The Devourer

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The Devourer

Readers, something miraculous has happened. I use the word “miraculous” here in the sense of “so unexpected or amazing as to seem like a miracle”, of course. I do not think any miracle actually occurred. In fact, given the events of last Thursday night and early Friday morning, I would decidedly prefer not to believe the world was supernaturally altered for my benefit, because the idea of exactly what was doing the altering is simply too disturbing to contemplate. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I write to you now, dear readers, from the Hemlocks on Prism Bay. Yes, I made it. I’m here. And it is glorious and wonderful and very much more than I had imagined. There are no horned children, at least not that I have seen. Actually, the house, in addition to being quite huge, is quite empty. Aside from Mrs. Sylvester—sender of the Letter of Invitation, fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information, and mysteriously posted riposte—I appear to be the only person in residence. It could be that I am simply the first to arrive; Mrs. Sylvester has been pretty coy on the subject. She is a remarkable woman, readers, (I will, of course, not call her “interesting”, even if that would be an accurate description as well,) and I will be sure to tell you more about her as the summer progresses. For now, let me explain how I got here—at least as much as I understand it myself.

When last we saw our hero (meaning me; I am pleased enough with the outcome of this adventure to cast myself as its hero), I was finishing a serving of pie à la mode in preparation for my renewed attempt to locate the elusive Prism Bay. I never finished the pie, readers; after my encounter with the exceedingly strange man who invaded my booth, I had more or less lost my appetite. If you had seen that purple tongue of his, glistening with extra-thick saliva like a still-living hunk of freshly-chopped octopus, gooey pie filling and melted ice cream might not have seemed all that appealing to you, either. The young woman with the explicit t-shirt and her mother were still watching me, too, perhaps convinced some kind of drug deal had just gone down at my table, so I thought it best to pay my bill, pack up my laptop, and be on my way.

You will recall, readers, that there was one more route to Prism Bay I hadn’t really considered. The reason I hadn’t really considered it was that it seemed very silly—even sillier than asking birds for directions. Also, finding this other route required a good amount of work and preparation, and I was being lazy; I did not like the idea of more work, or more preparation, not after the day I’d had, and especially not in pursuit of something so silly. But now I was filled with renewed determination, and I thought you might enjoy a bit of silliness. I remembered, too, that laziness is one of the worst possible traits in a writer—far worse than silliness. And so I would do something silly, and then write about it, for your entertainment. Thus, without further ado, here is the pertinent excerpt from “Directions to the Hemlocks on Prism Bay”:

If you miss your exit, you may still gain access to the Harbormaster’s Road by a direct Appeal to the Guardians of Prism Bay. This is by no means a recommended means of travel, and a different route should be used if at all possible. If you choose to make an Appeal, however, please follow these instructions with the utmost care.

Locate a town with no fewer than one hundred human inhabitants, but no more than one thousand. At the last four-way intersection before exiting the town boundaries, construct your Table of Offering. Upon this Table, place the Offering to your chosen Guardian, and perform the appropriate Binding and Appeal. If your Offering is accepted, you will find the Harbormaster’s Road by taking four right turns after leaving the intersection. If not, you will be promptly torn apart by angry raccoons.

Visitors unfamiliar with this procedure should see the attached list of Guardians and their associated Tables, Offerings, Bindings and Appeals—we have found G’lal the Devourer, Lysplendi-Queen-of-Wilds, and She of the Foam-Capped Waves tend to be the most pliant in early summer.

Do you see what I mean, readers? Compared to this nonsense, crashing my car into a ditch while counting stars seems almost like a sensible course of action. I will admit, however, that the author of these fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information took their silliness very seriously indeed. The attached list was there, as promised, and included no fewer than a dozen “Guardians”, each with a detailed procedure for gaining their favor and thus entry to Prism Bay.

I decided to go with G’lal the Devourer, not so much because he was on the list of recommended Guardians as that his appeals process seemed the most reasonable. I rather liked the sound of “She of the Foam-Capped Waves”, but getting her on my side apparently required, among other things, that I “drown a bird of the sky in the salt water of an ebbing tide”, which was not only completely messed up, but also impractical, because where was I going to get a “bird of the sky” at eleven pm? Late-night pet shop? Anyway, G’lal the Devourer had far more sensible demands.

G’lal the Devourer, Ever Ravenous Lord of the Starving Darkness, desires only to indulge his hunger, though that hunger is eternal, and can never be sated, only assuaged. He is drawn to places of feasting, but take care, ye who would have him linger beyond the lights of your revels, for where his eyeless gaze falls, all who stand before it are consumed.

To win the favor of the Infinitely Insatiable One, set him a banquet of great excess. Gather ye those fruits that grow upon the earth, and those that grow beneath the earth. Bring him the flesh of beasts that walk the plains of the earth. Give him to drink of the earth’s sweetness, and the intoxications of its fermented grains. Set a table to make one overfull, for he that can never be filled.

Sort of makes you feel for this G’lal guy, right? I mean, which of us couldn’t relate to the idea of never truly having your fill, of wanting something you can never fully attain? And that part about “[lingering] beyond the lights of… revels”? How sad is that? Poor G’lal the Devourer just wants to be invited to a few revels! It seemed like the perfect fit for my mission—wasn’t I, like good old G’lal, out here searching for something just beyond my grasp?

On top of that, I had a good sense of where I could find that “banquet of great excess”. It is a well known fact that Wendy’s stays open until the wee hours, and with a little help from my trusty mobile device, I was able to find one within a relatively short drive. For the banquet itself, I thought the Dave’s Triple Cheeseburger Meal probably qualified as “great excess”, especially once you added the large fries and soda, but I decided to get a side of chicken nuggets just to be safe. The tomato topping would take care of the “[fruit] that grow[s] upon the earth” and the fries would be “those that grow beneath the earth” (potatoes, right?). The burger itself, of course, was the “flesh of beasts that walk the plains of the earth”. I was probably taking some license treating the soda as “the earth’s sweetness” (I got non-diet, of course), but I thought I made up for it with my “intoxications… of fermented grains”. I still had that tax-free scotch from New Hampshire, readers, and it was really nice scotch.

 Seems like this is how my weirder nights always end up...

Seems like this is how my weirder nights always end up...

 Diet? Psh. Only the finest for G'lal the Devourer.

Diet? Psh. Only the finest for G'lal the Devourer.

 A feast indeed.

A feast indeed.

 What have we gotten ourselves into, girl?

What have we gotten ourselves into, girl?

Finding a town with between five hundred and a thousand “human inhabitants” was also relatively easy, thanks to our pal the Internet, as was zeroing in on the “last four-way intersection before exiting the town boundaries” (which seemed to me like a pretty relative reference anyway). I was a little worried about the next part, readers, because things were going to get very weird very quickly, and I didn’t like the idea of what would happen if a patrol car drove by while I was appealing to G’lal the Devourer. I got as far away from the road as I thought I reasonably could, and started setting the table.

In wax the red of a young sow’s life’s blood, draw four connected lines, each meeting at its ends the end of another. This diamond is the perch G’lal holds in the blackness and the endless cold.

Therein, create three more lines, their ends terminating at the diamond’s edge, to be the three pillars of his temple, for at G’lal’s altar, all light is swallowed, and all ornament destroyed, and no more than these three stark pillars may stand.

Grim stuff, right, readers? And the grimness continues:

Within the temple, inscribe a circle. This will be his seat. Another circle, then, outside his temple, outside his realm, beyond his reach. Here, his offering will be placed.

I mean, honestly, what kind of bullshit was this? Poor G’lal the Devourer. Here I was, building him a domain, then setting his whole banquet outside of it? But I thought I’d better follow the directions, such as they were. Fortunately, there was a diagram showing how all this stuff was supposed to look, because it was a little hard to tell from the instructions. There were also a bunch of symbols I had to draw—not easy working with hot wax. Oh, and if you’re wondering where I got wax “the red of a young sow’s life’s blood”, I picked up a big apple scented candle at a convenience store on my way into town. I also got a few sheets of poster board to use for a tablecloth. Maybe I'd be performing a bizarre occult ritual on a lonely stretch of road in the middle of the night, but I saw no reason why it shouldn't be a classy occult ritual.

 Neither exactly screams out "sow's blood", but I thought "Fresh Apple" was probably the closest.

Neither exactly screams out "sow's blood", but I thought "Fresh Apple" was probably the closest.

 We've got scented candles for all your dark magic needs!

We've got scented candles for all your dark magic needs!

I don’t think I’m flattering myself when I say the banquet looked pretty good by the time I got everything in place. I’ve included a photo, readers, so you can judge for yourselves. As everyone knows, there’s hardly any point in having a nice meal if you don’t preserve it for social media posterity. I’ll be posting this one soon—I just need to find the right filter. What do you think works best for an offering to G’lal the Devourer? Valencia? Mayfair? Earlybird? We can try a few different ones and decide. Anyway, there wasn’t really time to stand around admiring my work. It was getting late, and I still needed to do the “Binding and Appeal”.

When the signs of binding have all been drawn, partake lustily of your own banquet. To G’lal the Devourer, there is only feaster and feast, and any not reveling when his eyeless gaze descends will become his fodder, to be banished forever to his hollow eternity.

Fortunately I’d read this part ahead of time and thought to buy a banquet of my own at Wendy’s. I probably could’ve gotten away with stealing a few of G’lal’s fries, but I wanted to do the thing right. On top of that, prepping an arcane ritual really works up an appetite, and it had been a while since dinner. I had a spicy chicken sandwich, and it was delicious.

With the delights of your banquet filling your mouth, call forth the name of G’lal in a gluttonous roar.

Readers, this is a little embarrassing, but I’ll didn’t really know how to pronounce “G’lal”. Was it “guh-lall”? Maybe “gull-al”? What sort of “a” sound were we talking about here? What was I supposed to do with that apostrophe? Maybe it didn’t matter all that much, since I was yelling with my mouth full of spicy chicken, but I know how annoying it can be when someone mispronounces your name. I ended up making it rhyme with “the mall” and flinging much semi-masticated food in the process.

There is no appeal to G’lal the Devourer other than the satiety of your hunger. Eat, petitioner, and make your pleasure at the feast known. Set in your mind that which you desire, just as you have set G’lal’s table. If G’lal is pleased, your request shall be granted you. Pray, petitioner, that he is pleased.

So I stood there beside the road, in front of all this melted wax and burning candles built around a full Dave’s Triple Cheeseburger Meal with a side of chicken nuggets and single-malt scotch, and made nom-noming sounds while I thought about my innermost desires. I will say, readers, just then it was a little difficult keeping my innermost desires straight. For one, I really wanted to avoid being arrested for performing what had started to look like a vaguely satanic ritual in the middle of this sleepy little town. I also wanted to get a decent blog post out of all this, though that wasn’t quite mutually exclusive with avoiding arrest. I did think about finding Prism Bay, but that was possibly the vaguest desire of them all, since I had about zero hope this Appeal to the Guardians thing would actually work.

 This is fine.

This is fine.

 This is totally fine.

This is totally fine.

 Everything is OK.

Everything is OK.

 Nothing terrifying happening here at all.

Nothing terrifying happening here at all.

Well, readers, I’ll leave you to decide. I will merely point out that I was not arrested, and that you are now reading the resulting post. And that, most surprising of all, I found Prism Bay.

The first sign that things had gone well was that no raccoons appeared to tear me limb from limb. This tends to be a pretty good sign in most situations, generally speaking, but especially then, since the possibility had actually been mentioned in the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information. I wasn’t really sure what to do with my red wax table of offering, now that the appeal to G’lal the Devourer was over, so I swept away as much of the wax as I could, removed all wrappers and refuse, and left the food where it was—maybe it would distract the raccoons until I could make my escape. I’d served the scotch in a paper cup, and was tempted to down it before heading on, but I knew, whatever happened, I’d have some driving to do.

 Keeping it classy in small-town Maine.

Keeping it classy in small-town Maine.

My next task—the last step from my directions—was to take four right turns. This would, of course, put me more or less back where I started, depending on how the roads fit together, but I had already sacrificed a triple cheeseburger to an unknown entity of eternal hunger, so at this point I was pretty much down for whatever. I started up my car, took my first right, then the right after that, then another right. 

The final right turn set me on a narrow, wooded road. I drove, expecting any minute to see the intersection where I’d had my late-night snack with G’lal the Devourer, local detectives now sifting around for evidence of satanic activity, but the road only continued on, became bumpy and dirt-covered, twisted and turned. Checking my GPS map, I saw myself—or, the little dot representing my position—in a featureless swathe of green. My phone proclaimed “no service”, not an unusual turn of events in rural Maine, but not exactly welcome, either. The woods grew ever darker and closer. Turning on my car’s high beams only made it harder to see: the predawn fog was rolling in.

Then, readers, just as I was beginning to get nervous, to imagine scenarios involving flat tires on this secluded drive, masked lunatics, packs of raccoons that had tracked me all the way from town and now stalked through the darkness, awaiting the moment to strike—that is, as it was starting to seem like I’d have to just put the car in reverse and back my way to the road—just then, the trees cleared, and I was driving beneath a wide, starry sky. Ahead, I saw the lights of a small down, and the ocean glittering beneath the last sliver of a waning moon.

Minutes later, I was driving through the town center. Most of the buildings were dark—it was past two in the morning by then—but through the windows of one restaurant I saw the servers and chefs gathered for an after-hours drink. I was tempted to knock on the door and ask where exactly I’d turned up, but I didn’t want to disturb them—and readers, part of me knew already. By some miraculous turn of events—whether coincidence, serendipity, or the favor of G’lal the Devourer—I had found my way to Prism Bay.

 The maaaaaaaaall! Um, I mean, Ga-laaaaaall!!

The maaaaaaaaall! Um, I mean, Ga-laaaaaall!!

As the road curved away from the little collection of shops and eateries, I pulled over and got out the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information, so I could check my directions one more time. My destination, the Hemlocks, was located at “Five Fathom Drive, approximately three miles from the town center”. I drove on, and on, and on. For maybe an hour, readers, I drove, around and around, back and forth, looking for Fathom Drive. I saw my first real evidence that this was, indeed, Prism Bay: a poster for the Prism Bay Theatre Company, which was holding auditions for its first production of the season, The Revenger’s Tragedy. But there was no sign of Fathom Drive.

Finally, I found what I needed: evidence I’d made a mistake. The first signs of dawn were beginning to show over the horizon, and as I took yet another turn toward the town center, I noticed a rickety sign hanging from a tree. The letter “F” caught my attention, and when I went to look, I saw it read “Five Fathom Dr.”. I hadn’t been looking for number five Fathom Drive, it seemed; “Five Fathom Drive” was the name of the road. Sure enough, just about three miles from the town center, Five Fathom Drive ended at the doorstep of great house, situated deep among the trees. A single light shone over the porch, and on the door was pinned a small note. I’ve copied it below.

My dear Mr. Black –

The door is open. Your room is on the second floor, second door on the right. Breakfast will be served promptly at half past seven tomorrow morning.

— Mrs. S

Well, readers, I don’t think I have to tell you this was a welcome sight indeed, but so that you can see it for yourself, and partake in my sheer relief at coming to the end of the day’s odyssey, I’ve included a photograph. It was, as will be apparent, that same typewritten text. I had, it seemed, finally reached the origin of the mysterious Letter of Invitation. I crept quietly to my room, doing my best not to wake any of the other guests (I still expected there to be other guests then), all the while reveling in my good fortune.

card 04 for 06:12:2018.jpg

Probably it was just luck. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences, readers—of getting lost to some ridiculous degree, of wandering around what seemed like forever, only to emerge, suddenly, just where you wanted to be. Even so, before I went to bed, I drank a toast to G’lal the Devourer, who had, it seemed, seen fit to smile upon my endeavors with his eyeless gaze from all the way out there in the starving darkness. What a guy, right?

A postscript, dear readers, to my tale of searching and finding: though the majority of this post was composed the day after my arrival in Prism Bay (and I did get up in time for breakfast—but that is a story for another time), I am in fact posting to you from a little café a few towns over. The Hemlocks is quite the impressive house, readers, but its technology is far from up to date. I was hard pressed to find an electrical outlet that didn’t seem ready to fry my laptop down to its circuits; wifi was out of the question. So too fiber optics and DSL. Even if I could somehow acquire a dial-up modem (do such things still exist?), and even if I could convince Mrs. Sylvester to let me attach it to the house’s one telephone (and I seriously doubt that would fly with Mrs. S), I don’t think it would even work with the house’s old-timey wiring. I’m seeking a better solution, but for now it seemed easiest just to drive to the nearest Starbucks.

Hopefully I won’t have any trouble retracing my steps back to Prism Bay. If I have to make an Appeal to the Guardians every time I leave town, this summer is going to get very expensive, and that’s if the raccoons don’t get me. I’ll let you know next time, dear readers. Until then, I say to you, with much joy, gravity, and seriousness, NOM-NOM-NOM!

 This place is just AMAZING. You cannot even get a table unless you know someone.

This place is just AMAZING. You cannot even get a table unless you know someone.

 It's all about the plating.

It's all about the plating.

 I've been on worse dates.

I've been on worse dates.

 A little mood lighting. A little horrifying mood lighting.

A little mood lighting. A little horrifying mood lighting.

 #popuprestaurant #hottestplaceintown #amfeasting #yums

#popuprestaurant #hottestplaceintown #amfeasting #yums

 #foodie4lyfe #forkyeah #feedthedevourer #eatfamous

#foodie4lyfe #forkyeah #feedthedevourer #eatfamous

 #feastgoals #cleaneating #eternalhunger #nibbles

#feastgoals #cleaneating #eternalhunger #nibbles

 #glal #... #eatthehumans #foolishmortals #snacktime

#glal #... #eatthehumans #foolishmortals #snacktime

 #underworldproblems

#underworldproblems

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Last Known Sighting

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Last Known Sighting

This trip has been a bust, dear readers. I’m sorry to say so, but it’s true. I write to you now from a small diner unnervingly near the Canadian border, having driven something like four hundred miles in something like eight hours, all to very little effect. The sun has set, and I have to decide whether to turn around and head home, probably arriving well into the early AM, or just find someplace local to stay. But first, I thought I might write to you, dear readers, especially those of you considerate folks anxious to learn my fate. At least this place has wifi.

The good news is that I have not been murdered, kidnapped, or in any other way assaulted, detained, or mistreated. Another piece of good news is that Maine is a truly lovely place, and today I have seen a great deal of it. But that is about as far as the good news goes, readers. That, and the wifi, as I mentioned. Also this place has pie, which I have decided, because of the extremity of the situation, to order à la mode.

It began about as well as any journey into the unknown can be expected to begin. I was well provisioned, with plenty of snacks, a full tank of gas, and a plan: I would follow my directions to the Hemlocks on Prism Bay, such as they were, until said directions gave out, whereupon my detective skills would kick in, and the investigative journalism would begin. I had a mystery to solve, and isn’t that a writer’s dream? I saw myself interviewing local Maine residents about the enigmatic Prism Bay, piecing together the history of a secret community hidden away from the rest of the world. It would become a ten-part saga. My little blog would be mentioned alongside the Serial podcast, Making a MurdererMidnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, maybe even In Cold Blood—except, you know, with less murder. Or, anyway, without me being murdered. If I somehow ended up solvinga murder, well, so be it.

Readers, this is not how my day has gone. Allow me, first, to remind you of the directions I set out to follow (though if you haven’t heard them yet, you might want to check out my previous two posts):

Take Interstate 95 North from Boston, Massachusetts, to Exit 182A toward Bangor-Brewer, Maine. From there, take exit 6A to Route 1, toward Bar Harbor. Proceed along Route 1 for exactly eight miles. You will enter a dense bank of fog; when you leave this dense bank of fog, you will have merged onto Route ♃. You will reach Exit [bird holding a small branch in its beak] precisely eight minutes later. While on Route ♃, please remember to use the left lane for passing only and to avoid looking through the windows of vehicles sharing the road.

For the first few hours, all went according to plan. I headed north on I-95, taking advantage of my brief stopover in New Hampshire to purchase a bottle of tax-free scotch. I stopped for a delightful lunch in Portland. Signs passed overhead, proclaiming exotic destinations: Lebanon, Naples, Sweden, Moscow, Rome, Mexico, China, Troy, Poland, Paris, Bristol, Bath—all towns in Maine, of course, but watching these names go by, I had no trouble imagining myself on some magical stretch of highway that would lead me into realms of mystery. Well, readers, the imagining bit was about as far as I got.

I was scrupulous about following what directions I had. Instead of briefly transferring onto I-295, which cut a more direct route between Portland and Augusta, I stuck with 95, at the cost of about fifteen extra miles driven. Upon crossing the Penobscot River, I took Route 1A to Route 1, even though, if my ultimate destination was somewhere around Cutler, it would have been more direct to take Route 9. This actually turned out to be a nice choice, since Route 1 runs along the ocean, making the rest of my trip to Cutler a veritable bonanza of majestic seascapes. A few pictures, dear readers, to delight your computer-screen-weary eyes.

coast 02 for 06:07:2018.jpg
coast 03 for 06:07:2018.jpg
coast 04 for 06:07:2018.jpg

As you will recall, it was somewhere along Route 1 (eight miles, to be exact) that I was to encounter a dense bank of fog and, after that, the much-touted Route ♃. Well, dear readers, I can at least say that I found the fog. Maybe not the fog, but some fog, anyway. Quite a lot of fog, actually. Today, I have learned that the coast of Maine is very foggy. For a few miles of Route 1, it seemed like there was nothing but fog. And, eventually, I emerged from this fog—but it was not onto Route ♃. I just found a lot more seaside highway. Fabulously scenic seaside highway, but quite lacking in mysterious exit signs to mysterious towns.

Now, readers, I have a confession to make. At one point, I saw an exit sign approaching through one of those banks of fog I was driving into and out of, and I thought it might be fun to snap a photo so that I could claim to have spotted the mysterious Exit [bird holding a small branch in its beak]. I even contemplated taking this exit and seeing what other sorts of stories I could fabricate. Dishonest thoughts, readers, and they were justly and summarily punished. As I lined up my photo, a car swerved past on my right, nearly running me off the road.

It was, I will admit, almost entirely my fault. I was trying to operate a camera while driving—and driving in the left lane, even though I had just slowed down to take my picture. These are not easy things to confess, dear readers, and I hope you can forgive me for behaving so disreputably. Know at least that no one was hurt, and that I derived no benefit from my nefarious and fraudulent actions: I missed my shot (instead photographing only the inside of my car), and my exit, and was honked at quite ruthlessly by the car that had just passed.

 SHAME

SHAME

 Some of that fog we've been discussing.

Some of that fog we've been discussing.

 Same fog, but too cool a shot to leave out. #NoFilter

Same fog, but too cool a shot to leave out. #NoFilter

 Further fog. Also water somewhere behind all that, promise.

Further fog. Also water somewhere behind all that, promise.

The rest of the way to Cutler was pleasantly uneventful, and Cutler itself is a wonderful little town. It is what might be described as a “no frills” sort of place, a lobster fishing village without even a gas station in obvious evidence. Popular activities, I’d wager, would mostly involve enjoying the area’s natural beauty, which can be found everywhere in abundance. One activity I would not recommend, however, is walking around asking the locals for directions to Prism Bay. 

Most people were really very nice, even if it soon became obvious I was making a fool of myself, though I did earn a few annoyed glowers and what-is-this-idiot-up-to shakes of the head. Before very long, I’d begun to feel like the host of a hidden camera prank TV show, and decided it was time to make my retreat—to someplace with a restaurant (which Cutler also lacks), preferably far enough away that news of the dickhead driving a car with Massachusetts plates and asking everyone about a nonexistent town would not yet have reached it.

And so here I am, dear readers, awaiting my pie and contemplating my next move. During the wanderings that eventually led me to this diner, I made a few more desultory attempts at picking up the trail to Prism Bay—getting back onto Route 1, for instance; I also gave the directions “From the North” a shot—but I couldn’t even find a decent bank of fog. If you cannot find a bank of fog on the coast of Maine, readers, it is not your lucky day. At one point, I got so desperate that I tried driving inland, then turning east so I could listen for the birds, as detailed in my instructions, but all the birds had to say was “kwee-kwee!” and “kyaaa!” and other birdlike things which I was unable to translate into English. A true journalist would charter a boat and go out in search of Margaret the francophone dolphin, but today has made me question my journalistic chops, dear readers. That tax-free scotch, my only real achievement so far, is beginning to look pretty good.

I am not the only downcast and dispirited patron of this little diner. It’s not clear whether the food is to blame, or the service (both somewhat awful), or whether it’s simple coincidence, but the mood here is pretty glum—much glummer than a place should be on a summer evening in Maine. One small example: in the booth opposite me is a young woman, maybe thirteen years old, and her mother, who have been sitting in sullen silence for at least an hour. This is actually an improvement over the murderous fury with which they had previously been glaring at one another, or the screaming match that had captivated the entire diner shortly before. 

The argument, which by the simple laws of physics I could not help overhearing, was about their summer plans. The young woman would have preferred to remain at home with her friends, whereas the mother—who, I gather, does not think much of these friends—has decreed that her daughter is to spend the summer here, in Maine. I am summarizing, of course: the actual conversation played out at high volume and in very colorful language. The mother was victorious, by dint of parental autocracy, but the young woman has not taken her defeat graciously. She appears to be planning something, dear readers. I cannot say what it might be, but I doubt her mother will approve. 

I considered offering my condolences to this young woman, to commiserate over my own failures and frustrations, to tell her there is a bright side to all this. A summer is not such a long time, and she will still be able to keep in touch with her friends. And should she care to look, she will find Maine quite a beautiful place. On top of that, she appears to be really owning her early teenage years: she’s dressed almost entirely in black, with dark makeup and a t-shirt that reads, in large block letters, PULL THE TRIGGER BITCH. Anyone capable of putting together that kind of ensemble won’t let mere summer exile keep her down. I understand, however, that young women and their mothers do not usually appreciate being approached by strange men in seedy diners, not even when those strange men have been eavesdropping on them long enough to know quite a bit about their conversation.

But now, dear readers, you must excuse me a moment: my pie is waiting at the counter, and my server appears in no hurry to deliver it, and I would like to make my claim before the ice cream melts. Enjoy a couple of sneaky photos while I’m gone.

 Nighthawks, anyone?

Nighthawks, anyone?

 Actually pretty charming, and wifi makes up for a lot.

Actually pretty charming, and wifi makes up for a lot.

Readers, something very odd has just happened. For you, it has been only the space of a page break and two photographs, but I have spent the last several minutes engaged in a most unusual encounter. Do you recall what I said about being approached by strange men in seedy diners? Well, I can now say, with some authority, that young women and their mothers are not the only ones who would prefer to avoid such interactions—because when I returned to my booth, bearing my pie à la mode, I discovered an exceptionally strange man sitting there, waiting for me.

The reason I knew he was waiting for me is that, as I stood there, holding my slice of pie, he said, “Hello, Mr. Black, I have been waiting for you.”

I was about to ask how he knew my name, but just then I noticed my laptop, sitting open on the table, and my laptop bag, which I also use to carry notebooks containing sketches and ideas for stories, in the booth beside this exceptionally strange man. Readers, I probably do not need to tell you how upsetting a sight this was. If you’re like me, your personal computer is probably extremely, well, personal. Mine contains not only a good amount of information about me and my life, but also the stuff of my livelihood: my writing. And here it was, left open to this creep. I hadn’t even locked it when I got up—the counter where my pie awaited was hardly a dozen steps away. I turned my back only for a moment, but in that moment, this exceptionally strange man had time to settle himself in my booth and, it seemed, learn my name, very possibly by looking through my bag or peeking at any of the various social media accounts open on my web browser. Who knew what other nefarious deeds he had perpetrated?

Straining for calm, I said, “Excuse me, sir, but this booth is already occupied. There are plenty of others open, if you need a place to eat.”

The exceptionally strange man did not answer immediately. He seemed to be chewing something in a thoughtfully bovine way. He was lean and rather tall, and wore a hooded sweatshirt with the hood up, and a baseball cap pulled low, preventing me from seeing much of his face. A good ten seconds went by before he finished chewing with a small gulp—had he swallowed his gum?—and said, “I am not looking for a place to eat.” Then, in a tone I would describe as enigmatic menace, he added, “not now.”

“Then I kindly ask that you leave me in peace,” I said. “I have work to do and pie to eat.”

“Please, work,” said the exceptionally strange man, motioning to the seat across from him, where my laptop waited. “Eat. I won’t interrupt you.”

It was true that I had no real use for his side of the booth, except as a place to store my jacket and laptop bag, but as everyone knows, when a person is seated at a booth in a diner, that person gains rights to the entire booth. This booth was mine, readers, and I did not want him there. I was prepared to send him off, when suddenly my mind flashed to the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information regarding the Hemlocks on Prism Bay. What if this diner had house rules of its own? What if, in these here parts, any open seat was fair game? Was I about to violate some important local custom?

“There is a sign requesting that all guests wait to be seated,” I said lamely, “and I do not think you did.”
The exceptionally strange man made no reply. He appeared to have regurgitated his gum and begun chewing it again. By now, my ice cream was melting quite catastrophically, to the point where sticky rivulets had begun to trickle onto my hand. I decided to sit before the situation could get any worse. I slid into the booth, shoved one large bite of pie indignantly into my mouth, and began trying to de-ice cream my hand with paper napkins dipped in my undersized glass of water.

“Giving up so easily?” asked the exceptionally strange man. Now that we were both seated, I had a better view of his face. I would not call it a good view, but I could see more of it than before. His skin had a dry, papery texture, and the area around his mouth was crusted with what seemed to be congealed saliva, as is sometimes found in victims of extreme dehydration. He looked, dear readers, like a photo from some drug awareness campaign depicting a meth user after years of unrestricted tweaking.

“Can I get you something to drink?” I asked. “Some iced tea, maybe?”

In answer to this thoughtful offer, the exceptionally strange man said only, “You shouldn’t give up so easily.” I was watching his mouth when he said this, and readers, I could have sworn his tongue was purple. Perhaps he’d been eating a lot of grape popsicles, who knows. And there was, also, quite a lot of viscous saliva in evidence. It was all very unappealing.

He was also right, dear readers: I shouldn’t have given up so easily. I should have expelled this creepy meth head from my booth posthaste and without any further discussion. Yes, I know drug abuse is a big problem in America, and we’re in the middle of an opioid crisis, and a person with drug problems needs to be helped, not yelled at by a wandering writer with ice creamy hands. And fine, meth is not an opioid, but maybe that purple tongue was the result of a codeine syrup admixture, aka “purple drank”, and anyway, that’s beside the point. The point was that I was being too much of a pushover. I readied myself for a renewed attack—entirely verbal, I promise—but just then, the exceptionally strange man got up and left the booth of his own volition. 

Perhaps he sensed my steely determination. It’s difficult to say, since he’s gone now. I’ve recorded the scene to the best of my memory—still quite fresh, given that it all happened only minutes ago and made a pretty strong impression, as I’m sure you can imagine. The whole interaction did not go unnoticed by my fellow patrons, either. As the exceptionally strange man left, I noticed the young woman with the explicit t-shirt and her mother looking my way, both quite aghast. I waved, to show I had not been knifed beneath the table. “You handled that very well,” said the mother, while the young woman with the explicit t-shirt slouched further into her seat.

I’m not sure I actually did handle it very well, dear readers, but I will say I’m feeling empowered. That exceptionally strange man, whether meth addict, opioid fiend, or simple weirdo, has given me a new sense of purpose. Perhaps it’s too soon to give up my search for Prism Bay as well. There is one more thing I can try, mentioned in the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information. It is extremely silly, but you know what, dear readers? I’ll give it a shot anyway. If it turns out to be ridiculous—and I can’t really see how it wouldn’t—I’ll find a motel, or maybe a comfy B&B, and a few nice Maine sights to write about. No matter what happens, I’ll get a decently wacky blog post out of it, and wasn’t that more or less my reason for coming all the way out to Maine anyway?

Right, then: I’m off. Tune in next week—or, I guess, click through next week?—to find out how it went. Until then, dear readers, don’t let the day’s discouragements—whether bad directions to your artists’ residency, weirdos in a diner, or arguments with your daughter or mother—keep you down!

 Diner selfie with EYE OF THE MOTHERF---ING TIGER

Diner selfie with EYE OF THE MOTHERF---ING TIGER

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For Real

For Real

Hello again, dear readers! Now I know some of you are curious to hear any new developments regarding the strange Letter of Invitation I received last week (probably some weeks back, actually, but I found it last week, so let’s go with that). Those of you closely attuned to the movement of the heavens might have noted that this Thursday, June 7, marks the point exactly two weeks before this year’s summer solstice: the day my residency at the Hemlocks on Prism Bay is set to begin. And, readers, I plan to be there when it does.

You will have questions, I’m sure. A few to get you started: Did Mrs. Henriette Sylvester respond to my rather impertinent letter, asking whether she was, in fact, for real? Have I been able to discover anything more about the mysterious Hemlocks on Prism Bay? Am I truly planning to attend such a bizarre and potentially fraudulent artists’ retreat? The answer to these questions, dear readers, are as follows: “yes”, “not much”, and “indeed, albeit with a few rational misgivings”.

First, my letter to Mrs. Sylvester. For those of you who haven’t yet read my post from May 31st, I recommend you give that a quick perusal now, elsewise what is to follow will seem very strange indeed. Actually, it’s probably going to seem strange anyway, but if you’re caught up, it will at least be strangeness with context. Go ahead—I’ll wait. Everyone with me? I hope so, because in the event of my unexplained disappearance the authorities will have to rely on your formidable observational and deductive talents to discover my whereabouts.

So, as we are all now fully aware, I recently sent a letter, addressed to one Mrs. Henriette Sylvester of the Hemlocks on Prism Bay, with a two-centimeter square drawing of a walrus in place of a postage stamp, containing a single question: “Is this for real?!” Now then, dear readers, I did a little research into the likely fate of such a letter, and so far as I was able to learn, it would be classified as “undeliverable-as-addressed” and sent to the US Postal Service Dead Letter Office (also known as a Mail Recovery Center)—that is, if it was not simply tossed in the dust bin. Possibly I would be visited by a pair of shadowy individuals and subjected to a stern lecture on the evils of wasting the valuable time of postal employees, who want nothing more than to faithfully deliver the mail and deserve better than pranking by snarky writers who can’t even draw a very good walrus. It would not, however, be delivered, especially to an address that, for all I and my good friend the Internet have been able to discover, is to be found nowhere in the state of Maine or, for that matter, the continental United States—yet that, dear readers, seems to be just what occurred.

Not long after dropping my letter, ersatz walrus and all, into a mailbox a few blocks from my apartment, I received Mrs. Sylvester’s response—or, I should say, I think it was from Mrs. Sylvester. Like the original Invitation and fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information, this letter arrived in an envelope addressed, it seemed, using an old typewriter. This time, however, the envelope contained only a small card bearing a single line of typewritten text. That text read, “We are ‘for real’, Mr. Black, as you well know.”

I will admit, dear readers, that I experienced a chill upon reading those words, a chill not dissimilar from what might accompany the reprimand of a stern schoolteacher. At the same time, I thought I detected a note of wry amusement there—maybe even affection. Quite a lot to take away from one little line, I know, but I think I can be forgiven for imagining mysterious imports into this card, which, I will note, resembled something out of an old library catalogue. After all, I had just received a direct reply to a letter posted using nothing more than a drawing of a walrus, and not a very good drawing at that!

 Oh dear.

Oh dear.

Following some reflection, however, I realized there were at least a few mundane explanations for this seemingly uncanny event. For one, Mrs. Sylvester might have anticipated my question, or one like it, and sent her response without having actually received any letter from me. It wouldn’t be too difficult to guess the reaction of a reasonable person to the original Invitation and fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information. Even if I had decided not to send my little letter, similar ideas would still have been rumbling around my mind. You, dear readers, might plausibly have been thinking the same. And if I’d had this same card from Mrs. Sylvester, with its one chiding line, how surprised would we have been then, when it seemed a response, not to some lost letter, but to our own silent thoughts?

Beyond that, this line—“We are ‘for real’, Mr. Black, as you well know”—could serve as a reply to a great variety of inquiries. Mrs. Sylvester had already made it clear she considered her fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information more than enough for any prospective resident, and with good reason. Coming up with a real question—one that wasn’t answered in those pages and couldn’t wait to be answered in person—wouldn’t be easy, which is one reason I decided to be cheeky instead. Maybe Mrs. Sylvester, after years of getting similar letters from prospective residents imagining themselves to be clever, has taken to sending a catch all response, one that just happened to match mine especially closely. I’ve been trying to convince myself this must be the case, but it would be a lot easier if it weren’t for those quotation marks around “for real”. I suppose I can always ask Mrs. Sylvester herself, if and when I meet her, but from the tone of her correspondence I get the sense she’d only glare disapprovingly at me until I apologized for my rudeness.

We are about to find out, dear readers, because I’ve made my decision: I’m going to the Hemlocks on Prism Bay. Or, at least, I’ll try to go. I’ve already started packing, and on Thursday, maybe around noontime, I intend to get into my car and begin driving north. Where exactly I will end up is, as yet, not exactly clear. The fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information that arrived with my Letter of Invitation do include directions to my new residency, but those directions are—and here I must resort to an adjective I’ve been bringing out a lot lately—unusual. This will probably come as no surprise to you, dear readers, having already seen a few other selections from those fifty-or-so pages. But talk of fitting children with horn protectors is all well and good when there are no horned children present to deal with. In the case of the section labeled “Directions to the Hemlocks on Prism Bay”, however, we’ll get to see how practical these Guidelines really are. The answer, I’m afraid, is “not very”. Let’s begin with the house itself:

The Hemlocks is located at Five Fathom Drive, approximately three miles from the town center, overlooking the waters of Prism Bay, Maine, just beyond the historical boundaries of the neighboring town of Cutler. Admittance within town borders is by invitation only, so please make sure to keep this letter with you when you travel, and to accompany any guests to and from town limits. This rule holds for all summer residents, whether traveling by land, sea, air, astral displacement, or any other means of translocation.

So far, so good. We have an actual address, albeit one unknown to any electronic map service I’ve been able find, and even a definite geographic reference: Cutler, Maine. Cutler does, in fact, exist, both on maps and the Internet, but I’ve been unable to find any reference to a “Prism Bay” in the vicinity, or for that matter anywhere else. My current running theory is that Prism Bay is a local nickname or archaic term for some other area or community—maybe not even a bay at all—like Blubber Hollow in Salem, Massachusetts, which is a real place (near Gallows Hill, also real) you likewise will not find on Google Maps. We do find the sorts of whimsical additions I’ve come to expect from Mrs. Sylvester’s Guidelines and General Information—that business about “astral projection”, for example—but on the whole, these look like directions I should be able to follow. After that, well, things become slightly more complicated.

Travel to Prism Bay by land—whether on foot, by automobile, horseback, seven-league boot, or bicycle—is possible only by the Harbormaster’s Road. The simplest way to access the Harbormaster’s Road is by taking Exit *** off US Route ^^^. To find US Route ^^^, please follow the steps below most appropriate to your point of origin.

The directions do not actually say “Exit ***” and “Route ^^^”, readers, it’s just that I can’t find anything on my keyboard that will approximate the symbols used. The “***” in “Exit ***” appears to be a drawing of a bird holding a small branch in its beak, while “^^^” looks like the astrological sign for the planet Jupiter. Ah, here we are: ♃. (Thanks, Unicode input!) No luck on the bird thing, though, so I’m including a photo.

directions 07 for 06-05-2018.jpg

I’d say things go downhill from there, but even that feels like a generous description, because “downhill” is still an obvious direction. Maybe I’m being too harsh, dear readers—you ought to judge for yourselves.

From the South

Take Interstate 95 North from Boston, Massachusetts, to Exit 182A toward Bangor-Brewer, Maine. From there, take exit 6A to Route 1, toward Bar Harbor. Proceed along Route 1 for exactly eight miles. You will enter a dense bank of fog; when you leave this dense bank of fog, you will have merged onto Route ^^^. You will reach Exit *** precisely eight minutes later. While on Route ^^^, please remember to use the left lane for passing only and to avoid looking through the windows of vehicles sharing the road.

Since I’ll be driving from Boston, these are the directions most relevant to me. It all starts out well enough—I could even draw this route on a map! And then, somewhere along the way to Bar Harbor, we enter that “dense bank of fog”. What am I do with this, dear readers? Just go as far I can and muddle my way from there? I had the idea of using other bits of the directions to narrow down my area of search, to triangulate my destination, but watch what happens.

From the North

Take Autoroute 73 South from Quebec City to Route 173, and from there to US Route 201. Make sure to wink seven times (three with your left eye, four with your right) at any officials questioning you at the border. Take Route 201 to Skowhegen, Maine, and from there to Interstate 95 South to Augusta. Transfer to Route 17, toward Rockland. After seven miles, you will reach the dense bank of fog that will merge you onto Route ^^^.

Again, things seem to be going well until we encounter that dense bank of fog. Winking at the border guards might potentially cause trouble, but fortunately that won’t be an issue for me as I won't actually be leaving the good old US of A. The main problem is that these directions lead to a completely different part of Maine than the directions from the South. But that’s just the beginning. Next, we get this:

From the West

Take Interstate 90, or Interstate 84, or any interstate highway whose digits reduce to a multiple of three. Make sure to travel only during nighttime hours. When you have seen three red cars in a row, turn your eyes skyward. Think about your reasons for traveling from the West. What is there out West for you, really? Don’t worry about what’s happening on the road; continue with your eyes on the sky. When you have seen three shooting stars, immediately turn left. You will be on Route ^^^, or possibly in a ditch by the side of the road. Why weren’t you watching where you were going, anyway?

That just seems like an invitation for a lawsuit. (And in case it isn’t already clear: I do not recommend that any of you attempt any of this). Forget that it tells us very little more than the general direction of travel. And that isn’t all.

From the East

Travel along the easterly road of your choice until you run out of gas, your horse tires, or your footwear is worn through. Sit by the side of the road and listen for birdsong. The birds will guide your steps.

Readers, I hope you will forgive me for stating the obvious, but there is no driving from the east. If Prism Bay is in fact a bay, very likely the only thing to the east is water. This is certainly true of its neighboring town of Cutler.

If you were not previously convinced someone out there was having a little fun with us, dear readers, well, maybe you’re changing your mind. Perhaps this is all a prank—or, perhaps, Mrs. Sylvester and her friends at the Hemlocks simply intend to test our fortitude, like a monastery that forces new initiates to demonstrate their commitment by sitting out in the wind and rain. Either way, readers, I don’t think they counted on running across a writer with a lot of time on his hands and not enough material for his blog.

I’m going to try and find this place. I’ll report back if I do. I’ll report back if I don’t. Either way, I should have a story to tell. In fact, readers, if you don’t hear from me in a week or so, I request that you alert the authorities—or my publisher, at the very least—because there is always the possibility that I am being lured into the wilds of Maine to be imprisoned, murdered, and/or subjected to illegal genetic experiments. I don’t consider this likely, of course, or I would not be making the trip. But you never know. You do not need me, dear readers, to tell you people are crazy. You have the Internet.

And just in case you would like further evidence regarding the oddness of humans, I will leave you with a few other selections from “Directions to the Hemlocks on Prism Bay”:

By Sea

Travelers by sea should proceed until the coast of Maine is just within view, then drift until approached by Prism Bay’s local dolphin emissary, Margaret, who will lead visitors to their dock or mooring. Please note that Margaret speaks only English, French, Mandarin, Spanish, Russian, and Afrikaans, and visitors requiring more than simple directions should either have working knowledge of one of these languages or an interpreter on hand.
By Air

Travelers by air should descend until fully within the flow of Westerly winds over northern New England. Once these luxurious gusts have taken hold, exhort the West Wind thusly, ‘O Zephyrus, gentlest of winds, messenger of spring, servant and companion of Eros, I call to thee, in the name of thy beloved Chloris, Queen of Flowers, and do humbly entreat thee to convey me and all those of my company, by thy tender and most fructifying gusts, to the skies of Prism Bay.’
Public Transportation

Take the Number 1 bus from Boston Medical Center toward Harvard Square. Find a man named Jerry (back row, in the seat second from the window) and ask for the blue potion. Place the blue potion in your jacket pocket. DO NOT DRINK THE BLUE POTION. Your fifth stop will be the bus station at Prism Bay.

Until next time, dear readers—with luck!

dolphin 02 for 06-05-2018.png

Special Edition: The Misplaced Invitation

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Special Edition: The Misplaced Invitation

Readers. Dear, dear readers. I have received a very interesting piece of mail. Generally I don’t like the word “interesting”, because of the way it’s so often used as a meaningless descriptor, like “nice”. How was the play? Interesting. How was your meal? Interesting. How was that triple bypass surgery? Interesting. The word “interesting” doesn’t tell you much about a thing, except that it supposedly generates interest, and that’s really something for the person who might or might not be interested to decide. In this case, however, that person is me, and I was interested. I remain interested, in fact. Let me tell you why.

The first thing that interested me about this particular piece of mail is that it was unsolicited. That isn’t really much of a recommendation as far as mail goes, I know. I would even be willing to argue that more bad things arrive through unsolicited mail than good things. Now that I think about it, I’m starting to feel like most bad things come through unsolicited mail: letters from the IRS, legal summonses, anthrax, and invitations to birthday parties for cats all arrive by mail whether the recipient desires them or not. This letter did not appear to be from the IRS, a court of law, or a terrifying maniac, but those can all be hard to spot just by looking at the outside of a letter. And because I was not expecting any important mail, the manilla envelope waiting in the entryway of my building had gone unnoticed for some time, possibly sitting around for weeks before the guy downstairs caught me on the stairs and said, “Hey, you got an interesting-looking letter”.

The envelope was quite thick, and addressed to me at home, and neatly typed, all of which served to increase my level of interest. I wondered what sort of materials might have made this envelope so thick. I wondered how whoever sent the letter learned my home address, where usually the only letters I receive are from my landlord and the cable company. I wondered who out there was still typing envelopes on an old typewriter, because that appeared to be the case with this one. Perhaps it was merely printed using an ingenious computer font capable of mimicking the irregular smudges and faded ink of an old typewriter, but either way, I was interested.

The envelope’s contents were more interesting still. There was a cover letter, addressed to me, and fifty or so pages of additional materials labeled “Guidelines and General Information”. Readers, I will now depart from my excessive use of the word “interesting” to describe these fifty or so pages as “fantastic”. More on them in a moment. First, I would like to include the full text of the cover letter—or letter of invitation, for that is what it proved to be:

Mrs. Henriette Sylvester
The Hemlocks
Prism Bay, Maine

The First of May

Mr. Patrick Black
[address redacted to avoid attention of IRS, lawyers, maniacs, etc.]

My Most Esteemed Mr. Black,

It is with the sincerest pleasure that I extend our most cordial invitation to join us for the summer season at the Hemlocks on Prism Bay. As always, dates of residency will extend from two weeks before the summer solstice until the last week prior to the autumnal equinox. Your room will, of course, be reserved for the full duration, and you are welcome to stay as much or as little as you like.

For your convenience, I have enclosed certain materials that might aid you in planning your trip, including directions to the Hemlocks and a few essential policies of our little house. While I am sure it will be entirely unnecessary for one of such grace and refinement, I humbly request that you take the time to review these few simple guidelines. Prism Bay is a vibrant and diverse community, and we at the Hemlocks wish to do our utmost to preserve its unique character, while ensuring the harmony, comfort, and safety of all. One need hardly be reminded of the unfortunate incidents of some years back, which I am sure we all regret, and of which I will say no more.

We look forward to having you with us once again in Prism Bay.

With all deference and respect, I am ever


Mrs. Henriette Sylvester, Custodian

Readers, dear readers, have you ever seen such a charming letter? Just so you can actually see it, I’m including a few pictures taken with my digital camera. Those of you adept at spotting computer font might be able to confirm its presence here, but to me it looks very much like the work of an old typewriter, and that is, I think, only the first of this letter’s abundantly charming features. Let us continue with the respectful yet wry tone of the prose, which left me greatly endeared to the writer. Next, there is the unusual means of marking time: dating the letter “The First of May”, for example, and describing a residency running “from two weeks before the summer solstice until the last week prior to the autumnal equinox”.

Most charming of all, in my opinion, is that this is a letter of invitation. I do enjoy receiving invitations, even if, as with the invitations to cat birthdays I mentioned earlier, I am not always able to attend the corresponding events. I must admit, however, that I had some trouble figuring out precisely what I was being invited to. What exactly is “the Hemlocks on Prism Bay”? The Internet had conspicuously little to say on the subject, which came as quite a surprise, knowing the Internet as I do. There is an indie rock band from Columbus, Ohio, called “the Hemlocks”, and a housing development in Roslyn, New York, by the same name, but neither are located very near Prism Bay, Maine, possibly because—again, as far as my associate, the Internet, is concerned—no such place exists. And yet, here was this letter, inviting me there, beginning two weeks prior to the summer solstice.

 Luv you guys but I think giving out my home address is more of a 100th blog post sort of thing...

Luv you guys but I think giving out my home address is more of a 100th blog post sort of thing...

 Not to raise a contentious word processing subject, but two spaces after a period, eh?

Not to raise a contentious word processing subject, but two spaces after a period, eh?

letter 05 for 05-31-2018.jpg
letter 01 for 05-31-2018.jpg

My current front-runner, guess-wise, is that I’ve been contacted by some kind of artists’ residency. As you know, dear readers, I am a writer, and in some cultures, writers are also considered artists. And it is not unusual, or so I’ve heard, for artists—including writers—to be invited to communities in places like Maine, pristine and peaceful places, where their art will have the opportunity to flourish. That would be a reasonable explanation for this interesting letter, wouldn’t you say, readers? The word “residency” is right there in the first paragraph, after all. And while I’ve never been to an artists’ residency, I’ve always wanted to attend one, and I think that ought to count for something also. It is troubling that I’ve never heard of this particular residency—that it not only lacks a website, but any electronic presence at all. Then again, the invitation was written on an old typewriter (probably), so it would be easy to believe technology is not the focus here. Possibly the focus is bringing tranquility to the souls of artists, even writers, so that they might produce great works of art.

Any reservations about this artists’ residency raised by its lack of web presence—whether in the form of a website, Twitter account, or evidence of filing for tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code—were, however, largely assuaged by those fifty-or-so pages of “Guidelines and General Information”. I said I would return to these pages, readers, and now I shall. In format, the pages are not much different from any normal orientation guide—as for a resort, school, or corporate office. I’ve seen my share of similar packets, readers, but the contents in this case were… let us say, unusual. For example,

Dress and Comportment

While we understand that the community of Prism Bay draws from a great variety of backgrounds and cultures, we nevertheless request that all residents at the Hemlocks, as well as their guests, adhere to a common standard of conduct.

Modest and presentable attire is expected of all residents and their guests while in the house’s common areas. We recommend against athletic gear as fashion; please reserve mesh shorts, sports jerseys, and form-fitting elastic attire for your daily healthful exercise. For evening meals, a jacket and collared shirt are preferred for gentlemen, skirts hemmed below the knee for ladies, and appropriate grooming for all diners of bestial aspect. Please keep all sigils, wards, and runes covered whenever possible. Young children are requested to wear horn protectors, where applicable (we know they are your little darlings, but your fellow guests might not agree after being prodded in the rump or eye!).

Shoes or other outdoor footwear should not be worn above the house’s ground level, except on designated occasions. Residents and guests who do not typically wear shoes: please remember to clean all hooves and claws when entering the house, especially when the weather is inclement. Brushes and hoof picks are provided at all entrances to the Hemlocks, including the belfry and upper porches.

Unusual, wouldn’t you say, readers? At first, it isn’t unlike a dress code for a fancy-pants hotel, club, restaurant, or similarly stodgy institution—until you get to the part about “diners of bestial aspect”, whereupon it begins to sound like you’ll be eating with visitors from Narnia. I suppose it’s a clever way of adding levity to a lot of dull and old-fashioned rules; I certainly found myself chuckling over certain parts, especially the deadpan reference to children with horns—anyone who has been forced to spend time with unruly youngsters can relate, I think, if only metaphorically. This is not the only section of the fifty-or-so pages of “Guidelines and General Information” to strike such an irreverent pose, either. Some, to be sure, seem perfectly normal. Others, well—I’ll let you read for yourself. Take a look at this section from “Facilities and Amenities”: 

All guestrooms at the Hemlocks are furnished with a bed, desk, set of wardrobes, scrying glass, and full washroom en suite. We kindly request that residents and guests refrain from activities that might cause undue damage or mess to their rooms, especially if better confined to the house’s laboratory, workshop, garage, stables, or library. Most rooms are NOT equipped for major incantations, but a signup sheet for the house summoning circle can be found in the lobby.

Any special rooming needs should be brought to the attention of your house custodian. Alternative rest arrangements, as for guests who prefer to sleep upside-down or underground, can be provided upon request, but we are, unfortunately, unable to offer long-term accommodation to aquatic residents at this time. If you are expecting guests requiring long-term submersion, please contact your house custodian, who will arrange for lodging at one of our affiliated residencies better suited to your needs. Seahaven, Evermere, and Spring Tide House are all within easy traveling distance and have provided excellent hospitality in the past.

Again, it reads like the handbook from any well-run place of hospitality, but with a peppering of strangeness throughout. I’m almost certain I’ve seen the phrase “unable to offer accommodation to X at this time”, except where X is “pets” instead of “aquatic residents”. Oh, and speaking of pets!

Pets are generally expected to make their own arrangements prior to arrival, and will receive a Letter of Invitation concurrently with their owners. We nevertheless encourage you to alert your house custodian of any pets in your care, on the chance yours is careless in managing its social calendar, or if special precautions will be required, as with large reptiles, gorgons, boogey- or bogeymen, devil bunnies, and border collies.

Please note that the Hemlocks makes no special accommodation for so-called ‘comfort animals’, as all animals are comforting and yours does not deserve preferential treatment just because you are an unscrupulous person with twenty dollars to spend on a fake certificate. Service animals are, of course, completely welcome, including seeing-eye dogs, actuarial cats, amanuensis toads, and personal stylist crocodiles.

Pet peeves should be kept in the privacy of one’s room to every possible extent, though pet projects, pet notions, and pet names may have the run of the house, within reason.

I can only assume, dear readers, that whoever wrote these fifty-or-so pages of “Guidelines and General Information” is having some fun with us. Possibly, this delightful individual became bored with writing page after page of rules and regulations, and decided to add a bit of pizazz. I must say, I was grateful they did, for this unknown writer (the mysterious Mrs. Henriette Sylvester, perhaps?) brightened what was turning out to be a dreary day indeed. Readers, if you can get through this excerpt from “Personal Belongings” without at least cracking a smile, well, you have more composure than I:

Residents and guests are welcome to store any personal belongings too large or cumbersome for their rooms in our attic or catacombs. Vaults are available upon request for anything of special price, provenance, power, or peril. We humbly request that potentially hazardous items be left at home, but if this is not possible, please be sure to alert your house custodian, so that we can best ensure your safety and the safety of your fellow residents.

The range of potentially hazardous items is too great to include a definitive list here, but some of the most frequent offenders are: explosives, firearms, zucchinis, medical waste, golems or homunculi, forbidden knowledge, corrosive or radioactive materials, inherited silver, “scrunchie” style hair ties, poetry, portraits of 11th United States President James K. Polk, and anything carrying a curse above the third hexidecile in potency, as determined by the International Commission of Curses, Hexes, and Noxious Attitudes, including but not limited to jewelry (especially amulets), pens, keys, paintings, dolls or figurines (especially those with moving eyes), furniture, and clothing, most particularly head wear, even more particularly top hats, fascinators, and ancient masks.

It sounds almost like I’ve been invited to a Harry Potter themed bed and breakfast—and if such a thing does not already exist, it should. (Any readers in a position to appropriate licensing for an HPB&B, take heed!) If nothing else, I am convinced the Hemlocks on Prism Bay is a place of genuinely creative people—for who else would send a letter like this? And what more could a person desire in an artists’ residency than to be among creative people? Well, readers, I can think of at least one thing, and here it is:

Rates and Expenses

While we expect it goes without saying (and therefore have written it), there is no charge for your stay at the Hemlocks. Special expenses, such as the catering of private functions or acquisition of sacrificial victims, will be reviewed with residents before any costs—whether they are to be paid in money, the indenture of child dependents, or the binding of free will—are incurred.

There you have it, readers: free. The best price. Now then, it’s entirely possible this whole thing is a scam, even if it’s unclear just what the endgame would be. Get me to drive up to Maine and then… what? Sell me a timeshare? Finding out the answer would in itself be reason enough to see what this Letter of Invitation is all about. And what if it really is for real? What if I really am being invited, by dint of my artistic potential, to a summer of tranquility in some lovely little town in Maine? I don’t know about you, dear readers, but I could certainly do with a bit of tranquility about now.

By my calculations (and reference to the Internet), “two weeks before the summer solstice” would be June 7—not very far away, but if I am to believe my Letter of Invitation, I can show up just about any time I want, so I thought I might take advantage of another section from the fifty-or-so pages of “Guidelines and General Information”:

Getting in Touch Prior to Your Arrival

If you have any issues not covered in these Guidelines, well, that would be something of a surprise, as we have endeavored to be quite exhaustive. Regardless, you may contact your house custodian at the address given in your Letter of Invitation. As postage, be sure to place a single drop of your own blood, or the blood of a similarly-sized mammal, or else a drawing of a walrus measuring no more than two centimeters square.

In my view, there is one simple question not answered in the entire fifty-or-so pages: put simply, “Is this for real?!” I will post this question to the esteemed Mrs. Sylvester by the method suggested, and see what happens. In the interests of hygiene, and because I’m passable at sketching, I’ll be mailing by walrus rather than bodily fluids (today, in “sentences I never expected to write”). Stick with me, dear readers, and we will see what happens!

(And what was that bit about having me with them “again”, by the way? Because, in case it is not already apparent, dear readers, I have never been to Prism Bay, nor ever heard of it. Perhaps this will all turn out to be something disappointingly mundane—a summer camp I attended for two days when I was eight, now reincorporated under a new name and planning to hit me up for a donation once they’ve triggered my nostalgia for summers past. But I intend to find out, readers, yes indeed.)

Until next time, dear readers!

And now, as practice for my two-cm-square postage: a drawing of a walrus.

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Books I Like: The Blind Assassin

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Books I Like: The Blind Assassin

Hello again, dear readers! Today I’d like to introduce a new feature to this blog, entitled “books I like”. In “books I like”, I will be reviewing books I like for your entertainment and, perhaps, the further population of your shelves. There will be no rating system involved, no grades given, no stars awarded. The only official evaluation made will be my own decision to review a given book for “books I like”, signifying explicitly, as one can glean from the name of the feature, that I like that book (and implicitly that I recommend it to you, dear readers, on the belief that you will like it as well).

Why have I chosen to review only books I like? There are a number of reasons, but the most important is that I’m doing this for fun and I don’t want to waste my time trashing someone else’s work. Some books just aren’t that great, and reviewers willing to slog through such books, then put in the effort to write up a review, fulfill an important function, but that isn’t my job, readers, nor do I find it particularly enjoyable. What I do enjoy is sharing good books with the reading public, so that’s what I will be doing. (And of course, the fact that I haven’t reviewed a given book should not be taken as evidence that I don’t like it, only that I am a mortal human being living in a realm of linear time, unable to write up a review for every single book I adore.)

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I’m starting things off with Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, not just because it’s a great book, but because I happen to have just finished reading it, which seemed like a fortuitously simple way of choosing a subject for our inaugural feature. Now, I’m certainly not the only person who likes this book. It’s garnered heaps of praise, and awards including the Man Booker Prize—still generally a reliable stamp of quality, in my opinion, unlike certain other supposedly prestigious arts awards (looking at you, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). I’m not exactly going out on a limb professing my admiration here, is what I’m saying. But I read it and I liked it, and those are the two criteria for appearing in this feature, so here we go!

 Yes, I know I was just riding around on my high horse about trashing other peoples' stuff, but come on.

Yes, I know I was just riding around on my high horse about trashing other peoples' stuff, but come on.

At its most basic level, The Blind Assassin is a family saga. Set mostly in and around Port Ticonderoga, a fictional town in the very real Ontario, Canada, it follows the Chase family through more than a hundred years of history, beginning in the 1870s with the founding of a button factory that establishes the Chase family fortune, all the way to the end of the Twentieth Century. Most of the story, however, takes place during the 1930s and 40s, and concerns the doings of the Chase sisters, Iris and Laura, third generation button heiresses and souls lost in a tumultuous period of history. The book begins with Laura’s death by dramatic car crash, officially deemed an accident but pretty plainly a suicide, as it involves driving more or less directly off a bridge. In the first five pages of the book, we hear the story first from Iris, Laura’s older sister, then from a newspaper clipping, and finally—obliquely—in the prologue of The Blind Assassin, a novel published on Laura’s behalf in 1947, two years after her death.

These three sources—Iris’s recollections, contemporary newspaper clippings, and excerpts from The Blind Assassin—become the devices through which the story is told. Iris Chase (Iris Chase Griffen at the time of her sister’s death) is our primary historian, looking back from the year 1999 on the events leading up to Laura’s death. Now in her 80s, and suffering from a heart condition, Iris haunts the story’s important sites, recording what she remembers in a book of her own (though to what end even she isn’t sure—at least at first). The clippings and book excerpts, meanwhile, run in parallel to Iris’s narrative, the newspapers depicting events in the public sphere—labor unrest at the Chase button factory, for example, and society pages detailing Iris’s wedding to Richard Griffen, noted industrialist and political hopeful—while The Blind Assassin follows a more secret history, one with mysteries running well into the present day (the present day being 1999, remember).

Though presented as a series of excerpts, The Blind Assassin is a complete novel-within-a-novel, telling the story of two lovers through episodes of their clandestine trysts. Neither is named explicitly, but Laura is widely presumed to be the wealthy socialite sneaking out to meet a down-and-out science fiction writer, who begins spinning for her the tale of a distant planet—“another dimension of space”—called Zycron, and the lost city of Sakiel-Norn, where slave children are forced to weave carpets so intricate they go blind before the work is finished. When they grow up, these blind slaves become Sakiel-Norn’s most feared assassins. The book caused a scandal upon publication, and fifty years later, as Iris sets her memories to paper, remains a highly regarded, important piece of literature (Laura’s grave is often visited by devoted fans, for example). 

For those of us following along with Iris’s family history, and with history at large, the events of The Blind Assassin become a kind of code, inviting us to interpret between the two worlds. The unnamed man in the The Blind Assassin, for example, is on the run from the law for unknown reasons—but a savvy reader might draw the connection between him and Alex Thomas, a young fellow accused of burning down the Chase family button factory. (A young fellow, we learn, known to harbor communist sympathies of the sort that might lead him to imagine a city like Sakiel-Norn, with its tyrannical rulers and underclass of blinded slave children.) The Blind Assassin, meanwhile, sheds its own more subtle illumination onto the events in Iris’s more comprehensive account.

 Power of the written word.

Power of the written word.

Of the three modes of storytelling, Iris’s history, framed by her daily life in Port Ticonderoga, makes up the majority of The Blind Assassin (Atwood’s version, that is, not the novel-within-a-novel or the novel-within-a-novel-within-a-novel)—in terms of page count as well as in the real work setting down the events of Iris and Laura’s lives. As a reader, I appreciated this, because old Iris Chase was my favorite character by far. She is a credibly crotchety old lady, full of wry, I’m-too-old-to-give-a-shit frankness (while visiting her attorney: “…they bill by the minute, these lawyers, just like the cheaper whores”). She takes the same dryly acerbic tone in tales of her younger self, an Iris much pushed about by forces of a time and place in which well-bred young women were expected to be seen and not heard (and in some cases not even seen), and though rather ruthless with this other Iris, is not beyond the point of sympathy, especially as she herself begins to struggle with a different kind of powerlessness brought on by old age.

(And to readers familiar with Atwood’s other work: you might be expecting to see a feminist theme or two cropping up at some point, might even have detected the beginnings of same in my summary thus far. Well, a full description would get a bit spoilery, but let us say that the blind assassin’s female foil and romantic interest is a sacrificial virgin whose tongue has been cut out to prevent her from denouncing the society whose perverse mores have condemned her to death. Anyway. By and large, though, feminism in The Blind Assassin, while certainly present, tends to be a deal more subtle than that to be found, for example, in what these days is probably Atwood’s best-known novel.)

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The Blind Assassin (the novel-within-a-novel this time) becomes a kind of shadow to the elaborate saga of the Chase family, a ghost lurking just out of sight. (The newspaper clippings, meanwhile, are for the most part aesthetic, brief but telling shifts in perspective.) Paired with its more substantial counterpart, this second narrative feels refreshingly ethereal—gauzy, languorous, smoke-rising-from-an-ashtray sorts of scenes to contrast with the more eventful chronicles of Port Ticonderoga. The tales of Zycron and Sakiel-Norn—which often include interspersed dialogue and commentary—act as an additional plane on which the unnamed lovers interact. That they’re also pretty transparent metaphors-for-our-lives sorts of stories didn’t detract anything for me. (Though don’t expect our fictive blind assassin to do much of anything; that part of the book is pretty light on plot.)

As a standalone novel, though, The Blind Assassin (again, story-within-story) didn’t really hold up for me. A shadow without a body, as it were. In the context of the book at large (The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood), that isn’t such a big deal, because it doesn’t actually have to stand alone. I think it works very well when posed alongside the novel’s other sections; Atwood’s balancing act, her blending of stories, is expert indeed. It’s just that I had a little trouble buying The Blind Assassin by Laura Chase as the important work of fiction it’s described to be in the world of the story. That said, I can see how it might have been revolutionary for its time (that is, the time of its fictional publication, being the late 1940s)—certainly scandalous, which in itself is often enough to be remembered. If The Catcher in the Rye caused something of a stir for its sexual themes, a book published around the same time that includes the line, “He’d like to grab hold of her, haul her up to his room, fuck her six ways to Sunday” would certainly raise an eyebrow or two.

 Honestly, you can't take him  anywhere .

Honestly, you can't take him anywhere.

If there was one aspect of The Blind Assassin I found at all disappointing, it was the twist. Yes, readers, there is a twist. It isn’t a bad twist—I quite liked it, actually. The problem was that it’s one of those twists that, if it arrives as a surprise, will make you see everything that came before in a new light, and I guessed it about a hundred pages in. To be fair, I was looking for a twist. “These richly layered stories-within-stories… [come] together in a brilliant and astonishing final twist”, says the back cover of my paperback edition. So from the start I was trying to guess what it was, this astonishing final twist, and eventually I ran across a line that made me think, “Oh, I wonder if X.” And X was the twist, readers. This became more and more obvious as I read (the evidence mounts quickly, once you suspect what’s happening), to the extent that I began to wonder whether there was some other, twistier twist coming. There wasn’t. By the time I got to the end, and the twist leapt in ambush from the hedges, it felt like the natural unfolding of the plot rather than a mind-blowing revelation—which was too bad, because I do like a good mind-blowing twist.

Guessing the twist early on didn’t ruin the book for me—far from it. Yes, I stumbled over the secret ahead of schedule, but I still enjoyed the detective work of uncovering the truth, and had the pleasure of observing the story from multiple angles. And I got to congratulate myself for figuring it out, then brag about my deductive skills to you, dear readers. What I missed was the experience that can come with a world-changing twist, of finishing one book and then being given another already imprinted into your mind, of being able to see these two versions—one in ignorance, the other in knowledge—at once. Two stories in one reading, as it were. A remarkable experience, to be sure, but there are other reasons to read, and The Blind Assassin will satisfy most of them.

Thus concludes my review of The Blind Assassin, readers. If it is not already clear, I recommend this book. Highly. Since this my first edition of “books I like” (and who knows when I’ll write another?) I don’t mind stating as much explicitly. It’s a great book. Margaret Atwood is literally a poet (a good one, too), and it shows in her prose. This isn’t a quick read (my copy tops off at 521 pages, not really a surprise when you consider that includes an entire second novel), but it’s worth the effort (it was for me, anyway), and it moves. You will not be slogging here, readers. Do have a look.

(And while we’re on the subject of reviews, feel free to review mine. Comments section is below.)

That’s all for now, readers. I hope you had fun—I know I did. Until next time!

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WORKING FOR YOU!

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WORKING FOR YOU!

Hello, dear readers! It’s been a while, I know—since I’ve appeared on social media, or posted on this much-neglected blog, or, most importantly since Ninth City Burning hit the shelves. I’m still here, I promise: I have not been hit by a bus, or black-bagged by some shady organization, or wandered into a temporal rift (despite rumors that my next book is set to be published in 2035). I have been working hard, dear readers, and WORKING FOR YOU!—only most of what’s been happening has been between me and my trusty laptop, so mostly invisible to everyone except close friends and family, and the wonderful folks at Ace, my publisher (and also the guy who delivers my bibimbap on Thursday evenings). But no more, readers! 

Over the past few months I’ve received a number of inquiries from you (the overwhelming majority of them very polite!) asking where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to, and particularly about when we’ll see a sequel to Ninth City Burning. I’ve done my best to keep up with these, but as they’ve been increasing in frequency—and because I’ve got a little more free time (see below)—I though I’d take the opportunity to revive this old blog and tell you all what’s up. So welcome back, dear readers, and please, read on!

First off, I should be clear that I do not yet have a release date for Book Two. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a release date somewhere, only that no one has told me what it is. Some of you will have noticed that the sequel to NCB was originally set to come out sometime in February 2018 (this, indeed, has been the top subject of inquiry thus far, with variations on “are you dead?” being a distant second; third, for some reason, is “who would win in a fight: George Washington or Queen Elizabeth II’s corgis?”, which is a complex subject best left for another day). Those of you with access to an updated calendar will know that February 2018 has come and gone, and still no book. (Except, mysteriously, in Canada, where people claim to have seen Book Two on sale. Is this the work of a government conspiracy? Time travel? Both? I have no answers, readers, but I intend to find them.) So what gives?

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Here’s one thing I can tell you: the delay is pretty much entirely my fault. Writing books is hard, as I’ve been discovering, and I wanted to make sure the next one would live up to Ninth City Burning. The good people at Ace have been doing their best to move the process along, but they can’t write the book for me, and at some point it just comes down to me and the characters and the story and getting them all to play nicely with each other. If you’ve read Ninth City Burning, you’ll know it had quite the cast of characters, and several different interweaving stories. Well, the next installment has even more—more characters, more plot, more action—and I needed to make sure they all were in there and working together. You know, without also being twenty million pages long.

Another thing I can tell you for sure: the latest draft of Book Two is IN. (There have been other drafts, none of them as good as this one. This one’s pretty good, readers—or anyway, I like it.) There will no doubt be more editing, and a bit of rewriting, and possibly the cutting of a few to a few million pages, true, but this is progress, readers. It might not be as swift as you or I had been hoping, but we're on our way.

Oh, and as far as I know, the title of Book Two is still Under Seven Skies. I announced this way back last year, and to my knowledge it hasn’t changed (no skies were subtracted or added in subsequent drafts, in any case). To my Canadian readers, with your temporally scrambled or possibly alternate-reality copies: do feel free to let us know what title eventually made it to press—just no spoilers, please!

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And that, readers, is about where things stand at the moment—again, to my knowledge. There might well be powerful individuals at Ace Books, or Berkeley, or Penguin Random House, who know things I don’t. Also sundry physicists, engineers, and field agents at whatever secret Canadian facilities are conducting the experiments that resulted in Under Seven Skies entering circulation before it was actually completely written—and who are, presumably, keeping it secret from me to avoid upsetting the flow of time or the nature of reality.

I know that isn’t what you’d been hoping to hear, dear readers. I’ve had some really wonderful letters from people excited for Under Seven Skies, and I’m pretty bummed that I couldn’t have something ready for you sooner (and thank you for the letters, by the way!). Please believe me when I say that I am as eager as anyone to get Book Two into the hands and tablets of the reading public. There are few things I would like better than to deliver you a copy right now, then stay on a bit to discuss speculative literature over tea. Unfortunately, readers, this is not currently within my power. I can’t even say for sure when you’ll be able to get the book for yourself. But I’m still WORKING FOR YOU, and I’ve been thinking of ways to make that a little more, well, obvious. So here are a few things I can (and intend) to do:

TELL YOU WHAT I DO KNOW. This is how I got started on today's post, readers. I’ve brought you up to date on the state of things (unless you skipped to the middle for some reason, in which case, go back and start from the beginning—this isn’t some fancy avant-garde hypertext story!), and in the future, I’ll be as forthcoming as time and obligations to my publishers allow. This includes letting you know as soon as I have a solid release date for Book Two. Maybe you won’t be the first to know, readers, but you’ll know as soon as possible, and won’t have to listen to rumors disseminated by men in dark suits with French Canadian accents.

KEEP IN TOUCH. More generally, I’ll be making an effort to reach out a bit (or a lot) more frequently, dear readers. My recent radio silence has had a lot to do with the fact that I’ve been working like a madman to get this latest draft ready, but now that it’s in, I intend to be more conscientious about keeping up with you. Internet sharing is not among my foremost skills, but I’m learning. And hey, if I screw it up horrendously, who’s going to notice? I trust you to forgive my foibles, dear readers, and it isn’t like there are all that many people paying attention to this old Internet thing anyway, right?

BE AS ENTERTAINING AS I CAN. If I can’t get a printing-press-warm copy of Under Seven Skies into your hands this very instant, well, I’ll try and amuse you in other ways. For one, I’ll see about posting some stuff from the book itself (though this will be dependent on permission from my publisher; I know there are a lot of behind-the-scenes considerations that go into when and where and how preview chapters are released). Beyond that, I intend to post regularly on this blog—on Tuesdays, shall we say? Do Tuesdays work for you, dear readers? I’m not exactly sure what I will be blogging about, but I’ll do my best to make it worth your while. If nothing else, we can talk about books I like (of which there are many).

DRAW YOU SOME PICTURES. You’ll have noticed a few doodles illustrating some of this post’s more important concepts (unless I bungled the upload or otherwise mucked up the code, that is). Readers, I’m proud to say that I drew them just for you. The original plan was to have a big, impressive piece of art, sort of a propaganda poster-style deal expressing how hard I’m “WORKING FOR YOU!”, but I contacted like twenty different artists trying to commission something like that and none of them got back to be about it. So guess what? I did it myself. I’ve got a tablet computer and some free art software, and I can draw pictures too. They might not be the world’s most magnificent pictures, or even in the top ten, but I had fun drawing them. So I’ll do a few more, and hopefully some of that fun will transfer to you, dear readers. 

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That’s about what I’ve got for now. If you have suggestions or ideas for things you’d like to see on this site, by all means, get in touch! Even if you don’t, I’d love to hear from you. Anyway, I’ll leave you now with a doodle of Frances the Fancy Caterpillar and a promise to write again next week. Feel free to berate me in harsh language if I fail to deliver on that account. Until then, readers, may your books be crisp and you’re your lattes flavorful. Cheerio!

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5 (Admittedly Impractical) Tips for Surviving and Alien Invasion

Note: this list was originally posted at Imaginary Reads

So you’re stuck in the middle of an alien invasion. The mother ship is perched in near earth orbit, flying saucers are circling the Eiffel Tower, little green men are popping up at the local supermarket, and pod people have seized government offices around the world. It had to happen sooner or later. Why didn’t we listen to all those tin foil-wearing conspiracy theorists when we had the chance? Well, nothing for it now but to grab the nearest sharp object or firearm, call your friends for backup, and try to make the most of a bad situation. Here are a few tips to help you stay alive long enough to join the resistance, evacuate the planet, or start that utopian community you’ve always wanted deep beneath the surface of the Earth until this whole invasion thing blows over.

1. Avoid sightseeing. We all know the drill. Aliens appear from the far reaches of space and set right to work with shocking displays of awesomely advanced weaponry. They’ll hit the cities first, to get the biggest bang for their buck (or equivalent alien currency) in terms of eliminating any infrastructure and population that might be tempted to fight back. With that out of the way, however, it’s time to start demoralizing those puny humans with a demonstration of how feeble and insignificant we really are. And what better way than to blow up the most impressive monuments our backward little civilization has been able to produce? Twenty years to build the Pyramid of Giza? How about two seconds with a high-test particle beam? Think the Hoover Dam represents human triumph over nature? Try triumphing over this antimatter death ray. Don’t expect natural monuments to be any safer. These alien jerks will probably bulldoze the Great Barrier Reef and fill the Grand Canyon with molten rock just to show us who’s boss. Best to leave the tourism for another day and stock up on bottled water and instant noodles.

2. Learn the Language. Know thy enemy, the old adage goes, and there are few ways better to get into a sentient being’s head (or wherever they keep their brain) than by understanding their language. It might involve whale-like singing, or clicking pincers, or shifting tones of bioluminescence, but if you can figure out how our alien visitors talk to one another, your chances of surviving to the end of the day will improve dramatically. Not only will it allow you to translate intercepted communications regarding the impending release of hostile nano-robots and eavesdrop on security forces patrolling your town (“Good thing the humans haven’t discovered our weakness to aerosol air freshener, eh Bleeblox?”); you’ll also be able to read signs and labels on everything from ray guns to spaceships to their newly-constructed headquarters of occupation (“Office of the Grand High Leader Without Whom the Invasion Cannot Continue”). Best way to learn an alien language? Immersion, probably, so if you’ve ended up imprisoned someplace, keep an ear open. Otherwise, try tuning in to their daytime television. Nothing like an extraterrestrial telenovela. 

3. Betray humanity. OK, so maybe you’re not the adventurous type. Marginally resilient. Minimally resourceful. Not into defying the odds, braving adversity, risking it all. You prefer a hot bath, a soft bed, and a heady shot of artificially synthesized pleasure serum. That’s fine. Seriously: how many true action heroes have you actuallymet? So if taking on the universe isn’t your cup of tea, why not go ahead and join the winning side? You can bet our visitors from afar will need someone local to do a bit of PR, get the Earthlings on board with whatever sinister scheme they’ve cooked up for us. I mean, someonehas to supervise the teams harvesting our planet’s ozone layer for transport back to the alien home world, or find just the right real estate for the new gladiatorial arena where human prisoners will fight to the death for the amusement of our beloved Galactic Emperor. And you can bet whoever that person is will be richly rewarded. If collaborating with the invaders doesn’t sit well with your conscience, just remind yourself how terribly we humans treated our planet back when we were in charge. You’ll be able to rest assured you did the right thing as you glide over the ruins of mankind’s endeavors in your fully furnished orbital condominium.

4. Never get in a helicopter. This is just common sense, but it bears repeating. When social order starts collapsing, people start trying to escape in helicopters, and those helicopters invariably start blowing up. Always. It’s the universal signal the situation has gone from bad to worse—and if there’s an alien invasion in progress, it’s a pretty safe bet things are headed in that general direction. So when the military lands a few precious rescue copters on the roof of your high school or office building, let someone else hop on first. Not only will this establish you as the sort of selfless, heroic type that nearly always survives the opening waves of mayhem, but I guarantee you the moment that chopper lifts off, some kind of flying space squid is going to get its tentacles tangled in the rotors and turn the whole thing into a flaming ball of I-told-you-so. You watch. If it doesn’t, well, first round of toilet bowl hooch at the Martian penal colony is on me.

5. Be a dog. If there is any universal truth to be gleaned from my experience with alien invasions, it is that the dog almost always survives. Perhaps it’s that the extraterrestrials understand dogs don’t share our human flaws, that they are sincere, loyal, trusting creatures that should not be blamed for any actions perpetrated by the dastardly homo sapiens. Possibly their keen senses and instincts enable survival in ways our clumsy two-legged bodies and television-numbed brains do not. Could be they’re just too adorable to die. Whatever the reason, when the laser blasts start flying, our furry friends enjoy a rate of survival vastly superior to their human counterparts. So if you’ve ever thought about becoming a dog, now just might be the time.

 

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Books So Bookish a Movie Could Never Do Them Justice (Though Some Have Tried)

Note: this list was originally published at NerdMuch

The book was better. It’s the perennial reaction of, well, just about anyone who has read the book, almost regardless of what that book happens to be. Most people who utter this phrase are referring to the film adaptation of whatever book is under discussion, of course, and there are any number of reasons to account for the superiority of print over those newfangled moving pictures: the depth and detail film just can’t capture, the vividness of imagination the screen tends to dampen, the oversimplification the translation to pictures often requires. But sometimes the book isn’t just better. Sometimes a book goes so far beyond what can be captured in the realm of sight and noise that a film must by necessity be an essentially differentexperience. Don’t get me wrong: there are some things TV and movies do well—yes, even better than books (gasp!). If what you want is to be dazzled by light and music, have your hair blown back by fiery explosions, look at pretty faces, then sure, grab yourself a movie ticket. And there’s no denying visual media have an artistry of their own. But there are also things they just can’t convey—or, if they can, no one’s figured out how. I’m not talking about books too long to make into a film, or so racy or controversial no studio would touch them. I mean the stories that can’t be fully captured in sound and picture, the ones that can only run on an imagination working at full tilt. Maybe you could make a film with roughly the same story, that depicts the same events, and maybe that film would be a great work in its own right, but it still wouldn’t capture the experience of the original. Here are a few of the ones you have to read to be believe.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.This book exemplifies one of the things virtually impossible to bring to the screen with the same force as print: style. It tells six different stories, each taking place in a different time period, each one somehow encountered by a character in the story that follows. For example, the first narrative takes the form of a journal written aboard a ship; the protagonist of the second narrative, a composer, finds and reads that journal; in the third part, a character listens to music composed in the second part, and so on. What makes Cloud Atlasa have-to-read-it sort of book isn’t the complexity of the plot, however. The 2012 film adaptation, a product of the same minds that brought us The Matrix, didn’t do such a bad a job of weaving all those disparate plots together. It’s that each and every one of the book’s narratives is written in a different style, using the method of storytelling to draw the reader into a particular time and place in a way that feels both strange and familiar within the context of other others. That isn’t to say a movie couldn’t attempt something similar—there are enough varying styles of film to give a sense of the changing contexts—but the resonance, however compelling, wouldn’t be the same. 

Romeo and/or Juliet by Ryan North.Here we have a familiar story, told in an unfamiliar way. Shakespeare’s classic tale of passion and death and poison and irresponsible friars is, in fact, made specifically for an audience to watch. It’s a play, after all, and plays definitely lend themselves to depiction on screens of all types. Part of the artistry comes in the choices actors and directors make in the performance. What makes North’s story different—aside from its often hilarious original content—is the format: it’s a choose-your-own-adventure style story (I guess we’ll call it a gamebook, since “Choose Your Own Adventure” is trademarked). As a reader, you can’t just sit back and take the story in, can’t simply watch the events play out—it requires your active participation to get to the end, and what exactly that end is will be depends on the choices you make. To be fair, Ra/oJ is not without its visual components: each of the book’s hundred-plus endings has its own (quite fabulous) illustration. If you wanted, you could just flip through to those, like cheating on a mystery novel—but that would, in itself, be a choice. 

The Accidental by Ali Smith. Stream of consciousness novels feature pretty consistently on lists of “unfilmable” books—William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf are particularly oft-cited examples—and with good reason: the style is, by its nature, focused on the interior world. It’s about consciousness, after all. A film of such a book would mostly just be various shots of someone thinking. In Smith’s 2005 novel, a mysterious stranger insinuates herself into an English family on holiday, the consequences of which the reader experiences through the thoughts of the various players. There isa bit of action that could find its way into a film, but that would still miss the majority of what was going on in the story—which is, most of all, about the internal churning at work in this otherwise mundane domestic setting.

Perfume: the Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind.The story of a boy born into one of the most odiferous places in history (France in the 1700s, where, the author tells us, “there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women”), with a sense of smell so acute that he can identify someone by scent alone, though he himself has no scent of his own. Eventually, he becomes a virtuosic perfumer, but he has more brutal ambitions that your average purveyor of fragrance. They actually made quite a good film out of this one, back in 2006. But even though the movie tells a great story, it misses out on one of the things that makes the book so fantastic: the author’s description of scent. People, emotions, objects—all of these are referenced in terms of their smell. At one point, the hero (and I use that term loosely) goes on a kind of psycho-perceptual spirit journey using his nose alone. It’s something Süskind conveys expertly through words, tapping into the olfactory zones of his readers’ brains, but for the moment anyway television and movies work on only two of the five senses, and a book like Perfumerequires at least one more. 

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino. Like Cloud Atlas, Calvino’s rambunctious, weird, and weirdly fun novel features a number of sections written in different styles (over the course of the story, you’ll read the first chapter—and only the first chapter—of ten separate books), and indeed, Travelerwas one of the inspirations for Mitchell’s later work. That isn’t why it’s on my list, though. The reason for that comes across in the very first line: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler”. Yep, you got it: you, the reader, are a character in this novel. By the end of the story, you’ll have read those ten first chapters, and had some adventures of your own. Maybe, that is—if, indeed, the “you” described is really, you know, you. The use of second-person narration in Travelerillustrates a few things books can do that films can’t. One, of course, is inserting you, the reader, as a character in the story. To be sure, movies havetried this once or twice. There’s one from 2015, Hardcore Henry, a kind of videogame shooter-turned action flick, that looks like a pretty good take on second-person drama (though I can’t say for sure: haven’t seen it). Still, it can’t quite touch the intrigue or mystery, or personal connection, Calvino fosters here. More important, I think, is a book’s power to notshow things, to deceive and distract and dissemble. I can think of several books with major twists that turn on the fact that two characters who appear at different points and from different perspectives are, in fact, the same person. In a movie, that would have been obvious from the first time the character appeared on-screen; a book’s focus on perception, however, not only makes the deception possible, but natural. (And no, I’m not going to say which books I mean—trying to keep the spoilers down here, people.) A second-person narration can leave the reader wondering what exactly would happen if this “you” were to look in a mirror. As for If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, well… just get the book already.

Jaws by Peter Benchley. JK this movie was awesome.

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The Language of Magic (or the Magic of Language)

Note: this essay was originally published at BookTrib

There is a close and very special relationship between language and magic. Words are semi-magical things in themselves—intangible, weightless, and yet capable of real and drastic effect. Words have the power to wound, to uplift, to alter opinions and perceptions, and, when spoken by the right people under the right circumstances, change the world. Phrases like “I now pronounce you husband and wife” (or, if we’re being grim, “I hereby sentence you to death”) alter the state of reality simply by their utterance. It’s like—well, magic. And so it should come as no surprise that, with a little extra effort, language can be made to perform magic of the true, supernatural variety. The simplest example is probably the magic word (perhaps accompanied by the flick of a wand), the traditional “abracadabra” or “alakazam” (or, if you prefer, “expelliarmus!”), but the possibilities are almost as varied as the magicians that employ them—especially in fiction, which I’m sorry to say is where most of my experience with magic lies. (Though I do hope any real wizards, witches, and sundry practitioners reading this will contribute their opinions in the comment section below.) Sometimes the language of magic is merely a point of focus for the will and energy used to bring a spell about, as exemplified by the inimitable Harry Dresden of The Dresden Filesfame. In other cases, language is magic’s very essence, the means to command nature by its true name, as in A Wizard of Earthseaand its sequels. In my novel, Ninth City Burning, language and magic are closely connected as well, tied together by logic and illogic, and the interplay between the two.

A little background first. Ninth City Burningis set on a version of Earth that starts out very much like our own—that is to say, no magic (at least that we know of). And then Earth is attacked. We don’t know who the invaders are, or where they come from—they simply appear, as if from nowhere, and begin laying waste to the planet. We’re helpless to fight back, because the weaponry they use isn’t just advanced—it’s unintelligible, a power that lets them rewrite, even break, the laws of physics. A force that looks, and acts, like magic. All seems lost, until we discover something incredible: once this strange power has been brought to Earth, we can use it, too. It takes a little getting used to, of course—centuries of rationalism and enlightenment and industrialization have taught us never to accept “it’s magic” as an explanation for anything. Our solution: we don’t treat this force like magic. We deploy our all-powerful scientific method to study it. We experiment on it. We name it “thelemity”, because everyone knows there’s no such thing as magic. And it turns out this force doeshave laws, of a sort. They aren’t practical, dependable laws, like the ones that govern gravity or electromagnetism, but they’re a start. Ninth City Burningbegins roughly five centuries after that first invasion, and by then we’ve got a pretty good handle on this whole thelemity thing. We’ve devised a system to make it work for us, to build weapons and tools and vehicles—everything we need to defend ourselves, because even after five hundred years, the invaders haven’t given up on conquering Earth.

In Ninth City Burning, the study and use of magic—ahem, thelemity—is referred to as “irrational mechanics”. It’s a diverse field scholars have divided into a variety of smaller disciplines, in the same way we might distinguish between math, physics, and biology—or, if you’re studying something reallyinteresting (say at a hidden castle somewhere in Scotland), charms, potions, and transfiguration. Some uses of thelemity don’t require words at all, relying instead on a kind of metaphysical muscle (in our academic metaphor, this would be PE). The really powerful stuff, however, the techniques that will let you alter the weather, or build a suit of armor that makes you supernaturally fast and strong, or give your reflection in a mirror the ability to think and reason on its own—that gets a little more complicated. The basis for all that is a method called “infusion”, which involves writing out long strings of very specific instructions. The process isn’t all that different from composing a computer program, except instead of defining the parameters of some series of electronic functions, you’re rewriting the rules of reality. And as with computer programming, it’s all about using the right language. The techniques for writing infusions have been refined by centuries of study and theory—and also trial and error. It’s a delicate process, and the consequences are often disastrous. Crashing a computer is bad enough, but imagine what would happen if you accidentally caused the atmosphere to malfunction, or changed the behavior of light. On top of that, infusions don’t always follow the strict logic of computer languages. At times, they’re more about art than science—like composing a poem, or a novel. It’s a connection that made a lot of sense to me: as far as I’m concerned, writing a novel is about as magical as it gets.

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Literature, Young Minds, and Real World Conflict

Note: this essay was originally published at bookstr.com

When I was in fourth grade or thereabouts, my English teacher asked the class to imagine we were leaving home, and could take only a single backpack with us. We were to write down everything that would go into the pack, understanding that anything that didn’t would be gone for good. We had ten minutes.

I don’t remember what I chose exactly—or even generally—but I remember thinking hard about my choices. The question to me felt like an issue of priorities. Which of my things could I simply not do without? How many of my possessions really mattered, and how many were mere “stuff”? My guess, though, is that my list was one of favorites, a top ten or twenty roster of toys, books, gadgets and trinkets. I’d definitely have tried to fit in a videogame or two, probably without success. But as it turned out, this wasn’t the simple exercise in materialism I was expecting—it was an introduction to a book we were about to read for class: Number the Starsby Lois Lowry. Number the Stars—now a modern classic—tells the story of a Jewish family’s escape from Nazi-occupied Denmark during the Second World War. My imaginary backpack wasn’t a game or a puzzle, as I’d assumed, but a real choice real people had to make; it wasn’t about what I took with me, but what I’d have to leave behind. Pretty heavy stuff for a kid, to be sure. Fortunately Number the Starswas a damn good book.

I still think about my fictional backpack on occasion, not so much in terms of what it might contain, but in the context of news from around the world, of people in circumstances that force them to do what I (privileged American that I am) have only ever faced in my imagination. That old thought experiment, paired with Lowry’s superb novel, made the concept of fleeing home relevant to me in a way I sincerely doubt a discussion of geopolitics in the 1930s and ’40s ever could. It was a small step toward understanding, but it’s stayed with me, a frame of reference urging me to imagine myself in the place of people fleeing violence or instability—and there have been too many examples to list in the years since—all thanks to Number the Stars.

More than any other means of storytelling, literature—fiction in particular—is remarkable for its ability to foster empathy. In contrast to film and television, with their focus on the visual, books invite readers into their subject’s interior, to hear their thoughts, to relate and identify. Books aimed at young readers often feature characters of a similar age to that of their intended audience—an instant point of contact, given the many universals of childhood and adolescence—but that’s neither a rule nor a necessity. Sometimes a dramatic shift in perspective is just what’s needed to bring about a connection.

We live in a big, loud, chaotic world, and often it’s easy to miss, or outright ignore, conflicts going on in other parts of the globe, to dismiss them simply because they’re happening somewhere else. But circumstances that might seem limited to a particular time, place, or culture, both historically and geographically remote, can become universal through fiction. A war between fantasy kingdoms or space empires might not have any direct referent in the daily headlines, but can still provide a context for processing them, and of relating to the real people involved.

When I began writing the book that would become Ninth City Burningin 2013, the Syrian Civil War was gaining a new and frightening momentum. All across the country, people were being forced to flee their homes ahead of the spreading violence; I doubt many had time to fill a backpack first. My novel, an alien invasion story blending science fiction and fantasy, isn’t any kind of allegory for the war in Syria—still ongoing almost four years later—but that conflict was very much in my mind as I developed my characters, young people of varying ages and circumstances, pulled from different societies and backgrounds, but alike in that they lived in a world defined by violence. That violence isn’t an immediate presence, however, at least not as the story begins. War to them is something real but distant. They can depend on a basic level of stability and security: they have the familiar comforts of friends and family, of school or work. And then war comes calling for them, and they have to choose what to keep, and what to let go. I wanted to create characters in whom my readers could see something of themselves, whose thoughts and emotions and motivations would feel familiar, even if their world was completely alien (in some cases literally). 

I wouldn’t wish the kind of experience my characters go through on anyone—war, even fantastical war, is a terrible thing—but I can still hope that, when they watch or hear or read stories about people enduring the real thing, they’ll feel a connection, however basic, and think, This is happening to someone real, someone like me.

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Five Ridiculously Long Books Worth Your Time

NOTE: this piece was originally published at YA Books Central, sometime last year.

A few years back, I found myself looking forward to a long stretch of sitting around and not doing much. I won’t get into the details (they’re dull), but it involved something that required my presence but not very much in the way of mental involvement (and no, I had not been sent to the corner for a time out). Normally, I know just what to do when stuck in one spot for any lengthy period of time: bring a book. One of the few nice things about air travel, in my opinion, is that for a few hours there’s almost nothing to do but read. The sitting around I had to do this time wasn’t just a matter of hours, though—this sitting session would be measured in weeks. I could have just grabbed the top half of my to-read list and been done with it, but instead I decided to try something I’d been meaning to do for years: read War and Peace. That’s right, Leo Tolstoy’s great, grand opus, chronicling Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and a bazillion other subjects: romance, redemption, spirituality, a philosophy of history—also, you know, war… and, um, peace. Really, I just wanted to be able to truthfully say I’d read this masterpiece of world literature, this daunting pinnacle of oh-so-many “greatest books of all time” lists. And who knew when I’d have an opportunity like this again—so I found an English translation and jumped on in. 

And I loved it. When I was done, I felt inspired, exhilarated—and a little unnerved. No one needs me to tell them War and Peaceis an excellent book, but I still had to makemyself read it. Had I not been stuck with this long spell of sitting, I probably would never have even cracked it open, let alone made a serious of go of getting all the way through. There was just so muchof it. After that, I began making it a point to read a least one Ridiculously Long Book every year. Sometimes I’m a little hesitant to set out on another 1,000+ page adventure, but I’m always glad I did. Courtesy of my own reading list and the help of my buddies on Goodreads (hi guys!), here are a few more RLBs worth a look.

The Count of Monte Cristoby Alexandre Dumas.A normal man might give up after being framed for treason and left to rot in the dungeons of an island fortress, but not Edmond Dantès. Of course, Edmond has the good fortune to encounter a fellow prisoner who not only gives him a complete gentleman’s education, but also provides a means of a escape and the location of an immense fortune in treasure hidden—where else?—on the island of Monte Cristo. After reinventing himself as the titular Count, Dantès returns to exact sweet revenge on the scoundrels who betrayed him. At over 1,200 pages in some editions, The Count of Monte Cristocan stand with the thickest of RLBs, but hey—where else are you going to put all that swashbuckling? A thousand pages of revenge is a thousand pages well spent.

The Pillars of the Earthby Ken Follett. Set during a particularly chaotic period of English history in which conflict over the royal succession leads to widespread war, starvation, and generalized nastiness (so not all that different from Game of Thrones, but without the dragons), Follet’s novel chronicles the construction of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. Medieval architecture might not sound like the most exciting way to get through 800-ish pages, but there’s more to this story than dry facts about stonemasonry. Over the five decades it takes Kingsbridge Cathedral to grow from idea to reality, a sprawling saga plays out all around. There’s action. There’s intrigue. There’s triumph and betrayal and sheep. Plus a satisfying ending and a sequel (World Without End) if you’re looking for more.

Don Quixoteby Miguel de Cervantes.Even if you’ve never read the book, you’re probably at least a little familiar with the ingenious gentleman of La Mancha, Don Quixote. The image of a gangly knight charging after windmills atop his disheveled horse has become thoroughly iconic, referenced in cases of misguided idealism and when looking for excuses to use the word “quixotic”. But there’s much more to the story than the famous windmill scene. After having his brain addled by too many stories of gallant knighthood, Don Quixote comes to believe he is a knight himself, and despite being almost fifty years old and lacking any serious knightly qualities, he sets out in search of adventure. He finds it, too—well, misadventure mostly. Originally published in two parts, totaling roughly a thousand pages, Quixote’s wanderings are both funny and sad. Also a commentary on the powers and misuses of literature. In Part II, our hero actually meets people who’ve read about him in Part I, and they’re just as excited to join the adventure as he is to have them along—as, I’m sure, he’d be to have you.

Shōgun by James Clavell.Another one coming it at around 1,200 pages, this modern classic tells the story of John Blackthorne, an English seafarer who becomes embroiled in the upheaval surrounding the rise of a powerful Japanese feudal lord. Set during a time when European powers are vying for influence in the notoriously isolated society of medieval Japan, Shōgunis not only epic in just about every sense of the word, but is also an encyclopedic survey of Japanese history and culture (at least during the period depicted). And if you’ve already read Shōgunand can’t get enough, well, there are five more books in the series to keep you going.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenixby J.K. Rowling. You probably don’t need anyone to tell you to pick up our favorite young wizard, but at some 900 pages, this most lengthy of all Harry’s adventures still deserves to be on the list. It’s the first book after life at Hogwarts takes a new, dark turn (yes, I know the book was published in 2003, but I’m still not giving away any spoilers), and frankly there are too many magical shenanigans afoot to fit into a book the size of, say, Chamber of Secrets. And honestly, what sort of person would ever complain about too much Harry?

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A Hero Named Sue

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A Hero Named Sue

...in the tradition of Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue", as performed by Johnny Cash:

You might'a heard of me because
I'm the youngest cadet there ever was
to graduate the Space Academy,
and though I lost my ma and pa
I was top of my class in magical law
and slew me a dragon at the tender age of three.

Well I got me a sword and I got me a blaster
I got me a +10 Fender Stratocaster
I'm an ace fighter pilot and a blackbelt in ninjutsu.
Yeah it seemed my life was pretty keen
'till one stormy night down at the old canteen
when I heard a man say, "Hey, there goes that Mary Sue!"

I said, "Sir, I think you're mistaken.
I'm Arius Darkspur von Mandraken,
slayer of orcs and robots and ladies if ya know what I mean."
He laughed: "Naw, what I'm tryn'a say
is you're implausibly perfect in every way
and it makes folks want to punch you right in the spleen.

"Ya see, 'round here we're pretty bored
with you being contrivedly adored
for your genius, talent, wit, and derring-do.
The whole point of this stupid world
is for you to look cool and get the girl
and that, son, is what makes you a Mary Sue."

Well after that, my whole life changed:
It seemed no matter where I ranged,
someone'd be there with a bucket of bile to spew.
They'd serve me spit with every meal
and then they'd key my batmobile.
I tell ya, life ain't easy for a Mary Sue.

I found out that the man to blame
was some writer, Patrick Black by name,
who'd put me in a silly little song,
and I vowed one day, before I died,
I'd look that muggle in the eye,
and wring his neck for doin' me so wrong.

One August night, as the sun went down,
I was drivin' through Manhattantown
and my luck was almost too good to be true:
there in the window of some yuppie pub,
peddlin' his wares to a readin' club,
sat the funny-lookin' nerf-herder who'd made me a 'Sue'.

There was no mistakin' Mr. Black
with his picture right there on the back
of the book he wanted all them folks to buy,
so I got one and I joined the queue
and when he asked who he should sign it to
I said, "I'm Mary Sue! How do you do! Now your gonna die!"

He said, "I think you mean, 'You're gonna die,'
you neglected to apostroph-y,"
then he raised up his hands and shot out a fireball.
It burned the eyebrows off my face
but I drew my enchanted mace
and whacked him out clean through the nearest wall.

I been everywhere and I seen it all,
but I never had a tougher brawl:
he had laser eyes and an army of evil djinn.
But when he drew a plasma gun
and I just pulled a bigger one
he put his down and gave me a big ol' grin.

And he said, "Kid, sometimes life sucks, that's how it is,
even in the heroin' biz,
folks are mean, and they'll take things way too far.
You ain't the first I ever knew
to get some reductive label stuck on you
but don't ever be ashamed of who you are."

He said, "Now maybe you're idealized,
but in fiction that ain't no surprise,
just get out there and keep doin' what you do.
Let the haters laugh, but I tell you what:
not one of them ever kicked such butt
so screw 'em--I'd rather be a Mary Sue!"

That there's a moral to feel good about:
I dropped my lightsaber and we hugged it out
and since that day I've seen the world anew.
And whenever some kingdom's in distress
you can bet they're glad for my awesomeness,
and if I ever write a book, I think my hero's gonna be
some sad sensitive soul or poignantly precocious child, whatever, just not a Mary Sue, I still can't stand that crud!

Yes, that's Johnny Cash slaying a dragon. What of it?

artwork courtesy of Bre Duffy

(note: if you've never heard the term "Mary Sue" before, all of the above will make a LOT more sense if you quickly peruse what Wikipedia has to say on the subject!) 

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The Upside of Curmudgeonhood (or, Confessions of a Late Adopter)

Hello again, Dear Reader, and welcome to another edition of understructured reflections and meditations. Today I'd like to discuss a topic especially dear to my heart: uncoolness. I have long been, and continue to be, very much in awe of those special people able to discover the very latest and greatest amid the deafening roar that is modern media culture. It requires a remarkable awareness and unique aesthetic, not to mention a great deal of energy and patience and, as the French say, I don't know what. I have never pretended to be such a person--the early adopters, the tendsetters--but lately, as I took my first shaky steps into the realm of social media, I came to understand I've been living my life as their near opposite. A late adopter (I have occasionally heard the delightful term "laggard" applied) and, if not exactly a trendfollower, then someone who typically discovers trends only after they've fully petrified. And while it isn't as exciting as riding the crest of the new, I do think there is much to recommend about the un-new as well.

Growing out of touch with the cool and novel used to be a natural part of growing up, but so far as I can tell, the concept of adulthood as any specific set of attitudes or choices in lifestyle is, if not completely derelict, then crumbling fast. Certainly people long since exiled to the world of full-time employment, home equity loans, and other such trials of maturity can still keep up with Game of Thrones. No, for me the process was more like being almost imperceptibly buried in sediment. I lost track of developments in movies and TV and, before I quite knew what was happening, found myself living in a different epoch than just about everyone around me. Examination of the fossil record reveals this to have happened sometime during the mid- to late 2000s, probably around 08 ("aught-eight", as we from that era prefer say when recounting stories of those bygone days).

As is the case with many an unintentional life choice, school was to blame. At the time I was already writing more or less full time, but I also faced the task of not flunking all my courses, and sleeping enough to retain my sanity, and maybe seeing a friend or familiar relation every so often. So my television viewing suffered, which was too bad, because there was a lot of great TV going around just then. I remember being particularly envious of people I overhead discussing LOST (which was, as you might remember, everyone), of the way debating insights and reactions and theories seemed almost to match (and, during the more heated arguments, exceed) the pleasure of actually watching. But for me it was too late to catch up, not without resorting to some form of  self-administered spoiler, and I still held out hope of discovering for myself what all the fuss was about.

Flash forward a few years. I've finally got myself a decent TV and some time to watch it, but I have not tuned in to any flashy new series. I am not watching Caprica, because I have not seen Battlestar. I've got LOST on DVD, and it's everything I dreamed and more. When an episode ends, I already have the next one ready to go. Each time I hear that iconically ominous bong signaling yet another cliffhanger, I chuckle to myself and press play.

Citizens of modern society will surely recognize this as the activity today known as "binge-watching", but to me, in those ancient days, it seemed an unprecedented and exotic delight. When LOST was done, I still had an entire roster of television I had been hearing about for years but never seen for myself. It was about then that I realized need never want for good TV again. I could dispense with the flipping of channels, with the frustration I remembered when that new episode of The X-Files turned out to be a clip show recap. The same was true of movies--films I'd been sorry to miss in the theatres could now be had anywhere I chose, bundled in three-packs with a pair of sequels. So long as I didn't care what was popular at the moment, I had what was--at least given my rate of consumption--an effectively endless supply of quality entertainment.

There are exceptions, of course. Even I couldn't sit out when they made a seventh Star Wars. And a major caveat to all of the above is literature: I will take a good book anywhere I can get it*. But where moving pictures are concerned I remain gleefully backward in my approach to popular media. In fact, my experience with LOST and other fabulous storytelling of the last decade encouraged me to look back further, to all the cultural landmarks that, for whatever reason, had passed me by in my younger days. Freaks & Geeks. My So-Called Life. Shows now considered classics, but which don't get much advertising time nowadays because, well, they're classics (read: were cancelled twenty years ago). And then there are those decades I missed simply due to certain accidents of chronology, but could now access thanks to the wonder of everything-being-available-on-the-internet. While untold millions endure the awkward laughtracks of the latest fledgling sitcom, I get to watch M*A*S*H.

It's true, this edgy lifestyle of mine is not without its costs. I miss out on many of those proverbial moments around the water cooler, electronically stretched to worldwide proportions. But one of the nice things I've learned about modern fandom is that its terrain is so vast that, whenever I feel the need to obsess over something, there's nearly always someone around to join in, no matter how obscure the topic. No, my only real regret--thus far, anyway--is being without any easy or obvious way to support the people who are doing great things now. What keeps me up at night (to the extent TV can do so) is the thought that somewhere the next Firefly is foundering under some shortsighted network's neglect, and my eyeballs are needed to save it. One man can make a difference.

It seems like there ought to be a takeaway from all of this (even if it's something like "seven paragraphs is far too many to spend contemplating your habits of media consumption"). I'd love to have some wisdom regarding classic TV and cinema, but I'm no expert--I just enjoy living under a rock. So I'll leave you with this, Dear Reader: if you haven't already, try something old**. Try it under a rock (a metaphorical one, preferably). People have been telling stories for a long time, and the great thing about the ones that have been around a while is that there a lots and lots of eloquent opinions about which are not to be missed***. Aw, heck, I'll give you one anyway: try Harvey (1950, directed by Henry Koster). It's about a man whose best friend is a gigantic invisible rabbit. Now that's entertainment.

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The all-important footnotes:

*(and you should too: Ninth City Burning out September 6 2016 preorder now right now go go go yes buy buy get book please thank you very much)

**(and by "old", I simply mean something that isn't running right now; "try something old" just sounded catchier)

***(better yet, read a book; better still, read MY book, on September 6, when it is delivered promptly to your door because you have preordered it like the gorgeous genius you are)

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Adventures in Publishing: Zero to Sixty

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Adventures in Publishing: Zero to Sixty

Greetings, Dear Reader, and welcome to my first ever blog post. If you've found your way here, you'll probably have also figured out that I'm releasing a book this fall (September 6: mark your calendars, or better yet, pre-order now! That will be my only plug for today, promise). Selling something I've written to an honest-to-goodness publisher lands easily within the top ten best things ever to happen to me (several others of which are also book-related), but as a result I find myself on some very alien terrain--to wit, reaching out to the world at large.

A savvier writer, one more astute regarding the demands of today's literary world, would have laid the groundwork for all of this long ago, but I am not that writer. When NINTH CITY BURNING sold to Ace, roughly a year ago now, my entire internet presence consisted of a neglected Facebook profile. It wasn't that I didn't understand the value of connecting with the wide and varied community of readers and writers out there; I just wasn't very good at it. I had the notion I could cross that metaphorical bridge if I ever managed to get there. Well, here I am, and I still don't quite know what I'm doing.

It is sure to be an awkward experience for me, Dear Reader, but I find some consolation in the hope that you at least might be amused. I have always been the sort of person who keeps my thoughts and opinions to myself, and to be honest I haven't quite learned to calibrate them for public consumption (and what, I ask you, is more public than the internet?). There will be mistakes. I will likely overshare. It will be barrels of fun.

I discussed the above anxieties last night over dinner with a few bemused friends, and they advised me to avoid the common--and, I guess, controversial?--impulse to post photos of my meals to the popular forum. And so, to kick off what I hope will be a long career of tackling the hottest topics of the day, here is what we had for dessert, a rice custard topped with caramelized sugar: 

It was pretty great, by the way--about to crème brûlée what a muffin top is to a normal muffin (i.e. the best part). And now, for some expert-level sharing: with filter!

Until next time, Dear Reader.

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Hello! Thank you for visiting. Please check back for more posts from J. Patrick Black in the future.