Tag Archives: Fantasy

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)

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

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

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

3) Scrooge sees himself in the future

4) 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 Part Five: Getting Better All the Time

{A series first published on the Independent Bookworm site, now brought back for your enjoyment.}

“Classic. A book which people praise and don’t read”

– Mark Twain

Now you know for sure I was right with the title of this series; you wouldn’t dare contradict the author of Huckleberry Finn. It’s a classic!

For the sixth book (trust me, I can count, we’re on book 6), I come at last to a deeply embarrassing confession. I loved the book, really. But not the way I expected, not as much as I hoped. And my expectations were set in this case, because I had seen the movie first! {Oh, the shame…} And LOVED IT! But that’s OK, because you probably haven’t seen the movie either (not the right one anyway- there has of course been a remake).

Now you need to thank me, because the easiest thing to talk about with this book would be, ONCE AGAIN, world-building. Or at least, society-building in its lowest common denominator. But this is a tale about how life continually improves, and why, when you land on … The Mysterious Island

You map something and it's real!
You map something and it’s real!

I heard that wise-crack- “enough with Jules Verne already”. Pipe down, you- do you realize all of his tales I could have used? And I will, if you don’t behave, you watch me. But I admit this is not one of his more famous novels, which is curious because he did what we’re all supposed to do as authors- went back to one of his most popular characters for a sequel. Even better, he hid him for half the book! Instead he follows more good writerly advice and whacks you between the eyes with a fabulous opening. Five remarkably-diverse but worthy men and one faithful dog escape a Confederate prison in the waning days of the war, by stealing a balloon Mys_Isl1which promptly gets caught in one of the most powerful storms of all time. Blown halfway around the world, marooned on an uncharted island… oh, you’ve heard this one before? Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson… guess what, Verne’s first draft of the tale was titled Shipwrecked Family: Marooned with Uncle Robinson. So, there’s some encouragement for you if you think the greats were never inspired by (read- cribbed from) what they read. Or never got rejected by publishers.

So yeah, it’s the whole we’re-alone-in-a-strange-place-what-do-we-do-now genre: at the bottom looking up. Ingenuity to the rescue- MacGuyver without phones, A-Team without helicopters: when you think about it, there’s a very  long standing tradition of we-can-do-without-almost-everything, one that can be really fun to contemplate. These five guys drop onto foreign soil with just one penknife and the scraps of the stuff that makes a balloon. No food, no orientation, no extra clothes or shelter or whiskey or  cigars. But they’re AMERICANS, by golly; once they create a fire, it’s all downhill from there.

Sure enough, they construct shelters (even becoming socially mobile and moving up to better and better quarters over time). They fire bricks, smelt iron, create explosives, herd cattle, determine their latitude and longitude- it’s the man-cave run wild. I kept waiting for them to make a toilet with no seat to have to put down. Which brings me to my first observation about this kind of story- survival and improvement tales are all about authority in your voice. If you do a ton of research about an historical period, or a scientific subject pertinent to your plot, you know you want to show it off to the reader. And that’s not wrong- it excited YOU, there’s got to be something there for them. But how?

Here’s how- the castaways are struggling for their very lives, and that’s an empathic situation for the reader, they wonder “what WOULD I do?”. Once you introduce an authority figure- in this case, the super-genius American entrepreneur Cyrus Harding- who starts to tell the others how to do a thing, it naturally translates for the reader. See that red earth there? Here’s what you do… and the reader is practically feeling like one of the workers now, going step by step, building it up and sighing with satisfaction when the job is well done. As the characters feel increasingly empowered, the reader is also carried along, thinking “wow, I could survive on a desert island”. If you get there, you’ve got them.

Lucky they teach guys so much as civil engineers! My credulity got strained when it became clear that Harding knew everything, like the combined reincarnation of Archimedes and Da Vinci. They build a boat, a serviceable sailing ship, and while discussing whether they could make it to civilization aboard, they get a mysterious message in a bottle from another castaway on a

Hey, sustainable.
Hey, sustainable.

“nearby” island. Me, I’m thinking “maiden voyage, nearby means I can see it from here!” but nothing scares these guys, and they duly depute a couple to sail over and pick the fellow up. Then comes the elevator, the telegraph- OK, now I can chuckle and relax into a more normal state of suspended disbelief. After all, what did Jules Verne know about “Gilligan’s Island”?

And that’s the second point- do you want to be a laughing stock with your story? Isn’t it kind of, you know, bad to portray nothing but uninterrupted progress throughout a tale? What about conflict, downturns, that terrific way you can play yo-yo with a reader’s emotions? Your sadistic cackle of satisfaction as you picture the reader alternately throwing the book on the floor with a scream, and then snatching it back up along with a tissue, to turn the page. Is that why Mysterious Island wasn’t a big hit, isn’t this something you should never do?

My unhesitating response is- let me get back to you on that. I can only speak for my genre, and even there not with authority, but I think it’s safe to say that epic and heroic fantasy are in a strong swing towards anti-heroes, deconstruction and morbidity right now. I’ve gone on and on about Game of Thrones, but GRRM is hardly alone and it’s hardly been just recently. We’ve become more hard-bitten as an audience generally, I think; all kinds of rather horrible things get lined up under the rubric of “realism”. Witness the incredible popularity of “The Walking Dead” on TV! There’s a point of view that your story needs to portray the world “as it is” which is to say, going to hell in a handbasket, in order to be serious or believable. So you certainly can’t afford to show the heroes constantly progressing, improving and having nothing but good times… right?

But there’s so much to be gained from a rise to triumph over circumstances, against all odds. All-time best survival-struggle-ingenuity tale in history- Captain Kirk, the 23rd century starship

Well sure, all us space-age guys know the formula for gunpowder!
Well sure, all us space-age guys know the formula for gunpowder!

captain, marooned on a worthless planet against a bipedal xenophobic gila monster, manages to cobble together a prehistoric shotgun that fires diamond ammo. Man, they learn almost as much at Starfleet as a 19th century civil engineer!

I guess the only right answer is, sometimes. If readers believe their own  alleged-real lives are going in the hopper- first of all, they might be right or wrong about that. And second, assuming they’re right they might want to see it played out straight (fist-raised, rock-musicked, drug-smoked anti-war movies for the Vietnam generation) or to escape it (Astaire and Rodgers skating around a richly decorated ballroom for mass audiences during the Depression). We seem to  be in love with bad these days, the only reason the characters get a lift is so the next drop can be even deeper. Me, I get about five hundred pages along, and realize the latest bout of good fortune is just another dead-cat bounce, and I’m done. So a movie like Mysterious Island should tank. I gather the remake in 2012 did; I didn’t even get past the trailers. But it wasn’t about things getting steadily better- it was another thrill-ride with crisis after crisis, you can tell.

Um, does the CRAB know it's on the menu?
Um, does the CRAB know it’s on the menu?

The REAL movie, from 1961? Man, what a fantastic flick. Same survival theme, manly men scraping for their lives and making it better. But hey- giant crab for dinner! My debt of pure joy to Ray

Harryhausen is vast… And I have to admit, once in a while Hollywood gets it right. They put two women in- another shipwreck- and it was the right move. No big romance, but more of a balance to this miniature society.

There you go. It’s not necessary to have the tale’s tone be all-down, or only-up-to-go-down. But it does have to point to something else to Mysterious-Island-2really succeed. Swiss Family Robinson always emphasized the family above all; Robinson Crusoe found out a lot about what he didn’t need (and what he still did). With Mysterious Island there is a strong aspect of what it takes to be a society: Harding is elected leader and his judgment always prevails. The members of this tiny nation have their parts to play, and work hard to reap rewards with satisfaction, overcoming their differences in the process. Others can be admitted if worthy- the castaway is a wrongly accused pirate, and while the handling of the former slave Neb is still stereotypical, it’s a big step that he is accorded equal’s treatment. The group even domesticates an orangutan and raises him to near-human status. Oy, give me the English ladies in the movie, who make the point perfectly well that you can admit new members who merit our interest, but still decide to reject the pirates (who show up in both the book and

Ah yes- tonight's special.
Ah yes- tonight’s special.

the movie). Yeah, pirates with cannons, not exactly a fun development- and by the way, lest you think this tale is Sunnybrook Farm without the little girl, did I mention the volcano is going to blow!!

The book and movie have a second theme as well- the eventual discovery of the island’s former total population, Captain Nemo. Once again I found the treatment of his character and his

Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and- oops wrong movie.
Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and- oops wrong movie.

part in the plot was better done in the movie- his heroic sacrifice stayed with me since childhood when I first saw the film, and I kind of realized that he wasn’t all bad, but it was better he wasn’t coming back to the world. Pretty serious thought for a kid of eight watching a movie- maybe things don’t have to get better all the time, for everyone.

In The Plane of Dreams, the main party of adventuring heroes starts out having ejected one of their members, and admitting new ones to their society. Along the course of their new adventure, they run into some serious trouble, not quite marooned on an island but nevertheless bad. The party is looted and beaten up, and it’s somewhat a wonder why they haven’t been killed. Still, things are not good…

Zoanstahr was certainly surprised to awaken at all. Twice he had been the special target of an attack, and this time he had already seen the rest of the party fall before him. But the unusual fact that he was still alive paled to insignificance when he realized that he was completely naked.

Wm. L. Hahn. The Plane of Dreams (Kindle Locations 870-872).

Starting from there with literally nothing, the party starts its climb back up- and they must redeem their reputations as well as their belongings. It was a long haul for them, but a fun and ultimately rewarding one to witness. (That’s all I do, by the way, just watch them in action) Even the party member they rejected at the start helps to save them all,  by sacrificing his life unknown to the world. The more I think on it, the more I realize how much I’ve drawn inspiration from the work of others (and we both know what THAT word means!). For me, it was the movie first this time- but then, they read the book, so it’s all good.

And I didn’t have to wait to be rejected by a publisher before putting The Plane of Dreams out there. I guess it is getting better all the time, for me.