If we could ask one of the old-world pagans whom he revered as his greatest gods, he would be sure to name among them the sun-god; calling him Apollo if he were a Greek; if an Egyptian, Horus or Osiris; if of Norway, Sol; if of Peru, Bochica. As the sun is the center of the physical universe, so all primitive peoples made it the hub about which their religion revolved, nearly always believing it a living person to whom they could say prayers and offer sacrifices, who directed their lives and destinies, and could even snatch men from earthly existence to dwell for a time with him, as it draws the water from lakes and seas.
In believing this they followed an instinct of all early peoples, a desire to make persons of the great powers of nature, such as the world of growing things, mountains and water, the sun, moon, and stars; and a wish for these gods they had made to take an interest in and be part of their daily life. The next step was making stories about them to account for what was seen; so arose myths and legends.
The sun has always marked out work-time and rest, divided the year into winter idleness, seed-time, growth, and harvest; it has always been responsible for all the beauty and goodness of the earth; it is itself splendid to look upon. It goes away and stays longer and longer, leaving the land in cold and gloom; it returns bringing the long fair days and resurrection of spring. A Japanese legend tells how the hidden sun was lured out by an image made of a copper plate with saplings radiating from it like sunbeams, and a fire kindled, dancing, and prayers; and round the earth in North America the Cherokees believed they brought the sun back upon its northward path by the same means of rousing its curiosity, so that it would come out to see its counterpart and find out what was going on.
All the more important church festivals are survivals of old rites to the sun. “How many times the Church has decanted the new wine of Christianity into the old bottles of heathendom.” Yule-tide, the pagan Christmas, celebrated the sun’s turning north, and the old midsummer holiday is still kept in Ireland and on the Continent as St. John’s Day by the lighting of bonfires and a dance about them from east to west as the sun appears to move. The pagan Hallowe’en at the end of summer was a time of grief for the decline of the sun’s glory, as well as a harvest festival of thanksgiving to him for having ripened the grain and fruit, as we formerly had husking-bees when the ears had been garnered, and now keep our own Thanksgiving by eating of our winter store in praise of God who gives us our increase.
Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit, lends us the harvest element of Hallowe’en; the Celtic day of “summer’s end” was a time when spirits, mostly evil, were abroad; the gods whom Christ dethroned joined the ill-omened throng; the Church festivals of All Saints’ and All Souls’ coming at the same time of year—the first of November—contributed the idea of the return of the dead; and the Teutonic May Eve assemblage of witches brought its hags and their attendant beasts to help celebrate the night of October 31st.
I love it when parcels from Athens-based publisher Pilotless Press show up. The new one is Postlude by Haldon Lockly.
The blurb from Pilotless:
This is a story of the eye, or what the eye sees when it finally opens, though the story pretends to be a story about death (which is actually the case with every story ever written). To add to the confusion, this is also a story about death and about what comes after, although it pretends to be a story about the eye, or what it sees when it finally opens (which is actually the case with most of the stories ever written). If we must be exact, this is the story of a missed paycheck and what comes after, or the story of a man who doesn’t want to die, although he is already dead, or at any rate the story of a man whose eyes are closed and what it takes to open them.
From the 1988 documentary Comic Book Confidential.
Had a surreal moment the other day while reading the Charles Burns’s collected Big Baby strips: I knew the dialogue, somehow, word for word—could actually hear it—but I couldn’t remember from where. I thought maybe Burns had, I don’t know, adapted it from an old movie or something. Anyway, a Google search later and I figured out that I knew it from Savvy Show Stoppers, an album by Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. I owned the album, or, rather a taped version of the album, back in the early nineties—the song “Having an Average Weekend” was the theme for The Kids in the Hall—and the song—actually called “Big Baby”—was the last track—a CD bonus. It was actually written for the film, and that’s Charles Burns doing the vocals.
- When scattered clouds are resting on the bosoms of hills, it seems as if one might climb into the heavenly region, earth being so intermixed with sky, and gradually transformed into it.
- A stranger, dying, is buried; and after many years two strangers come in search of his grave, and open it.
- The strange sensation of a person who feels himself an object of deep interest, and close observation, and various construction of all his actions, by another person.
- Letters in the shape of figures of men, etc. At a distance, the words composed by the letters are alone distinguishable. Close at hand, the figures alone are seen, and not distinguished as letters. Thus things may have a positive, a relative, and a composite meaning, according to the point of view.
- “Passing along the street, all muddy with puddles, and suddenly seeing the sky reflected in these puddles in such a way as quite to conceal the foulness of the street.”
- A young man in search of happiness,–to be personified by a figure whom he expects to meet in a crowd, and is to be recognized by certain signs. All these signs are given by a figure in various garbs and actions, but he does not recognize that this is the sought-for person till too late.
- If cities were built by the sound of music, then some edifices would appear to be constructed by grave, solemn tones,–others to have danced forth to light, fantastic airs.
- Familiar spirits, according to Lilly, used to be worn in rings, watches, sword-hilts. Thumb-rings were set with jewels of extraordinary size.
- A very fanciful person, when dead, to have his burial in a cloud.
Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring got a lot of a buzz when it came out in hardback last year. It’s out in trade paperback now from Picador. Their blurb:
In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the work and lives of six extraordinary men: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver.
All six of these writers were alcoholics, and the subject of drinking surfaces in some of their finest work, from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to A Moveable Feast. Often, they did their drinking together: Hemingway and Fitzgerald ricocheting through the cafés of Paris in the 1920s; Carver and Cheever speeding to the liquor store in Iowa in the icy winter of 1973.
Olivia Laing grew up in an alcoholic family herself. One spring, wanting to make sense of this ferocious, entangling disease, she took a journey across America that plunged her into the heart of these overlapping lives. As she travels from Cheever’s New York to Williams’s New Orleans, and from Hemingway’s Key West to Carver’s Port Angeles, she pieces together a topographical map of alcoholism, from the horrors of addiction to the miraculous possibilities of recovery.
Captivating and original, The Trip to Echo Spring strips away the myth of the alcoholic writer to reveal the terrible price creativity can exert.
You can read an excerpt here.
Not crazy about the claustrophobic cover.
David Mitchell’s latest novel The Bone Clocks is 624 pages in hardback, its sprawling metaphysical plot jammed into six overlapping sections that move through six decades and several genres. Any number of critical placeholders might be applied here: Sweeping, ambitious, genre-skewering, kaleidoscopic (I stole that last one from the book jacket). Or, perhaps we prefer our descriptors more academic? Okay: Postmodern, metatextual, metacritical, polyglossic. With The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has used these functional, formal postmodernist techniques to string together a few good novellas with some not-so-good novellas into a novel that’s not bad—but also not particularly good.The Bone Clocks is just okay. It fills space, it fills time. But unlike Mitchell’s previous stronger novels—Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas in particular—The Bone Clocks fills without nourishing.
The Bone Clocks opens in 1984 with “A Hot Spell,” introducing us to the novel’s ostensible subject, Holly Sykes, a fifteen year-old who runs away from home. This section also introduces us to Mitchell’s consistent idiom here, a first-person present tense narration that forces the plot forward like an engine. When Mitchell needs to deliver any background information, the narrator simply trots out old memories, or a character politely shows up to dump exposition. The exposition-dumping is particularly egregious in the novel’s final sections.
Our heroine Holly Sykes helps out with some of that exposition early on, filling in some of the contours we’ll need to understand if we want to suss out the Big Metaphysical Plot of The Bone Clocks: There are “the radio people,” voices that contact Holly, um, telepathically; there are the strange figures of Marinus and Constantin; there is the drama of Holly’s deep-souled, old-souled little brother Jacko, who ominously makes her memorize a labyrinthine map in the book’s early pages (foreshadowing!):
The one Jacko’s drawn’s actually dead simple by his standards, made of eight or nine circles inside each other.
“Take it,” he tells me. “It’s diabolical.”
“It doesn’t look all that bad to me.”
“ ‘Diabolical’ means ‘satanic,’ sis.”
“Why’s your maze so satanic, then?”
“The Dusk follows you as you go through it. If it touches you, you cease to exist, so one wrong turn down a dead end, that’s the end of you. That’s why you have to learn the labyrinth by heart.”
Christ, I don’t half have a freaky little brother.
“Right. Well, thanks, Jacko. Look, I’ve got a few things to—” Jacko holds my wrist. “Learn this labyrinth, Holly. Indulge your freaky little brother. Please.” That jolts me a bit.
See how young Holly doesn’t quite cotton that Jacko has, like, responded to her by using the same phrase she thought but didn’t say aloud? Mitchell has a talent for crafting characters like this—characters who can’t see their own blind spots, characters utterly naïve to how we see them. Mitchell excelled at this technique in Black Swan Green, whose narrator Jason Taylor describes for us what he cannot name or fully understand. Holly’s 1984 narrative often feels like a rewrite of Black Swan Green. Jason actually shows up—sort of—in The Bone Clocks; his cousin Hugo Lamb, a minor character in Black Swan Green, narrates the section antecedent to young Holly’s story.
Hugo Lamb’s “Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume” propels us to 1991. Lamb is a charming, conniving con man. If young Holly echoes Adam Ewing of Mitchell’s superior novel Cloud Atlas in her naïve innocence (she does), then Hugo Lamb echoes Cloud Atlas’s genius con man, Robert Frobisher. Indeed, most of the central narrators in The Bone Clocks read like familiar repetitions of characters from Cloud Atlas. I enjoyed Frobisher’s plotting and scheming, and I enjoyed it again in Lamb, a sympathetic rake. I was digging The Bone Clocks all through his section, despite feeling vaguely worried that Mitchell was not exactly doing much to flesh out The Big Metaphysical Plot that would have to hold this thing together.