Tag Archives: speculative fiction

Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read: “April in Paris” and “The Masters”

Welcome back to the Le Guin (re)read! Today we’re tackling the first and second stories she sold to paying markets. “April in Paris” was published in the magazine Fantastic in 1962, and “The Masters” was published in 1963 in the same magazine.

I’m reading them in a collection of her early stories, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. According to her introductory notes, before she was published she amassed a long string of rejections (and practiced her perseverance!). This for a writer who would later go on to win all of the major science fiction and fantasy awards, become one of only five women to be named a Grand Master of Science Fiction by her peers in SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), and be awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. So if you’re an aspiring writer in the “collecting rejections” stage, take heart!

But I digress…

Note: This post is an analysis of two stories, so there will be minor spoilers throughout. I’ll flag those that are more major.

April in Paris

The first thing you notice as a reader is that the speculative element isn’t immediately apparent. Le Guin devotes a chunk of words to describing the forlorn state of Barry Pennywither, and then another chunk on the even more forlorn state of Jehan Lenoir before finally introducing the summoning/time-travel spell that connects the two. I suspect that if this had been a later story, she would have gotten there quicker.

As in her novels, she stays in deep third-person POV, describing the moment of connection first from Lenoir’s perspective, then from Barry’s very different one. There’s a funny moment when Barry realizes that the other man is speaking not English but French…and there’s something funny about his French…and then a page later he realizes that the man’s speech is odd because it’s very old French, something he has only ever seen written. (Le Guin uses the same device in City of Illusions – coming up a little later in this blog series – when a character has to draw on his knowledge of an ancient language that he has never heard spoken.)

[SPOILERS]

Although this is an early story, it’s clearly in dialogue with others of its subgenre: she has obviously read other time-travel tales and decided to explore a different angle. So her characters exchange knowledge, but quickly realize there’s no point in trying to apply that knowledge in their respective times. What would they do with it? Who would believe them? What would be the point, really? Instead, they simply revel in having it, and even more, sharing it.

For that is the crux of the story: the human connection. That’s what our duo is really looking for, not knowledge for its own sake. Later on, when more characters join the initial pair, they build even stronger connections (though rather heteronormative and even sexist to today’s sensibilities). Finally, they realize that connection (and its flip side, loneliness) is what has created the magic at the core of the story, literally. And ta da, there’s the theme.

[END SPOILERS]

So the story is pretty straightforward, by Le Guin’s later standards. But one can already see the preoccupation with relationships and psychology over the speculative-fiction trappings. She’s using SF to say something; she’s not interested in the cool SF ideas for their own sake, but what she has to say cannot be said without SF.

The Masters

By contrast, this story is all about knowledge: the control and withholding of it, the reinvention and secret sharing of it.

Again, it starts with a very tight focus (though the initial point of view is omniscient): the protagonist, Ganil, in the middle of a scene that’s vivid and visually arresting but has no context. Gradually Le Guin pulls back to give us information about the world (aka worldbuilding): this is an initiation, and Ganil is a Master of what in our world we would call a guild.

One interesting note: Ganil’s friend and mentor, Mede, is described as having blue eyes, but this is so unusual in Ganil’s world as to be seen as a deformity. Le Guin’s Earthsea world is famous for being a rare early fantasy setting full of brown and black people. “The Masters” is six years before the first Earthsea book, with the desire to upend racial assumptions already on her mind.

We learn that although Ganil is a master of his craft, being a master doesn’t involve calculation or critical thinking, just memorization. Mede is the one who nudges Ganil along to (re)discovering this dangerous knowledge, not by telling him outright, but by planting the seeds for Ganil to figure it out himself. It’s exhilarating watching this happen, the excitement of discovery and then of explaining it — rather like “April in Paris”, in fact.

[SPOILERS]

The only woman in the story is Ganil’s love interest. It’s a rather feeble attempt at inclusion, as in Le Guin’s early novels. Thank goodness she realized that she could write about women (and other genders, as in The Left Hand of Darkness) if she wanted to.

By the end, control has come down heavily on our thinkers. Mede is dead, and Ganil is forced to endure terrible punishments and then flee. But, like Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451, he flees with his knowledge and Mede’s still intact. All is not lost; there is hope in the darkness.

[END SPOILERS]

“April in Paris” is a story that would not be possible without its core fantastical device, and it centers around two intellectuals who bond over sharing knowledge, but it’s really about human connection. By contrast, “The Masters” is less about science fiction than it is about science, the joy of it and the suppression of knowledge and the unbeatable relentlessness of human curiosity.

 

Next up, we’ll return to the Hainish Cycle with Planet of Exile. I hope you’ll join me!

 

 

 

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Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

blog-ursula-le-guin-omelasWelcome to the first installment in the Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read, in which I geek out about her work and invite you to join me! We’re starting with her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, because (a) it’s so well-known, and (b) it’s short, so it makes a good read-along.

The story was first published in 1973. To put that in context, her first novel was published in 1966. Here are the dates for some of Le Guin’s best-known novels:

  • A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea #1) — 1968
  • The Left Hand of Darkness (a Hainish Cycle novel) — 1969
  • The Lathe of Heaven (standalone) — 1971
  • The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea #2) — 1971
  • The Farthest Shore (Earthsea #3) — 1972
  • The Dispossessed (a Hainish Cycle novel) — 1974

So by the time she published “Omelas”, she was already at the top of her game as a professional science fiction writer. And it shows…

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The story starts off like any other fantasy story — describing the city of Omelas and its people in grand, sweeping terms. Sounds pretty typical. But a few paragraphs in, we get this:

Given a description such as this one tends to look next for the King, mounted on a splendid stallion and surrounded by his noble knights, or perhaps in a golden litter borne by great-muscled slaves. But there was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians. I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few.

Whoa…suddenly we’re in a meta-story. The narrator is making comments on the story, in first person, while telling it. This isn’t a normal story at all–in fact, there aren’t even any characters (except one, whom we’ll get to later). It’s a thought experiment that actually works.

Having said that, there’s also some beautiful, lyrical writing. From the same paragraph:

The trouble is that we have a bad habit … of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting.

…and then she goes on to show, through the rest of the story, how happiness can be complicated, even poisoned. Do the people of Omelas have true happiness? …I don’t know, what do you think?

She goes on in this vein for a while, speculating about what Omelas does and does not have (cars? probably not. orgies? sure, let’s give them orgies. Good thing I wasn’t drinking anything just then…). The point is to illustrate that Omelas isn’t an inane utopia, it’s complex enough to be believable.

And then we get to the real meat of the story: the child hidden in the closet, who must be unhappy so that everyone else in Omelas can thrive.

I knew this about the story going in, so I was surprised how effective it still was for me as I read it. Le Guin describes the child’s circumstances in unflinching, brutal detail after detail. The pure happiness described earlier begins to sound horrifically callous.

Then the narrator explains how the people of Omelas justify the suffering to themselves, once they learn of it around the age of puberty: the child is too far gone to benefit from kindness, they can do nothing to change its circumstances anyway, and all the good in Omelas depends on this one child’s misery. It all sounds fairly reasonable to most of the people in the city, since they go along with it.

…except for the few who refuse to participate, and just opt out by leaving the city. They don’t come back and start a revolution to rescue the child, they don’t take their loved ones with them; they just make a decision, one at a time, to leave.

The question is left hanging: would you accept this deal? To have a prosperous society, everyone in it happy and content, at that price? But…no matter how awful the price, would you really be able to walk away?

There are any number of parallels one could draw. It’s tempting to ask: What is this an allegory of? What is Le Guin really writing about? We could come up with any number of answers, based on contemporary issues or issues that were big at the time when she was writing.

My copy (the ebook edition) includes an afterword by Le Guin herself, who talks about her influences, and then writes:

In talking about the “meaning” of a story, we need to be careful not to diminish it, impoverish it. A story can say different things to different people. It may have no definitive reading.

And a reader may find a meaning in it that the writer never intended, never imagined, yet recognizes at once as valid.

What do you think? How should we read the story? What does it “mean”?

As I mentioned earlier, I knew the basic premise of the story ahead of time, but I was amazed and delighted by the mastery of craft woven around it. The story’s not just a fable or a philosophical question; she has fun with it too, and knows exactly when to throw in meta-commentary or immerse us in the moment, when to draw on our emotions and when to make us think. And I was blown away by the ending. That’s quite a feat for a story with only one character (and no character arc…unless you count the society as a whole, or the reader’s reaction? What do you think?).

Over to you! Did the story work for you? How effective is it in what it sets out to do? If you’re familiar with Le Guin’s work, is “Omelas” a good representation of her writing?

Next up: We’re going back to the beginning! I’m aiming to read the Hainish Cycle (both novels and short stories) straight through in publication order, with maybe some unrelated short stories thrown in for variety. Here’s what’s lined up for the next couple of posts:

 

  • “Semley’s Necklace” (short story; also published as “The Dowry of the Angyar”)
  • Rocannon’s World (novel; note that it starts with a prologue, which is actually “Semley’s Necklace”)
  • [short story, TBD]
  • Planet of Exile (novel)

…and then we will see! Hope to see you back here to join the (re)read on May 7.

 

Genre-Bending Books (Redux)

The Passage by Justin Cronin coverI’m a fan of science fiction. And fantasy. And everything in between…sometimes especially the books that fall in between. I’ve written before about science fantasy, about works that blend speculative fiction and realism, and of course, steampunk. But that was all several years ago, and now I’ve got a whole new crop of genre-benders to share with you…

Futuristic Fantasy

Start with the present day. Fast forward a few decades, or maybe a little more. You can see a clear connection to our own world, including geography. The technology level might be similar to ours, or higher in certain areas, or maybe lower, depending on what might have happened between now and then. (Gotta love verb tenses when talking about futures that may never arrive…) But there are also fantasy creatures or tropes–magic, gods, vampires. In this category we have:

The Passage series by Justin Cronin

This is what literary agents call a “high-concept” book with a “strong hook”. Two words: vampire apocalypse. Cronin starts in the present day, where a vampire virus has just been discovered. Then he fast-forwards through time, pausing for a while here and there to dip into the lives of a set of characters, some of whom pop up again and again. The books veer between thriller and literary drama–what agent Donald Maass calls “breakout novel” territory. That’s a lot of genres, but somehow it all works.

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinsonblog-brown-girl-hopkinson-cover

Toronto in the future, or at least Hopkinson’s version of the future, is a lawless place controlled by a drug lord. Infrastructure and social safety nets are all but gone. The placenames and layout of the city are still recognizable, though much decayed. But at the same time, the voodoo gods are drifting around, looking for a chance to get involved…

Above by Leah Bobet

Another story set in Toronto, but this one starts out sounding much like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, if the young protagonist had been from the underworld peeking out instead of our own world peeking in. It goes on to deconstruct stories like Neverwhere and a whole lot of other things. I can’t say too much about it without being spoilery, so instead I’ll just give a bonus shout-out to Bobet’s second novel, An Inheritance of Ashes, which is more…

Fantasy with Hints of Technology

A fantasy-seeming world that hints at not being a straight-up secondary world a la Tolkien. Or a world with some futuristic trappings that’s clearly more interested in fantasy tropes and telling fantasy stories. (Think Pern or Dune.) Or some mad blending of the two.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi OkoraforCover of Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Like Brown Girl in the Ring, this is a compelling near-to-mid-future story of a young black woman coming into her own magical powers. I’ve placed it here not because it’s set in Sudan (which looks more like fantasy to Western eyes) but because it’s less interested in the tension between magic and technology than Hopkinson’s novel is. It’s a classic fantasy quest story, with powerful sorcerers and training sequences and visions and even a band of misfits trekking long distances. There just happens to be advanced technology here and there.

The Tearling series by Erika Johansen

Girl living a quiet life in the forest learns she’s the heir to the throne and is whisked away to start her new life in the palace. (That’s not much of a spoiler–it’s all in the first few pages.) Another classic fantasy tale, modernized for today’s reader? Maybe…except that the heir occasionally uses words like genetics. The second book in the series delves more into why this is so, losing the tight focus on character but adding worldbuilding context.

The Fey Touched series by Erin Zarroblog-erin-zarro-fey-touched-cover

Finally, I have to put in a plug for Turtleduck Press author Erin Zarro. Her fantasy world looks not unlike ours…except that there are vampire-hunting fey…and occasional evil scientists performing genetic experiments and the like. Intrigued? Book 3 in the series will be out May 1! I’ll be posting more about it as the date draws closer.

 

Are you a fan of genre-bending books? Please share!

 

Reading Recap 2014

Starfish by Peter WattsIt’s that time again…the best-of roundup posts! I’m a little late to the party, but who cares? Here — in no particular order — are the best 5 books I read in 2014, plus some reading statistics just because…

Disclaimer: I’m always playing catch-up in my reading, so these aren’t the best books published in 2014, but the best I read. For links to some lists of the former, see the bottom of the post.

The Books

1. Starfish by Peter Watts.

Peter Watts is a Canadian SF author who writes very dark, very hard SF centered around biology. His novel Blindsight was shortlisted for the Hugo a few years ago, and the sequel, Echopraxia,  came out last summer (I bought it promptly but haven’t read it yet).

Starfish was his first novel, but you couldn’t tell from the quality. It’s about a deep-sea station manned by people who’ve been modified with built-in wetsuits and breathing apparatus, which raises a couple of questions. First, what kind of people are willing to have that done to them (and live at the bottom of the ocean, next to an oceanic rift, for months)? Second, when your body is altered to live under these conditions, what does that do to your psyche? And that’s just for starters….

The Passage by Justin Cronin cover2. The Passage by Justin Cronin.

This book was big when it came out in 2010 (remember what I said about playing catch-up with my reading?). Cronin had previously published some family drama novels, and it shows…so this is a vampire apocalypse novel with family/small-town drama at the core and also a quest structure. Sounds like a strange mash-up, but for the most part, it really works. Cronin’s cross-genre roots serve him well — there’s a lot of hard-hitting emotional stuff intertwined with the end-of-the-world action.

My only quibble is the length. Despite the epic scope of the story, it didn’t need to be 900 pages long — 700 would have done just fine. Having said that, I devoured it at twice my usual reading speed, so make of that what you will.

Room by Emma Donoghue cover3. Room by Emma Donoghue.

This is the only non-genre book on the list (another high-profile 2010 novel), but I loved it in part for genre reasons, and I’ll tell you why. The concept is tough to read: it’s the story of a woman kidnapped and kept in captivity in a soundproofed garden shed, told from the perspective of her young son. Jack has been sheltered from the truth of their existence. To him, Room is the entire world; everything and everyone he sees on TV is pretend.

Watching him slowly learn otherwise is painful at times, but it also hits at the heart of what I love about genre: that sense of discovery, of learning about a world and how it works. As a bonus, the POV and narrative voice are extremely strong: we’re in five-year-old Jack’s head the whole way, even when we understand things he does not, and that’s both heartbreaking and amazingly effective.

Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley cover4. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley.

You’ve probably all read this already, so I won’t say too much about it. It’s an ’80s novel, which made me all nostalgic — in part because I’ve read (and loved) other McKinley novels before, in part for the writing conventions of a time before YA was a “‘thing” and fantasy was just fantasy.

I found the pacing and conflict a bit uneven by today’s exacting standards, but the protagonist’s journey felt larger-than-life as she *ahem* gets dragged through the fire and has to rebuild herself stronger than ever. Plus, there’s a horse who really feels like a horse, with a complete personality. And I’m not the only one who loved it — this is a Newbery Medal winner.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor cover5. Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.

By contrast, this is a contemporary YA fantasy (from 2011), so it’s full of familiar tropes. BUT I think this is what literary agents mean when they say they want writing that feels “fresh”. Despite the tropes, the characters ring true and bring depth to the story, and the sentence-level writing reaches for poetry without being overdone. I particularly enjoyed the fact that although the protagonist, Karou, is “special”, she’s also lonely and deeply insecure; and also the relationship with her best friend, full of in-jokes and teasing.

Fair warning: this is book 1 in a trilogy, and it shows.

Summary

What I loved about these:

  • hard-hitting emotion and psychological depth
  • huge character arcs
  • SFF stories in which the whole world is affected/changed
  • sentence-level writing that rises above the ordinary, whether it’s poetic (Laini Taylor) or a strong narrative voice (Emma Donoghue)
  • strong sense of the world/place

That summary is especially timely for me right now, as I seek to regain my writing mojo. Note to self: read (and maybe, eventually, write) more of that!

Reading Habits

On to the statistics…here’s hoping I’m not the only one interested in them. 😉

 Genres

I read 24 books in 2014, 7 fewer than in the previous year, but that’s not surprising because I was on a six-month sabbatical that year!

  • 6 were adult fantasy (9 last year) and 6 were adult SF (5 last year).
  • 2 were non-genre adult fiction (1 last year)
  • 5 were YA fantasy (2 last year) and 2 were YA SF (2 last year)
  • 3 were non-fiction (5 last year)
  • I read no anthologies, poetry, YA non-genre (1 of each last year), or graphic novels / webcomics (3 last year)

The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia cover17 of the books were from my to-read list (14 last year).

17 of the books were part of series – almost all of my genre reading. (The exceptions were The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia.)

Authors

I read books by 22 different authors (not counting collaborations), of whom 9 were new to me this year (12 last year) and 13 were new-to-me books by previously read authors (11 last year).

6 of the authors were male, 15 female, and 1 presented as non-gendered (Mazarkis Williams, although hir novel, The Emperor’s Knife, was solidly hetero). Last year was 9 male and 14 female.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin coverTo my knowledge, I read only one book by a person of colour. (That would be The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.) I keep resolving to do better in this regard and falling short.

Publishing and Buying

Of all 24 books I read, 10 were published in the last five years – a ratio consistent with years past.

2 books were acquired for free from an SFF convention, 1 was a library book, 1 I read as an e-ARC (Advance Reader Copy), and 1 was free from Project Gutenberg. The rest I bought.

10/24 were ebooks – about 40%. (Last year was 33% and the year before was 25%, so it’s gradually creeping up! At the end of 2013 I finally got a smartphone, but it hasn’t changed my ereading habits much – I still read mostly on my Kobo B&W e-ink reader.) What I buy in ebook form:

  • big fat fantasy novels or trade paperbacks that are too heavy to comfortably hold or lug around (2)
  • older books that I can’t get in print from my local bookstore (3)
  • out-of-copyright books (1)
  • books from my to-read list that go on sale (2)
  • books that I bought as ebooks for no particular reason (2)

I buy from my local indie SF&F bookstore whenever I can, otherwise that number would likely be higher!

Other Reading Recaps

Last year’s recap is here.

And here are some reading recaps/ “best-of” lists that actually cover SF&F books published in 2014…

Your turn! What were the best books you read in 2014 (any genre)?

 

Blog Hop: My Writing Process

It’s blog hop time! I’ve been tagged by the lovely Aussie writer Ellen Gregory, who adores both fantasy and travel (sound familiar?). The idea with this one is to answer four questions, then tag three other awesome writers to answer the same questions on their own blogs in a week or so. If you’re the sort who loves to read about the writing process, then do be careful or you could be lost down the rabbit hole forever….

Please enjoy a picture of one of my notebooks, with bonus hand-knit socks.

Please enjoy a picture of one of my notebooks, with bonus hand-knit socks.

1. What am I working on?

I’m currently editing a YA historical fantasy novel, with plans to query agents once it’s done. I’ve also just finished a serial story set in a fantasy version of Thailand (the fifth and final part of the serial will be posted next month). My next project will be to revamp the serial into a single (longish) short story.

What I’ve mentioned so far happens to be fantasy, but I also write other types of speculative fiction — steampunk, science fiction, Gothic — and sometimes even non-genre fiction.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

One answer is that I often write at the border between YA and adult. (New Adult, I guess you’d say, except that NA is usually contemporary and mine usually isn’t.) Another is that I think my writing has an essential optimism that shines through…the sense that yes, your place in the world is out there and you will find it, even if you have to cross the world or fight your way through larger events or live through years of your adult life to get there.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Because speculative fiction makes my heart sing.

Because when I say “I wish I could write like that” or “As a reader, I loved that book to pieces”, it’s usually speculative fiction I’m talking about.

Because it makes my inner 12-year-old happy, and she’s important to me.

Because making up worlds, genre-bending, and mashing elements together to see what sticks…is fun.

Because I want to see more like what I write. Much as I love medieval Europe, there are whole other civilizations out there, and I want to see them in fantasy too.

Because I love the moment when I stumble on a genre mash-up, or a crazy worldbuilding thing, and think, “You can DO that?!” (Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere blew my mind back in high school. So did discovering steampunk, sometime later. So do most of my favourite writers, even now.)

Because I love the tropes of the genre.

Because the sky’s the limit.

4. How does my writing process work?

I like to say I’m a reformed pantser (seat-of-the-pants writer) or headlight writer (you can only see as far as your headlights). My short stories are often still written that way. And I’m gradually moving from longhand to typing, even in the brainstorming and outlining stages…which were the last to go.

For longer works, I usually start with a lot of brainstorming, research, backstory, and character development — not via questionnaires or “outtake” scenes or dialogues, just jotting down lots of notes. Then I develop a very broad outline with the opening/setup and major turning points (act breaks). There’ll be some one-liner descriptions for scenes in there too, mostly in the first quarter of the story, getting nebulous very quickly. Or, in other words, more or less what Ellen said.

When it comes time to start writing, I prefer to draft quickly so I don’t lose the feel of the story or the overarching plot. NaNo works great for this, even if it means that what I end up with is rough.

And what happens after that? I do have some trusted critiquers, but I’m still working on finding a process for editing that works for me. If you have any advice, please share!

Tagged

And the tagged writers are…

  • Erin Zarro — writer of science fantasy, and of poetry
  • KD Sarge — writer of science fiction romance, with shenanigans
  • Kit Campbell — writer of paranormal romance, with banter

Christmas Gift Ideas from Turtleduck Press

You knew I was obliged to do one of these, right? *winks* Don’t worry, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled non-promotional content on Wednesday.

Turtleduck Press has been working hard at putting out good stories for the past three years, and we’ve amassed a variety of books designed to appeal to a range of SF&F and romance readers.

(All but one of them are available in your choice of ebook or print. Click on the covers below for more info!)

If you like…

…season-themed SF&F anthologies: you might like Winter’s Night (a variety of winter-themed stories and a poem) or Seasons Eternal (one longish short story for each season, set in a world where the seasons have stopped changing), edited by me and contributed to by all the members of Turtleduck Press.

Winter's Night anthology cover

…urban fantasy, paranormal romance, banter, or modern takes on mythology: then you might like Shards by Kit Campbell.

Shards by Kit Campbell

…science fiction set in space but with a focus on character, banter, or m/m (gay) romance: then you might like Knight Errant, His Faithful Squire, Queen’s Man, or Captain’s Boy by KD Sarge.

Knight Errant by KD Sarge

…science fantasy, genetic tinkering, or paranormal romance: then you might like Fey Touched by Erin Zarro (and watch for the sequel, Grave Touched, coming in April!).

Cover of Fey Touched by Erin Zarro

…poetry about broken love or about living with disability: then you might like Without Wings or Life as a Moving Target by Erin Zarro.

Without Wings by Erin Zarro

…YA novels about stepping through a portal into a magical universe: then you might like Hidden Worlds by Kit Campbell.

Hidden Worlds by Kit Campbell

We also have lots of SF&F short stories available to sample for free on our website, but if you’d like to support the authors and get your own copy (ebook only), we’ve collected our favourites in The Best of Turtleduck Press, Volume 1.

Best of Turtleduck Press, Vol. 1

And finally, if you’re not inclined or not in a position to buy one of these yourself this Christmas, but would like to support Turtleduck Press, you can still help by:

  • spreading the word — the biggest barrier to success in publishing (after quality, of course!) is getting noticed, and word of mouth is super important
  • leaving reviews — again, reviews on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, or LibraryThing, or your own blog if you have one, help authors get noticed
  • letting us know how we’re doing — if you want to see us do more of something in particular, or just want to send encouragement, we’d love to hear from you in the comments
  • buying or recommending another author’s book — Sure, we’re technically competitors, but really, the more people read, the better it is for all authors and the publishing industry as a whole…so go out and buy someone’s — anyone’s — books this Christmas!

The Gothic Novel and the Feminine Touch

In celebration of Halloween, we’re talking Gothic fiction this week. That’s a big genre, ranging from Mary Shelley to Edgar Allan Poe. But what I’m particularly interested in are stories that exemplify the core of the genre — novels like Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw.

What tropes do these stories have in common? Here’s a clue…

This recent edition features Heathcliff at his most, er vampiric.

This recent edition features Heathcliff at his most, er vampiric.

Gothic Tropes

  • An old, decrepit mansion in the wilderness.
  • A mysterious, emotionally distant master of the house (or sometimes mistress, if it’s not a romance).
  • A young woman (such as a governess) who is new to the scene.
  • An orphaned/unwanted child or children living at the house.
  • A terrible secret (sometimes supernatural).

As with all horror, there’s something wrong in the setting — a moral transgression that has resulted in something terrible. The young woman has to solve it and right the wrong. The master is mixed up in it — it’s his secret, though usually some of the servants are helping him keep it. Sometimes the young woman and the master are involved in a romance, which can’t be consummated until the secret is uncovered and robbed of its power.

Clearly Gothic stories are highly gendered — think of the young innocent woman (and children) in danger, or the brooding Gothic heroes like Rochester and Heathcliff. But more than that, it’s always a woman coming into the man’s house.

So what’s up with that?

What This House Needs is a Woman’s Touch

Maybe This Time coverThe Gothic house is cold, run-down, loveless…kind of like its master. Only the young woman can turn it into a home and rescue the children (and, if it’s a romance, warm the heart of the Gothic hero). Sometimes she fails — as in The Turn of the Screw or Wuthering Heights. Sometimes she succeeds — as in Jane Eyre or Maybe This Time, Jennifer Crusie’s modern-day retelling of The Turn of the Screw.

(Side note: Maybe This Time is quite different in tone — it’s got heavy romantic-comedy elements — so don’t pick it up expecting a dark, broody psychological horror tale, even if many of the plot elements are the same.)

But the young woman isn’t always a virginal, innocent type. Jane Eyre is virginal, all right, but she’s pretty cold herself, thanks to her own upbringing as an orphan (in a cheerless boarding school run by a harsh master — almost a Gothic mansion in its own right); it takes meeting Rochester for her to develop passion. Andie, the heroine of Maybe This Time, isn’t young — she’s already been married once — but she’s certainly cheerier than the other denizens of the house.

The Maiden and the Crone

Jane Eyre coverYou’ve heard of the mythical three stages of womanhood, yes? Maiden, mother, crone?

If we can accept that the young woman is more-or-less a maiden, who develops into a mother (and wife) over the course of the story, then what about the crone?

Well, as it happens, the young woman usually isn’t the only woman in the story. Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Turn of the Screw (and Maybe This Time) all have a housekeeper who isn’t able to keep the house running as it should. Of course, she’s not the mistress of the house. She’s also not young and marriageable — which makes her the crone, and therefore somehow unable to provide a “woman’s touch”.

The Madwoman in the Attic

I love how this cover screams "horror pulp", unlike the Jane Eyre cover, which screams "serious literature". Wuthering Heights has some fun pulp-y covers too.

I love how this cover screams “horror pulp”, unlike the Jane Eyre cover, which screams “serious literature”. Wuthering Heights has some fun pulp-y covers too.

Besides the young woman and the crone, there’s one more female trope in Gothic fiction: the proverbial “madwoman in the attic”. That’s (the first) Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre and Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (though interestingly enough, Great Expectations has a male hero). You could also argue to include the governess in The Turn of the Screw, who turns from maiden to madwoman over the course of the story — a common reading is that the ghosts she sees are hallucinations.

So what’s wrong with these women?

In the standard approach, they’re symbols of repressed feminine power. For example, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys retells Mrs. Rochester’s story from her own point of view, which exposes racial issues as well as feminist ones.

They’re also symbols of broken transitions and unfulfilled roles. Miss Havisham’s fiance left her, which is why she wanders around in her wedding gown for decades. Mrs. Rochester has gone mad early in her marriage (which may or may not be Mr. Rochester’s fault, depending on your reading) and is therefore unable to fulfill her role as wife. In Maybe This Time, one of the ghosts plays double duty as the “madwoman” due to her untimely death.

Again, it takes the maiden-turned-mother to put things to rights.

Next week, we’ll delve into Gothic stories for younger readers and examine some interesting edge cases…

Your turn! What do you think of my theories? Am I out to lunch? What’s your take on the feminine and the Gothic? Which Gothic novel is your favourite?

You might also enjoy my review of the Gothic film The Woman in Black.

Best of Turtleduck Press, Vol. 1If you liked this post, check out the latest anthology from Turtleduck Press, which features TWO Gothic short stories — one from me and one from Kit Campbell, whose novel Shards is out next month.