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Run away, Clare! Run away! He wants to turn you into a doll!

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He laughed, and, before they came to the door of the house, drew her aside and kissed her. “There’s more enchantment in these two lips of yours and in these two dear grey eyes than in all the books of Azzimari…”

“Ah, no,” she said. “There’s no enchantment in me, except what you’ve planted. Perhaps that’s it: you captured me that night and you’ve kept me in a cage ever since because you wanted someone to practise spells on. Is that it?”

“Do you mind if it is?”

“No,” she confessed, smiling up at him and speaking with a most innocent simplicity. “I like being your captive.”

They laughed silently at each other as he held her a little way off to look into her eyes.

“Who is Azzi–? The name you said just now?” she asked.

“Azzimari. That was the name of the Berber Kaid who bought my ancestor, Captain Trethewy, from the Sallee Rovers. He was a practitioner of the art of magic, which seeks to know the other side of nature. It seems their doctors had studied these matters, there in the Southern Atlas Mountains, before the Koran came among them. The captain translated some of Azzimari’s books and brought them back with him.”

“And you’ve learnt magic from them?”

He nodded solemnly. “From them and from experience.”

She bent her head and stroked his arms. “And you are Azzimari to me, and I’m a slave like the Captain. Dear Captain! I’m glad he brought Azzimari’s magic home for you. I wonder if he loved his master as I love mine?”

“Perhaps. But he fled from him at last. And you too will want to be free.”

She pressed close to him, winding his arms about her. “No, no. I am free, like this. You must be a stern master, and if I try to break the spell, you must double it and treble it, chain me down in the deepest dungeon in your castle, imprison me in the hollow of an oak in your enchanted wood. You must not let me go!”

“Ah, no,” he said with wondering tenderness. “Dungeons I have and hollow oaks, but not for you. One ancient ceremony of bondage is enough. If you want to be my slave, I’ll perform it: the same that Azzimari performed upon the Captain. Shall I?”

“Yes, yes,” she said in a scarcely audible voice, pressing her head against his coat.

He laughed. “Not now. It must be in the propitious conjunction of the planets. Time and place must adhere. I will do it when you come to see the puppets.”

This is the point in one of my favorite novellas where everything kind of goes off the rails in the best way possible.

Up until then, it’s been a cozy little story of Clare, a bored, stifled, and restless 19-year-old, on the edge of graduating from Paston Hall, a dull little residential school somewhere in England in the 1950s. Studying with the mom and son of the local gentry, she crams on the subjects she needs to learn so that she can sit for a scholarship at Oxford.

And yeah, she’s got a crush on Niall, who’s in his late twenties, and yeah, he says with an absolute deadpan that his ancestor learned magic and the secrets of making immortal bonzai, and yeah, he makes uncannily realistic likenesses of young women, some of whom have died.

But maybe the two of them are just bored out of their skulls and doing some sort of elaborate role play because it’s much more exciting than anything else going on in Paston.

But then Niall goes away for a few days, and, when he comes back, this happens. Clare says to herself that she’s in love with him, and, for the first time, they speak explicitly about their role play, the expectations, and where they want it to go. Magic, ownership, submission, imprisonment, punishment, and love, all previously subtextual or implied, become apparent and textual.

And so does the danger. The tone changes here, and they speak with serious depth. On her end, Clare abases herself before Niall with as much abjection as possible, trying to give herself entirely to him. On his end, Niall finally tells her the ominous consequences of the powers about which he has been making merry. Eventually she will tire of Niall-possession and Niall-mastery and search for self-possession and self-mastery.

Of course, at this point, I’m screaming, “Run away, Clare! Run the fuck away! He wants to turn you into a doll! Definitely in a figurative sense and possibly in a literal sense as well! Furthermore, this guy is the veritable quintessence of the Creepy Dom, and he’s telling you in his own words that you’re gonna regret it. Pay attention to all the fairy tales about deals with the Devil and bargains with the fairies and promises made to sneaky magicians, and don’t do it!”

And of course Clare’s not listening to me because story characters never do. They really should, but then there’d be no plot.

But what happens? Does Clare go through with this bullshit? [Spoiler alert: Yes.] Does she become Niall’s doll? [Yes.]

Does she save her own damn self in the most satisfyingly dramatic possible that one can break off such soul-sucking dysfunction without an impassioned monologue of self-righteous fury to the Creepy Dom in question? [Yes.]

Do you like stories of psychological depth and subtle horror that balance perfectly between realistic and supernatural explanations?

Do you just love it when the young, previously innocent, now more experienced heroine discovers inner strength, wises up, and kicks the older, psychologically manipulative, antagonistic dude’s ass?

Then read The Doll Maker by Sarban. By taking the naive Clare’s quest for self-determination absolutely seriously, the author imparts to the age-old trope a sensitivity and depth of character development rarely seen in such tales. That, plus the treatment of dolls, the kinky overtones, the possibility of either a realistic or a supernatural interpretation, and the clear, fluid prose, keeps me coming back to this sadly unknown gem.

The sort of film criticism I can get behind

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After recently taking a swipe at straight white cis bourgeois dude off-gassing disguised as movie reviews, I’m happy to report that I’ve found someone whose film crit I can indeed endorse: Kaye Toal. Specifically, Toal’s commentary on toxic masculinity in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Harry Potter, the Prequel, Part 1 of N, Where N is an Exhaustingly Large Number cheers me up with its down-to-earth tone, intersectional considerations of masculinity, misogyny, and race, and its overall good writing.

Oh, who am I kidding? I was prompted to write this entry because the author describes the antagonist Grindewald as “played by longtime alleged domestic abuser Johnny Depp in styling and makeup that looks like somebody’s high school OC from a bad Harry Potter Livejournal roleplaying community.” That’s the most perfect burn on an overacted, self-consciously theatrical weirdo that I’m still chuckling. Since there was another movie review, which I can’t find a link to, sadly, that compared Depp’s portrayal to David Bowie for some reason, I assume there’s heavy face painting, dramatic intonation, and general scenery chewing involved. Too bad I can’t stand Rowling, Depp, and the entire Harry Potter media juggernaut, or else I might actually watch the movie for said scenery chewing.

EDIT: Ah, here we go. Jeffrey Bloomer, in an article about gay not-so-subtexts in the movie, writes [emphasis added], “Alas, the end of Fantastic Beasts will not put an end to the speculation about Grindelwald’s sexuality. When the real man is finally revealed, he’s played by a snarling Johnny Depp, his hair dyed platinum and his manner suggesting a deeply alarming cross of David Bowie and Milo Yiannopoulos. We get only a few moments of his giddy Aryan flamboyance, but the performance so far certainly seems … suggestive.”

Okay, never mind. Given that Milo Yiannopoulos’ insufferable smugness provokes violent rage inside me, I think I’ll pass on investigating the scenery chewing further.

Pete Burns est mort.

Pete Burns est mort. published on No Comments on Pete Burns est mort.

57. Cardiac arrest. My heart goes crack crack crack crack…

The Guardian’s obit says the following:


Burns became famous for his androgynous style and his progressive approach to gender. He often wore women’s clothes and, speaking to the Guardian in 2007, said: “Everyone’s in drag of some sorts, I don’t give a fuck about gender and drag. I’m not trying to be a girl by putting on a dress – gender is separated by fabric. I was brought up with an incredible amount of freedom and creativity. Society has put certain constraints on things.”

I find this quote curious because it’s not quite true. He evidently gave a whole bunch of fucks about gender…or at least his, since he defined his own and performed it with great joy, consistency, and relish until the day he died. More precisely, I think he didn’t care for the inevitable labels [crossdresser, drag queen, transsexual, f****t, etc.] that I’m sure accompanied public notice of his gender. I think this quote is more about him saying, “Y’all are so hung up on what I am or am not. You think I’m some weird deviant pervert. Well, I’m me, and you’re the weird deviant perverts for being so obsessed about it.”

Also The Guardian’s comment that he “often wore women’s clothes” doesn’t make any sense either. Reminds me of the Gender Aptitude Test in Kate Bornstein’s Gender Workbook. One of the questions was as follows:

Have you ever worn the clothes of “the opposite sex?”
a. Hey, give me a break. No way!
b. Yes, but when I wear them, they’re for the right sex.
c. What sex in the world would by opposite of me?
d. Several of the above.

I think D would apply to Pete here.

P.S. The Gender Aptitude Test has lots of entertaining answer choices, but I especially like this one:
Which of the following statements most nearly describes your feelings about gender?
a. My what about gender?
b. I guess my feelings range anywhere from anger and frustration to happiness and exhilaration.
c. Gender confuses me. I don’t know why it is the way it is.
d. I feel… I feel… I feel a song coming on!

Missed opportunities in Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

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This year, Adam Cohen came out with Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Buck, a white, working-class Virginian, was raped by the nephew of the Dobbses, the bourgeois couple in whose house she was working. The Dobbses thus had her categorized as “feebleminded” and institutionalized in the Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded. There she attracted the attention of various assholes [Albert Priddy, director of the Colony, Aubrey Strode, the lawyer who drafted the Virginia law, and Harry Laughlin, veritable Nazi who served as expert witness for the prosecution] who wanted to use her as a test case to secure the constitutionality of Virginia’s recently passed eugenics law.

Like many other states at the time, Virginia was caught up in the burgeoning enthusiasm over eugenics. Ostensibly about improving the human race through selective breeding, eugenics was actually about breeding more straight, white, cis, able-bodied, rich, smart virtuous WASPs like us and keeping those defective, vicious, disabled, vacuous, non-white people out. Anyway, Virginia’s law allowed state-sponsored sterilization of people with various “mental defects.” Despite the evidence being made up entirely of unscientific, sexist, racist, ableist, classist lies, the Amherst County Supreme Court upheld it.

The assholes, however, wanted their law to be ratified by even higher authorities. Buck’s “defense” lawyer, who was so in cahoots with the opposing counsel that his picture appears in the dictionary under the definition of moral bankruptcy, appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The higher court upheld the appeal in 1925, and still the assholes carried bravely on. In 1927, Buck v. Bell went before the United States Supreme Court. The highest court in the land ruled in favor of state-sponsored rape, with a ringing endorsement coming from Chief Justice Asshole Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Three generations of imbeciles [Buck’s mother, also institutionalized at the same colony, and Buck’s daughter included, though no one had really tested Buck’s daughter’s mental abilities] are enough!”

Buck was re-institutionalized, given a nonconsensual salpingectomy, and not at all informed about the consequences of the operation. She was also deprived of the chance to form a relationship with her kid, who, for some reason, was being raised by the Dobbses, who institutionalized Buck in the first place. She was eventually released from the institution; she then worked intermittently as a household cleaner and seasonal orchard picker, married twice, apparently loved her husbands, and, when she heard about what the salpingectomy had done to her, always grieved her inability to have kids.

Laws such as the one tested in Buck v. Bell gained popularity, peaking in the late 1920s. The stock market crash of 1929 drew attention away from “mental defectives” and toward a horrendously tanking economy. It also didn’t help that the guy who served as eugenics expert witness in Buck v. Bell, Harry Laughlin, enthusiastically sucked up to the rising Nazi regime. Despite these factors and the expose of eugenics as junk science, legal eugenic sterilization persisted in the United States till at least 1983, when Oregon finally dissolved its Board of Institutionalized Bigotry Social Protection. In fact, Buck v. Bell remains “good law,” according to Cohen, and courts continue to cite it, even in this millennium, as justification for sterilization of disabled people. Indeed, the current fetishization of the genome and the rising popularity of genetic testing for disease markers both raise the unsettling possibility that the eugenics movement will pop up again.

Anyway, not only is reproductive rights a timely topic, but Buck’s story is a dramatic one, so Cohen has potent, pertinent material here. In measured, well-documented prose, he tells the story of Buck v. Bell with two chapters each on Priddy, Laughlin, Strode, and Holmes, bookended on either side by a chapter on Buck. He applies keen analysis to some aspects of the story, but totally misses other significant opportunities. Thus it’s an uneven book.

Cohen excels at his treatment of socioeconomic class, his analysis of Strode, and his takedown of Holmes. In terms of class, he is always attentive to the ways in which class pressures and expectations shape the players’ lives. He observes that the Dobbses’ push for middle-class respectability required the disposal of their working-class servant in a “colony” for the “feebleminded” when she had the audacity to be raped by the Dobbses’ nephew. He also demonstrates the influence of class in Holmes’ life; born among the socially conservative, neo-Puritan snobs of the Boston Brahmin class, he owed every single advancement in his life to the behind-the-scenes connections fostered by this good ol’ boys’ club. With details like these, Cohen ably proves that Buck v. Bell exemplified contemporary concerns about social class — in particular, the nasty poor people, with all their vices and feeble minds, becoming too numerous and steamrolling the awesome rich people, who were naturally smart and good.

Also particularly strong is Cohen’s portrayal of Strode, the lawyer who drafted the original Virginia bill and followed it all the way up to the Supreme Court. Scion of one of Virginia’s elite families and avowed Confederate sympathizer, Strode might at first glance seem to be a garden variety Southern bigot, especially with his hand in having nonconsensual sterilization enshrined as the law of the land. However, Cohen shows Strode as a complex figure, progressive in the areas of women’s rights and higher education, who probably didn’t even support eugenics at all. He purposely drafted the initial law to be as narrow and restrictive as possible, and, unlike Holmes, who wouldn’t shut up about his magnificent majority opinion, barely mentioned the whole subject of eugenics in his life afterward. Cohen makes these points not to garner sympathy for Strode, since Strode clearly chose to draft the bill and serve as prosecutor for the case, all the way up to the Supreme Court. Instead, Cohen’s portrayal of Strode’s ambivalence neatly encapsulates the country’s own ambivalence on the subject of eugenics.

Finally, Cohen does a masterful job of replacing the saintly ideal of Holmes with a more accurate picture of the man’s full character and motivations. While Holmes may be remembered for his aphorisms on free speech, Cohen argues that his upbringing as a member of the hierarchical, ancestry-obsessed, self-important Boston Brahmins largely shaped his political views. He was actually more of a pro-business, anti-civil rights conservative who regularly struck down or dissented on cases of reducing work hours for laborers or improving working conditions. He had an essentially passive, reactive view of the law, which was basically that it shouldn’t be socially activist in a way that changed policy, but that it should just execute whatever was passed until someone stepped forward to challenge it. This passive, socially disengaged perspective extended throughout his life; for example, he bragged about never reading newspapers and seemed to make a virtue of being clueless to events and trends occurring beyond the tip of his nose [except for eugenics]. Enamored with his self-concept as a brilliant, eloquent, accomplished genius, he chose to ignore the fact that his brilliance was completely untempered by compassion and social consciousness, his eloquence called into service for arrogant, venomous, mean-spirited opinions attacks, and his accomplishments largely the result of the socioeconomic class in which he was born. Cohen uses both close analysis of Holmes’ opinions and a close reading of Holmes’ private letters to effectively puncture the myth of Holmes as practically perfect. It’s very satisfying.

All this said, Cohen only tells part of the story. He fails to include material that would make his book even stronger and more convincing. His treatment of Buck, disability, and race are ultimately unsatisfying. In terms of Buck, though she has two chapters, just like all other major players, they are ultimately scant. For example, though Cohen refers to Buck’s elementary school report cards as evidence of her average mental capacity, he quotes them only once. Even more egregiously, when he has the chance to use Buck’s own words, he doesn’t take it. He uses the most direct quotes in the final chapter, describing Buck’s later years, including her efforts to have her mom de-institutionalized. Yet he also refers to Buck’s letters in general, commenting on the neat penmanship and only sporadic grammar mistakes. This leaves the impression that Buck produced a lot of firsthand documentation of her post-trial years that Cohen omitted, except for a superficial comment on Buck’s ability to hold a pen. For someone so insistent that Buck’s voice was never heard at all in these cases [beyond her statement at the initial trial “that her people” would “take care” of her, which suggests that she had no clue what was going on], Cohen certainly devalues Buck and her experiences.

My close reading of Cohen himself reveals telling details about why he silences Buck. He wants to depict her as a pathetic, innocent victim who did nothing wrong whatsoever and was totally betrayed by mean, rich men. To this end, he is obsessed with the adjective “helpless,” one of his most-used descriptors for Buck. Indeed, Buck was helpless before the straight, white, rich, cis, WASPy men who used their privilege to rape her, but she also had agency in other areas of her life. I understand that this book focuses more narrowly on the Buck v. Bell case, but Cohen’s exaggeration of Buck’s supposed helplessness turns her into a bit player in her own life.

Cohen not only fails Buck personally, but he also fails in his portrayal of eugenics in general by inadequately addressing the ableism and racism at work in its rise. Yes, I am aware that Cohen is telling the story of a white woman, Buck, who has no intellectual or physical disabilities. That doesn’t excuse, however, his omission of the ableist and racist implications of eugenics, as well as the ableist and racist purposes to which the United States put eugenics laws.

Beyond being a way for rich people to try to literally cut poor people out of existence, sterilization — and indeed the whole eugenics movement — was also against people with mental and physical disabilities. Cohen gestures toward this when he follows the history of sterilization laws, in which blind, deaf, and or “crippled” people were sometimes included as eligible populations. For the most part, though, he strenuously avoids a disability rights analysis. For example, his preoccupation with arguing that Buck wasn’t “feebleminded” seems particularly wrong-headed. Her mental capacity is important insofar as all the pro-eugenics people flat out lied in their claims that she, her mom, and her daughter had intellectual disabilities. But even if Buck and her family members were intellectually disabled, re-raping her via salpingectomy would be morally repugnant as a breach of her right to bodily integrity. Again, Cohen alludes to such ableist violations when quoting some anti-eugenics rulings, but he doesn’t face the infantilization and objectification of disabled people head-on. He seems more interested in stoking reader outrage by harping on Buck’s average intelligence, the implication being that institutionalization and forced sterilization of a person without disabilities is worse than the same fate for a disabled person. I smell ableism — and not just in the historical record, but in the historiography itself.

Finally, the whole concept of eugenics is a racist fallacy, pitting white/Anglo-Saxon/Aryan proponents against people of other colors with other racial identities. Cohen illustrates this well in his discussion of Laughlin’s sucking up to the Nazis, who, inspired by eugenics work in the United States, expanded the racism to genocidal proportions. Strangely enough, however, Cohen leaves out the racist practices fostered by Buck v. Bell that occurred in the U.S. As Nancy Gallagher capably shows in Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State, eugenics/sterilization laws disproportionately burdened not just poor people and/or people with [real or imagined] disabilities, but also people who weren’t white. In Vermont, the Abenaki Indians were seen as the racial undesireables and so particularly pursued for sterilization, but, in other states, other populations were victimized. Lack of attention to the racial minorities in the U.S. who were persecuted gives the unfounded impression that eugenic racism only happened over there in Germany, with those evil Nazis. No, it happened here too, and it’s vital to emphasize that it happened in the U.S. — indeed, pretty much started in the U.S. — because part of Cohen’s conclusion warns that the currents of eugenics may be at an ebb right now, but could easily swell again.

P.S. Cohen’s title, Imbeciles, also really rankled me. As I mentioned earlier, Buck was never categorized as an “imbecile,” but as a “moron,” both of which were official categories back then referring to putative mental age and ability. I assume that Cohen’s title derives from Holmes’ “three generations of imbeciles” bullshit and also the fact that “morons” just doesn’t flow off the tongue like the slightly longer “imbeciles.” Still, it’s a rhetorical flourish that’s factually incorrect. Furthermore, the placement of “the Supreme Court,” a group of individuals, right after the colon transfers connotations of “imbecility,” along with contempt and negative judgment, to the justices. Thus Cohen uses the tired ableist tactic of turning a term of intellectual disability, albeit outmoded, into an insult. In conjunction with Cohen’s problematic treatment of Buck’s intelligence and his general omission of eugenics’ ableist consequences, the title exemplifies Cohen’s own problematic perspective on disability.

“Back! Back to the fetid darkness that spawned you, you fiend!”

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“And…uh…make like a trowel and hit the bricks, okay?” The immortal words of Janine, Valley Girl narrator of Esther M. Friesner’s classic short story, The Blood-Ghoul of Scarsdale, adequately sum up my response to Fox recently coughing up a teaser trailer for their rehash of Rocky Horror. The other part of my response was a barely coherent, “Laverne, nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! Your makeup looks great, but noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”


I’m gonna go reread The Blood-Ghoul of Scarsdale to console myself. It’s a self-aware parody of classic horror, but at least it’s not a festering slag heap of [trans]misogyny.


P.S. Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!



Goblin Market part II: the religious aspect

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I ran my theory on Goblin Market by my learned friend, who offered the following comment:

But I also wonder if it is sort of sex mixed with religion, seeing who she is.
More like a pseudo-lesbian eucharist.

Hmmmm, the sacrament of cunnilingus? Certainly plausible.

“Did you miss me? / Come and kiss me”: Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market is totally queer!

“Did you miss me? / Come and kiss me”: Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market is totally queer! published on No Comments on “Did you miss me? / Come and kiss me”: Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market is totally queer!

I was going to write an extensive essay, with line by line analysis, about how Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market can be read as a warning to queer women not to mess around with hetero sex, as represented by the goblins. Then I decided to cut right to the chase and just present this particularly torrid passage below. Continue reading “Did you miss me? / Come and kiss me”: Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market is totally queer!

A Celle Qui Est Trop Gaie, or, Baudelaire is a sick, sick puppy

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You can arguably translate A Celle Qui Est Trop Gaie to To a Bitch Who’s Too Hot for Her Own Good. And then it goes into a particularly virulent permutation of Baudelaire’s favorite theme, the Misogynist DeathSex. I mean, seriously — I don’t even want to write about it — it’s that repulsive. Let’s just say that I was woefully underinformed when I made the sophomoric judgment [literally] that this individual was the best poet of the French language.

Media I can no longer bring myself to partake in:


  • anything having to do with Rocky Horror
  • pretty much anything by or about Charles Baudelaire the racist, sexist, classist, misogynist wonder

Okay, I’ll make exceptions for the following:


  • Correspondances for the synaesthesia
  • Spleen for the sheer Gothiness
  • Le Revenant for evoking the dubious allure of the sexy vampire in just 16 lines
  • Femmes Damnees because of the queer women, some actual character development, and the fact that I got word-drunk on it and wrote an exhaustive paper about it, and I AM IGNORING THE LAST FOUR STANZAS, OKAY?!
  • La Chevelure for giving my French teachers a legit means of classroom introduction to the concept of sexual fetishes, as well as exoticism, and also for introducing me to a beautiful word that I really wish we had in English

Father of Lies V: miscellaneous thoughts

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Miscellaneous thought 1: My identification of Lucian as a psychopomp owes much to my own psychopompic story character, Lucian, who pesters Ellery over in Me and My Muses. [Insert link to his first appearance in the comic, during which he utters the immortal lines, “Hello, my name is Lucian. Let’s have sex.” Actually, I’m much more a fan of “Ta dah! Now let’s do the horizontal mambo!” myself, which comes in the episode after. But I digress.] Interestingly, though, given that I first read Father of Lies when it was published in 2011, i.e., before I started working on Me and My Muses, my Lucian quite possibly owes something to Turner’s Lucian.


Miscellaneous thought 2: Lucian could be an imaginary character and function of Lidda’s mental illness, or he could be an actual supernatural entity who has chosen to associate with her. I have to admit that the possibility of him as an actual supernatural entity would help to explain some of the odd implications of previously quoted statements. For example:

  • P. 4: “It is lonely here… I yearn for warmth…to be in a living being…” Possible implication: He’s a discarnate spirit looking for a host.
  • P. 114: “I have knowledge beyond your wildest dreams, you poor child, stuck in this backwater of a town.” Possible implication: He’s much more widely traveled, urbane, and experienced than Lidda could imagine.
  • P. 118 [when Lidda asks where he comes from]: “That does not matter. You do not need to know that.” Possible implication: He’s a being separate from her who wishes to keep his true origins a secret.

Of course, I do not think that Turner supports a supernatural origin for Lucian. For one thing, Turner shows that Lidda’s universe contains no magic whatsoever. Despite the Salem residents’ claims of magical persecution and spectral torment, Lidda perceives that conspiratorial human malice drives the panic. Turner’s materialist, societal explanation of the witchcraft outbreak implies that any other supposedly supernatural phenomena in the book — i.e., Lucian — may also be adequately explained as functions of human behavior.

Second, Turner argues more directly that Lucian is a figment of Lidda’s mind, rather than a magical being possessing her. In fact, Lidda herself gestures toward this idea when she compares her “fits” to those of the accusers, concluding that the accusers’ come from external cues [i.e., secret gestures to coordinate behavior or the influence of ginned-up xenophobia], while hers come from “within” [p. ????] — that is, from inside her. Furthermore, Turner’s afterword, About Bipolar Disorder, notes that hallucinations symptomatic of the disorder may have a “dark, demonic appearance” [p. ??????]. A threatening presence [at least at first] in Lidda’s life that most people around her would deem devilish, Lucian fits the description perfectly of a sinister illusion. He’s not an unreal, magical demon. He’s a real, imaginary hallucination.

Miscellaneous thought 3: This book isn’t perfect, of course, but several things keep me coming back: Lidda’s overall dignity as a mentally ill person, Lucian as the quintessential psychopomp, the strong, ambivalent relationship between them, and, finally, the writing. Whatever her failures with historical accuracy, Turner sure knows how to write well. Her style remains clear and straightforward throughout, but she constantly hits grace notes when she evokes Lidda’s perceptions in immersive clarity. [Check out Lidda’s first full sight of Lucian, which I quoted in part III, or her synaesthetic experience of colored music, which I quoted in part IV.] The specificity and immediacy with which Turner transmits her protagonist’s sensations facilitates the reader’s sympathy for and identification with Lidda. Ultimately the good writing subserves Turner’s overall characterization of Lidda as unusual [because mentally ill], but also understandable [because human — just like the reader], and thus contributes to the book’s strengths.


Miscellaneous thought 4: Since historical Salem, Puritans, and witchcraft outbreaks represent Turner’s largest failures, I think Father of Lies would be greatly improved by changing the setting to the present day. All the well-done elements could remain essentially the same, and it wouldn’t be that difficult to find some other repressive bullshit for Lidda to speak out against. If Turner wanted to sustain the socio-religious conflict, Lidda could be a child of evangelical, Dominionist Christians objecting to the limited possibilities available to her as a young woman. Or she could involve herself in intersectional feminism and the Black Lives Matter movement. She could agitate for anti-racist causes on account of debates on Islamophobia and increasing numbers of refugees. Hell, she could even propound the truly radical notion that trans people should be allowed to use the bathroom. [You can see where my interests lie… :p ] She could be the exact same person chafing at the exact same prejudices in the community around her, and we could even have the exact same ending of her running away from home and Lucian coming back. However, there could even be a realistic glimmer that she might survive and even thrive — perhaps not in her culture of origin, but in some other subculture. If Turner wanted, she could create a more convincing hopeful conclusion.

Part I here.

Part II here.

Part III here.


Part IV here.

The most horrific scene in Clarissa…

The most horrific scene in Clarissa… published on No Comments on The most horrific scene in Clarissa…

…is not actually the rape scene, in my opinion. It’s the scene in which [yet again] Clarissa has escaped Lovelace’s clutches and found refuge in some nice person’s house.

Lovelace finds out where she is and barges in. He claims that Clarissa is his wife. In excessive anger over a disagreement, she, the silly thing, is now denying their marriage. He has, however, come to take her home now.


Clarissa, understandably vibrating with fear and barely able to support herself at the sight of her jailer and abuser coming after her [yet again], says that she is not his wife. He is not her husband. He’s vile, horrible, contemptible, and mean, and she wants nothing to do with him.


And the women who stand between Clarissa and Lovelace, guarding Clarissa, don’t know what to do. They hold their ground in compassionate defense of the obviously terrified and distressed Clarissa. And yet they can’t dismiss Lovelace out of hand. He has cleverly predetermined the situation so that every statement of Clarissa’s may be interpreted as the unreasonably incensed blather of a hysterical wife. Plus he’s a straight white cis aristocratic dude, and, just as the women are used to deferring to him and his ilk, so he is used to receiving deference.


That, right there, is the horrifying crux of Clarissa: the realization that straight cis white rich dude privilege may be employed to break links of compassion, altruism, and resistance so that even allies start thinking that they should betray each other for a man’s favor. It’s this sort of scene that demonstrates the chilling omnipotence and inevitability of straight cis rich white dude privilege.

In such a setting, Clarissa’s choice to opt out of the toxic system entirely by dying appears less like the Instructive Apotheosis of Virtue and more like The Only Thing She Really Could Do. I pretty much loathe Heroine Deaths for the Promulgation of Moral Sentiment, but I can accept Clarissa’s death because, besides being morally sentimental, it arises straight out of Clarissa’s character, conflict, and setting. She chooses to die because, as the bulk of the novel demonstrates, it’s the sole action she can take on her own terms. It’s not a happy ending, obviously, but, given the fictional universe and its populace, it’s right and fitting and good. [The happy ending is when Lovelace dies. > :p ]

I finished an abridged version of Clarissa last night.

I finished an abridged version of Clarissa last night. published on No Comments on I finished an abridged version of Clarissa last night.

No one really knows how long Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa, first published in 1748, is. The exhaustive story of a young rich white woman’s struggle for self-determination is, however, considered the longest novel in the English language. If you’d like to follow the story, I’ve modernized, condensed, and dramatized it for you in a single blog post below! You’re welcome. Continue reading I finished an abridged version of Clarissa last night.

Father of Lies IV: Lucian the psychopomp

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Welcome, folks, to part IV of my enumeration of the strengths and weaknesses of Ann Turner’s YA novel of Salem witchcraft accusations, Father of Lies. Though Father of Lies founders under loads of anachronisms [particularly protagonist Lidda’s feisty feminism and her imaginary friend Lucian’s shirtless sex appeal], it accomplishes things that I have rarely seen in fiction. For one thing, Turner treats Lidda with respect and empathy, instead of the rank ableism seen in so many descriptions of people with mental illnesses. For another thing, Lidda’s relationship with Lucian depicts the exhilarating, ambiguous messiness of having a guide/guardian/friend/pest/sex object character in one’s head.


Though Lucian manifests as he does in large part because of Lidda’s mental illness, I’m referring to exhilarating, ambiguous, messy characters more generally. I’m talking about Lucian as one of those characters created by people — who may or may not have mental illnesses — in a desperate attempt to learn more about themselves. Let’s call them psychopomps, after those supernatural entities supposed in many religions to guide a dead person’s soul on its travels from its body to the realm of the dead. Anyway, when creators like Lidda personify unknown aspects of themselves as psychopomps, they can only go so far with their characterization. After all, we can’t delineate in detail what we don’t know about ourselves. We thus end up with imaginary people encompassing our unknown aspects and, as such, behaving in ways that we can’t fathom. Their unexpected actions and obscure [at least to our conscious minds] motivations make these characters seem like independent, separate beings. The knowledge that they provide can bring comfort and a sense of security. At the same time, their apparent otherness destabilizes the order that they were ultimately created to support. Throw some experimentation with sexuality and/or gender identity in there, and it’s an ambivalent whirl of excitement and panic. Turner never explicitly identifies Lucian as a psychopomp, but he acts just like one.


Lucian works as a wish fulfillment for Lidda. For example, he represents himself as older, smarter, and wiser than her. He sets himself up as a subversive teacher, claiming, “I have knowledge beyond your wildest dreams, you poor child, stuck in this backwater of a town” [p. 114]. In this way, he functions exactly as Lidda wants. Scared and confused by her unique perceptions, she wants to know why they occur, where they come from, and what they mean. She wants to be understood and to understand herself. Lucian, who implies that he has a handle on everything and a particular investment in Lidda learning his skills, is the ultimate wish fulfillment for a 14-year-old girl who has heard all her life from authority figures that she should sit down and shut up. In other words, he’s a person with power who treats Lidda as someone with potential and promise of her own.


Though Lidda gives Lucian traits of her fantasy authority figure, he’s mostly her match, her equal, her counterpart. To illustrate this, Turner makes him similar, but not identical, to his creator. Lidda experiences the world  less through language, analysis, and word-based thought and more through full-body perceptions of sensation. In a particularly illustrative scene, she thinks of Lucian singing, but she’s not really paying attention to the content of his song, so much as what it looks like: “Lidda felt the notes slide down her arms and legs, and circle up through her head; they had colors like sky birds — orange, yellow, blue, purple, and a kind of green almost beyond imagining, like the tiniest, brightest, newest leaf just before it unfurls, all curled in upon itself. That kind of green” [p. 151]. She concentrates on what words feel like and look like. Lucian has his own linguistic interests, but more based on semantics [e.g., what his name means]. Lidda senses intuitively when people are propagating bullshit around her, and Lucian gives her the words to precisely call it out. When they get along with each other, they form a team that gives Lidda enough confidence and courage to make her voice heard amidst the clamor of the witchcraft outbreak.


Even Lucian’s manipulative button pushing rings true for psychopompic characters. Lucian reassures Lidda that, whatever’s rotten in the state of Salem, it has nothing to do with her vaguely preternatural ability to detect bullshit and everything to do with feuding villagers lathering each other up into senselessness. Thus he turns her sense of isolation into a virtue of analytical detachment. At the same time, he urges her to laugh, dance, and behave in ways that earn her censure. In other words, he sometimes gives her a sense of comfort and security that she craves, while simultaneously provoking her to actions that make her feel frustrated and humiliated. His alternating niceness and snideness correlate to his status as both known and unknown creation. Lidda made him to help her make sense of the world; when he gives her answers, she looks on him favorably. However, when she reaches the limits of her knowledge, Lucian highlights her ignorance and seems nasty and arrogant. Being a part of Lidda, he knows exactly how to flatter her and make her feel good, but he also has enough intimacy to know where she’s most vulnerable, so he knows as well how to wound her. And yet she made him have what she wants — “truth and lies…and the wit to tell the difference” [p. 39] — so, even though he regularly irritates and unnerves her, she can’t stay away from him.


The cracks in Lucian’s facade of masterful superiority also help to characterize him as Lidda’s psychopomp. My favorite exposure of his limitations occurs when Lidda asks where he comes from. As Turner puts it, “There was an answering silence, then something that sounded almost like a cough, and a muted reply: That does not matter. You do not need to know that” [p. 118]. This is a moment that’s at once hilarious, pathetic, and realistic. It’s hilarious because, at least for a moment, Lucian quits acting like some omnipotent, omniscient magical being and suddenly comes across as an fallible person who’s embarrassed and possibly ashamed about something. It’s pathetic because, being part of Lidda, he obviously partakes of her self-examining anxiety, but, even though she bares the inside of her head to him, he doesn’t reciprocate. Instead, he keeps from her the source of his perturbation. Finally, it’s realistic that he avoids answering Lidda’s inquiry about his origins because Lidda, who made him, has no idea what said origins are. She can’t answer the question that she created Lucian to answer, so of course he’s going to squirm out of a point-blank response.


As a figment of Lidda’s mind tasked ultimately with helping Lidda [though his methods often seem infuriating and questionable], Lucian works desperately on her behalf to assuage her worst fear: that she’s going to be alone forever. When her mental illness causes her suffering, it literally separates her from the rest of the world. At several times in the novel, she tries to escape hallucinations by running outside, away from the dinner table and her family to the outhouse. To put it another way, at her most miserable, Lidda sits in a stinking shit heap, sobbing, overwhelmed by inarticulate confusion that she can share with no one. Thus Lucian’s first words — “It is lonely here… I yearn for warmth…to be in a living being…” [p. 4] — basically describe the chill sense of divorce with which Lidda associates her lowest points of depression. Because he’s part of her, he knows exactly what such excruciating despair is like.


Like Lidda, Lucian has no interest in remaining in a frigid shit heap, so he does everything he can to ensure that he and Lidda avoid such a fate. That’s why he says to Lidda, “Yes, girl, I am here, with you always” [p. 56]. She fears being alone, with its stench of sadness [and shit], so she makes up someone who, even though he doesn’t always answer her summons, proves a more constant companion than the fickle townsfolk.  That’s why he says, “I do not wish you to marry. …Because you belong to me” [p. 38]. Realistically speaking, if Lidda did not marry, she would end up without a husband, without the opportunity to have legitimate offspring, without children, without a family — in some sense, she would be without context, without identity, without a place in her Puritan society. On the margins of the community, she would face general suspicion, disapproval, and a certain measure of ostracism. Single life would bring some of the loneliness that threatens her so much. Terrified by that possibility, she tries to change it from a negative absence of family, friends, and community support to a positive presence of an internal companion, guide, and friend. Lucian is such a strong, vivid creation in part because Lidda wants so much not to be alone that she attempts to make herself a friend out of a piece of her mind.

As Father of Lies closes, Lidda interrupts the hearings at the Court of Oyer and Terminer, describing the witchcraft outbreak as not Devil-induced suffering, but lies wielded on purpose by people who want to harm others. Fearing that she will bring accusations of witchcraft upon herself or, at the very least, that she will subject her family to ignominy if she stays, she runs away from home. She plans to travel on foot to Boston and obtain “a position in some household” [p. 235]. Her brother gives her a little money to help her. Lucian, who has been absent for a while, reappears, congratulating her for her bravery, and — scene.

In other words, at the end of the book, Lidda separates herself from her family and social supports. Now on the aforementioned margins of society, she faces an uncertain life. With “a strange excitement,” Lidda contemplates the possibility of being herself, “with no one to criticize her” [p. 235]. However, the fact remains that her worst fear — solitude — has come to pass. Furthermore, since her behavior has reduced her already limited prospects as an unmarried young Puritan woman in Massachusetts Bay Colony, her chances for an expansive, uncensored, liberated existence remain dubious. I think Turner is trying for a happy ending here, but I don’t buy it.

Over in my [cynical] head, I imagine that the book stops at this particular moment because Turner doesn’t want to look several years into the future. In a few years, Lidda may have found a place as a servant, but her masters abuse her physically and emotionally. Upon perceiving her symptoms of mental illness, her masters berate her as “distracted in her wits,” which was the term back then for being mentally disturbed. The family she works for claims that no one else would accept such an unreliable worker, and they use her fear to keep her with them as a convenient punching bag. Dancing, laughing, and speaking up now seem like luxuries for Lidda, who expends more effort on mere survival. Lucian no more promises delights, but he does teach her skills of dissociation, which help with the pain. At the same time, even though she vowed in the past not to consider it, marriage to a fellow servant ten years older is looking good. He lacks any sort of “spirit,” as Lucian would say, but he’s unobjectionable, and he has nearly saved up enough to strike out on his own. Right now, that looks like the best she can hope for. The [much more realistic] end.

Part I here.

Part II here.

Part III here.


Part V here.



Father of Lies part III: Lucian and the Bishonen Fever Dreams

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Welcome back to the third part of my extensive rant about Ann Turner’s Father of Lies, a YA historical fiction novel about a teenager, Lidda, with mental illness and a very interesting character inside her head, Lucian. This book does some things horribly and other things excellently. As I’ve detailed, Turner’s version of 1690s Salem during the witchcraft outbreak falls apart under multiple anachronisms. At the same time, the author gives Lidda and Lucian dignity and seriousness almost never granted to fictional people with disabilities, especially when said people are written about by authors without disabilities. Reading Father of Lies is an exercise in frustration, as it’s the novelistic equivalent of the little curly-haired girl of nursery rhymes. When it’s good, it’s very, very good, but, when it’s bad, it’s horrid!

Sometimes, just to put my poor emotions through the wringer, Father of Lies manages to be very, very good and horrid simultaneously, mostly as far as Lucian is concerned. As Lidda’s most active hallucination, he shares her restless contempt for the restrictions of her small-town life, as well as the repressive model of Puritan femininity to which Lidda is supposed to adhere. At the same time, he crystallizes Lidda’s often-inchoate tendencies toward physical rebellion [dancing, tree climbing, not wearing her stays] into an articulate stance of license in all respects. He mocks the villagers’ petty, dissembling behavior; he pushes Lidda to speak out in favor of the truth. He even challenges Puritan religious orthodoxy when he asserts that he has nothing to do with God and then helps Lidda to the conclusion that witches do not actually exist. While he directs her fidgetiness into intellectual rebellion, he also adds sexual aspects to Lidda’s disobedience, as, for example, whenever he appears half naked and then comments that she would look good naked [“You would like being naked, girl. No stays or petticoats to trap you like a snared rabbit” (pp. 102-103)]. In response, Lidda views the smart, sly, sexy, borderline blasphemous Lucian as a private ally, imperceptible to everyone except herself, and spends a lot of time trying to figure him out and please him. His running commentary on her experiences and her disputes with him form the entertaining, engaging core of the book.


As the overview in the previous paragraph intimates, I think Lucian is a wonderful character, but he also has serious flaws in his construction. Just as Lidda is essentially modern into her proto-feminist critique of Puritan beliefs and culture, so Lucian seems to have time traveled from the 21st century back to the tail end of the 17th, a fact most apparent when you take a look at his appearance, described in breathless detail on page 88:


“Then, like something becoming clear under the surface of a rushing stream, piece by piece the creature assembled himself so that Lidda could see him in the darkness of her head: He unfolded his body, starting with his long, elegant feet; up his lean legs, encased in shining black breeches; his bare torso became visible, gleaming as if from distant firelight; then his long smooth arms and hands with exquisite pointed fingers; and last his head, which was frighteningly handsome, more glorious than anything she had ever known, with black hair cascading down his back, waving in an invisible breeze. Complete, there, unlike anything ever seen before in the drab confines of her village.


“But his eyes! Silver like a running stream — a straight nose — and a mouth that curved in an intimate smile over pointed teeth.”


Given that your average Puritan man wore layers of clothing, including a hat, at almost all times and regularly tied his hair back or wore a wig, where does this hatless hottie come from? And what’s with the dramatic, flowing locks, sharp teeth, and silver eyes? Lucian looks like the bishonen fever dream of someone who’s been reading too much vampire romance manga. His sexiness is discordantly ahistorical. [“Hey, everyone, it’s Discordantly Ahistorical Sexiness, opening for Lucian and the Bishonen Fever Dreams!” I imagine both of these groups as New Wave in sound, though Discordantly Ahistorical Sexiness looks like Cotton Mather by way of Adam Ant, while Lucian and the Bishonen Fever Dreams looks like William Stoughton crossed with classic V-kei. Incidentally, both of these groups sound awesome!]


Just as I wonder where Lidda’s image of Lucian comes from, so I wonder where she gets his personality. Lidda uses Lucian as a way to consolidate and refine her iconoclastic thoughts and practices, some of which do have some grounding in her own experience. For example, Lidda’s criticism of Puritan life derives from contrasting it with what little she has heard about the practices of local Native Americans. When Lidda resents wearing her stays, she reminds herself that Indians don’t wear such uncomfortable clothing. Since the Puritans at large were scared shitless by the Indians, whom they regarded as marauding tools of Satan, I can’t believe that a Puritan teenager would admire the dress of the natives. However, that’s what Turner writes, and, while Lidda’s distaste for Puritan fashion rings false historically speaking, it works in a certain way. Lidda’s contrast between Puritan and Indian dress gives a real-world context for her annoyance with restrictive clothes. Thus Lidda’s — and thus, by extension, Lucian’s — interest in loose clothing and the idea of naked frolicking [as well as, now that I think about it, Lucian’s penchant for hanging around in the equivalent of underwear] makes sense.


I can see where Lidda gets Lucian’s concepts of physical rebellion, but I remain at a loss to explain Lucian’s [i.e., Lidda’s] proto-humanist critic of the Puritan religion and worldview. Obviously people other than Puritans lived in and around Salem in the 1690s who could have provided alternatives to the Puritan perspective. Turner mentions two possibilities in Father of Lies: the local Indians and then Tituba and John Indian. The New England natives, however, appear only in the context of a clothing contrast, so they do not serve as a philosophical counterpoint. Likewise, Tituba and John Indian, characterized as dark-skinned servants of Samuel Parris who look and speak differently than the white people, function as contrasts of appearance, not as contrasts of thought. Turner does not set up either Indians or Tituba and her husband as possible influences on Lucian’s anti-Puritan perspectives.


The most historically believable model for Lidda and Lucian’s proto-humanism would have been the Quakers. The Puritans mistrusted the Quakers as they mistrusted the Indians, but, since the Quakers were supposedly civilized and also white speakers of English, like the Puritans, the Puritans tolerated them somewhat more. According to the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony, however, Quaker beliefs posed a significant threat to the Puritan establishment. Puritans viewed religion as a hierarchical chain of command with God at the top, who then imparted His Word to the [male] ministers, who then imparted it to the people. Quaker theology eschewed the patriarchal rigidity of Puritan practice because it emphasized each individual’s direct, personal experience of God. Both men and women, in Quaker belief, had the capacity for Inner Light — their term for personal knowledge of the Divine. Several aspects of Quaker belief — their insistence on a unique, individualized knowledge of God, their potential for equality of men and women before God, and their resistance to being ordered around from the pulpit — could have convincingly correlated to to some of Lidda and Lucian’s contrarian views. However, the Quakers do not appear in Father of Lies, and so my question remains. With no in-world role models for her modern, anti-Puritan rhetoric, how in the hell does Lidda develop Lucian’s sophisticated, occasionally ironic analysis and detachment?

While I’m discussing Lucian’s failures as a character, I would just like to say that I still can’t get over Lidda’s easy acceptance of him as a non-demonic entity. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, this makes no sense, as both devils and angels were real and ubiquitous to your average Puritan. Therefore, if someone like Lucian appears out of thin air and starts chatting with you [and he’s not someone you recognize and thus a spirit], he’s either a devil or an angel. Although devils may disguise themselves as angels and try their hardest to fool you, you can usually determine the nature of an apparition by its topics of discussion. Is it, for example, giving you advice on a cure for your sick family member or exhorting you to renew your commitment to God? If it encourages you to support Puritan society, it’s an angel, and you can trust it. If, however, it recommends swimming naked, doubting the existence of witches, and otherwise contradicting the tenets of Puritan society, it’s a devil, and you should resist it by quoting Scripture, praying, and loudly proclaiming your devotion to God. In other words, everyone around Lidda would, at most, interpret Lucian as a demon and tell him to shove off or, at the very least, have serious reservations about him, but she doesn’t.

Lidda’s welcome of Lucian represents a problem insofar as her entire culture would read him as a devil and a generally bad, unwanted thing. It’s also a problem because Lucian characterizes himself as demonic, but Lidda doesn’t really seem to care. He tells her very early on [p. 12], “Heaven has nothing to do with this, girl,” implying that the other place, Hell, does. Slightly later, when Lidda asks who he is, he says, “You may call me Lucian, light bringer. … I deal in truth and lies, and to you I give the wit to tell the difference” [p. 39]. He might as well say, “Hi, I’m Lucifer, and I’m a fallen angel,” especially since Lucifer, another name for the fucking Devil, means light bearer in Latin. Of course, at this point in the story, I’m screaming at Lidda, “He just equated himself with the Devil and told you he was a sneaky bastard — don’t trust him! And, if you want to be historically accurate, run to your nearest minister for spiritual guidance!” But nope — fictional characters never listen when I yell at them.

As an aside, though, I suspect that Lucian’s oblique comparison of himself to Lucifer constitutes another historical inaccuracy, mostly because I don’t think Puritans referred to the Devil by that name. I’ve read an exhaustive amount about the Salem witchcraft outbreak, and I remember primary sources referring to “the Devil” and “Satan.” Even when warning that the Devil could deceive people in the appearance of an angel, the clergy commentators at the time apparently didn’t remark on the Devil as “the fairest of the fallen” — or, at least, not as far as I know. Then again, I’m not conversant with the history of appellations for the Devil, so I could be wrong.

Yet again, I have gone on much longer than expected and hit my bedtime. More later. Maybe, in the next section, I’ll finally get around to what I think is so awesome about Lucian.

Part I here.

Part II here.

Part IV here.

Part V here.

Father of Lies part II: disability = difference

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I just reread Father of Lies by Ann Turner, and I both love it and hate it in equal measure. Briefly put, it’s about Lidda, an unconventional Puritan girl who lives in the time of the Salem witchcraft outbreak. She feels compelled to denounce her town’s mass panic over the supposed machinations of Satan. Her developing relationship with an invisible man inside her, Lucian, who encourages her defiant, rebellious behavior and claims to give her the power to see the truth of the witchcraft accusations, makes her life somewhat more complicated. Much to my dismay, Turner completely misrepresents Salem, a failure that I have discussed earlier at great length. As the Goblin King would say, “What a pity,” because Turner does so well at other aspects of the story. For example, her depiction of Lidda and Lucian’s relationship — indeed, Lidda’s mental illness in general — is powerful, sensitive, nuanced, rich, and basically everything that I wish her treatment of Salem was.


Regarding Lidda’s mental illness, it is neither a surprise nor a spoiler that she has one. The Library of Congress data at the front of the book categorizes Father of Lies as a book about “1. Manic-depressive illness — Fiction,” even before “2. Trials (Witchcraft) — Fiction.” If that ain’t explicit enough, Turner dedicates the book to “all those with bipolar disorder who work so hard to make lives for themselves.” She also includes an afterword entitled About Bipolar Disorder, in which she makes it clear that all of Lidda’s strange and frightening perceptions [racing thoughts, seeing auras, uncontrollable movement, hallucinations] may be adequately explained by the disorder. Though she concludes with an open question about Lucian’s reality, Turner obviously characterizes him as a hallucination, an unreal product of Lidda’s imagination, and thus the most salient symptom of her mental illness.

Okay, so Lidda has a mental illness, and she directs much of her time, energy, and interest to Lucian, a person who does not exist outside of her head. Now, if this were a typical book written by an author without a mental illness and/or characters in their head, Lidda’s mental illness and her relationship with Lucian would be horrible barriers to happiness, fulfillment, or satisfaction. Lidda’s inability to be like everyone else would cause her no end of distress; her relationship with Lucian would just highlight for her what she was missing in relationships with people outside her head. In other words, she would be wretched and miserable because of her mental illness. She would only attain peace through managing her symptoms, denying her unique perceptions, and almost certainly killing off Lucian. And the narrative would stink of condescending pity for the poor little mentally disabled protagonist.


But this is not your typical book written by someone without a mental illness [and, I’m assuming, without characters like Lucian in her head]. Nope, in fact, Turner takes both Lidda and Lucian seriously in Father of Lies. While definite that Lidda has a mental illness, of which Lucian is a particularly egregious manifestation, Turner accords Lidda robust characterization without ableist authorial pity. Because of her mental illness, Lidda suffers physical and emotional pain that those around her do not: when she feels chilled and overheated in rapid succession, for example, or when she panics upon seeing flames emanating from her sister’s head. Yet she also experiences unshared joys: the sense of flight and freedom in a wild onrush of thoughts, the secret solace of a friend inside her who admires her for those traits that people around her chastise. As Turner writes it, Lidda’s mental illness makes her life different from that of most people around her, and it frequently contributes to the difficulties she faces. However, Lidda’s mental illness is never shown as inherently bad, wrong, pathetic, or burdensome. It may be disabling on occasion, but mostly it’s just a difference upon which the author places no negative judgment.

Turner’s respect for Lidda comes across most subtly and pervasively in the way that Lucian is written. As noted, Turner’s descriptions of Lucian as a voice in Lidda’s head, a sensation centered in her belly, and sometimes a shifting, flickering form on the wall demonstrate to the reader that he is an imaginary, unreal hallucination and byproduct of Lidda’s mental illness. To Lidda, however, he is a true, concrete, separate individual with his own agenda and personality. She jokes with him, argues with him, asks his advice, wonders where he goes when he won’t talk to her, fantasizes about him, and otherwise treats him like a real person. Turner reports all of Lidda’s interactions with Lucian in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner. Turner never looks down on Lidda for believing in Lucian, nor does she invite the reader to do so.  Avoiding the evaluative and contemptuous distance endemic to so many portrayals of people with disabilities and/or mental illness, Turner’s portrait of Lidda shows that she is mentally ill, but also fully human, fully sympathetic, and fully dignified.

I must note that Turner’s treatment of Lidda isn’t perfect, verging as it does on the stereotype of Super Crip with Compensatory Powers. In the concluding paragraph of the afterword, Turner writes, “Was Lidda mad, or was she saner than the villagers? You decide” [p. 239]. Ignoring the artificially binary choice, we can discern that Turner wants us to answer yes to both questions. She wants us to think that, yes, Lidda was “mad” or mentally ill, and, yes, she was “saner” — or, more precisely, more reasonable and accurate in her analysis of the witchcraft outbreak — than the villagers. In fact, because Turner has Lucian tell Lidda that he gives her the wit to separate truth from lies, Turner effectively argues that Lidda’s reasonable, accurate analyses derive directly from her mental illness. Like Daredevil, Professor X, Daphne in Heroes, or any other superhero who loses some capacity, but then gains a magical ability that allows them to do way more than they ever did and thus basically renders the lost capacity irrelevant, Lidda has the superpower of seeing the truth. Her superpower comes from her mental illness and reinforces her unfortunate status as an insufferable Visionary Before Her Time Doomed to Pass Her Days Among the Small-Minded Masses. [See my analysis of this anachronistic concept in part I.] In other words, Turner risks defining Lidda by — and thus reducing her to and objectifying her with — her disability. Turner’s sympathetic and respectful treatment of Lidda ensures Lidda’s full humanization, but the deleterious authorial tendency to objectification yet remains.


Despite my caveat, I generally approve of Turner’s deployment of mental illness in Father of Lies. Though it occasionally smells like a crashingly obvious metaphor that Turner uses to highlight the “true” “madness” at play [i.e., the anti-witchcraft panic], Lidda’s mental illness mostly functions with a refreshing realism. Sometimes it contributes to her distress, sometimes to her happiness, always to her unique interpretation of reality. While Lidda’s mental illness sometimes estranges her from people and causes her difficulties because her perceptions don’t accord with others’, Turner does not ask the reader to pity Lidda because of her disability. The matter-of-fact way in which Turner reports on Lidda’s treatment of Lucian demonstrates that Lidda recognizes her difference from other people, but does not think any worse of herself for it. In a culture where the treatment of people with disabilities defaults to snide objectification, Turner’s well-rounded, compassionate characterization of Lidda is a radical [and depressingly uncommon] argument for disability rights.


Well, it looks like I don’t have time tonight to expatiate about Lucian and the Bishonen Fever Dreams. More later….

Part I here.

Part III here.

Part IV here.

Part V here.

Ann Turner’s Father of Lies part I: flunking Salem

Ann Turner’s Father of Lies part I: flunking Salem published on No Comments on Ann Turner’s Father of Lies part I: flunking Salem

Two kinds of books automatically draw my interest: 1) those about the Salem witchcraft outbreak and 2) those about girls or women who talk to people in their heads and fear that they might be going insane. A book about a girl who talks to someone in her head and fears that she might be going insane in the context of the Salem witchcraft outbreak will thus make me drop everything and read. Since Ann Turner’s Father of Lies — featuring fourteen-year-old Lidda as the girl in question and Lucian as the ambiguous person inside her — combines both of these interests, you can see why I snatched it up eagerly. Unfortunately, Turner uses these combustible, promising subjects to tell what I consider is the wrong story.

First, a little plot summary. Lidda, as I have mentioned, lives in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts, on the verge of the eighteenth century. She has no desire to comport herself as expected; she does not want to be a sober, modest, God-fearing wife. She likes the tales of murder and flirtation in the Bible, but has no patience for the apocalyptic visions of doom and punishment that the ministers conjure up regularly. She would rather dance, wear bright colors, climb trees, and speak her mind. She wishes that she lived someplace more exciting than Salem.

As if Lidda’s inability to accept any aspect of the Puritan status quo wasn’t enough, two other complications mess up her life. First of all, she has these episodes with inconsistent symptoms. Sometimes her thoughts race, and she can’t control them; sometimes her bodily sense of temperature is off, or she sees burning auras around people, or she can’t help but yell, laugh, or dance. During these episodes, this man, Lucian, appears inside her at intervals, alternately mocking and complimenting her. He claims that he has given her the power to tell truth from falsehood, but Lidda’s not sure what to do with that.

Lidda’s Lucian-granted power of discernment would certainly be an asset in the case of the second complication, which is, to put it simply, an infestation of evil. Starting with a few girls around Lidda’s age, people all over town have been falling into fits, tortured by the specters of witches. Most people believe that, indeed, devils and witches live among them, lurking, waiting for the chance to ambush and torture. But Lidda, who has overheard the afflicted girls planning their accusations, knows that there is no witchcraft here, only petty vengeance and a sense of self-importance magnified by a panicked mob mentality. How can she speak out against this dissembling without being called a witch herself?

…And here we arrive at the problem. Turner frames the central conflict of this story as the struggle of an insightful, independent-minded, rebellious girl to tell the truth in a repressive, ignorant, and sexist setting. Not just any repressive society either, but the Puritans, who, as conventional wisdom tells us, were quite possibly the most uptight, humorless, judgmental, prejudiced, irrational, retrograde, philosophically constipated, and generally miserable people in the history of the United States. In other words, Turner is writing not The Father of Lies, but The Tragedy of Lidda Johnson vs. the Evil Puritans, with Bonus Salem Witchcraft Outbreak to Illustrate Just How Evil the Puritans Really Are. And that’s the wrong story, mostly because it’s a historically inaccurate crock of shit.

If we want to be historically accurate [and much more interesting] about this, the theme of the story should be something like one girl’s struggle to identify good and evil in a society ravaged by war, violence, and political instability and characterized by fundamental uncertainty. And, just to make things even more difficult, let’s throw the entire community into a crisis of faith and pitch the girl into her own personal crisis about the nature of reality and her experiences. Woo hoo! Now step back, and watch the action begin.

Turner’s simplistic concept of the Puritans diverts her from one of the most salient aspects of the setting: the constant terror. Her portrayal of the witchcraft outbreak as cruel games orchestrated by some power-drunk girls, which were then enhanced by gullibility and rabble-rousing, completely ignores the levels of pain, suffering, and fear that these people lived with on a daily basis. First of all, they lived in a culture of rudimentary, ineffective medicine and high mortality [especially of mothers and kids], when so many babies died young that they just recycled the dead kids’ names for the next ones to be born. Second of all, they lived in New England, which, with its long, snowy, cold winters, impassable mud season, and short, hot summers, is a climatological craphole. Third of all, back then, Salem was on an unstable, war-torn frontier, isolated from what the Puritans considered civilization [i.e., Great Britain] by an entire ocean. People died in wars against the French and Abenaki all the time. Indians kidnapped, tortured, and killed settlers just miles away. Everyone knew someone who had died in such violence. In summary, Salem was not a good place to live; physical suffering was ubiquitous.

Puritan religious beliefs compounded the bodily suffering by adding spiritual and emotional dimensions. The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony believed that they were born sinful. They would not know if they were part of the elect — that is, if they would go to Heaven — until they died and actually ended up there. God determined who was saved and who was damned according to some secret process that no human could fathom and that no human could affect. Not even good works and piety could guarantee one’s place among the elect. Furthermore, assuming that one was saved was arrogance of the worst sort. One should always interrogate oneself, looking inside for signs of worthiness. This left your average Puritan in an endless introspective recursion of helpless anxiety, vacillating between hope that they were Heaven-bound and terror that they weren’t.

With this information in mind, we can see how the Salem witchcraft outbreak is not primarily about silly, superstitious people being easily whipped into a pointless panic, as Turner would have it. It’s more about people who, already on edge, physically miserable, and emotionally tortured, find themselves besieged by their worst nightmares. Let’s face it — if, on top of the shitty weather and the high mortality and the dubious health care and the upheaval of frontier life and the casualties of war and the threats of Indian invasion and the fact that you’re a born wretched sinner and the possibility that, no matter what you do, you might not go to Heaven, you also have to deal with your neighbors having fits and your friends and enemies hurling witchcraft charges at each other and the Devil taking other people’s shapes and invisibly tormenting people and an ever increasing number of townsfolk confessing to alliance with the Devil, you might be slightly concerned that reality as you know it appears to be coming apart at the seams. Please note that I am not discounting the superstitions, racism, classism, sexism, religious bigotry, and socioeconomic factors that shaped the Salem witchcraft outbreak. The point I’m trying to make here is that every single person affected by the Salem witchcraft outbreak faced a fundamental, epistemic terror that led them to see witchcraft as both a personal and a community threat.

While the historical Salem and environs labored under a burden of fear, Turner’s Salem lacks such pervasive anxiety. Lidda herself epitomizes this anachronistic insouciance. For just a few examples:

  • The Puritans hated the Indians, feared them, thought them subhuman, murderous monsters, and elided them with the Devil, but Lidda does not see them as a threat. “Perhaps she would run off and join the Wabanaki Indians farther north,” Lidda thinks [p. 11]. “Were they as cruel as the tales said? She thought people exaggerated…” Instead, she fantasizes about running away to live with them because they don’t make their kids wear corsets.
  • Puritan society, including the ministers, who were considered general experts and role models, had a complicated relationship with magic. Even though belief in God and the Devil predominated and was supposed to exclude a belief in magic, the principles of sympathetic magic circulated as general cultural knowledge. Not everyone practiced magic, but Puritans thought that it could be a good supplement to more Godly activities — a way to hedge bets, so to speak. At one point, however, Lidda concludes that the baking of a witch cake, a piece of folk magic designed to identify the witches in their midst, arises from a combination of “fear, lies, and stupidity” [p. 83]. Lidda’s harsh condemnation of the cultural vocabulary of magic thus seems unconvincing.
  • All the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony worried about the state of their souls. They wondered incessantly about their damnation and/or salvation. While the Devil was always a real and imminent threat to them, the witchcraft outbreak turned him into a particularly personal adversary. You had to watch out for him because he was going to do everything in his power — corrupting your neighbors and family, sickening your animals and crops, sending nightmares and physical pains, even taking the shape of innocent people and plaguing you — to turn you to evil. However, the Devil does not seem to bother Lidda. When Lucian appears in her head, inciting her to rebellious behavior and implying that God has nothing to do with him, Lidda barely entertains the thought that he’s demonic. In fact, she rejects that conclusion: “How seductive he was, how beautiful, just as Reverend Parris spoke of the Devil, except she did not think Lucian was evil. Something else, but not — the Evil One” [p. 56]. She interprets him as her friend and a flattering source of evidence that she possesses perspicacity that everyone else lacks, even though Turner gives Lidda no reason for her conclusions.

In other words, Lidda is a thoroughly modern fourteen-year-old, inserted into Puritan Salem solely to foment righteous indignation at her plight in automatically sympathetic, modern-day readers. Ugh. The Noble Struggles of the Feisty Proto-Feminist in a Time of Sexist Bullshit is one of the least nuanced, least accurate, and least satisfying interpretations of any historical event ever. It’s also a cheap, lazy authorial ploy to gain reader engagement at the expense of sophisticated character development and historical depiction. Worst of all, it flattens out the glorious messiness and ambiguity of history into a boring linear teleology of increasing progressiveness, of which we — O glorious, enlightened moderns! — are naturally at the apex.

I’m so very disappointed that Father of Lies turns a volatile subject, full of my favorite narrative elements [marginalized women and girls, magic and magic users, the power of storytelling, endless self-examination, queries into the nature of perception and reality, moral ambiguity, existential dread], into a simplistic morality tale. In fact, my disappointment feels particularly acute because, for all that she botches the historical part of her fiction, Turner does a virtuoso, amazing, fascinating, suggestive job with the other part of her fiction: viz., Lucian. Tune in next time when I discuss the strengths of Father of Lies in a little segment I like to call Lucian and the Bishonen Fever Dreams. [Hey, that’s a great name for a band…]

Part II here.

Part III here.

Part IV here.


Part V here.

Plots of favorite books in six words

Plots of favorite books in six words published on No Comments on Plots of favorite books in six words

Saw this on Facebook as a challenge for people to guess the title and author of books based on six-word summaries. In no particular order, here are some of my faves:

Anorexic city girl proves excruciatingly introspective. [Rebecca Josephs’ Early Disorder]

Clare escapes becoming Niall’s kinky doll. [Sarban’s Doll Maker]

Laura learns magic and rescues brother. [Margaret Mahy’s Changeover]

Dead lesbian seeks ingenues for dinner. [Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla]

Being royal makes growing up complicated. [Maria Gripe’s In The Time of the Bells]

Enemies bang each other into “love.” [This works for both Johanna Lindsey’s Warrior’s Woman and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey.]

Alice keeps her cool amidst bullshit. [Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Underground and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There]

Self-absorbed language experiments obscure the plot. [Greer Gilman’s Moonwise]

And some short stories:

Princess knows she’s in a fairy tale. [A.S. Byatt’s Tale of the Eldest Princess]

Valley Girl totally kicks vampire butt. [Esther Friesner’s Blood-Ghoul of Scarsdale]

I like Steven Universe!

I like Steven Universe! published on No Comments on I like Steven Universe!

Now that I’ve watched every single episode except for that April Fool’s one, I have to state that I love Steven Universe!


I love the fact that it’s about a boy with three [living] moms, including two women of color, whose closeness, queerness, and strength is celebrated.

I love the fact that Steven’s awesome superpower is basically love and open-minded acceptance, modeled not only by Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, but by his dad. I love the fact that his dad could so easily be a dull schlub, but instead he’s a wonderful, practical, down-to-earth guy who nurtures Steven’s big heart.

I love the fact that his best friend, Connie, is a super-serious, nerdy, analytical girl, respected as a character in her own right, never relegated to the role of love interest or stick-in-the-mud.

It thrills me beyond belief that the two of them fuse into a genderqueer “experience” named Stevonnie whose immediate reaction to creation is not to have some heteronormatively determined panic with sexual subtexts, but to revel in the sheer joy of dancing.

Of all the characters I watch this show for, my favorite is Pearl. As an intellectual who believes in the power of rational thought, she constantly struggles with the supposed purity of knightly virtues and the supposed messiness of emotional attachments. I identify all too much with her tendency to lead from her head [or to at least convince herself that her head is right] rather than to appropriately respect her intuition. I find her equation of devotion and abasement poignant and psychologically profound. I like how, even though she feels worthless, even though she can be rigid and snappy, she’s also capable of great love and tenderness. I think that Steven’s open-minded acceptance benefits all the Crystal Gems, as they all have reasons for hating themselves, and I hope that, in future, his love can help her see that love, equality, and self-respect can coexist.

Steven Universe has so many wonderful aspects that I can scarcely believe that it will continue such a magnificent run. I dread its inevitable devolution into heteronormative crappiness, overrun with male-coded Gems and supposedly romantic plots for Steven and Connie. It’s the only piece of mainstream media that I’ve encountered recently where I feel like myself and my imagination are represented — i.e., it’s a world where queerness is a fact of life, where women are fuckin’ awesome in multifarious ways, where kindness, honesty, emotional expressiveness, and open-mindedness are strengths, and where the white, straight, cis, male, bourgeois narrative is shown for the unimaginative, boring, toxic, dull, and ultimately irrelevant delusion that it is. It’s not perfect, but it’s surprisingly awesome…although I wonder how long it can stay that way.

Girl, implicated: the child in the labyrinth in the fantastic

Girl, implicated: the child in the labyrinth in the fantastic published on No Comments on Girl, implicated: the child in the labyrinth in the fantastic

Greer Gilman, master of purple involuted mock-Jacobean epics, muses about one of my favorite themes. The girls who have adventures in labyrinths fare differently compared to the boys. [Also she has a bone to pick with Tehanu’s crabbed domesticity in Ursula Le Guin’s novel of the same name. So do I, Gilman. So do I.]

I like her observation that the girls [Ariadne, Alice, Eilonwy from — yack! — the endlessly irritating Book of Three, Arha/Tehanu, Sarah] find their ways out; they know where they’re going. Meanwhile, the boys [Theseus, the White Knight {?}, Taran, Sparrowhawk/Ged, Jareth] don’t; they get lost and bonk around aimlessly. They’re "clueless," Gilman says, which is to say without a clue…or without a clew, Ariadne’s map-like ball of thread that knows the way through the passages. ["Clue" as a hint of a guide derives from "clew" qua thread. I love etymology!]

So why do we only hear of the boys getting out and through the maze? Why don’t we ever hear of the girls who get to know their labyrinths and walk through the darkness, unafraid of Minotaurs?

Beats me. For some reason, Inanna’s descent to the otherworld ain’t considered as compelling. Why not???


Goin’ to read Moonwise again, even though it drives me up the wall.

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From The Book of Three [1965] to The Arkadians [1995]…

From The Book of Three [1965] to The Arkadians [1995]… published on No Comments on From The Book of Three [1965] to The Arkadians [1995]…

…Lloyd Alexander tells only one story: inexperienced and obtuse male hero + trickster-like storyteller/bardic character + unaccountably crabby female love interest + unfunny comic relief non-human animal-like character + irritating verbal tics for practically everyone + epic quests + secret royal heritage + Destiny = profit. I’m reading [or trying to read] The Book of Three right now, and it’s driving me up the wall. All the characters come across as grating and annoying, with the exception of Gwydion, who’s sensible and low-key and who just seems to belong to a different, less slapstick story.

Of Alexander’s extensive YA oeuvre, I remember most fondly the Vesper Holly series.  Impossibly smart and improbably gifted, teenage orphan and heiress Vesper bounces from adventure to adventure in 1875 in various fictional countries, death and daring at her heels. She’s a charismatic and indefatigable Mary Sue, but the stories work, in large part because they are told by Brinnie, her comparatively useless guardian. As an old straight white dude, he gets on my nerves to no end, but his combination of befuddlement, admiration and ultimately love for Vesper allows the reader a more accessible peg upon which to hang their sympathies. I really enjoyed these books growing up, and now I’d like to seek them out again…


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Bared to You by Sylvia Day: the passion of complementary neuroses

Bared to You by Sylvia Day: the passion of complementary neuroses published on No Comments on Bared to You by Sylvia Day: the passion of complementary neuroses

Bared to You by Sylvia Day [Crossfire #1] shares a lot in common with the [unfortunately] more popular Shades of Grey by E.L. James. As in the 50 Shades trilogy, the Crossfire trilogy follows the first-person adventures of an administrative-assistant-level young woman, Eva in Bared to You, and her rollercoaster relationship with a young rich man, Gideon in Bared to You, who owns the company for which she works. They have sex and fight a lot, sometimes simultaneously. Their relationship involves some bdsm, submission for the protagonist, domination for the love interest. A series of assumptions, piss-offs, misunderstandings, apologies, jealousies, running-aways and reconciliations passes for plot. And don’t forget the sex. At the end, the reader is exhausted, but there are still two books to go!

But that’s where the similarities end. Crossfire exceeds 50 Shades in quality at every level.
Continue reading Bared to You by Sylvia Day: the passion of complementary neuroses

Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual

Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual published on No Comments on Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual

Interactive and/or serialized and/or illustrated sci fi/fantasy stories decorated with a mid-century pulpy flair appear to contain actual women and people of color! 

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Awwww, they updated it!

Awwww, they updated it! published on No Comments on Awwww, they updated it!

I have a really early version of Lesbian Couples by Merilee Clunis and Dorsey Green, which I picked up in a used bookstore because I find [relatively] old advice books fascinating, especially when they have to do with queer people. 

I expected very little from this book, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that even the first edition was surprisingly down-to-earth and practical. It spends a lot of time discussing how feminine enculturation, socioeconomic differences, race/ethnicity differences, disabilities and illness, age, fatness, outness, feelings about one’s body, familial opinions, etc., etc., may play out when women are involved in relationships with women. It offers standard techniques for respectful communication and listening with an acknowledgment of how the aforementioned factors may complicate them for women. It’s very matter-of-fact, unsensationalized and sensible. The clear, calm writing style, combined with its mostly successful efforts to include people with a wide range of identities, makes it a refreshing change from trendy, narrowly targeted bullshit [‘s’up, Rules series?].

Anyway, I see they updated the book after about 20 years. ^_^

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Book as luxury object

Book as luxury object published on No Comments on Book as luxury object

I got my Tartarus Press hardcover edition of The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny [original review of The Doll Maker here] by Sarban today! There’s my poor little paperback on the left and my new Tartarus version [ordered at the middle of the month] on the right. Incidentally, it is the not the original 200-copy 1999 Tartarus reissue, but a 2002 reprint, without the limited edition afterword.

Continue reading Book as luxury object

Best vampire novel ever!

Best vampire novel ever! published on No Comments on Best vampire novel ever!

Mary Downing Hahn’s Look for Me by Moonlight tells the story of 16-year-old Cynda. She spends the winter at her remarried father’s isolated Maine inn, where she feels left out of his new family. She ignores the overtures of friendship from a fellow loner her age, Will, in favor of the only person that she feels understands her: the elegant, cultured Vincent, who is at least twice her age [well, actually more like 31.25 times her age, but he looks 30].

Vincent plays on Cynda’s crush and enthralls her so that he may drink her blood. She finds herself powerless to resist his commands and even to tell her family how he is sapping her will to live. The climax occurs when Vincent manipulates Cynda’s 5-year-old half-brother Todd into becoming his next victim. Wrenching herself from her enchantment, Cynda enlists Will’s help and, with some supernatural aid from the ghosts of previous 16-year-olds that Vincent has drained, eradicates the vampire.

I fucking love this book! As a novel for kids from 9 to 13, it’s written simply, but evocatively, with the usual mastery of creepy atmosphere demonstrated by Hahn in most of her stories. At the same time, even though it’s a YA book, Hahn directly engages with the combination of sex and death that makes seduction by vampire so peculiarly potent. I mean, everyone in the entire book [including Cynda] worries about Vincent taking advantage of Cynda and even raping her, though, thanks to Vincent’s machinations, Cynda’s parents end up believing that Will represents a sexual threat to her. After reading so much YA paranormal romance bullshit [oh hey there, Twilight saga!] that doesn’t seriously address the power differential between the mortal female protagonist and the vampire male love interest, I am so glad to read a well-written exposition of the temptation and also the supreme, cold ickiness of finding out that your fantasy is made of ice that wishes only to penetrate you and kill you to the core.

Look for Me by Moonlight reminds me strongly of Sarban’s Doll Maker, another nearly allegorical, simply written, evocative novel in which a young woman dances with, goes under and then, finally, resists and pulls free from, an older man who sexually dominates her and prefigures death. As Cynda almost becomes Vincent’s icy object, so Clare in the Doll Maker almost becomes Niall’s doll, but they both end up overcoming those men who would occupy them. Interestingly, both of them use the ambivalent, cleansing power of fire to effect their final transformation from thrall to independent agent. [Kill it! Kill it with fire!!]

Look for Me by Moonlight also reminds me of Labyrinth. I mean, heck, it’s about a 16-year-old girl [Sarah] who feels displaced from her family due to her mother’s absence and her father’s remarriage. She resents her half-brother [Toby] and spends much of her time living in fantasies [that damn play] where she is convinced that an older dude [Jareth] cares for her. Ultimately, though, she realizes that the older dude means death, so she must rescue her half-brother and herself from his clutches. Of course, Look for Me by Moonlight lacks the added layer that Labyrinth has of occurring entirely within the protagonist’s mind. Therefore Cynda needs to neutralize Vincent, while Sarah, in my interpretation, should be doing something more complex than that with Jareth. In any event, I will never tire of reading feminist tales of girls kicking oppressive patriarchal ass and coming into their own power based on warmth, love and connection.

Jareth is such a pedophilic vampire. I mean the one in the movie.

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Let’s play a game.

Let’s play a game. published on No Comments on Let’s play a game.

I’ll say a phrase, and you tell me the first words that come to your mind.

Okay? Ready? Here we go:

“Lesbian vampire erotica.”

Continue reading Let’s play a game.

Ready to read!!

Ready to read!! published on No Comments on Ready to read!!

I’m ready to read Nalo Hopkinson’s entire oeuvre! Partly because Midnight Robber sounds awesome [and has a cover apparently drawn by my favorite illustrators, Leo and Diane Dillon] and partly because I need an antidote to all those stories that treat Voudun like a lazy trashcan stereotype for “primitive evil magic.” [I’m looking at you, Chasing the Dead by Joe Schreiber, for just one of innumerable examples.]

The local library even has some of her books available for borrowing. Very surprising, given that Vermont is like the second whitest state in the nation.

EDIT: Oh no, Leo Dillon is dead! No more beautiful collaborations.

Techniques of Pleasure by Margot Weiss

Techniques of Pleasure by Margot Weiss published on 1 Comment on Techniques of Pleasure by Margot Weiss

So Margot Weiss wrote an ethnographic study of San Fran's kinky scene, Techniques of Pleasure, finding it much more conservative and less transgressive than it would like to believe itself. Weiss challenges BDSM's portrayal of itself [see review/interview in Salon], saying that:

It's not diverse. Weiss finds that, at least in San Fran, the community is boringly white in its racial homogeneity.

It's not wild. Strict rules govern scenes.

It's not transcendent. It's mired in consumerism [all those special toys!] and reproducing societal inequities.

I'm definitely interested in reading this analysis. In parting, I leave you with one of my favorite Onion articles: S&M Couple Won't Stop Droning On About Their Fetishes.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

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In A Discovery of Witches, magically gifted but power-blocked witch Diana finds a medieval manuscript that witches, daemons and vampires want, falls in love with a 1500-year-old vampire and struggles to prevent war between various groups of supernaturals, all while trying to master her own magic. Grace notes about the joys of old books and libraries, as well as a learned, persistent treatment of alchemy, make this one more interesting than the average, but it still is a heavily predictable and somewhat silly beginner for a trilogy. I’m still curious to read the sequels, though.

Let The Right One In: an awesome vampire movie!!

Let The Right One In: an awesome vampire movie!! published on 2 Comments on Let The Right One In: an awesome vampire movie!!

In a country where it’s always snowing, 12-year-old Oskar, a boy as pale as the sun, meets an enigmatic girl one night, Eli, with her dark intense gaze. The two couldn’t be more different — he a scared, passive kid on the young side, she a solemn old soul — but they’re both lonely, and they both want to do violence to the people who threaten them, so that brings them together.

As Oskar struggles with bullying at school, he becomes friends with Eli, who solves Rubik’s cubes instantly, but doesn’t remember her birthday. About them swirl two mysteries. First, who is killing young boys around Vallingby, the suburb where the two live, and draining their blood? Second, what kind of creature is Eli, who must be formally invited in and who licks blood drops off the floor? Continue reading Let The Right One In: an awesome vampire movie!!

Returning My Sister’s Face And Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice by Eugie Foster READ IT!

Returning My Sister’s Face And Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice by Eugie Foster READ IT! published on No Comments on Returning My Sister’s Face And Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice by Eugie Foster READ IT!

Clever, crystalline fairy tales treating Chinese, Japanese and Korean folktale elements with respect and magical creativity. Read it! 😀 Buy here.

Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil, edited by Carla Kungl

Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil, edited by Carla Kungl published on No Comments on Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil, edited by Carla Kungl

Available online as an E-book. Looks like published conference proceedings covering Carmilla to BTVS. Super-chouette!

EDIT: This collection of rather short essays is at its best when covering modern vampires, although Hyun-Jung Lee’s analysis of LeFanu’s Carmilla as a threat to the very foundation of subjectivity is particularly good. In the section on vampires of today, one especially interesting essay by Elizabeth McCarthy addresses the importance of bodily mutilation inflicted by people on vampires to modern conceptions of the vampire legend. In another unusual essay, Pete Remington takes a look at Anne Rice’s vampires and their relation to the experience of the depressive self. Five essays treat BTVS and Angel, mostly the sexually problematic characters of Angel and Spike, who both embody and undermine tropes of magnetic, violent, brooding, Byronic heroism. This is a varied collection with essays of uniformly high quality, although I do wish most of the pieces were longer, with more in-depth analysis.

Also possibly of interest: Monsters: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil, edited by Paul Yoder and Peter Kreuter, in the same series.

Also possibly of interest: The Monstrous Identity of Humanity, edited by Marlin Bates, by the same press.

Battleground of Desire: The Struggle for Self-Control in Modern America

Battleground of Desire: The Struggle for Self-Control in Modern America published on No Comments on Battleground of Desire: The Struggle for Self-Control in Modern America

As much as I like subject-delimited histories [i.e., about sex and gender roles in the U.S. in the late Victorian Era], I actually prefer thematically based overviews, such as Battleground of Desire, which takes a general subject — controlling the body/emotions/sexual expression in the Victorian bourgeoisie — and shows how the concepts of this struggle for self-control distribute themselves through all aspects of daily life. When I read about the many ways in which the fight for self-control could manifest itself — in diary entries chastising oneself for being too passionate [something Mary does frequently], in the schoolroom punishment to “go sit in the corner and think about the consequences of your actions,” to the widespread horror of masturbation, called “self-abuse,” to the huge obsession with correct posture, to the intractable debate about restrictive corsets vs. “healthier” clothing with room to breathe– I get a better sense of what  it might have been like to live  during that period with those things on my mind. While Battleground does not go into lots of detail on any subject, it’s a learned synthesis of many individual cultural trends, and it’s based on solid research.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie published on No Comments on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie was on The Colbert Report last night, where he managed to be witty, intelligent, gracious and generally stupendous in the face of Stephen Colbert’s buffoonish mockery. Alexie’s repartee even drove Colbert to a stand-still, where he just shook his head at Alexie, smiled and ended the interview. Given Alexie’s masterful performance, I am interested to see if his book reflects the same keen mind and incisive word use.

Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem Village

Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem Village published on 1 Comment on Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem Village

I’ve been fascinated by the Salem witchcraft trials for decades. It’s one of the few widely recognized events of American history in which girls and young women were pivotal actors. It’s also one of the few places in early American history where we can hear the voices of girls and women, in their accusations, depositions, confessions, wills and apologies. When I was the age of the afflicted girls, I read with fascination about the mysterious and destructive behavior exhibited by girls who were my age 300 years ago. The primary source documents gave me a vivid sample of their speech and thoughts, while still leaving me with the major question of WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

The influential actions of the afflicted seemed all the more powerful and interesting to me because, even now, centuries later, we have no adequate analyses for WHY the girls acted this way, WHY people believed them and WHY so many were persecuted and/or killed. There are many factors that help us understand the witchcraft trials, including the colonial terror over violent confrontations with Native Americans to the north, Puritan ambivalence toward feminine agency, emotionality and independence, and some sort of religious/class tensions between Salem port and Salem Village having to do with ministers. But, while these subjects clarify certain parts of the witchcraft trials, none of them adequately explain it.

Besides the girls, one of the most interesting people involved with the trials was, in my mind, Tituba Indian. A slave of Samuel Parris, father to one of the afflicted girls, Betty Parris, Tituba was one of the first people accused of witchcraft. [Her husband, John Indian, was also eventually accused.] Tituba eventually confessed, and her confession contributed to the widening of the witch hunt. Though very little is known about her, 19th-century historiography made her out to be a black slave whose weird foreign magic of fortune-telling corrupted the afflicted girls and contributed to their weak minds. However, the 19th-century historiography is tinged with racist bullshit, so there hasn’t been much serious investigation of Tituba’s history outside of the trails…

…Until recently. Elaine Breslaw’s Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem Village, shows the author’s fascinating historical archeology and reconstruction of Tituba’s life. Breslaw makes a pretty convincing case that Tituba grew up on a Barbadian sugar plantation surrounded by a cultural melange of African [slave], Native Caribbean [also slave] and English [colonial] perspectives. This cultural mixture influenced the images she used in her confession. Breslaw’s book, full of historical context, argues that Tituba evinced savvy self-preservation skills in her legal statements. And, awesomely enough, the book is HERE on Google books for me to poke through and reread.

For some reason, worthy of another entry, my interest in the Salem witch trials dovetails with my interest in vampires. Even in the earliest days of LHF, I always imagined that there were vampires running around up in Salem who had been witness to, if not participants in, the witch trials. In fact, the leader of one of Salem’s clans, Ethan Stuart [entirely fictional], will play a central role in an upcoming season. Ethan was only a witness to the trials, not a participant.

I think I’m gonna make Tituba a vampire and a character in LHF. 😀 😀 In fact, I’m working on it now.

Three Hands for Scorpio by Andre Norton: three thumbs up!

Three Hands for Scorpio by Andre Norton: three thumbs up! published on 1 Comment on Three Hands for Scorpio by Andre Norton: three thumbs up!

A set of magically empowered and noble triplets are kidnapped and dumped in a hostile wilderness full of weird animals and unknown threats. They must use their wits and their magic to find their way back home. Things are complicated along the way by the appearance of a young man who may or may not be a missing prince. He helps out the triplets and embroils them in a plot against the crown, which makes their return home all the more urgent so they can warn the royal family.

Though Three Hands for Scorpio was apparently Norton’s last published work before she expired at 93 and therefore not up to par with the works of her golden age, I still found much to enjoy in it.

It’s a straightforward adventure story, and that’s one of its greatest strengths. Women and men are equal at ass-kicking — indeed, one sign of the plot against the throne is that priests gaining power want to repress women — but Norton does not get hung up on this point. Neither is there any romance between the triplets and the maybe-prince. Neither is there any bitchy infighting among the triplets, who share a form of mind-reading that’s rather endearing, or between the triplets and their parents. As a matter of fact, the triplets, their mom and their dad present a rare picture of a functional fictional family where all members love each other. But that’s not the main point of the story. Basically, it’s just a race to discover the mysteries of the wilderness and get home. Norton’s use of female protagonists in a story where many authors would default to male ones thus strikes me as a subtle and very welcome feminist decision.

Beyond its general awesomeness as a feminist statement, Three Hands also works exceptionally well as a suspenseful adventure mystery. Who kidnapped the triplets? What monsters will they meet in the wilderness? Is the maybe-prince friend or foe? Who’s gunning for the crown, and why? Norton drives the story with all these questions with a nimbly paced plot that bristles with gods, powers and borders, leaving you to work out the connections as you read. It’s not complicated, but it is tightly woven, so the archaic style [consistent and convincing, thank you very much] may impede you. However, just ride along on Norton’s inventiveness as she lets the triplets explore a world where spiders are the size of dogs and wildcats talk through ESP. Her endlessly creativity lets you experience the triplets’ wonder as they discover the wilderness.

Of course, Three Hands has its weaknesses. Its major flaw is that the triplets are undifferentiated. Even though they take turns narrating, they don’t sound like separate characters. They don’t really act differently from each other either; they’re all smart and quick-witted and resourceful and magically gifted. This flaw could have been righted simply by making the protagonists twins and developing them in the lazy manner that many authors use to differentiate pairs: giving them opposite major traits. I personally accepted the similarity of the triplets very easily because my sister and I did a series of stories about twins who talked in the first-person plural all the time. Others of you may not be so lenient.

In summary, Three Hands is a clever story that combines a simple, linear quest with a mystery. Refreshingly swift and condensed in plotting, it features easily likeable [but undifferentiated] heroines and blessed freedom from sexism and other stupid stereotypes.

If most fantasies are bloated, three-layer burgers, flaccid with toppings and useless surprises, Three Hands is a compact, tasty, satisfying slider.

Chasing the Dead by Joe Schrieber: silly yet awesome

Chasing the Dead by Joe Schrieber: silly yet awesome published on No Comments on Chasing the Dead by Joe Schrieber: silly yet awesome

A kidnapper steals Susan’s young daughter and delivers an ultimatum. Susan must follow a prescribed route through eastern Mass. in order to get her daughter back. But history lies uneasily in these small New England towns; in fact, as Susan makes each stop along the way, history rears out of its grave to shamble after her. As she races to protect her child, Susan discovers the truth, not only about the darkest moment of her own childhood, but also about a centuries-old, supernatural evil that’s been haunting the region.

Schrieber pushes Chasing the Dead along with quickly paced prose full of nervous beating hearts and splattering viscera. His simple story trades in archetypes — Mother on the Defensive vs. Sadistic Monster — without complexity of character. Not a problem, though, because Schrieber is too busy grossing you out and pulling you along to the next chapter. The perfect mindless suspense novel, strengthened by the fact that Schrieber portrays a convincing eastern Mass. setting.

My one complaint is the gratuitous use of “voodoo” as the ultimate source of the centuries-old, supernatural evil. Instead of Haitian voodoo, the evil character could have been transformed by anything labeled “sinister magic.”  Since the evil character started off as a white, English-speaking colonist, he could have made a deal with the Devil or some local New England witches, which would have made much more sense, considering his background and beliefs. Why toss in an unneeded exploitation of “voodoo?” Bullshit like this just reinforces the popular American misconception that Voudou/Voudun is some morally suspect practice involving zombie creation, rather than a legitimate religion.

[Filed under “vampires” for the use of unkillable, soul-sucking evil.]

Young Blood is the best vampire novel ever!

Young Blood is the best vampire novel ever! published on 3 Comments on Young Blood is the best vampire novel ever!

Summary: Brainy philosophy major student and her biochem boyfriend take different perspectives on the vampire haunting their lives. Is he a dream, a virus, a reality? One character is destroyed; both are transformed, and both learn more about the murky, shape-shifting nature of self and consciousness. Clarion writing, believable characters [especially Anne], unexpected plot twists that reflect great insight into workings of the human mind, a knowledgable representation of the geography of the human imagination — all these elements add up to a cerebral masterpiece of psychological horror.

Okay, I exaggerate. 

Young Blood is the best vampire novel after Carmilla and Dracula…the best MODERN vampire novel. Written by Brain Stableford, perpetrator of the abysmal Hunger and Ecstasy of Vampires, Young Blood focuses on philosophy major and college freshman Anne, her boyfriend, biochem grad student Gil, and a vampire from the borderlands, Maldureve. Anne welcomes her relationship with Maldureve because his blood-drinking brings ecstasy and his teachings bring expanded perceptions. She’s perfectly willing to accept Maldureve’s reality, while Gil thinks Maldureve is a mental disease, a virus prompting him to horrible deeds. 

Is Maldureve real? Is he benign or malign? Stableford takes the story for some surprising twists and turns as his intelligent protagonists try to make sense of everything. In lucid prose, convincingly distinguished for different sections from Anne’s and Gil’s perspectives, Stableford creates a work as much about the nature of consciousness and all the selves inside us as it is about vampires. Young Blood is like a cross between The Doll Maker [innocent, intelligent ingenue comes of age] and The Duke in His Castle [small cast, intense focus, great psychological acuity, delicious allegory]. Unlike anything else I’ve read, it accurately captures the thrill, doubt, power and intoxication of creating, nourishing, talking to and learning about characters in one’s head.

Recommended: Tananarive Due’s African Immortals series

Recommended: Tananarive Due’s African Immortals series published on No Comments on Recommended: Tananarive Due’s African Immortals series

I’m currently reading Blood Colony, the last book in Tananarive Due’s African Immortals trilogy. Continue reading Recommended: Tananarive Due’s African Immortals series

Seduction of submission, creepiness of dolls in The Doll Maker by Sarban

Seduction of submission, creepiness of dolls in The Doll Maker by Sarban published on 3 Comments on Seduction of submission, creepiness of dolls in The Doll Maker by Sarban

Summary: Creepy, luxuriously described dark fantasy about lonely, intelligent Clare and her seduction by titular doll maker. Convincing, sympathetic main character, smooth prose, kinky subtext and great insight into the weird, ambivalent relationships people have with their dolls — all these things make The Doll Maker a neglected gem.

Most of us, with some atavistic part of our hearts, secretly suspect that our toys are alive. Of all playthings, we feel most ambivalent about dolls. The humanoid shapes of dolls make them seem more like Homo sapiens than, say, stuffed animals or toy cars. We easily envision dolls as alive. The perfection of their small scale and the stillness of their beauty seduce us with admiration and longing. They will never change, never wear, never die, never degrade. They are unsubjected to time and therefore immortal and desirable.

But there are melancholy currents in our yearning. Though pure in their design and unaging in their flawlessness, dolls are always under the control of their owners, which means that they are often victims of their owners’ careless abuse. When they are not being played with, dolls lie in a state of suspended animation like death. Their existence is bounded subservience on one end and coma on the other. What sort of immortality is this?

Sarban [pseudonym of John William Wall] explores the weird attractions of dolls in his novella of psychological horror The Doll Maker. It is the story of the lonely, intelligent ingenue Clare, a boarding school student in her last year before college, and her relationship with the titular character, a young scion of the nearby manor. Lacking room to exercise her curiosity and intellect, she first sees Niall [the doll maker] as an opportunity to open the narrow avenues of her mind and her life. As she pieces together the truth about his sinister, magical art, however, Clare realizes the danger of submerging her will in his: she might never get it back. She struggles to thwart Niall’s designs while she saves other students and herself.

For a story that’s basically a fairy tale of a young woman under the spell of an evil magician, The Doll Maker packs a surprising amount of character development and psychological truth. As a rule, I’m deeply suspicious of male writers who write about female characters seduced by male ones because male writers seem much more likely to create wilting, pliant, submissive, boring, UNREALISTIC female characters. Therefore, I approached Sarban and his portrayal of Clare with defensive hostility.

I was, therefore, gleefully surprised when Clare turned out to be an actual, fully rounded, active character. Sheltered, chaperoned and guarded by her boarding school, Clare first comes across as introverted, lonely, detached and dreamy, like a ghost with no place to haunt. At the same time, while not wildly rebellious, she is smart and curious, and these traits propel both her meeting with Niall and her eventual discoveries of his secrets. Clare is both appealingly intelligent and thoughtful, but also naive enough to be susceptible to Niall. To his credit, Sarban presents both Clare’s brains and her inexperience in measured detail, taking her seriously, rather than mocking her. In a delicate balancing act, he makes her passive enough to temporarily submit to Niall, but assertive enough to eventually throw off his yoke and find her own identity.

The Doll Maker crackles with sexual tension. As Niall tries, in some sense, to make a doll out of Clare, he brings the artist’s craft out of the realm of inanimate material and into the social world, where doll making becomes a power play. Niall wishes to be Clare’s creator and to make her do as he sees fit. He portrays his mastery over her as a release from the cares and changes of life, a perfectly fulfilling dream. Uncertain about her scholastic future, friendless and anxious, Clare eagerly lets him manipulate her. She does indeed gain a certain swooning ecstasy from Niall’s control over her; in fact, the passages in which she feels powerless and yet peaceful are accurate descriptions of the altered state of consciousness that a submissive may feel in BDSM play when he/she is being effectively topped by a dom. Clare’s pleasure dwindles when she realizes that Niall’s domination depends on death and annihilation. She must assert herself against Niall’s destructive power. The kinky subtext of The Doll Maker adds another level to the story so that it can be read as a sensually charged but non-explicit story of a woman who finds some erotic satisfaction in submission, but who eventually has to free herself from an abusive partner/dom.

I strongly recommend The Doll Maker to people interested in horror and/or dark fantasy and/or dolls and/or feminism and/or rites of passage for female characters and/or kinky sex. First published in 1953, The Doll Maker is inexplicably out of print as a stand-alone novel, but you can buy it in The Sarban Omnibus. Incidentally, I hear that The Sound of His Horn is also weird and strange and erotically charged too, although not as good. I should probably get a copy of The Sarban Omnibus because I bought a 1960s paperback of The Doll Maker, and it’s falling apart, and I am very sad, and so are my dolls because they want to read it too. :p


Where vampirism is human nature and the end is death [The Vampire Tapestry by S. Charnas]

Where vampirism is human nature and the end is death [The Vampire Tapestry by S. Charnas] published on 1 Comment on Where vampirism is human nature and the end is death [The Vampire Tapestry by S. Charnas]

Despite its silly title and remote, slow-moving beginning, The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy Charnas turns into a powerful meditation on humanity [well, that’s how I interpret it]. Through several interconnected stories, Tapestry follows Edward Weyland, one of the most realistic vampires ever designed. A long-lived, emotionally remote predator who resembles his human prey due to extensive mimicking capabilities, Weyland approaches his existence without sentiment, moral qualm or engagement with the human world. He masquerades as a brilliant university professor involved in dream research, but a rare hunting mistake leads him to injury at the hands of a would-be vampire hunter. The rest of the stories follow Weyland imprisoned and harassed by New Age weirdos, in therapy (!) with a woman who falls in lust with him, viewing opera that touches him emotionally [much to his alarm] and otherwise forming a close bond with his prey. 

Charnas exerts herself mightily to make Weyland a non-human and comprehensible being, which she does, but, since the whole point of the book has him taking on humane characteristics, I do not read Weyland as an alien being, no matter how much Charnas wishes me to. Instead, I read him as an alienated person. He starts off as unreflective and sociopathic, but grows more emotionally expressive and reflective as the stories progress. His development toward humanity occurs not because he develops a moral scale, but because he develops a sense of himself as a social being, affected by other people, their feelings and actions. In a way, Charnas may be putting forth the interesting argument here that it is our sociality, rather than our morality, that defines us as human. 

Charnas’ story about a man struggling to become human without being overwhelmed by empathy takes on poignant dimensions in the end, when Weyland feels less like an aloof predator and more like a sponge overrun with the feelings of other people. He can’t take it any more, so he chooses to enter a period of hibernation, which effectively means death for the Weyland persona and all memories and experiences associated with it. For me, the ending is heartbreaking because Weyland feels assaulted by all that emotion, but also promising; though overwhelmed, he realizes that his hibernation will not end everything, but will send him back into the cycle and prompt a new rehumanization. He seems to accept his humanity, however grudgingly, because he keeps choosing to subject himself to it. It’s an expert use of vampiric metaphors to explore the very human themes of life, death, hope and redemption.

Portrait of a bubble gum Goth: Vampire Kisses by Ellen Schrieber

Portrait of a bubble gum Goth: Vampire Kisses by Ellen Schrieber published on 1 Comment on Portrait of a bubble gum Goth: Vampire Kisses by Ellen Schrieber

Out to bust stereotypes of moany, moony, moody and thoroughly insufferable Goths is Raven, narrator of Vampire Kisses by Ellen Schrieber. Though the title purports that this book is yet another vampire romance, most of the plot consists of bubbly, impulsive, butt-kicking and cheerfully dark Raven’s attempts to be herself in a school and a town determined to quash her weirdness.

Lighthearted, frothy and energetic, just like Raven herself, the main story pits Raven against a preppy soccer-playing snob who bullies and sexually harasses her. Due to her quick thinking, she gets revenge while she stands up not only for herself, but also for her loyal friend, who doesn’t fit in because of her poverty. 

While Raven creates enough excitement in her small town on her own, she also investigates a mysterious new family in town whose possibly vampiric scion, the quiet and sexy Alexander, could be an ally. Class tensions and tensions between the sexes bubble through this story, but Schrieber’s fleet-footed prose never pauses for deep analysis or moral reflection. Instead, we follow Raven in her self-involved, but also amusing and ultimately good-hearted  and compassionate, search for a partner in crime.

Vampire Kisses has no pretensions to originality or depth, but I really enjoyed it. Schrieber perfectly captures the voice of a self-aggrandizing, flamboyant, endearing bubble gum Goth. As a teenager trying to stake out a new and different identity, Raven expends way too much energy in bold, unusual acts designed to make her appear truly original and memorable, but she does not seem insecure. Rather, she seems possessed of so much energy that she just explodes with it, ignorant of the fact that one doesn’t have to be super-duper dramatic all the time in order to be oneself. I find Raven very refreshing because she has an unshakable and positive knowledge of herself, her personality and her desires. I am so sick of self-loathing characters who must learn to believe in themselves that I am very happy to read about a character — a teenaged girl, no less, member of a cohort not known for supernal levels of confidence! — who evinces self-confidence and strength from the get-go.

P.S. I started Dead Until Dark, but it was so…very…dull… So I couldn’t finish it.

Another thing I like about The Changeover…

Another thing I like about The Changeover… published on No Comments on Another thing I like about The Changeover…

…is that Mahy explicitly identifies witchcraft as a feminine power, then makes Laura’s partner, Sorry, a male witch. I’m not thrilled with the idea that certain powers are inherently masculine or feminine, but I definitely like the idea of a male character trying to reconcile himself to the fact that his power is not gendered in the same way that he is expected to be. In an interview about The Changeover, Mahy comments:

…[T]he boy…in spite of everything retained something of his original feminine quality… something he fights against by assuming a degree of sexual aggressivenes. Behind him stand the figures of his mother and grandmother and he has inherited qualities from them that give him an ambivalent nature. 

As Laura goes through her changeover, growing up into her sexual, protective, assertive power, Sorry simmers down from the aforementioned prickliness. He realizes that his front as a bullying, sexually aggressive asshole is a defensive overlay that occludes his actual strengths. In the actual chapters when Laura does her changeover, he coaches her and accompanies her, much like a midwife. This is where he shines: as a guardian, a comforter, a restorer, a carer. He ends up accepting his witchcraft and his role as a nurturer, rather than a predator. This is how he makes sense of his supposedly feminine powers.

Clearly I need my own copy of this book, preferably the hardcover edition with the beautiful cover.

A lot scarier than the squishy candy: Peeps by Scott Westerfield

A lot scarier than the squishy candy: Peeps by Scott Westerfield published on 1 Comment on A lot scarier than the squishy candy: Peeps by Scott Westerfield

You thought Peeps were just marshmallow chicks, right? Well, clearly you haven’t read Scott Westerfield’s YA novel, Peeps, in which the titular designation refers to those people who are “parasite positive.” In Westerfield’s world, peeps are human beings infected with voracious parasites that compel their hosts to transmit said parasite through blood contact. With hopped-up, superhuman senses, long lifespan, bloodthirsty instincts, perpetual horniness and aversions to sunlight, peeps are most commonly referred to as — you guessed it — vampires.

Those in which the parasite is active are dangerous, semi-crazed individuals, but those in whom the parasite is merely latent have all the superpowers of being a host without the crazy side effects. Carriers, such as narrator Cal, hunt down and contain the crazy actual vampires. As we open our story, Cal, member of the centuries-old Night Watch, is hunting down his former girlfriends to whom he has transmitted the parasite, but his constant concupiscence side-rails him…especially when he joins up with an assertive, intuitive and tenacious college student Lace. Together they literally go underground into the dirty, smelly bowels of New York City [juicily and realistically evoked] and discover some really big, slimy secrets that are much more of a threat to humanity than a few vampires.

Westerfield writes crisply, endowing Cal with a likable dry humor that makes everything he says go down easily, even when Cal’s lecturing us about actual parasites and how they fuck up your innards. Besides a charming protagonist who wins instant sympathy, Westerfield also gives him a perfect match in the incredibly snoopy, but also cool and collected, Lace. Cal’s the brawn, and she’s the brains, but they work together well as investigators, complementing each other.

Driven by a well thought-out and scientific conception of vampirism as parasitism, Peeps moves nimbly along, solidly structured and neatly dovetailed. Craftsmanship is excellent, conclusion satisfying.  See — all you idiot writers of knock-off apocalyptic wacko vampire fiction — it IS possible to write an convincing story about vampires and the end of the world as we know it [but I feel fine!]. You just have to ground it in the realistic details.

The Changeover by Margaret Mahy: Twilight wishes it were this good.

The Changeover by Margaret Mahy: Twilight wishes it were this good. published on No Comments on The Changeover by Margaret Mahy: Twilight wishes it were this good.

In The Changeover by Margaret Mahy, as in Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, a young schoolgirl meets an older, wiser, handsome young man. She, with her sharp-tongued asperity, and he, with his awkward remoteness, both lack social graces. Both distant from the usual flurry of teenage life, they are attracted to each other. The girl discovers that the boy is magical and that he lives with a family that are just as supernatural as he is. Increasingly intimate with the boy, the girl struggles with her attraction not only to him, but to the magical power that he and his family represent. Will she choose normal life or an isolating life of power beyond her wildest imagination?

While Twilight bogs itself down in the boring hiccups of its heroine’s obsessive mood, The Changeover establishes an entirely real world, replete with familial relationships, something that Twilight lacks. Laura of The Changeover, like Bella of Twilight, comes from a divorced family. Instead of providing mere plot points, however, Laura’s family — struggling bookseller mom Kate and cheerful 3-year-old Jacko — are an integral part of Laura’s life. Laura’s swiftly burgeoning relationship with jokey new suitor Chris mirrors Laura’s relationship with Sorry, the magical boy. Conflict also arises as Laura tries to accept her mom having a life again. Additionally, Jacko provides the catalyst for Laura’s temptation; prompted by her little brother’s magical possession, Laura seeks out Sorry to tutor her in witchcraft so that she may defeat the evil that is infiltrating Jacko. For all of Laura’s resentment toward Kate and Chris and all the magical machinations against Jacko, The Changeover at heart is a testament to the bonds of blood between Laura’s family and to a pure and convincing affection between siblings.

Speaking of familial relations, Sorry comes across as a real person, really scarred by his messed-up family life and his ambivalent relationship to the supernatural. Unlike Edward of Twilight, who seems serene and untouchable in his glittery vampirism, Sorry looks like an imposing witch, but he’s also a vulnerable boy. Abandoned by his mother to be abused by a foster family and then reclaimed, Sorry takes refuge in arch, snarky comments and his mastery of witchcraft. He can’t hide, however, his real attraction and affection for Laura, who seems to pierce his protective coating and recognize that his magical mastery doesn’t translate into social mastery. Also refreshing is the fact that he, 18, is seriously bothered by his deep connection to Laura, 15. During the teen years, such an age gap matters a lot in terms of maturity [and legality], and Sorry feels disturbed by the age disparity, unlike Edward of Twilight, who just thinks Bella’s a cute little kid, but remarks very little on a 100-year-old loving an 18-year-old. While Twilight tells the story of a stupid naif getting vacuumed up into a world of seemingly perfect magical beings, Mahy chooses to emphasize the essential humanity of everyone involved.
Cheesy, dated cover for paperback issue.

If you’ve been following my rants about Twilight, you’ll remember that Bella as a heroine frustrates me and disappoints me to no end with her passivity, clumsiness and fainting. Indeed, it is hard to write a story about a character caught up in events beyond his/her control without making the character seem solely like a reactive pawn. However, Laura from The Changeover illustrates how to make a sympathetic, active heroine in over her head. When we first see Laura bantering easily with her mother and watching protectively over her little brother, even as she tries to tell her mom about the supernatural warnings that she’s been hearing, we get an immediately endearing picture. Laura is obviously a bit too mature for the stereotypical teenage petulance; she’s devoted to both her mom and her brother in a touching way that shows the depth of her kindness and her compassion. She trades wry, flip comments with her mom that suggest both her appealingly blunt nature and a defense for having to grow up too fast. Her perceptive remarks about Sorry show Laura to be both magically intuitive and intelligent. She’s smart, capable, tough and insightful — all qualities that will serve her well throughout the story. She’s also lonely and a little heart-damaged. What else could she ask for except another tough, smart, defensive, heart-damaged person to understand her and fill the hole of love in her psyche? Good thing Sorry’s around.

Though billed on the cover as "a supernatural romance," The Changeover can more accurately be described as "a supernatural and romantic story about love." For all their faults, both Laura’s and Sorry’s families love Laura and Sorry; the members in each family love each other, and Laura and Sorry love each other too. Parental love, filial love, sibling love, the love of courting adults and the love of courting teens all appear in The Changeover. Because Mahy has sympathy for everyone [even the evil possessive spirit, a lonely psychic vampire who craves the sensuality of human experience], we see through her warm authorial eyes the lovable qualities in each character. Therefore we understand why characters are so attached to each other and how love can be the magic that overcomes all desperation and truly links people together. Unlike Stephenie Meyer, who just writes about some abstract, unconvincing Super-Dramatic Obsessive Love and then tacks some characters on to it, Mahy uses her characters to drive the story.

But yes, because Mahy loves a good love story, The Changeover does have a classic romance woven into it. Laura and Sorry are destined for each other, but they don’t want to accept their relationship’s inevitability. However, of course, circumstances force them to admit that they belong together. Gratifyingly enough, however, Mahy tempers the romantic trends with realism. Instead of falling into Sorry’s arms the way that Bella in Twilight keeps tripping into Edward’s grasp, Laura depends on him for help and guidance in saving Jacko, but she does serious work in her own head first. Sorry does not take over Laura’s story and become the soppy center of her universe; instead, the two of them form a partnership of equals. In another perspective, they each expand their definition of family to allow the other into their circle. In fact, Sorry remarks early on that he feels like his friendship with Laura contains "all the disadvantages of marriage" and none of the advantages. They grow into the advantages.
A haunting cover for the hardback version.

Laura and Sorry together make me incredibly happy because they are both strong, accomplished people who match each other well in terms of maturity, power and familial devotion. They do not compromise themselves in their love, the way that Bella and Edward do in Twilight [with Bella becoming even more of a whiny doofus and Edward refraining from chewing Bella’s whiny head off]. Laura and Sorry complement each other, bringing out strengths in each other. For a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old, they eventually have a remarkably mature [but also thoroughly believable] relationship. They postpone further intimacy at the end when Sorry goes off to park ranger training and Laura goes off to finish high school. While Mahy does not give in to readers’ desires to see the deserving couple remain together RIGHT NOW, this ending really ends up being more satisfying. Hey, if Laura and Sorry are this good together when they are so young, imagine how much better they will be in a few years!

Labyrinth should have been this good. Twilight should have been this good. But they aren’t, so read the one, the only, the best, the nuanced by generally awesome and accomplished Kiwi author Margaret Mahy.

Up next: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, primarily to mock it.

— and the blood and the metaphors and the drunken night —

— and the blood and the metaphors and the drunken night — published on 1 Comment on — and the blood and the metaphors and the drunken night —

I zipped through Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn, a metaphor-drugged story about Beckett, a young teen girl who grieves the death of her mother. When her father marries the school nurse and Beckett gets her horribly painful period, she suspects sinister and blood-related hunger lurking beneath the surface of her new stepmother. Eventually Beckett determines that her new stepmom is out for blood and that she, Beckett, is the Last Girl of the horror films, who must either confront the monster or become its culminating victim.

As you can see by the reviews on Amazon, this book is either a work of transcendent genius or a piece of unreadable, pretentious fluff, depending on the perspective of the reader. I personally liked it.

I liked getting insight into Beckett’s poetic, racing, unhinged mind. I liked the vivid descriptions of New York City at night that so perfectly captured the shining promise and loneliness of looking in at lighted houses from the outside. I liked the portrayal of grief as an unmooring from reality, and I liked Beckett’s climactic realization that dissociation would never help her, that she had to “go inside” and face the horrors inside her own mind. I liked the sensual descriptions of night and sex and death. I liked her smart-ass joker boyfriend Tobey and his gentleness. I appreciated the overall structure of the plot, in which the first half was unhinging and creeping dread and the second part was Beckett coming back to herself and into her own power. I was very satisfied when Beckett drank the blood and accepted adulthood without the murderous, draining aspects exemplified by her stepmom. I thought that Innocence worked as a feminist vampire fairy tale.

I acknowledge, however, that the book has its flaws. Innocence depends too strongly on similes, at the expense of character development for the secondaries. I think, for example, a greater background on her father and her dead mother would have helped give Beckett’s grief and disorientation more emotional heft. Relatedly, Mendelsohn tries to cram too many allusions into this slight book. Beckett ritualistically calls on Alice [Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland], Dorothy [The Wizard of Oz], Persephone [queen of the Underworld], but the ensuing imagery  and thematic structure of the novel does not bear comparison to any of the stories these characters come from. In fact, Innocence, with its conflict between a hungry replacement mom and a young teen just growing into her sexual partner — not to mention all the temptation, desire, death and blood — reimagines the Snow White story. Of all the tales she could have centered on, Mendelsohn should have made this obvious choice and run with it. Mendelsohn could have strengthened the story with a few references to this fairy tale, instead of a few forced scattershot intrusions from largely irrelevant tales.

I think of this book the way that I think of my favorite movie, Labyrinth. Labyrinth is full of promising elements, strong themes and interesting, dark, poetic, weird sexual strains. Some of them work — i.e., the polymorphously perverse portrayal of Jareth — and some don’t — i.e., the idea that stupid, staring Sarah is an active, maturing heroine. In the same way, Innocence bursts with a mess of fascinating, powerful elements. Some don’t work [e.g., forced allusions to irrelevant tales, development of secondaries], but some do [Beckett’s character arc, Beckett as a sympathetic personality, the characterization of New York City, the condensed and disjointed style]. To compare it to another vampire novel, it’s like Dracula. Some of it’s good; some of it’s dreadful, but it has its moments of inspired originality. Either way, it has staying power; it’s memorable.

Antidote to bad vampire novels: The Silver Kiss

Antidote to bad vampire novels: The Silver Kiss published on 1 Comment on Antidote to bad vampire novels: The Silver Kiss

After reading Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, I needed to wash my brain out with a vampire novel of higher quality. Since I've practically memorized Carmilla and Dracula at this point, I chose instead a modern classic: The Silver Kiss by Annette Curtis Klause. It tells the story of petulant, artistic and sensitive Zoe, 17, who feels as if her world is imploding because her mom is dying of cancer. She meets Simon, a sympathetic badass vampire bent on vengeance against his brother for killing their mom. Simon helps Zoe deal with her mom's demise, and she helps him achieve revenge.

Good things about The Silver Kiss: Klause writes in a fast-paced style, but with frequent flashes of poetry in her use of unexpected adjectives. From the title onward, she creates a fascinating atmosphere of magic and melancholy.  Her portrayal of the grieving Zoe's mood swings is accurate and compassionate, anchoring the book in a drama that readers can easily identify with. Unlike Meyer, who can't write an appealing, active character to save her life, Klause shows both Zoe and Simon as broken-hearted characters who think way too much and thus have a common bond that explains their attraction. Finally, Klause's use of vampires as a metaphor for the grieving process illuminates both Zoe's stories and vampire myths in general, offering a believable reason that such deadly humanoid parasites could be sympathetic.

Bad things about The Silver Kiss: Zoe does not read as a 17-year-old to me. Even making allowances for her grief and general strain, I find it hard to believe that her constant whininess and snappishness would come from someone over 15. Klause should have made her 15; I don't think the story would have suffered. Relatedly, I sympathize with Zoe because I've experienced death and know how it can punch one in the gut, but still…while sympathetic, Zoe is a hard character to like and follow along with. Simon is a bit better, although Klause tries too hard [e.g., in the scene where he beats up drunken doofuses and steals one of their leather jackets] to make him edgy. These lapses are forgivable, though, when compared to the main problem of the book: the ending. I accept Simon's suicide/sacrifice, but I reject Zoe's sudden confidence and lack of fear about dying. All along, Klause depicts grief as a tangle, and it's never unknotted so simply and completely. Even if Klause had written that Zoe "wasn't SO scared any more" instead of "wasn't scared any more," that would have been better.

Nevertheless, The Silver Kiss is a vivid, nuanced novel about vampires.

New Moon, the sequel to Twilight, is, however, not. It's just more of the same sluggish melodrama that we saw in Twilight. A coworker who borrowed Twilight from me summed up my feelings toward this series well when she said, "I finished Twilight. I stayed up late reading it." Thoughtful pause. "I didn't like it very much."

Next up: Blood-Sucking Fiends: A Love Story by Christopher Moore.

Vampires are people too in Vivian Vande Velde’s Companions of the Night

Vampires are people too in Vivian Vande Velde’s Companions of the Night published on

Velde reimagines the vampire romance genre with Companions of the Night, a 1995 story of teenaged Kerry, whose trip to the laundromat to retrieve her little brother’s teddy embroils her in torture, kidnap, robbery, arson and murder. When she defends Ethan against vicious kidnappers, she discovers that she got more than she bargained for, as Ethan is sneaky, unreliable and vampiric. Nevertheless, she must trust him and even adopt some of his tough, duplicitous ways if she is to rescue her family from an unhinged vampire hunter.

This was much more a book about action and suspense than about supernatural events. Though Ethan introduces Kerry to a world of standard vampiric tropes, much of the book focuses on the secretive and destructive acts he and Kerry must perform to follow and capture the unhinged hunter. Thus Ethan and the rest of the vampires seem no more dangerous than any mortal gang that survives by doing nasty things under most people’s radar. The strong similarities between vampires and members of criminal gangs illuminated Velde’s vampires as people who are living out the worst of their human nature. I personally liked this conception of vampires being all too susceptible to human failings. 

Even though I liked Velde’s perspective on vampiric nature and heroine Kerry, who, though victimized by vampires, retains some cleverness, suspicion and ambivalence throughout the book, I didn’t find Companions of the Night engaging. With such an evocative title conjuring up friendship or, at the very least, close, strongly emotional ties, the book should at least have a little feeling, right? Since we follow Kerry, we should feel her panic, her confusion, her attraction toward Ethan, her anxiety about her missing family. But we don’t. Instead of sincere emotion, we get lots of frenetic action, which is fascinating because we’re trying to figure out how all the pieces of the puzzle will fit, but I don’t really care if they do. 

Somewhere between the melodrama of Twilight and the jumpy action of Companions of the Night, there’s a great vampire novel. However, I have yet to read it. Maybe it doesn’t exist. Sob!

She’s Not The Man I Married (sequel to My Husband Betty)

She’s Not The Man I Married (sequel to My Husband Betty) published on No Comments on She’s Not The Man I Married (sequel to My Husband Betty)

I didn’t know, but Helen Boyd wrote a follow-up to My Husband Betty. The follow-up, She’s Not the Man I Married, chronicles her husband’s transgender transition. [I think…I haven’t read it.] I may have to look at it.

Die, vile protagonist: killing off the Mary Sue!

Die, vile protagonist: killing off the Mary Sue! published on 3 Comments on Die, vile protagonist: killing off the Mary Sue!

In a paper about “150 years of Mary Sues,” Pat Pflieger comments about the coup of killing off a Mary Sue — that is, the character that is the author’s shill. Why is a dramatic death the ultimate end?

1. Mary Sue is too good for you. Like the saintly, sickly paragons of Victorian novels [Helen in Jane Eyre, Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop], Mary Sues become too talented, too virtuous, too stupendously amazing, for this world. So there’s really nothing else to do except kill them off. In a fanfic that’s full of the highest highs, deepest lows, widest loves and most passionate hates, a Dramatic Death makes an orgasmic conclusion.

2. Hah, you really loved her, didn’tcha?!?!? Like the original rebellious female character who loved the evil man [Clarissa], Mary Sues die to afford the author and reader some perverse glee. Since everyone loves Clarissa [and the Mary Sues], everyone feels devastated when she dies. Thus, pre-death and even post-death, the author and reader can bask in the secondary characters’ grief because the grief proves how greatly the main character [Clarissa or Mary Sue] was loved.

3. You’ll remember her forever. Because they’re so damned good and because everyone loves ’em, it’s guaranteed that the characters will not forget the Mary Sue. Her virtues will shine as a noble beacon forever. Secondaries will idealize and idolize her. She will never leave their minds. More wish-fulfilling whack-off on the author’s part.

Hmmm, and I thought killing Anneka was just a good way to literalize a huge change in her life. Nope…it was the Orgasm of the Mary Sue!

Dear Loremistress  — If Mary Sues are so hated by other writers, why do you think LHF, which is so obviously teeming with Mary Sues, is well-liked?

Go read what the Loremistress muses about Mary Sues. She’s good. 😀

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