Invisible Sun

This is a short story written for #BlogBattle over at http://rachaelritchey.com/blogbattle/

The theme for this story is ‘Indiscriminate’ This is my fiction piece.

 

 

Tomorrow is my birthday. Getting older is inevitable, I know, but does it have to be so boring? Maybe for other people getting older is some kind of journey, something they share with a loved one or friends, but  me? I’d rather eat sand.

 

Okay, stay with me because I’m about to tell you something very strange. I live in a desert wasteland. Plenty of people live in a desert wasteland, yes, but when I was fifteen years old, I slipped indiscriminately into a void occupied by said desert wasteland. Sand stretches infinitely in all directions and the sky is forever black. It’s not the black of night or a permanent marker; it’s the empty black of a cardboard box or an vacant theatre. The sky is empty, and I mean that both in the way that there is nothing in it and that there is no substance to it. It’s just black; just a void that hangs over sand.

I’ve been here for ten years. Happy Birthday to me.

 

I made a joke earlier. I actually do have to eat sand to stay alive. If anyone thinks that’s weird then I would gladly change places so they can experience the sand. It’s not bad, but it’s not good. Hey, people eat mushrooms and livers, why can’t I eat sand?

 

My mother and father were both Professors at Yale. One night, we were invited to a fundraiser on campus at an enormous mansion, a mahogany beast that had many previous owners; Mark Twain and Groucho Marx among them. That night, however, the Drama Department was auctioning items from the previous owner before they turned the mansion into a new campus library for yet-to-be translated Greek plays. The man who owned the house, famous filmmaker and Oscar winner Pytor Sansk, had died only a few weeks before. Sansk’s film career began with artsy, black and white films that explored death and loss before he moved to a focused, magically staged series of films in color that explored death and loss. Each piece was set in a different country, in a different area of history, but kept a through line of actors and story. As the auction crept into its fourth hour, I decided to explore. I slipped upstairs, where I found Pytor’s office; an enormous room with an oversized telescope, a skylight that stretched across the entire ceiling, and walls of storyboards.  I had found a piece of the man left behind, not valuable enough to sell for money but valuable enough not to touch. I poked around for close to an hour, sifting through old scripts and examining Pytor’s library. It was there I found the indiscriminate catastrophe that would doom me here: a door, marked with an upside down triangle with three vertical lines through it. It sat between two shelves of Shakespeare plays, old and grey; an incongruous post-it note attached that simply read: NO.

I didn’t listen to the post-it note. I walked through the door.

 

Mostly, I just keep walking. I have a playlist of songs in my head that I sing. Today, I’m going through all The Police albums I remember. My older brother, well, half brother, was a huge Police fan. He used to come over for dinner every Wednesday night and, after coffee with my parents, sit and listen to music with me, determined to make sure I did not succumb to the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears of the world. So today, it’s Ghosts in the Machine, and then maybe to Synchronicity from there. All the while, walk, walk, walk.

 

Is it healthy to daydream about your first crush for ten years straight? My answer is yes, but I’ve also been without human contact for ten years, so judge me all you want. I was in love with this girl, Maya, and maybe I still am, but is it love at 14? We dated for about half a year before she broke up with me because her family was going to move. She didn’t move, but after that we never really got back together. Actually, my favorite memory of her isn’t even from when we were together. It’s from later, about a week or two before I made my indiscriminate mistake of walking through that damn door. Don’t laugh at me, but we were on a band trip. On the bus ride back, my best friend Ryan ditched me for the cute blonde girl who played first trumpet, but Maya made a seat for me. We made some small talk in the afternoon sun that stretched across our laps before Ryan came to ask some advice. When he left, Maya had buried herself in a book, so I grabbed my CD player, A Rush of Blood to the Head by Coldplay, and my headphones. The next thing I knew, my eyes pulled themselves down like divers into the sea, and I fell asleep. I woke up as the last song on the CD began and found my head had slipped onto Maya’s shoulder. My eyes flickered open but I immediately closed them. She wasn’t asleep, but nor was she reading, just staring out the window, a blur of green moving past her. A rush of old emotions came to me; the feel of her hand in mine, sitting next to her at the piano, how she smiled even when I didn’t say anything funny.  She hadn’t moved my head or tried to wake me up when it slipped there. Instead, she let me rest, let some part of me stay attached to her. She let us both slip into memories, just for a little while. It didn’t change anything between us, but it was a silent acknowledgement that we did have something, that we were right to feel how we felt, that in the quiet parts of the afternoon, she thought about me too.

I wish I could thank her for that.

 

 

This morning, I stopped walking. Why? Why today, of all days? Because I heard a voice. Someone else is here! Someone else among the empty black and the infinite sand! I’ve gone insane, at this point in time that is an inevitable destination, but I swear on every grain of sand below my feet that I recognize that voice.
I just have to find her.

 

The Gravity of Ken Sulane- Part II (Short Story)

“They all have a story or a grudge or a debt,” Ken said, locking eyes with the god. “They’ve always come, my whole life, so forgive me if I’m a little sick trying to make up for something someone who lived hundreds or thousands of years before I did.”

“You don’t understand, Ken. This is coming for you regardless of you accept or not. You don’t need to accept or decline, it will affect you either way. You see, back-”

The large, red bearded man cut Apollo off. “Oh, so you’ve accepted his quest then?” he accent was thick, not quite Irish, not quite Scottish, not quite easy to understand.

“No, I haven’t Brian.” Ken said wearily.

“Lad, how could you?” Brian whined.

“How could I what? I haven’t done anything!” Ken protested.

“The god said.” The giant Samurai noted, stepping forward. “If you accept to right the wrongs he brings you, please, reconsider my plea-“

“There is still our matter to be settled!” The Renaissance man spat. “Ken, your great ancestor, Antonio Di Siricusa is the true artist and creator of the works attributed to Michelangelo!”

“I’m sure he’s not.” Ken said testily.

He is not allowed to go anywhere!” All twelve of the shadowy figures that hung from the ceiling said in a wavering, robotic voice. “You must pay for the sins of Huang Zhiyuan,. The feeble tendrils of your life belong to us. Ken Sulane, we are owed a soul that must come to the netherworld, at the last gate at the base of the Mountain of Spirits.”

“Yeah, I’m not going. I’m never going with you guys, so you can stop waiting.”

It is not a choice, Ken. You will come.”

“I won’t.”

You will.

“You cannot take him,” said the woman that had been talking with the Renaissance man. “Kenneth, you must come and save me. I have awaited the prophecy to be fulfilled, for a man of your bloodline to rescue me from my imprisonment.”

You will come.

“Leave him be!” she implored the floating figures.

“Hilda,” Ken said. “We’ve talked about this. It’s 2016, you are a strong woman and you don’t need a man to rescue you! Also, you’re dead.”

The Union soldier spoke up, his wife grasping his arm. “Ken, you promised you’d help find our lost war treasures. As your great-great-great grandfather, I think I take precedent.” Ken’s great-great-great grandmother nodded frantically.

“YOU MUST HELP FIND MY TREASURE THAT YOUR ANCESTOR, THE FIERCE AND BEAUTIFUL TSUWEI, HID FOR ME,” the Dragon roared from outside.

“We would like our treasure!” Great-great-great-Grandfather protested.

“I WOULD ALSO LIKE HIS TREASURE,” the Dragon yelled.

Ken’s great-great-great-Grandmother harrumphed loudly.

From the middle of the room, a dark man faded in from nothingness. He was a warrior, armed with a thin, ovular shield and a pointed, sharpened spear.

He was so tall that he needed to kneel to speak with the sitting Ken, which he did, opening his arms wide.

“I implore you again, many-great grandson of mine, to find my brother, your many-great uncle, my assassin, the one who took from me my life with poison, and regain our rightful throne.”

Ken sighed. “I’m sorry man, but like I keep saying, I really think you have the wrong Ken Sulane.”

Apollo tried again. “Ken, I apologize for what is clearly an ongoing problem with your bloodline, but-”

Ken laughed, unhinged a little. He stood and walked to the bed, where he scratched Wixon behind the ears. “It’s more than a problem, Apollo. You want to talk about my bloodline? Thanks to all of you, I can trace every movement of every ancestor I ever had! Who they screwed over, who they screwed, what they made or lost, what insane magical beast they befriended or made an enemy of. My father’s ancestors came from Greece, wise politicians and rumored to be of a god’s bloodline, someone I’m sure you knew Apollo. Probably someone who did something you’re here to warn me about! Right? Well they moved from Greece to Italy, to the Greek colony of Syracuse, later Siracusa during the time of the Romans, where they stayed for many, many years before moving North to Ireland sometime in the 1600s. There they met the other component of my father’s ancestry, as evidenced by Big Red Brian over here. They narrowly avoided the famine of the 19th century by about 80 years, moving around 1800 to America where they’ve stayed ever since.”

Apollo’s patience was wearing thin. “Yes, Ken.”

“Then my mother? She traces her family back to China, to the earliest known peoples there. Apparently someone pissed off a bunch of ancient floating shadows so they won’t leave me alone, as well as hid a Dragon’s treasure for him.”

“HELLO,” the Dragon said again, more cheerily this time.

“In the meantime they moved to Japan. I know this because I get more ghostly kitsune spirits than anyone should have, not to mention Mr. Samurai the Giant there. They moved back to China at some point and then from there to California during the Gold Rush. In between that, my ancestors really got around. If you’ll notice there is a fully armored Dragoon on horseback outside that has sworn to protect me and my kin from any harm as long as I live, the ghost of a Great Dane, who’s purpose here is still unknown to me and this fucking gnome who will not stop snoring and…. just wake the fuck up! Come on seriously, who sleeps this long WAKE UP!!! So no. No, no no Apollo, I really don’t care. I cannot add another. I am full. No Vacancy. Please. Please I beg you to leave me alone.

I’ve never had a normal life. I never had a normal childhood. When I was 13, a Pegasus came to me and told me I, by proxy of my ancestors, was his true owner. He tried to follow me everywhere and at first, it was amazing. How many other kids have a flying horse? He, by the way, was the one that told me you’re the last of the Greek gods. We had fun for a few years, but after everything, after all the people and creatures that came to me, I couldn’t stand to look at him anymore. It made me feel sick, like I made a Taco Bell run at 4 in the morning. A few months ago I sent him to the moon. I told him I needed a very important rock and off he went, flying higher and higher until he was just a small white speck. I sent a fucking horse to space, Apollo, because I am so burnt out on hearing about my ancestors and whatever it is that they did. I don’t even know if that Pegasus can breathe in space! There could be a dead flying horse on the moon for all we know. I can’t handle it anymore, Apollo. I am only human and I just do not have the capacity for this. ”

“Ken,” Apollo said, and it was not a question or even simply his name, but a command ushered into the world for the first time where it cemented itself as a force, hanging in the air for a moment, tense and sharp. “You do not have a choice.”

Apollo began to explain, but he barely moved an inch before the breeze in the windows faded and Ken’s room systematically, inch by inch, blackened. Ken and his nuisances remained as a large, motley group, floating in the nothingness of a blank, black canvas.

“Shit. What is this?” Ken asked.

Apollo shook his head. “What I tried to warn you of.”

There was nothing all around Ken, but he still felt as though he were standing on solid ground. His brain, however, screamed to any synapses that would listen that Ken was falling, that there was nothing beneath him and he should currently be panicking; finding any way to survive a fall into an abyss that apparently did not exist. Ken felt a sort of dizzying seasickness. He closed his eyes, but found he couldn’t tell if they were open or closed. The darkness seemed to contract for a brutal moment before expanding. Ken opened his eyes and saw earth, the size of a marble, hanging in the sky. It grew as he watched it, until he found himself standing under the Earth, slowly spinning on its axis like an exhibit in a dark, forgotten room of a museum.

It was different than it looked in pictures, in part because Ken’s brain couldn’t quite process that he was staring at the planet he should be standing on and in part because of the giant, robed Lizard Man holding the earth on its shoulders. The Moon hung in the sky near the Lizard Man’s head; a ghostly after-image of the Earth.

The Lizard Man peered down through a pair of golden slits Ken supposed were eyes. Its tongue flitted through the air like a dragonfly. It locked eyes with Ken and from somewhere deep inside, rumbled a growl that rumbled its way to a roar.

“Thermistocles!” it shouted at Ken.

“No, Vrssa, this is not Thermistocles,” Apollo called to the creature.

“Thermistocles!” it shouted again. “The time has come for you to fulfill your promise to me. It is your turn to hold the earth!”

“What happened to Atlas?” Ken asked.

“Your ancestor, Thermistocles, was tasked by Hera with killing Atlas,” Apollo explained. “But he needed someone to hold the earth in the meantime. He convinced Vrssa, a Lizard man from the Nile delta to hold the earth while he disposed of the Titan. In return, he would give Vrssa Ra’s golden scepter.”

“Let me guess,’ Ken said. “He never had a scepter. He told scaley-face over there that he’d come back and never did. And Atlas probably paid him off not to kill him.”

“Yes,” Apollo said, impressed.

“Why don’t you ask Heracles!?” Ken called to the serpent.

“Don’t-“ Apollo began, but Vrssa let out a primal, guttural roar.

“YOU DARE SPEAK TO ME OF HERACLES?”

“Heracles killed Vrssa’s wife,” Apollo explained.

“Okay, sorry! I’m sorry!” Ken said. “Listen, Vespa,”

“Vrssa,” Apollo corrected.

“Whatever. I’m not Thermistocles. My name is Ken and I’m not going to hold the Earth for you.”

“You look like Thermistocles!” Vrssa growled, squinting so much that its eye slits almost closed.

“No, Thermistocles was my great ancestor. But I have no plans of making up for whatever it is he promised you. See these people with me? They’re waiting for the same thing you are, but it’s never going to happen.”

“Thermistocles or not, it is your responsibility to take the earth from me and give me the Scepter of Ra.”

“It is not my responsibility!” Ken bristled. “Vrssa, no one has to hold the world! No one, including you, has to hold the Earth because there is a thing called gravity! Just put the earth down!”

“I cannot!” Vrssa cried. “If I put it down, it will tumble out of the sky and I will lose my hordes of gold, my salt mines, and the favor of Set!”

“I can’t imagine any of those things are there anymore,” Ken muttered.

“If you do not take the earth from me, as was promised, and give me the Scepter of Ra, as was also promised, I will disembowel you and feed you your organs in small pieces before using your skull to pick your coagulated blood from my teeth.”

“Oh,” Ken said.

“Um,” Apollo said.

“EW,” the Dragon said.

Apollo cleared his throat. “Vrssa, please, there is no need for that. Ken will take the earth from you.”

“The fuck I will!” Ken cried. “No one needs to hold the earth! There is gravity to hold it up!” Ken waved his arms in the air emphatically, moving from person to person in an unwavering, non-determined zigzag. “I don’t understand why that is hard concept. I don’t understand why you all want to live in the past, to live forever focused on one deed or one act a long dead ancestor of mine may or may not have perpetrated. It’s not the past anymore, there is no treasure and no debts to be settled, there is no need for gods and warriors! There is gravity! No matter what, there is always gravity! But none of you know this! No one bothers to find anything out about now, about what governs the world now. You can’t keep yourselves in the past and drag me back there with you. Feel the gravity! Okay, maybe not here because we seem to be standing in the atmosphere, but you know what I mean.

I will not take the earth. I will not, under any circumstance, avenge anything or anyone, I will not find treasure or travel to the gate of the dead or the valley of the lost or whatever other depressing fucked place you want me to go to!  I won’t put up with any more bullshit from the past!” Ken turned, locking eyes with Apollo. “Is that clear!?”

Apollo did not say anything, but kept his eyes locked with Ken’s.

“HE MAKES THIS SPEECH ONCE A MONTH. YOU DON’T HAVE TO LISTEN TO HIM IF YOU DON’T WANT.” The Dragon said to Apollo, attempting to whisper but failing.

“I never do,” The Renaissance man said. The others murmured their agreements. The ghost of the Great Dane barked once. The gnome still snored.

Ken sighed.

“Fine. I’ll take the earth.”

“Ken, you can’t.” Brian said. “It will crush you. You’re only mortal.”

Ken stepped forward, growing in size with each step he took towards Vrssa. By the time he reached the Lizard Man, he towered over the retile, towering enough to take the earth from the Lizard and rest it atop his shoulders. Apollo’s mouth hung open. The others gasped as the Dragon shouted “WOW!”

Vrssa grew smaller as he walked away from the earth, rolling his shoulders and cracking his joints. He grinned a reptilian grin; all teeth and pencil tongue, before jumping from space back to the earth, presumably to find no gold, no salt mines and no crocodile god Set. Ken stood, massive and glowing, no strain on his face as he held the earth, a blue and green jewel that spun ever so slowly. Continents brushed Ken’s back, his hair touched mountains and oceans. From somewhere on the moon, Apollo swore he heard a horse whinny.

“Ken,” Apollo said. “Are you okay?”

Ken did not respond, but instead locked eyes with the god and, in one breathless movement, dropped the earth.

No one moved.

The earth did nothing. It hung in space happily, spinning slowly, undisturbed and content to continue its existence with or without someone holding it.

Ken shrunk back to his normal size as the others admired the earth spin. Ken joined them, space slowly fading away as Ken’s room became their state of existence.

“I told you,” Ken said.  “Gravity.”

Wixon barked happily upon finding herself back in her room. The others seemed unfazed by what had happened, as they resumed earlier conversations and activities.

Ken sat on the bed next to Wixon. “I told you, we don’t need anyone to hold up the earth anymore. We’ve figured out those inexplicable fears we used to have. We don’t need debts and vengeance and spirits. We have gravity.”

He paused, staring at the floor.

After a long time, he looked up and examined Apollo with a dense concentration. “We don’t need you,” he said finally.

It stung the god, Ken could see it in his face.

“I’ll leave you.” Apollo said. Ken made a fist and pounded his leg just once, grinding his teeth.

“Still,” he said before Apollo could move. The god eyed him with a seasoned wariness. “I guess I should have listened to you from the start instead of complaining. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” the god said, his eyes like bright suns.

“Come back if you’d like, preferably without a Lizard Man.” Ken said. Apollo nodded and, like the last rays of sunset, disappeared from the room. Ken could see the light outside that had not entirely faded.

Apollo stood outside Ken’s window, a Dragoon o horseback eying him suspiciously, the great Dragon floating in the sky like a fiery kite. He heard Ken pluck a few chords on his guitar.

Ken’s voice carried outside the window in the summer sunset. He sang:

“And though I sleep tonight without my crown

Gravity could not weigh me down.”

Does a Cyclops make a book Science Fiction or Fantasy? Part III

If you missed them, check out Part I and Part II!

Now, on with the review!

Mirkwood Schmirkwood: A few days a week, publishers send the store a box of uncorrected proofs, advance reader copies of books, for us to read before they are published. I’ve found a few great books through these ARCs, including Gary Corby’s Marathon Games. In January, I opened a box of books and pulled out something interesting; The Vorrh. The title alone caught my eye at first and I flipped it over for a quick plot summary.

I smiled large and announced to my co-workers, “Oh this has Andy written all over it.” A quick summary from the back promised a mythical forest in colonial Africa filled with demons and angels, a Cyclops raised by robots, and the blending of fiction and real historical figures.

Fantasy, a little bit of science fiction and a dash of historical fiction- just the way I like my books. You can keep your stories of a husband losing his job and confronting who he is and what kind of man he wants to be, I’ll take the Cyclops, thank you very much.

The author’s bio also caught my eye. “B. Catling is a poet, sculptor, painter, and performance artist.” That was interesting. Catling is obviously an artist fueled by creativity; I anticipated a wide breath of imagination and passion in this work.

Well, The Vorrh certainly has that, but it felt more like an art exhibition than a complete novel. Did I like the book? Yes. But I didn’t love it.

Let’s discuss the plot before moving on. The book opens with four lengthy quotes, an important part of any book worth reading and pondering. They act almost like acknowledgements in a work of non-fiction; a bridge not only into what the work will explore, but a glimpse into where the author drew both inspiration and what the author feels is most important to frame the work. Catling quotes Zen in the Art of Archery, German Ethnologist Leo Frobenius’ Paideuma, Heart of Darkness and Rudyard Kipling’s Gertrude’s Prayer.

We then open with a “naked and shriveled” Frenchman in a hotel bathroom. Great. My favorite. The man is revealed to be Raymond Roussel, a real life French writer and poet. He then dies.

So! Off to an exciting start.

I realized something very quickly when I began the novel:

It was going to take 100 or so pages to really get into. This is a result in the novel focusing more on character than plot. In fact, the book lacks a traditional plot; each character plays out their own story, with almost all keeping The Vorrh, the dense magical forest, as a center of their story. Books like this always take a while to immerse the reader because they rely on character development but  take a long time to introduce and develop each character.

This is not a bad thing, but it can be a bit tedious. Imagine a story that is centered more on plot than characters; something like The Empire Strikes Back. We are introduced to many characters through the story, but we see how each relates to the plot set out before us; that is, we are not introduced to Yoda at the beginning of his story, but rather in the midst of a plot involving Luke. We as an audience must identify with Yoda’s character quickly and are allowed to do so because he plays a direct part in the action currently going on. Catling’s novel does just the opposite because, well, there really is no action at hand. There are events, but not an over-arching conflict that each character is introduced to, so we don’t have to immediately connect with a character.

In the first chapter, Catling writes in first person. This is reserved for one specific character, a renegade British soldier named Peter Williams, but this doesn’t follow through the whole book.

Joining Williams in the forest is a native man who led a rebellion against the army Williams served, Tsungali. Also in the forest is William Maclish, leader of the slave workforce of the forest, the Orm. Part of his success he owes to Doctor Hoffman, who, in a strange scene, offers Maclish’s miscarried baby to the Orm, gaining their trust for Maclish.

There is also the mysterious Sidrus, a Voldemort-like man who holds some sort of incredible powers, but also wants Williams to cross the forest safely.

On the outskirts of the forest lies the fictional city German mercantilist city of Essenwald (the words for ‘eat’ and ‘forest’ combined in German). In it, we have: Ishmael, a Cyclops who lives in a large, abandoned house and is raised by robots, Ghertrude Tulp, a rich young woman who discovers Ishmael, Sigmund Mutter, caretaker of the mysterious house, Cyrena Lohr, a blind woman who finds her fate intertwined with Ghertrude and Ishmael.

Catling uses two real people from the time period, Raymond Roussel, a real life French writer and explorer and Eadweard Muybridge, a real life English photographer.

Eadweard Muybridge and Raymond Roussel.

The plot of the novel moves in different places; we follow Peter Williams as he attempts to transverse the Vorrh using his bow, once his priestess wife, as a guide. He is pursued by Tsungali, hellbent on stopping Williams, and by Sidrus, hellbent on stopping Tsungali.

Meanwhile, in Essenwald, Ghertrude discovers Ishmael the cyclops one day after breaking into the house where he is kept. She boards off the robots who raised him in the basement and becomes his teacher. But Ishmael wants more, and a mardi-gras style festival allows him the chance to get out, in disguise, where he changes Cyrena’s life in a dramatic way. They have their share of dealings with the Doctor and Maclish, who, deep in the forest, face a slave revolt.

Catling also turns to a bit of historical fiction, using the aforementioned Raymond Roussel and his expedition into the forest. He leaves his assistant, Charlotte, behind and enters the forest with a local guide. When Roussel is separated from his guide, he finds the forest takes more than it gives.

Then there is Muybridge. Catling weaves fact and fiction into the photographer’s life as he quests for a life devoid of other humans but full of perfect photography.

To go into more detail about each plot would end in me giving you a play by play of each chapter, which is something I’m not going to do. The Vorrh is one of those books where a good deal happens but it’s not all connected or entirely clear what everything means. There is a little bit of everything in the book; there is some action, some adventure, romance, history, class struggle, science, fantasy, religious allegory, horror, and a bit of comedy. Catling is adept at bringing these elements together, and it is part of what makes the book interesting, it’s just that the novel doesn’t do any of this really well. I felt immersed in the book, but not connected to it.

Catling’s characters all seem particularly cold and distant. I found the only character I liked was Williams, but his story was sparse and a bit slow moving for me to really connect. In fact, connection is something that The Vorrh severely lacked for me; the book has so many plots that intertwine, but there is no sense of an overarching through-line between the characters. The themes and imagery run through everyone’s story, but I really missed some sort of large climax that touched on every character.  Even the characters have a hard time connecting to each other. Each one comes across as sort of an ugly portrait of themselves.

This ugliness is frustrating because Catling can certainly immerse the reader in the picture he creates. He is a great writer who colors his landscapes and characters in so much depth, but the plot does not share this depth. My only complaint about Catling’s writing is that it tends to be unnecessarily graphic and crass sometimes. I’m not a squeamish person when reading, violence doesn’t bother me, but there was one scene that was so graphic in its violence it left me feeling uncomfortable. What’s worse is that I finished this scene riding the subway to work and had to leave the train as I closed the book on the violence passage. I needed to keep reading to reset my brain a little bit, but I instead went into work with this feeling washing over me. It was a strange first half hour at the store.

There was no other time when the violence got to out of hand for me, but I did feel that sometimes Catling was being a bit too graphic for the shock value. The best example is a scene that takes place in a bar. Sidrus has come trying to find the assassin on Williams’ trail.  In the midst of the action of this scene, Catling stops to enter the mind of a sleeping dog. The passage is awkward, and I quote it to show this, “The tension in the stuffy room was congested with human silence and the twitching of the dog’s dream. Sweet pushing inside her pushing pumping the bitch clasped hard by me pushing over and over again…its smell twisted backwards my cock facing out she the other side of me now tail to tail pumping…uncontrollable reflex air fuck bending bending fucking…” and so on. This dream goes on and on and while I must say that Catling captures what a dog’s brain must surely be like, the dream advances the plot in no way and is a jarring interruption. It feels placed there for shock value; as if Catling just wanted to find a reason to write ‘cock’ and ‘fuck’. Perhaps it fits into the theme of nature’s dominance the book has, but if this scene were not in the book, we would not lose anything. We then move on from the dog after that, its psyche never explored again. What was the point of that?

What do you dream of, oh Noodle?

I found myself asking that question a few times while reading and it led me to a frustrating conclusion. Nothing in this book is an accident; there is a definite structure to the way Catling wrote the book. Each choice I had a problem with was deliberate. This may be his first book, but Catling comes from a background as an artist, and it is clear that he put a good deal of thought into how he wanted to book to be constructed. What frustrates me is that although I recognize this, but it does not make the book better for me.

That’s the funny thing about art; some people find a real connection to a piece of art that others don’t. Much in the same way a record can be a friend’s favorite but just seem okay to you. It’s the same way I feel about Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. It’s not that I don’t like it and it is a great album, it just doesn’t touch me in any way. I just think it’s a solid album. I feel a deep connection to Kurt Vonnegut’s work, but some people can’t really connect to it.

I can see that Catling put a good deal of effort into constructing all elements of this novel in a certain way, it’s just not something that pleased me artistically. I enjoyed the book and I am glad I read it, but I most likely won’t pick it up again. It was good, but not a favorite of mine.

I found that after reading it, I just couldn’t place my finger on what Catling was trying to say. There was a definite theme of Man vs. Nature, a one sided bout in Catling’s book that he used to drive home the point that no one, especially humans can conquer nature; nature is constantly conquering the characters in this book and they are powerless to stop it. There was also some sort of religious symbolism I couldn’t quite grasp. In the novel, it is said that Adam, the first man, lives deep in the Vorrh and that creatures called the Erstwhile are actually angels. I felt these plot points were added in to flesh out the world a bit more but failed in doing so. It seemed more like the angels were dangerous and that Adam was bigfoot; does this make religion also no contender for nature? Does Catling mean the two manipulate each other? Again, it was lost to me.

It wasn’t the sort of book I found fun to ruminate upon after I finished as well. Unlike Murakami’s work, which also leaves the reader with the same sense of loose ends, The Vorrh was too muddled for me to take anything from.

My version did not come with an introduction, but I did find the book’s introduction, written by Alan Moore, who says of the book “Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy and ranking among the best pieces every written in that genre…” I highly, highly disagree with this. We’re fifteen years into this century, forget that fact that I don’t think this is that epic of a work, we haven’t had one landmark piece of fantasy? I know a few writers who would disagree with that. I also don’t feel it is among the best pieces ever written in the genre. It isn’t even a truly fantasy; it bridges a few different genres. I feel that it certainly doesn’t hold up to Tolkien or Pratchett or even the world J.K. Rowling created.

I DON’T KNOW WHAT LITERARY GENRE I FIT INTO!! I’M SO MAD I THINK I’LL EAT A GREEK HERO.

And yet, even with all of this, I must say I do recommend the book if it sounds like something you’ll like. If any of the characters or plot elements I discussed intrigue you in any way, pick it up. It’s not one I’ll recommend to just anyone, but The Vorrh  is the kind of book that has the potential to make a large impact on the right person. Somewhere, sometime, this book will be someone’s favorite book. For me, it’s just a novel. It reads like Heart of Darkness with a hefty dose of strange and wonderful characters.

And so, in the end, where does The Vorrh fall? Science Fiction or Fantasy? It’s really both. I don’t think there is enough of either genre in the story to tilt the scales. There is the highly imaginative setting of the forest and the creatures within, but there is also a good deal of technology. Ishmael the Cyclops may make it seem like fantasy, but he is one of many characters and doesn’t stand out enough to make it pure Fantasy. I don’t think it has to be either, and that’s where the strength of the novel lies. Maybe The Vorrh is the perfect book for the ever ambiguous Sci-Fi/Fantasy shelf in bookstores all over the world.

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Official Whale and the Petunias mascot Noodle contemplating the mysteries of The Vorrh.

Unrelated book thought of the week: Spring is finally here after a harsh…well, February, really.  One thing I love about living in New York City is that I can finally experience four seasons. I grew up in Central New York, a place that doesn’t seem like the weather would be too bad. But where I grew up, winter lasts through April and May doesn’t really offer much spring. I have memories of going away for Spring Break in April with snow on the ground and returning to the same. I remember snow on Mother’s day a few times. And Fall is much the same; we get Fall in October then November is winter.

Spring, you are a welcome sight.

In New York City, however, spring comes in April and Fall lasts so much longer. Sure the summers are hotter and the whole damn city smells like garbage, but I love having a Spring and a Fall, not 90 degree weather that falls away into 30 degree weather.

It’s amazing what a few degrees of Longitude can do for you. I love having four seasons.

Next time on the Whale and the Petunias: I take a trip back to college and examine and old favorite author from my days as a History Major: Bernard Bailyn and his new work Nine Essays Concerning History. You heard me everyone, back to college! Time to drink Scotch while everyone else is drinking crappy beer and some sort of blue alcohol, blast Fall Out Boy in my apartment and make everyone listen to it, walk through campus at 3 in the morning to print out papers, and seriously what the hell was that blue stuff everyone was drinking!!!?

Does a Cyclops make a Book Science Fiction or Fantasy? Part II.

If you missed Part One, https://thewhaleandthepetunias.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/does-a-cyclops-make-a-book-science-fiction-or-fantasy-part-i/

Books in TV: With season 2 of True Detective coming out, it’s nice to see that series creator Nic Pizzolatto’s first book of short stories, Between Here and the Yellow Sea is being reprinted in May. I’ve never read and of his work and I haven’t watched the show (I know, I know, I’m working on it. I will I will!) but when season 1 premiered, people asked for his book like crazy. I love when people take an interest in reading something beyond their favorite show. It was frustrating that I couldn’t help them pursue that.

Next time you’re watching your favorite show, take a look at who wrote it- or if it’s based on a book. You might find a hidden gem

Here’s one you might not know! Iron Chef America is actually based on Hemingway’s  The Sun Also Rises.

Mario Batali, based on Jack Barnes.

Books in the News: The trial of now convicted bomber Dzhkohar Tsarnaev is coming to a close, and author Masha Gesson has written one of the first, if not the first, book about the two brothers who were accused of bombing the Boston Marathon.  Her work, entitled  aims to explore the relationship between the brothers Tsarnaev’s upbringings and how their background, as Chechnens displaced and returned home, influenced their crime.

I remember the events of the bombing being extremely unsettling. It was the first attack of that nature I’ve experienced in my adult life; I was only 11 when the world Trade Centers fell. I remember that as possibly the single most terrifying and confusing world-scale event of my life. I have not read Ms. Gesson’s work, but I consider it a very important step in illuminating the two men who perpetrated this crime.  If I’ve learned anything about how Historiography can unfold after shocking and tragic events, it’s that they are often either skirted over or looked at without a critical lens; it is important to figure out what we can from both the event and the men who perpetrated it. My hope is that Masha Gesson’s book will keep this event in the critical eye and influence others, both historians and those with political power on the world stage to think critically about how we can make our world a safer place. Understanding and a dialogue influenced by critical thinking are the keys.

What can we learn after such tragedy?

Janet Napolitano reviewed the book for the New York Times and gave it a mostly positive review, but did write

For all her primary research, major questions elude Gessen: How and why did the two brothers shift from living somewhat aimless young lives to bombing the marathon? What was the relationship between the brothers? How, when and where was the plot hatched?

When we understand better what ­causes young men like Tamerlan and Dzhokhar to commit such acts, we will know better how to prevent them. And we must be resilient when such attacks occur, so that life returns to normal as soon as possible.

Despite this, I stand by Ms. Gessen’s work as an important piece for exactly the reason Napolitano writes in the last paragraph.

Retail Gripe of the Week: A week or so ago, this played out for me:

A customer, her friend and her husband are browsing in the store. Customer picks up circle scarf. “What is this?”

I respond, telling her it is a scarf.

She puts it on her head and wears it like a hood. Ignoring this, I offer:

Me: “I gave my fiancée one for Christmas and she loves it”

Customer’s friend: “And she still wants to marry you?”

Customer: “What is it? Am I wearing it wrong?”

BANG HEAD ON COUNTER. RINSE, REPEAT.

Ma’am, you’re.. you’re wearing the scarf INCORRECTLY!

Part III, including my review of The Vorrh, comes Friday!

Does a Cyclops make a Book Science Fiction or Fantasy? Part I.

Before I begin, let me pay tribute to a favorite web show of mine.

IT’S FANTASY/SCI-FI MOOOOOOOOOOOOOONTH!!

This is a shout out to the Fantasy themed month on ‘Continue,’ a weekly web show on YouTube where three funny guys play an older video game for about a little while and then discuss whether they’d continue playing or game over. Check it out at https://www.youtube.com/user/ContinueShow

There. Now!

In most bookstores, you’ll find the Science Fiction and fantasy section thrown together under Science Fiction, something that has always been strange to me. I remember going to big bookstores looking for Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett books and finding them under Science Fiction, a category that quite literally means Fiction that uses Science as a means of telling the story. Or, as our friendly Wikipedia puts it:

Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginative content such as futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life.

It’s okay. We’ll figure out this literary mystery together. Not Literary Mystery, that’s a different genre for a different month. Oh man this is confusing.

Well. That doesn’t sound much like Terry Pratchett to me. Or Neil Gaiman. Certainly Douglas Adams, another author I found in that section. But what about Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians? Sometimes I’ve seen his books, a trilogy that riffs Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, filed away under Science Fiction. It’s become a blanket term, much like ‘Indie’ has become a blanket term in music for any band with a certain sound, regardless of whether or not the music is produced independently or not on a major label. At my store all of these authors are on the same shelf which we’ve labeled Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. Even though we make the distinction that the shelf is for all three genres, Isaac Asimov and J.R.R. Tolkien sit side by side. (Metaphorically I mean. We still file authors alphabetically at the store. We are civilized, you know)

Even on this blog,I’ve set this month aside for Sci-Fi/Fantasy! Why! Why must these genres be bonded at the spine?

It’s because they offer a type of fiction that guarantees strange occurrences and fantastic worlds. Sure, there are quite a few books on the fiction shelf that offer the same thing; Master and Margarita  features a talking cat, A Christmas Carol is filled with talking ghosts, and David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas is found on many store’s fiction shelf. But the Science fiction/Fantasy genre offers more than that.

I personally like the guarantee of such things, but I lean towards the fantasy more than Science fiction.  I love a fantastic world with fantastic characters, especially stories based in mythology or strange creatures. Douglas Adams and some of Vonnegut’s sci-fi is about as far into that genre as I’ll go. I don’t have much interest in space and aliens on other planets, unless it is humorous.

When I picked up an Advanced Reader copy of The Vorrh, by poet, sculptor and performance artist B. Catling, I couldn’t resist, but I also couldn’t figure out where it fit in. The back of the book promised the book’s namesake was “a vast-perhaps endless-forest” in the heart of Africa. With characters such as “A Cyclops raised by robots.” Was it science fiction? Or did this vast Africa forest promise a modern mercantilism fueled Tolkien-like world for these characters to exist?

B. Catling

The Vorrh vs. 50 Shades of Grey: As of this month, we’ve sold 236 copies of 50 Shades of Grey. We have sold 0 copies of the Vorrh, mostly because it has not been released yet. Come May 5, we’ll see how it fares against the titan of literature that is 50 Shades of Grey. Well… titan of something. Literature is a bit too generous.

My guess? We’ll sell 237 copies in one day. Or 1. It’s a loose approximation.

Worst Literature related Social-Media Article of the month: April Fool’s day on Facebook is always a head-to-palm depression-inducing roller coaster ride. I’m sure you’ve experienced the same; every other person posts a ridiculous, clearly fake article that makes outrageous claims without bothering to check the date.

Not that it’s a common thing for Facebook users to check the source of the article they post; I’ve seen many people post an article from a clearly satirical website in a fit of incredulous rage, completely unaware of the source, but still. It’s April 1st! I don’t think Steven Spielberg is set to direct the My Little Pony movie. (Okay, I made that one up. Maybe I should’ve written that article?)

The most interesting article for me was the one floating around that claimed J.K. Rowling had admitted “Harry was a figment of Ron’s imagination.”

People fell for it like crazy! The article was clever and gave me a good chuckle, but it was clearly satirical.

What you may not know is that this is not new territory, dear internet. If you’re not familiar, this postulating of a crazy theory exists with all sorts of literature, television and movies on the internet. These fan theories are far too abundant.

I’m working on a theory that proves Pokemon is a retelling of Oliver Twist.

They pop up everywhere with all forms of art and media. Spongebob and his friends in Bikini Bottom are the product of nuclear testing? Ash Ketchum dies in the first episode and the entire series of Pokemon is his coma dream? Sully and Mike from Monsters Inc are Stalin and Hitler that suffered mutations as a result of nuclear bombs? Yup, it’s all there. That’s the sort of thing that exists. People make this stuff up all the time and purport it as being true. The internet gets a bit obsessive about this as people make newer, more ridiculous theories. But they are often debunked and usually just in good fun. There was a famous one that involved a haunted copy of the Legend of Zelda: the Majoras Mask referred to as ‘Ben Drowned.’ It’s not hard to make one, believe me.  In fact, I made up one of those examples.

Let me give this a shot:

Monsters Inc is actually our world, post-WWII and post atomic bomb attacks. Everyone was horribly mutated due to radiation, but those that survived knew enough to end the war and rebuild as best they could. Without electricity or nuclear power and without the resources to harvest sun, wind or water energy, top scientists (who survived due to their knowledge of the devastating effects of radiation) discover how to harness children’s screams using the power to travel to infinite dimensions via doors.

            Our heroes are actually two of history’s worst people: Sully is Joseph Stalin and Mike is Adolf Hitler. With the effects of radiation, no one can tell who anyone used to be. Mike and Sully don’t even know each other’s true identity. They have both sworn to be better people, but they are still hungry for power, lusting after the position of top scarer.

            The abominable snowman is actually FDR, set in self-isolation for not being able to stop nuclear war from descending upon the world. Randall is Joseph Goebbels, still as terrible as ever. It’s a story about secret redemption; that when the world falls apart, when nihilists get what they want, they can change. It’s a message to us all: even those that wish the world would burn can see the value in rebuilding.

Hey kids, we’re dispossessed dictators! Give us a hug!

Okay it’s not perfect, but it’s just the sort of thing people on the internet love to do. We like to stare into the abyss and find constellations. Actually, that’s backwards. They like to stare at the constellations, pretty clear in what they are but with room for imagination and personal connections, and find the abyss, the nothingness with no substance that is certainly impressive.

Also, Harry is imaginary. He’s a character from fiction. So the article was half right.

(Part II on Wednesday!)