Friday, January 09, 2015

The Necromancer's House

The Necromancer’s House, by Christopher Buehlman, is a scary, funny, fast-paced urban fantasy novel with a rich voice and likeable characters. With its multiple viewpoints and several satisfying reveals along the way, it is one of the most well-crafted and exciting books I have read in a while.

Buehlman tells the story of Andrew Blankenship, a charming, brilliant modern wizard who drives an antique Mustang, wears his long black hair in a samurai bun, and goes to AA meetings regularly. He lives in the woods of upstate New York, in a house stocked and protected with ancient magic, much of it stolen from Baba Yaga in Soviet Russia. He’s in love with his lesbian apprentice, sleeps with a rusalka (a mermaid in Slavic myth), and is served and protected by the reanimated heart of his dead dog in the body of a wicker man. To put it simply, his life is not without complications at the beginning of the novel, but things are about to get a lot worse for Andrew.

After the rusalka drowns a Russian national, Baba Yaga is awakened to Andrew’s continued existence and vows to bring him down. She sends her daughter, along with other arcane magical forces, to hunt Blankenship and destroy him. At this point, it takes all of Andrew’s considerable magical knowledge, combined with that of several of his friends, to evade the arch-witch.

Buehlman has a background in both poetry and drama, and these influences make his writing shine. His dialogue is winding and funny, like the best plays, and some of his prose, laid out on the page in one-sentence paragraphs, reads like poetry. Descriptions like “an embarrassment of stars, like a fay court,” and “a tumble of scratches and playful bites and cheek-licking, a dance as old as man and dog and meat and fire” make the reading experience feel like a treasure hunt.

One of the most powerful tools in Andrew’s toolbox is his house — after all, the book is called The Necromancer’s House. He has armed it in several ways, forming layers of magical protection around himself. These are uniformly fascinating. It’s fun to watch Andrew change skins in his Room of Skins, although the consequences of leaving one’s human skin lying around are pretty bad if enemies get in. There is a tiny replica of the house in the attic with a dangerous surprise inside, a sleeping giant made of car parts in his front yard, and his bathroom appliances can be used to travel to other bathrooms (like in Harry Potter, not as in a flying toilet). In short, the house has so much personality, it’s basically a character in the book.

The other characters in The Necromancer’s House are just as interesting and well-developed. Even the ones we barely meet, like Radha, the computer mage from Chicago, have distinct voices and personalities. My favorite was Anneke, Andrew’s protégé and AA sponsee. She’s sharp and bad-ass and a little bit self-deceiving. Buehlman’s best description of her is as follows: “Anneke doesn’t do regret, or at least she tells herself that enough that it has become her mantra. If she were in Game of Thrones, her household words would be, ‘Yes, I did do that. And fuck you.’”

Andrew’s backstory is fully explored, including the tragic reasons for his alcoholism. Despite his arrogance and vanity — literally, one of the reasons he has left his defenses down for so long is that he uses magic to make himself young — I liked and empathized with him. I cried at the scene near the end of the book, when Andrew spends a last few moments with his reanimated dead dog, and then allows him to die — to go “outside” — for good.

The one era of his life left blank — intentionally — is his time in Soviet Russia as a prisoner of Baba Yaga. He relates this tale to a character in the book, but we do not get to hear it. Instead, Chapter 34 consists of one sentence: “He tells them what happened to him in Russia.” This narrative technique works much like Edgar Allan Poe’s negative description of the pit in his short story “The Pit and the Pendulum.” When we don’t know exactly what Baba Yaga is capable of, she could be capable of just about anything.

Full disclosure for you horror fans and/or –phobes: The Necromancer’s House, which is categorized by the publisher as “horror,” didn’t scare me. This is fine with me. I don’t usually like horror; I get too easily frightened and, unlike adrenaline junkies, don’t find it a pleasant experience. I couldn’t go to sleep the night that I watched Shyamalan’s The Village because I kept imagining the fake-monster-things looming next to my bed, and that’s horror-lite! (Pity me, for I am weak.)

The thing that really scares me is inhuman evil. Anything from Lovecraft, or Stephen King’s terrifying oil slick in “The Raft,” or even human killers who kill compulsively, with joy, instead of for “normal” reasons to murder someone (such as power, or revenge, or bad grammar). These are terrifying monsters to me, ideas that won’t let me sleep at night. Some of the creatures in this book would fit that category, but the main antagonist, Baba Yaga, seemed just as human as Andrew Blankenship. Despite the terror she unleashes (including several very inventive deaths), she wasn’t inexplicable to me. Or perhaps I just read too many illustrated books when I was a kid portraying her as a kindly old babushka with a neat house. Either way, I was happy that I was able to read Buehlman’s book without resorting to huddling beneath my comforter.

*This review originally appeared here at, where I gave the book 4.5 stars.

Monday, January 05, 2015

"Cottonwood"--Evolution of a Story

Last month, my first fiction publication came out--a short story called "Cottonwood" in NonBinary Review's Oz edition. (NonBinary Review is an online publication put out through Zoetic Press; download the app here and read my story!)

I wrote this story a year and a half ago, while I was still working on my dissertation. I was planning to spend much more of my time and energy writing fiction once the diss was done; I even had a novel mapped out. But then I saw a call for papers put out by Fairy Tale Review, looking specifically for Oz retellings that intersected with the ideas of the environment and being "green." So I thought I could work up a story on that, just to get my fiction feet wet.

 At that time, I lived in Tallahassee, FL. I took my dog for walks around the neighborhood, trying to figure out what part of the Frank L. Baum stories interested me the most. Honestly, I hadn't given them too much thought. The classic film is one of my favorites, but the original stories? I hadn't read them in years and when I picked them up to re-read, I found them a little saccharine, a little wooden for my taste. I much preferred Gregory Maguire's darker, character-driven retellings in Wicked and subsequent novels.

One day, on a walk with Sam, he stopped to pee on a neighbor's flower bed, which was planted next to a gnarled live oak tree. And I saw a face in the tree, like the faces in the apple trees that Dorothy encounters. It reminded me of another tree I used to stare at as a child, back in the woods behind the fence at our house. The bark had been burned off by a lightning strike, and the shape of the wound in the tree looked like a girl with long dark hair kneeling down. I have bad eyesight and, before I got glasses, I would squint at this tree a dozen yards off, pretending that the girl was a fairy or a wood elf, and that we were friends. I think I even drew a picture of her once.

This makes me sound a lot lonelier than I actually was. Really, I just thought I was Anne of Green Gables. I even named all of the plants around our house and said goodbye to them, by name, every morning before I got on the bus . . . really creative names, like "Sandy," "Mandy," "Andy," "Candy," and "Randy" (although I did name our Japanese maple "Ichi," which means "one" in Japanese).

So there I was, with this memory of a girl in a tree. And the girl became Dorothy, and I had to figure out why she was in this tree, how she got there, and what it meant. The story had to happen many years after the original stories; I didn't want to fight the canon wars or defend my version of Oz against someone else's. And Dorothy couldn't be the paragon of sweetness and innocence that she was as a child, either. So I made her a deranged religious despot who happened, in her zealotry, to hit upon a frightening truth at the heart of Oz. And I made the Tin Woodsman, sentimental soul that he is, the courtier and confident who has been silently in love with her lo, these many years.

And then several good, kind, thoughtful people--fairy god-people, really--read my story and gave me lots of comments, most of which said, "Cut it down." (It was 27 pages single-spaced, which I now realize is totally inappropriate and I worship at the feet of those kind enough to read my long, wordy, meandering story.) So I did.

The story was rejected by Fairy Tale Review, although it was a positive rejection which means that they said good things about it and encouraged me to submit other stories. But NonBinary Review picked it up about a year later, earning warm place in my heart for all eternity by giving me my first fiction publication credit.

I would change several things about this story now, a year and a half later. But mostly, I'm happy with it. There are moments in it that still are beautiful to me, which may be as good as it gets for most writers. (We can't all be Toni Morrison, after all, who recently sat down and read her own novel Beloved for the first time in years and thought it was great.) And I'm working on lots of other things. I have three other stories that I've sent out for consideration to various journals, and I'm working on two more right now for which I already have venues in mind. Most exciting of all, I get to take my first fiction workshop this spring, with Jilly Dreadful at her online creative writing workshop, The Brainery. I hope it will develop my story-sense, the lyricism and creativity of my prose, and the thickness of my skin.

My writing goal for 2015 is simple: to write a little bit of fiction every day. I can't commit to a daily word-count yet; I'm basically working three part-time jobs and also book-blogging and wedding-planning and trying to chip away at some academic projects. But if I carve out a few days a week where I can devote a couple hours to it . . . and, if every other day, I make myself sit down at my computer and open up the Word document for my current project--even if I tell myself, "just twenty minutes," or "just one paragraph"--I know I'll get work done.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Into the Woods

I'm teaching a class this coming semester on fairy-tales and fairy-tale adaptations. It's gonna be sweet; I'm incorporating some of the best short stories and poetry I can find, as well as turning to TV and film adaptations.

And I think I'll end the class with a two- or three-day lesson on the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods. If you're not familiar with this play, it weaves together several of the most iconic Western fairy-tales into one story which ends up being, in some respects, an anti-fairy-tale.

The story starts with several characters wishing for something. Cinderella wishes to go to the festival, Jack wishes his cow would give some milk, and Little Red Riding Hood wishes for some bread to give her granny. The lynchpin that holds all of these stories together is a Baker and his Wife, who have been cursed by the local Witch to be childless. They, of course, wish for a child.

At first all of these wishes seem disconnected, the isolated dreams of people whose wishes could never interfere with each other's. But it turns out each person's wish affects someone else's. And the overarching wish is the Witch's, who wants to be young and beautiful again. To do that, she needs a potion filled with special ingredients--a cow as white, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, a slipper as pure as gold. You see where this is going . . .

She cons the couple into finding these ingredients for her, promising to lift the curse when they do. But as they go out into the woods, they find that following their quest for a child sometimes means taking away someone else's wish. How can Jack get his wish, to keep his best friend the Cow, if the Baker and his Wife take the Cow? How can Red Riding Hood remain safe in the woods if they steal her cape? (They don't, but she doesn't stay safe anyways; capes are not good protection.) How can Cinderella dance with the prince at the festival if her golden shoe is taken? And how can Rapunzel ever escape from the tower if they cut off her golden braid?

Basically, getting what you want means someone else doesn't get what they want. Wishing is selfish.

The first song, the Prologue, makes it clear that this is not a new issue; singleminded, selfish wishing started this whole problem when the Baker's father stole the Witch's greens (and her magic beans) for his pregnant wife, thus causing her to age and grow ugly, thus causing her to curse his family. I guess it's a bit like that old OUAT saw, "Magic always comes with a price." Except this time it's wishing.

At the end of the first act, however, the conflict between the different wishes has been resolved. Everyone has their wish, and they all seem poised to live happily ever after.

Except for two niggling things.

First, at her mother's grave, Cinderella was asked the question: "Are you certain what you wish is what you want?" The first time I saw Into the Woods, before I knew what to expect, this question, thrown away in the middle of a song, rang out like a gong in my head. How many times had I asked myself that same question? How many times had I gotten what I wished, only to find out it wasn't what I wanted? Even as I watched every character get their wish, that question seemed a warning. (Well, also the fact that it was only the end of Act One.)

Second, the beanstalk. The second beanstalk.

The second half of the show is when everything goes to shit. Because, in real life, even when the story seems over, the story continues. And there are always consequences. (See above, re: magic and prices.)

Jack, after escaping from the giant with the harp to buy his Cow back from the Baker, chopped down the stalk and killed the giant. Now, after everyone's happily-ever-after, the Giantess from above has come down the second beanstalk to seek revenge for her husband's death. A lot of sad, senseless things happen; Rapunzel, Jack's mother, and the Baker's Wife each die accidentally. And ultimately, Jack has to help kill the Giantess, his friend, the "lady giant" who gave him food and rest and affection.

The second half of the show dispels the magical thinking that people so often associate with fairy-tales. Nobody's happily-ever-after looks like what they hoped it would look like. The Baker and his Wife realize that having a child is a lot of work. The Princes get bored with their wives. The Witch gains her youth and beauty, only to lose her daughter Rapunzel. Things go wrong for the characters who thought of themselves as "good," while their enemies are unmasked as not merely "bad," but as people who are motivated by the same urges--grief, revenge, lust, boredom, etc.--that drive themselves.

The glorious thing about this musical is that it comments on almost any universal literary theme you can think of: Age vs. youth, experience vs. innocence, parents vs. children, good vs. bad (or, in one of the play's most pointed lyrics, good vs. "nice"). If fairy-tales are the ur-stories that continue to get retold and remixed and recast in literature and film ad infinitum, then Into the Woods is the uber-story. It has it all.

The film version of which, directed by Rob Marshall, was released on Christmas Day. I saw it last Friday and loved it. It is a decent and enjoyable film adaptation of the musical; the acting from almost everyone was top-notch, but I particularly loved Emily Blunt's Baker's Wife. However, the film does gloss over or leave out some pretty important material--Rapunzel's death, the Mysterious Man, the Princes' boredom with their wives, the touching relationship between Jack and the Giantess. I'm thinking about asking my students to read the book/libretto of the musical and compare it to the film in the last week of class, but I don't have any experience teaching from a musical script, so I'll have to do my homework ahead of time. Anyone got any tips for using texts like this in a classroom?