Monthly Archives: December 2015

Classics You’ve Never Read: The Tale We All Tell

You could guess this installment’s topic with your eyes closed, inside a burlap bag. From the basement room of a neighborhood that has no electric lights. Because it was, like, the Dark Ages. So I don’t do mystery, sue me. What other classic would I be reviewing in the week of Yule except Charles Dickens’ absolutely immortal- A Christmas Carol.

I can feel your impatience from across the internet, so let me give you the summary in two bullet points.

  • Yes, this is a fantasy classic.
    Did Capt. Picard play Scrooge?
    Did Capt. Picard play Scrooge?
  • And no, you haven’t ever read it. Not really.

A Spiritual Experience

Now I don’t want any sass on that first point– Marley was dead, to begin with, there is no doubt whatever about that. Then this dead guy, he talks for an entire scene, and Scrooge can rave about blobs of mustard all he likes, but even HE says he believes it.

...or Gen. Patton?
…or Gen. Patton?

Add three ghosts, trips across time and space, walking through walls and an old man spending the coldest night ever recorded on earth in his nightshirt, and what you have there is a fantasy tale. Light on combat, I’ll grant you, but a ripping good fantasy yarn nonetheless. Horror and the supernatural are strongly allied to fantasy and always have been. The main difference, in my view, is the growth of character across the tale. Eighteen movies where a cabin/car/boatload of teens run screaming from Risen Guy with a weed-whacker, and what has anyone ever come away learning?

But Scrooge– graduate degree in Goodwill and Charity, in one night.

And this is YOUR tale, rather ours. We all tell it, because we all continually live it.

Thurston Howell? Already greedy
Thurston Howell? Already greedy

The only real choice you have with A Christmas Carol is to figure out what part of the story you’re in. And decide how long you’ll stay there.

Scrooge and You, Both Misers

Not me, you exclaim? I’m warning you, no chance you’ll escape this one. The popularity of Christmas Carol is a tidal-wave of evidence. Why does every actor on earth want to play him? Why do we all listen to it, on the radio, in 19 major films, in 39 stage

Alfred! Did even the butler do it?
Alfred! Did even the butler do it?

versions (since 1974, half of them running continuously). There have been three Scrooge operas, a graphic novel with Batman as him, over 200 major productions either repeating the story directly or putting a “modern” touch on it. There’s a steampunk version of this tale, one where he’s a TV producer, one where Scrooge is played by just about the hottest woman on the planet, and another where Tiny Tim’s disease is causing the zombie apocalypse.

You think you’ve read this tale? Please, you don’t even know which character you’re playing. Yeah, it’s not good news. But prove your literary worth and pass the quiz first.

Scrooge by the Book- Is it in the Story? (True or False)

1) His clerk asks him for extra coal in the beginning

2) Scrooge watches his younger self lose the love of his life

No, no- Miss America too hot to be a miser. Surely?
No, no- Miss America too hot to be a miser. Surely?

3) The ghosts come at 1, 2 and 3 o’clock

4) Scrooge sees himself in the future

5) Scrooge visits Crachit’s house on Christmas Day

All false. You’ve been remembering one of the many excellent video versions, which take details of the character arc to heart and amplify the essential meaning Dickens started with. The book’s too short for TV! And that’s fine. But why bother with a 160 year old novella unless everyone– directors, screenplay writers, major actors and you watching at home– responded to something there?

Point: you respond to a tale this powerfully this well this long, because you identify with

But... he likes animals
But… he likes animals

a major character. And Christmas Carol has only one.

The chief thing about a miser isn’t that he’s rich, or that it’s only about money. Misers are unhappy. They deny everyone their wealth, starting with themselves. There’s a word for the condition a miser lives in. It’s called misery. Scrooge is quite correctly described as sad, weird, funny; as his nephew points out, the only one hurt by all his crabbing is himself. Our lives reflect this and it’s seldom money- it might be patience, or good humor, or our love, or– ahem– our writing talent, but we hold it back and don’t share it enough.

And we need to change. Your heroes need to change- why else are people reading your novella? Many wise online coaches have written about conflict, but Dickens gives us a more detailed map of the how and when. Here is where the spirits come in. You might call them muses.

A Reader’s Progress- Scrooge’s Character Grows

  • Marley comes to warn Scrooge and his principal impact is based on fear. Scrooge needs to be jogged out of his complacent habits, convinced there are consequences to his actions beyond what he can see, and forced to consider that he must change. The fear is important, but alone it’s not enough. As soon as Marley leaves, the miser is trying to settle back into his old ways, muttering “humbug” again. But he is still off-balance and open to-
  • The Ghost of Christmas Past whose chief influence is to fill him with regret.
    Whoa- now it's getting weird. Do I know that guy?
    {Whoa- now it’s getting weird. Do I know that guy?}

    Seeing that he was once happy, and that he used to respond more kindly to people around him, Scrooge becomes truly sad (not miserable, which for a miser is just a form of self-pity). He tells the spirit he can bear it no longer- she has scraped him out like a gourd. Based only on regret for his mistakes, though, Scrooge will not change- he pushes down the cap over the spirit’s light to get rid of it. For more progress in his arc, Scrooge needs-

  • The Ghost of Christmas Present, who shows him happiness and gives him desire. There’s a Chinese proverb that speaks of how sorrow hollows you like a man creating a pot. Now you can contain more joy. two-gcpScrooge sees others making merry despite much less wealth than he possesses and comes to desire that happiness again. If left here, he probably wouldn’t be quite so crabby, for a while, but it’s still not enough. Scrooge must be pushed that final step to action by-
  • The Ghost of Christmas Future, who doesn’t simply terrify him but gives Scrooge a sense of consequence. Misers like us mortals are not only selfish, or rather we’re selfish in part because we can’t see for sure the best thing to do with our talents. Easy to say how stupid it is for an old man to hoard money- but remember, Scrooge doesn’t think he is a miser. None of us do. By seeing his future, Scrooge realizes his choices matter. He could make the wrong one. He has been so far. His fate and Tiny Tim’s are linked: and in the event of death, the boy has nothing to fear, whereas Scrooge… that’s not just fear, it’s an impetus to act.
Play a miser? Back off buddy, I'm a scientist.
Play Scrooge? Back off buddy, I’m a scientist.

If a man gave away all his money but had not changed inside, it would be about as effective as a knight in my tales defeating a dragon without effort. Scrooge on Christmas Day has become “light as a feather, as giddy as a schoolgirl”. He is an imp– speaking in riddles to the boy outside his window, sending the turkey anonymously to IMG_8303Bob Cratchit. He is unafraid to appear a fool; he knows he has already been one. He understands it’s important to use his money, not to be known for doing so. He is exchanging his treasures here for those in heaven. Just one more remarkable feature of Dickens’ writing, that he so clearly points to a moral and religious purpose without using the G-word (even in vain). Scrooge accomplishes a transformation of character that the world has responded to across all media for sixteen decades. We know, deep down, who he’s talking to.

The 19th Century Indie

Dickens did here what all us authors, writers, chroniclers want to do with our work. More than readers liking the story, more than loving it, he changed how people lived. Did you know:

  • He wrote Christmas Carol as Plan B? His original idea was to pen a political tract, urging Parliament to do more to help the poor, and children, etc. He decided that a parable about Christmas would be better. I don’t think he was wrong.
  • His tale brought us not just Scrooge, but “Merry Christmas” itself! In Dickens’ day there was still some Puritan in England’s make-up, believing that celebration and liberality were wrong. He was out to change that, and he did.
  • He finished the work in less than six weeks, with a deadline (Christmas 1842) looming over his head as pressure. The spirits were with him.
  • He elected to self-publish! Took a percentage-royalty instead of flat fee. And he didn’t do that well on it- the book’s popularity was almost immediate but his returns weren’t as great as he’d hoped. Public readings (early video!) and reprintings eventually made up the gap (but Dickens was already well-off). He did the slow-burn!
  • Dickens also spear-headed the blasphemous idea that you could publish longer tales, like his other novels, in shorter formats released as serials. Hmmm…. and by making each chapter so cheap (just a ha’penny or so) even the masses could afford to buy a copy.
IMG_8331
I did my part! Your turn now.

So, the more things change. And if Dickens was prefiguring so many of our publication choices, we might want to take his writing style to heart as well. Check any article about the history of Christmas Carol to see the impact his tale had on the world: other great writers heaping praise and vowing to give generously, factory owners reduced to tears or closing shop for Christmas after seeing the play. Face it, you got to get a piece of this.

Start with yourself. I urge you all to read A Christmas Carol– the verb there was “read”, but see it too if you like. Learn from your fear, desire the happiness that comes with giving, and make good choices to change the world. Scrooge learns it’s never too late. But the flip-side of that maxim is also true- what day better than today?

A Merry Christmas to you all. God bless us indie authors, every one.

 

1999
1999
1984
1984
1962
1962
1992
1992

 

 

 

2000
2000
2009
2009

 

 

Yep, me too. 2006 at the local children's theater
Yep, me too. 2006 at the local children’s theater

 

 

Will occasionally pontificates on Classics You’ve Never Read. His earlier reviews can be found here.

BTW: The best of the lot? Albert Finney, the musical version.

1970
1970

Classics You’ve Never Read: Where Wolf?

Classic: a book which people praise and don’t read

-Mark Twain

I’m hoping you can understand my level of embarrassment. Way back when I had this brilliant idea for a blog series, I thought “and I’ll run through all the classic horror monster tales too”. Sure! Easy! So I started with ones I knew well like Dracula and Frankenstein, and filled in with some I’d read only once or twice (Invisible Man,  then Jekyll and Hyde). I’ll eventually get to the Mummy. And of course, I figured, at some point I’d clean up the set, swing by and just read, you know, that first classic story about… well YOU know, the one they made all the movies after… the book, the story, you know– about the Werewolf?

Right, so not. There, I admit it. Were you fooled too?

werewolf7But this only made me more interested: this week we’ll look at the classic none of us have read, because no dead guy or gal ever got around to writing it. Instead WE will do the job! Because face it, right, we got this one. Everybody knows the story of the werewolf.

What History Gave Us

My first instinct, when I realized there was no THE book of the Werewolf, was that of the history major- “well gosh, I’ve got to read SOMETHING”. I found this dandy volume from 1865 which sums it all up– {Note: the most annoying thing about people who know foreign languages well is that they feel compelled to leave key passages untranslated}. But it’s amazing really, how things tied together across many cultures, a lot of similar features moonwhere1to tales of “werewolves” or even other kinds of shapeshifting such as rakshasas in India (tiger), or swan transformations (as in the fairy tales).

For the werewolf, though, a special set of circumstances and some will sound familiar:

Controlled the Change

Yeah seriously, more often than not the wolf-man can do it when he likes. Sometimes he’s werewolf4forced to stay in animal form for years, but usually he can put it on and off at will. In fact, in some of the Germanic tales it’s literally a wolf-skin and he dons it to go all growlie. That pulls his character pretty far down, when you consider the other factors.

Fierce, and a Bully

The lycanthrope becomes immensely strong and powerful for any kind of fight, and gains animal-like ferocity (ignores pain, rends limb from limb, eats victims). Again from history, one source of werewolf tales could be the Viking berserker, getting into a mystic state Werewolf-attacks-girl200before attacking. It seemed supernatural then (today, we’d know it was just steroids). Yet time and again, the werewolf prefers attacking the helpless, women and children, presumably because they taste better.

Get Out

The wolfman is essentially an outlaw. This rather obvious point was driven home to me with great effect as I studied the issue. Literally, the old Anglo-Saxon term “wolf’s head” was a synonym used on outlaws like Robin Hood (and that was an unfair label, for him). They run in the woods, murder and maim. The villain is not himself when he commits crimes– an excuse? Society’s excuse? Point is, in the ARW, you don’t make a comeback from this– once beyond the pale, you’re going down sooner or later.

Weakened After, Vulnerable  Only Then

Lots of the stories have the returned man lying prostrate, exhausted after a romp. That’s the only way some of them get captured. One minute roaring and fleeing into the forest, the next all hunched on the ground, weeping. This is where it bridges into the Alleged Real World: apparently lots of guys caught doing awful things to women and children, freely admitted to being what everyone thought they might be– werewolves. And confessed (somehow), and went to their deaths a local legend. Go figure.

What Hollywood Did

Faced with a complete lack of an original written tale,  someone’s labor of love to screw up, Hollywood has been forced into a more creative mode than you would normally see. I knew that coming in, with the paltry few instances of wolf-dom I’d seen on the screen. But just as with the books, I had no idea the volume. Here’s just one great site I found with lots of deets on the whole history. I drew on a combination of the old and new, from the seminal Le Loup Garou (1923) through the classic The Wolf Man (1941, Lon Chaney) and thinking about more recent works like the ineffable Ladyhawke (1985), Van Helsing (2004) and the Underworld series (2003+) as well as lesser-known films I happened to have seen such as the Ginger Snap series (2000+). I left out pretty much everything from TV (like, sorry, Scooby-Doo!), and one parenthetical mention of a lycanthropic/history flick with my highest recommendation which doesn’t really fit the mold– but check out The 13th Warrior if you’re into gritty near-history stuff. Or Antonio Banderas.

Some interesting additions to our list:

Sometimes Runs in Packs

werewolf6Werewolves are not solitary, far from the only one in the world. Odd, isn’t it? The term “lone wolf” is just as popular as “wolf pack”. You see the latter especially in the Underworld series of course. But it also makes for a dandy sequel. Glad we finally killed the– hey, nasty cut you got there…

 Oh Yeah, Moon Without a Doubt

The change is not voluntary– usually it’s fiercely resisted– and it’s firmly linked to the

Is there a REASON the moonshiners are always… hairy?

rising/sight of the moon. Of course, it being the movies, we get a lot of play out of the moon peeking from behind a cloud, and only THEN does he change. But you gotta’ think about it a little- isn’t the moon always up somewhere? Is this incredible transmogrification actually blocked by water vapor? And if it’s not full, you know, don’t get me started because we

know the whole thing is still THERE. But evidently it’s moonshine that does the trick. Which I think a lot of us could agree with if we were honest with ourselves…

Equal Opportunity

Wolf-persons can be female, and even teens (though the latter case tends toward the comic). With women, there’s more than a tiny overtone of the relationship between the transformation and sex: guys are coming on to the MC, or threatening her with death for her supposed tempting ways.  Of course, back in male-dominated history there’s a bit of this too: guy gets hairy, tears off his clothes, goes nuts, and afterwards he’s pretty much good for nothing… see what I mean?

Let the Malthus-Darwin Party Commence!

werewolf5For Hollywood, a horror movie is an opportunity to watch only the fittest survive. And that’s usually not very many. Sidekicks, Onlookers, Authority Figures, even Antagonists can all be targets once the MC gets his howl on. This is usually the only feature of a horror movie I can get up for, identifying which of the Seven Vices each minor character represents and musing on the order in which they go down. Usually it’s Lust and Cowardice first… but the plucky pair who show courage, self-sacrifice, all that. They get out. In a werewolf flick, this could be the Hero and the Soul-Mate.

The wrinkle with the werewolf (‘wrinkled werewolf’, say that three times fast) is at least one of the bad guys is after, you know, a raving monster, to get him and save the town and such. Sure, he’s probably also a dope– arrogant, cruel, or maybe worst of all, got eyes with wolfie’s Soul-Mate.

Get In!

silverbulletsCombine the involuntary nature of the change with the presence of a love interest and you reverse polarity on the societal response to the lycanthrope. Becoming a werewolf puts you beyond the law, so the plot usually revolves around trying to avoid the change. I think of the yeoman efforts Quentin Collins underwent in Dark Shadows, that wonderful bizarre TV show and still the only soap opera I ever watched. Sure, he never avoided werewolf8it, he usually killed somebody: but it was always an annoying twit who was chasing him anyway and would have ruined it for everyone if he blabbed. A bit of David Banner (Bill Bixby’s version of The Incredible Hulk); you rooted for Quentin (wow, sideburns were cool back then, and velvet lapels).

So- Where Does That Leave the Tale?

Now, down to work. We’ve got to put together THE werewolf story, and it has to be… well, a classic! I’m going to suggest some elements, and then you come back in the comments with your feedback and requests. I’ll use a male for clarity but clearly this one could go either way.

In THE werewolf tale, the Classic That Was Never Written:

  • He’s a good man under pressure, perhaps a curse, maybe the sins of his father
  • He changes when the moon rises, loses control, threatens the good folks around him werewolf2(including of course his Soul-Mate); the Authority Figure pursues him
  • In wolf form he can’t be hurt by any mundane attack, and he has tremendous strength and vitality
  • When the wolf-form passes, he is weak and vulnerable; his Soul-Mate rescues him
  • He probably dies, by refusing to give in to the animal side, and saves his Soul-Mate by letting the Authority Figure get him

Your turn! What did I miss, what should THE classic tale of the Werewolf have in it? Comment, blast your hides, stop mooning about and let your opinion be known.

werewolf3This could have been a State of the Lands column, because I have seen lycanthropes in the Lands of Hope. A few. Alright, two. As of this column they are both in the future, meaning in WiPs that haven’t yet been completed. But one has been introduced (the very nasty Salivarr, in Fencing Reputation) and the other, who almost fits the classic mold here, will be visible in 2016 when The Eye of Kog reaches publication. But for now, we have a story to outline here! Thanks for helping.