Lucky 1s

Every year, at every Game Con, there is this one guy.

He usually stands outside in the hallways, but sometimes you find him sitting by himself in the designer panels lost in his own funk. But more often than not, he sits off to the side of the gaming tables and listens to dice clattering, pencils etching on paper and the voices of Dungeon Masters at work and players at play.

He isn’t a cosplayer, but he doesn’t bother them either. For the most part, he looks pretty unremarkable: just a stubbly-chinned man in black jeans and a dark blue hoodie. But there are three things that stand out about him.

The first is that he doesn’t play in any of the games. Ever. You have to understand, I’ve seen him here three days in a row and Game Con is expensive. The three-day pass does not come cheap. But I’ve seen it on his neck, though some reason I can never make out the name on it. Instead of playing, he always watches the players from a distance. And it is always the players too. He doesn’t creep on the girls dressed in anime costumes or as D&D barbarian women. In fact, he doesn’t even seem to register them. Instead, he just watches the players — both male and female — at play.

I never get that creeper vibe from him, but sometimes when there’s laughter I see his hand clench around the one object he always carries with him.

But I’ve noticed something else. Whenever he does come close to a gaming table — and it’s really the most freaking weirdest thing — the players begin to move away from him. I don’t mean that they shift away uncomfortably or pretend he doesn’t exist as most ostracism works. No: I’m talking about people going off somewhere else to another table, or booth, or right out of the Convention Centre.

I didn’t notice this at first, but for some reason this guy would just not stay in the background for me. But the gamers that left when he came close didn’t even so much as look at him: at all.

I said there were three strange things about this guy, right? Well, I should probably be more specific about the last two, and I will be when I tell you a little more about who he is. One day, I asked some of my buddies about this guy.

“Oh shit man, that’s Lucky 1s.”

“The Fumbler.”

“The Die himself.”

Most of that didn’t tell me anything at first, but I caught on to the “Fumbler” title. They told me more, but it was less. Apparently, “Lucky 1s” was a gamer — a table-top role-player — who had the worst luck with dice-rolling ever. No one seemed to know or remember his real name but apparently, according to Con lore, he always rolled 1s on his dice. It didn’t matter what die he used or what game he played with dice.

He always got 1s.

Word was that he was bad luck. Some said he broke up with his girlfriend before an important quest and it had tainted his luck score. Others thought he attempted to melt and manipulate the ultimate die as some cheaters do and it went horrifically wrong: angering the dice gods forever. Some quietly insisted that he had insulted Wil Wheaton when the man had attempted to bless his dice; while others believed — really truly believed — that he just masturbated too much.

So — in other words — aside from the fact that no one clearly shook hands with the man (and they were clearly ones to talk), most of their claims were superstitious bullshit, and a sad kind of D&D superstitious bullshit to boot: which is of the lowest kind.

But none of them ever went near him: ever. They told me they were “afraid” that his bad luck would taint their luck too and there were … stories … vague, menacing stories.

I think I felt bad for him. I mean, many of us are geeks and we should all know better. Ostracizing someone and spreading rumours about them is bullshit: no matter how bad their luck is. That day, he was sitting in the corner of the gaming room at his own table. I was very aware now of the object in his hand: the one that he always carried.

It was, and it is, this cherry red twenty-sided die. He was rolling it on the table. It sounded like clattering bones. At the time there was a game not far from his table and I could hear the beginnings of an argument: mainly what I thought was bickering over rules or some over-enthusiastic debate about combat resolution. You know: just usual disputes.

I sat down with him. His hoodie obscured most of his face — except for his scruffy chin — and completely blocked out his eyes with shadow. I introduced myself. He said nothing. He just kept rolling that one die of his. I saw his three-day pass hung around his neck and I finally got a glimpse at the messy handwriting on it that I couldn’t make out even. I told him what panels and games I’d come for and asked him what he was here for.

Gradually, he started talking. Sometimes I couldn’t make out his words over the sounds of groaning and yelling from the nearby gamer table. We, naturally, started talking about gaming.

“I always loved Dungeons and Dragons,” he said in a soft, soft voice.

“Loved?” I asked, puzzled at the emphasis on the past-tense.

He inclined his head a bit and kept rolling his die, though I didn’t see the number it landed on then, “Yes well … I liked the role-playing element more than most. I found the numbers, the positioning of the figurines and the math to be freaking tedious at times. No offence.”

“None taken,” I told him, “the rules get updated all the time, but they do structure it out and make it interesting.”

“True,” he said after another bone-rattling dice-roll pause, something that looked like a purely mechanical act more than a nervous tic, “But I really loved getting into character: acting it out and immersing myself into the world. I loved problem-solving through role-playing the character out,” he smiled then and it was almost a happy smile, “Yeah. I was one of those kinds of players.”

“Hey, liking Batman doesn’t make your dick bigger,” I said, “though really it’s beautiful women that do it for me.”

He actually chuckled a bit at that, “Yeah. Elitism sucks … especially when you are the only one.”

I didn’t quite know what he meant by that, but it was enough for me to sense that there was a talk coming. For one, he stopped rolling his die. From my own DMing experience I knew this was the time to be quiet and listen.

“You know, some of them think I actually traded all my good rolls to Lord Orkus: to make my dick bigger or some shit like that,” the other looked down at himself, “If that was the case, maybe I should have prayed to the Dragon god Bahamut instead.

“It just … started one day. I don’t even remember when. I can tell you, though, what it feels like.

“You know when you’re going to have a good roll or a bad one. I think every gambler and role-player knows it on some very intrinsic level,” he rolled his die and this time I saw it land on a big, fat, white 1, “When it’s a good roll, or one with great possibility it sings and surges through your blood. There’s hope. There’s excitement. There’s fun,” he rolls the die again and it lands on the same number, “But when you have a bad roll, it feels flat. Your stomach sinks when you cast that die, and you know even before it lands what it’s going to be: if you’re honest with yourself. Dread makes it even more sour and you don’t even want to look at it. It is just that bad.”

He rolled it again, “Every one of us knows what kind of roll we’re going to get. We just lie to ourselves and say it’s purely up to chance. I’m not even sure if the die affects our luck, or if it’s our own spirit — our self-confidence and personal energy — that affects the die.”

The die landed on another 1 as he continued talking, “My friends heckled me. They said I was cursed. ‘You’re cursed, Lucky 1s,’ they told me, ‘you’re cursed …'” he shook his head, “No matter what I rolled, it’s always been the same. I role-played as best I could, but the dice always betrayed me,” I could feel him glaring down at that 1 with a very palpable sense of hatred, “Eventually, I kept being the one to screw up our group quests and they stopped inviting me to games.”

“I’m sorry,” I told him, and meant it, “That was a shitty thing to do.”

“My attitude was getting worse, to be fair,” he rolled the die, making it clatter dangerously near the table’s edge, “I kept this die: where it all started from. I thought I might as well at least be honest about that with myself. I was so … angry, you know? They blamed me for my bad rolls. Blamed me like I was somehow responsible for them. Like I wanted them on some level. It was bullshit.

“Sometimes I think they did it to me. There’s energy in group games–good and bad–and after a while I started to believe it. I started to embody it.”

“Those are a lot of 1s,” I admitted, with a little ripple of goosebumps forming across my arms, “Maybe you have five dots in Entropy.”

“Dots?”

Mage: The Ascension,” I told him, “Well, that’s how stats work in White Wolf’s Old World of Darkness campaigns. In Ascension, the Euthanatos are mages that deal in death and luck: in matter breaking down and continuously changing. Entropy. Somehow, I think you might like that game.”

“Heh. It does sound cool. It would be nice to play again and not suck,” between the sharper sounds of him rolling the die hard against the table and the growing clamour of the other table, it was getting harder to hear him, “You know, some people get Natural 20s on their rolls. All the time. But I get 1s. I get freaking,” he rolled the die, “goddamned,” he rolled the die again, “1s!

Suddenly, he just whipped that die onto the ground beside us. I looked down and, yeah, it was very creepy. Even on the floor, it landed on a 1. I was almost tempted to mention that he needed some Felix Felicis, but that was definitely not the time for a Harry Potter joke.

We were both quiet for a while. His shoulders were slouching. To be honest, he looked miserable and lonely: the kind of person that wished they would be eaten by a Grue.

I don’t know why I did it. I reached down and picked up his die. The noise from the other table was getting very rowdy. Some of the players were leaving. I slid the die over to his hands on the table. And, to this day, I really don’t know why I asked him this one question: but I did.

“Have you ever gotten Natural 20s?”

It was a dumb question after everything that I had observed today. But instead of walking away, or shouting at me, or smirking, he looked down at the red die and said, “Only in a group. And only when I get angry.”

He picked up the die and whipped it on the table with a hard crack. I was almost surprised the Game Con Volunteers and security guards didn’t hear it, but the sounds from the other table probably drowned it out. He did it again. And again. And again. It was like a gunshot each time.

20.

20.

20.

Critical hit.

Critical hit.

Critical hit.

Finally, the whole other table close to us dispersed and I could hear some of the departing conversation, “All bad rolls.”

“And 1s. So many fucking 1s …”

He looked up at me then and I could finally see his eyes. They were dark and sad.

“That is the real reason why no one will play with me. Ever.

“You know, some people just get Natural 20s with a kind of cockiness or an easy grace. I wish I had been one of them. But if ‘should-ofs’ were treasure, we’d all have a lot of fat loots.”

He got up then and handed his die back to me, “I think I’ve finally rolled all the 1s out of this fucker. Maybe a few of the 20s too. There are some solid numbers left though. Good numbers. Not too lucky, but not a fumbler. Damn, I hate being called that … almost as much as Lucky 1s … Anyway, thanks for listening.”

“Hey,” I said before he could leave, “you should really check into LARPing. There’s a Mage game here at the Con. I think you’d like it.”

His back was facing me at this point, but I thought I saw him nod. Then, he vanished into a crowd of oncoming players.

I still see him around, you know, that guy they still call “Lucky 1s.” He doesn’t just stand around as much anymore, I’m glad to say. Evidently he found that Live-Action Mage game I told him about: where he plays as a Euthanatos that feeds on the bad luck of others. He doesn’t wear his hoodie now and he smiles a lot more.

I still have his 20-sided die and I have to say that — to this day — I’ve never failed a roll.

In Which Even My Budgie Thought I Was Crazy

My pet budgie had been sick for a really long time: for about a year or so.

She became this little blue cloud sitting in the highest vantage point of her cage: between her mirror and one of her toys. It got to the point where the only time she would chirp would be when she climbed down–still possessed of her surprising agility–and either attacked her cuttlebone or ate from her seed cup.

Even when she was well, she barely ever talked to herself and when she did, it was this quiet, faint little chirp or two. Later on, she would be quietly and excitedly chirping to herself when we covered her cage for the night. She slept so much during the day that she became a nocturnal bird of sorts and she would always “go to sleep” whenever we left her for the night.

Personally, I don’t think she liked me very much. She would sit on my finger but then eventually lean away from me and go back onto her perch. I could never find the right whistle to match her chirping pitch and I suspect she squawked because she hated it when I clapped. It also probably didn’t help that I would threaten to eat her every day like I was some kind of Dread Pirate Roberts with budgie on the menu: with the caveat of “not today.”

That, and I liked to point at her and growl, “You.”

She got used to that after a while: so much so she started to ignore me as most sane sentient pieces of fluff tend to after a while. In fact, our whole owner and pet relationship was pretty much me asking my family how she was doing, occasionally putting her on my finger–which she would entertain the notion for a while–and feeding her her millet when she got too lazy and learned that she could get humans to do more things for her, and later when she got too exhausted and anemic to get for herself.  When she was well, I enjoyed getting her to stretch out her neck and reach for the millet that I would move gradually away from her. Sometimes she would peck at my finger when she realized it was in the way of her food: even though it was the very thing keeping it there for her convenience.

I never said she was smart: in that way anyway.

Towards the end, which had been coming for over a year–because she was too stubborn in general–she vomited up probably about as much as she ate. She was thin and cold underneath her blue puffiness. The heating pad stayed on her cage all the time and only got shut off when it was time for her to sleep or we had to leave the house: because we didn’t want her to get accidentally cooked or incinerated. When she threw up, it was more of an annoyance to her than anything else: just something she had to get out of her way before she could do her birdy things.

For all I sometimes deluded myself into thinking that she was groggy like a drunk in her fluff and hungover enough to just say “leave me alone” to the rest of the world, she really was sick. Even so, whenever she moved she would preen herself and chirp quietly: letting us know that she was still here. She was still here.

The day before Saturday, she sat on my finger. She was exhausted and we stared at each other a bit. Eventually, I just put her back on her perch and left her alone. She ate, she cleaned herself, she talked and sat on my brother’s finger and slept. That bird always loved my brother: she’d kiss his finger and his lips and warble at him in an attempt at communication. She seemed no different and no worse than any other time.

I was in bed when I heard that they found her at her seed cup. She was gone at that point. Unlike our other birds, she wasn’t on the floor gasping or squeaking in pain from cancer or whatever ultimate complications happen when you inbreed budgies for prettiness in cages. She never seemed to be in pain: at least, I hope she never was. She just got tired and tired and, one day, on Saturday, she just stopped.

But more than that, she died pretty much the way she lived: eating.

For all of her simplicity, she knew there was something wrong with her and she just kept going until she couldn’t anymore. There was no complex thought or visible fear: it just was. That night, mostly avoiding the living room and that empty space near the wall where her cage was–as though she were just on vacation or upstairs in my parents’ room as they did some oven-cleaning–I still swear I thought I heard some of the small, quiet chirps that she made at night.

There is one other fact about all of this. When I talk about that wall, I have to mention that this is where all our birds were placed when we moved into this house. In our old house, they used to sit right next to the TV or a window. Essentially, the bird would sit in the corner of this room and watch us from a distance whenever we didn’t visit her. She also rarely ever came out. Some budgies fly around all the time. But not this one. Most of the times she would come out, it would be disastrous. She could fly, but her landing skills sucked. After a while, we didn’t let her come out for fear of her killing herself and  eventually she didn’t even try.

And sometimes I wondered. I wondered what it would be like to have no contact with anyone of your own kind, placed in a cage you never came out of–that became your home–in corner of the room where you had to make yourself heard all the time. I sometimes wondered if her sickness was just physical.

I also realized that, looking at myself, I didn’t have to wonder that much. Over the years, we had a lot in common. Both of us probably felt confined and bothered by people. Sometimes neither of us wanted to wake up and eventually night time became a blessing for us: because no one would bother us and we could do our own thing. We were also both lonely: I’m pretty sure. And we both sat in our cages for so long they became our mostly comfortable homes and we forgot at times that we could fly.

When my second budgie Carni died, I felt a disconnect with the birds that came after him. That affection and tactility was gone or more distant. I felt like I couldn’t get close to any pet like that again, and even though I played with the other two, it wasn’t the same. By the time we got this one, I was in the process of working and eventually moving out. I visited from time to time these past three or so years but I guess it just wasn’t the same for her.

I’m not sure if we are going to get another budgie. They have played a long role in my life. They were the first pet I never had as a child: as my Dad is allergic to everything else. I even made a primitive childhood mythos or a chant for them: ranging from addressing human with “The budgie will eat the world” and “They’re coming for us all!” to the budgie “You will be devoured, it is your destiny!” or even some weird tautologies like “The Budgie’s name is Budgie.” It’s going to take some getting used to not doing that anymore. In retrospect, it’s much the same way some writers will start rhyming all the time just to get into a creative or hyper-mindset. Sometimes I’ve joked that I had “budgie turrets”: if only because I liked to say the word “budgie” so many times. It is such a silly, ridiculous word for a bird with a dotted happy face below their beak: as though they are happy all the time.

Budgies are also very good imitators when they want to be.

It gets to the point where you wonder whether you trained them to be crazy, or if they trained you to be more like them. All of this must sound very weird, I’m sure. I mean, it’s just a bird right? I also never said I didn’t have some issues. But I just want to say that if I ever get another bird again, somehow I will show them that it is okay to fly. I’ll play with them as much as I can and spend more time with them. Or something. Or I will get out of my own cage a lot more often.

I don’t know. Right now, after burying myself in work, all I know is that I will never get the chance to point at Squawkes again and simply accept my craziness for whatever it is. May she be in the largest cage there is: made from the cuttlebones of the sky.

Anonymous

I think I was the only person who was so happy to see her. And I was so happy. So eager.

I was tired, you see. But I wasn’t tired from a life of too much work. I was a writer: a story-maker. Every time I got the chance, I’d sit down in the early morning or late at night and write about the things that mattered to me. I admit, most of the stories I wrote were purely for my own self-gratification: because they were stories I wanted to read and I was the only one who could write them the way I saw them. I’ll also admit that many of them were very personal stories or based on my own experiences.

And–more often than not–the main protagonist was always me.

But whenever I finished what I did, letting the gross black weight drain from the interior of my skull onto paper and screen, I knew I couldn’t go any farther than that. It wasn’t the blank page that stopped me, or the scribbled out words, or even the spectre of a deadline. It was never even the pressure to live up to the shoulders I barely tottered on. I told her, in the end, that my fear was the rejection of the work that is myself.

And so I stopped.

I crawled away from the meta-fictional eyes of the audience. I showed my work to fewer and fewer people and of these people, some of them even turned on me: taking offence to something I could deny no more than my own name.

I was guilty of a very thin skin, and if writers are liars then failed writers are cowards.

Then, after I got a good, real, and sensible job the stories finally died. But the thin skin stretched too far over the moment I crept away from and the ghosts of ideas screamed silently behind my eyes: unrequited and hungry.

So when she came, I was relieved. I was so relieved to finally make the pain stop. I hated myself. I asked her for oblivion. She said no, of course, but this should not have surprised me. I know that she knows that there is somewhere for everyone. I took her pale hand. It was surprisingly warm. She told me there was someone I needed to meet.

I found myself in a great and familiar hall. She was gone and at first I thought I was alone in this great ornate emptiness.

Then, I saw him.

It was horrible. I found myself shaking on the floor in shame. He asked me — if “asking” was the right verb to describe any words that came from his mouth — what I wanted of him. I knew who he was. I wished for death and realized the irony of my thoughts. I asked again for oblivion.

He looked down at me with those terrible, beautifully infinite dark eyes and told me not to lie to him again. People who pass through the Gate of Horn are not allowed to tell lies, he told me.

I remember opening my mouth to speak again when suddenly images, symbols and ideas themselves seemed to burst out from the back of my mind instead. I didn’t understand their language — which was more song than words — yet at the same time I did. He looked at me for a long time. He told me that I was a vessel of the stories and that I had denied them. There was no forgiveness in his tone, but neither was it an angry one. The sheer disappointment in his glittering eye was worse than any fury he was capable of.

Underneath that gaze, I wanted to die again forever.

But he refused me. It was not his place, he said. However, even though my potential in the conscious world was over, my words — if that is what they are in dreams — expressed my wish: my real wish. He compelled me to follow his eyes to … a large series of bookcases ascending into the sky.

I am allowed to stay here indefinitely. Sometimes, I read the books from those shelves. An older thin man with a long nose and spectacles occasionally keeps me company. But most of the time, I am at a desk: writing on thin dream-paper with the black of a raven’s wing. When I’m done, the crane-like man takes my finished papers and stacks them into books that he puts on the shelves: though sometimes he will take the time to make a fine point of correcting my grammar.

Occasionally, he will stop in, look at my “progress,” listen to the ideas singing themselves into the paper, then nod to himself and leave. Sometimes, she comes back and tells me that everything I make is beautiful. I know she has nothing but good things to say about anyone, but coming from her those words are no less special.

Then, sometimes in my room, another woman with golden hair comes to hold me at night and I cry into her arms. Aside from the one who brought me here, she understands me and forgives me the most.

But mostly, I write my stories for a library that doesn’t exist with its shelves sometimes floating in the sky and always filled with imaginary books. It reminds me so much of what I did when I was alive. Sometimes dreamers find their way here and read my books, only to disappear and forget all about them again.

None of them know my name and I continue to write my stories in books of air: happily.

Be Brave, Be Heard

So I don’t generally do re-posts of other Blog articles, but this was is an exception. In fact, I wasn’t going to do anything else and just let Pollychromatic, and the image presented, speak for themselves. But not only have I been informed that there are some opinions of mine that need to be written down, but I also feel compelled to do so anyway.

Now first, I hope you read the above article. Secondly, I actually know Lady Katza personally–the person who took this picture of her daughter and made her costume at the time–and I have seen this awesome image before. In fact, not only have I seen this picture before, but Lady K herself asked me if I could make a story based off of it.

I’m not going to do that today, however, but there is something about the image that I do want to write about. This post, which was created by Lady K’s friend and sewing ally Pollychromatic, has been reposted and linked to a few other places. A few responses to this article were something along the lines of it being impossible for someone to maintain their childhood–their innocence–after protecting themselves from harm: that it should not be the imperative of a child to defend themselves, but rather it should be the responsibility of an adult instead.

And while there are some merits in these thoughts, I believe that they ultimately miss the point. There are two ways of looking at this issue.

The first is the literal perspective: the one which some of these responses attempt to address. If we look at this picture realistically, violence and surviving violence does neither maturity nor adulthood make. That, in my opinion, is a fallacy. Someone who kills or commits violence at a young age–even in self-defence–will have psychological trauma. They would need counselling and lots of guidance and understanding to process what they had done, and what happened to them. One response mentioned war as well as violence as making children grow-up far too quickly: and my opinion on the matter is that child soldiers are not a good basis to make a stable adult from, nor does violence function as a crucible that forges a “stronger” person. Instead, whether that violence is physical or semi-conscious in a culture, it can traumatize and create an individual with major emotional issues: people that, as I mentioned before, will need family and social structures to somehow help them cope … these same factors that should also be called on to change those aspects of a society or culture of violence.

So yes, when taken literally that image of the girl with an axe in one hand and a wolf’s head in another is not a thing that can solve societal and cultural violence.

However, there is the other perspective: the metaphorical one. The image that Lady K creates and Pollychromatic describes is an iconoclast: specifically a picture or an idea that takes preconceived notions and subverts them to make a statement. Both women are trying to say something with the language of archetypes.

They are taking an ancient cautionary folktale in the form of Little Red Riding Hood which, in turn, takes the archetype or the stereotype of the little girl as inherently innocent, pure and chaste–who is easily exploitable and is the victim that must always be cautious or guarded from harm–and they are changing it. Because I can tell you right now, that the image of this Red Riding Hood does not only represent little girls. It represents women of all ages and backgrounds. Whether that is completely successful or not, I will leave it up to others to decide and debate, but when I look at it in that context I see a representation–not the representation of course because there is never only one–of women and what they should do in the world of inherent violence and exploitation.

Now take the axe. The axe can be seen as an implement of death, but it is also a tool to help people survive: to cut wood and other substances for fire and food. Learning to use a tool is a form of knowledge and experience. When you place that in the hand of a symbol that is meant to represent a form of neoteny–both an essentialized symbol and an idea that women are eternal and infantile children that need to be minded and to fear–you begin to change that symbol through that addition alone. In Little Riding Hood, the axe also belongs to the woodsman whom–in at least some variations of the tale–ends up killing the predatory wolf. Perhaps he or someone else of either gender has taught her how to chop wood and use a tool to defend herself should she need it.

And now we come to the wolf’s head and the blood. For me, they represent–respectively–fear and the world. The wolf is not just violence, but the fear of violence. The girl, here, has decapitated her fear. But notice how she holds that wolf’s head. She isn’t holding it up like a trophy, or as something to be dominated, or even as a vanquished foe. Rather, she holds it as something more akin to a stuffed animal or a teddy bear. It’s almost like in addition to being fear the wolf is also her sense of violence and perhaps something more one day. She inherently accepts it as a part of herself and, while she has eliminated its power over her, she still utilizes its essence in a totemic way. It is her natural violence. It is a fallacy to question whether or not a cat hunting a mouse or a bird still has their innocence: in that they are just following their nature. I’d also argue that the essence of human nature is to preserve itself: an urge that can be honed into a conscious instinct for self-defence.

As for the blood, it would be really easy to equate it to upcoming puberty or a crimson baptism heralding premature adulthood, but the fallacy is equating adulthood with maturity and the idea that maturity and innocence are mutually exclusive forces: especially since we do not have a working definition of what innocence is beyond an idea of sexuality or age.

I see the blood as a consequence of being in the world. The natural world of the woods and beyond them is a messy, organic place. This is something that children, and hence adults, learn very early in their existences. If you are going to live in the world, prepare to be dirty and to also know that each cause has an effect.

This archetype that has been depicted here is no new idea. It has probably had many names in the past, but TV Tropes has its own heading under the term Little Miss Badass. You can find them in all media: as Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and even Lettie Hempstock in his new novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. But I want to get beyond this a bit and look at what is meant by self-defence. The fact is, I hinted earlier that violence is not merely a physical act, but also a systematic one: one that uses a societal or cultural threat or fear of violence to define a victim and make them hide … make them silent. However, self-defence need not only be physical as well. It can be arming someone with the tools to not only recognize overt and subtle dangers, but also to speak, to protest, and to challenge what are generally long-held and unquestioned assumptions.

So now consider this image in the political dimension that Pollychromatic brings up. If you interpret this image as being an archetype–again not the archetype–for all women, then the message seems to be clear: that women should defend themselves against forces that threaten them and that the first form of defence is knowledge of what needs to be defended against and how to properly respond to that danger.

And then you can look at the image with regards to children: to actual children. If you interpret this image as teaching children how to recognize the inherent dangers of the world around them, as well as working with the benefits of that world and focus more on them interacting with the world as it is, then perhaps you can slowly change that world from the ground up: by simply having those children, and the adults that they will subsequently become, actually exist.

Ultimately, I will say this. Pollychromatic’s version of Lady K’s photograph as a potential political symbol for change does need some work. Personally, I think it would look awesome in the form of FV Disco that was utilized by Nick Marinkovich as the illustrator of Kenk: with its collage-like quality, sharp white angular outlines, and rhetorical art quality that would still keep the essence of the image as it is. What I see when I look at this image is a timeless figure, an innocence that protects itself and its own: a force that teaches you that innocence still exists with a bit more canniness and wisdom and, more importantly, it makes you seriously look at what forces define innocence in a created world.

That is what I got out of what Pollychromatic and Lady K try to say about their article and picture respectively.

pollychromatic

Something sort of weird happened on the way to sharing a picture for the #WeStandWithWendy campaign.

A couple years ago my friend Lady Katza from Peanut Butter Macramé took a picture of her daughter. She had made a gorgeous Little Red Riding Hood costume for her daughter, and completed the costume with a bloodied axe and a wolf’s head.

Her daughter was 8 in the picture; unmistakably prepubescent. There was little question of context for herself, her husband, or for me. In this storytelling, Red had saved herself with a Huntsman’s axe. She did not need saving. The girl in the picture was wide eyed, with her innocence still visibly intact. She did not look menaced or menacing. She looked determined, and young. It was, ultimately, a picture of female innocence that was capable, and not the least bit helpless.

It was the kind of story-in-a-picture that upends paradigms, in…

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This is Not a Less Impressive Daffodil: Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I thought I was going to just make that small post about how most–if not all–of Neil Gaiman’s stories could be construed as being part of a multiverse of his own creation. I thought I could leave it at that and not talk about The Ocean At the End of the Lane in and of itself. Certainly, that would have been easier. For a 181-page novel, Ocean is intimidating and in a lot of ways really hard to describe.

In fact, the reason why Ocean is so hard to deal with, at least from my perspective, is that its writing is seemingly so sparse, but there is so much packed into those charged sentences. In terms of structure, the narrative and writing style reminds me of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Julian The Magician in all the different ideas that have compacted into almost poetic sentences. At the same time the resonances, metaphors and allusions to other events through imagery and small stories is reminiscent–to me again–of a more “spread-out” George R.R. Martin: in that there is a very intricate storytelling structure that incorporates physical, visual, visceral and emotion description well. I even know that if and when I read this novel again there will be more hints and foreshadowing’s and authorial winks that will meet me along the way to the end of the lane.

All of the above are the technical elements that stand out at me with regards to the writing style of the book. And I haven’t even gotten to where this can fit in with regards to Neil’s own mythic “storyscape.” Amanda Palmer goes into this far better than I can–even better–she provides no spoilers to the book whatsoever. I will however say that one very striking part of her Blog review on Ocean is that apparently this story is the closer to autobiography or semi-autobiography than a lot of Neil’s other words or, as Amanda put it, “Neil dialed down the usual setting of his blender” so that you can see a much clearer distinction between “the reality that we experience” and “the art we create.”

Of course, this is not the first time he has done this. Violent Cases and The Tragical Comedy or the Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch are works that definitely come to mind with regards to where the writer’s experiences and what the writer creates can be observed to some extent as that “twilight place where the man and the writer smash into each other and for a second there’s a wrinkle, a schism, where you can jam a stick into the works of the blender and see the whole, floating components of a soul” but I will say that this is probably the first time that Neil has ever written a prose novel along these lines.

I also can’t help but wonder if somehow Neil was somehow, in some stylistic or personal way, inspired or influenced in some part by C. Anthony Martignetti’s Lunatic Heroes: Memories, Lies and Reflections: a collection of short stories that Neil read, wrote praise for and even–as “an American God” sent an editor to look at. You can find my review of Anthony’s book here. Certainly, there is a nice resonance between the first-person mostly-child narrative of Anthony’s stories and the unnamed mostly-child protagonist in Ocean: both of which were narrated by adults.

And now, my friends, this where I place my obligatory disclaimer: for in this Ocean there be Spoilers. If you plan to read this book, turn back now. It is a really good book, so please read it. If not, or if you’ve read it continue walking down this lane … if you dare.

If I had to sum this story all up in one sentence, I would say that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a story about childhood fear and wonder for grown-ups. I’m not talking about Coraline or any of Neil’s other children’s stories that are made for children but can be read by adults or even the film MirrorMask with its own child protagonist putting herself into danger. No, the danger inherent in the situation of the unnamed protagonist is one of a very painful real powerlessness in the face of an unfathomable adult–and also fantastic–reality. The protagonist discovers a lot of hard truths at his age of seven even before the magical element comes into play: which, in turn, is triggered by one of those harsh adult and alien truths in a really terrible way.

The protagonist already starts off as a child that can barely tolerate his reality without books and is alternatively lonely and does not care much for people in general. He actually describes it as mostly unhappy, though he does admit that he had moments of contentedness. He is not a child like Coraline who can trick her way out of situations, or Bod with his canniness and supernatural influence: and he is made very painfully aware of how weak and small he is compared to an adult. That is not to say, in retrospect, that he doesn’t his own intelligence or craftiness: after all, not only did he learn basic survival skills–if only out of necessity–but he has books as his oldest companions and books can teach you things if you let them.

But even his resources and the high level of child intuition that he possesses, the protagonist cannot solve all of his problems by himself: which is something that the narrative makes quite clear. Even the books he reads, each one about children overcoming adversity, or an evil adult is offset by his reality of actual helplessness: as if Neil is trying to hit home–the home and childhood the protagonist realizes he is losing–that this is not that kind of story. The protagonist can be a cowardly child, a thoughtful child, a brave child but he is still just a child.

And children need help when they find themselves in a bad situation: domestic or otherwise.

The Hempstocks are a family of three women that live at the end of the lane. The youngest is Lettie, her mother is called Ginnie and the grandmother is, well, Old Mrs. Hempstock. Lettie Hempstock, with her red hair and snub nose, is a seemingly eleven year old girl reminiscent of a Pippi Longstocking with magical strength and “just-so” knowledge. Of course, these three women are not what they seem and yet, at the same time, they are. This pattern of three women of power comes up a lot in Neil’s works: from the Lilim in Stardust, to the Kindly Ones in Sandman and even the immigrant Slavic goddesses in American Gods. I’d also be remiss if I forgot to make mention of the Norns or the Fates from mythology as well.

In this case, though, the three are here to help the protagonist: at least whenever he finds his way to them. The Hempstocks themselves seem to have come from another dimension countless millennia ago, from the Ocean pond next to their farm and in at least one form they are pure energy. These three are pure Hempstocks and apparently there are other female Hempstocks throughout the world created by the wandering male Hempstocks: who aren’t as powerful, but are just as special in their own ways. The fact that there is a Hempstock in Stardust and The Graveyard Book may well be coincidences.

What is also interesting is that the pure Hempstock females do not have fathers. Perhaps they are born from the multiverse or perhaps not. The original male Hempstocks may be the same and I wonder if there is one as old as Old Mrs. Hempstock out there somewhere. It is not known if male Hempstocks can make other male ones in the same as they do female ones. So basically, while these male Hempstocks wander and play Zeus across the world and nowhere in this narrative whatsoever, we are left with these three who are a child, an adult woman, and an old woman: and yet so much more.

And then we have the antagonists. Skarthach of the Keep is a flea. She isn’t a flea in the conventional sense, but rather an ancient creature in the multiverse of the Ocean that is awakened by the badness that happens in this world and seeks to rule it by providing what people want and feeding off of the sensations they get from it. She is massive, powerful and old. So you might think to yourself that what we have here is a classical Lovecraftian entity or even an Other Mother that will manipulate the protagonist and Lettie as they come into her acquired dimension. Well, if you did think this, I’m afraid you thought wrong.

What Skarthach does–after becoming a humanoid named Ursula Monkton–is worse. She physically infiltrates the protagonist as a worm–which in and of itself has some very unsettling overtones–and after he takes her out, she changes into a human that becomes his babysitter. Out of perhaps some pettiness for Lettie attempting to seal her away in her own dimension or simply wanting to keep the protagonist “safe”–because she placed a gateway back into her dimension within him after being in his body–she begins to control his life. She infects his family with her “food” and makes them love her: his married father in particular. But before and after that, Ursula limits his physical freedom–essentially taking it away–and threatens to take away his books while enforcing “early bedtimes.”

And all of this is before she gets his father–who has some aggression issues of his own–to attempt to drown him. She is literally the stereotype of every wicked stepmother–or surrogate mother as she takes over the family–rolled up into pettiness, spite and pure evil. She is an epitome of insidious adult bullying and abuse. Neil did such a good job on illustrating all of this that I’ve even stated that Ursula Monkton is the first of his antagonists that I have ever truly despised and I took great joy in watching her pretend a fearless she didn’t have and then cry like a little baby smeared in mud– just as she had done to the protagonist before (it’s not so grand when it happens to you, huh Ursula?)–as her very painful doom came to her.

But it is slightly before that when you begin to understand something. Apparently, fleas had come to reality before and they were almost always accompanied by things that Old Mrs. Hempstock called varmints. I originally thought that they were just infected humans or offspring that the fleas made when they colonized worlds. But I fall victim to expectations as well and I realized after a while that I was wrong. Fleas are deathly afraid of varmints: and anything else with half a soul would be too. The reason for this is because they are cleaners: they eat fleas and everything associated with them. And apparently a lot of them dwell in Earth’s universe because there are no native fleas there. I pictured them like the mounts that the Nazgul in Return of the King rode, but I know they are even worse than that and only barely have passing resemblances. All I know is that when they ate one constellation out of existence, it reminded me of various terrible events from Dr. Who.

I think what I really related in the end is that the protagonist, even after the removal of the worm and the path to her portal still has the gateway to other dimensions inside of him. It is described as this piece of ice in his heart. Later you discover that when he is older, he makes art and even though the Hempstocks observe that he is “growing a new heart,” even though he may have died in one version of reality from the varmints hunting every last bit and trace of the flea,  I wonder if that shard is really gone. It was a nice allusion to what a writer can actually be.

Other things that I really liked in Ocean was the metaphoric and literal quality of the ocean itself and how, through simple language and the perspective of a child, Neil manages to show the wrongness in the death and supposed replacement of a loved one: as if somehow substituting one cat for another that you killed can ever replace the being you loved, or if another thoughtlessly intentional violation somehow makes the previous accidental one better. It is that last image that really sets the tone for the protagonist’s story really: at least to me.

I am nearing the end of this strange review now. I just want to leave off with some quotes that really caught my eye: both in their meanings and undertones and just for the simple elegance of their craftsmanship.

“I was far away in ancient Egypt, learning about Hathor, and how she had stalked Egypt in the form of a lioness, and she had killed so many people the sands turned red, and how they had only defeated her by mixing beer and honey and sleeping draughts and dying this concoction red, so she thought it was blood, and she drank it and fell asleep.  Ra, the father of the gods, made her the goddess of love after that, so the wounds she had inflicted on people would now only be wounds of the heart. I wondered why the gods had done that. Why hadn’t they just killed her, when they had the chance?” (53)

It is a very good question, I might add, although it might be answered by the shard of ice in the protagonist’s heart and the art it possibly inspires him to make: as some consolation anyway.

“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were (53)

“Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t” (112).

“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world … Except for Granny, of course” (112).

“In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, “Be whole,” and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping” (43).

This particular quote has a flow to it and a glowing golden aura–like reading some precursor to ancient Greek–and yet flows so well and with such a seeming effortlessness like breathing that it makes me want to cry. This was by far my favourite quote in the entire book for that reason alone.

And then there is this one:

“My book of Greek myths had told me that the narcissi were named after a beautiful young man, so lovely that he had fallen in love with himself. He saw his reflection in a pool of water, and would not leave it, and, eventually, he died, so that the gods were forced to transform him into a flower. In my mind, when I had read this, I had imagined that a narcissus must be the most beautiful flower in the world. I was disappointed when I learned that it was just a less impressive daffodil” (68).

I have to say that aside from the various nuances and connotations within these lines, this has to be one of the best, most subtle and utterly poetic insult ever. I can just imagine going around telling a person that annoys me that they are “just a less impressive daffodil.”

So, suffice to say, I am going to give The Ocean at the End of the Lane a 5/5. I know there is so much I did not discuss or make parallels to, but then I have to also remember that this is just one road to one place in Neil Gaiman’s multiverse. I think what really got to me, when all of this is said done, however, is the fact that this style of story–with the exception of a few descriptive details and elements–is something that I have been working on myself in my own writing and it was really interesting to see Neil making a story like this for himself and the rest of us. Perhaps we all dip into the same place: a place that can be a well, or a spring, or a stream of consciousness, or a pond … that is an eternal, bottomless, ocean.

Be Careful What You Search For: The Doctor as Psyche

Disclaimer: There be spoilers here.

I’m not going to go into an indepth analysis and look at a particular Doctor Who episode. The fact is: it is an exhausting process and I know I will be missing something from it when I’m done. But there is one theme that has really caught my eye and is really, aside from the weird and zany adventures with elements of grandiosity the central focus of The Doctor as of right now.

The mystery of Clara Oswin Oswald or, in The Doctor’s own words, “The only mystery worth solving.”

So there we are. The scenario is already set and clear: as much as any Doctor Who plot really is. And now I am going to make a mythological allusion: mainly talking about what this quest and its potential results actually reminds me of. It is only fitting that in the last episode of Doctor Who “Hide,” that The Doctor said something to the effect that, “It isn’t a ghost story after all — it’s a love story.” And when he said, I said under my breath, “Yes, Doctor. It really is.”

So is the Myth of Psyche and Eros. There are many variations of the myth itself, but essentially what happens is that there is a princess named Psyche who–through various circumstances–ends up married to the love god Eros (or Cupid as he is better known): though she does not know this. In fact, until her fateful decision, she never even sees what he looks like. Not really. One of the admonitions that Cupid gives her, in fact, is that she is not allowed to look at him.

Don’t blink.

Of course, as I and many others have stated with regards to “The Snowmen,” this myth too sounds an awful lot like a fairytale: and indeed a lot of myths and parables in various ages do. There is always that one thing the character is told not to do, or is made difficult to find and of course–human and sentient nature being what it is–the character eventually seeks it out. As something of an aside, I also think it is very remarkable in that Psyche’s myth may be one of the few in existence where a mortal woman has a recognized heroic quest–complete with various tasks–in pursuing a male deity as opposed to the other way around.

Now, Psyche and The Doctor are not that alike at all. There are different circumstances, goals, influences, character genders, and fears involved on the surface. Psyche is “sacrificed” to a “dragon that harasses the world” due to a vision that an oracle gave her royal father of whom she would marry. There are gods involved. Cupid likes Psyche as well: after being sent to punish her by his mother Venus (the Roman Aphrodite). Psyche is relatively inexperienced with regards to the world and marriage. She is innocent. And it is only when others ask her who her husband is and if he is attempting to deceive her by masking his “hideousness” that she attempts to look at and potentially kill him if she doesn’t like what she sees. So literally, Psyche and Cupid, and The Doctor and Clara are entirely different situations.

Figuratively though …

The Doctor from the very beginning knows that there is something very odd about Clara Oswin Oswald. She should not exist. She was made into Dalek in “Asylum of the Daleks” and then she died, and then she was a Victorian governess in “The Snowmen” and also died. He then realizes that she can potentially exist in another timeline as the same person and species. There seem to be forces that are getting him to find her after some of his own recent losses. He is both fascinated and afraid to find the truth of her. Perhaps when, in “Hide,” the psychic tells Clara that The Doctor has “a sliver of ice in his heart” she is really saying that there has been so much grief that he has a certain level of objectivity and dispassion as a result of that. Remember, in “The Snowmen,” it was a Christmas episode with the TARDIS in the clouds and The Doctor living there away from all people. Even the interior of the TARDIS looks like a cold metal form of ice.

That “sliver” could be fear, but it may be one of those forces that influences him to “figure Clara out,” while trying to maintain a distance. At the same time, The Doctor always loves to solve mysteries and this is one he cannot resist for a variety of reasons: not the least of which being that this “mystery” seems to like him back. A lot. And there are gods involved in the Whovian Universe–although they are known as different things like Eternals, and “sun parasite-gods”–and The Doctor, like Psyche, has had some adventures into the Underworld: not the least of which being his Regenerations and some of the other places he has found himself in.

Psyche had a lantern and a knife to take with her into the Underworld. The Doctor has his own tool.

I do hope though–probably in vain–that this loose comparison ends here. That when The Doctor finds and brings the metaphorical lantern to see Clara in the darkness that, well … it doesn’t end as badly for him as it almost did with Psyche. But knowing The Doctor’s track record and what the Universe likes to do to him: I am a bit concerned.

Because Clara could be a lot of things. She could be, as some fans have posited, The Dalek Emperor reformed by Rose as the incarnation of the Bad Wolf to be a companion for The Doctor as she predicted her importance and absence from his life in that brief time she absorbed The Heart of the TARDIS. She could be a Dalek or alien-made replicant. Maybe she is another aspect of The Great Intelligence. She could also be an avatar of the returning Eternals for all we know. She could also be Romana: the Time Lady that The Doctor once spent considerable time with. Or, when The Master was disintegrating towards his confrontation with the Time Lords, the resulting closure of the time-warp could have fractured and Regenerated him into a new form existing throughout time and space: and we know now that Time Lords can change sex and gender.

Or, much worse:

Clara Oswin Oswald could very just well be Clara Oswin Oswald in the way that she is–human–and existing in different time periods and places. And by dissecting her mystery, The Doctor could drive her away from him and leave him right back where he started. Alone.

And then maybe he will search for her, as Psyche did Cupid, and go through another adventure or so. Or may be I am just reading too much into this. Perhaps that “sliver of ice” might grow again into something more awful in that isolation. We all know that The Doctor cannot be alone for too long. And imagining that shard of ice becoming a glacial heart within the being of The Valeyard … is not too far off the mark when you wonder just how much more hearts-break can The Doctor take before he completely loses it.

Of course, this is as always mere conjecture and as Doctor Who stories go, it will be something completely unexpected. But The Doctor might want to remember something else. As Neil Gaiman has written in Sandman, there is a difference between a secret and a mystery. A secret is a truth that is waiting to reveal itself. A mystery is something–or in this case someone–that just is. And I hope more than anything that he takes a mystery to be someone and gets to know Clara as she is and that the beautiful knowledge of it does not destroy him and leave him alone in the ashes.

ETA: As an aside, the following is a teaser photo from the episode “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.” I’ll bet you all Whovians will want to read this.

It’s too bad it probably won’t be in chronological order.

For Red

Her first eye is Gaia and her second is Oceanus.

This, above all else, is the gaze I recollect underneath the plumage of the firebird and the lash of the Eumenides that occasionally comes out from her generous mouth. Yet the red also reminds me of Prometheus: of audacity and the cackling thievery of fire. However, even the Titan himself was punished by the slow, cyclical eating of his liver … save that her fate is more arbitrary than the whims of gods and her own body is not as infinite. I always fear for the day when Medusa might catch her chimeric gaze and the reversal of Galatea might come fully upon her.

Yet even the Gorgon cannot fully meet the eyes that mirror the ancient and glorious horrors of the Bacchanalia. For she who drinks the wine of blood and bathes in its ochre depths dances around the whole of humanity as though skipping through a grove of statues.

So full of utter gall and mocking bile from her revels, she grins at the carnal carnage before her and the perfect white sickle of her smile becomes the blade that castrates her own fear.

Sea Shells, See Shells by the Sea Shore: A Review of C. Anthony Martignetti’s Lunatic Heroes

I have been looking forward to reading C. Anthony Martignetti’s Lunatic Heroes: Memories, Lies and Reflections for some time, and now that I have finished reading it, I find I have a lot of different things to say. In fact, what I think I’m going to do is the following.

I am going to write two sections to this review. The first will be an attempt at a more literary perspective of Lunatic Heroes, while the second will deal with my own personal reactions to the stories themselves. Before I go on, however, I just want to say that I will be referring to Anthony by his first name due to the way that I was introduced to him. I will elaborate on that later, but I just want to say that it would feel weird after reading about him and his own work to call him anything else. It’s the not first time I have done this with an author and it probably won’t be the last.

Lunatia heros is a species of Northern moon-snail that likes to live close to the shoreline of bodies of water. They are large gastropods that like to eat clams and other snails: including members of their own species. They consume their prey by drilling holes in their shells, releasing digestive enzymes, and sucking out the partially digested contents of their victims from within those shells. In fact, the only thing left of their fellow snails are these empty shells. According to Wikipedia, these moon snails hunt other mollusks down by searching for those that bury themselves in the sand of the shoreline.

Of all the titles Anthony could have given his work, Lunatic Heroes is by far the most apt. This book is essentially a collection of fifteen short stories or, technically written recollections, of some of the major events in Anthony’s life. Even though the book itself is categorized as a memoir, which it is, each narrative is both interrelated and self-contained.

At least twelve of these stories deal with Anthony’s childhood with his Italian-American family in Boston, while the remaining three focus on Anthony as a developing independent adult all the way to contemporary times. I don’t want to make too much of a generalization, but each story is about the insanity of the human condition. After all, the word lunatic is derived from the Latin word Luna and it was once thought that someone suffering from madness was “moon-touched,” while at the same time the moon itself has always been associated with the other world of the night, creativity and intuition.

In this, the metaphor of Lunatic Heroes functions in a few different ways. On one hand, most of Anthony’s stories are about the dysfunctional elements of his own family and his 1950s childhood: about the way each character would attempt to devour Anthony’s extremely introverted essence, digging under the sand where his self hid in order to successfully–or unsuccessfully–get at it.

On the other hand, Anthony’s narratives also take many of these same characters and portray their other more relatable sides. It is no coincidence, after all, that the heroes of ancient literature–for all of their deplorable moral behaviour by contemporary standards–still possessed a spark of divinity and managed to perform great deeds. In a fiercely passionate and witty voice tempered with a nostalgic unsentimentality not unlike that of Will Eisner, Anthony manages to show that these characters from his own life aren’t always monsters, but are very fallible human beings with some moments of relation, levity, and downright comedy: even and especially in some of the worst situations that he depicts.

What drew me in as a reader were the very mutable archetypes that Anthony managed to identify in his life: specifically with regards to how they transferred and inter-lapped throughout each story that he gathers together into a strange whole. Sometimes each narrative doesn’t always fit in a straight-line–which is more than fair given how a life of human interactions is generally never shaped that way–and he occasionally repeats a sentence from a previous story. But the archetypes really drew me in. Certainly, the whole Scylla and Charybdis parallel childhood dilemma in “Force Fed” was made very uncomfortably clear, just as the figure of a Far Eastern form of enlightenment and a symbolic place of personal transformation is within “Swamp.”

So thus ends the very brief and relatively spoiler free part of my review. Now I am going to talk about my personal reaction to Lunatic Heroes. I will say that I particularly related to “Force Fed.” When I was a boy, I was a very fussy eater and after I started to lose weight at twelve, my family thought that I had some kind of eating disorder. I didn’t really see a problem: in that when I stopped feeling hungry, I simply stopped eating. I was also lactose intolerant and I didn’t know that until my doctor and a slough of very uncomfortable and embarrassing tests happened. I lost a lot of weight from simply no longer eating dairy and then having a growth spurt. It also didn’t help that I was a very nervous child and my stomach suffered for it. But I could definitely relate to Anthony’s account of being made to feel like there was something wrong with you just because you simply weren’t hungry enough by the standards of others or the fact that you didn’t want to become sick.

I could definitely relate to the moments of introversion and hyper-sensitivity from Anthony’s depiction of his childhood self and that paradoxical need to have your parents always in your life, but at the same time that need to keep that bubble of personal space around you from being violated by the rest of the world: sometimes in vain. That is why I particularly related to–and if anyone knows me and is reading this they will be laughing by now–the last story “Hate.”

I admit that I was actually concerned when Anthony ended his memoir with a story entitled “Hate,” but it made sense. The thing is, Anthony is a psychotherapist and there are some things he talks about throughout the entire book–mindfulness, being in your head and needing to be in your body–that is very reminiscent of what my own therapist has been telling me for quite some years now. In “Hate,” Anthony even mentions how he still has snap judgments and immediate–and sometimes unfavourable–superficial impressions of people. They can bring up various associations his life: not all of them pleasant. But he also mentions how by realizing that these same people have pain and loss in their lives, it makes them relatable as human beings. It is still a lesson I have to keep reminding myself of during some of my more misanthropic world-obliterating moments of glee.

I also totally understand where Anthony is coming from in “The Head,” when he writes about the darkness and anger that he is feeling in himself even while he is with his wife and dog at a peaceful retreat: the knowledge of this fact that just made him feel worse until he has one moment of mindfulness. I think Anthony really hit home for me that you can mentally and emotionally awaken many times in life: and for different reasons. In that, “Swamp” and the events with regards to the freak show in “Carnival” really come to the fore. In addition, the story “Nonno” made me really miss my own Zaidy while I can more than sympathize with the need to belong and centre yourself and finding a place like “Harvard Square” home.

I am almost finished this strange review. But to make it even stranger, I want to write down some very notable lines, or moments of text that just made this entire book for me:

Anthony writes about longing: “But this time I felt the ache you get when longing for something you don’t think you have, coupled by the fear that you’d blow it if you did” (107).

He also describes the process of maturity, stating, “I was pulling off the heist of the decade, stealing the truth about myself from every encounter” (108-109).

Finally, there is this: “I imagined eventually befriending the Devil and getting promoted to demon status, sharing the power of evil and control over an infinite number of she-devils who would hungrily do my bidding” (129).

These are just such universal impulses and feelings, and as a writer I kind of wish I had been the one to express myself in such a way. The metaphor of the Lunatic Heroes is even more ingenious because in addition to moon snails being predators, Lunatia heros always leaves perfectly preserved husks from all of its feedings. Think about that for a few moments: even though the snail is gone, like the imprint of a lost self or Virginia Woolf’s spot on a wall, its shell–the testament to its existence–is left unearthed in the sand. It’s left there for others to find and see and marvel in the patterns that they created. In other words, we are the predators and the prey of our selves, but by simply living we take the selves of others with us, and we leave a testament to their existence. It is an excellent extended metaphor for a writer, the act of writing, literature itself and the state of being human.

Now I am finally going to tell you the reason why I refer to Anthony by his first name in this review. Through reading Anthony’s book, I feel like I know him a little more. But that is only part of it. The rest of the reason has to do with how I discovered him.

It was mainly by accident. I was searching for Amanda Palmer’s Blog and I came across her entries about Anthony and just some of what he means to her. I will let you read that entry should you so wish. But what I will say is that Amanda wrote the “Introduction” to Anthony’s book and she said something that really got to me.

Amanda wrote the following, “I had a small glimpse into the act of writing as a direct escape from pain. For the first time, I experienced the physical truth of what it felt like to dwell in the act of creation as the only viable escape from an unbearable, unfaceable reality” (ix). I read this statement and I took a look at myself. I took a look at my notebooks around me in my room. And then I looked at the one hundred or so posts I’ve made on this very Blog. I took a look at what I try to do every single day now and I thought…

Yes. Just … yes.

Amanda also went on to talk about how she and Anthony delve into the uncomfortable, and awkward, and painful moments of clarity that is life. And you will find that and more in exquisite detail if you read this book.

Now I am going to end off now by doing something even stranger. I am going to give Lunatic Heroes a four out of five.

And here is why.

After reading “The Introduction” and Anthony’s “Acknowledgments,” and just hearing about him and some of his life from Amanda’s Blog, I wanted to know … more. Even though the way he describes his childhood, sometimes blatantly and sometimes tinged with hazy mythical half-memories is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Violent Cases, I want to know about the rest of it: the adolescent rebellion you see forming in the latter stories, what happened in the rest of his travels, what his other fights were about, and more about his exposure to other philosophies and other relationships.

When it comes down to it, I want to see more. And as one lunatic hero to another, Anthony, I sincerely hope to.

Still Trying to Go Beyond Myth and Legend, Novels and Short Stories

It was in 2002 that I wrote my first complete “adult” novel. I put the word “adult” in quotation marks specifically because I was twenty years old at the time and I barely had any living experience. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that I had no living experience at all.

What I did have, however, was the opportunity to absorb a lot of academic experience. I had always been a pretty good student (in fact, I thought it would be the most sensible thing to do with my whole life) and I believed that University would just expand on my knowledge. And it did. I learned many more obscure ancient Greek and Latin roots of words, some mythology, and even more philosophy. To be honest, I had been learning of these elements back in Grade Twelve and the now-lost Canadian Grade OAC (or Grade 13 for those who might not be familiar with it).

Read Between the Realities: Beyond Myth and Legend was essentially a bildungsroman–or a “coming of age”–novel of 136 double-spaced computer pages. This was the point in my development as a writer where things began to really change for me.

Now, I’ve discussed a little of the background behind this novel’s creation, but there are a few more specific things I have to mention. Before this point, I had mostly been working with purely the fantasy genre: in as much of a way as someone at my skill level and knowledge at the time could. In fact, even in my first year of Undergrad I was still working on my fantasy series Deceptions of Nevermore before the change began.

First of all, I’d heard of York’s Creative Writing Program. It was–and as far as I know is–a program where you had to submit a portfolio of poetry and prose in order to be selected for a small number of spots. The Program also discouraged, if not outright rejected genre writing in its courses and, instead, wanted to focus on “realistic fiction.” Now, I was very interested in developing my writing skills in those days and I could only apply in my second year. But that was only part of what helped to create my novel.

The second crucial element in the creation of Read Between the Realities was my discovery of a book called American Gods made by a man named Neil Gaiman. That book, which only in retrospect I realize was Neil Gaiman’s own transition from the format of comic book script writing into solo novel writing, changed things for me in a very big, very real way.

I realized that there were things beyond the confines of genre as I understood it. Then I remembered the film Finding Forrester and how I wanted to write “the great 21st century novel.” So I did something new. Before I even entered the Creative Writing Program, I decided to create my first experimental “adult” novel: a great Canadian novel and all of the grandiosity I still haven’t quite grown out of even in my very early 30s of now.

In Read Between the Realities, I created a pastiche of different stories and attempted to sew them together into an open-ended patchwork reality where you could interpret the novel almost any which way you’d like. I worked on this sucker for a long, long time. I worked on it at home, in parks, on mall benches, at friends’ houses, during sleepovers, when I visited my girlfriend at the time or when she visited me, and even when I moved with my parents to our new house then. Some more marked developments in this novel was how I actually actively incorporated many of my own experiences and thoughts into the work. This was partially influenced by my interest or obsession with philosophy, but also from insights I was having from life.

I was really bad at explaining what my novel was about and I firmly believed that the only way someone could understand it is if they read the damn thing. It also didn’t help that I had the paradigm-shifting magic concept of Mage: The Ascension on my brain too, and I delved into that voraciously.

My book was essentially a story about different realities inter-lapping and how personalized they are. It was about a writer and his relationship issues with his life, a fragmented being seeking something for a demanding master in a labyrinthine subconscious world of ruin, a viciously sadistic monster hunting this being down, and two people on an Internet chat room who bickered all the time. The writer and the two chat room people both believed they were making the story, while the seeker and monster both thought they were living a reality. And none of it was real. And all of it was real.

Of course it all combined, or exploded together–because I always loved epic moments of spectacle–and I played at being profound. Yes, it was a meta-narrative: complete with the characters knowing they are characters or finding out they are and all that fun stuff.

Ten years ago, I thought it was the best thing I had ever written in my whole life, and I actually feared that I could never surpass it. Ever.

Years later after showing it to some friends, I found out that I could indeed “surpass” it. A lot of my characters were two-dimensional archetypes, I didn’t write female characters well, I certainly couldn’t write sex scenes worth a damn then, and I rambled: a lot. And when I tried to simulate experiences I never learned about or experiences I never had, it just fell flat. Also, I wrote combat and adventures as if they were video game levels: though that in itself makes sense given my interests then and now. So yes, I can safely say that I have done better since then, though …

I’ll let you in on a little secret. I actually haven’t really written any, at least official, novel-length works in a very long time. They take a lot of commitment and unique formulas to keep up. I also can’t just write anywhere at anytime anymore. Part of this is that I realized I had more of a life beyond my craft, but I also find that novels can be trapping. They can really take your time and energy. They always get on your mind all the time.

Short stories are explorations into more tightly-knit, self-contained worlds. You can spend less time on these than on a novel, though they take their own toll given that you really need to focus on tying them up all neat-like. On the other hand, sometimes I find short stories to be like little tidbits–even the more complex “four-course meal ones” that some of my friends like to call them–and not as satisfying as the meaty feel of an entire world in a novel. That is, of course, when the short story ideas aren’t overwhelming your bodily and mental limitations to write them all out.

So sometimes, despite my best intentions, I have found myself writing novel-length works because the ideas behind them are either too similar to be placed in anything other than an overarching structure, or they just too big to contain in one short story. And for now, that is all I will say for the others that came after Read Between the Realities.

What is notable about my twenty-year old writer’s novel was that this was about the point when I was also consciously playing with mythology and archetypes in addition to ideas and philosophies. I attempted to combine academics and creation together. I also very reluctantly put more of myself into the work, and–like I said–I went into meta-narrative and irony: which for someone who had just done generic well-meaning fantasy novels before was a big step. And Joss Whedon taught me to be more flippant and referential about popular culture and life too.

I would never have admitted that I created a coming of age novel. I always wanted to make other worlds and other people to get away from the ones I was experiencing–or not experiencing–but I can admit that this was what it was. And for something based on a whole lot of theoretical knowledge, incomplete understanding, video game and pop culture influences and a small if not sheltered, somewhat self-repressed and stagnant amount of personal growth at the time, I did pretty well. It was like building a small Star Gate from the scrap-metal in one’s basement. It did what it was designed to do.

Read Between Realities was made at a time where I went as far as I could go with what I had then–with what I was then–and now, whatever else, I know that I have and definitely can go farther.

Looking Outward

Credit: Beth Ann Dowler, the photographer of this image.

A Hesitant Hero or the Pause Before the Precipice: Alan Moore’s Miracleman and Virgil’s Aeneid

I always find it amazing when you set out to write one simple thing and then not only does it become more complex than you thought it was going to be, but the implications of what it might say can be very difficult to gauge as well.

When I first started reading Alan Moore’s run of Miracleman a while ago, I made a whole lot of notes on the margins of a piece of paper as strange literary parallels occurred to me. One of these, a comparison between the Moore Miracleman’s world, the Platonic World of Being and Aristophanes’ myth of love, made it into an article.

My comparison of the character of Miracleman to the protagonist of Virgil’s Aeneid did not.

Aeneas is depicted by the Roman writer Virgil as not only a demi-god and a high-ranking survivor of Troy after its Sacking by the Achaians, but also as the founder of another greater Empire: Rome. He has a son named Ascanius from his wife who dies during the end of the Trojan War, and has a few adventures dealing with the gods plans for him. In fact, he leads his son and the survivors of Troy to a new life: carrying his father Anchises with him out of the lost city. His father is also notable for having been a mortal man who had been chosen by and ultimately impregnated the goddess Venus (or Aphrodite): who is also the mother of Aeneas himself.

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Later, Anchises dies but due to his intimate association with divine leaves him a whole other legacy: so in a way it is more than fitting that the hero carries his father on his back and ultimately later lays him to rest.

But while he is ultimately loyal to the gods–to their plan to make him the creator of a new Empire–he has his doubts: about himself and about how successful he will be. From what I remember, he mourns his old life and some of the decisions that his destiny forces him to make: such as leaving Queen Dido of Carthage whom he had fallen in love and had a relationship. Much later, he marries Lavinia of the Latins in what will one day become the city-state of Rome while his son becomes his heir.

But before this, Aeneas descends into the Underworld to see the future of the Empire that the gods decreed that he would help build: learning about the future of his people and descendants in immense detail from the spirit of his now deceased father Anchises. This is obviously a transformative experience for him–making him see that reality is far different than he had always known–but what strikes me is that the doubt never really leaves him in Virgil’s depiction. I will go more into that later.

Miracleman, or Marvelman–also known as Mike Moran–is depicted by Alan Moore as a genetically altered human being that survives the destruction of his super-hero team with few of his memories intact. He was engineered with advanced alien organic matter and technology to fulfill a purpose that was ultimately taken away from him when the authorities that made him and his Marvel or Miracle Family believed them to be too dangerous: and sought to destroy them. Despite this, Miracleman and his Family were created by Project Zarathustra to help “save” the world: or at least the status quo version of it at the time.

Miracleman has a wife named Liz while he still believes he is a human being and eventually reawakens his power and many of his lost memories. At first he believes he is a superhero, but after a trip to the Spook Show bunker that created him and his Family, he realizes that he is the result of a physical and psychological weapons experiment: his first trip to the “Underworld,” if you will. Eventually, he meets his creator–and nemesis–Dr. Gargunza who reveals more about his true nature before trying to kill him.

Gargunza himself is a mortal human man that has also–in a way–delved into the divine by adapting crashed alien technology to create Miracleman and his Family. Miracleman also carries him: though in a somewhat different fashion than Aeneas and Anchises.

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He both honours his nemesis creator and sends him directly into the Underworld where, at least in Neil Gaiman’s run of the comic, he remains in another Underworld … in a sense. 😉

The hero ends up having a child named Winter with Liz, who eventually leaves him when she can no longer relate to either him or his superhuman and intellectually advanced child. He also gains a new lover in the form of Miraclewoman. In the end after a time in his original base of operations–the Silence–to mourn his old life, he, the remainder of his Family, and other heroes he has assembled take it upon themselves to create a utopia on Earth: whether ordinary humans like it or not. This also ushers in the creation of a new race of humans created from his DNA: of which Winter is the first. At the same time, even though he discovers what he truly is and that he seemingly made his own destiny upon the world, Miracleman never loses his sense of doubt in his own motivations or what he has wrought.

So we have two demi-gods that survived the destruction of their way of life, losing loved ones and finding new ones, creating heirs to the Empires that they leave behind, finding knowledge and terrible enlightenment in the Underworld, and reshaping the status quo while always questioning their motivations in doing so. These are the superficial similarities and differences between the two figures, and you can definitely see some eerie parallels at work. I’m not saying that Alan Moore attempted to copy Virgil, or was even consciously inspired by this epic. In fact, I’d venture to say that it is more the case of the hero archetype that functions similarly in both an ancient novel and an early 1980s comics form.

But the implications, for me at least, go deeper than that.

I’m mainly thinking about how both stories end: especially how they end.

Aeneas is told that there are are two kinds of dreams that leave the Underworld from two different gates: prophecies from the Gate of Horn, and false dreams from the Gate of Ivory. After being shown Rome’s future history, Aeneas is shown the way out of the Elysian Fields and the Underworld: specifically through the Gate of Ivory. This act says a lot of things right off the bat and perhaps foreshadows the very end of The Aeneid itself.

It is a strange ending: almost a very abrupt one. Aeneas confronts Turnus, the King of the Rituli and former suitor of Lavinia, on the battlefield. The latter instigates a war with the Trojan survivors with his own subjects after he loses the hand of Lavinia to Aeneas. At the very end of their personal duel, Aeneas gains the upper-hand and Turnus begs for his life. Aeneas actually pauses for a few moments, and as a reader I can almost picture him looking right at the reader somehow, before he lets anger consume him and strike his enemy down. The last obstacle to Aeneas’ destiny over the Latin people and Rome is removed: but it is a troublesome and problematic ending in that Aeneas, despite fulfilling the will of the gods and having seen the future of his actions–or because he saw the future before he left through the Gate of Ivory–hesitated for that one moment of possible doubt.

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That is one possible reading of The Aeneid in any case. I mean, what could it possibly mean if you saw a glorious future and legacy before leaving it through a Gate of false dreams: of lies?

Then we have the way Alan Moore ended his run of Miracleman. Miracleman’s entire existence, despite his extraordinary powers and advantages, has been a layer of dreams and lies. People have constantly manipulated him in some way or form with either maliciousness, expectations, or even good intentions. Finally, he makes his own decisions: not merely for himself but for the species of fallible beings that created him.

He does this after killing his former friend, Family member, sidekick and now nemesis and mass-murderer Kid Miracleman–or Bates–having him return to his child form, promising to save him, and snapping his neck.

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The beginning of a new utopia in Miracleman’s version of a 1980s world starts with him cradling the half naked brutalized child alter-ego of a friend that he failed to save and who he himself kills for the “greater good.” And even after he eliminates capitalism, ends world hunger, encourages the advancement of medical science, creates an Earth alliance with advanced aliens, as well as creating a process of giving normal human beings powers like his own, where he and his heroes have essentially taken rulership of the Earth for themselves in a benevolent dictatorship– they have become the embodiment of the human need to have gods to aspire to and worship–that he stares from a balcony at the very end of the story … and he ponders again, in his garden of horrors and wonders, if he actually did right.

This is the main reason why I see Miracleman as an Aeneas figure within Alan Moore’s and–to some extent–Neil Gaiman’s run of the comic. I was also willing to end it at this point as well: to merely show the parallel between these two heroes with problematic issues to the destinies they’ve taken on themselves. But there is something else that I find interesting.

In one of my courses at University, when I first read The Aeneid, there was this implication presented to us that Virgil may have had some other motivations when he wrote his book. Virgil was around during the time when the princeps Augustus of Rome reigned. Before Augustus, Rome had been a Republic with two consuls in governance, and sometimes a triumvirate after periods of civil unrest. There were many accusations that Augustus had, once becoming ruler of Rome, made it into a monarchy again or controlled it as a tyrant. Some scholars have seen Virgil’s act of writing the glory of Rome and Augustus through the Gate of Ivory and Aeneas’ supposed doubts of the future as a subversive criticism of Augustus’ regime and the way that Rome was heading. It may have been coincidence or premature death that left The Aeneid unfinished after the death of Turnus at the hands of Aeneas, or it may not have.

So what does any of this have to do with Miracleman? Aside from creating a narrative that uses a superhero to criticize and end the late-Cold War politics and social orders of the early 80s? Or Moore himself being an integral force in re-innovating the medium of comics? Well, this is where the theme of prescience–of seeing the future–becomes ironic. I’ve read somewhere that Alan Moore believed that the comics medium–at least that sponsored by the industry–has become stagnant and that it uses techniques and themes that were created about twenty-five or so years ago. He especially goes into this when he talks about DC’s decision to create the Watchmen prequel series: another work of his from the 1980s era. I think about this. Then I think about Miracleman. It was one of the earliest 1980s revisions of the superhero genre, and the comics medium, that Alan Moore ever undertook.

And then I wonder if the iconic Miracleman–Moore’s Aeneas–looked out over the balcony surveying the dark and yet promising structure his writer created around and before him … and found himself afraid.