Ode to Joy, Redux

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol

Wood engraving by Sol Eytinge, form the 1839 Ticknor and FIelds edition.
Wood engraving by Sol Eytinge, from the 1839 Ticknor and FIelds edition.

It’s the holiday season, full of stress and cookies and stress and family and stress. Part of me wants to hibernate until June and another part doesn’t want to miss all the fun. In honor of the holidays, I’m rerunning a post I wrote for school, a year and a half ago.

Please do not expect me to make sense or show any critical or dispassionate judgment. Ever since Mr. Magoo first introduced us, fifty years (plus a few months) ago, I have been in love with A Christmas Carol.

I own multiple hardcover editions of the book. (They all have different illustrations. Don’t judge.) I have copies of the movies starring Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, George C. Patton—excuse me—Scott, Patrick Stewart, Bill Murray, The Muppets, and, of course, Mr. Magoo.

I watch at least one, usually two, of the movies every December.

When I hit the ohmygawd, Christmas is almost here and I haven’t done any shopping and I hate wrapping and I’ll never be ready why don’t we just cancel it this year and if I’m forced to listen to another Christmas song I’m going to f&#$ing hurt somebody point, I read the book.

Afterward, I always feel like Christmas. I stop thinking about how awful taking down the tree is and remember that if I put it up, I have ornaments of Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim, and all three Ghosts to hang on it. Last year, when the budget was tight and I was worried about running my credit cards up with gift shopping, I read the book and spent the rest of the day baking cookies for gifts. I used a lot of chocolate. Everyone was happy. (I did buy toys for the wee ones, because they are the world’s cutest kids. The toys were the kind that flew around the house and made noise and annoyed parents. That’s what aunts are for.)

I’m not sure when I first read A Chirstmas Carol, but I know it was before I hit seventh grade, when Mrs. Peake had us read the story aloud as a class. Seventh graders aren’t known for their read-aloud skills. I didn’t care; I’d already read it and loved it. Mrs. Peake told us of the British tradition of Christmas ghost stories.1 There’s a good chance finding out some people got ghost stories while I got Andy Williams or Perry Como was responsible for part of my adolescent angst. (Now they get Doctor Who, and I get—oh, wait. Doctor Who. And hey, I still have A Christmas Carol. It’s all good.)

Wood engraving by Sol Eytinge, from the 1839 Ticknor and FIelds edition.
Wood engraving by Sol Eytinge, from the 1839 Ticknor and FIelds edition.

As a ghost story, Christmas Carol has its moments of terror: the phantoms in the night sky, the twins of Ignorance and Want, Scrooge’s horror at seeing his future and his legacy.2 Above all, it is a tale of redemption, and it makes me happy. Even thinking and writing about the book in April makes me happy. A Christmas Carol is Gerald McBoing-Boing/Tiny Tim’s Razzleberry Dressing.3

If you haven’t read the book, go read it. I don’t care how many movie or animated versions you’ve seen. It doesn’t matter if it’s not December. Read the book. If you are one of our country’s political or corporate leaders (is there any difference?), read it twice. Maybe three times. So many of those who spend the Christmas shopping season decrying the war on Christmas spend the other eleven months of the year embracing this attitude:

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Our politicians, corporations, and media could make the world a better place if they embraced Scrooge’s new attitude year round:

He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.

I suspect A Christmas Carol inspired much of my sense of social justice and my views in general. Thank you, Charles Dickens and Mr. Magoo.

After you read the real thing, look up the Mr. Magoo version. It, and the 1966 animated Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, narrated by Boris Karloff and directed by the late, great Chuck Jones, are the two best Christmas television specials ever.4

I’ll leave you with a little bit of joy from 1962’s Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, the first animated Christmas special made specifically for television. Why this clip? It makes me happy. I hope it has the same effect on you.

 

NOTES:

  1. Yes, in Mrs. Peake’s class I got Shirley Jackson and A Christmas Carol. And The Hobbit. Don’t think it was all fun and games and ghosts and Middle Earth. We also diagrammed sentences. Many, many sentences. Not to mention, we were all terrified of her.
  2. At four years old, I had no experience with death, and yet the scene where Future shows Scrooge (Magoo) his grave made me hide my face. It wasn’t the grave that scared me, it was Scrooge’s reaction. I knew this is something bad. A Christmas Carol may have helped form my taste in horror.
  3. Razzleberry is a combination of raspberries and blackberries. I don’t like raspberries; I adore blackberries. I think the latter cancels out the effect of the former. A Christmas Carol always makes me optimistic.
  4. I am detecting a pattern here. You don’t have to point it out to me.

Michael Rowe’s Wild Fell

Cover by
Wild Fell by Michael Rowe. Cover art by Eric Rohr. Cover design by Samantha Beiko.

Quiet Horror is a misnomer. Quiet Horror is quiet in the same way the whisper in the night—while you’re lying alone and awake—is quiet. Rather than relying on jump-scares, shock, or visceral imagery, Quiet Horror seeps under your skin and into your mind and doesn’t let go. Michael Rowe’s Wild Fell, a 2013 nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic, is Quiet Horror of the best sort.

The long prologue tells a tale of teenage summer romance, circa 1960. Teenage courtship is a popular horror trope, not only in movies and books but also urban legend. The experienced horror reader knows teenage passion never ends well, but Rowe’s atmospheric telling compels the reader forward to the inevitable end. The prologue both works as a stand-alone story and lays the base for the following story.

Jameson Browning, the protagonist, tells us, “I want to teach you about fear.” He begins with his childhood. In 1971, nine-year-old Jamie lives in an unhappy home, caught between his bitter mother and peacekeeper father. He has two friends, Lucinda, who insists on being called Hank despite her mother’s efforts to girl-ify her, and Amanda, who lives in his mirror, a little girl with Jamie’s face and voice, she is possibly a reflection of his own dark side. Amanda, at first a sympathetic and protective friend, goes too far, and the terrified Jamie banishes her from his mirror, his life, and his memory.

Jamie grows up and leads the life expected of him—college, a career as a teacher, marriage, divorce. His mother is long gone, and his father is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. Hank remains his only friend and source of unconditional love. After a devastating accident, Jamie is left unable to work but with a large financial settlement. He sees an ad for an island in northern Ontario, complete with early nineteenth-century mansion, and with vague intentions of turning it into a bed and breakfast purchases Blackmore Island and Wild Fell sight unseen. Fell, he tells Hank, as an adjective, means “of terrible or evil ferocity,” but he believes the house’s name comes from the meaning of the noun, “a hill or a stretch of high moorland.” At Wild Fell, Jamie discovers bridges between past and present, the supernatural and the natural, and the real and the unreal.

Like the Victorians, Rowe blends the uncanny with the everyday, and the disquieting effect of the supernatural is magnified. The image of Wild Fell and the cliffs of Blackmore Island soaring above Devil’s Lake is pure Gothic goodness, and once Jaime takes up residence in the mansion, the gothic-flavor of the story grows. As we meet the house—and it is a character in its own right—Rowe’s language takes on the voice of his predecessors. It’s easy to imagine a Brontë or Poe protagonist exploring the surprisingly preserved mansion. Jamie takes the Yellow Room as his bedroom. Painted rather than wallpapered, a sunny buttercup yellow deepened by age to saffron, Jamie’s presence there nonetheless calls to mind Charlotte Gilman Perkins and her heroine’s descent into madness.

In 1929, M.R. James, a master of the late Victorian ghost story, wrote, “Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one.” Reticence in horror literature is rarer today than in James’s time, but Rowe masters it and, as James suggested, it produces great effect. Violence and sexual imagery take place off stage or in dreams (for the most part,) and even the graphic—in context of the novel—is mild by current standards. Wild Fell’s power lies in suggestion. Rich imagery and dark atmosphere plant the seeds; anticipation and imagination nurture the growing terror.

Rowe explores contemporary themes—memory, both persistence and loss; gender roles, identity, and fluidity; and abuse, broken families, and damaged adults—and does so with a deft hand, weaving the subjects into the story rather than making them the story. Those who prefer non-stop action, monster battles, or buckets of blood in their horror may find Wild Fell slow going, but those who appreciate atmosphere, the slow burn of creeping dread, and the deeply disturbing rather than the shocking (and those who love a ghost story in the vein of The Turn of the Screw) will find much to love.

Wild Fell, by Michael Rowe.
ChiZine Publications, 2013.
Available in paperback and eBook from Chizine, and the usual sources.

John Dixon’s Phoenix Island

Phoenix IslandJohn Dixon attended the grad school program in which I’m currently enrolled. He was gone before I started, and other than on social media—where we once had a conversation about the joys of tomato sandwiches (fresh, homegrown tomatoes on toast with mayo and pepper, of course)—we’d never met. When Phoenix Island was released (January, 2014) it went on my To-Be-Read List, but until last month, hadn’t physically made it to my TBR Tower1. In June, I had an opportunity to not only purchase the book, but get it signed by the author. I took advantage of the opportunity.

About a week later, I picked it up, read the first chapter, and knew this was going to be one of those books. The ones that magnify my insecurities and make me wonder why I ever thought I could write. Why I’m wasting my time even trying. I was in the middle of revising a particularly tough part of my thesis novel, and my Evil Inner Voice didn’t need any encouragement. I put Phoenix Island away.

This morning, I left the house and forgot a key piece of my traveling technology arsenal. Other than my phone, with only a 50% charge, I was shut down for the day. No laptop, no iPad, limited Internet—but I did have a couple of books in my bag. Old fashioned, made from dead trees, real, low-tech, no battery or charger needed books. I pulled out Phoenix Island and started reading.

I didn’t even miss my technology. And I’m an addict.

Sixteen-year-old Carl, boxer and orphan, has spent years being shuffled around the foster care system and in and out of trouble. The trouble is always the same—beating the crap out of bullies. After sending a couple of small-town football stars to the hospital and taking the high school team out of contention before the season starts, he’s sentenced to Phoenix Island, a terminal facility. Carl is told this is his chance to turn his life around, either wipe the slate clean or end up in the state penitentiary. What at first appears to be a militaristic boot-camp turns out to be terminal in more than one sense of the word.

F. Paul Wilson’s cover blurb calls Phoenix IslandLord of the Flies meets Wolverine and Cool Hand Luke.” I can’t come up with a better description.

Phoenix Island is a thriller, with an underlying science fiction element, and the pacing is perfect. Through the first half, the story careens forward, and Dixon takes both his characters and his readers to the breaking point, then backs off, leaving us room to breath. But—although the Carl may be lulled into a sense of security, as readers, we don’t trust the calm. We know that we, and Carl, are being set up for something worse. The second half marches forward at a slower pace, but with no less suspense as the situation worsens and the tension mounts, making Phoenix Island difficult to put down.

Dixon is a former Golden Gloves boxer, and I have no doubt fans of the sport will find much to appreciate in his depiction of Carl’s skills. I’m no boxing fan. Although I can watch fictional bouts in movies, I can’t watch people pounding on each other in a real match without looking away. Literary fight scenes are more than jabs and punches and bobs and weaves. The author needs to pull the reader into the moment and make us not only see the choreography of the fight or feel the physical aspect of the conflict, but also experience the mental and emotional, Dixon does. I never looked away. As much as I sometimes wanted to, I had to stick with Carl through every moment.

And then there’s the scene with the spider and another with bugs. Scenes I don’t even want to think about. This is not a bad thing—it’s the result of Dixon’s fine writing.

Phoenix Island paperback
Cover of the forthcoming paperback edition.

Phoenix Island was published as a YA book, and would make a great gift for any young adults in your life, but do yourself a favor and read it yourself. Go. Do it now. You won’t regret it. Devil’s Pocket, the sequel, is set to arrive next spring, and I can’t wait.

Visit John Dixon on the web at his website or on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter at @johndixonbooks. Phoenix Island is available at Barnes and Noble and all the usual places in hardcover and e-book. The paperback is due out in December and is available for pre-order.

Phoenix Island
by John Dixon
320 pages. Gallery Books, a division of Simon and Schuster.

 

 

1. It passed pile status years ago.