Everyone who commented, shared, and linked up posts; see the Master Post to visit them or add your own (it’s not too late)
And YOU, for your interest and support. Whether you were an old friend or a new visitor, I’m so glad you could join us.
As usual, I’m already looking forward to next year…and I’ve selected the theme Dreams of Arthur, to focus on the many different ways fantasy and historical fiction writers have engaged with the Arthurian mythos. From Susan Cooper to Elizabeth Wein, T.H. White to Mary Stewart, so many of my formative reading experiences have been spent with these stories. What would you like to read from this genre? Do you have any favorites to recommend? What questions or topics would you be interested in discussing?
I hope you’ll share your feedback about this year, as well as any suggestions for the next, in the comments. Till next Halloween, I wish you a year of magical reading!
For our Witch Week readalong this year, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, I wanted to jump start the discussion with some other bloggers, and I was so grateful that Chris of Calmgrove and Brian of Babbling Books agreed to join me. Their thoughts greatly enhanced my own enjoyment of the book, and I’m delighted to be able to share them with you.
If you’ve read the book, please join the conversation in the comments, or link up your own reviews on the Master Post.
What were your first impressions?
Lory: At first, I was afraid this would be one of those books where I was not sure what was going on. And I did not make an immediate connection to the boys, finding it a bit hard to get into what was evidently a “boy’s book.”
Chris: I started to read this once in the past but stalled after a few chapters. This time, I’m going with the flow rather than straining to get at the narrative. As with a lot of magic realism I find I have to forget a factual reflection of everyday things and accept any dreamlike images. This is also at times pure prose poetry, wonderful metaphors and language (the train comparisons for example are quite striking).
Brian: I continue to love the prose and the imagery. Though I am able to follow most of what is going on in many places, like Lory, some passages baffle me. The woman in the coffin is a good example of this.
As for relatability, this is a major aspect to this story for me. The first time I read this book I think that I was around the boys’ age. Their lives so reminded me of my own. I lived in a semi-rural area, spent much of my time outside mostly socializing with a single friend. I also was very much into books and could also be found at the library.
This is now my third reading. I am three years short of Charles Halloway’s age. Wow!
What are Bradbury’s main concerns in this book? How does it reflect his own viewpoint?
Lory: As I got more into the story, I found that the fantastical images seemed to be playing with themes of time and decay and death. Adults who want to go back in time, children who grow up too fast. The intellectually driven wish to avoid death is what ends up creating everlasting death. “For whoever wants to save his life shall lose it.” Jim and Will, polar opposites who are also inseparable friends, are drawn into this struggle.
I do find this a very masculine book. I do not say this as a criticism, but the “lens” Bradbury looks through is very much a male point of view. The feminine is portrayed as mysterious, inaccessible, unknowable; female characters are seen from outside while male characters are seen from the inside.
That said, as I continued reading I saw how Will and Jim represent two sides of human nature, regardless of gender.
Chris: I absolutely agree, Lory, with your analysis of Bradbury’s portrayal of the feminine mystique, perhaps unsurprising for many males in an early 60s context.
Granted that this is a take on his boyhood experiences — as Bradbury’s 1999 afterword makes clear — perhaps it’s vain hoping for anything different? I think your ability to relate to the boys’ experiences, Brian, probably back this up; my suburban upbringing in the UK only slightly overlapped yours and the boys’, though I also had only one or two ‘friends’ and spent inordinate time in the local library.
Brian: I think that Lory’s analysis of the themes of life and death contained in this book are spot on. It is helping me wrap my head around some of the imagery and plot developments which still seem puzzling in parts.
Without a doubt this is a masculine book, as is apparent in the experiences of the boys but also in Charles Halloway’s experiences. As Chris points out, this was emblematic of many writers of that era, and it was also characteristic of science fiction writers for decades. With that, in my opinion, as Lory points out, there are universal themes within this work that apply to everyone.
Chris: The more I read the more I realised that this isn’t just about Bradbury having a retrospective about his childhood self but also about his present and future self. He was 42 when the novel was first published, and perhaps starting to feel his age (hence the nostalgic feel to the boys’ experiences) and anticipating what it might be like to be an ‘old’ man — though with Charles only in his fifties, I, in my late 60s, feel that he’s still a stripling!
In the middle of the book, Charles Halloway starts to play a more important role. How did this change the dynamic of the story?
Lory: I was glad that Will and his dad were finally talking to one another. I felt that this coming together of the generations, of two sides of the young/old split, could be what’s needed to counteract the evil forces.
I appreciate that Bradbury writes with deeper philosophical questions underlying the story, but without definitive answers, only suggestions, directions, evocative phrases that make us ask our own questions.
Brian: I agree with you Lory, the father and son appear to be coming together and Bradbury is examining all kinds of similarities and contrasts. It seems that one thing that they are doing is delving into some of the mysteries of life. On one level I think that is what all three of the main characters are doing in this book.
I would add as a side note: As an adolescent, or an adult, I could not but help but love a serious book filled with philosophical musing, that also includes a passage where a teenager uses his archery set to shoot down a balloon piloted by an evil witch.
What were some of the themes and images that stood out most for you?
Chris: Let’s consider all those circular references — clock faces, air balloons, carousels, full moons — symbolic of time, eternity, no fixed starting or ending points, all possibly related back to what you, Lory, have already picked up on: “The intellectually driven wish to avoid death is what ends up creating everlasting death.” We can’t go back, but we fear what is to come and bewail our powerlessness to avoid it.
Lory: There are so many references to time and clocks in the book – it would be interesting to make a list. Books and libraries are another theme — books being one magnificent way to beat time.
Chris: I had great fun imagining the clockface of books Charles had drawn up, trying to work out what open books went where and in what relationship to each other. All the titles and subjects pick up on many of the themes and images that the novel is steeped in, and I couldn’t help wondering that one non-metropolitan town could have so many obscure — even occult – titles.
Lory: You are right, Chris, that is one interesting collection for a small town library in Illinois! It seems to be a sort of portal to the Library, the great repository of archetypal thoughts and images. A good example of how Bradbury mixes the mundane and fantastic in this book.
Brian: The entire library sounds magnificent! Definitely not typical of a small town.
It is also interesting how Charles has become the story’s philosopher. He seems to be the voice of Bradbury. I love his theories on the origins of good and evil.
By the end of part two, we’ve reached a turning point. How would you describe the factor that gives Charles an edge against the evil forces?
Lory: Seeing the evil for what it is — trumpery that we give power through our own fear and self-doubt. Laughter restores perspective, helps us to stand outside a situation we were drowning in and see that we are more than that. Whatever we can smile at cannot really defeat us.
Chris: All those clichés — laughter is the best medicine, laughing in the face of death, laugh and the world laughs with you — epitomise one of the leitmotivs here: good humour, mirthfulness and optimism are the enemies of the forces that want to drag you down to despair and death.
Brian: I keep thinking how Ray Bradbury’s reverence for books and ideas, manifested in Fahrenheit 451, is also apparent in the library passages of this book. Not just in the collection and selection of books, but also in the dialog between Charles Halloway and Mr. Dark. Though Mr. Dark initially seems to triumph over the “ideas” contained in books, we see that it is ideas, and good humor, that are in the end, stronger.
How did the ending strike you? Did it bring the story to a satisfying conclusion?
Lory: There’s one of the most cinematic scenes of the book here, when the images disappear from the Illustrated Man and all of the tents are collapsing. It would make some wonderful visuals.
The ending seemed to me to express joy as the creative force in the world — which I found a refreshing conclusion after the scenes of suspense and horror. The joining of old and young at the end, trumping the chronological schemes of Mr. Dark, was also satisfying.
Brian: I agree, the ending was a great relief. Mr. Dark was so malicious, it was good to see him fall.
I liked Charles’s comment – “We got to watch out the rest of our lives. The fight’s just begun.” I cannot help wondering if Charles and the boys faced more perils in the future. I am generally against sequels to classic works so I think I am glad that Bradbury never wrote one. But I like to imagine.
Chris: The ending reminded me so much of how humour was used in Britain (and the States, no doubt) to lampoon the nightmare that was Hitler and the Nazi war machine. When you can sing songs and laugh at ridiculing cartoons during days that really are dark then you nurture hope and imagine a future that can be less bleak.
Of course the most obvious strand to the novel is Bradbury’s paean to the small town of his youth, with the library as the pagan temple that he worships at. As Lory points out, love and friendship are also the pillars that matter most where people are concerned. I’m so glad to have finally read this.
“Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did … This a factory of spies from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered.” —from Chapter 2, a description of the Library
This year, I’m pleased to present an interview with New Hampshire author Kat Howard, whose debut novel Roses and Rot is a refreshing new take on the perennially popular story of Tam Lin. Here, the traditional woman-rescuing-her-lover plot is complicated by the presence of a pair of sisters, both talented and creative in different ways, who must work through some painful choices to conquer the demons of their past and find a way forward. With its interweaving of many fairy-tale motifs into a very modern tale, it’s a rich exploration of the creative process, of female power and relationships, and of the stories that inspire us. (Don’t miss the chance to win a copy in the Witch Week giveaway!)
I asked Maureen, who blogs at By Singing Light, to interview Kat for us, knowing that she would come up with a fantastic set of questions — and she did. Enjoy!
For the Witch Week schedule and linkup, see the Master Post.
Maureen: I loved that Roses and Rot referenced so many folk and fairy tales, even beyond Tam Lin. What stories were you conscious of engaging with, and how did they influence the shape of the book?
Kat: For me, it wasn’t so so much of a conscious choice, necessarily — no “now it’s time to reference “Beauty and the Beast” or anything like that – so much as I wanted the story I was telling to feel steeped in fairy tales, surrounded by them. Fairy tales had made Imogen the kind of person that she was, and they were almost a sort of language for her. So I tried to draw on recognizable symbols and notes and themes, and to include those whenever I had a chance to, so that they built an atmosphere.
It seems like Tam Lin retellings often engage with a relationship between artists or creative people and fairies. (I’m thinking of both Fire and Hemlock and Pamela Dean’s version.) Is this something you were engaging with consciously? And if so, was there an aspect you were hoping to draw out?
Well, because of the aspect of the tithe in Tam Lin (in the original ballad, the sacrifice that the kingdom of Faerie paid to Hell every seven years), there’s sort of an inherent need for some sort of contact in the human world, because otherwise the Fae are paying with one of their own. And when I was at Clarion (a writers’ workshop), I wrote a short story where the Fae paid their tithe with artists. The story didn’t quite work, partially because I hadn’t quite made clear why the Fae would choose artists — in my head at the time, it was because I could think of a lot of artists who had died far too young, and it’s nicer to think of someone as just being away with the Faeries, instead of being dead. But I wanted to try to give a better, clearer explanation this time.
You’ve written many short fiction pieces, and co-written a novella with Maria Dahvana Headley. How has writing this novel been different than your previous work?
This is going to sound like I’m being a smart ass, and I swear it’s not that, but one of the biggest differences was that it was longer. I had more space to tell a story. Short fiction, it’s sort of like you have your idea, and you get in and get out. Even with The End of the Sentence, there were bits and pieces that Maria and I both loved, and could have happily spent more time in, and that had to go because they weren’t necessary for the part of the story that we were telling. There’s a different kind of story that you tell when you have three thousand words or thirty thousand, or ninety thousand. And so here, with Roses and Rot, I really got to linger in the story, and spend time with the characters and the world, and that was really a pleasure for me.
There are so many different strands running through Roses and Rot, from the fairy tales to Imogen and Marin’s history with their mother, and the reflections on art and creativity. How did you weave them together and create a cohesive story?
This is going to be the most boring answer ever, but lots of revisions. I tend to write very sparse early drafts — like the Grinch’s heart, they grow three sizes before they get finished. And so while I knew from the beginning that I wanted all of those pieces in there, often, the earliest versions of scenes would only hit one theme, or one piece. So I went back again and again and layered the pieces until the story had the weight that I wanted it to.
Beyond fairy tales themselves, were there any writers or stories you were influenced by when you were writing this book?
Obviously, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin was a huge influence on the story. And of course writers who engage with that sort of fairy/ fairy tale sensibility in their own writing — Terri Windling, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Holly Black. I’m always influenced by Cat Valente’s extraordinary talent with language. Nova Ren Suma, for making me want to write a book about sisters. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World.
Basically, this book had a lot of fairy godmothers.
Fairy tales are so often about girls in a magical and dangerous landscape–I’m interested in how that’s reflected in Roses and Rot. Were there any particular things you wanted to show in your landscapes and in Imogen’s reaction to them?
I think if you read fairy tales, you know that once the character heads into the woods, that’s when the story really starts happening. It’s where things are allowed to get a little bit strange, a little bit dangerous. I mean, Stephen Sondheim has an entire musical about this! Even A Midsummer Night’s Dream — all the parts with the fairies in happen once the human characters are in the woods. And so really, the landscape choice was just a way of working with this idea.
At the center of Witch Week this year, I wanted to place a set of books that were central to the development of American fantasy: the Oz series by L. Frank Baum. They’ve also been important in my own reading life, as you can perhaps tell from the title of my blog.
I knew that Deb of The Book Stop was a fellow Oz fan (we were both using a picture of Ozma as our avatar at one point), so I asked her to share some thoughts about what these books mean to her. Her eloquent words express much of what I myself would say about Oz, and I hope will strike a chord with you as well — whether or not you have already fallen under the spell of that magical land.
For the Witch Week schedule and linkup, see the Master Post.
I was so happy to write about the Oz books for Witch Week, because those books literally changed the way I grew up, in much the same way Harry Potter has changed the lives of many young readers. The Oz books were published between 1900 and 1920, and just like Harry Potter, many young Americans of that time grew up anxiously awaiting their next Oz book.
It’s sad that so many people know only The Wizard of Oz, and then only the movie. There are 14 Oz books, with a huge cast of characters, and they featured some of the strongest female characters to be seen in fantasy literature. In Oz the women aren’t just witches, they are rulers, explorers, and sorceresses. When I was growing up, I found few fantasy books where women and girls played such a leading role. Dorothy, Ozma, and Glinda (and Betsy and Trot and the Patchwork Girl) were my heroes.
Lyman Frank Baum was born in 1856 in upstate New York. He was born with a weak heart and spent much of his time as a child reading, growing up with the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. As an adult, he tried many different careers, from managing an opera house, to opening a department store, to editing a newspaper. After a series of failed ventures, in 1891 he began to write down the nursery rhymes he had invented for his children. His first children’s book, Mother Goose in Prose, was published in 1897, and he published Father Goose: His Book, in 1899. In 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published.
Baum meant for The Wizard of Oz to change our perception of fairy tales, from horrible and moralistic to something more positive. Baum set out to create a fantasy world full of adventure but with less fear. Most of his characters can’t die or feel pain (although elements of these books are genuinely scary) and the books are written in a light-hearted, often humorous tone. One of the first fantasy books to be set in the United States, Oz is grounded in America’s spirit of individualism. The characters in Oz are unique, and a frequent theme in these books is the importance of accepting others’ differences and seeing what makes them uniquely valuable.
Significantly, Baum challenged the perception of witches from the Grimm and Andersen fairy tales as horrible, ugly, wicked women.
“Oh, gracious!” cried Dorothy; “are you a real witch?”
“Yes, indeed;” answered the little woman. “But I’m a good witch, and the people love me. I am not as powerful as the Wicked Witch was who ruled here, or I should have set the people free myself.”
“But I thought all witches were wicked,” said the girl, who was half frightened at facing a real witch.
“Oh, no; that is a great mistake. There were only four witches in all the Land of Oz, and two of them, those who live in the North and South, are good witches. I know this is true, for I am one of them myself, and cannot be mistaken.”
Glinda, the good witch of the South, helps Dorothy find her way home, and becomes the reigning Good Witch of the series. The second book, The Land of Oz, introduces Ozma as the ruler of Oz and establishes Glinda as her benevolent guide.
Baum believed that women are powerful, and his witches exemplify the notion that magic isn’t inherently bad or good, but depends on the person using it. He was heavily influenced by his educated wife and her mother, Matilda Gage, who was an intellectual, a political radical, and a feminist. Gage published a book in 1893 on women’s oppression by Christianity, in which she discusses the persecution of women as witches, and it was Gage who encouraged Baum to write children’s stories. Baum’s stories feature strong, wise, magical women, although he has plenty of characters (male and female) who are wicked and foolish. The Wizard, for example, is a humbug who controls the people of Oz through fear. He hides in the Emerald City because, he explains to Dorothy, “while I had no magical powers at all I soon found out that the witches were really able to do wonderful things.”
Magic in the Oz books comes from knowledge and tools more often than inherent ability, and a magical artifact can be evil in the hands of one character but used for good by another. In Baum’s world, magic doesn’t just happen; it requires learning and effort, and power brings responsibility. Glinda doesn’t just use magic, she studies her Magic Book, and the Wizard learns the art of real magic from her. Dr. Pipt in The Patchwork Girl of Oz follows a meticulous recipe and spends six years stirring four kettles with both feet and both hands, just to produce a tiny amount of the Powder of Life.
The Oz books wouldn’t be much fun if Ozma and Glinda were all-powerful. In several of the books they face serious challenges to their magical abilities. In Ozma of Oz, Ozma and her friends are turned into ornaments, doomed to decorate the Nome King’s shelves for ever. In The Lost Princess of Oz, Ozma is kidnapped and hidden away, and in Glinda of Oz, Dorothy and Ozma are trapped under water in a city under a dome. Those are some of my favorites in the series, for exactly that reason. When magic is easy, it’s not nearly as interesting.
Why is Oz important to me? I can’t say for sure if it began with my family’s annual viewing of the movie, or if it began with the books themselves. Whichever came first, once I began reading I couldn’t stop until I’d absorbed every one, and while I liked some better than others, they still felt like home to me. Like Dorothy, Oz became the place I escaped to, the place where magic came to life. His stories and characters are relevant to me every day, from the exuberant spirit of the Patchwork Girl, to the Woozy who thinks he has a terrifying growl (but it’s really just a squeak), to the Bunny King who wants to live free of responsibilities, but is afraid to give up his material possessions.
There are theories about what Baum meant when he wrote The Wizard of Oz, and I don’t subscribe to most of them, nor do most Baum scholars. I don’t think he’s writing about the gold standard or Communism, although he clearly has views about politics. His books are about being kind, and honest, and working together, and being yourself. And if Baum didn’t set out to teach any lessons in his books, he did anyway. For me the greatest one was this: if you keep your eyes open, you never know what world you might stumble into.
And I think the best fantasy children’s books are about exactly that. It’s the door to the wardrobe, the rabbit-hole, the cyclone on the prairie. Children’s fantasy is about discovering you’re stronger and more powerful than you thought you were, and that the world is a more magical place than you believed it to be. For me, Oz was the perfect place to start that journey.
What would Witch Week be without a great giveaway? This year, I have two fabulous sets of books that you can enter to win, all in keeping with the Made in America theme. And one giveaway is international – so read on!
US entrants can win three gorgeous hardcovers from some of the most exciting new voices in American fantasy and science fiction: Roses and Rotby Kat Howard, a variation on Tam Lin set in a New Hampshire artists’ colony; All the Birds in the Skyby Charlie Jane Anders, in which a scientific genius and a magical prodigy get together in San Francisco to save the world; and Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente, an alternate-history space-opera mystery that takes us from Hollywood to the moon, and beyond.
And everyone, regardless of location, can enter to win a set of three e-books from the sublimely quirky New England publisher Small Beer Press: Stranger Things Happen by the modern queen of weird stories, Kelly Link; The Fires Beneath the Sea by Lydia Millet, first in a trilogy of Cape Cod environmental fantasies; and Couch by Benjamin Parzybok, about a magical piece of furniture in Portland, Oregon (where else?) These e-books are DRM-free, and will be sent in your choice of EPUB or MOBI format.
Use the two separate Rafflecopter widgets below to enter. You can enter either or both, as determined by your geographical location. Good luck!
For the Witch Week schedule and linkup, see the Master Post.
Witch Week is about celebrating all kinds of fantasy literature, which can evoke many different moods and experiences — but because it takes place in the darkening days following Halloween, our reading choices may tend toward the creepier end of the spectrum. And for intelligently creepy entertainment, there is no one quite like Shirley Jackson, an author who has been receiving more and more well-deserved attention and acclaim these days.
Just in case you might need some encouragement to read Shirley Jackson for the first time, or reasons to give to others, I asked Jenny of Reading the End to help us out. I knew she would do a brilliant job — she got me to read The Sundial, after all. So prepare to be enabled, and perhaps a little bit frightened …
For the Witch Week schedule and linkup, see the Master Post.
Seriously, Shirley Jackson’s books are so scary. You’re insufficiently appreciating the scariness of her books. Like all good horror writers, she makes you fear for the characters. But her particular gift is making you fear what the characters will do—not what will be done to them. You can argue forever about whether Jackson is pessimistic or realistic about the state of humanity, but whatever the case may be, nobody writes better than Jackson about the evil that lurks in the hearts of men (and women).
Let’s face it, your English teacher should have made you read “The Lottery” in eighth grade. Or some grade. (I chose eighth because that’s when I read it, and I assume that my English teacher knew what she was doing, considering she made us all go nuts for Macbeth while at the same time being snotty fourteen-year-olds.) If that didn’t happen, you’re missing out not just on the references people are making to it, but also on one of the greatest short stories mankind has ever known. Get your head right. Read “The Lottery.”(I just reread “The Lottery” right now, to prove my point, and it is still so damn scary.)
Shirley Jackson influenced oodles of writers working today, including Stephen King, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, and Helen Oyeyemi. It’s not that you need Shirley Jackson to understand what those authors are talking about. They’ll stand on their own with no problem. It’s just that their books are houses built on a Shirley Jackson foundation. In fact, possibly no haunted house book written since the 1960s has been able to shake the influence of the mighty and wondrous Shirley Jackson.
Speaking of Houses
Have you heard the expression “safe as houses”? Because Shirley Jackson makes it meaningless—or maybe just alters its meaning forever. Famously agoraphobic, the houses of Shirley Jackson’s fiction are their characters’ only refuge from the forces of darkness; and at the same time, they are traps and prisons. The outside world promises death, yet only by death can the characters be free of the cages that their houses represent. It’s the best. (Slash, the worst.)
Look, you have already heard plenty about The Haunting of Hill House. (It’s awesome.) We Have Always Lived in the Castle will be a major motion picture™ featuring Sebastian Stan in the handsome opportunist role. But have you read The Sundial? Almost certainly not. Let me help you with that.
The Sundial is about a group of people who live in a big manor house. One of the family members is recently deceased, and there is talk that he was murdered by someone else in the house. Then Aunt Fanny has a vision that the world is going to end, and the only survivors will be the people inside the manor house. They spend the rest of the book hating each other and preparing for the end of the world, and it’s majestic.
See, here’s the problem with Shirley Jackson being so good at creeping you out. Everyone associates her name (rightly) with horror, but then they forget (wrongly) to praise the pitch-black humor that permeates all of her writing. Even at her very most gothic, Jackson still has an eye to the absurdity of human behavior, and she’s perpetually poking fun at our attempts to find reason and normalcy in the utter chaos of this world.
I KNOW I KNOW this seems redundant, but bear with me. The first humor was that she’s funny even when she’s being scary, and this one’s that she’s funny when she’s mainly just being funny. Though she’s best known for “The Lottery,” and we hope will soon be best known for We Have Always Lived in the Castle once the movie comes out and everyone loves it and the book becomes the spooky bestseller it always deserved to be, Shirley Jackson’s fame in her own time was down to the many essays she wrote for women’s magazines about her life as a wife and mother. Collected in Life among the Savages and Raising Demons, these stories cast a sardonic eye on the work of raising tots in the years of the baby boom.
That One New Biography of Her That Just Came Out
We all like to feel that we’re keeping up with the new releases, don’t we? And this Witch Week, you’re in luck: A brand new, authoritative, New York Times–approved biography of Shirley Jackson has just come onto the market. Ruth Franklin is by all accounts a careful and insightful biographer, providing new insights into Shirley Jackson’s childhood, marriage, and work as a writer of humorous essays, creepy short stories, and literary criticism.
The Shirley Jackson Awards
Once you know that you love Shirley Jackson (and you will love her—that’s not a threat, just a prediction), the world stands ready to tell you what to read next. If there’s one thing for which you can depend on Shirley Jackson fans, it’s book recommendations. For the annual Shirley Jackson Awards, a panel of writers, editors, and academics choose five finalists in six categories of excellence in the realm of literary psychological suspense and horror. As yet there hasn’t been a single year of Shirley Jackson Awards that’s failed to give me terrific recommendations.
Bonding with Your Fellow Bloggers
Look, the fact is, book bloggers love Shirley Jackson. This has been true as long as I’ve been a book blogger, and I don’t see any prospect of its changing. Read We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House and book bloggers will flock to your doorstep to rave about our girl Shirley Jackson. Please @ me whenever you get a chance to let me know how you feel about Merricat, and be prepared for me to order you sternly to read The Sundial.
When I came up with the idea for this year’s Witch Week theme, the first book that sprang to mind was American Gods by Neil Gaiman. In its exploration of the gods and demons brought to these shores by immigrants from many lands, written by a transplanted Brit with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the many-sided fantasy genre, it seemed the perfect way to kick off our week.
Because it had been a long time since I read the book, I turned to Kristen of We Be Reading to give us a brief orientation — her recent post had sparked my interest in a reread. She did a splendid job, and if you haven’t already, I hope you might be inspired to join us on this reading journey.
For the Witch Week schedule and linkup, see the Master Post.
I feel the need to start this post by being completely honest. Even though he’s one of my all-time favorite authors, it took me two reads of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods before I was able to appreciate its strengths and complexity and craftsmanship. Luckily, this book and I are now best friends and I’m very happy to be sharing it with you all today for Witch Week!
This is a slightly different take on the Made in America theme we’re exploring this week as this book combines many different mythologies from a range of places. In fact, if you look at Gaiman’s bibliography for this book you will see a ridiculously wide array of sources, including American Folklore, World Mythology, Encyclopedia of Gods, The Norse Myths, A Dictionary of Fairies, Cryptozoology A to Z, American Indian Myths and Legends, A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore, Voodoo in New Orleans, and Gods and Goddesses of India. (If you’ve read this book, tell me in the comments if there were fairies anywhere in it.) And why did he need such varied sources for a book called American Gods? As William Ritter put it in his novel Ghostly Echoes,
“People often feel more alone than ever when they first arrive in a new place … but we are never alone. We bring with us the spirits of our ancestors. We are haunted by their demons and protected by their deities.”
And, those deities that arrived with each immigrant started looking for ways to maintain or increase their powers and to avoid being forgotten in the new world. But they soon ended up in competition with the gods of the new place, the gods created as society and technology changed — the false gods of media and government and wealth.
In order to discover what Gaiman intended this book to be, I went back to his archived American Gods Blog, started in February 2001, before the book’s June release date. This description comes from a letter to advance copy reviewers:
“If Neverwhere was about the London underneath, this would be about the America between, and on-top-of, and around. It’s an America with strange mythic depths. Ones that can hurt you. Or kill you. Or make you mad. … It’s about the soul of America, really. What people brought to America; what found them when they came; and the things that lie sleeping beneath it all.”
As you might guess, this is a story that defies genre. Neil has something to say about this as well:
“It’s a big fat book about America, and about a man called Shadow, and the job he is offered when he gets out of prison. It’s kind of a thriller, I suppose, if you can have mythic thrillers. I suppose it could be considered SF or fantasy or horror, depending on where you stand, and I’d not argue with anyone who considered it such.”
Because this is such a complex book, the mythology had to be seamlessly integrated to make sense. I think that it was successfully done because Gaiman believes in America as a tapestry whose culture is enriched by all those others whose fibers are woven through it. Likely, being an outsider enabled him to look in and see the fabric of American mythology from this perspective.
I have coincidentally read a couple of other books lately that also explore foreign mythologies being imported into America — the Jackaby series (William Ritter) and The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker). Neil also mentions two other books with similar foundations — The Good Fairies of New York (Martin Millar), about Scottish fairies in New York, and Votan (John James), about Odin in Germany. As Neil says on his tumblr, “American Gods was not the first ‘what if the gods were real and walk among us’ book, and it will not be the last.”
Finally, I wanted to mention the awards that this book won because it it shows the way the story defies categorization (and how well received it was, of course) — Hugo Award for Best SF/Fantasy Novel, Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel, Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and Nebula Award for Best Novel. If you enjoy any of these genres, give American Gods a try!
…Witch Week, when there is so much magic around in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen… —from Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones
Welcome to the third annual Witch Week, an opportunity to celebrate our favorite fantasy books and authors. This year we’re focusing on the theme Made in America, and I hope you might feel inspired to join in by linking up your own posts about books set in the USA.
Or you may wish to join in the readalong of Something Wicked This Way Comes; or enter one of two fabulous giveaways; or enjoy some of the other reviews and interviews during the week. Here’s what I have planned: