Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Twain, Dahl, and Bellairs -- Mary ponders the roots of her influences and undertakes a project

Lately, I got thinking about my influences as a writer and storyteller, mostly because I am caught in editing hell and having trouble finding motivation to do just that. I wasn't just thinking about influences though... the root of my influences. Yeah, what I'm into now I do consider influences but I got curious about where it all began. My current interest in Maggie Steifvater and George R.R. Martin, for instance, are just branches. Even Saint JK Rowling is just a branch.
From Sainted Writers. The pic fit

I thought it would be an easy task to complete but that couldn't be further from the truth. I found myself  digging deeper and deeper into the past, finding what made me a reader and a story-consumer to begin with. Right when I thought I found the answer, that was just one layer, there were many more. I had to dig through some densely packed crap at times -- like my Goosebumps and Animorphs phase (neither of which I finished as there are only so many Monster Bloods I could handle and I started to see and grow bored of the formula Animorphs gave me) -- but I think I traced it back to one book and three authors.

I do have a few honorable mentions. One is Lucy Maude Montgomery. I blame my cousin for this one. It was kind of our thing. When we played pretend, I would be Diana and she would be Anne. And then there was the TV show Avonlea which we put on plays based on episodes. However, due to that show, I got reading LM Montgomery's lesser known titles like The Story Girl. I am hesitant to say this is an influence, although I did read Anne of Green Gables and I think Anne of Avonlea. It sure cemented in my mind the Edwardian period which has always been a life long fascination.
Oddly enough, Samantha was not my favorite American Girl
Stephen King is also an author I can call out but I'd call him the second to last layer. I got into Stephen King because my brothers were into Stephen King. Our house was covered in his books. I read a few of them by the age of 13. And it really because of him, that horror is cemented as probably my favorite genre.

There is also JK Rowling as I was an intense Potterhead in college. Also, Tamora Pierce really got me into fantasy in my mid-teen years. Douglas Adams was my first foray into Science Fiction.  
But once I dig passed those books, I find at the root of my influence lies with a book and three authors.

First the book: The Secret Garden
I didn't read the Secret Garden rather my mother read it to me many times. At first, I think my draw to it happened to be the main character sharing the same name as me, but after a while, I just loved the character voices and the sad story about Mary's uncle and the origin of the titular Secret Garden. I would eventually read it on my own but it was the first chapter book my mother read to me. I remember how I would urge her to continue to the next chapter and she would say she was too tired. But I wanted to know about the person wailing or what would be Uncle Craven's reaction to Colin's glowing health or whatever.

As I recall this, I think about how now, if I was about 6 or 7 and my mother read this to me, I could have gone online and found a youtube video that told me the ending. The book was too difficult for me to figure out on my own (although I did try). Besides, The Secret Garden was how my mother and I bonded. And how I longed to find my own hidden place where I could keep to myself.

I also gained a fascination with moorlands and had a huge crush on Dickon -- my first imaginary person crush. I vowed I would marry a guy who liked animals and spoke in a Yorkshire accent, whatever that was. Yeah, I was a goober. 
You know who is also imaginary, likes animals, and speaks with a Yorkshire accent? ... oh.
The reason why I call this book an influence is mainly because it is the first book I really remember, even though I haven't read it in years. And it was probably that book specifically that I realized that inside books were tiny worlds -- secret gardens of their own. It is also through The Secret Garden I realized the idea that people can change and that interesting characters grow. I always keep that in mind when I write, kind of seeing my characters like seeds that grow into trees as the story progresses.

I made way too many similes regarding gardens.

Now, the authors; Twain, Dahl, and Bellairs.
Honestly, if I can say I was born and died on a comet, I'd consider that a great life
I discovered Mark Twain when I went through a major Classics phase around the age of 10. I mostly read those children's abridged novels of Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. Then, I read some of Twain -- in particular Tom Sawyer. I tried reading the unabridged version and wanted to read more. I don't know what it was about Mark Twain's style of writing I just liked. It was so tongue-in-cheek and he seemed full of adventures. And I liked that.

Then I found Huckleberry Finn. I remember my mother being a little hesitant about it. That book has intense dark moments. And it was difficult to read as a pre-teen mostly because of Huck's voice and accent. When I had to read it for school years later, it was a bit easier to work through. Even so, I still loved Huck Finn. I even went through a phase of using ain't and reckon. Although my mother stopped that real fast.

I did move onto other Mark Twain's books like Prince and the Pauper and Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. But I still consider Huckleberry Finn my favorite.

Twain always had this conversational way of writing and even when he wrote on serious topics such as the one's tackled in Huck Finn, there was always this dry humor. I'm no Twain. Hell no. But I find that my style of writing goes along those lines. I'm very conversational and I have been noted to spin sentences in humorous ways. Although four years of writing technically has somewhat squashed that a little.

I hate children as much as I love these dogs

Next author up is Roald Dahl. Honestly, I pity anyone in the last 30 years who didn't read at least one Roald Dahl book growing up. Yeah, his books weren't for the faint of heart as they may appear bright and whimsical on the outside but often he tackled issues such as child abuse, abandonment, and getting shoved into chocolate rivers. They were in a sense modern day Brothers Grimm Faerie Tales.

I can't remember when I first read Roald Dahl. I may have read one for school or I think my New York cousins were into him and like LM Montgomery, I wanted to be apart of it. I know the first one was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But all I remember was I was hooked soon after and I can still remember those books as an adult, even though I hadn't read them in decades.

I think what I liked most about Dahl's books was he never talked down to his audience. Sure, he would write about Big Friendly Giants and factories full of candy and giant peaches that take you far away from abusive aunts and girls who can control things with her mind but his books had a shadow of darkness to them. They didn't always end happy and often ended on a bittersweet note.

When I think of Dahl's books, I think of a glen in the forest, where the sunlight pours through the green leaves making the surroundings feeling soft and light. Fuzz from dandelions float through the air. Faeries with dragonfly wings zip past you. Is that a unicorn and its foal drinking from a small spring over there? Wait a second, see that place where the sunlight stops and the shade is darker than how it normally would be? There is a shadow moving. It has red eyes. It is watching you. I mean, even if the main characters came poverty or an abusive family, there was always this sense of faerie tale whimsy with such foreboding waiting.

Dahl was always good at the morality tale. He can spin these magical worlds where the impossible happens but he still reminds his audience that the world is not a friendly, forgiving place, especially if you are a bad person. And even if you are a good person, you may not escape the actions of bad people unscathed.   

My favorite Dahl book is actually The Witches. And I think it was because it didn't end really all that happy. And I think it is by far his creepiest work. It really was through this book I realized how important it is to have rules regarding the magical elements of your creatures. The witches had specific qualities and specific weaknesses. Also, I found every time I finished, I wished there was a prequel about Andreas's Grandmother's witch hunting days. Man, was that woman badass. 

I trace Dahl as an influence because I like dark. But I like humor. My stories always have dark moments. But I employ that light every now and again. It is also because of Dahl that I found my way to other authors with similar styles and themes. And it was also through Dahl that I really began to like reading. 
I can see the resemblance to some of his characters
The last author, I had forgotten about for a while. And when I conducted this thought exercise, when I remembered him, I couldn't believe I forgot about him. I discovered this author in class -- I know, how shocking -- when we did a unit on a book called the Curse of the Blue Figurine. It would be the only book assigned in class that I read twice before the unit was over. The spine-chilling, atmosphere filled, creepiness, I just could not get enough of. And every time I reread it (and it would be many. Only Harry Potter would beat how many times I reread it), the story still invoked terror. I still gasped at the twist. And breathed a sigh of relief when the book concluded and our heroes were safe... until the next book that is.

And after I finished the Curse of the Blue Figurine, I discovered the author had written other books. I would check them out of the school library before I would save enough money to buy my own copies. I would own almost every book. And I would re-read them, usually in some dark hidden corner of my house, under the blankets.

It also introduced me to Edward Gorey
I would say I was more into this author than R.L. Stine and dear God did I read a ton of R.L. Stine as a preteen  to young teen. This author's habit of writing about ghosts, cursed artifacts, demons, and any other gothic style horror you could think of is what really inspired me. I wouldn't like probably half the stuff I like if it weren't for this author. And most of my horrid stories I wrote as a teen pay tribute to him.

This author? John Bellairs.

I'm kind of amazed Bellairs fell off the map. As I said, I first read him because it was a unit in class. And I doubt many people remember him anymore. It could be because John Bellairs did die suddenly in 1991 and left a few manuscripts which were finished by another author. Then that author continued to write Bellairs's characters and still writes them to this day.

Bellairs had three sets of characters he wrote about. The one thing they had in common besides common run-ins with the Supernatural was that they all took place in the 1950s. It makes sense as Bellairs was a kid during that time. I also get the impression that Bellairs added his own experiences and his own childhood insecurities into his books which is why I think they worked for me.

The word Doomsday used to scare me so much XD

His most well-known series dealt with Lewis Barnavelt who lived in Michigan with his Uncle Jonathan after his parents died in a car accident. His uncle is a mediocre wizard and Jonathan's neighbor-- who he has a playful bantering relationship with -- Mrs. Zimmerman, is a more powerful witch. Lewis later befriends the tomboyish, outspokened Rose Rita. The four often have adventures, usually dealing with some kind of magic.
I remembered this one really scared me. But as I said before -- demonic possession
The next series involves Johnny Dixon who lives with his grandparents in Massachusetts when his father goes to fight in the Korean War (I honestly can't remember what happened to his mom). Johnny is bookish like Lewis is but is a bit more ... "Good Catholic School Boy". Much of his stories focus around his neighbor, Professor Childermass, who collects oddities with strange histories. Later, Johnny befriends the devil-may-care Byron Ferguson -- the kid from the poor side of town. Together, they encounter much supernatural. Johnny's tales are much more horror-based that borrow heavily from Catholic Imagery. Demonic possessions, ghosts, and religious artifacts often pepper his narratives. It is usually due to something Professor Childermass brought home or a colleague did. 
This. Book. Ahhhhh
The last series involves Anthony Monday who lives in Minnesota. Unlike Lewis and Johnny, Anthony is in his late teens. He also has both of his parents and a brother but it seems to be that his family seem more concerned with their own thing as Anthony has his own thing. Anthony is less nerdy than Johnny and Lewis but is definitely more of a loner. I think he is the only one who does not have any friends that go on adventures with him. On the contrary, Anthony befriends and goes on adventures with the town librarian, Miss Eells. And they are sometimes joined by Miss Eells's brother Emerson, who is a lawyer with an interest in the occult.

The funny part about the Anthony Monday books is that they aren't my favorite. I tended to like the dark, creepiness of the Johnny Dixon books. However, my favorite book was an Anthony Monday book -- Mansion in the Mist. And like John Bellairs, I forgot about it. When I looked up Bellairs' bibliography, I saw the title and gasped. It pulled back such nostalgic emotion. I forget what the book is about really but I remembered the emotion it invoked. Coincidentally, Mansion in the Mist is John Bellairs's last book that he wrote in its entirety. And I find it his best... and his most disturbing. I remember feeling so disturbed. But I read it again anyway.

I think the reason why I loved John Bellairs books so much is because, like Dahl, he did not talk down to his audience. He gave you the scares and did not spare the details. While I was growing reaquainted with Bellairs, I found a quote by him. Bellairs' first book was a satirical book of shortstories making fun of the Catholic Church. Then, he wrote his one adult novel, Face in the Frost after being inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien. The novel was successful. But then, he wanted to write A House With A Clock In Its Walls but he wanted it to be targeted at adults. His editor told him no adult wants to read about witches and wizards and fantasy elements. If he wanted to publish it, he'd have to repackage it and target young readers.

I think that is why I never felt I was being spoon fed to.

I don't remember much about Bellairs' books now. But I do remember certain scenes. Like I told a friend the other day. There was a scene in The Curse of the Blue Figurine in which Johnny is being bullied by this guy. At first the bully does the classic four-eyes mocking. But then there is a scene in which Johnny and the bully are alone in a classroom. I don't remember the circumstances as to why that happened. The bully took a pair of scissors -- the kid scissors that don't really cut much -- and grabbed Johnny's hand and began to scissor his hand. The scene was drawn out, going through Johnny's inner monologue, as he tried desparately to act tough and not cry out.

When the bully was finally gone, Johnny gave into tears but then put on a brave face as he arrived home and tried to hide the injury from his grandmother. Grandma Dixon doesn't mess around though. She found out and got all angry on Johnny's behalf. But Johnny didn't feel better about it. He felt... powerless. That scene was the catalyst as to why he went to use the dark magic associated with the Blue Figurine.

Likewise, in A House With A Clock In Its Walls, Lewis gives into trying dark magic... to make friends. He had made one friend since he moved with his uncle and he felt that friend growing away from him. To win him back, Lewis decided to impress that friend and the posse he had been hanging out with with magic and it goes all wrong of course.

I think that is the biggest difference between Roald Dahl and John Bellairs. In Dahl's world, you were a good child or you were a bad child. And bad children get punished. In Bellairs' world, reasonable people do dumb things or make bad choices sometimes. Temptation -- probably because of the Catholic influence -- is a huge theme in his books. But also, Bellairs seems to say that world is a dark place and pain can lead you down a dark path. Don't let it. And if it happens, try to find the right path again.

The reason why the scissor scene in The Curse of the Blue Figurine worked lied in the fact that Bellairs so accurately captured what it feels like to be bullied and not just bullied but downright powerless. And yes, you feel sad and embarrassed but the worst feeling is definitely powerlessness. And it is those feelings that make you sympathize for Johnny making the choice he did. You may shout "No! Don't do it!" but you understand all too well that when you have those feelings, you too may make that bad choice. And in the end, that is probably the most frightening aspect of it all.
And it is probably why I remember that scene so vividly to this day. And this whole idea of good people falling off track and doing bad things has long been a staple in much of my stories.

After I did all this reading on John Bellairs, I have decided that I am going to do a Bellairs section of this blog. I'm going to read all his books to determine if they still hold up or if like my obsession with R.L. Stine, I'll realize how bad they are. Maybe I will still like them in a nostalgic sense or maybe Bellairs really did write for all ages when told adults would not like stories about ghosts and wizards and cursed artifacts.

Who knows if I will finish this project or grow bored with it like I did with Animorphs. But I am going to try for now. I'm going to start with his kid's books and leave his adult stuff for last. I will stop with the last book he had a hand in. And once I finish a book, I will post a review and thoughts and answer the questions, "Does it hold up?" "Do I still like it more than in just the nostalgic sense?"
I feel like this entry did jump around a bit, but I guess the proposal of this project is to go back to my roots so to speak.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Alternative History and Why Mary Loves It

The beginning!

I'm a huge history nerd. It's in my blood as everyone in my family is a history nerd. I swear, everyone has specialty. If you ask me about some inane history topic, I guarantee you, all I have to do is consult the Cordner Rolodex and find the relative who most likely knows the answer to the question. My mother? Tutor-Era England and Turn of the 19th century New England. My brother? Colonial Era New England and Native American History. Myself? Ah, well I'm kind of a Jack-of-all-Trades history-wise. I like a little of everything and not really a master of one topic. I guess it is Middle East because it ties into my job (Although I am getting so burned out on the Middle East you have no idea).

It is no surprise as a youngster, I read a lot of historical fiction and non-fiction but mostly fiction. I read a ton of Mark Twain. American Girl Books (I was a Molly Girl because glasses, heh. But Felicity was a close second). And there was one author I liked in particular called Ann Rinaldi. She wrote a lot about early-America and her protagonists were always females. Her female leads often witness some major event in history and have some sort of involvement in it.

My favorite book was The Fifth of March which focused on the servant of John Adams named Rachel Marsh as she befriends a British Soldier who is involved in the Boston Massacre. She convinces Adams to defend the British Soldiers in court. And there is also a love story and stuff. But what I liked about it was not just an interesting female protagonist but also the niche bit of history it involved. Everyone who studied American History knows about the Boston Massacre but what you probably didn't know was John Adams defended the British Soldiers in court -- and got most of them off on minor charges. Or how it was a relatively small skirmish that was propagandized by the yanks to such a large degree.

It was partly because of this book for a long time I considered writing historical fiction. I'm always drawn to these small historical anecdotes that I always end up daydreaming about the small details that history did not record. Like last week, one of my co-workers talked about how he wished there was an actual Afro-Samurai and we found out there was. Or another aspect that I find incredibly interesting was that Arab traders traded with the Vikings. In fact some of our more reliable accounts of the Vikings came from the Arab traders. What an interesting story that must be!

I think this tendency of mine to day dream about this kind of stuff is why I feel drawn to Alternative History. I am always thinking of "What if". Like what if Princip hadn't assassinated the Archduke? What if the Chinese ended up colonizing the west coast of the United States before Spain got there (there was an Emperor who created a vast navy who wanted to expand outward but died before he could and his predecessor was an isolationist)? What if King Philip succeeded in wiping out the Massachusetts Bay Colony? I wonder about these things and how these small ripples in time could change the current.

I mean, I think there would have been a war eventually without Princip's help but it may have played out slightly differently.

This lost looking man was the flashpoint

But I doubt the British would attempt to resettle Massachusetts Bay Colony if King Philip succeeded which means Massachusetts would have a drastically different ethnic make-up than it does today and there would be no "City on the Hill" which really was the beginning of American Exceptionalism. Or maybe American Exceptionalism would be more "Virginian".

But anyways, the reason why I started to talk about this is because I have gotten on an Alternative History kick and I blame Amazon Prime. Well, Amazon Prime and my co-worker. My co-worker mentioned a Philip K. Dick book called Man in the High Castle. He brought it up because I mentioned an alternative history youtube channel. And earlier we were talking about how much World War II is SO overdone. He mentioned the book and it sounded interesting. And then as I was browsing through Amazon Prime, I saw the title of the book on a new TV series. I watched one episode and I was furious there weren't anymore. I was sold with its haunting opening.

And the map. I love maps!
Man in the High Castle takes place in an alternative timeline in which the allies lost WWII. The United States is then split up between Germany and Japan. The book is about a series of anecdotes about lives in such a world. You follow different characters as they try to find where they fit in an occupied country. You have an underground resistance. You have people who are just trying to live their lives. One such person, for instance, makes a living making knock-off antiques of pre-war America and sells them to Japanese tourists and colonists. There is also news that Hitler is about to die and Goebbels and Himmler are vying for power. Both want to attack Japan, which understandably makes Japan nervous (and the Pacific States as well) The book there is no real plot so my co-worker says (I need to read this book).

The TV show in its pilot promises an actual plot. Yes, you are following different characters from different walks of life in this new world. You have the guy who works for the resistance in the east. In the west you have this woman who has settled pretty much for living under the Japanese, even taking up Aikido and other Japanese cultural interests until her sister -- who was involved in the resistance -- places a package in her arms before dying, thus making her an unwitting accomplice forcing her to flee.

And they meet and drink orange soda

You also have the promised intrigue between Japanese and German spies finding out what the Third Reich is planning next. There is so much good in this pilot. I am thirsty for more. Amazon has ordered a season of it and I hope it continues to be this good.

After watching this pilot, I also recalled one of my other favorite Alternative History story-lines. This one is based on a manga which was made into a movie and a jdrama called Ooku: The Hidden Chambers.

I really like the art style of the manga
Ooku: The Hidden Chambers follows an alternate historical timeline in which during the Japanese Feudal Era, a devastating disease targeted only males killing off most of the male population. Since Japan at the time was a male dominated society, the manga closely follows the upheaval that followed. Women had to step up into the roles previously held by men, including Shogun. And healthy men were reduced to breeding stocks (that is a rough term to use because it implies they were slaves when they weren't but just they didn't hold the major roles they once had).

In the movie, Shibasaki Kou flawlessly plays the Shogun

The manga is four volumes with four different storylines following mainly men who become courtesans for the Shogun. Each of them are unique in their own way and they mirror the concerns of feminist issues today. For instance, there is a story about a monk who took a vow of chastity. He is taken into the chamber and told that since he is young and virile that it is selfish of him to take such a vow. So they put him in a room over night with a group of women encouraging him to sleep with them or else. He spends the night playing games with them instead. The adviser comes in in the morning and sees this and kills one of the girls and said another will die tomorrow if he does not renounce his vow. The monk sees he has no choice and gives up becoming a monk the next day.

What interested me about this storyline was the fact that there are so many stories about virgins and how often they become martyrs in some religions for not giving up their vows. Virginity is sacred when all you're expected to do is reproduce because that is the only power you have.

Ooku also kind of shows how arbitrary gender really is. When women are in charge, they don't stop fighting. Men are reduced to peacocks pretty much. There is one scene in which single women who do not have the money to buy a husband, go to the redlight district and shop for male hookers to hopefully get a baby to help on the farm. Then you have some good-hearted ones who spread their seed for free. Men and women just switch places.

Anyways, I just wanted to mention my love of Alternative History storylines. And Amazon better get me more of Man in the High Castle soon or I may cry.