A Love Letter to Story-telling

A Review of Helen Marshall’s Gifts for the One Who Comes After (ChiZine Publications, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Art for Gifts For the One Who Comes After courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover Art for Gifts For the One Who Comes After courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Helen Marshall’s “Gifts for the One Who Comes After” is her love letter to storytelling. Marshall examines the way that we are shaped by the tales we tell ourselves and the stories that are told about us. She reminds the reader that we are made up as much of stories as we are of matter, and that they shape the way we think about ourselves and those who are around us.

Marshall’s exploration of stories is not a fairytale lens of joy, but rather an exploration of the potential for tales themselves to capture a quality of the grotesque, the terrifying horror that we can be shaped by words and ideas outside of ourselves. From capturing the horrifying perceptions of children, the dark, strange worlds they carry around in their heads to exploring the shifts that occur between our expectations of a story and their reality, “Gifts for the One Who Comes After” is a text of mythical magic, but not the easy, happy, uncomplicated myths of modernity, but the dark, deep, blood-soaked myths of the past. Her tales are not made to reassure, but to challenge our perceptions, to push the reader into those places where we try to bury our stories.

Marshall focuses on children and the elderly, the people with most associate with either being shaped by tales or shaping us by telling tales to us. She examines the idea that the bonds between us are made of strings of words and occasionally these strings tighten around us like a noose. “Gifts” looks at the innocent games of youth and illustrates the nightmarish content of them from children prophesizing in the woods by bringing themselves close to death, to the dark undertone in the desire for magic, to the horrifying imagination of children, to the desire to stand out and be considered important. It looks at the aged in their desire for immortality by sharing stories, keeping memory alive, resisting forgetting and loss, the connection to tradition, and through the assumptions we create about the elderly.

Stories are the methods used to imagine the future, reflect on the past, and explore the hidden corners of the present. Exploring the dark potential of the future through omens, dreams, and prophesy, the past through memory and collective tales, and the present through gossip and rumour, Marshall highlights the potential for stories to create a morae-like thread through time, weaving possibilities together in a nighmarish tangle of possibility.

To read reviews of some of the short stories from this collection, visit:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/11/26/the-horror-of-childhood-logic/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/11/14/spin-the-bottle-with-death/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/witching-perceptions/

To read more about Helen Marshall’s work, visit her website at http://helen-marshall.com/

To find out more about Gifts for the One Who Comes After, visit ChiZine Publications’ website at http://chizinepub.com/books/gifts-for-the-one-who-comes-after

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Mute Ghost in a World of Words

A review of S.M. Beiko’s The Lake and the Library (ECW Press, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo for The Lake and the Library courtesy of ECW press

Cover Photo for The Lake and the Library courtesy of ECW press

S.M. Beiko’s The Lake and the Library is nominally a story about growing up, and the feeling of nostalgia for things lost and things changing. It is about the discovery of a library filled with books that are gateways to fantastic worlds, pages that become birds, clouds, and wings to lift her to new highs of fantasy. The library is a shifting space, becoming other worlds as walls are expanded by the great breadth of adventure and fantasy within the covers of the books it houses, literally shifting to become fantastic spaces from beloved classics. And the library holds a boy, unable to speak aloud, but able to speak volumes in the universal language of fantasy with Ash as his co-creator of worlds of adventure.

The first part of the novel evokes the highs of an escape, new experiences, exiting distortions of reality, and only in the latter half of the novel does it become clear that this is an addict’s tale. Ash begins to experience the dangers and draws of being in a continual state of escape. Reality begins to wear thin for her and she begins to distance herself from anyone who doesn’t enable her habit, anyone who pulls her back to reality. Friends, family, all begin to be sacrificed to her need, her desire to get away from herself, her world, and all that feels too mundane, too real to matter.

The world outside of the library begins to shift, become unstable for Ash, losing its substance as something grows within her, thorns that tear into her skin, holding her, consuming her from the inside and pulling her back to the library. Fantasy begins to eat into reality, making the real a pale and lifeless substitute for the highs of the fantastic. And when reality gets to be too much, a sound like rushing water surges through her, enveloping her in its wash of abstraction, removing her from a world that seems too harsh, too sharp, too real for her to touch. The water cushions her while it draws her deeper, washing away signification and everything that made her who she was.

The library is haunted by memory, nostalgia, the dreams of things lost and forgotten, and yet it has power, a deep hold like thorns in the veins of those who seek to escape, those willing to uproot themselves and lose the ground that feels like it is only holding them in place.

Libraries are beautiful places, deep places, charged with a depth made of the weight of tales, and this depth can both add to one’s story, but can also consume and obscure one’s story. Ash finds herself suspended in a depth of tales that renders her as a drop in a lake, her story washed away by the weight of other worlds more alluring to her than her own life.

To find out more about the work of S.M. Beiko, visit her website at http://www.smbeiko.com/ .

To read more about The Lake and the Library, visit ECW’s website at https://www.ecwpress.com/lake

 

 

 

 

Masked and Changed

A review of Richard Wagamese’s Him Standing (Raven Books, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Him Standing courtesy of Orcabook.com

Cover photo of Him Standing courtesy of Orcabook.com

Lucas Smoke learned the art of carving from his grandfather and finds that his hands seem to move of their own volition to carve figures that he sees in everyday life…. but when he learned the art of carving, his grandfather didn’t teach him the deeper meanings behind his craft, the knowledge that would keep him safe from exploitation.

When Lucas’ grandfather dies, his family wars over the man’s possessions leaving Lucas feeling uncomfortable since all he wanted was his grandfather, not his possessions. Lucas leaves the reserve and decides to busk in the city, using his gifts at carving to make some money by carving images of tourists on the boardwalk. When he is approached by a man who offers him a substantial amount of money to carve masks as his grandfather does, Lucas can’t pass up the opportunity to get himself out of a situation of poverty and agrees. He quickly learns that he is being exploited and that his mask carving, meant to “bring a legend to life” is bringing something into the world that he would rather not invite.

Wagamese explores the experience of urban aboriginal youth feeling conflicted about their relationship to history and home. Lucas is tempted by the views into his people’s past that making his mask and entering into the dreaming place provides. There is something alluring for him about seeing his community before European settlement and he feels as though he has connected with some lost part of himself. Lucas feels fragmented, like parts of his own puzzle have been missing. Even his art, although providing a link to his grandfather, feels incomplete, as though some of the most important teachings are missing – as though he has learned the physical acts of carving but not the deeper spiritual meanings or teachings that should have accompanied it. This sense of incompleteness has left him vulnerable to manipulation by white men who want power and are willing to use him to fulfill their own selfish ends. The loss of teachings and ways of understanding create vulnerabilities for others to exploit – skill without cultural understanding is incomplete.

Lucas is asked to venture into dreams to carve what he sees and unintentionally connects with an ancient evil that seeks to use him to return to the physical world. Like an addict, he becomes obsessed with dreams, losing track of time, not eating, not sleeping, and being consumed from within. His feeling of incompleteness means that he seeks to fill himself with things that are external to him, trying to attain some sense of selfhood while actually leaving him open to be possessed by an ancient evil.

Wagamese looks at the interconnection between story-telling and carving, the ability to make tales into physical things, revealing truths within objects. He examines the power of art and stories to re-shape the world, to bring legends into the living world and change our understanding of the places we dwell in.

To read more about Him Standing visit the Orca Book Publishers’ webpage at http://www.orcabook.com/productdetails.cfm?PC=1865

A Brush With Mythical Madness

A review of Ursula Pflug’s The Alphabet Stones (Blue Denim Press, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Alphabet Stones courtesy of Ursula Pflug

Cover photo of The Alphabet Stones courtesy of Ursula Pflug

Ursula Pflug writes The Alphabet Stones with a mixture of rural Ontario accent and a transcendent poetic quality. Her work glitters with the cadences of rural ontario while evoking a deeply poetic quality and beauty of phrasing.

The Alphabet Stones is a voyage of self discovery and delving into the blurry lines between myth and memory, the haunting quality that the past has on the present. Jody is a girl who was raised on a commune with a mother who has been committed to an asylum. The land around the commune and her experiences with others have written themselves deeply into her memory, shaped her into who she is but her memories are suspect, questioned, and shaped by an air of myth.

Pflug does an incredible job of exploring the dream-like quality of memory – shifting, changing, and uncertain. But, the memories she explores are literally tinged by the mythic, the unbelievable, and the supernormal. Jody and her friends have had contact with the otherwordly through a mythic place where stones are written with words and images that evoke a world beyond our own, and she has been touched by an element of the fey.

Jody is a youth invested with the qualities of old age – she is wise beyond her years and is steeped in a deep nostalgia that often only permeates those later in life – she misses things from her past, feels cut off from her places of origins, and senses that things have fundamentally changed while pining the fact that things will never be the same. She is defined by an inescapable sense of loss.

Ursula Pflug wends her story with twining threads of strangeness and loss, the alienating quality of the past. It is fantasy on the cusp of madness, with characters debating the reality of their experiences and the extent to which delusion may have permeated their lives.

Her characters prefer to believe that the otherworld is just stress or delusion. It is easier and safer for them to think that the world itself is knowable rather than subject to an uncanny quality, a place infinitely more complex than they can grasp or understand. Pflug doesn’t try to create easy answers in her novel, providing for her readers the same sense of dislocation that is invested in her characters. She allows the readers to truly feel what it is like to stand on the cliff between reality and the mythic, madness and ideas of normalcy.

To discover more about Ursula Pflug, visit her website at http://ursulapflug.ca/ .

“It’s all machines now. It’s a – what do they call it? – high tech world. Fascinating to be sure, but… it estranges many people, cheapens the human experience. There’s no more room for the stories that matter, and that’s wrong, for stories are a part of the language of dream – they grow not from one writer, but from a people. They become the voice of a country, or a race. Without them, people lose touch with themselves.”

-Charles de Lint – The Conjure Man In The Very Best of Charles de Lint.

Quote – Without Stories, People Lose Touch with Themselves

Dissolving Selfhood

A Review of Brett Savory’s In and Down (Brindle & Glass, 2007)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for In and Down, courtesy of the author

Cover photo for In and Down, courtesy of the author

Brett Savory’s In and Down is a truly horrifying novel, not necessarily because of the haunting images of bodies, clowns, and flies, but because it reminds the reader about the fluidity of identity – that we are not fixed, unchanging things, but are rather constantly changing, malleable, and the core of our being is not unique or sacrosanct. In a world that focusses on the uniqueness of individuals and the rights of personal freedom, Savory questions the idea that there is even a “personal” let alone freedom.

Savory’s novel focusses on the life of Michael, a boy who feels unloved or at least not loved in a way that feels right. He is alone in a male-centred world where masculine performance is valued more than the actual personality of an individual. He characterises male school behaviour as a mixture of bragging, threats, and awkward silences. Home life is characterised by a father who says nothing of consequence and sounds only like the motor of a truck, less focussed on words and more on displays of power and authority. Masculine culture seeks to make him into a figure who is detached, and stuck in a state of suppressed emotions.

Michael is a boy who is full of questions living in a world where males are taught to question and enquire about nothing, a world where acceptance of norms prevails and nothing should shake that foundation. He is in danger of uncovering dangerous secrets.

Michael knows he has been filled up with other people’s views, ideas, thoughts, opinions, biases, hates, wants, needs… he has been hollowed out by others who want to replicate themselves through him, making him into a mirror for themselves. He tries to dig out the little shards of everyone else’s identity that have buried themselves in his inner being, finding himself under the detritus of human cultural expectations. His fundamental self has been whittled down by others, leaving him to debate what is of him and whether there even can be a “him” left. He is cast into a surreal dream world, where barriers between reality and dream blend, mix, and distort one another and he is surrounded with imagery that reminds him of the dissolution of identity: masks, crumbling plaster forms that reveal a different self beneath, carved wooden people, rotting bodies that reveal new features and faces beneath the desiccated shell. Nothing in his world is stable, and even he, himself, dissolves into a place of questions, consumed by his need to find himself.

Brett Savory takes readers to a place where reality and dreams meet, touch, and dance together in a carnivalesque display of the Weird. Readers are invited on a surreal voyage into the imagination of a disturbed child and a disrupted and sick world and are reminded of the hollows within them that are waiting to be filled with the identity questions of others.

You can find out more about Brett Savory at his website http://brettsavory.com/ . To check out In and Down, you can visit the Brindle & Glass website at http://www.brindleandglass.com/author_details.php?contributor_id_1=1940