TABLE OF CONTENTS:
A while ago some nice people suggested Boucher, Backbone and Blake – the legacy of Blakes 7 might be Hugo-eligible under a few categories. There’s Best Related Work, there’s Best Fan Writer, etc. THIS IS VERY KIND. THANK YOU.
I really feel Best Related Work needs to go to the report, editorial and companion essays by Brian J. White, Tobias Buckell, Justina Ireland, Mikki Kendall, Nisi Shawl, Troy Wiggins, Cecily Kane and N.K. Jemisin that together comprise “#BlackSpecFic: A Fireside Fiction Company special report”.
This collaborative project calls attention to a foundational issue in SFFnal publishing, representing the best traditions of critical, self-reflective and progressive work this award exists to recognise. Academically and practically, it is a necessary investigative report. The very model of its presentation is exciting and polyvocal, and it’d be great to see the award recognise this digital mixed-media format. Several great writers and thinkers made substantive contributions to the project. Others offered valuable reactions after the fact. The report and associated documents attracted international media attention, gave rise to editorial shifts on major SFF publications’ boards, and hopefully will spur further inclusive developments.
We should not let the memory of this work fade or its sharp, timely conclusions be overlooked. The report needs acted on, in a continuous praxis, and I believe it should also be recognised. This would show that we all feel the horrible inequalities it frankly delineates are a blight on the field, and that we are collectively serious about redressing them in the interests of both fairness and richer art. It would not definitively do so: only continuous work to dismantle systemic racism will accomplish this. But recognising the report as the most important piece of genre-related writing/the Best Related Work this year seems to me simply a just acknowledgement of a fait accompli.
As for me, I’d be happy to be considered for fan writer (though really I also think it’s past time for Abigail Nussbaum and/or Maureen K Speller to be acknowledged in that or some other capacity, but frogtea.gif).
END OF YEAR WRITING REVIEW:
Age of Adeline (in the publishing queue, 2236)
Notes on Dickens’ “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners” (1857) (2785)
Notes on Dickens’ “The Wreck of the Golden Mary” (1856) (538)
NONFIC TOTAL: 84,265
Rereading (4,600, out with an anthology, waiting to hear back)
281965 words, broken down in the end of year fic meme on my lj
Personal story planning, correspondence, essays and private-lj blogging:
TOTAL (minus the substantial last category): 370,830 words this year, ‘published’ in one form or another
Bit less fiction than last year, and I really suspect less nonfic, but then moving was hideous and drawn out, mental health’s been bad and this year was draining all-’round.
* Someone said this was a gothic novel adaptation of an unwritten book rather than a horror movie. That’s very true. The flow is a bit awkward no matter how you slice it, but Crimson Peak does work better considered in that capacity.
* I almost prefer Edith, the heroine, before she marries. She loses herself a bit in the second half. Perhaps that’s an intentional effect, but it’s not entirely working for me on the “Rebecca” level. I wish we had a protagonist who, even befuddled by the horror, didn’t try to walk out of this snow-hell without shoes.
* My friend Jade pointed out that it was fairly interesting that the ghosts were benign, and that the movie made an effort to ask ‘what is ghosts’ deal? What do they want?’ She is: CORRECT. The horror’s never been the haunted house, or the ghosts. We’re in one of those ‘people are the true monsters’ psychological gothic horror stories. I like that subgenre, but feel the film’s hold on this material could have been tighter.
* The house looks a lot like the similar manor in the more recent adaptation of The Haunting, which isn’t good per se but is compelling nonetheless. It has some of that film’s beats as well. The titular house is hella Aesthetic movement. Unless it’s original gothic, and let’s face it, it isn’t, and even if it is—no, sorry, it’s still really 19th c., design/serving post-Strawberry Hill realness at the very earliest, just look at it. Thus there’s been no time for these features to have mouldered to the extent they have. I wonder how common mismatched eras of decoration and degrees of decay are in horror movies?
Also, why not tarp over the ceiling hole that is artistically admitting drifting cascades of… something. Petals, or leaves from overhanging trees this property doesn’t seem to have. Sell half your shit to get that done, it’s your clear and present structural priority. They’re hard up, but this place is still LUSH with moveables. I’m mentally pricing these mantelpieces. You don’t even need this Bluebeard scheme, just call Lyon & Turnbull.
The visuals are indeed lush, but it’s hard to take the protagonist seriously in her diaphanous mutton sleeves. She looks like Sarah in the Labyrinth ball sequence. In fact these amazing visuals are almost getting in the way of the plot. We have to be in this house, so we’re here, even though the villains’ motivations for remaining (having sunk multiple fortunes into this place they hate, and yet never having bothered to repair that roof-hole) are shaky, and become less intelligible as the plot is revealed. If the siblings had some mystic connection with the house I could see staying, but in fact they could have cut and run ages ago, on any one of these bride-fetching trips or after their first murder. More time could have been spent on why they don’t.
* The logistics of this bride plot are strange. Did none of these women call shenanigans on the absence of sex? They can’t all have been in mourning—at least that isn’t explicitly mentioned. When the protagonist and HigPig: Incest Edition finally do the deed, on her first sexual outing Edith is confident, pain-free and cowgirling adroitly like a rodeo champion, no problem. You have to work up to those technical skills! Unless he has a dick like a pen nib, I guess, but even so one does not simply walk into Mordor/instinctually know where to put one’s limbs for more advanced manoeuvres. More seriously, the fluidity and the normalcy of the sex normalise what could be a site of intensity and strangeness, possibly a jarring period moment, or a moment of cute intimacy between the couple.
* I guessed from its first appearance that our heroine was being being intentionally slow-poisoned by this shit-tasting tea, but honestly it could easily just have been some Victorian wellness bs. It’s not like that lot haven’t tried restoratives that turned out to be medically terrible ideas in good faith before now.
* Why are our protagonist and HigPig sharing a bedroom? It’s not very period, and it’s not as if they don’t have enough rooms. This is especially true given HigPig’s secret incestual relationship—which I also called pretty early—and consequent practice of marital chastity. It’s hard staging these gothic novel plots now. Nothing is so shocking you can’t clearly guess it’s coming, and nothing is religiously or conventionally abhorrent in a deep and sacred sense. Gothic no longer quite works, in its accepted forms, as transgressive social horror.
* In general I feel periodicity is kind of strangely conveyed by props and clearly flagged pop cultural references in this film. It vaguely conditions aspects of the characters’ relationships, like making the sexless union and the live-in sister more possible, but it doesn’t inflect people’s behaviour or challenge audiences. It’s set dressing.
* Or protagonist is ‘so different’ from her predecessors, according to Hiddleston. How? This is never really explored. She was specifically picked to be like them, just going by her CV. Knowing more about what’s happening here would shore up the male lead’s pivotal turn against his sister, making it believable and meaningful.
* Burn Gorman’s Dickensian-lookin ass was goddamn meant for these Hammer Horror roles. It’s a pity he was in such a meh Bleak House, because he is an ideal Smallweed, visually. I never know if he can act: he seems fairly capable, but is generally cast in quite one-note roles. (I’m not walking it back, PacRim people.)
* ’Fuck’ doesn’t feel like the right verb for the sister’s class. Victorians posh people usually went for blasphemy related curses, while lower class people went for physical. Possibly the implication is that the asylum coarsened her (adding a degree of class horror to the mix), but if so, that could be clearer.
* Killing the dog is just excessive.
* Alternate boyf fucking skis his way here or some shit. Fuck knows how he gets here with vague directions in this weather, knowing nothing of the area.
* I’m a little more interested in Edith’s weird tension with the cray sister than I am in the multiple heterosexual erotic configurations, to be honest. There’s some Munchausen’s by proxy up in this joint which we touch for but a moment before gliding on. I want this movie to dwell in its oddness more than it does, to let these characters feel this strange, murderous, jealous, sisterly queerness. The movie sort of knows this, though—it stages the final confrontation between these two.
* The movie could use some honey-slow, sinister, dipping moments that couple its aesthetics with feeling. Something like ma, as Jade would say.
* Crimson Peak feels like a somewhat less successful version of something like Labyrinth, which is a flawed and at times incoherent fairy tale about maturation, desire and responsibility that resonates deeply with a lot of women, despite its structural issues as a text. I know a lot of people have this relationship with Jupiter Ascending, though I don’t personally. There’s perhaps something to be said about this category of films that just hit women’s fictional kinks in an attractively-shot but not quite cogent kind of way. Ultimately I want Crimson Peak to do more for me, emotionally or thematically or visually, to earn that status, though I understand it does something like this for at least one of my friends.
* I guess there’s something interesting to be distilled from all this about the siblings’ desperate, pitiless effort to try and keep the estate together, to repair and rebuild this decaying structure—about class and families and rurality, child abuse and trauma and haunting. Possibly there’s also something to be made of Edith’s status as a monied American transplant, a colonial from the New World and the only survivor of this too-long-steeped mess. She’s so reminiscent of the many real heiresses who ‘saved’ British aristocratic houses with their funds. People are always returning from the colonies bearing with them or coming into gothic unrest in the contemporary (and mentioned-herein) Holmes canon. I can’t quite pin these elements down, though, and I think that anything I did come up with would be a narrative imposed on rather than drawn out of the rich but ultimately uncultivated material of Crimson Peak.
(Have now read and liked Abigail’s piece on this, as well.)
I don’t remember ever reading this particular Dahl, though I have a curious and contrasting strong memory of the cover (yellow, the Quintin Blake witch in black), and of looking at it in the closet where we kept my books—so did I? Could I have owned it and not read it? Or entirely forgotten it? That seems so unlikely. Perhaps I’m back-imagining this.
I loved James and the Giant Peach and was particularly and predictably way into Matilda when I was young. Both titles were probably quite formative for me. I don’t think my elementary school library had that many of Dahl’s books. I suspect I must have looked hard, but my book choices were always limited as a child by things like that. The libraries I had access to were, looking back, often fairly scrappy. I’m not sure anyone in my family would have known there were other Dahl titles to buy me if I’d wanted them, given Dahl’s lesser American reputation (it’s notable thatthe American trailer for The Witches doesn’t even mention Dahl) and my family’s general lack of interest in books (bar, of course, my grandmother). I couldn’t yet use the internet to determine how to find out whether more books by a given person existed, because the internet didn’t work like that at the time.
Aishwarya Subramanian makes a good point that the alchemy of forgetting that has made Dahl a national treasure and a Writer of Children’s Classics has done much to obscure his personal unpleasantness, and the value judgments and cruelty she draws attention to as persistent elements of his work aren’t absent in this adaptation. (Is there much work on the different directions people went out of Dickens? Because Dahl is as much an inheritor of one aspect of his work as Pratchett, Peake, DWJ, and Rowling are other, contrasting aspects. Except Dickens’ violence was slapstick and Dahl’s… isn’t. Dahl is the baby!Webster to Dickens’ Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love. ‘I LIKE IT WHEN THE MICE SCREAM!’ ‘Oooookay, kiddo.’ *) I had been told before I watched it that this would be traumatising, that it was a classic and that Angelica Huston was epic herein. Yes. All the actresses playing the witches seem to have the time of their lives writhing about being gloriously, viscerally unpleasant, and it is a fucking treat to watch. Great physical acting. One particularly raptorish specimen just goes to town. I’d just watched the first Addams Family film for the first time two days or so before, and am quite impressed with her. Obviously. It’s Angelica fucking Huston.
The start of the film has a certain sedateness, and the pacing lags a bit in the middle, but I’m not too bothered. The protagonist’s sort-of-friend Bruno’s a little Brexit voter, but I’m glad his parents learn to accept and love their gaymouse son. The bittersweet ending (which I know to not be the book’s) is the biggest issue. In the book our protagonist is turned into a mouse, and will live out the rest of his short life (mouse lifespans are a bitch) in this form, cared for by his loving grandmother. In the film the head witch’s assistant, the sole survivor of the massacre of witches the protagonist orchestrated, completely improbably goes to the good. She shows up to change the child back into a human, and even to do the same for wee UKIPer Bruno. This new ending isn’t in and of itself a problem (it is in fact what filmic traditions would lead us to anticipate), but it feels structurally weak and deflated, like the film itself doesn’t believe in this. The lamp shading is too late and too winkingly obvious. It does feel very ‘made for Americans’, changed to suit expectations, to flatter American filmmaking’s distaste for ambivalent endings (especially in children’s productions).
Odd that Dahl adapts rather well. (Dickens doesn’t, or at least people often do a terrible job with adapting him—though there are some good examples.) Matilda is a fairish film and the play is strong. James and the Giant Peachwas well-made. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is perhaps more famous as a film than as a book. The Witches is a recognized cult children’s classic. We’ll see how the recent BFG fares. Quintin Blake’s illustrations are definitely part of the reason why this is so. Even where the filmic visuals don’t directly draw from his, there’s something about his evocative, brisk linework that both creates striking images and suggests figures in motion.
* The relevant bit of Shakespeare in Love:
(Will is pacing restlessly up and down in front of the theatre, looking for Thomas Kent. The streetboy who wanted to play Ethel is sitting on a corner, mice are clambering about him.)
Will (affably): Better fortune, boy.
Streetboy (shrugging): I was in a play. They cut my head off in “Titus Andronicus”. When I write plays, they will be like “Titus”.
Will (flattered): You admire it?
Streetboy: I liked it when they cut heads off. And the daughter mutilated with knives.
Will: What is your name?
Streetboy: John Webster. (holding up a mouse on her tail) Here, kitty, kitty! (A cat comes nearer.) Plenty of blood, that’s the only writing!
Will (disgusted): I have to get back. (The mouse screams.)
(Will gives up waiting and returns to the theatre where the rehearsal is in full swing.)
Here’s a confession: as a rule, I don’t like short stories much. (And I’m in SFF! I knoooow.) Cynthia Ozick has said some interesting things about short stories that feel like they’re extracts from a larger world versus short stories that feel complete in and of themselves, and I tend to like the former better, but with some notable exceptions this is not my preferred mode to read or to write in (I’m with Bakhtin on the dialogic novel all the way). This is a little disingenuous to say given that I do read and write a metric ton of fanfic and that fanfic mostly falls into this category, but fanfic is sort of the ultimate case of ‘extracts from a larger world’, even if the narrative shape of a given piece of fanfiction is very ‘short story’ in its form. Thus I think the rules bend around it.
Stopping for a Spell contains three short stories pitched at a younger audience than Diana Wynne Jones normally writes for. I feel more inclined to bullet points than paragraphs today, so that’s what we’re getting. These are stories I feel you could say a lot about, but which I didn’t really love. Is that my mood, the medium, or the stories themselves? Let’s go with ‘all’.
Chair Person (originally published 1989)
* Once again DWJ’s flair for immediate, Dickensian characterization is on show. Here we have intense physical awkwardness and Heepish humility that really, deeply isn’t.
* I wonder if DWJ is trying to say something specific about this family’s class or lifestyle, or if it’s merely a time-jump between their era and mine, but: the food this family eats is weird. Spaghetti from a can, cake mixes for a slightly socially-anxious charity-do (cake mixes aren’t even popular in the UK like they are in the US! Did they used to have a better range of these?), lemon squash, (frozen?) pizzas and (frozen?) chips. I’ve had Spaghetti-Os a couple times in my life, but they’re not really in fashion and I wouldn’t call them ‘spaghetti’ per se. The mom doesn’t work, either, so it’s not a ‘pressed career mother’ sort of thing. I know I’m in a post Great British Bake Off cultural moment, but while in the US ten years ago I might have made a cake mix for a school function for children, I can’t really imagine relying on one for this kind of adult gathering in the UK now? At a children’s party, there are “jellies, cakes, crisps and big bottles of coke”. Jellies (aka Jello)? Whatever floats your boat.
Aisha assures me that this basically represents the children’s party spreads of her youth though, JELLIES AND ALL, so it’s confirmed for India/UK normal.
Yet I remain unsure why there would be Jello at a party. Not as a single, unimportant element of a family bbq or pot luck spread, just like–in and of itself. In a bowl. Like potato chips would be. Not even Jello JIGGLERS. Just Jello!
* DWJ might be trying to say something about television and knowledge, in passing, with Chair Person’s absorptive faux-information and his way of broadcasting it back at people. If she’s making a passing ‘books are better’/’fuck the nascent information age’ swipe, or even just drawing on those feelings in a more subterranean way, she could possibly have developed that idea more.
* Even in this short story we still get a ‘wtf’ DWJ non-ending. Classic. Here the plot derails around some business with the wand and the disappearing box, and the characters themselves admit the resolution was unclear. The siblings’ mum is spared the further intervention of their telescopic philanthropist of a neighborhood busy-body, which I guess is the true resolution, because that and the Chair’s inconvenient personhood were the real narrative conflicts.
* Really nonchalant magic this time, little to no ‘what does this mean’ing or sense of a break from the mundane.
* I’m a little uncomfortable with this story, which is about inconvenience: inconvenient commitments, objects and people. There’s some bleed-through between the neighborhood busy-body’s obnoxious way of going about securing help with her various charitable projects and what she wants to do in and of itself. Are her projects for helping people equally officious and meddling, or is this a kind of complacent, conservative story about the bother of being asked to care? It’s difficult to say: we don’t exactly hear that her help isn’t useful or necessary. Such ‘leave well enough alone’ impulses aren’t very DWJ, really, but then the core problem of the plot is ‘we tried to get rid of an inconvenient old thing that’s been in our house ages, it gained sentience and was a bother, how do we unperson it?’
And no matter how annoying, repulsive and destructive Chair Person is (The story does some good work making you feel the cringing awkwardness of the family’s responses to this ‘new’ guest–the nasty tenor of the way they feel sorry for it. This is a Paddington narrative, but the newcomer is awkward and gross rather than cute.), it’s still hard to hear things like “it’s the only language they understand” from the shopkeeper when he screams at Chair Person and orders it about. That feels, in the context of the characters’ discussions about how maybe Chair Person will learn to be a proper person in time, and how it feels new, and their diminishing sympathy for it, raced? Or perhaps it sits on another axis of Othering–someone suggests their mother’s ‘eccentric old Uncle’ would be happier in a home.
This isn’t to say that DWJ ‘can’t’ or shouldn’t handle such content, or that I don’t think there’s value in being asked to think and feel difficult things about difficult subjects. But these undercurrents just sit in the story, hanging out and making the whole seem kind of cruel rather than opening the story onto deeper considerations. If your response to that is ‘but it’s just a short comedy story for quite young kids!’, well, I’m not sure that matters? It doesn’t make the underlying mechanics creep me out less.
* Another thing about these ‘short stories’ is that they’re structured like little novels, with content pulled out.
* This story also wants to say something about officiousness, but it doesn’t quite coalesce.
The Four Grannies (originally published 1980)
* This is less uncomfortable than chair person, and has a few very fun lines. However that makes me realize that, compared to Jones’ usual high standards here, these protagonists aren’t very characterized (fair enough, in such a short space) and these stories aren’t that funny (which I think is more a function of the age range she’s trying to hit than their length).
* The magic is really scattershot in this one. Granny 3’s transformation into the sort of person who’d visit and bring things is never really explained, I don’t think. Nor is Emily’s ‘conversion’?
* These children’s ages are super vague.
* Do people really eat sardines so often or copiously that they need a special sardine tin opener? Is that different from just a can opener?
* There’s a lot of Incident Business in this one.
* Again, super mundane magic. Clearly a rupture from the ordinary, but not Wondrous.
Who Got Rid of Angus Flint? (originally published 1975)
* Kind of interesting epistolary style. Only one of the three stories in this volume in first person. Female narrator, where the previous two had brother and sister teams. Narrator strangely distant from the piece though–you’d be forgiven for missing her gender. This is curious as I sort of thought it took Jones a while to work into writing female narrators. I’d have to go back to the bibliography and see what gave me that idea, but if it’s at all true, then this is a very early example.
* This, I wouldn’t remarket for children. The titular annoying house guest foists himself upon this family because he’s getting a divorce. He’s getting a divorce because he seems to have beat the shit out of his wife. This is Bad, in the narrative, but not in a monumental way, and the parents (who aren’t portrayed as total shits) still leave this guy alone with their kids, even after he (very early on in his stay!) seems to feel free to painfully physically discipline them.
* This is the earliest of the three stories, but it’s also the best, probably because Jones is operating in something like her usual register rather than laboriously positioning herself for younger children. Again, though it’s the best it’s not something I’d have repackaged in 1996 (that’s when this copy was issued, or re-issued) with no comment.
* Interesting that she had three thematically-similar short stories to bundle. DWJ does have a core body of themes that I could have expected to provide such through-lines, but these aren’t quite them—we don’t get a textually admitted example of Bad Mother Figures or anything classically Jones. I don’t really think of DWJ as a short story writer, but then perhaps I’m wrong and she’s got mountains of them around back. I’d almost think an SFF writer of her era would have had more, due to the shape of the SFF market then. Perhaps it was a little different for her, given her typical focus on non-adult characters and readers?
* Fun ending. Honestly works for me. A DWJ ending! I know! Triumphant (insurrection of magical furniture, brought on by narrator’s enjoining them to respond to unfair insults against them) and then sweet.
* Same treatment of magic as last time, really, but with no Inciting Magical Object. All three of these feel different from DWJ’s varied other treatments of magic. Here magic is more just–plot matter, quotidian.
You may well have heard about Steven Universe (and if you’re aware of the show, you might also be interested in some criticism about it—fingers crossed!). In certain circles (people active on Tumblr and other major media fandom platforms, USians with young children, etc.), this American Cartoon Network show, technically on the cusp of its third season, has been talked up ad nauseum. But outside of the aforementioned circles, the program is far less Universally known (that’s a truly awful pun, and I’m not particularly sorry). Whether or not you’re saturated with Steven, it still merits discussion by virtue of being simultaneously one of the best children’s programs and one of the best science fiction programs of its generation.
Welcome to this month’s Strange Horizons book club! This week we are discussing Hildby Nicola Griffith. Our next book will be Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City by Dung Kai-cheung, and discussions further ahead are listed here. This week we also have a bonus discussion of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, which you can read here.