Earlier this year, I came across a kickstarter that I just had to support. In addition to my work on Speculating Canada, I teach writing classes, so I am always on the lookout for new and exciting ways to teach. I have a particular interest in teaching through games and play. So, when I saw the Kickstarter for The Story Engine by Peter Chiykowski I thought it would be a fun way of engaging my students in another method of storytelling. The Story Engine involves a set of cards that can be used for writing inspiration. They are divided into multiple different types of cards that are meant to be used together: agent cards, engine cards, anchor cards, conflict cards, and aspect cards. Together they make up fundamental parts of a story and allow for the development of writing prompts.
I bought The Story Engine itself as well as the many booster packs that come with it. These include: horror, fantasy, science fiction, eldritch horror, dystopian fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, mythology, cyberpunk, and steampunk. The booster packs can either be used separately for genre stories or mixed in with the main Story Engine to give different flavours to the original stories.
If you are more of a visual person, each card also comes with an image that can either enhance the language of the card or provide you with some visual inspiration. As someone who collects images for my stories, I thought this was a powerful starter for those who enjoy image-based story development.
I have spent most of the day playing with these various decks in The Story Engine and have found them incredibly fun and a great way to get creative ideas flowing. I think The Story Engine will be a powerful teaching tool, especially around genre fiction and will allow students to engage differently with aspects of the story. The different categories of cards such as agents and engine cards will help students to think about the various aspects of story like characters, motivations, drive, and conflict. The cards also seem like a powerful tool for getting through writer’s block and the playful aspect of it takes off some of the stress associated with being blocked.
I wanted to share some samples of writing prompts that I have created using The Story Engine to illustrate the adaptability and fun of the deck:
– An underworld God wants to save a loved one by using a hardwired cult, but they will likely lose their life.
– A corporate addict wants to gain the power of a gilded drop of blood, but they will lose part of their humanity.
– An arcane teacher wants to stop being haunted by a rave, but they will lose their closest friend.
– An oracle wants to save the world from a protective mecha but it will mean forever living a lie.
For these prompts, I mixed in the booster packs with the original deck and then just drew them at random. It felt like a fun way to develop some strange and unique stories.
She was dressed in street clothes, which was really unusual for Dr. Townsend’s practice. Generally her clients came dressed in their full regalia instead of as their secret identity.
“Hi, are you the shrink?”
“I’m Dr. Townsend, yes.”
“But you’re the one that works with people like us, right?”
“People like us?”
“You know, magical girls.”
“Oh, yes. It’s just that normally my clients come dressed in their full regalia. I’m known as the ‘magical girl counsellor’, so most people come in costume so that they don’t expose their secret identity. I wasn’t sure that you were here for me.”
“That’s sort of what I am here for… you see, I can’t transform any more. I can’t access my abilities…. like, at all. But that’s not all. I was still trying to fight villains without my powers and ended up getting… hurt…. and then when I was at the hospital, I told them about being a magical girl and they had me sent to psychiatric. They didn’t keep me there for long, but they let me out on the condition that I would see a shrink.”
Magical girls weren’t something unusual, so it seemed strange to Dr. Townsend that someone would disbelieve this client. Superheroes sometimes lost their powers and for some magical girls, their powers disappeared at adulthood. So, this isn’t something completely strange or unbelievable and certainly not a reason to send her to the psychiatric ward.
“That’s strange. Everyone knows that magical girls exist. We’re pretty well known. It’s strange that they wouldn’t believe you.”
“That’s right. You were one of us, right? A magical girl?”
It was a tough topic. Dr. Townsend was still struggling with her identity and whether she made the right decision to become a counsellor for magical girls. She knew it was important. Magical girls go through so much trauma and there aren’t adequate supports available. Besides, how could someone with no experience of the kind of trauma magical girls went through be able to help them?
“Yes, I was Athene. I decided that I wanted to help other magical girls with their trauma, so I became a counsellor.”
The client fiddled with the collar of her shirt, looking uncomfortable. “So… there’s a reason why they didn’t believe me and you might not believe me either. You know how the holidays are coming up?”
“Well, my powers are sort of related to the holidays.”
“Okay” Dr. Townsend was letting the pauses work for her. She had learned that one of the best ways to get clients to talk was to be quietly supportive and let the client fill in the silence.
“Ugh, this is so embarrassing. My superhero name is Holly Jolly.” The client looked at Dr. Townsend, waiting for the inevitable response and decided to fill in the blanks first, “I know, you’ve never heard of me. No one has. It’s part of the magic that makes me a magical girl. So, my powers are connected to the holidays, particularly to Christmas… well, really to Yule, but it’s sort of melded into Christmas. So, the same magic that makes you not believe in Santa… also means you can’t believe in me. Anyone adult finds out about me forgets it after a day or so. It’s like adult brains can’t hold the belief that sustains my magical powers.”
Dr. Townsend leaned forward, curious. She hadn’t heard about powers manifesting in this way. Normally there was a bit of a separation between the secret civilian identity and the magical girl personal, but for people to actually forget about the magical girl persona entirely was a bit strange. Plus, Holly Jolly looked like she was at least in her mid 20s. So, how did the magic work for her?
And wait a minute… did she say that Santa Claus is real?
“I know what you are thinking. This can’t be true. Especially given how old I am – how do I remember my secret identity? Well, it’s the same thing that happens with Santa Claus. He’s able to hold onto his memories of who he is too.”
“I have to admit…. I’m having a hard time getting my mind around all of this.”
“You mean that you’re having a hard time believing it. Trust me, if it didn’t happen to me, I don’t know whether I’d believe it myself. But the thing is, I have seen it with my own eyes. I’ve seen Santa. I’ve seen myself transform. I have to believe it because it’s literally happened to me. It’s part of the whole Yule magic thing. Santa used to be called the Yule Lord in old pagan cultures. He presided over the winter solstice and was in charge of fighting off the monstrosities that would appear on the solstice and making sure the sun rose. Remember, the winter solstice is the longest night of the year and most cultures have invested it with ideas of fear – ghost stories, monsters like Grylla and Krampus…. It’s been sanitized in North America into a capitalist celebration of presents and so many of you have forgotten the holiday’s roots. Along with Santa, there has always been a little snow maiden, a magical girl invested with powers of light to fight off the darkness and protect young people from the things that go bump in the longest night.”
Dr. Townsend always nodded when clients were talking. It was a way to encourage them to continue talking, but she was having trouble actually processing what Holly Jolly was saying. It just seemed so unbelievable. But it was clear that her client believed in all of this and that she was convinced she was telling the truth… and maybe it was truth to her. Dr. Townsend believed that a counsellor should be able to support everyone, but she admitted to herself that this felt way over what she could support her client with. She hadn’t worked with clients with delusions like this before.
“I know, I know, it doesn’t seem believable, does it?”
“To be honest, I am having a lot of trouble believing it, you’re right. But that doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you believe it and that it is something important to you.”
“Which is a really polite way of saying ‘all of this is beyond my paygrade and I am trying hard to appease you because I think you’re dangerously nuts.'”
“No. I don’t think I would put it like that. I do admit that I am a little out of my element, but I want to be here to support you and I’m not afraid of you. I don’t think you have any interest in harming me and you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want support. So, I’m here to listen to you and support you and I will try to put my inner judger aside so I can listen cleanly to what you have to say.”
“Thank you. I really wish I could demonstrate my power to you, but that’s sort of the reason I’m here. Yes, I’m here because the hospital wanted me to get counselling, but I’m also here because I am hoping you will help me get my powers back. Something is blocking them and I can’t seem to access them.” Dr. Townsend opened her mouth to speak, but once again Holly Jolly anticipated what she was going to say “And no, I don’t think that my inability to access my powers is because my powers are a delusion. I think it’s because I’ve become a cynical adult. I got my powers when I was around 10 and I had so much belief in Santa Claus. I stayed up all night waiting for him and he suddenly appeared. He told me that I was a true believer and that I had the light of belief that could bring light into the world and fight off the darkness around the holidays. He brought out a snowglobe that showed me all of the horrors of the world and also showed him fighting off those horrors flying in his sled filled with reindeer.”
“I’m going to ask a question to help myself understand and I don’t want to seem like I’m dismissing your story because I know it’s important to you… but how does Santa deliver all of the presents to the whole world in one night? Especially since I know that my sister and her partner buy all of the presents for their kids and there are no surprise presents or ones they can’t account for… and what about poverty. Is Santa so cruel that he doesn’t give presents to poor children?”
Holly Jolly laughed, a high, piercing tinkle of a laugh that felt perfect for the persona she expressed. “Oh, no. Santa doesn’t bring presents. That’s another of those changes to the story to make him more appealing to capitalist North America. No. He’s an embodiment of the spirit of joy, which is why he became associated with presents – something that brings joy. But really, he harnesses all of that joy in order to fight off the creatures of darkness that I talked about. He’s not a present-bringer, but I suppose he does inspire people to buy presents for each other as a way of celebrating joy and family and all of the things that keep them safe from the darkness all around them. He’s really just a magical creature that uses light to fight monsters.”
Dr. Townsend didn’t know what to say. She had asked for an explanation and that explanation seemed to work for Holly Jolly, so she wanted to acknowledge that. “Thank you for sharing that and opening up about your experience. You had mentioned that Santa came to you when you were 10 and showed you the monsters of the world in his snowglobe… could you tell me a little bit more about your experience?”
“Sure. Of course. Once I saw the monsters, I told him that I wanted to do something about them but I wasn’t strong enough. I told him that I was just a little girl and how could someone like me make any changes. He told me that little girls had incredible powers for fighting off monsters – that we did it in our sleep when we fought nightmares and that our belief together helped to hold off all of the monsters. ‘You have been fighting monsters your whole life and you didn’t even know it’ he said. He told me that all I had to do was access that power of belief in myself and the collective belief of all of the other children out there and I could show the power that was already inside me and take the battle out on the streets to protect children. He passed me a candy cane and told me… actually, Dr., do you have a candy cane. I may as well check here.”
“To see if the magic came back.”
“Oh. Yes, I have a few here. I love the holiday season and I adore the taste of peppermint.” Dr. Townsend ruffled through a drawer and pulled out a miniature candy cane “Is this one okay? It’s a little small.”
“Yes, that’s perfect. I’m assuming that like most of us, you have a magical object that you use to transform with?”
Dr. Townsend nodded. She was uncomfortable with being asked about the life she left behind, but really that life was the reason she became a counsellor. She was just still struggling with her decision and whether she could justify no longer protecting the world as Athene in order to do her current work.
“So, candy canes are my magical object. Any candy cane, really. I suspect the magical girls that worked with the Yule Lord before me used to have some other object to transform, but Santa never told me what it was. He never really gave me any details about previous magical girls that worked for him and now I think that I could have really benefitted from that information – it could explain what is going on now. Maybe this just happens to the girls who work with him.” She shook her head, “Sorry, let me get back to it. He told me to spin around, holding the candy cane out in front of me like this” She began spinning, “And then to say” she raised her voice to a yell “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.”
Dr. Townsend could swear she briefly saw some kind of glitter or sparkle around the candy cane when Holly Jolly recite her magical girl transformation phrase. Yes, it was just the lyrics of the song Jingle Bells, but something about the way she said it made it feel…. more than that. It felt like it wasn’t just lyrics, but a transformation spell.
Holly Jolly stopped spinning. She looked down as though she hoped that she had lifted off the ground. Dr. Townsend knew the look. It was the same one she did when she transformed into Athene and began floating as part of her transformation. Holly Jolly looked at her nails as though expecting them to glitter and then looked down as though expecting her magical girl costume to appear. She looked disappointed, but not surprised.
“I’m so sorry” Dr. Townsend said.
“Me too” She sighed, “I really didn’t expect it to work, but I really hoped, you know?”
“I definitely understand.”
Dr. Townsend struggled with whether she should tell HollyJolly about the glitter. Was it even real or was it just a shared delusion? Or perhaps just the way that the light caught on the wrapper of the candy cane?
“Well, anyway, when I recited the words – and yes, I know that they are a common song, but there is a different way of saying them – I suddenly smelled ginger bread cookies and eggnog and peppermint and I floated off the ground and there was a whirl of green and red glitter and the candy cane became a large magic staff and my pajamas became a red and green puffy dress (i know, so femme… and honestly it looked like an ugly Christmas sweater pattern of Christmas trees, but I loved it. It felt perfect for me). Santa told me that each outfit comes from the snow maiden’s imagination and served as armour no matter how it looked. Mine looked like it was knitted from wool, but was stronger than steel. Santa took me out that night and we immediately began fighting monsters – no training. I just somehow knew how to move, how to access my candy cane staff’s powers, how to call up helper elves from the otherworld. All of the knowledge just appeared in my head. It was important that it did because Santa was busy fighting the whole night and wouldn’t have had time to teach me. I was blasting shadows and demons away like a pro without even having picked up a textbook or gone to a workout. It was exhilarating. I just knew this was what I was meant to do.”
Dr. Townsend could see that look in Holly Jolly’s eyes – that look of having been touched by magic, of having seen things that others couldn’t understand… and that look of trauma and pain that came with having to grow up too fast and become a warrior.
“It sounds like your job meant a lot to you.”
“It really did. It was my everything. Unlike Santa, I kept my powers throughout the year instead of just being invested with them on one night, so I continued to take my candy cane and become Holly Jolly and fight back the monsters that attacked children… and, of course, I got no credit for it. Kids weren’t believed when they saw me. Adults couldn’t see me. I couldn’t be captured on film. When adults did see me, something would click in their heads so that they couldn’t remember it. I wonder if that is finally what happened to me. I still have the power of belief. I have to have the power of belief because I’ve seen it, but I’ve lost something. There’s something vital that is missing. I don’t know how I held onto whatever it was into my 20s, but it’s faded now.”
“What was it like to lose your abilities?”
“Well, I lost them a few months ago. Like, in the middle of summer, so nowhere near the holidays. I just got off of my shift at the coffee shop and I pulled out a candy cane and said my magical words and did the same gestures as always… and nothing… I just stood there in my barista outfit. I figured it was just a fluke. I was probably just too tired. It had been a long day full of terrible customers demanding and complaining. So, I tried the next night… still nothing. And then the next and the next and…” she shrugged.
“Had anything changed on that first night? Anything new or unusual?”
“Not really. Customers are always dicks and I still always found a way to become Holly Jolly. There were a few nasty ones… and oh god, there was one lady that was complaining that the mall didn’t have any Christmas stuff available and she ‘had to get to buying presents’. It was just consumerism overload.”
“Now that’s interesting.”
“What do you mean?”
“What inspired you to bring up the story about that woman wanting to buy presents?”
“I don’t know. It just stuck out for me.”
“What do you think made it stick out?”
“Well, I just hate seeing how commercialized everything is. I hate seeing people put themselves into debt just to have better presents than the person next to them. I hate seeing all of the anger and the violence – especially around things like Black Friday – and I was just thinking to myself ‘oh fuck, it’s starting even earlier. It’s not even August and we have to deal with this already’.”
“Interesting. Your power is associated with Christmas… and your powers happened to stop working around a time when you saw rampant consumerism. Do you think there could be a connection?”
Holly Jolly sat back in her chair, looking up at the ceiling, her feet dangling off of the floor. Dr. Townsend hadn’t realized how short she was until this moment.
“Ya, just… wow. It seems pretty obvious now. I’ve been thinking that my powers could be gone because of adult cynicism, but to now attach it to a specific moment… this is something.”
Dr. Townsend smiled. She really felt like she was on to something with Holly Jolly. If she really was a magical girl, and Dr. Townsend still had her doubts, maybe this would let her access her magical self.
“I have been thinking a lot about how commercialized the holidays are. I know, I sound like an old woman complaining about how things were so much better when I was young… but I feel like maybe they were. Or maybe I just didn’t notice how terrible things were and how terrible people were. I was probably so enthralled with the presents and treats that it all just seemed so joyful. But I guess I’ve been seeing the misery of the season more and more each year as I’ve grown up… and working in a coffee shop at the mall doesn’t help. Now all I see is the rampant consumerism and it just fills me with disgust. Do you know that I can’t even listen to Christmas music any more? It fills me with disgust. I used to love it. I used to love listening to Nat “King” Cole, Perry Como, and Bing Crosby… and after a few months of hearing it blare while people complained, I just developed this total distaste about it all.”
“So, now that we’ve discovered that, how are we going to proceed?”
“I don’t know. You’re the shrink. What do you think I should do?”
“Well, it’s clear that you still want to be a magical girl… you still do, right?”
“Absolutely. Like I said, I was hospitalized trying to fight a ring of kidnappers without my powers. I still want to fight crime and make things better for kids…. I might even want that now more than ever since I’ve seen so many of the horrors that have happened to kids.”
“Can you tell me about how you have felt about that knowledge of all of the horrors out there for kids?”
“It just… it eats away at me every day. I look out at the people around me and all I see are people harming children. I know, I know, not all of them are harming children, but it’s just that I’ve seen so much of it. I’ve seen so many of them subjected to violence. Santa gave me my powers to fight monstrous things… but he didn’t teach me about how to deal with monstrous people. I’m not even sure I was supposed to start fighting them… but what’s the difference between a big fanged, ogre and an abusive parent. In fact, at least the kid can get away from an ogre potentially and be safe in their home… if they have an abusive parent how can they ever be safe? Home is totally taken away from them and they have to live in fear ever hour of every day.”
“I know how you feel. I’ve seen so many horrors in my time as Athene.”
“And the police do nothing. They don’t get involved. They tell people that a parent has the right to discipline their child or they say that there isn’t enough evidence… or they just don’t even bother showing up.”
“It sounds like this is very personal to you. I am going to ask you a question that may be triggering and you can feel free to not tell me right now… but are you an abuse survivor as well?”
Holly Jolly leaned back in her chair and spoke in a quiet voice. “Honestly, that’s what hurts the most about this. I always used my powers as a way of escaping from him, as a way of getting away from the violence. I knew I could do something to protect all of those other kids… but I couldn’t do anything to protect myself. I had the power to. I was able to fight so many abusers… but for some reason, with him… I couldn’t. I would just freeze. I would curl into a little ball and just allow him to hit me. It was like I was somewhere else while it happened… like I could leave my body. I honestly think that Santa chose me because of it… because of the abuse. I think he knew that fighting for children was important to me on a vital, personal level. And I loved the holidays because he was always away. He managed a resort and would have to work through the holidays, so I was always on my own with my magic and imagination. It was that holiday feeling that would keep me surviving throughout the year. I always retreated into my imagination when he beat me, always imagined myself at Santa’s workshop. And then I grew up. I left home when I was 17, got a job at a diner and had a tiny apartment.”
“I’m so sorry that you went through all of that. It sounds like your childhood self was a powerful person. What would you say to that childhood self if you could?”
“I- I don’t know” tears filled her eyes, “I think I would tell her that it gets better and that she doesn’t have to live with it forever. I think I would tell her that we eventually get away from him.”
“I can’t help but notice how powerful she was and how much work she did to help you survive.”
“It doesn’t always feel like that. I sometimes feel like I just kept screwing up and finally lucked out when I found a way out.”
“Notice what you said: when you found a way out. That was all you. You did it. You got out. You kept yourself alive. Isn’t that a huge accomplishment?”
“I suppose… Yes, you’re probably right. I guess I really was a survivor. I’m just so… I feel so ugh about the fact that I had to literally hide in myself to get through it all, you know?”
“Hey, it’s a survival technique. It helped you get through it. Your imagination helped you get through it.”
And maybe it still is Dr. Townsend couldn’t help but think.
“You’re right. It really did. I wouldn’t have been able to get through all of that without that imagination. Let me guess, next you’re going to tell me to get in touch with my inner child?”
“Does that feel like something that you would benefit from?”
“Probably. But I bet it takes a long time.”
“It does. But you’ve taken the first step. We can keep working together while you find out more about yourself.”
“That would be wonderful, but I’m hoping that this was enough for me to become my magical girl self again.”
“Therapy doesn’t happen like that. It takes time. And even if you are able to become your magical girl self, we still likely need to continue working on these changes. You’ve opened up a lot and opening up this kind of trauma without working through it can be harmful. We can keep working together. I work on a sliding scale, so I can adjust my fees to support you.”
“Ah, the problem is, like I said, when I become Holly Jolly, you will forget everything you know about me and my magical girl persona.”
Dr. Townsend looked down at her notes. There is no way that she would forget any of this. This was something she would need to process for a long time.
“Can you pass me that candy cane again?”
“Of course, but I really think you should consider waiting until we work through more of this.”
“I can’t. Children are in danger just like I was and I can only do something to protect them with my powers. I couldn’t do much without them other than get myself sent to the hospital. I need to be Holly Jolly.”
Dr. Townsend slid the candy cane across the table. Admittedly, she was curious about whether Holly Jolly’s story was true and whether she would transform. She found herself wanting the story to be true. There was definitely something of her own inner child wanting to believe that holiday miracles like this could happen. And, honestly, how different was this from all of the other transformations she’d seen. How was this any different from being bestowed with powers by a Greek God or being an alien princess who came to earth or developing the powers of a witch? Was this that far fetched?
Holly Jolly stood up and held the cane out far in front of her and began spinning “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way”.
The candy cane in her hands began to twirl and grow, the red and white stripes unravelled from it and twisted around her body, red and green glitter surrounded the young woman and there was a smell of baked goods in the air. She stopped spinning and there stood what looked like a Christmas elf right out of a mall Santa display.
Holly Jolly winked and it seemed like there was a star next to her eye.
Dr. Townsend sat back in her chair and slowly exhaled. When she inhaled, she could smell peppermint. She caught herself smiling.
There was a faint ringing of bells and she looked down at her notes. They were blank. She looked over at her phone and it read 5:30. It seemed her new client hadn’t shown up. Well, it was up to them to come in if they needed the support. She would ask her receptionist to follow up and see if they could schedule a new appointment time.
A review of Rhonda Parrish’s Mrs. Claus: Not the Fairy Tale They Say (World Weaver Press, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Traditionally, Mrs. Claus is presented as a secondary figure in the Santa Claus myth – so much so that she doesn’t even have a name but derives all of her identity from her husband. She is generally depicted as a dutiful wifely figure whose main tasks are baking cookies and doing care work for Santa. She is presented as the perfect embodiment of hetero-patriarchy. Rhonda Parrish’s anthology Mrs. Claus: Not the Fairy Tale They Say fundamentally disrupts this image and presents a variety of images of Mrs. Claus as an empowered, active figure.
Because little mythical work has been done constructing Mrs. Claus in the past, the writers in the Mrs. Claus anthology were given a lot of room to work with in constructing the identity of Mrs. Claus, so the stories in the anthology were able to venture across a wide variety of possible narratives. Authors drew on genres as disparate as Science Fiction, Fantasy, Steam Punk, and even Horror in their constructions of a Mrs. Claus narrative.
In addition to the North Pole location for her home, Mrs. Claus is taken to other planets filled with scorpion-like aliens, underground in goblin caves, an asylum, the fairy realms, and airship-filled skies. These are mighty women and often the stories present Mrs. Claus as the origin point for the Yuletide holidays, and Santa only as a figurehead. These Mrs. Clauses are Valkyries, baby-snatching fairy queens, witches, monster hunters, airship pilots, and detectives solving crimes. These aren’t dowdy women who spend their time baking cookies – these are warriors.