Month: September 2010

Reading “The Terror”

A few weeks ago (What I’m Reading Now, Sept. 5), I mentioned that I had started to read The Terror by Dan Simmons, a novel about the doomed Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin. Right from the start I thought it was an intense, possibly disturbing book. Not being in a state of mind at the time in which one enjoys being disturbed, I laid The Terror aside while I raced through Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Then I read Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga. Dark and wintry, it turned out to be a perfect bridge from Harry back to The Terror.

Simmons did an incredible amount of research, about the Franklin expedition, about life in the British Navy in the 19th century, about the social conditions of the time. This imparts a gravity and richness to the book. It’s a serious historical novel, but it’s also horror, on a couple of different levels.

To the history, Simmons grafts a supernatural being, a monster that terrorizes the men of the expedition as they endure winter on their icebound ships. In the best tradition of horror writing, the nature of this being remains mysterious. But another, very real horror is the situation in which these men find themselves. Through a series of misfortunes and bad decisions (recognizable long after the fact), they are trapped in solid  ice thousands of miles from home, with fuel and food supplies steadily diminishing and few options to escape their fate of slow starvation. The perpetual night of the Arctic winter is upon them and the temperature sometimes falls to -100 degrees Fahrenheit. Eventually they are forced to abandon the ships and make a desperate final effort to save themselves. It’s hard reading, but I can’t stop.

I find myself haunted by this novel. It casts a shadow on me as I go about my daily business. One of the pleasures of reading is to experience vicariously the troubles of the characters while comfortably ensconced at home with central heating and a fridge full of food. That’s hard to do with this book. Even though it’s earliest fall here in this most temperate region, the savage cold and dwindling food are a little too real, never mind the monster. I have to close the book and disengage from it at intervals. But I’m always compelled to return.

This isn’t the only horror novel with a polar setting. Being a sometime fan of H. P. Lovecraft, I think immediately of “At the Mountains of Madness,” a tale of shocking discoveries by a team of scientists in the Antarctic. Then there’s Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, also set in the Antarctic (and which I must read again, since my memory of it is extremely hazy).  Then there’s the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, which spawned The Thing, a movie about a monster terrorizing a polar research station.

Accounts of doomed polar expeditions, fictional or otherwise, exercise a strange fascination. The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of Robert Falcon Scott’s attempt to reach the South Pole, in which Scott and several others perished, has the same repellent allure as Simmons’s novel. Roald Amundsen’s account of his successful race to that same Pole was merely interesting, especially because it illustrated so many things that Scott did wrong — like using ponies for transport. Ponies in the Antarctic! Amundsen, on the other hand, had learned a lot from the native peoples of Arctic regions. No ponies there; they used dog teams. Amundsen’s crew beavered away in their snow-cave workshops, testing and rebuilding their equipment, getting everything perfect. No wonder he succeeded. But all the while I was reading his book, I was thinking of Scott. If only, if only…

Writing Short, Writing Long

I decided to post the occasional short story here (new Short Stories page), and that got me thinking about writing short fiction as opposed to novels.

I began writing in 2000 with a novel (The Friendship of Mortals). In fact, I was compelled to write it, something I still don’t understand. The characters (Herbert West and the narrator, Charles Milburn) came alive in my imagination to the point that the novel almost wrote itself. With many of the scenes I felt as though I was transcribing rather than creating the dialogue. The hardest thing was to realize the plot and fill in the action between those compelling scenes.

When I joined a critique group a few years later, it became evident that novels do not lend themselves well to review by such groups. It takes too long. If you contribute 3,000 words once per month, it would take 30 months to work through a 90,000 word novel. During that time, the membership of the group changes. People who join the group well into your novel can’t critique it the way someone would who has read it from the beginning.

Short stories are much better fodder for the critique group. Moreover, writers who are shopping a novel around to publishers are often advised to get some short stories published first. So I’ve written a few, even though I had little inclination to do so. To me they were an “ought to,” like eating broccoli, while novel writing was a “want to,” like chocolate. Writing stories was work, work, work. Writing novels was magic.

Some writers are simply not meant to write short fiction. Look at artists — for the most part, they choose a medium and stick with it.  Someone who paints big, splashy canvases or murals isn’t likely to do miniature portraits, and that’s OK. A sculptor who prefers to work with metal doesn’t feel guilty for ignoring stone.

My rule now is not to write anything, long or short, unless it wants to be written.

A few of my short stories have been published in Island Writer, the literary magazine of the Victoria Writers’ Society. But I thought I would make a few of the others available here. Critiques are welcome. It will be interesting to see if there are different reactions to stories I think of as written from the head versus those that were written from the heart.

Spring in Fall

Colchicums and Foliage

Most people think fall is about endings, but that’s not entirely true. The mini-season I think of as “fall-spring” has begun. It comes in September, after a few good rains and before any real cold weather. Like true spring, it’s a time of relief after a period of stress.

There are fall-blooming bulbs — autumn crocuses, colchicums (such as the ones in the photo) and nerines. Many perennials persist in blooming, especially if they have been deadheaded or cut back (good old Linaria, for example, and Lychnis coronaria whose bloom stalks were cut down by half in July). Others bloom for the first time in fall (asters and plumbago (Ceratostigmata plumbaginoides). Shrubs and vines whose main flush of bloom occurs in spring often rebloom a little now — rhododendrons, magnolias and Clematis armandii.

More subtle are the changes in foliage colours. I don’t mean the spectacular autumn colours of trees. Long before they begin to change, the foliage of certain perennials and shrubs shifts from summer green to shades that are almost magical. The smoke bush (Cotinus), both the purple and green-foliaged forms, develops intensely orange, yellow and purple spots on its leaves that transforms each one into a tiny work of art. Peonies, both herbaceous and tree varieties, acquire flushes of apricot and magenta that make them glow, especially near grey-leaved plants.

Peony, Achillea & Rosa glauca

The refreshment of rain and coolness, combined with the lower angle of light that comes with the changing season, bring about a transformation of the garden from its dry and dusty late summer state to a dying vitality, a final glory before the end of the main growing season. Maybe it’s because of my obsession with drought (actual, imminent or potential) in our Mediterranean climate here in climatically fortunate Victoria, B.C., but this is my favourite time of the gardening year. I have laid down the watering can and abandoned the hose. The struggle to grow a decent vegetable garden is over once again. I can wander the garden, enjoy the lingering blooms and plan for next year.

A book that celebrates this season is The Garden in Autumn by Allen Lacy. Drawing on his own experiences, he discusses fall-blooming perennials, bulbs, annuals, shrubs and ornamental grasses. I recommend it.

What I’m Reading Now

Since my post Books for Slow Reading (July 22) I’ve been taking note of the books I choose to read.  The current batch are a mixed bag.  I just finished The Lighthouse at the End of the World by Stephen Marlowe.  I’ve just started The Terror by Dan Simmons and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling.  This is the first H.P. book I’ve read. I was intending to hold off until I was in my second childhood, but this one came to hand and I can’t resist a big, thick book. (Both it and The Terror have 766 pages, by the way, a pleasing coincidence). I have also recently started on Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander books.

So — why these books?

I picked up The Lighthouse at the End of the World because of its intriguing title, and decided to read it because it’s about Edgar Allan Poe, whose works I discovered at an impressionable age. This book — I don’t know. Marlowe creates memorable images with his prose, but the story grows increasingly improbable. About three quarters of the way in my disbelief could no longer remain suspended and hit the ground with a thud. Then it didn’t matter any more.

I saw references to The Terror in reviews of Dan Simmons’s Drood and thought it would be worth having a look at. So far (p. 79) it seems promising, but is definitely a Slow Read, which is appropriate for a story about slow death in ice.

Harry Potter, on the other hand, has a frenetic quality about it. The author piles on the details and hammers them home in such a way that the reader cannot but “get it,” whatever it is. Scenes are a bit too long, conversations go on and on, and there are so many characters I’m finding it difficult to keep them straight. When people scream really loudly, their words are rendered in ALL CAPS. And yet, it’s charming. I’m thinking it will be a relief from the grimness of The Terror.

Then there’s Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. So far I’ve read The Pyramid, a collection of short pieces intended to be a kind of “prequel” to the series, the first book, Faceless Killers, and Sidetracked. These books are immensely popular where I live; not one of them is just sitting on the shelf at my local library. I have had to put in requests for them and wait for days or weeks. This popularity is a bit of a mystery in itself, because I find that the details of the crimes the detective and his team has to solve fade and blend together fairly quickly once I’ve finished reading about them. For me, the attraction is the unfamiliar setting (southern Sweden) and Wallander himself. He’s such a mess, struggling with laundry and  car problems, not to mention the complications of family and romantic relationships. Then there’s the matter-of-fact way Mankell presents all of this along with the details of the crimes that Wallander and his police colleagues wrestle with. I still don’t know why, but so far I can’t get enough of it.