A Book for Dark Cold Night

We’re deep in the throes of winter now with the mercury hugging the bottom of the temperature gauge and snow depth being measured in feet.  Everyone I know is huddled up, snuggled down, wrapped in layers and beseeching God for a little Global Warming to thaw out the frozen ground.  During these long, frozen nights a house almost becomes a living thing, cradling and caring for the creatures within. Our slippered feet scuffle across its floors and we sink into chairs by the fireside content, with our books and our layers, to let winter rage outdoors because it can’t touch us in here.  Winter is the time to cherish your home.

So this may not be the best night to read The House Next Door, the second novel by Anne Rivers Siddons.  It’s a great story, set in Atlanta in the 1970’s and it’s the kind of book that will keep you wound up in its pages, but imaginative people may want to leave this till summer.  During these months we need to believe we are safe when we’re home and the house in these pages is wicked.

No one in the neighborhood wants to see the new house go up.   This is a settled, nice block of people with comfortable lives and the new home threatens their pattern.   The small forest between lots will be gone, the new neighbors may not fit in and the house design is modern, at odds with the brick and mortar homes that fill their tree-lined street.  So the success of the finished house is astounding.  With muted steel, wood and glass it harmonizes with the earth on its pie-wedge shaped lot and appears so organic one visitor whispers it looks like it grew there instead of being constructed.   It’s a fantastic house to look at and it’s brand-spanking new.   So why does it seem to be haunted?

In literature, most houses become haunts for a reason.   Somebody died there, someone was tortured there, it was the site of a terrible conflict.  All of those hauntings make sense.   The House Next Door changes the formula a bit and suggests (like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House) that some houses are born bad.  No rationale or reason but a cold determined intelligence in the walls that discovers what is dearest to every human and destroys what they care for in a way that will hurt them the most.   At least that’s what Colquitt Kennedy thinks.

Colquitt is the narrator in The House Next Door and prime witness as the unwilling next-door neighbor.  Colquitt knows she and her husband have been (until now) luckier than they deserve: they’ve fought no wars nor sacrificed for the good life they have and their prosperity comes from being in the right place at the right time.  She and her husband, Walter, both work for what they have and they appreciate their life but she’s keenly aware that they haven’t really earned the good they’ve known. Part of The House Next Door is what happens when middle-class-to-affluent Americans come face-to-face with a crisis and how they earn the lives they’ve enjoyed. 

Since the book is almost forty years old, the tale is a bit dated (some situations would not have developed if these characters had cell phones) but the central ideas transcend.  In Danse Macabre (a fine critical book on the horror genre) Stephen King explains why the concept of haunted houses gets to us so.  Home is the one place we can be vulnerable, where we can shed the protective persona we show to the outside world.  When home isn’t safe or sane, then no place is safe anymore. 

As for me, the book is a great read for a long winter’s night but I know when to put it down.  Like Colquitt and her husband, I love my home and my life and if I pass a certain point in this story, I will have to finish the novel and then read something wholesome for a few hours before I can shut my eyes.  So read the book with my blessing but do it in easy stages, or when you’re away from home.  If you imagine houses have feelings, leave one for spring.  You need to find comfort where you live when the world is cold.

Unhappily Ever After…

Yes, it’s hearts and flowers day, the annual celebration of the “people in pairs” that make up a big segment of our civilization.  Hey, I’m all for marriage.  A good marriage becomes the third part of a romantic relationship and it nurtures the people in it as well as those around it.  It brings out the best in the partners.  But people are limited and, despite our prayers and best wishes, not every romance becomes a good marriage.  Listen, if you go by Stephen King’s volume of that name, you may rethink Valentine’s Day altogether.  If a good marriage is the base of the best of all worlds, you’ll find nothing but hell in the bad.

The title tale is one of King’s famous “what if” thoughts that popped up during an article on BTK.  You remember him?  I do.  I, and later my mother, lived in Wichita during the years that serial killer was free.  His actions were terrible and one of the bad parts when they caught him was he looked so ordinary, which is part of King’s point.   If monsters look and talk and dress pretty much like everyone else, how can the sane person pick one out? The answer is, sometimes we can’t.  In real life, Paula Rader couldn’t because, even in a good marriage, one spouse can’t know the other completely.  A Good Marriage  explores what might have happened if she had.  Here, Darcy Anderson is a middle-aged housewife, comfortable with a her empty nest home, devoid of drama.  Then a discovery in the garage leads to research and an inescapable conclusion: her quiet, Scout-leading, coin-collecting husband is actually one of those unseen monsters, a torturing serial killer.  To Darcy’s credit, she realizes that none of her husband’s past awful actions are her fault but what happens next falls on her.  If she turns him in, what will that do to her just-grown children and those who, like her, knew only his good side?   If she doesn’t can she live with what she knows?  Can she trust her husband won’t kill or again or that he will let her survive?  Darcy is a good woman who, one way or the other, has to do a really bad thing. What she does makes the story worth reading.

The companion tale, 1922, looks at love and murder from a different perspective, one that owes much to one of his earlier tales, Delores Claiborne.  If you remember, Delores Claiborne had to confess she killed her husband, Joe St. George, to escape being charged with a murder she didn’t commit.   Well, imagine if Joe murdered Delores and you hear the story from his perspective.  That’s closer to Wilfred James in 1922.

Wilfred is a man with two dreams, to farm and live life as he likes.  By the way, one of the best parts of this story is how the isolation of the prairie is captured.  The middle of the Great Plains can feel like the back edge of nowhere and those who live there begin to crave the endless space or they hate it.  My mother hated it and so does Mrs. Wilfred James, so much so she’s willing to sell her inherited land to a food processing concern and move to a city like Omaha.  Wilf needs the farm and he knows any processing plant that goes in will ruin the water that feeds his acreage, so he can’t let her sell it.  An unsolvable problem, especially since Wilf can’t come up with the bucks to buy out his wife, not that he would.  As far as he’s concerned, the inherited land should be his, an asset of the marriage and no judge is going to break apart the land or his relationship.

Now everyone knows the wage of sin is death, like they know Stephen King writes scary stories so don’t be surprised when I say 1922 is not something to read late at night. Like an idiot, I did and more than one unpleasant image showed back up in my dreams.   1922 is an entertaining, if predictable tale and I’m sure I’ll re-read it but when the sun will be high for hours.  I can stand a lot of King’s spookier creations trolling around in my subconscious (hell, I love Bag of Bones and It) but I draw the line at rats.  ‘Nuff said.

So if you’re in love this Valentines Day, I’m happy for you.  Go celebrate it.   If not, I hope you’re a happy singleton (to steal a word from Armistead Maupin) and please celebrate your life as it is.  Either way is good.  Just remember that “to love” is an active verb and the basis of any good marriage is two people actively working together to make a love that nurtures them both.  If you forget that, you’re looking for trouble.  Find it and you might end up down the well, with the rats.

The difference ‘tween diamonds and pearls

When you’re an English Major, you have to deal with Jane Austen.  She’s one of the writers whose work you have to know before you graduate, like the medical students have to pass A&P.  This can be a problem because readers love or they hate her books with a passion.  There’s no middle ground.  Granted, Mark Twain said an ideal library contains none of her stories but his heroes create their own destinies by ignoring the rules of their cultures. Miss Austen’s characters don’t have that luxury.  They have to carve solutions to their problems out of a narrower field.  Nevertheless, constraints don’t defeat Austen heroines, they enhance them. Difficulties turn Jane’s women into jewels.
Pressure abounds in Pride and Prejudice.  The Bennet daughters are all old enough to marry but there’s an unspoken demand that at least one of the girls marry a man with money.  Mr. Bennet has no savings and his death would leave any dependent family homeless. The two older sisters know this although both would rather marry for love than a fortune. They also live in a world that runs on gossip and rumor and it’s hard to find the truth.  Nevertheless, Elizabeth Bennet withstands the stress with good sense and humor, refusing to marry the wrong man or  avoid the right one, once she sees him.  She can be misled into a mistake but no one can push Elizabeth into acting against her own conscience or will.  Instead, she stays true to her convictions and charms us with her sparkling wit.  Pressure makes lesser women crumble; it shapes Miss Bennet into a diamond.
Pressure isn’t what bothers Elinore Dashwood as much as heartbreak. Within the first two chapters she’s loses her father and the only home she’s ever known.   Then the family of the man she cares for treats her badly.   Elinor keeps most of this incredibly painful stuff to herself since her mother and sisters share at least two-thirds of her heartbreak and she doesn’t want to add to their burdens.  So Elinor becomes the Dashwood who faces reality and tries to get on with life, no matter how hard that is.  She persuades her mother to live within a budget and maintain good friendships with the neighbors who like to help their family.  She begs her younger sister, Marianne, to  behave respectably in public since good manners and reputation are only assets their family has left.  No matter how unhappy she is, Elinore returns malice with civility and kindness with generosity to make life as pleasant as she can for everyone. Her disappointments become the seeds that start her selfless generosity and compassion for others like a piece of sand becomes the instrument that starts a pearl. If Elizabeth sparkles like a diamond, Elinore’s kindness gleams through Sense and Sensibility like a pearl that’s caught the light.

Perhaps Miss Austen’s books aren’t for everyone and it’s odd they’re classified as tales of romance.  They’re not about adventurers but conventional people living conventional lives and they’re downright unromantic when it comes to the subject of money.  They honor the tedious virtues of patience, loyalty and truth while making fun of snobs and fools.  But they are intelligent, humorous stories and they’re all about the art of the possible.  And their heroines are gems.  You just have to choose your preference, diamonds or pearls. 

Telling Young Adults the Truth

Science fiction is just fiction with science.  That was the argument the guys in my generation made in class when they compared the work of Hardy, Thackery or some other school-board sanctioned novelist to a story they preferred.  Despite the teacher’s efforts to introduce us to the literary gems of previous centuries, these fellows found subtly in the characters of Ray Bradberry and ambiguity in the plots of Isaac Asimov.  Remember, these were the guys who ran home from school each day to catch the last half of Star Trek and Twilight Zone reruns because VCRs, DVRs and streaming had not been invented.  Nerds long before Comic-Con and Big Bang Theory gave them a sense of pride.  I didn’t mind them (victims themselves, they tended to avoid picking on others) but on this point, I thought they were wrong.  English instructors implied that Science Fiction stories were obsessed with machinery and sex and the writers couldn’t see beyond those fixations.  I believed this until I read Podkayne of Mars.   I learned, so help me, I learned.
Podkayne of Mars is a turning point book in the career of Robert Anson Heinlein, one of the three deans of Science Fiction.  Kid-lit was how he got started and one of the few markets then that welcomed SF because these were adventure stories and the hero is usually a boy.  Podkayne Fries is the exception to this rule; she’s an irrepressible girl whose life on Mars is marred only by her pain-in-the-neck little brother, Clark and the fact she can’t travel and see Earth as expected.  Seems the embryonic siblings her parents had kept in stasis were thawed and brought to birth size by clerical error and her mother refuses to travel with three babies.  (I can’t blame Poddy’s Mom; traveling with one kid in nappies was hard enough; three would be impossible.)  The chance to see Earth is rescued when Poddy’s Uncle Tom offers to escort her and Clark himself but everything on the trip implodes after Clark is kidnapped.  It seems that dear Uncle Tom is a high-powered politician and taking these kids on a cruise was his cover story for an ultra-secret diplomatic mission.  Podkayne searches for her brother and for the truth beneath each batch of lies, undismayed by the duplicity of grownups.  Her brother, Clark ends up with the sadder but clearer grasp on reality.
Mr. Heinlein originally submitted this as a “cadet story” (YA had not been identified as a genre at that time) in the early 1960’s.  He had churned out space boy adventure stories for years by then and he wanted Podkayne to be a more complex and sensitive novel for his maturing readers.  The editors hated it.  The characters weren’t simple, the ending wasn’t happy and they wanted changes.  Heinlein managed to keep much of the complexity but he finally rewrote the ending.  Now the original ending is sad but inevitable, in terms of story, and it gives the story needed impact – it feels true.  It also gives the character of Podkayne gravitas.  If a girl is sweet, funny and optimistic when the world’s at peace, that’s not unusual, but if she remains that way in the face of overwhelming evil she’s Anne Frank.  Like Clark, we end up seeing Podkayne as one of Lincoln’s “Angels of our Better Nature” and hoping she’s right about humanity.  Still, none of this works with the revised ending.  It only works if you tell the reader the truth: not every good ending is happy. 
We seem to be closer to this these days although I think most adults underestimate the ability of children to deal with the truth.  They don’t need the gritty details that give us PTSD but they don’t need to be lied to either.  There are few certainties in this world but one of them is that young kids believe what we tell them.  In omitting the truth we disarm them.  And once we lose that trust, it’s gone.  That’s one of the lessons Heinlein teaches in Podkayne of Mars.  It’s science fiction about humanity in real-life .

Spinning a whole new tale

Think about yarn for a moment.  If you look at it under the microscope, you’ll see that it’s a series of fibrous strands that have been woven together so tightly they seem to fuse into a single cord.  Little ends of the strands edge free from the cord and catch the light that shines on the weave. Story yarns are the same: a woven rope of characters, narrative and plot points pull the entire tale together while, here and there, a strand can catch the light.  Some story yarns are so strong that other writers can spread out their elements, and then reweave them into another pattern that shows what you didn’t see before.  Gregory Maguire did this with Wicked and Joan Aiken rewove Jane Austen’s Emma into her own Jane Fairfax.  I love this technique but the one I love even more is when a writer pulls one of the glinting  ends at the edge of a story and teases a whole new tale from that thread.  T. K. Thorne did this in 2011 when she pulled the bright thread of a character from the book of Genesis and created a tale named Noah’s Wife.  At last, the Lady of the Ark has a voice.

Her name is Na’amah and the locals agree she’s unusual.  Not quite right.  Because her recall of  detail, Na’amah can recite the markings and lineage of every sheep in the flock but she can’t look most people in the eye.  She’s direct to the point of being rude and has difficulty understanding humor or lies.  She’s not sure the gods really exist.  She’s only sure about what she learns through her senses which is how she meets the boat maker.  “Why do you wrinkle your nose,”  Noah asks.  “Because you smell bad” replies Na’amah.

Genesis mentions Na’amah only in genealogical terms (a descendant of Cain) and Noah’s wife in lists relating to the ark but a Jewish text interpreting Genesis says these two were one and the same. T K Thorne takes it a step further by giving  Na’amah a personality, opinions and a soul to match the man of history she married.  The hard life of her biblical tribe is here as well as the problems that confound people today.  Na’amah faces her tragedies and triumphs with the same tears and joy  we know and her retelling of the story of the flood comes with a perspective that accounts for the world-changing event as well as the problems of living in a boat with a bunch of incontinent animals. 

Life and love, death and despair are all part of the human condition.  This is not subject to change.  How we react to these is so variable and important that we’ve woven a tapestry of stories to guide us through each part of our lives.  Noah’s Wife was once an idea, teased from a glinting edge of a character that lived in the first book of the Bible.  Now Na’amah repeats her life’s story and it becomes a guide on how to live until you’re sure life will continue.   And someday that continuing life may spin another tale that glints on the edges of hers.