Imaginarium 3, page 1
THE BEST CANADIAN SPECULATIVE WRITING
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction: Once More into the Woods
Ian C. Esslemont
Rosary and Goldenstar
A Tall Girl
The Correspondence Between the Governess and the Attic
Said the Axe Man
The Fairy Godmother
Wife of Brain (excerpt from Red Doc>)
The Salt and Iron Dialogues
The Book with No End
Neanderthal Man, Theory and Practice
All My Princes Are Gone
Harvesting Lost Hearts
By His Things Will You Know Him
Girls Watch in the Mirror at Midnight for a Vision of a Future Husband
The Runner of n-Vamana
In the Year Two Thousand Eleven
Lesser Creek: A Love Story, A Ghost Story
The Book of Vole (Excerpts)
Black Hen à la Ford
A Cavern of Redbrick
Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis
Your Figure Will Assume Beautiful Outlines
A Charm for Communing with Dead Pets During Surgery
Stemming the Tide
How Gods Go on the Road
:axiom: the calling (excerpt)
The Salamander’s Waltz
Conditional Sphere of Everyday Historical Life
About the Editors
Also Available from ChiZine Publications
Once More Into the Woods
Ian C. Esslemont
While the title of this essay/rant doesn’t pose a question, there is a mystery it wishes to explore and this is: Why the attraction? Why this abiding fascination with the fantastic? When the authors of literary fiction sigh with ennui within their too-familiar kitchens, their dreary work-places, and their predictably alienating urban settings, whither they? When literary genre-crossing becomes all the rage—whither these authors?
Why, to the deep dark woods where the fantasy authors play.
When a crisis of genre identity afflicts, whither the critics? To fantasy they turn. Why the attraction? Is it the woods—lovely, dark, and deep?
And when I write “fantasy” here I wish to be clear that I am not using it as reference to any one particular genre. Rather, I am referencing the deep well-spring of the fantastic which feeds a multiplicity of genres and sub-genres, and which in point of fact lies open to any author to draw upon. I make no claims to any genre definition other than the one particular guiding metaphor that I wish to explore here.
Very broadly, when literary critics and theorists turn to pinning down the differences between literary fiction and genre fiction, they often cite the usual suspects: plot convention and predictability (you know what you’re getting). They also claim they will not base their comparison on the quality of the prose (since you mustn’t compare apples to oranges), and yet then they promptly go on to do precisely that.
Admittedly, fantasy generally is not the home of economy of prose, nor pure elegance—though many authors operating within it can achieve such beauty—rather, fantasy is about wilderness. The tangled unknown. The potentially ominous and certainly threatening wild woods that is, of course, the imagination.
In the wilds nothing is neat. By definition you do not know what may lie beyond the next turn. Dare you risk becoming lost? Where lies the familiar and comforting moment of character self-realization now? Which way to the epiphany? What you thought you saw or heard just then—can you be certain of psychological realism here? Dare you enter the wild trackless woods where the fantasy writers play?
Many searching for something beyond the tired and the familiar do. Cross-genre pollination, some call it. I call it daring to set a toe into the frightening wilds.
I began this rant determined not to name names, nor drag out the usual perpetrators, however, I feel that I must—if only to confound those readers who, even now, are saying to themselves: Well! He hasn’t mentioned so-and-so. . . . And so comes the litany of Michael Chabon with his Jewish enclave in Alaska, Colson Whitehead’s zombie apocalypse, Jonathan Lethem, et al., Karen Russell and her vampires, and Aimee Bender’s imaginings. It is also true that many of the above authors yet remain acceptable topics within literary criticism; perhaps because while they wandered a touch further into the woods to steal a few magic mushrooms, they certainly didn’t linger.
The question is, then, why the appeal? Why come to fantasy?
One reason may lie in an assigned weakness that is in fact a strength. Like a sister genre (or sister non-genre, as I will argue) fantasy and so-called “historical fiction” share a certain type of definition—or lack thereof. Some critics and literary theorists assign all fiction that is “not contemporary” into a bottomless bag that they name historical fiction. Following this logic, writers are apparently only allowed to portray their contemporary moment or risk being dumped into a shameful genre ghetto—or more importantly—tossed over the walls of so-called “literary” writing. Yet just what defines contemporary? This particular year? This particular month? This particular day? More recently, however, many critics do now reluctantly acknowledge that there may be some merit to such “historical” authors as Pat Barker and Hilary Mantel. And yet, imagine their spluttering rage in the face of authors who actually go ahead and write whatever they damn-well please without any consideration of their precious genre definitions, such as Jim Shepard.
The die-hard defenders of the boundaries of literary fiction (and very vigilant they are), have built very tall and well-defined walls around their claimed territory. They patrol them with sharp pens and equally sharp disapproval. However, should one of them happen to raise their gaze to the forest at large, they would d
So possessive of their small choked-off and rather inbred meadow are these critics that when a literature emerged from another tradition, one which did not share English-language tradition’s biases, blinders and lacunae, and thus one that partook of the fantastic, an entirely new category had to be invented to explain away how this could be possible. And so was “magic realism” born. And so were those pesky iconoclasts—supposedly—put in their place.
It would seem that to some literary critics an expansive freedom of literary techniques is acceptable only so long as that author hails from a differing tradition. Just as, in colonial times, other cultures were the purview of anthropology—but certainly not that of the metropole.
Why then this continuing attraction of fantasy, its forms and its tropes? It might be that here one finds the deepest roots of all literature. Here, lost or hidden somewhere within the darkest grove or frond-choked pool, lie direct living fibrous connections with the first legends and stories put to scroll or stone—the very beginnings of what Western scholars name “history” itself. Here heroes battled monsters, gods walked among men and women, and an ancient king searched for immortality.
My claim then, is that it is here within the trackless wilds of fantasy that one can find anything. Here lie an infinity of ways to portray things. If, in fiction, one pressure is to bring the new to something old . . . then you can find just that in the woods.
And here, if you go looking with open eyes and an open creative spirit, you will always be surprised by what you discover.
ROSARY AND GOLDENSTAR
The room was wood—floor, walls, ceiling. The doorbell clanged a second time. The servant girl Bessie finally answered it; she had been lost in the kitchen amid all the pans. She slid across the floor on slippers, not lifting her feet; she had a notion that she polished as she walked. The front door opened directly onto the night: snow. The only light was from the embers in the fireplace.
Three huge men jammed her doorway. “This be the house of Squire Digges?” the smallest of them asked; and Bessie, melting in shyness, said something like, “Cmn gud zurs.”
They crowded in, stomping snow off their boots, and Bessie knelt immediately to try to mop it up with her apron. “Shoo! Shoo!” said the smaller guest, waving her away.
The Master roared; the other door creaked like boots and in streamed Squire Digges, both arms held high. “Welcome! Good Count Vesuvius! Guests! Hah hah!” Unintroduced, he began to pump their hands.
Vesuvius, the smaller man, announced in Danish that this was Squire Digges, son of Leonard and author of the lenses, then turned back and said in English that these two fine fellows were Frederik Rosenkrantz and Knud Gyldenstierne.
“We have corresponded!” said Squire Digges, still smiling and pumping. To him, the two Danes looked huge and golden-red with bronze beards and bobbed noses, and he’d already lost control of who was who. He looked sideways in pain at the Count. “You must pardon me, sirs?”
The Squire looked harassed and turned on the servant. “Bessie! Bessie, their coats! The door. Leave off the floor, girl!”
Vesuvius said in Danish, “The gentleman has asked you to remove your coats at long last. For this he is sorry.”
One of the Danes smiled, his face crinkling up like a piecrust, and he unburdened himself of what must have been a whole seal hide. He dumped it on Bessie, who could not have been more than sixteen and was small for her years. Shaking his head, Digges slammed shut the front door. Bessie, buried under furs, began to slip across the gleaming floor as if on ice.
“Bessie,” said Digges in despair, then looked over his shoulder. “Be careful of the floors, Messires, she polishes them so. Good girl, not very bright.” He touched Bessie’s elbow and guided her toward the right door.
“He warns us that floors are dangerous.”
Rosenkrantz and Gyldenstierne eyed each other. “Perhaps we fall through?” They began to tiptoe.
Digges guided Bessie through the door, and closed it behind her. He smiled and then unsmiled when there was a loud whoop and a falling crash within.
“All’s well, Bessie?”
“We’ll wait here for a moment. Uh, before we go in. The gentlemen will excuse me but I did not hear your names.”
“He’s forgotten your names. These English cannot speak.” Vesuvius smiled. “Is so easy to remember in English. This be noble Rosary and Goldenstar.”
“Sirs, we are honoured. Honoured beyond measure!”
Mr. Goldenstar sniffed. “The whole place sags and creaks. Haven’t the English heard of bricks?”
Mr. Rosary beamed and gestured at the panelling and the turd-brown floor. “House. Beautiful. Beautiful!”
Squire Digges began to talk to them as if they were children. “In. Warm!” He beat his own arms. “Warrrrrrrrrrm.”
Goldenstar was a military man, and when he saw the room beyond, he gave a cry and leapt back in alarm.
It was not a dining hall but a dungeon. It had rough blocks, chains, and ankle irons that hung from the wall. “It’s a trap!” he yelped, and clasped young Rosary to pull him back.
From behind the table a tall, lean man rose up, all in black with a skullcap and lace around his neck. Inquisitor.
“Oh!” laughed the Squire and touched his forehead. “No, no, no, no alarms, I beg. Hah hah! The house once belonged to Philip Henslowe; he owns the theatre out back; this is like a set from a play.”
Vesuvius blinked in fury. “This is his idea of a joke.”
“You should see the upstairs; it is full of naked Venuses!”
“I think he just said upstairs is a brothel.”
Goldenstar ran his fingers over the walls. The rough stones, the iron rings and the chains had all been frescoed onto plaster. He blurted out a laugh. “They’re all mad.”
“They are all strolling players. They do nothing but go to the theatre. They pose and declaim and roar.”
Digges flung out a hand toward the man in black. “Now to the business at hand. Sirs! May . . . I . . . introduce . . . Doctor John DEE!”
For the Doctor, Vesuvius had a glittery smile; but he said through his teeth, “They mime everything.”
“Ah!” Mr. Rosary sprang forward to shake the old man’s hand. He was in love, eyes alight. “Queen Elisabetta. Magus!”
Dr. John Dee rumbled, “I am called Mage, yes, but I am in fact the Advisor Philosophical to her Majesty.”
Digges beamed. “His Parallaticae commentationis and my own Alae seu scalae mathematicae were printed as a pair.”
Someone else attended, pale skinned, pink cheeked, and glossy from nose to balding scalp, with black eyes like currants in a bun and an expression like a barber welcoming you to his shop.
“And this example,” growled Digges, putting his hand on the young man’s shoulder, “will not be known to you, but we hold him in high esteem, a family friend. This is Guillermus Shakespere.”
The young man presented himself. “A Rosary and a Goldenstar. These are names for poetry. Especially should one wish to contrast Religion and Philosophy.”
Vesuvius’s lip curled. “You mock names?”
“No no, of course not. I beg! Not that construction. It is but poetic . . . convenience. My own poor name summons up dragooned peasants shaking weapons. Or, or, an actor whose only roles are those of soldiers.” The young man looked back and forth between the men, expecting laughter. They blinked and stood with their
“My young friend is a reformed Papist and so thinks much on issues of religion and philosophy. As do we.” Digges paused, also waiting. “Please sit, gentlemen.”
Cushions, food, and wine all beckoned. Digges busied himself pouring far too much wine into tankards. Mr. Rosary hunkered down with pleasure next to Dr. Dee, and even took his hand. He then began to speak, sometimes closing his eyes. “My dear Squire Digges and honourable Doctor Dee. My relative Tycho Brahe sends his greatest respects and has entrusted us to give you this, his latest work.”
He sighed and chuckled, relieved to be rid of both a small grey printed pamphlet, and his speech. Digges howled his gratitude, and read a passage aloud from the pamphlet and passed it to Dr. Dee, and pressed Rosary to pass on his thanks.
Rosary began to recite again. “I am asked by Tycho Brahe to say how impress-ed with your work. Sir. To describe the universe as infinite with mathematical argument!” His English sputtered and died. “Is a big thing. We are all so amuzed.”
“Forgive me,” said the young man. “Is it the universe or the argument that is infinite?”
“Guy,” warned Digges in a sing-song voice. He pronounced it with a hard “G” and a long eeee.
“And is it the universe or the numbers that are amusing?”
Mr. Rosary paused, understood, and grinned. “The two. Both.”
“We disagree on matters of orbitals,” said Squire Digges.
Vesuvius leaned back, steepling his fingers; his nails were clean and filed. “A sun that is the circumference of Terra.” He sketched with his finger a huge circle and shook his head.
Almost under his breath the young man said, “A sonne can be larger than his father.”
Digges explained. “My young friend is a poet.”
Vesuvius smiled. “I look forward to him entertaining us later.” Then he ventriloquized in Danish, “And until then, he might eat with the servants.”
Mr. Rosary looked too pleased to care and beamed at Digges. “You . . . have . . . lens.”
Digges boomed. “Yes! Yes! On roof.” He pointed. “Stierne. Stierne.”
Rosary laughed and nodded. “Yes! Stierne! Star.”