Making Meaning

The last book I slipped in under the wire of 2022 was Philip Ball’s excellent The Modern Myths: Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination.  It would be easy enough, if judging by the cover, to suppose this to be a book about horror, but it’s not.  At least not wholly.  Ball is actually addressing the idea, in his wonderful writing style, that certain myths in modernity can be traced to various speculative tales, mostly from the nineteenth century.  Not intended to be comprehensive, this study makes brilliant cases for several stories that offer meaning, which is what myths really are.  The first such myth analyzed is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.  This novel led to the modern tope of being stranded on an isolated island and we see it everywhere from Gilligan’s Island to Lost.  Ball isn’t offering an encomium to the literature—in fact, he points out the problems with the stories and their writing and indicates that this is part of the mythic process.  Along the way we learn about the authors and their lives, as well as the afterlives of their stories.

Similar treatments are offered for several culturally significant speculative stories that many people have never read but nevertheless know.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, and the twentieth-century phenomenon of Batman are all given similar treatment, leading to insight after insight.  The book also gives the reader the distinct sense that ours isn’t the final word on anything.  We’re part of a tradition and those who produce speculative material—future myths may not be anchored in literature—and those who analyze us will also, in their turn be analyzed.

One such mythology currently under development, Ball suggests, is the zombie myth.  Grounded more in movies than any literature, the canonical traits of how it goes are widely recognized and have been taken in several directions, including parody.  Of course, projecting which stories will be future myths, outgrowing their original settings to provide cultural meaning, is something we can’t do with accuracy.  We all know, however, what it means to be a Jekyll and Hyde, or what to expect during a zombie apocalypse.  Such stories tend to come from speculative genres because those are what people tend to like.  We read and gravitate toward science fiction, horror, super heroes, etc.  And we do so, Ball makes a great case for, because they contain the stories that explain our world.  And given this world, some explanation is definitely necessary.


Locally Speaking

One of the weird things about moving is that you don’t know many people in your new location.  Ah, but who am I kidding?  As an introvert I knew few people in my last two decade-long locations.  So when I blog my readers tend not to be local.  Those I know locally tend not to read what I write.  This is the way of things.  Nevertheless, I make bold to mention the session I shared with Robert Repino and Andrew Uzendoski at the fourth annual Easton Book Festival yesterday.  The session was recorded and may be found here.  The topic is speculative writing.  While speculative writing may encompass nonfiction, it is generally considered to be fiction about things most people consider not to be real, such as science fiction, horror, and fantasy.

The slippery word there is “real.”  There’s a great deal of philosophy to that word.  How we determine reality is hardly a settled matter.  It involves more than the physical, as much as we might want to deny it.  In the case of future-oriented fiction “it hasn’t happened yet.”  Even if it comes true, such as George Orwell’s 1984.  In the case of the past, such as Game of Thrones, it never really happened.  For horror, itself not easily defined, it may range from gothic ghost tales to bloody accounts of carnage, generally set in the present.  Speculative often involves the supernatural.  The supernatural, however, may be real.  Who’s the final judge of that?

If I had a local readership I would add a plug for the Easton Book Festival.  It started strong in 2019 but was nearly choked by the pandemic.  I’ve had the honor of being involved in some way for all four years although I’m a minor author with perhaps the poorest sales figures of any who participate.  The Lehigh Valley is a major population center of Pennsylvania, but there’s wonderful greenery and woods between Easton, Bethlehem, and Allentown.  I live here but work in New York City and there’s no question who gets the lion’s share of time.  Publishing is a mystery to many.  How does it work, and how do you find a publisher?  And once you get published how do you get your books noticed?  And perhaps more relevant to more people, how do you get to know your neighbors?  Apart from the chance encounter across the lawn, we’re hermetically sealed in our houses, living lives on the web.  Unless you happen to venture to your local book festival where you’ll find like-minded individuals.  It goes on through the weekend, so if you’re nearby check it out.


When Autumn Starts

Some books catch my attention and I’m not sure why.  Knowing myself, the title When Autumn Leaves, invoking my favorite time of year with its intriguing syntax, probably did it.  I’m always on the lookout for books that capture the spirit of autumn.  Although she’s quite well known as a lyricist, Amy S. Foster’s name wasn’t familiar to me.  The cover looked autumnal and I knew it was about witches.  It came out quite a few years ago, so my recollection of why I’d marked it then had faded by the time I finally got to it.  The title is a play on both autumn and leaves.  The main character of the ensemble cast is Autumn and knowing that changes leaves from those on a tree to a verb of action.  I’ll try not to put any spoilers here since there’s plenty to say without giving away the ending.

Autumn is a good witch.  Well, the book doesn’t out and say so directly.  Being magical realism there’s some room for interpretation.  She’s the matriarch of Avening, an island city off the west coast.  Those drawn to Avening tend to have some kind of magical powers, whether or not they know of them.  The story unveils the various women coming to be aware of their special talents, but generally they’re unsure what to do with or about them.  Autumn is the one to help them.  She’s been in Avening as long as anyone can remember, but, as the novel opens, she learns it’s her time to leave (thus the title).

Before she can go, however, Autumn has to select a replacement.  This is what introduces us to the various characters in the story.  We hear of the magical powers of some of the thirteen in quite a bit of detail, and others more incidentally.  Many of them don’t know they have these powers.  They know there’s something special about Avening and that they were drawn there, but they don’t know why.  So it’s a tale of female discovery.  Some of the vignettes are difficult to read, dealing with serious subjects, but they reflect realities in women’s lives.  It’s not really an autumnal story, spinning as it does through the wheel of the year, beginning with the winter solstice and ending up at Samhain.  It doesn’t dwell on Halloween, however.  It’s much more a character-driven story.  It creates a wondering image of Avening and what might happen if women were in charge.  And in that respect it’s very compelling indeed.