Fabulous donuts, crepuscular customers, and unexpected traditions of early-morning fog sailing. Just another summer in small-town Maine, readers!
I am now in my second week at the Hemlocks on Prism Bay, dear readers, and so far as I can tell, Mrs. Sylvester and I are still the only ones in residence. I say “so far as I can tell” because the Hemlocks is large enough, and complex enough, that a professional football team could conceivably hold regular practice sessions here without my knowing anything about it.
Often, I have the impression that some rooms are rearranging themselves, even appearing and disappearing entirely, though on closer inspection it generally turns out some wall hanging or item of furniture has been moved in such a way as to subtly but significantly alter the room’s appearance. When these redecorations are actually occurring, and who exactly is performing them, I have yet to discover. Adding to the confusion, some rooms have more than one name, while others have none at all. The “conservatory”, for example, might refer either to what is also sometimes called the “greenhouse”, or to what is known as the “music room”. Readers, these are two very different rooms, and it is a little embarrassing to end up in the wrong one. When I asked Mrs. Sylvester exactly how many rooms are to be found at the Hemlocks, she merely smiled and said, “Many, Mr. Black.”
Mrs. Sylvester always refers to me as “Mr. Black” (which I get a kick out of), and prefers I call her “Mrs. Sylvester”—or, at least, she hasn’t invited me to call her anything else. She is, as I’ve said before and will surely say again, a remarkable woman, with many hidden rooms of her own, as it were. She is tall and slender, a tallness and slenderness she offsets with a wardrobe of voluminous dresses. I would call them old fashioned, except that I can’t quite pinpoint exactly which era of the past they would be from. It might be better to say her outfits are outside of fashion, or possibly in keeping with a fashion I don’t recognize or understand. There is, to my knowledge, no Mr. Sylvester, though I haven’t broached the subject explicitly. Mrs. Sylvester values her privacy, and even were I bold enough to ask her directly (and I’m not there yet, dear readers), I doubt I would get anything like a direct answer. (It would not surprise me one bit to hear the conversation go like this: “Is there a Mr. Sylvester?” “Many, Mr. Black.”)
If Mrs. Sylvester looks and acts vaguely like a character from Downton Abbey, however, she is most certainly not my faithful servant. Whatever the duties of a “house custodian” entail, it is not the same thing as being a butler or formal housekeeper. Mrs. Sylvester considers it her responsibility to ensure I am happy and comfortable during my stay, but there are times when I feel I’m more a curiosity than an actual guest—almost like a pet. Her air of good-natured indulgence often reminds me of the way someone might treat an adorable but clumsy puppy. Not that I’m complaining. Maybe there is a subtext here I don’t fully understand; perhaps Mrs. Sylvester is simply eccentric; whatever the reason for the faint amusement I’ve been detecting, it’s no reason to give up life in this amazing house (with free food!) in a lovely seaside town. Unless, that is, I’m being fattened up so she can feed me to G’lal the Devourer (he says with a nervous chuckle).
My first conversation with Mrs. Sylvester—at least, the first not carried out by post—has turned out to be pretty typical of our relationship thus far. You will remember, dear readers, that I reached the Hemlocks on Prism Bay, at the end of Five Fathom Drive, after a day of trials and tribulations, during which I was nearly run off the road, had my personal space invaded by an exceedingly strange man, and performed an arcane ritual—which might or might not have actually been successful—to win the favor of a mysterious and gluttonous being. At last, with dawn approaching, I arrived at my destination to discover a note directing me to my room and from there to breakfast promptly at 7:30 in the morning. At the time, I didn’t remark on Mrs. Sylvester’s boldness in leaving her door unlocked so late at night, but I did the next day, especially as it became more and more apparent she’d been in the house alone. Having known her now for almost two weeks, however, this doesn’t strike me as the least bit strange. I would be far more surprised to meet anyone who dared risk her displeasure by entering the Hemlocks uninvited.
Despite having slept less than three hours, I awoke refreshed, and had no trouble presenting myself in the dining room by 7:30, unless you count my trouble actually finding the dining room to begin with. I was expecting the house to be busy with morning traffic: my fellow residents discussing plans for the day, their children running about—all fitted with the recommended horn protectors, of course. I took special care with my outfit, aware I would be making a great many first impressions. When I descended the wide, wooden stairwell to the first floor, however, it was to an almost dreamlike quiet. The sun was out, and shone in a variety of colors through the foyer’s stained glass windows, and this multi-hued light, along with the dark wood throughout, gave the place a warm, inviting feel—it was just an invitation no one except me seemed to have accepted.
I wandered through the rooms of the first floor, all of them richly furnished but still light and airy thanks to high ceilings and tall windows, feeling a bit like an intruder, waiting for someone to appear and ask what I was doing there—until finally I found a room with a long wooden table at its center, a place setting at either end. One had a card that read “Mr. Black” in a sweeping hand I’ve come to know as the work of Mrs. Sylvester, and as I stood examining this, feeling both impressed and unnerved, a voice from the far end of the room said, “Welcome, Mr. Black. I trust you had a comfortable evening.”
It was the much-anticipated Mrs. Sylvester. This I somehow knew, though she had yet to introduce herself. Her voice was surprisingly deep, formal but friendly, with the hint of an accent I couldn’t quite place. Nothing British, though that was what I’d imagined when reading her letters—possibly some echo of an old New England dialect.
“Yes, it was very comfortable, thank you,” I said, flustered, because I hadn’t heard her come in, though that’s something else I’m becoming accustomed to, both about the Hemlocks and Mrs. Sylvester herself—things around here move quietly. I think it’s the thick carpets.
“I am Mrs. Sylvester, custodian of the Hemlocks,” she said. “I apologize that I was not present to greet you last night.”
“Oh, sure, no problem,” I said, though I didn’t think she was actually sorry about it.
“Please have a seat. Your meal will arrive shortly.”
She made it sound as if this meal was some thinking entity with its own sense of action and initiative. I half expected to see a parade of sentient cookware marching in, like something out of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, but to my relief (and disappointment), the food arrived in the company of a perfectly normal human being: a cook, perhaps, bearing two trays. He set one in front of me, and the other before Mrs. Sylvester, who had taken her seat at the opposite end of the table. “Who was that?” I asked as the cook or server retreated from view.
What I meant was, “What was that man’s name, and what is his role in this house?” I was expecting an answer like “the cook” or “my nephew” or “Jeffrey”, but Mrs. Sylvester only smiled and said, “Who was who?” I didn’t quite know what to say to that, readers, so I decided it would be best just to turn my attention the meal itself.
The meal itself was, like every meal I’ve had at the Hemlocks since, simply wonderful. Poached eggs with sausage and shredded potatoes, toast, croissant (which I am fairly certain was homemade), grapefruit and sliced pineapple, and dang good coffee. Despite all the feasting of the night before, I was famished, and tucked in with gusto. Mrs. Sylvester, meanwhile, ate in such a way that her food vanished as if by sleight of hand: afterward, I couldn’t recall actually having seen her eat; it was just that, whenever I looked, her plate was a little emptier. I have come to imagine this as a technique learned at some very proper finishing school, where it is believed ladies should never be witnessed eating and students are therefore trained as veritable food ninjas.
As we ate—or, as I ate, and my host absorbed her breakfast by osmosis or teleportation—Mrs. Sylvester questioned me about my plans for the summer. My answer, that I hoped to make progress on my next book, seemed to amuse her. It was like she suspected me of having some other, secret project in the works, and of using my writing to avoid the question. “Well, I hope you have a very productive and profitable summer,” she said, as the cook-or-maybe-nephew-or-Jeffrey arrived to take our empty plates, replacing them with smaller versions bearing a single, artfully-proportioned cinnamon bun. “Please consider me a resource in all aspects of your stay.”
“Thank you,” I said, “that’s very kind of you. And let me say how grateful I am for the invitation to stay in your lovely house.”
Mrs. Sylvester answered with a gracious nod. “I expect certain aspects of our little summer community will seem unusual at first, even strange,” she said. “Often, it takes residents time to adjust to the pace of life here. I am sure that, by the time July and August arrive, you will feel right at home, but if there is anything I can do to aid in your work, or to make your stay here more comfortable, I hope you will not hesitate to ask.”
This was my opening to set loose any of several questions then clamoring for expression. For example, Why had I been invited here, exactly? Mrs. Sylvester hadn’t mentioned any familiarity with my work, and seemed almost surprised to learn I was a writer. Or, maybe, Where are the other residents? Why have I never heard of the Hemlocks or Prism Bay? For that matter, How did she get my home address? Most of all, I wanted to know whether we would be getting an Internet connection anytime soon. In the moment, though, these questions all struck me as rude, and anyway I would have time to investigate later, so I decided on a question more directly relevant to my day. “I thought I would explore the area a little,” I said. “Are there any places I ought to see? Any local attractions I shouldn’t miss?”
Mrs. Sylvester smiled one of her subtle smiles and said, “Many, Mr. Black. Many.”
That first day, most of Mrs. Sylvester’s recommendations concerned the town and surrounding landscape. She outlined a tour that would take me past most of Prism Bay’s prominent landmarks and impressive sights, while avoiding areas she considered, and I quote, “dangerous or unsavory”. She also suggested I take one of the bicycles kept on hand for residents, rather than my car, pointing out that the purpose of this excursion was the journey, not the destination. I of course knew about the house bikes—they were mentioned in the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information, and I narrowly avoided making a quip about certain other modes of transportation described therein, such as the carriage that could, on formal occasions, be hitched with winged horses. I didn’t think Mrs. Sylvester and I were familiar enough yet for me to be making jokes about her hospitality. I also didn’t mention that I hadn’t ridden a bicycle for some years, and that it would be of no help that my skills would surely come back, because I hadn’t been much good in the first place. She was the knowledgeable party here, and I decided to follow her recommendations. I would adjust to life in Prism Bay, and I would begin doing so by bike.
The bicycle was an old-fashioned affair but well maintained and comfortable (a description that would, I think, apply to much of the Hemlocks and its contents), and it performed well, both on the paved streets around town and along narrower dirt paths that would have confounded my automobile. Prism Bay is an aptly named place: when the sun is out, its waters are positively prismatic. The sun was out that day, readers, and it was glorious.
Like most ocean inlets on the coast of Maine, Prism Bay opens southward; the passage in is relatively narrow, and surrounded by high cliffs populated by large summer homes. There is a sort of East Egg / West Egg thing going on with the high headlands that face one another across the water, and while I doubt any quite approach the opulence of Jay Gatsby’s roaring twenties Long Island, some of the houses there are very impressive indeed. The Hemlocks, if anything, is one of the more modest examples (and, again unlike Gatsby, the western side is the more lavish, and the eastern is where your narrator resides). In between these two high bluffs, raised like the points of a crescent, the land dips closer to sea level, and the town center—where I drove through my first night in town—runs along a sandy beach. There is a little port area in the same vicinity, and what looks like a marina or yacht club. The bay is dotted with small islands and boats at mooring. It was all very majestic, and I made liberal use of my digital camera as the sights rolled by.
Inland from the town center is a collection of neighborhoods, not so different from what might be found in any small New England town, where most of Prism Bay’s permanent residents live. I wasn’t surprised to learn there was some distinction made between summer visitors and those who reside here year-round; it’s a trait common to resort towns the world over, the seasonal influx of affluent vacationers, bringing cash and commerce but also crowds and cacophony, and perhaps an uncomfortable glimpse at how great disparities in wealth can sometimes be. Having visited my share of such places, I was prepared to occasionally be looked at askance, obvious interloper that I was. I’m beginning to get the sense, however, that in Prism Bay the relationship between locals and summer people is somewhat more fraught than the norm.
My first experience of what it means to be a summer person in Prism Bay occurred at lunch that first day. By the time noon rolled around, I’d had about enough of fresh air and exercise, and decided to stop in at a little bistro in town Mrs. Sylvester had recommended as a local favorite. The crowd seemed sparse, especially for a Friday, but summer was only just getting started, and I had the sense they did a lot of seasonal business. I set up at the bar, ordered a beer, and struck up a conversation with the bartender, Hank, a local kid back from college for the summer. He seemed friendly enough, until I mentioned that I was staying at the Hemlocks, whereupon his face became several shades paler and he disappeared without explanation into a back room.
A few minutes later, he returned, looking visibly nervous. “It’s a pleasure to have you with us, Mr. Black,” he said, handing me a piece of laminated paper.
“Thanks, but I already have a menu,” I said, because that was what he’d just given me, despite having already delivered a similar laminated sheet along with my beer.
“That’s the seasonal menu,” said Hank the uneasy barkeep, without further explanation.
Readers, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a restaurant with more than one menu. I have—mostly Chinese restaurants that feature both traditional dishes and more typically “American” fare, such as General Tso’s chicken and crab rangoons. Some places will offer you both menus up front, but at others, certain snap judgments will be made, often based on the appearance of the customer receiving the menu. Such judgments appear to have been made here, dear readers. I think Hank the uneasy barkeep initially took me for a local, and only gave me the seasonal menu upon learning I was visiting from elsewhere. (Also, I hadn’t told him my name; he must have discovered I was “Mr. Black” in the course of whatever happened in that back room.)
The first menu was pretty standard fare: your garden and Caesar salads, your onion soups and turkey chilis, your chicken wraps, your burgers, your fish and chips. The seasonal menu, meanwhile, was ridiculous. A few selections that stuck in my memory: squeezed slug chowder, essence of early summer soup, fairy circle mushroom salad dusted with late spring frost, Hank’s memory of where he left his keys, braised barbecue manticore tail with pickles (careful: spicy!), devil bunny ragout, dreams of lost teeth (locally sourced and freshly harvested), goat blood (1 pt.).
I thought about asking Hank the uneasy barkeep if he was the same Hank whose memories I could order for lunch, but sensed such a joke would not be taken well. Plainly this menu had been written along a similar theme to the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information I’d been sent prior to my arrival—maybe even by the same person. It seemed this bistro, in addition to serving normal food, was also some kind of theme restaurant—but only for the benefit of Prism Bay’s summer visitors. I wondered if this was a town-wide gimmick, perhaps even municipally mandated to support the seasonal tourist trade. Or maybe it was just this one restaurant. Either way, I could see why Hank would be upset about the whole thing. He was just trying to earn money for books, food, and beer, and here he was, being called upon to serve these rather silly novelty dishes, and possibly even to play a part in their presentation. Would he have to squeeze the slugs by hand for my entertainment? Dust the winter frost (probably just flaky sea salt) over the fairy mushrooms?
I sympathized with poor Hank. I really did. I myself have worked in what might charitably be called a theme restaurant, where I was compelled to dress as, among other things, a budget off-brand version of the Red Power Ranger. But I still ordered a bowl of essence of early summer soup as a prelude to my more traditional fish and chips. Sorry, Hank—I just couldn’t resist. At least I didn’t eat your memories.
I was expecting some hokey play on cream of broccoli or something like that, but readers, what I got was an astonishingly accurate fit to the description. My essence of early summer soup was clear, like a broth, and pale green, and it tasted just as I’d expect early summer to taste: like new vegetables and slightly under-ripe fruit, with a not unpleasant undertone of freshly cut grass. Readers, I’d never had anything like it. I was a little hesitant to say anything to Hank, but at last I told him how much I liked it, and was glad I did, because he seemed relieved, and even returned to some of the familiarity he’d shown before I mentioned my residency at the Hemlocks.
Meanwhile, I set myself to getting a proper photograph of the soup—one that would display the faint pink sheen that could be seen whenever my spoon broke the surface. Sharing this experience with the Internet was, of course, every bit as important as the experience itself, because, as we all know, if you can’t brag about something to your friends and distant acquaintances, it might as well not have happened. When I had snapped my photo and opened the file to ready it for upload, however, I made a disturbing discovery: the picture was completely out of focus. I took another photo, one that included my recently arrived fish and chips, with the same results. In fact, every picture I had taken that day was blurry to the point of illegibility.
Something is wrong with my camera, readers, and I am much vexed about it. I know I came to Prism Bay to work on my next book, to develop creatively as an artist, to live the contemplative life of the mind, but seriously, what’s the point if I don’t have pictures? This is a problem I intend to solve, readers, believe you me. I’ll have more for you next time. Until then, I hope you, too, have the chance to taste the essence of early summer, whether in liquid form or otherwise. Cheerio!
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”:
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.
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.
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.
Grim stuff, right, readers? And the grimness continues:
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 Murderer, Midnight 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):
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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”:
Until next time, dear readers—with luck!
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:
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.
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,
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”:
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!
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:
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:
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”:
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.
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.)
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!
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.
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.)
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.
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!
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?
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.