19 October 2011

Delicious Disorientation

I don't know if you are familiar with Martin Limón. He is a Pacific Northwest writer who mostly writes about Sergeants Sueño and Bascom, two Army CID cops in South Korea in the 1970s. I highly recommend his books, but it isn't his novels I want to discuss today.

It's something he wrote in the June issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. No, it wasn't a short story, although he does appear there often. In this issue he chose and introduced a story for the "Mystery Classic" corner. His choice was "To Build A Fire," by Jack London. If you haven't read it, treat yourself. It is short and gripping (I almost said chilling, which would have been a nasty pun).

What it isn't, as near as I can tell, is a mystery. There ain't no crime in it. But let that go.

The reason I bring it up is one sentence in Limón's introduction. Like a lot of people who write these intro's he chose to describe his reaction the first time he read the story, and this is what stuck in my head:

"When I emerged from the story I suffered that delicious disorientation well known to avid readers. For a time, I had forgotten where I was, or even who I was."
I hope you know what he's talking about. I think every dedicated reader has had that wonderful sense of being truly lost in a book. At our old address I wrote about one memorable occurrence. But there were others.

Sitting in the children's room of the Plainfield, NJ, public library, under the memorable storybookland mural, and getting so involved in a book that the librarian tell me that it was closing time. I pedalled my bike fast but I was VERY late for dinner.

Having to stop reading and walk around the house to shake off the shock of discovering the murderer's identity in Rex Stout's A FAMILY AFFAIR.

Sitting in a Wendy's hanburger joint and feeling that at the same time I was in a London park with George Smiley, following the footsteps of an elderly Russian spy trying to protect his "three proofs against the sandman."

This, I think, is one of the things we work toward as writers: to create a world so real and a story so compelling, that people get lost in it, becoming "deliciously disoriented."

Want to tell us about the times it happened to you?


  1. Rob, I don't know how many times that's happened to me -- for good or bad. When i was younger and reallly enjoyed reading Stephen King, I'd sometimes walk around in a state similar to depression for a week or so after finishing one of his books, because they sometimes hit me so hard.

    But, one book that consistently sucks me in -- particularly at one point -- is John Creasey's "The Toff and the Deadly Parson." It's a light-hearted book, in my opinion. But...At least three times, when reading it, I started crying when I got the part where the parson has been engineered into fighting the biggest guy in his London East End neighborhood, because the line, spoken by the MC: "And in this corner -- The Parson with a Punch!" just gets me. I don't want to ruin it for those interested, but the whole thing is just great. And the reader is left wondering if the big monstrous oponent of the parson has been paid to take a dive, or not. There's just something wonderful about that scene to me.

    No wonder Creasey is credited with writing over 500 books in his lifetime. Those interested can find pics of the front and back cover (with blurb) at: http://archiegoodwin.wordpress.com/tag/the-toff-and-the-deadly-parson/ (Just copy and paste the URL, because I can't make the link work well.)

  2. Several of you writers make a great place-to-be in very few words.

  3. The highest tribute from me is when I'm so reluctant to leave the world I've entered that when I finish the last page, I go straight to the beginning and read it through again. Most recently, I did it with Lois McMaster Bujold's CRYOBURN. I remember doing it with THE NEW MOON WITH THE OLD (1963) by Dodie Smith, who wrote I CAPTURE THE CASTLE and THE 101 DALMATIANS. And I'm pretty sure I remember doing it with one of Julia Spencer-Fleming's books and one of Charlaine Harris's Harper Connelly books. What these very different books have in common is that I had fallen in love with the people and couldn't bear to leave them.

    And putting on my shrink hat: Getting lost in a book, along with road trance, is on the near end of the dissociative spectrum of which the far end is dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder.

  4. Oh ho, Fran, so you are saying I'm crazy? This will please some people who have been making that argument for years. Which of my enemies told you I'm paranoid?)

    Dixon, the only Creasey books I ever got into were the ones he wrote as Kyle Hunt, about a criminal psychologist. They all had titles like Wicked as the Devil, Cunning as a Fox.

  5. Rob, I heard someplace that Creasey wrote his first published novel on the back of 743 rejection letters. Makes it easier for me to relate to him.

    Dix, thanks for pointing out The Toff and the Deadly Parson--I've not read that one, and I now plan to.

  6. " ... a story so compelling, that people get lost in it, becoming deliciously disoriented."

    I experienced this often when I was young and reading Edgar Allan Poe stories and again in my twenties reading stories by Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny. Since becoming a writer, the emersion I remember most was reading George Alec Effinger's WHEN GRAVITY FAILS, a Chanderlesque Science Fiction Mystery. Wonderful stuff.

    I've had a similar experience of "deliciously disoriented" writing one book. I have a 320,000 historical novel about The Battle of New Orleans coming out soon. For three years I LIVED in 1814-1815. Hard coming out when I had to.

  7. Madeleine's Ghost, The Heart of the Matter, The Indian Bride, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Brideshead Revisited, The Violent Bear It Away, The Heart of Darkness, One Hundred Years of Solitude, A Clockwork Orange, and October Country all did it for me.

  8. Congratulations on the novel, O'Neil.

    Rob, your article brought a number of memories. In lieu of television, my father read to us kids at night from Jack London and James Oliver Curwood (Kazan, Baree). The lowest temperature I've been in was -40°, not fun. I thought my face was going to freeze off. Hiking in a much milder winter, I wanted to build a fire and my hands and grown too cold to hold matches. London's is a chilling story.

    (I was pleased when Emily Giglierano said the setting of 'Swamped' was a primary factor in selecting that story.)

  9. Okay, confession time here. The reason I probably didn't do well in college Calc II (twice) in order to become an electronics engineer, like my dad, was because in 5th Grade math class, I spent all my time in another world reading books concealed just under the desk top. How could the re-arranging of boring numbers compete with The Three Musketeers, Scaramouche, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe....?

  10. Rob, I think you owe Liz an apology. You called her Fran. I don't tell people they're crazy; I make them crazy. Many books have had the effect on me, but what's really great is , like O'Neil says, it happens when you're writing. Stephen King calls it "falling into the page." I haven't been able to make a comment post in two days, so this is an answer to Dixon's question Monday:
    I live in Columbia, middle of S C, home of Fort Jackson, three hours from Myrtle Beach.

  11. Thanks for letting me know, Fran.

    And, Rob: I think I have an answer for you about crime in "To Build a Fire."

    As I recall AHMM's guidelines, a story has to include "a crime, or the threat or fear of one" (that's a paraphrase, but I put it in quotes to isolate it).

    One potential "crime" that is “threatened” in the story, might be animal cruelty (which I think is punishable in all states), because the protagonist considers cutting open his dog, to warm his hands in it's entrails (if I remember correctly). While the legality of turning one’s dog into a field-expedient hand-warmer in order to save one’s life may be debatable, I would say it could definitely be seen as the threat of a crime.

    So, I think this would make it fit AHMM’s guidelines.

    That’s my bet, and I’m stickin’ to it—until Linda Landrigan shows up and sends me running for cover!

  12. Liz and Fran, my apologies for getting mixed up. Shouldn't answer my mail before breakfast...

    O'Neil, welcome to our little corner of the web. I look forward to your novel. DOes Andy Jackson get a big part?

    David, thanks for bringing up October Country. Early Bradbury is amazing stuff.


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