunted Dolls’ House” for 10-year-olds.

I’m not enough of a scholar to really know, but as far as I can tell, M. R. James is considered the inventor of the ‘antiquarian ghost story’ – which I suppose is my favorite type of ghost story! And there’s no need to keep his works for the autumn; he followed the British tradition of having ghost stories at Christmas, and many of his tales were written to share at that time of year. I hope you’ll enjoy them too. 


*A Memoir of Montague Rhodes James, by S. G. Lubbock,  Cambridge University Press), 1939.

**I found a fairly recent BBC adaptation of “The Tractate Middoth” on YouTube, and thought it was very well done. I am supremely envious of Mr. Garratt’s library! I do have one small quibble, though; this is one of the few James stories with a pretty happy ending, and the BBC felt it necessary to add a little to it, which I didn’t really think was the best choice. But I encourage you to read and watch both, and see what you think.

Posted in Classic, Fantasy, Gothic, short stories, Witch Week | Tagged | 15 Comments

#WitchWeek2020 Day 3: The Graveyard Book

2012 US paperback edition, cover by Dave McKean

“It takes a graveyard to raise a child.” 
(back cover of The Graveyard Book, US edition)

Appropriately for today, the Day of the Dead, we present you with a discussion of this year’s read-along book, a novel set in a cemetery. Four of us–Lory* from The Emerald City Book Review, Chris at Calmgrove, Jean at Howling Frog Books, and Lizzie–spent the last few weeks of summer discussing Neil Gaiman’s Newbery Award-winning novel, The Graveyard Book (2008). We addressed four questions of interest to us.

Many of you know this book, or have read it recently, and we hope that after reading our discussion you’ll add your own comments and questions, expanding this in new directions.


What did we think of the novel’s gothic nature?

A bloody knife promises danger.

Chris:The Gothick elements include the menace right from the off and the memes or motifs that Gaiman deliberately uses — ghosts, graves, vampires, the innocent abroad, the enclosing boundary representing safety. 

Lory: What I find interesting is that Gaiman makes some of the traditional villains of horror/gothic fiction, the monsters, into guardians and protectors of humanity. He gives them new names and doesn’t use the old ones, though we can deduce them (vampire, werewolf) from our knowledge of the tropes of fiction. The creepiest part of The Graveyard Book to me is the chapter where Mr. Frost gains Scarlett’s trust, and that has nothing supernatural about it. It’s an all too everyday story. 

Jean: Mr. Frost, unassuming nice man, is really frightening. He knows just what to say to manipulate Scarlett and Noona into trusting him.

Chris: Jack Frost’s grooming, of both Scarlett and her mother Noona, is all too recognisable, and as creepy (though in a different way) with the older woman as with the 15yo. That’s Gaiman’s skill, I think, to mix the menace of Gothick with everyday evil, and somehow to suggest that the mundane type is more horrific than ghosts and ghouls. 

Lory: Exactly! When Gothic lit veers into the unbelievably silly and absurd, it is just too much for my taste. It’s a grounding in reality that makes it truly scary, and also educational. We need to realize that evil is an everyday occurrence and the only way we can defeat it is to recognize it – above all, in ourselves.

Chris: I’m about a quarter of the way through Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance which is very much in the style I remember from Walpole’s Castle of Otranto but the atmosphere is of a different nature to Gaiman’s: archaic not contemporary, classic Gothick not serio-comic, teenage-focused more than child-centred. 

Lory: Jean, since you are reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, do you see anything to compare there? I confess that hardcore Gothic is not my thing and I tried to read Radcliffe once and could get nowhere. I did read Uncle Silas, though, and Gaiman’s using the name is a nod to the genre I think.

Lizzie: I’m the same, Lory. I’ve read The Monk, and Walpole and Radcliffe, and they’re all just silly.  

Jean: The silliness is part of the fun! Walpole always cracks me up; how did he come up with the idea of a giant helmet falling out of the sky and squishing the heir? (I also like B-movies. So that might be part of my problem.) 

Lizzie: Yes, Jean, that giant helmet is hilarious — plus the giant foot and sword. That’s some curse, to manifest itself through size.

Lory: It’s not so much the silly external events as the silliness of the characters that bugs me: when they are just too stupid to live, or their actions simply make no sense. (I’m really basing this comment on Uncle Silas, which has a lot of that.) To be thrown into fantastical, weird situations and have to make sense of them is all to the good, narratively speaking; that’s what Bod has to do a lot, isn’t it?

Lizzie: 18th and 19th century gothic fiction relies heavily on the helpless female, allowing “heroes” to rescue them from Dracula/Frankenstein’s monster/the Monk/whoever is threatening their life and/or chastity. I’m glad that Radcliffe stepped away from that particular trope. And certainly the fainting woman that Austen parodies in Northanger Abbey [in Love and Freindship, Austen advised: “Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint!”] was being replaced by redoubtable women like Jane Eyre and the various widows of Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford (although David Copperfield’s Dora comes far too close to the gothic model). I’m happy that Gaiman didn’t include anything like this – unless you count Noona being taken in by Mr. Frost? A case where the adults are dupes, although Scarlett is also fooled. But I assume/hope not the careful reader, who, upon seeing a character named “Mr. Frost” ought to move immediately to “Jack Frost”. 

Lory: It’s certainly fascinating to look at gender roles in Gothic lit. E.g. in Frankenstein, a man takes on a female role (giving life) but then he is too weak to take responsibility for the result and just runs away from it. One wants to say, “Be a woman!” And with Dracula it seemed to me that Mina Harker had more brainpower than all the men put together, who insisted on being all manly and protecting her and just made things worse. However, this takes me a bit far afield from TGB, where (with a mostly preteen protagonist) the gender issue is not so much in the foreground.

10th Anniversary cover, art by Chris Riddell

Jean: Much of Gothic fiction, it’s true, has helpless females who need rescuing, but it’s not at all uncommon (in the women-authored ones, anyway!) for the heroine to conquer through bravery and common sense. Eliza Parsons and Ann Radcliffe are both notable for their sensible and brave girls, though Radcliffe’s heroines feel faint a heck of a lot. The Monk is just completely bananas anyway …. I think the women authors felt much more of a responsibility to write heroines that could be models for the girls they knew were reading the books.

Udolpho, like all of Radcliffe’s works, is notable for its championship of common sense and emotional self-control that stands in opposition to the background of creepy castles, evil villains, and nameless horrors. Emily’s triumph comes through defeating superstition (including belief in ghosts) and standing firm in her moral certainties – both against money-grubbing men who want to force her into marriage, and against the panic-inducing fear of ghosts. I’d say that Silas does teach Bod a lot of sense. He’s good at calmly figuring out not just how to deal with the Indigo Man, but also solutions to real-world problems, like the school bullies. He eventually marries defeating both the supernatural and the ordinary terrors by luring Jack into the Sleer’s cave.

Lory: Nice characterization of the qualities that can be strengthened exactly through encountering their opposites in the Gothic genre. I might give Radcliffe another try at some point.

Gaiman has said that TGB was inspired by seeing his own son riding a tricycle through a graveyard, a perfect metaphor for how life continues renewing itself in the midst of death. What does this suggest about the book’s setting?

Chris: It’s a tale set in limbo, playing on the threshold between life and death, and between amity and adversity. 

Lizzie: The final defeat of Jack Frost requires Bod to have no fear of the Sleer – and that was the case the first time he met it. I guess growing up surrounded and taught by ghosts teaches a person that death isn’t anything to fear. I’ve had this quote for ages: Letum non omnia finit. (“Death doesn’t end everything.”)

Lory: Yes, that ties together all the incidents and themes in a way. And makes it clear why setting a book in a graveyard does not mean it’s morbid or anti-life.

I recently came across a quote from Tennessee Williams – “We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.” I think this is a book about love, the love that has the potential to lead us safely through dangerous and liminal spaces, that is able to discern good and evil within our own hearts and to point us in the right direction, even when conventional wisdom might tell us something different.

How do we live in the face of mortality? Not by denying it or trying to erase it. Bod lives in the very realm of death, and what he “saves” from it is primarily learning and relationship. I find that a worthwhile message to ponder right now.

Cover of Italian version, artist unknown

Chris: I think you’ve pinpointed this very well, Lory. If there’s a leitmotif in much of Gaiman’s work, it’s love – the compassionate type more than the passionate. I had a spot of heartache in the final chapter, even the suggestion of a tear, and I remember a similar feeling at the end of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And closely allied to love’s pang are partings, and loss, and change. 

Lory: Agreed, Chris. The poignancy of change and loss is strongly present in Gaiman’s work. That’s always a factor when love is truly present, because we have to learn to let go what we cherish, so that it can be free. I believe that is what the “graveyard” setting conveys here, rather than a ghoulish delight in decay and corruption. I don’t usually enjoy horror stories which exist to indulge such an unwholesome appetite, but I can read his because they walk on the right side of that line, for me.

Jean: I love your Tennessee Williams quotation, Lory, and yes, it’s a theme I find in Gaiman a lot – and I think in Pratchett too – that love is what brings us through. Not usually romantic love, but compassion and mercy. Bod walks out of the graveyard and into life “with his eyes and his heart wide open.” He has no illusions about people or the world being particularly nice, but he’s willing to love. So I think you have wonderful points there, Lory.

The graveyard isn’t a ghoulish place, even. Sure, it has dark crypts and old coffins of bones, but really it’s a little town with a lot of cozy homes and a lot of people rubbing along together through their many differences. 

Lory: It’s ironic, though, that it’s in the graveyard that Bod is considered safe! The outer world, for him, holds greater dangers. And it’s again a good point that it’s by really knowing and experiencing all that is in the graveyard that he comes to have the abilities he needs to meet the challenge on the threshold of growing up. Continue reading

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