Showing posts with label fairy tales. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fairy tales. Show all posts

20 April 2020

The Starless Sea



Although most of my writing has been mystery novels and short stories, I have also published a number of contemporary novels, as well as short stories in other genres. For this reason, I am always interested in novels that combine genres or generally break the usual compositional rules.
Erin Morgenstern's The Starless Sea, a love letter to reading, books, and stories of all types, is a fine example. Distinguished by an intricate plot that mixes myth, fable, adventure, and mystery, its greatest strength turns out to be an incredibly detailed and imaginative setting.

That's right, setting.

We like to say that character and plot are absolute keys to success and normally they are. In the case of The Starless Sea, however, while the plot is effective and the protagonists, likable enough, what one is apt to remember is the creation of an alternate world, dominated by books and stories, far beneath our feet.

Clearly this world, without sun or visible means of ventilation or food production has many, many implausibilities, not to mention the sea of honey, the bees, the Owl King, the seemingly wise cats, and the immortal Keeper. But never doubt the power of a good storyteller. The Harbor where Zachery Ezra Rawlins enters (via an elevator in New York's Central Park) is described with such precision and such a wealth of detail, that it is easy to suspend disbelief. And well worthwhile, too, because that alternate world is where the various stories, some no more than a page or two, some newly-invented fairy tales, and some full-fledged adventures, all come together.

Zachery is a graduate student in Emerging Media, who finds that all he really wants to do is read after a romance goes sour. Scanning his university library's bookshelves, he chances upon Sweet Sorrows, an anonymous volume from a mysterious donor, that recounts an incident in his own life. This triggers a bibliographic mystery, which, in turn, leads him to adventures with members of a mysterious society and their enemies; to Dorian, to whom he will lose his heart, and to Mirabel who may be human or may be a metaphor, but who knows her way around the starless sea and its harbors.

Zachery winds up below ground, while in the upper world, life goes on for people like his friend Kat, an aspiring game designer also enthralled by fiction. At the same time, in another dimension, one of fables and myths, various stories unfold, interesting oddities what will all be eventually pulled into the overall narrative. This complicated structure must have presented many challenges for the author, but the breaks have a useful function. They interrupt what might have become an overly claustrophobic and precious atmosphere of the vast libraries of the starless sea venues, whose very physical structures are sometimes devised from stories on paper.

The narrative spine is provided by Zachery's adventures, interwoven with the experiences of the heroic Dorian; of Eleanor, who literally fell into the Harbor as a young child and of Simon, later her lover and man lost out of time, along with appearances by the enigmatic Mirabel and her antagonist Allegra, the Painter, who wants to preserve a world that both Mirabel and the Keeper know is in decline.

Erin Morgenstern
The line of the novel only becomes clear in its closing stages, but the adventures of the main characters prove strong enough to support the weight of fantasy and myth and, yes, the many metaphors, that fill the book. A clue to the author's ambitions comes when Kat reflects on the type of game she would like to construct: " Part spy movie, part fairy tale, part choose your own adventure. Epic branching story that doesn't stick to a single genre or one set path..." She concludes, "A book is made of paper but a story is a tree."

So speaks the video gamer.

But in The Starless Sea Erin Morgenstern has done something similar the old fashioned way with print on paper.

15 February 2018

Older Than You Think


"You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!" - (Explanation later)
The New York Times ran a great article the other day called, "Many Animals Can Count, Some Better Than You".  I am sure that every one of us who has /had a pet can assure them of that.  (Try to gyp a dog out of the correct number of treats.)  Not only can they count - as a female frog literally counts the number of mating clucks of the male - but they can compare numbers.  (Read about the guppies and the sticklebacks.)

But where the article really got interesting was where they talked about that, despite math phobia, etc., humans have an innate "number sense." There is archaeological evidence suggesting that humans have been counting for at least 50,000 years.  Before writing ever came around, people were using other ways of tallying numbers, from carving notches (bones, wood, stones) to clay tokens that lie all over Sumerian sites and which often looked, for decades, to archaeologists like bits of clay trash.

But the ability to count and the desire to count and to keep track comes before tokens or notches, otherwise they'd never have bothered.  And language - blessed language - comes before all of that.  So get this:  they say that the number words for small quantities — less than five — are not only strikingly similar across virtually every language in the world, but also are older (and more similar) than the words for mother, father, and body parts.  Except certain words like... no, not that!  (Get your mind out of the gutter)  Except the words for the eye and the tongue. Make of that what you will...

Dr Mark Pagel, biologist at Reading University, said, “It’s not out of the question that you could have been wandering around 15,000 years ago and encountered a few of the last remaining Neanderthals, pointed to yourself and said, ‘one,’ and pointed to them and said, ‘three,’ and those words, in an odd, coarse way, would have been understood.”  That just gave me goosebumps when I read it.  


Evolution of the cuneiform sign SAG "head", 3000–1000 BC
Development of Sumerian cunieform writing,
Td k at Wikipedia

I admit, I'm fascinated by the past. (That's why I became a historian...)  To me, history is time travel for pedestrians, a way to connect with our ancient ancestors.  So let's zip around a bit, starting with jokes (Reuters):

Sumerian man,
looking slightly upset...
(Wikipedia)
“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” - Sumeria, ca 1900 BC

“How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.” - Egypt, ca 1600 BC, supposedly about the randy Pharaoh Snofru

The earliest [written] "yo' mamma" joke, from an incomplete Babylonian fragment, ca 1500 BC:
"…your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?"
(Okay, so it doesn't translate that well, but we all know where it's heading.)

And this riddle from 10th century Britain (for more see here):
"I am a wondrous creature for women in expectation, a service for neighbors. I harm none of the citizens except my slayer alone. My stem is erect, I stand up in bed, hairy somewhere down below. A very comely peasant’s daughter, dares sometimes, proud maiden, that she grips at me, attacks me in my redness, plunders my head, confines me in a stronghold, feels my encounter directly, woman with braided hair. Wet be that eye."
(Answer at the end and no peeking!)

Plot lines go very, very far back as well.  

Ancient Egyptian leather 
sandals (Wikipedia)
The fairy tale with the oldest provenance is "The Smith and the Devil" which goes back at least 7,000 years, and has been mapped out over 35 Indo-European languages, and geographically from India to Scandinavia.  (Curiosity)  The bones of the story are that the Smith makes a deal with the Devil (or death) and cheats him.  Now there's been all sorts of variations on it. In a very old one, the smith gains the power to weld any materials, then uses this power to stick the devil to an immovable object, allowing the smith to renege on the bargain. Over time, the smith's been transformed to clever peasants, wise simpletons, and, of course, fiddlers ("The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is, whether Charlie Daniels knew it or not, a variation on this very, very old fairy tale), and the devil occasionally got transformed to death or even a rich mean relative.  Check out Grimm's "The Peasant and the Devil" and "Why the Sea is Salt".

Enkidu, Gilgamesh's
best friend - his death
sends Gilgamesh in
search of eternal life.
(Urban at French
Wikipedia)
But Cinderella's pretty old, too, and just as universal.  Many people believe that the Eros/Psyche myth is the true original.  The Chinese version, Ye Xian, was written in 850 AD, and has everything including the slipper.  There's a Vietnamese version of ancient lineage, The Story of Tam and Cam.  And there are at least 3 variations of it in 1001 Nights.  (BTW, if you're gonna read 1001 Nights - and I recommend it highly - read the Mardrus and Mathers translation in 4 volumes.  Available in paperback or Kindle at Amazon.)

And, of course, many stock plots go at least as far back as Sumeria, including rival brothers (Cain and Abel), blood brothers (Gilgamesh and Enkidu), old men killing their rivals (Lamech, Genesis 4), the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood (complete with ark, dove, and rainbow), and the quest for eternal life (Gilgamesh).

BTW, most of the stories in Genesis come from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which makes perfect sense when you remember that Abraham is said to have come from Ur of the Chaldees, which was a Sumerian city.  

But back to words, which are, after all, our stock in trade as writers.  Remember above, where I quoted the NYT how you could communicate with Neanderthals by pointing and using number words?  And remember that sentence at the very beginning?  
"You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!" 
According to researchers, if you went back 15,000 years and said that sentence, slowly, perhaps trying various accents, in almost any language, to almost any hunter-gatherer tribe, anywhere, they'd understand most of it.  You see, the words in that sentence are basic, almost integral to life, constantly used, constantly needed, for over 15,000 years, since the last Ice Age.  (It's only recently that we've lost our interest in black worms except in tequila and mescal.)

Due to the fact that we live on a planet with 7.6 billion humans and counting, it's hard to realize that, back around 15,000, there were at most 15,000,000 humans on the entire planet (and perhaps as few as 1,000,000).  They probably shared a language.  If nothing else, they would have shared a basic trading language so that when they ran into each other, they could communicate. Linguistics says that most words are replaced every few thousand years, with a maximum survival of roughly 9,000 years. But 4 British researchers say they've found 23 words - what they call "ultra-conserved" words - that date all the way back to 13,000 BC.

Speaking of 13,000 BC, here's a Lascaux Cave Painting.  Wikipedia

Now there's a list of 200 words - the Swadesh list(s) - which are the core vocabulary of all languages.  (Check them out here at Wikipedia.)  These 200 words are cognates, words that have the same meaning and a similar sound in different languages:
Father (English), padre (Italian), pere (French), pater (Latin) and pitar (Sanskrit).  
Now this makes sense, because English and Sanskrit are both part of the Indo-European language family.  But our 23 ultra-conserved words are "proto-words" that exist in 4 or more language families, including Inuit-Yupik.  (Thank you, Washington Post.  And, if you want to wade through linguistic science, here's the original paper over at the National Academy of Sciences.)

So, what are they?  What are these ultra-conserved words, 15,000 years old, and a window to a time of hunter-gatherers painting in Lascaux and trying to survive the end of the Younger Dryas (the next-to-the last mini-Ice Age; the last was in 1300-1850 AD)?  Here you go:

thou, I, not, that, we, to give, 
who, this, what, man/male, 
ye, old, mother, to hear, 
hand, fire, to pull, black, 
to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm

There's got to be a story there.  How about this?

"I give this fire to flow down the bark!  Who pulls the man from the mother?  Who pulls his hand from the fire?  Who / what / we?"

I was trying a couple of variations on these words, and then I realized that the ultimate has already been done:


"Who are you?" [said] the Worm.  


PS - the answer to the riddle is "onion".  

26 April 2013

The After Story


In novels and movies, the story usually ceases right after the climax. We, the audience, feel good or bad depending upon how the story ended for the protagonist, antagonist or minor characters whom we've grown attached to, but that's the last we know of them. Unless there's a sequel, we seldom get a look into what happened afterward.
Sure, in the fairy tale, the Prince woke up Snow White with a kiss which earned him a luscious lady and we're told they lived happily ever after. End of story. But, when you think about it, this independent bachelor suddenly acquired spousal duties, plus immediately inherited seven little people, at least one of whom was Grumpy. You can't tell me those two love birds didn't have a squabble or two. That's the after story, that's reality.

Occasionally, a movie such as American Graffiti or Animal House provides some after-story notes to let the audience know what eventually happened to their characters beyond the climax. After all, inquiring minds have an attachment to the characters they became emotionally involved with and they want to know how those characters ended up much later.

So, here's one of my street stories of how the deal went down.

Bennie dealt in kilos and had two Green Cards who brought him the coke in from California. In turn, the two Green Cards obtained their high quality product from family members in an area one of the larger Mexican cartels called home. Our boy Bennie was no virgin to the world of crime, seeing as he had two priors for homicide. He'd also been a member of a radical group. Not the kind of guy you'd invite over to the house for Sunday dinner.

Slim, a guy with one foot in the outlaw world, had managed to put Bennie and me together for a meet in a hotel at the other end of the state. Bennie was bringing coke to the table and I was bringing thousands of dollars in US currency. Everybody expected to leave the hotel room happy,...except I got to the room first.

The local police techs installed a video camera in the air duct high up in the wall overlooking most of the room. Naturally, on the other side of the wall in their own room they had set up monitors to keep track of what was going on in the buy room. They also placed a tape recorder underneath the plastic liner in a waste basket located next to the coffee table in the buy room. Then, in a room across the hall waited a SWAT team on standby to make the arrest. After all, Bennie did fall into the deadly and dangerous category.

All equipment worked, everyone in place, our side was ready.

The phone rang. Slim, our informant, said the four of them were downstairs. When I inquired about guns, he replied that he hadn't seen any, but they did have the stuff. I said to bring them on up.

A knock at the door. I opened it. Slim made introductions as each man filed in. Since the two Green Cards had a little trouble with English, Bennie did most of the talking at first. They brought in and set a large ice chest on the coffee table. To anyone else, it would appear that we were about to have drinks.

Being as this was the first time Bennie had ever seen me, he acted a bit standoffish. To make him more comfortable, I took the stacks of money out from under the couch cushions where I'd been sitting and placed said currency on the coffee table. Nothing like lots of high denomination bills to make people talkative. The two Green Cards dropped to their knees and started counting in Spanish, right next to the concealed tape recorder.

At this point, I'm talking to the two Green Cards, asking how often we can do this and how much quantity can they deliver. My talking keeps interrupting their counting. Finally, Bennie, being a more efficient type guy plus feeling left out of the conversation, tells Paco to give him the money to count. Paco should open the ice chest and give me the coke.

Paco and Green Card #2 open the chest lid, take out the beer and pop, and then start pouring the ice and water into the nearby waste basket beside the coffee table. I can mentally hear a large gasp from the cops monitoring us from the next room. I wait to see if smoke is going to start coming up from a suddenly shorted-out recorder. No smoke appears, the plastic liner must be holding.

Using a screwdriver, Paco dismantles the ice chest and hands me two large plastic bags of white powder that had been concealed in the walls of the chest. One bag has a small hole covered with Scotch Tape. Bennie finally admits they sampled the coke earlier to make sure it was good. But of course.

While Bennie and the Green Cards go back to counting money, I speak the bust signal and Slim opens the door. SWAT floods the room. Bennie is truly hurt that he doesn't get to keep the money. Some of it is still possessively clutched in one hand when SWAT stretches him out on the carpet.

End of story, the deal is done, the bad guys caught, all is as it should be. But, since this is reality, there is an after story, a what happened later.

Slim eventually dropped off the radar. Not a bad idea considering his work for us, even if he did have a girlfriend who carried two concealed automatics under her shirt to protect his back. At some point later, Slim and his pistol-packing girlfriend acquired an exotic dancer to round out their little family. I didn't ask, but they probably figured an exotic dancer was more fun than having seven little guys running around underfoot. Seems everybody has different ideas on what they want in life.

Paco, one of those happy-go-lucky type of guys, flipped, so we brought in a translator to help with the debriefing. I'd ask a question, then he and the translator would chat for several minutes before I got a simple answer. At one point, he tried telling me his source was a guy he barely knew who recently got killed in a train wreck. I pretended to study my debriefing notes and then told him in Spanish that he was lying and any sentencing deal was off. Surprised and not knowing how much Spanish I really knew (not much), he immediately changed his story about the source. Paco did his time and then got deported. I had grown slightly  fond of the rascal and often wondered if he lived after going back to Mexico. Them boys down there didn't care much for people who talked to the law. But knowing Paco the way I did, I figured he probably jumped the fence the very next night so he could return to his favorite California bar in order to play guitar, drink tequila and eat shrimp. In which case, I hope he got out of the coke business.

Bennie took his fall and went to Super Max. Ten years later, I'm standing in the lobby of the federal building when I hear this well-modulated voice. "Robert, good to see you." And there's Bennie waiting to get through the security line. "I always liked you," he said. "I have no hard feelings."

Well, that's damn good, cuz now Bennie is obviously back on the street. Seems he got good time in the joint and is now headed upstairs to report in to his federal Parole Officer. Bennie assures me he has changed his life. I wish him well.

After he goes up in the elevator, I tell the two lobby guards that Bennie won't last six months on the outside. Sure enough, three months later, his parole is revoked for assault. Somebody ended up lucky, that could have been Bennie's third homicide. As long ago as all that has been, he may be out again. Hope Bennie meant what he said in our last conversation, about the no hard feelings.

As for me, I get to continue telling tales of the street on the Sleuthsayers blog. Guess I was the one to draw the happy-ever-after card.

Now, about that exotic dancer..........

02 April 2012

Young at Heart (and Death)


Fran Rizerby Fran Rizer

Mirror, Mirror starring Julia Roberts began showing nationwide three days ago. Needless to say, I haven't seen it as I spend almost all my time at the hospital. I'm not a big Julia Roberts fan, but I'll eventually view the movie because the works of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson in the 1800's are among my long-time loves.

The trailer doesn't indicate whether Mirror, Mirror may be more accurate to the original Brothers Grimm story than Walt Disney's bright animated version with the unforgettable little people singing, "Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go."

In the Grimms' version, Snow White is exiled by her evil stepmother, the Queen, who orders a hunter to kill Snow White and bring her heart back as proof she is dead. The hunter gives the Queen a bear's heart instead. The Queen eats the heart, thinking it's Snow White's, but in the end, she's forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dies.
Julia Roberts

Snow White isn't the only Grimms story that is more grim than the cartoon/Disney variations. Cinderella's original step sisters cut off parts of their big feet trying to trick the prince and make their clodhoppers fit into the golden (yep, not glass) slippers. The Brothers Grimm had two endings to the Cinderella tale. In the first, the step sisters are gruesomely murdered at Cinderella's wedding. In a later version, the sisters live but are blinded by charmed pigeons who peck out their eyes.

"Rumplestiltskin" is doomed in the original Grimms version by stomping his feet in a temper tantrum so violent that he buries himself up to his waist. When he tries to get away, he tears himself in half. Talk about a need for anger management!

As a child I read the works of Hans Christian Anderson, and they were far from "happily ever after" stories. Disney's adaptation of The Little Mermaid ends fine, but in Anderson's 1837 story, the little mermaid is forced to watch her beloved prince marry another. Then the sea gives her a choice of killing the prince or dying herself. She throws herself into the sea and will perhaps be able to earn her soul back by doing good deeds for three hundred years.

The Anderson stories I loved best were "The Little Match Girl" and "The Red Shoes." Both deal with orphans, evil, and punishment. I must have read "The Red Shoes" a hundred times as a child even though at the end the girl who chose red shoes over doing what her mother said is doomed to dance forever in the red shoes. She winds up dancing at her mother's funeral and the only way to end the dancing is to cut off her feet, which she does. Looking at that story from a senior citizen point of view, it seems a tragic piece to have held so much fascination for me as a young girl. Until this moment, I've never connected the trademark red stilletto heels of my thirties and forties to Hans Christian Anderson.

Not only did the fairy tales of the 1800's demonstrate far more evil than recent versions, modern authors of much famous children's literature were far from childlike innocence in their other works. Louisa May Alcott's early writings were published under pseudonyms. Her purple prose included "Pauline's Passion and Punishment" and "Betrayed by a Buckle" before she became famous for Little Women and Little Men.


Almost every third through fifth grade classroom has copies of Shel Silverstein's poetry collections including Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic, as well as the wonderful children's story The Giving Tree. Great kids' books, but country music fans know Silverstein also for winning a Grammy for "A Boy Named Sue," recorded by Johnny Cash. He also wrote "Buy One, Get One Free," a short play in which two hookers pitch their wares completely in rhyme. Dr. Hook and the Medicine Men recorded Silverstein's song about STD's -- "Don't Give a Dose to the One You Love the Most."

I'm compelled to mention one more children's writer, a favorite of mine. You know him as the writer of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (aka Willie Wonka), but my favorite of his kids' novels is The BFG, which I have read aloud to hundreds, perhaps thousands of children. Roald Dahl's earliest writing appeared in Playboy Magazine and included a story called "Switch Bitch."

Perhaps by now, kind readers, you are wondering how on Earth I'm going to relate this blog about children's literature to the primary topic of SleuthSayers– mystery and sometimes murder. One of my favorite Dahl stories is "Lamb to the Slaughter." This is the tale of a woman who… well, view the classic video.

If (and indeed it's a big IF) there's a message to this blog, it is that even if we choose to specialize in mystery, it's perfectly okay to venture into other genres, but if we happen to write something that will survive over two centuries, it may be rewritten by someone else along the way.

Until we meet again… take care of YOU.

23 December 2011

Fairy Tales Live On



Once upon a time....as the old fairy tale goes....a beautiful princess kissed a frog and POOF, he magically turned into a handsome prince. But then, there's a lot of fairy tales out there to be heard, if one is a believer in that sort of thing.

In more modern times on the dating scene, there have been incidents of young women, who under the distorting influence of alcohol just before last call in a singles bar, have lost the ability to distinguish some of the various reptilian species lurking in the nearby vicinity. Thus, mistakenly they have kissed a toad, hoping he would magically turn out to be their charming prince. Unfortunately for them, their delusion did not transform into reality.

It seems that in the real world, you had better pay attention. All may not be as it seems. As a sidenote however, in my realm of expertise there is a certain family of toads, and no I won't provide their names, which have hallucinogenic properties. For those poor souls desperate to take a mental trip, all they have to do is lick the toad's back and POOF, they're off to magic land. Naturally, you had best know your toads, because like some mushrooms, the wrong ones can be detrimental to your health.


So anyway, here we all are making our way through life in a world of part fairy tale, part hope and a whole lot of reality. Most people figure out real quick that reality is the part that reaches out and tags you. For those who don't comprehend the difference, well they're still out there pinning their hopes on toads, wondering why reality keeps getting their attention the hard way.
In continuing the fairy tale thread, I don't want to say that law enforcement, especially undercover ones, started this next particular fairy tale for the streets, but here's how I ran into it.

Me and my lowlife Cooperating Individual (CI) were sitting in the back seat of a criminal's car in a city we won't bother to name. The CI had just duked me in and everything was going fine. Conversation was easy, no visible tension, we're merely negotiating some finer points of the deal we're about to do. Then out of nowhere, the bad guy's partner sitting in the front passenger seat turns and says to me, "Are you a cop?"
I was stunned. Did this guy suddenly know something I'd overlooked?
"No," I replied, and then since a good defense is a good offense, or vice versa, I followed up by asking the question back to him. "Why, are you a cop?"
"No, no," they were both quick to respond.
"Then why did you ask?"
"Because," said the Lower IQ of the two, "we heard that if we asked you if you were a cop, you had to tell the truth, otherwise you were a liar and the case wouldn't stand up in court."
"Damn," says I in amazement. "I'm glad you gave me that information. I will definitely use it to protect myself in the future."
I then paid them the federal government bills of which the serieal numbers had been previously recorded, and they in turn provided the contraband goods. Our deal was done, my case was pretty well made, and I was ready to get out of their vehicle. But wait, we weren't through yet.
"Be careful," says the bad guy in the front passenger seat.
"Why's that?" I inquire, wondering what could possibly be next.
"Because," says Low IQ, "we heard there's an undercover fed just come into town."
That part was true, no fairy tales there. I had been in town for the last three days, but was only just now getting around to working on them. They didn't know it at the time, but they had to wait their turn.
"Uh-oh," says I, "you guys had better tell me what this fed looks like so I can stay away from him."
They then proceeded to describe me to me, and quite accurately I might add. I thanked them profusely for their valuable street intelligence, opened the rear door, and POOF, the guy they thought they knew in their car was gone.


Now we come to the end of our little tale. For the two criminals in the front seat of their car, I guess you could say those two were believers in fairy tales, even if it was of the modern day street variety. Some phantom from the Office of Disinformation (also known as "They") had obviously spun a fantasy those two desperately wanted to believe. And, I'm sure those guys were also hoping they'd found their prince with a lot of magic money in his hand. But, it soon appeared that they'd pinned their hopes on a fairy tale for sure, because the expected transformation didn't come out the way they had anticipated. POOF! They were in handcuffs.

A quick word to the wise. Don't put a lot of stock in everything you hear on the street. It may just be a fairy tale.

But then, what do you believe in?