Taking the precepts is a focus on an ideal. A decision to move in a direction – one step at a time. No need to see it as an all or nothing absolute. It is not a decision made due to concern about what happens after death, cosmic rewards, or eventual attainment. Rather than an object of fetish, they are a simple statement of intent.
You makea cup of coffee, you sip it,cradle it for a time.You finish, wash the cupand put it away.
That is the intent, the goal and the result all in one package. I suppose we all start with approaching them as prohibitions – then as guidelines – soon we see them as affirmations. It depends upon the person’s needs. Are four prohibitions better than 5 affirmations? Is it enough to not kill or do we also affirm life? Not steal but do we provide charity? Honor our selves as well as others? Do we manifest truth?
Precepts are sipped.
So much more subtle than prohibitions, these intentions internalize into actions. No mind. No Buddha. No precepts. Just a cup of coffee, steam slowly rising as we bring the rim to our lips.
Take a sip.
Fuck me, that’s hot…
So what is going on?
In this fantastic debut novel from Karen Thompson Walker, 11-year-old Julia wakes up to find the apocalypse has already begun. Who knew? But rather than zombies or a nuclear winter, the earth’s rotation has slowed down – first by minutes and hours and then by days – with no sign of it stopping. Something that is considered universally stable and reliable changes abruptly and without warning [take that Farmer’s Almanac!]. The following days record the consequences and changes. But the world keeps on turning (albeit slowly) and life continues for young Julia. Relationships rise and fall; parents are driven apart and then back together; and the sun creates 3rd degree burns when you wander out at midday. You know, the usual teenage girl stuff.
Oh! Wonderful…did you like it?
Part of what makes this book so challenging and satisfying (which is saying much from me as I dislike YA with a passion) is the lack of a definitive resolution – nothing in the beginning, nothing in the end and nothing inbetween. Why is this happening? Why has the earth’s rotation slowed? Why do days spread to weeks? Nights last seemingly forever….why? Crops fail, earth moves, time slows. The “why” is left hanging on our minds but never released. This air of the mysterious leads to a much more frightening and engaging novel. The miracles are of a decidedly more calamitous type – heatstroke, sickness, suicide cults, new planets, old fears, love and forgiveness. Like the miracles of old, these are unexplained, inexplicable and full of mystery. It truly is an age of miracles.
OK…that was random. Anything else?
The writing and perspective was simple and straightforward. You catching small moments of a home and family that cling tightly as a planet slowly falls apart. She falls into calm complaisance and then into frenzied, manic movement and finally into resolve. Tender at moments but mostly a stoic recitation of past remembrances, The Age of Miracles gives a grim picture of the future without a dusting of hope and a wide array of the mundane.
Wait…did that mean it was good?
Early morning light,
I walk the bodhi-swagger.
It is just a spoon.
Noon passes me as
I stumble through the day.
It is just a spoon.
Night creeps up slowly
staggering towards nirvana.
It is just a spoon.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
How was it?
This was a subtle fantasy. An old man and woman, alone in the Alaskan wilderness, wish for a child. In a moment of rare lightness and play, one appears, seemingly, from snow, wind and pine bough (much more exciting than birds and bees). The magic wild-child flits in and out of the couple’s lives, bringing one back from the brink of loneliness and opening the other to affection and love. This touching and sincere fairy-tale was well woven, sad and delightful and highlights the impermanence of love, life and longing.
What was it?
A contemporary take on a classic fairy tale (that I never heard of) with a touch of magical realism thrown in. The setting of the 1930’s Alaskan wilderness was novel, harsh, isolated and lovely. The cold itself was almost palatable in some of the descriptions – playing a walk-on/walk-off roll with the seasons. Focus was on the characterization and growth of the characters more than discovery or action. The magic is loose and airy without containment or rules. The comradery between man and beast (the snow child and her fox; the family with their horse) added an extra level to the story-telling.
Should I read it?
Yes. Sweet Lord Ganesha, YES! But a warning first – the sheer amount of emotion envoked in this book can cause unwanted attempts at homesteading, life-long monogamy and attempts at spontaneous magic and occupational necromancy. It is also likely you will hug the shit out of your family at some point in the story and blubber like fat, candy-less child.
This book in six words?
Contemporary take on a classic tale.
People change. Memories don’t.
Actually memories do change. What we remember from day to day; what we recall from last week; what we remember from our childhood will differ a year from now or 10 years or a lifetime down the road. Memories are crafted and re-crafted as we retrieve them, use them and repurpose them as needed. They are stories – embellished and molded to suit our purpose – sometimes to entertain, other times to inform, sometime to help or hinder.
Rather than stored in one constant region, memory storage consists of a wide range of systems. Memories are not static entities; over time they shift and migrate between different areas of the brain. Memories evolve over time. They do change. They are changing now. Right now! Nothing you remember is how it actually happened. It is your best representation of the events, perceptions, feelings, and connections glued together into a semi-cohesive unit that can be expressed when you decide “Hey! Remember that time you broke up with me…”
But that is not pithy enough for a pretty picture…
“But wait!” you say, “perhaps the take-away meaning was actually about trauma!” (courtesy of the awesome +bob zane but not in so many words…I am expanding for dramatic effect.)
Trauma is pervasive emotional response to an event or a series of events event after the stimulus is has been long removed. Memory may, but not necessarily, play a role in that process. Many traumatized individuals have no memory of the traumatizing event. Now if this was stated “People change but trauma can exist for an indeterminable time and have lasting effects upon future relationships and general life quality” I would have shared it without comment!
However it didn’t.
And is wrong.
Do better next time Pinterest…or Tumblr…where ever you came from.
Image Credit: The Bridge by Gate-to-Nowhere
Dun dun duuuuunnnn!
A RECIPE FOR DARK FANTASY
To imagine dark fantasy properly requires a visual recipe. First, take two (any two) hobbits from the Lord of the Rings then fold in Peter Dinklage as the Vampire Lestat into a small sack. After marinading for a decade, throw in a pinch of Gothic Romance, two undead badgers and shake vigorously. The resulting confection is a fantastic environment with a pronounced, although usually not central, aspect of horror and the macabre. Imagine if H.R. Giger and Edward Gorey had a love-child that loved to write books…
As with all genre-bending, it is a dangerous art. Dark fantasy can walk a very thin line with rare agreement among those literary experts that have a desperate desire to define. As a result, dark fantasy cannot be solidly connected to a set of rules or formula (sort of like a syndrome rather than a disease). There can be roving, ephemeral elements of Urban Fantasy, Supernatural Fantasy, Horror or High/Epic Fantasy (although not all are required, needed or even desired). Sometimes dark fantasy seems a large, ambiguous parent group subsuming the intersection of horror and fantasy (which is pretty damned close to what it is). To simplify, though, it usually contains some (or none) of the following morass of components. Tread carefully.
- Stories told from a monster’s point of view.
- Supernatural or elements of the unexplained or unknown.
- Less focus on victim/suffering (as in horror) and more focus on inner struggle of the monster/beast/demon/hell-spawn/mutant-swamp-beastie-pony.
- Horror elements in a fantasy environment rather than a “real” environment. So a serial killer on earth would be horror but a serial killer on Middle-Earth would be dark fantasy (and completely awesome!)
- Anti-heroic or morally ambiguous protagonists (think Michael Moorcock’s Elric, Karl Wagner’s Kane or Pat Buchanan)
- A darker, grittier feel to the writing rather than heroic or epic in scope.
A SPECTRUM OF DARK FANTASY
The genre can span between more horror-based story-lines (Cliver Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, Anne Rice, Glen Duncan, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro) or more fantasy-based (Anne Bishop, Brent Weeks, Glen Cook, Kim Harrison, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series). In the horror-based variety the narrator or perspective derives from what would classically be considered the beastie. In the fantasy-based variety, the perspective may be from a flawed hero or a mixed, alternating narrative from protaganist/antagonist, hero/monster or hunter/hunted.
Even more confusing is the fact that many epic tales may contain chapters or sections that delve very deep into the dark fantasy realm without turning the entire book over to the dark side.
ADDITIONAL EXAMPLES (hover over for titles):
- Glen Duncan,
- Neil Gaiman,
- H.P. Lovecraft,
- Anne Bishop,
- Peter Straub,
- Charlaine Harris,
- Brent Weeks,
- Glen Cook,
- Anne Rice,
- Clive Barker,
- Kendare Blake,
- John Connolly,
- Matt Haig,
- Kim Harrison,
- Sandman or Hellblazer
- and any “twisted” Fairy Tale,
Image Credit: Gothic Art and Drawings by Laurie Lipton
I sent my Lord Eddard Stark a crow.
I caught a Lannister on the road.He brought with him a smirk and forbode.“Cuz, you be best to hedge your bets…’cause a Lannister will always pay his debts.”
You won’t need a squire to get you there,You won’t even have a place to stay.Maybe Dorne, where all the ladies are so fair,And you can just roll around in Westeros all day.
Tyrion was in the other day,Whorin’ where the whores come to play.He looked up with gasp and a sighDreaming of things to do in Westeros when I die.
You won’t need a squire to get you there,You won’t even find a place to stay.Maybe Dorne, where the ladies are so fair,And you can just roll around in Westeros all day.
Strolling on the Wall the other day,I saw Sam nappin’ in bale of hay.He was fat, dressed in black, and abed.Thinking of things to do in Westeros when I’m dead.
Ed said “Brother, There’s something you should know…Not everyone’s as cool as Jon Snow.Just be smart and don’t lose your head, whilstdreaming of things to do in Westeros when you’re dead”
You won’t need a squire to get you there,You won’t even have a place to stay.Maybe Dorne, where the ladies are so fair,And you can just roll around in Westeros all day.
You can just roll around in Westeros all day.
I said “Dad, I am feeling pretty low.”
“I got some weird ideas in my head…
of things to do in Westeros when you’re dead.”
sung to “Things to do in Denver when you’re Dead” by Warren Zevon
If you are curious about what the song actually sounds like
Of saints and stoics, sinners and frauds,
Of coffee-tables, grass-huts or dropped power-lines,It matters not a stitch.When the well runs dry, we are all hung up high,and Samsara’s still a bitch.
Of life or death, heaven or hell,whatever gilded wagon you hitchIt will run aground, stuck with a soft sucking soundand Samsara?
Oh, she’s still a bitch.
never you mind which.
When our day is at an end, not a prayer to send
and Samsara’s still a bitch.
Image from the Samsara Blues Experiment (a band I have never heard of but has a great name and cool artwork)
To a confederacy of birds,
planning for the future is absurd.
They know time won’t last.
and rarely even look to the past.
Prefering simply to stay unattached. Unhatched.
Not lost to the past,
nor delving into the future.
The past just fades away,
the future holds very little sway.
Prefering simply to be where they breathed last. Their Last.
Together but solitary
aloft in the present,
soaring with a sigh,
lost to all sense of “Why?”
Prefering simply to let that question slip by unharried. Uncarried.
To a confederacy of birds,
of owls and corvids and hawks,
balance is still the thing
when its time take to wing.
And that is the moment, dear flier, to sing.
Sky Full of Birds” by Richard Barrett
As a gentleman literary curmudgeon, I prefer the winter months. Cold mornings and dark rooms lead to cozy evenings. No children begging to go outside and play. No ungentlemanly yardwork to get done. The only domestic urgencies are coffee and books at dawn and scotch and books at dusk.
Once Spring emerges all this loveliness changes. Moments alone in my cave are a rare pleasure. My mind languishes with trips to the park and the fertile ground of imagination is lost to the drudgery of backyard shenanigans. Bundle up tight, gentle reader, it goes on like this for a few months.
But there is an escape, dear friend. Short stories are the perfect reading companion for days spent lost in the bleary bleakness of the great outdoors. Below I list a few of my favorite (mostly fantasy) collections that will bring the darkness back.
- Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life and Others provides 8 science fiction short pieces that melt the barriers between science, philosophy and religion. In one dramatic piece, the Tower of Babel is built in order to gain access to heaven and where do you think it led?
- Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen is a collection of retold fairy tales, subtle ghost stories and all levels of the fantastic. With a prose that makes even the most fantastic seem as normal as driving down you will be asking for more. Which is good because you will love The Faery Handbag in her collection Pretty Monsters or her edited volume Steampunk! An Anthology Of Fantastically Rich And Strange Stories.
- Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage is going to seem a bit off-kilter for this list but she has two things going for her. 1) She is Canadian and 2) She weaves tales that seem so clear, you would swear it happened to you…because maybe it did…And fellas, (yeah?) you need to read some Alice Munro at some point in your life, so cowboy up and read. [If you like it then pick up Open Secrets]
- Neil Gaiman’s Stories: All New Tales is an eclectic collection of imaginative fiction including everyone from Peter Straub, Chuck Palahniuk, Roddy Doyle, Diana Wynne Jones, Stewart O’Nan, Joyce Carol Oates, Walter Mosley and Jodi Picoult (and creepy additions by Neil GAiman and Al Sarrantino). A wide diversity of authors answering the question “What happened next…”
- Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is a completely blind thrust but after reading her debute novel Swamplandia I am convinced this book will blow minds.
- Greer Gilman’s Cloud & Ashes: three Winter’s Tales collects three folkish tales (“Jack Daw’s Pack,” “A Crowd of Bone,” and “Unleaving”) steaped in myth and the wild.
- The New Weird edited by Ann VanderMeer is perfect for those of us that are tired of the old weird. [Looking for more weird? Try China Mieville’s Looking for Jake: Stories.]
- Susanna Clark’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu: And Other Stories are nine stories set in the alternate nineteenth-century England made popular by her break-through novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The stories are dark, enchanting and well-stocked with Faerie plus amazing artwork by Charles Vess.
- Margo Lanagan’s three short story collections; White Time, Red Spikes and Black Juice are wonderful examples of speculative fiction with pieces of dystopia, science fiction and portal fantasy mixing together into something abrasive, weird and exciting.
- Etgar Keret’s The Nimrod Flipout contains stories that are brief, wonderfully odd and by most standard definitions, weird as hell. Dare to go deeper? Then check out The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God and Other Stories.
Bonus: For the graphically inclined check out The Best American Comics of 2011 for short graphic novels that span the gamut [although 2007 had me laughing so hard I spilled my scotch].
Domo loves Spring by Lawa