Today’s post is about one of the most frequently taught poems of the early Victorian era, one which has perplexed many an undergraduate (including me, at the time) and even more seasoned readers, I think primarily because they are waiting for it to tell a story, or give an explanation, of however attenuated a kind. And it does both of these things in its own way, except that its own way is not that of the usual lyric poem; rather, it is an encapsulation of a lyric moment caught by the “eye” of a painter who was also a poet. This multi-talented individual was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists and writers.
The poem is “The Woodspurge,” a modest title in line with the mostly restrained and simple words used. The overall effect, however, is anything but simple. Here is the poem in its entirety, all four four-line stanzas, which have been quoted elsewhere on the Internet previously as well:
“The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,/Shaken out dead from tree and hill;/I had walked on at the wind’s will–/I sat now, for the wind was still./Between my knees my forehead was–/My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!/My hair was over in the grass,/My naked ears heard the day pass./My eyes, wide open, had the run/Of some ten weeds to fix upon;/Among those few, out of the sun,/The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one./From perfect grief there need not be/Wisdom or even memory;/One thing then learned remains to me–/The woodspurge has a cup of three.”
Now to embark upon an interpretation, which is of course only one among many possible, but which I believe has some points to recommend it, such as its close reliance upon the items found in the poem, without adding possibly spurious additional material.
The first stanza begins by stressing that even when the speaker is in motion, as when walking, he is passively affected in the main: when the wind pushes him along, he walks; when the wind ceases, he sits. The wind is said to be “shaken out dead,” and indeed he is deathlike and still, or at least motionless, when the wind dies down.
Though many people think that the arcania of rhetorical figuration is mainly limited to such figures as similes, metaphors, apostrophes, and other such figures more common to poetry, it is a fact that in this poem Rossetti uses both paralipsis and litotes (in the second and third stanzas respectively), which perhaps occur less often in poetic circumstances. Here in the second stanza, the speaker “paints a picture” of himself with head hanging low, and says that his lips did not say “alas.” Well, why should they? We don’t know, but by saying that he did not say something he is in fact saying, the poet is using the figure of paralipsis, which is denying that one is making a statement while in fact making it. He speaks of his naked ears, and here the word “naked” is like the word “dead” in the first stanza, in that it is a powerful and evocative word that stands out as unusual; there is a sense that he is unprotected; there is a sense of vulnerability.
In the third stanza, this same sense of vulnerability occurs when we are told that his eyes are “wide open,” and therefore exposed. At first we think that they are not exposed to much, it is true, as his head is hanging between his knees, but this seems to be a case of much from little. Using the figure of litotes, or understatement, he says that he can see “ten weeds,” which is surely not all he can see even given his restricted field of vision. Weeds and grass grow thickly, after all. This figure of understatement produces a sense of lowness (as does his crouch), and depression. Among these weeds, he focuses on the woodspurge because is it different and isolated, as he the speaker too is isolated, even among natural things and nature, though in poetry these are very often seen as potentially sympathetic, even sometimes to the extreme of using the “pathetic fallacy,” in which a speaker’s or character’s emotions are said to be experienced by a natural force or being. The woodspurge is “out of the sun” literally because it is overshadowed by the speaker’s limbs and head hanging; the speaker himself is “out” of a sort of shining grace, of happiness.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker brings up “perfect grief,” and suggests that there is no wisdom which comes from it or memory which can resolve it. Though the reader may experience a sense of shock at this sudden introduction of intense emotion as a subject, yet there is something about it which shows fittingness as well. Even though it “ups the ante” in a sudden way, it’s appropriate because we know that all this so far has been adding up to something, some climax. The last two lines contain a living crystallization of a moment of pain and suffering, the sense of “perfect grief” as embodied in the totally a-historical symbol of the woodspurge. That is, before Rossetti wrote his poem, there was no necessary connection between the tiny weed/flower and sorrow; since his poem, I doubt that anyone aware of the poem, either seeing the poem and/or seeing the woodspurge knowingly, could help but think of the emotional connection.
This poem “The Woodspurge” is an excellent introduction to the Pre-Raphaelite notion that a poem (or a painting) can be about a moment of intense emotion without a history in words of the cause (though of course many of the paintings were of characters from literature or myth). As well, to anyone themselves subject to the feelings recorded in the poem, “The Woodspurge” itself is a woodspurge-in-words which can capture their own emotions, again without an actual historical rehearsing of the cause of the emotions. Thus the vagueness of the “backstory,” as it’s called now, makes the poem itself more universal and accessible to more people. The statement that “One thing then learned remains to me–/The woodspurge has a cup of three” betrays the lastingness of the grief and the simultaneous poverty and wealth of sorrow: sorrow is full and overflowing, so full that the speaker cannot say more than he does, yet it leaves him empty of all but the final awareness of the association between his emotion and what he sees at the extreme moment of its intensity.
At the risk myself of having made much of a little thing, I have written this analysis of one of Rossetti’s most famous poems, maybe the most well-known, because it is so perfect of its kind. I hope that you too will find it answers to your notion of a fine work of art, and will remember its beauty at any time when you feel that the world’s beauty has deserted you: the woodspurge may be a simple flower, but it is a deceptively simple poem, and one which has much to offer to those who would notice.
After waiting for a considerable while for China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station to become available at my local library, long after I’d already read his loosely (very loosely) connected second and third books pertaining to the same world (The Scar and Iron Council), I was ready to write a post. Nevertheless, it was the middle of the Christmas-New Year’s holiday break, and so I gave myself a few weeks off to do what people do during the holidays, at least partially due to the grim nature of the first book, which since I read it last functioned as a sort of prequel, willy-nilly. Somehow, it was so masterful that I wanted to comment upon it, but so dour and again “grim” that I couldn’t bring myself to put a blight on the holidays by focusing on it.
Now, however, the New Year has begun, and it’s time to face realities, so since my New Year’s resolution, such as it is, is to get back to a more regular posting schedule, it’s time to face Perdido Street Station head-on. First let me say that the book begins at the beginning in the sense of building the world of New Crobuzon, a city which reminds me very much of a world-class city like London (the city of which Miéville is a citizen). It’s in the first book thus that we get hints of themes and types of characters developed in all three of the books. For example, the government and the militia are overwhelmingly strong and overbearing, putting their fingers not only in every legal “pie” going, but also in most of the illegal ones, whatever will turn a profit for the individuals in power. As well, there are drugs and illicit activities abounding in the society at large, which the government polices on the one hand and attempts to regulate for their own use on the other. Challenging the nature of this corruption are such bodies as the outlawed rebel presses, one of which publishes the forbidden newspaper Runagate Rampant, and folk heroes such as Jack Half-a-Prayer, a rebel who helps from the shadows to set things right in whatever way he can. Caught in between are natives of many races, like the khepri (semi-human semi-beetles) and the vodyanoi (frog-like characters capable of controlling water power), and cactacae (cactus people), who must choose sides and duck prejudice and unfairness.
The main character of this book is a scientist-cum-renegade named Isaac Grimnebulin, who is approached by a member of a humanoid bird race from the desert, called a garuda. This garuda asks him to rebuild or restore his wings, which have been removed as a punishment for a crime against another garuda. The garuda claims that he is unable to explain the crime in the language that a human would comprehend, but it involved depriving another garuda of choice in one of his/her life decisions. They become friends, and in the process of trying to study flying things in order to know how to use aerodynamics and his special study of crisis technology, Isaac unintentionally becomes involved in a massive plot which brings danger to the whole city, and which he and his friends must correct.
At the center of the conspiracy is a costly drug known as “dreamshit,” a substance which not only the government but also any number of criminals are trying to control the distribution of. This substance comes from a phenomenally powerful and dangerous creature known as a slake-moth, a huge flying being whose larvae are fed on the dreamshit which humans steal and take as a drug. When Isaac unknowingly raises a caterpillar that becomes a slake-moth and breaks free, freeing as well its brothers and sisters from a laboratory where they are kept, all hell breaks loose, to put it mildly. The government is hunting Isaac and his friends for even ever having had the slake-moth, and for interfering in their plans to sell them to a gangster. And in ignorance of this conspiracy between the government and the gangster, Mr. Motley, Isaac’s khepri lover Lin accepts a job from the gangster which she thinks is simple because it seems only to involve making a statue of him.
The book is involved, painful, and full of incident; it is as full of harsh events and no-way-out circumstances as any realistic novel. There is no way that this book could bear the typical label of science fiction/fantasy, “escape literature,” because the creatures, characters, events, and symbols of everyday life are all paralleled by what is actually in our world, regardless of how unrealistic they at first seem. Note, however, that I am not calling it a bad book; on the contrary, it’s a real gem of a book to read and think about, and I’m even glad that I read it last, because I think it’s no less substantial than the other two books and even surpasses them in the sense that it initiates the reader into a new kind of fiction which while fantastic in specifics is full of humanism and moral pointedness in its generalities and themes. Don’t go here if you are looking for an escape; but go here if you are in search of a finely-crafted, highly artistic literary experience that fulfills most reasonable expectations of surprising you and rewarding you and confirming your experiences and intuitions of how living beings should and should not treat each other. You will certainly find what you seek in this book by China Miéville.
What, my readers may ask, has possessed me to go two weeks without posting a single word on my WordPress.com blog? Why do I think that people will just wait around and tolerate being neglected? Have I been sitting around twiddling my thumbs, picking my nose, staring at nothing? Well, no. Truth to tell, I’ve been getting ready for Christmas. And I’ve been getting ready for Christmas for several weeks now, and now have only two gifts left to buy, a huge bone (4 1/2 foot long) for my brother’s hound and something more potable for my brother (shhhh! don’t anyone tell them–they don’t read my blog). It has just seemed that every time I think I’m done, I get another great gift idea, and I persuade myself that I can spare the money, and so I do, and there we go.
My adventure started near the end of October, when the first catalogs advertising Christmas items came out. Forewarned is forearmed, and I had been told that ordering either online or on the phone was going to be drastically slowed this year, and so I looked up interesting gifts in the catalogs in October. But I didn’t actually buy many gifts in October, because the catalogs hadn’t got the lower or lowest prices yet. I ordered a few things that might take till forever to come in, and then I waited for the next catalogs to come out, so that I could order from them in November. Of course, I had some independent ideas which I researched on Amazon.com, and a very few items that I waited until this past week to pick up at the stores in person. But the predominance of my gifts I was able to order online or on the phone, and I had that done well within the month of November. Then all I had to do was wait for stuff to come in.
By the first of December, I was ready to wrap, and so I started wrapping. We put up our tree, and now all of my gifts except the two I mentioned are under the tree, awaiting their inevitable unveiling on Christmas morning. But there were still cards to do, and I always bake for some people here where I live, and that still needed to be done. Of course, the cards went by in a flash in one blitz of an evening, and I started doing my bread baking yesterday and stayed up all night finishing it last night (when I get motivated, I get motivated!). It was made easier (and cheaper) this year because so many people had told me they didn’t want cookies this year. Usually, I make four kinds, about 24 dozen cookies in all, but this year I settled on loaves of sourdough bread. This was convenient, as I was already planning to wake up my sourdough starter from its sleep in the fridge in order to take it up to my brother’s for Christmas so that we could make sourdough English muffins.
Since yesterday, I have finished the main part of my baking. The only people I have still to bake for are the ladies at the local charity shop, for whom we usually do a cookie tray. I think this year I will do a tray of sourdough bites with cheeses for them, by way of a change for the both of us. So now, I’m sitting looking at dirty dishes, feeling like I need a good nap after my all-nighter up baking, but still too wired to sleep. And of course starting last night late or early this morning really, we began to have a nor’easter (a storm off the ocean, full of rain and high winds, with some threats of flooding). The storm is going to last probably until tomorrow noon, so I have to be ready with towels and things to dry out the windows and sop up water, which is a fortune most people who are anywhere near a coast are familiar with. But I’m not really complaining; I’m done with so many things, and now I’m just very excited and can’t wait for Christmas to come.
That’s really the way of it, isn’t it? When you’re young, you generally think of Christmas as a time when you get things from indulgent family members and friends, and it’s a rare child who appreciates the sheer fun of giving. But once you get to be an adult, the fun is in surprising someone else with something bought or made that they will enjoy or profit from. So, here I sit, two weeks and two days before Christmas, waiting and waiting and waiting for the big day to come, so that I can celebrate with people I care about. And all this fooferall of my post is just to assure my readers that they are people I care about too, toward whom I feel I have a responsibility to post regularly and as interestingly as possible, even if I don’t know their names and they never comment. I hope this posting finds you well and deep in your own plans for whatever winter or December holiday you observe, and waiting eagerly for the next real literary post to come along. I promise to do one soon, as soon as I have recuperated from my own holiday efforts and have a chance to sit down and read again. Until then, cheers!
Yes, I’ve just read another of China Miéville’s book, this one entitled The Kraken, in which the legendary sea monster the kraken is a giant squid, namely one that is preserved in a glass tank in London’s Natural History Museum and Darwin Centre, both real places about which the author has chosen to spin fantasy. This book is so complicated, so involved, with so many different characters and so many various changes of direction in the plot and the nefarious fictional plots some of the villains dream up, that it is hard to center a discussion on any one aspect of the story.
The main protagonist, Billy Harrow, works at the Darwin Centre as the person who has been responsible for preserving the giant squid in its tank, and he has also had the job of acting as tour guide for some of the tours of the center; the main spectacle that many of his patrons come to see, impatiently waiting through the other items of the tour, is, of course, the squid. So imagine Billy’s surprise when one day he leads the tour group in only to find that the squid is missing! Someone has purloined something from under his care, and he himself becomes one of the suspects.
Little by little, various “facts” come to light, such as that there is a private society, a religious group, which worships the squid, and one of Billy’s fellow employees turns out to be a follower. As the two of them team up together as at first unwilling companions and gradually loyal friends, they discover together the seamy side of London’s magical world, and do battle with many different villains with many different agendas, but all of them seeming to have to do something with the squid. There is even a special police squad devoted to policing the magical world and keeping its denizens in a kind of order, and Billy and his friend must not only hide from and try to outwit the villains, but also hide from and outwit the special police squad, which suspects them of having taken the squid.
London itself is a character in this book, and supports many different kinds of “knacking,” or witchery. There are those who hunt down others like Billy and his friend Dane, there are key villains like the Tattoo, a face inked on a man’s back, who not only controls the man but controls a criminal empire of such subordinates as people half-made into devices, and gunfarmers, whose bullets when wedged in flesh grow little guns, like maggot eggs. Then, there’s Grisamentum, a villain supposedly dead, who yet lives on in his employee’s fervor and comes back to life in odd ways which I won’t ruin the surprise by describing. There are familiars who go on strike and refuse to work, memory angels in the museums and libraries who defend the magic stores therein, and many twists and turns of loyalties and subplots to keep the avid reader busy.
So complex is this book that I feel I should stop reviewing it at this point, and leave you to follow up on it for yourself, only making the further remark that no one in the book with the exception of Billy’s non-knacking friend Leon, who meets with a sad end, is who or what they first seem, not even Billy, who is surprised to discover some odd and totally unexpected talents in himself as he is exposed more and more to the magical world. Let’s leave it at this: this book celebrates cityscape, London’s in particular, and yet does so by exploring it as a magical land full of strange omissions, missions, and contradictions. It’s one of the books I had intended to offer as a Halloween treat, only I had problems getting a copy of it to finish reading at that time. Suffice it to say that there are campy comical passages which will simultaneously chill your blood and make you laugh aloud with the shiver, while also requiring a careful attention to your own particular memory angel in order to keep track of what’s happening. So read this book, won’t you, and enjoy yet another of this phenomenal author’s gifted output: I can promise you won’t regret taking the time to peruse this exploration of godhood, the end of time, schemes, dreams, and patched-together tactics, and the joyous good humor behind it all, which drops both dated and more contemporary references side by side, in a romp through what could be London’s magical history, if anyone had been keeping track.
I’ve reviewed two or three of China Miéville’s books before, and it’s important to say that each one, even those taking place in the same imaginative world, are all unique from each other. Perdido Street Station, the first of three books about New Crobuzon, a world-class city state of Bas-Lag, was not available from the library when I first started, so I picked up with the second book, The Scar, read and reviewed it, and now I’ve finished the third book, Iron Council, and have some remarks which I hope are pertinent to make about it. By the time I get to the original book, Perdido Street Station, I should be able to read it as a sort of prequel, and I’m sure I will still enjoy it. But on with Iron Council.
Whereas The Scar took place on the sea and was in a sort of middle-time, with its emphasis on New Crobuzon as a world sea power, Iron Council shows the city many years later torn apart from without and within by a war with the powerful Tesh sea-lords and thaumaturges, and by the anarchy and rebellion of its disadvantaged and dissenting citizens. The so-called Iron Council is a group of rebels who have taken over a train which was supposed to cross the continent to the “greater glory” of New Crobuzon. But instead of building a railway from the East to the West, as was the mission of the man in charge, a mad visionary named Weather Wrightby, the Iron Councillors–composed of the free people, the enslaved “Remade” peoples (who have been physically altered with animal and machine parts by the government of New Crobuzon to punish them for offenses), and the peoples of other kinds of life forms who have been maltreated by the government–have taken off with the train across continent by laying down tracks and then taking them up behind as the train passes. They then re-use the ties and rails in front of the train again, and continue repeating the process, making it difficult for the government militia to follow them.
Meanwhile, back in New Crobuzon, the many different factions in rebellion who are loosely loyal to a central Caucus of rebels, yet often can’t agree among themselves about goals and resources, take inspiration from the tales they hear at a distance about the Iron Council, and sporadically there are citizens going back and forth from one group to the other, carrying messages and forming alliances. Each group has its difficulties and trials, and the book shows these in detail: for the Iron Councillors and their followers, it’s a matter of staying alive through a rough journey across an unknown continent with dangers such as smokestone (smoke which rises unpredictably from the earth like a geyser and creates a stone figure from whatever it touches) and the cacotopic stain, a portion of the land wherein everything flows and slides, including the landscape and the strange beasts that emerge from it. The travellers themselves are sometimes suddenly made to shift shape and die horrible deaths in the peculiar effluvia of the terrain, and yet they manage to emerge and sow in their path villages and homesteads by the train’s road.
But as dreadful visitations from the magicians of Tesh act upon the city of New Crobuzon, so at the same time the government sees an opportunity to crack the whip again over its escapees; the militia has circled the continent by water, and approached from the West to get at the Iron Councillors, hoping to end their ability to inspire revolution amongst the Caucus and revolutionaries at home in the city. The book is bifurcated, with some chapters telling the tale of Ori, a young revolutionary in the city, and the friends and cohorts he finds, and other chapters telling the tale of Cutter and Judah Low (a golem-maker of rare quality) and their friends and associates. As the book works toward its close, representatives of the two groups come together in the city and try to fight the government as one, yet the many factions, the uncertain information, and the massive effort aimed against them keep them constantly off-balance. This picture that Miéville paints is fantastic in some of its specifics, such as the otherworldly monsters and thaumaturgy that invest the story with its horrific aspects, yet the picture is highly true-to-life in its portrait of the interactions of people fighting and trying to win through together. It is everyman’s story of a revolution, and in the middle of it is the tender and frustrated love of Cutter for Judah Low, an inner story which takes place almost certainly in every revolt where people are close and must trust each other with their lives.
As I have said, the verisimilitude of the book when it comes to the interactions that guide peoples’ allegiances and loyalties in a revolution is spot-on; even those who have never as much as read a factual book about mutiny or rebellion will recognize the players in the drama in the book as they attempt to forge bonds or break ties or achieve their goals. After all, these faces are those of the real-life heroes and villains we see every day as we listen to the news, gossip about celebrities and political figures, and vote someone into or out of office. Granted, the book is fiction and is about an extreme season in a country’s history; yet I believe you too will begin to feel that the characters in this book remind you of someone you have heard about from the daily news, some rebel or warlord or senator. In China Miéville’s fantasy/science fiction, we constantly deal with the real, and see the shadows of a past, present, and perhaps of a future familiar to us. I won’t give away the book’s ending, but I will say that it is “lyrical,” as the blurb writer on the cover says, and is in some ways the only possible ending which could walk evenly between euphoria and despair; give the book a read sometime soon, and I predict that you too will be impressed with this author’s outstanding ability to provoke, entertain, and teach with a new voice.
A scar, or a cicatrix, or a series of scars, appears pertinently in three or four places in the book The Scar by China Miéville. It is the second of his three books about the world of New Crobuzon and its denizens, the first being Perdido Street Station and the third being Iron Council. The books are loosely connected and feature a world of cityscapes, seascapes, hard laws, and maritime justice. This book, The Scar, happens to be the one I picked up first, and so I’m making my post on it first, not having read Perdido Street Station yet. The Scar itself embodies a scar across the face of New Crobuzon, taking place mostly on the imaginary world of Bas-Lag’s oceans and seas in a piratical kingdom known as Armada, one opposed to New Crobuzon’s rule of the easily known parts of the world’s waters, and subsisting on what it can steal and rob from others.
But I should start at the beginning. The main protagonist, a woman named Bellis Coldwine, is fleeing her beloved New Crobuzon in a ship bound for colonies in Nova Esperium because she is afraid of being questioned by authorities for her possible connections with a scientist known as Isaac, a man having something to do with a contagion in New Crobuzon. She has done nothing, but has a strong feeling that this will not help her to maintain her own rights and freedom from imprisonment. In fact, she uses her abilities as a translator of arcane languages to win her a berth aboard the Terpsichoria, a ship which also contains in its hull a number of prisoners with their own kinds of actual scars. Their scars are the physical ones of the “Remade,” people whose bodies have been fitted with odd and outlandish limbs and gadgets to punish them for some infraction or other. Her logic that outlaws are more comfortable in the colonies is fine, as far as it goes; that is, until the New Crobuzoner ship reaches the land of some of its allies, the cray people, only to find that one of its own three drilling towers maintained on the cray people’s harbor is missing!
At this point, things begin to destabilize around Bellis, and because of decisions taken by others, over which she has no control, she finds herself prisoner in a casual way aboard a pirate vessel which absorbs the ship she is on and adds it to a floating pirate city farther away in the waters, a city made up not only of its own native citizens, but far more of a community of freed Remade (or fRemade) peoples, people who have accepted a change in allegiance in exchange for their lives, and odd people from here and there across the face of the world who have lost their homes to the pirates or to chance.
Bellis never gives up hope of getting back home to New Crubuzon, where she hopes she will be able to return when she is no longer being sought. But before this can happen, she goes through a scarring and self-changing life experience in the pirate city. The city is divided into ridings ruled by powerful sea-lords, not excluding one called the Brucolac (a vampir), who has a “cadre” of vampirs working with him. Another riding, or city section, is ruled by a man and woman called “the Lovers,” who have a strange history which Bellis Coldwine gradually susses out with the mysteriously inclined help of their henchman, one Uther Doul, a mercenary fighter who controls a mysterious Possible Sword, which makes several different possibilities happen at once when he fights. Bellis is appalled by the way the lovers join, by making mirror image cuts on themselves and the other as an act of twisted love; they, of course, have scars, but more scarring still is the experience they foist upon the city, the experience of seeking a mysterious rift in the world called “The Scar,” where all things and all possibilities exist at once.
When Bellis and a man whom she thinks of as a sort of ally, one New Crobuzon spy named Silas Fennec (or Simon Fench) plot to sneak a message back to New Crobuzon about a supposedly eager-to-invade people named the grindylows, and involve a loyal fRemade man named Tanner Sack in their plot, Bellis finds out too late that she has been played by Silas Fennec, as has Tanner Sack, and there is actually much more than meets the eye to this spy who supposedly had only escape at heart. She and Tanner Sack both are punished with lashes on the back, and thus she painfully and in agony acquires her own scars in this world, where the scars are both physical and psychic, but seemingly in equal measure hurtful. But Silas Fennec has much more to suffer than they, not only from the pirate’s sense of justice, but also from the grindylows, who skulk along the bottom of the oceans until their time to strike comes.
There is a lot of wounding in this book, many weeping cuts and hacks and numerous psychological and physical bruises, and a lot of blood. Throughout the book, Bellis is writing a letter to a friend at home, which is interspersed with the narrative sections written in third person about her, as well as sections told in first person from several others’ points of view. Both Bellis’s letter and her narrative sections as well as those of the others startle and shock with their grisly details; this is not a book for someone with a weak stomach.
Still, this book is consistent in several major ways with other books I’ve read by Miéville: it is full of unexpected twists and turns; alliances change and merge as the book progresses; the book is an intellectual delight at the same time as it is a visceral nightmare; and one makes it through the nightmare by following the patterns of thought traced by a main figure who thinks and feels his or her way through the bloody images and happenings, to a resolution that strikes one as being a sort of “settling” for the best that can happen, under adverse circumstances. This resolution pattern is what gives the books a strong sense of reality which makes the fantasy/science fiction elements more believable. And Miéville never once condescends to his readers, in fact he imposes stresses and strains on his readers’ ability to understand by insisting on not offering translations and explanations of terminology, but by instead merely presenting items of lexicon and interpretation simply and making the reader progress ahead with an imperfect sense of what exactly is meant, which of course is mimetic of the experience the characters are going through. Above all, no one character knows everything: there’s no final sense of authority to appeal to. All rules are conditioned by circumstances of conjecture and hypothesis, until the truth, at least the probable truth, becomes clear to main characters and thus to the reader. Most things, by the end, are simply a matter of personal choice, but not free choice unconditioned by life’s circumstances, rather by acceptance that there are limited moves available left on the chess board, and one must take oneself in hand and choose one’s own outcome. And this is what makes Miéville’s work so exciting–the combination of outrageous fantasy with hard choices and realistic character traits. But don’t take my word for it–read one of his works soon, and see for yourself. Chances are, he will leave a creative cicatrix on your imagination, he will leave his mark on you. One thing is certain, whether you like what you are able to visualize from his word pictures or not, you will certainly “see” them, in all their vivid (and sometimes gory) vitality, and my prediction is that you will be eager to read him again and again.
George Waterson, our hero, stands up on a cold, frozen beach, wet and shaky all through himself, and looks around. Something tells him that his luck has finally turned against him, as he realizes that after his boat, the Lucy, has broken up in the waves behind him, that all he can do now is to go on up to the old Hales’ house, on what is known locally as “Haunted Ground.” As he trudges up the long hill ahead of him, he can clearly hear his heart beating like thunder, and very slowly. He feels tired and worn out.
As he looks up to the house above him, he sees lighted windows, and thinks to himself that the woman for whom he has an unrequited love, Sue, will be laid out in one of the rooms. Her death is recent: a burglar came into the old house, the first burglar in the little town in twenty years, and shot her. Her mother Mrs. Hale is also said to be sick from the shock of the incident, according to the callous village gossip.
George as he’s climbing begins to remember the many times he, Sue, and his friend John did things together growing up: they had snowball fights with hydrangeas, he gave Sue rides on his pony while the envious John trailed along behind. But the thing he remembers most is the grief he felt when Sue told him that she was engaged to John. Still, there was more to it. He remembers his shock and shame when he felt triumph at John’s being lost in his boat off Brenton’s reef, as George pretended to comfort Sue whole-heartedly. Sue had said then: ‘”Anyway, living in Haunted Ground, I’ll see him again when I’m old, the way Granny used to do.”‘
He keeps climbing, but has a nagging feeling that he left something of importance on the beach behind him with the wrecked bits of his boat. His clothes feel dry already in the cold wind. He continues to feel grief not only because Sue is dead, but because he believe that in time he might have won her away from her memories of John, to be his own wife.
Finally, he reaches the house and knocks. No one answers. Possibly in fright, his heart seems to beat even more loudly. Again he knocks, fighting off the feeling that there is something vital left on the beach behind; surely there was nothing left from the wreck that he would have had with him? Still, no one answers. He reaches out and opens the door, entering where the sitting-room door is open and lets welcome warmth into the hall. He sees Sue’s coffin in the center of the sitting-room. Mrs. Hale is waking it sitting in a rocker in the room. He thinks it is really unusual not to see her knitting or sewing.
He apologizes to the old lady, whose mind seems to be overcome with grief as well. She answers, ‘”That’s all right, George; if I’d known what you were I’d have let you in. Sit down.”‘ She seems vague and exhausted. He goes toward the coffin to view Sue, but weirdly, Mrs. Hale warns him not to “disturb” her. The old lady continues,”‘I figured she was tired, and she’s laid out so pretty I’m just letting her rest awhile. She’s to be buried Thursday.'” George is now seriously worried that the old lady has become unhinged, and as he gazes searchingly at “the girl’s uncovered face, the rich gold-brown hair, long lashes making shadows on the cheeks, delicate, warm mouth,” his heart beats even more loudly, and he thinks naggingly again of something down on the beach, though he can’t understand why his mind insists on being in two places at once when he is grieving Sue so profoundly.
Mrs. Hale asks him how he got there, and he says that when he heard about Sue, he didn’t want to live anymore, and so he went out in his boat in the midst of the storm. He was sorry that he had washed ashore on their beach, because it reminded him of his loss, but he says he’s glad he came up now. She responds, “‘It’s hard for you, George. She’ll be seeing John after church on Thursday.'” This strikes him as an odd way to talk about Sue’s potential afterlife. She keeps talking to him, but her voice fades out, as if she’s barely able to enunciate. He figures they are both suffering from shock, and he hears the knocking of his heart even more, as if his ears have been damaged by being cast adrift in the surf.
He tells the old lady gently that they both seem to be suffering from shock, though she says she feels better now that things are over. He tries to tell her about how her voice fades out from time to time as she’s talking, and she seems not quite to believe him. Then he says that he can hear his heart beating overloudly in his ears, and he’s been so battered by the storm that it feels as if someone or something is pulling at his shoulder. The old woman responds with a sort of hysterical cry and tells him to “‘Get back to the beach, get back to the beach, you still have time!'”
This makes his hair stand on end, as she tries to tell him something in her nearly inaudible voice. Finally, in a last-ditch effort to make him understand, she jumps up and throws the bedroom door open. “‘Look,'” she says. There her body lies, “serene and pale,” on the counterpane. Mrs. Hale shouts, “‘They’ve found you on the beach, that’s what you hear, what’s shaking your shoulder. Your heart’s still beating. You’ve got time to go back, to live, to find someone else than Sue. Sue’s meeting John on Thursday. Go back to the beach.” He realizes then the thing of importance that he’s left on the shore, and he feels “panic and black horror.” Then, as he turns to go towards the door, he runs up against Sue’s coffin. He asks if Sue is “in there,” and Mrs. Hale affirms it, but warns him not to wake her, and tells him to hurry. George thinks carefully. The last paragraph of the story reads:
“‘You know, Mrs. Hale, John was my best friend.’ He sat down. ‘Those heartbeats are very slow; they’ll be over in a minute.'”
This story is a bit dated, perhaps, but maybe the twists and turns of the tale as I have retold it aren’t too old and tattered to give you just a bit of a chill down your spine. To all of my faithful readers and to any new friends I might have found along the way, have a Happy and Scary Halloween, and I’ll be posting again next week sometime!