A Course in Rawàng Ata: 1.3

LESSON THREE

Forming the Plural

Like English, Rawàng Ata can mark nouns to show that they are plurals. Unlike English, this is done not through a suffix but through reduplication of the initial syllable.

lutà, ‘ball’ > lulutà, ‘balls’

hàni, ‘mat’ > hafàni [NB. sandhi: ah > af]

As seen in the last example, reduplication does not copy accents. However, it can copy coda consonants, diphthongs, and long vowels. When this occurs, an original long vowel may be shortened.

taita, ‘nail’ > tataita, taitaita

runta, ‘floor’ > rurunta, rundunta [NB. sandhi: n+r=nd]

fōna , ‘foreigner’ > fofōna, fōfōna, fōfona

Which of the possible plurals will be used will depend on the individual’s whim, dialect and register, but none are incorrect.

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Using the Plural

Unlike in English, in Rawàng Ata the distinction is not between a plural and a singular, but between a plural and a ‘non-plural’. The plural is used only to refer to multiple, distinct, definite objects, and only when that distinctness is important. It is not used for universals, for generalisations, or for abstracts.

datta wohola fofōna

the sailor strikes these foreigners here (though he doesn’t strike all foreigners)

datta wohola fōna

the sailor strikes the foreigner/all foreigners/foreigners in general/foreigners including these ones/most foreigners/typical foreigners

However, although the plural requires a definite, actual object, only one representative object must be actual – other objects may be out of sight or hypothesised. So, if, in this example, one foreigner is struck while the others are out of the room, the plural is still allowable. The important thing is the definiteness, and the suggestion of a group of similar things.

Confusingly, this means the plural can sometimes be used for singular objects. In these cases, the speaker is imputing membership of a group of similar things, even though the speaker knows or suspects that there is no such group, or has no such group in mind. The intention is to separate out this particular object, in this case a particular foreigner, from other objects of the same kind by imputing a sub-group: similar roles are fulfilled by English phrases like ‘their kind’, or ‘that sort’ (‘the sailor hates that foreigner and their kind’, ‘the sailor avoids that sort of foreigner’). In this sense, this usage is usually derogatory or dismissive.

“Singular” plurals also occur to give the idea of progression, taking things as they come: in this case, the implication would be that the sailor is going to strike every foreigner, or every foreigner of that type, that he comes across, even if only one is actually present and struck so far. An English translation would be “the sailor is hitting foreigners”, which we might say even if only one foreigner has been struck so far, if we believe the trend will or may continue.

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Forming and Using the Singular

Rawàng Ata also has a genuine singular, but it is far more restricted in use than the English equivalent. It is used when one and only one object is concerned, and only when it is important to make that singularity clear.

datta wohola fōnaònga

the sailor strikes this one particular specific foreigner

It may also be used more colloquially to refer to only a small part of an object: in this case, the sailor may have struck the foreigner’s hand or foot.

As can be seen, the singular is formed from the non-plural by the suffix –ònga.

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Forming and Using the Perplural

A final, marginal number used in Rawàng Ata is the perplural. This is formed by repeating the reduplication process that creates plurals, and the construction is used to indicate an immense, uncountable, overwhelming, or excessive number.

fōna > fofofōna, fōfōfōna, fofōfona, fōfōfona, fōfofona, fofōfōna, ‘a sea of foreigners’, ‘a surfeit of foreigners’, ‘an excess of foreigners’.

In normal speech, perplurals use the same reduplication method for both duplications. So, fofofōna, fōfōfōna or fōfofona are all likely to be heard, but fofōfona is not. However, elaborate and confusing perplurals are common stylistic features in writing and poetry.

In normal speech, any perplural is emphatic, almost histrionic. Theoretically, the excess can be further emphasises by multiple reduplications, but this is usually used only with comic intentions, or in literature.

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LAST NOTE

Number will be returned to later. The above notes only address number of inanimate count nouns, and the situation for animates and mass nouns is more complex.

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Vocabulary

taka = to collide with

This is the verb used for unintentional collisions, and collisions between objects without planned trajectories.

ruaya- = wipe, clean, polish

This verb is used for the result of methodical or sustained friction between a hard thing and a soft thing. It need not be intentional – it is also the verb used for the action of water on a stone, for instance.

baryōng = house, estate

The baryōng is the fundamental manifestation of family and class. It is a house – but that word does not do it credit. A single baryōng can house dozens of individuals – not only the extended family of the owners themselves, but also the families of their servants, and sometimes semi-independent client families. Each baryōng is in turn divided into several different sà runta, “collections of floors”, each a building in its own right, each elevated in most cases above the ground, as well as several garden areas, and the walkways that connect the piers. An individual’s class is a function of their location within the baryōng. Furthermore, the largest sà runta, those of the families owning the baryōng, are themselves divided into several different ‘wings’, synecdochally known as runta, for different parts of the family.

= ‘heart-post’

If the baryōng represents the family, the represents the baryōng. It is a single wooden post, usually the rounded, debarked trunk of a tree, which extends from the ground beneath the house to the highest peak of its roof, and represents the continuity of the people and the world, and of the present, past and future inhabitants of the baryōng. The is the family; in the Discord, revolutionary groups would burn and hack apart the of the house to end all debts and obligations owed to the family and to express its illegitimacy – an act of vandalism still punished by death and worse.    

A Course in Rawàng Ata: 1.2

LESSON TWO

The Accusative Case

Rawàng Ata is a language with multiple noun cases. One of the most commonly encountered is the accusative case, into which the objects of transitive sentences are usually placed. This is usually indicated by the suffix –ma.

datta wohola lutàma

the sailor strikes the ball

However, Rawàng Ata makes use of a process named sandhi, in which the sounds of certain affixes may be altered by the sounds within the word they are added to. In this case, the case suffix can be affected by labial dissimilation sandhi, in which the sounds m, and w are replaced by n and h if the preceding consonant is b, m, l or r, unless the intervening vowel is long.

datta wohola kòmana

the sailor strikes the young woman

As can be seen in both these examples, the unmarked word order is usually Subject-Verb-Object, as in English.

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Topic

However, word order can often be disrupted by the concept of topic. The topic of a sentence is what it is ‘about’. It is usually something that has already been mentioned in conversation, or made clear through context, or considered to be something that is already known to the listener. In Rawàng Ata, the topic of a clause must be moved to the front of the sentence to make this role clear. In English, this often requires more explicit marking, usually involving pronouns

datta wohola kòmana

regarding the sailor: he strikes the young woman

kòmana datta wohola

as for the young woman, the sailor strikes her

Although the object has been moved to the front of the clause, it is still visibly the object, because it retains the accusative suffix.

It is important to note that there is only one topic, and everything else is not the topic: that is, once the topic is selected, the remaining elements are not ordered by topicality. Nothing is more topical or less topical – either it is the topic or it is not.

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Vocabulary

runta = floor, floor module, collection of floors

A runta is a floor – but it is a social entity, not an architectural one. The houses of the speakers of Rawàng Ata are typically elevated, and their floors are constructed of wooden boards resting on beams, in turn resting on plinths and piers and stilts; but these floors, only ever seen from beneath, are not runta. The runta is the floor as seen from inside the house – and this is a superstructure constructed from light wooden box-frames. These runta play a key role in the organisation of the house and its inhabitants – the boxes can be arranged in many different ways, and can be of differing heights, so that differences in runta colour and areas of different height (sometimes as great as a six foot height difference) divide the internal area into psychologically and socially distinct spaces, minimising the need for walls. The runta is not only every individual piece of this floor, but also every distinct space – and those spaces in turn combine to form larger spaces, and ultimately the entire house. The runta can therefore be used as a metaphor for a family or a household. Only separate buildings, or entirely distinct storeys are counted as having different runta – and these are usually avoided, by making upper stories into mere mezzanines, joined by broad stairs that remain conceptually united with the base runta. Furthermore, the runta can serve many functions that would otherwise require distinct objects: most tables are merely higher parts of the runta, as are beds, while the most luxurious seats are formed by including recessions in the front of higher sections of runta. Finally, the runta, being composed of modular units, is not a fixed thing, but may be modified to reflect changes in station, fortunes, or fashion, or to meet different requirements when hosting guests of different numbers and stations. The ‘floor’, for speakers of Rawàng Ata, is not merely a soulless plain, but the changeable, interest-filled, value-laden soul of the house itself.

hàni = mat

The runta, wooden and hard, would by itself be somewhat unforgiving a surface, were it not for the hàni, the traditional mat. The hàni does not cover the entire floor, but is reserved for informal and family areas, and thus provides another important social cue. The hàni is not made of fabric; instead, it is made of certain dry leaves and bark that have been mulched together, compressed, dried, and aged. The result is a thin but surprisingly heavy sheet that breaks at once if folded, but which can be gently rolled for transport; the surface is solid, but slightly yielding, not dissimilar from corkboard, making walking (and falling over) rather more comfortable; the hàni is also effective at absorbing spilt liquids. The nature of the material is such that it cannot easily be dyed, although a variety of shades of brown can be created by altering the manufacturing process slightly, and the material can also not be easily cut or shaped. As a result, the hàni, which comes in rectangular mats that are laid side-by-side to cover the floor, is a symbol of honesty, tradition, and austerity. In previous eras, it was banished entirely from the homes of the wealthy because of its dullness, replaced by expensive rugs, carpets, and cushions, but since the Discord two centuries ago, it has returned universally, as families vie to prove their greater humility.

However, the hàni is not confined to the home. It may also be carried by travellers – a thick hàni can make a tolerably soft mattress to lie on, and can remain dry overnight even when placed on wet ground. However, rural travel is not commonplace on the island, and so this use of the hàni has become associated with vagabonds, rebels, brigands, adventurers and monks – the latter of whom carry a hàni with them whenever they travel, even if they do not intend to sleep outdoors. Hàni are also used as sleeping mats by the poor, who cannot afford softer, stuffed mattresses. Metaphorically, it may be used for sleeping mats in general, but this carries connotations of poverty, humility, or depravity.

Because the hàni cannot be folded tightly without breaking, it must be carried rolled around a haniyàttu, a light wooden-frame cylinder. These cylinders are symbolic of journeys and of monasticism.

taita = nail, bolt

The taita is a cylinder of hard material (wood, stone, metal, etc) that is used to join items together by piercing them. In general, they are made of wood, as it is both readily available and easily shaped, but stone or bone taita are also found. Metal taita are a mark of wealth, as metals are rare on the island and most be imported. Taita include not only small household nails but far larger items of the same function – the wooden taita that are used to hold ships together may be immense.

fōna = foreigner

The fōna is anything that is not native to the island, and specifically to its major tribe. In its older use, it is anything that has unwantedly penetrated an area or a container – dirt, dust, rain, and so forth. It is also colloquially used as a derogatory term for a rapist or adulterous man, or for a traitor. The term has the connotation of inhumanity, even inanimacy.

A Course in Rawàng Ata: 1.1

UNIT ONE.

LESSON ONE

The Alphabet

Although Rawàng Ata has its own script, which will be dealt with in a later lesson, it will be more convenient for now to transcribe it into the Latin alphabet.  In doing so, we will use the following letters: a, b, d, e, f, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, ng, o, r, s, t, u, w and y. In general, the pronunciation of these should be clear from their English usage, with a few notes: the vowels are pronounced cleanly, with Continental values, as in Spanish, rather than either their long forms in English or their clipped short forms. Phonetically, that is, they are pronounced as the X-SAMPA vowels /a e i o u/. The letter j is pronounced as X-SAMPA /Z/ – that is, as the sound in English ‘illusion’, ‘measure’ or ‘mirage’. The couplet ng is treated as a single letter; when it is not followed by a vowel, it is pronounced as /N/, which is the final sound in ‘sing’, or ‘bang’;  when it is followed by a vowel, it is pronounced as that sound followed by a g-sound, as in English ‘finger’ or ‘linger’, never as in ‘singer’ or ‘flinger’ (in accents that pronounce the latter two words in a different way from the former).

These pronunciations are only approximate, and the details should vary depending on context, which will be discussed in a later lesson, but these values will do for now.

It should also be mentioned that the vowels may appear with gràvè àccènts above them. This affects the pitch and intonation of the word in ways that will be discussed in a later lesson, but does not affect the quality of the vowel. They may also be written with mācrōns written above them: these indicate that the vowel is to be pronounced with the same quality, but with greater length.

All written letters should be pronounced.

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Vocabulary

lutà = ball

A lutà is typically a man-made roughly spherical item. The larger it is, the less exactly spherical it must be. It includes any ornamental bead, and any small ornament that does not have a more precise word for it. Amongst other things, it also includes a child’s toy, slightly larger than a fist, formed of a plant gum and an aggregate (sand, dirt, sawdust), wrapped in fabric; the result is soft and pliable. It is heavy for its size, so young children are confined to rolling it, while older children play throwing games. It is able to bounce to some extent when hitting something with force, but this bounce is unpredictable and small.

datta = sailor

Rawàng Ata is an island language, and its speakers mostly cluster on the coastline, shunning the wild, confusing interior. Their culture revolves around the sea, and most men will serve on ships at some point in their life, from small fishing boats to the great trimarans that protect the nation’s interests. Some women also work on boats, but they are never considered sailors.

wohola = to strike, to collide with intentionally and forcefully

This verb can be used for most forceful comings together. It is not used for collisions between careening or wobbling objects, only those travelling in straight lines or intentionally, and it is not used when both objects are equally affected – there must be a clear striker and a struck.

kòma = a young woman

Originally this word applied to children, but as time has passed, and as marriage ages have risen, it has come to be applied to any woman who is an adult but not yet of marriageable age. Like men and children, they wear their hair extremely short (often shaven), as the hot, humid climate encourages those who labour physically (like men) or run around unnecessarily (like children) to do as much as possible to allow sweat to disperse.

A Course in Rawàng Ata: Introduction

This is probably a bad idea.

As you may know, I create languages. The one I’ve spent an unprecedented time on is Rawàng Ata. I’ve posted on it a fair few times – and most of those posts have contradicted each other. I don’t work progressively, you see, I keeping re-doing things. It’s like pruning a plant: you’ve got a vague control over how it looks, but at some times it’s been cut back too heavily, at other times it’s grown too far beyond where you want it. So every year you have another go at it, and hopefully the overall shape takes form over time, through trial and error.

My current error is a series of lessons in the language. The idea is that they should be less boring, and more understandable, than a simple grammar – and I’ve never found a grammar that simple, anyway. In all fair warning: these will probably not be repetitive enough, slow enough, to be real ‘lessons’ in the sense of allowing anyone to learn to speak it. For a start, I’m not going to concentrate on vocabulary. What they should do is present some features of the structure of the language, with examples, in what is hopefully a coherent format.

These lessons are likely to contradict everything I’ve previously said about Rawàng Ata. Never mind.

Finally: the idea is to have discrete ‘lessons’, clumped together into ‘units’, each unit ending with a little exercise. Each lesson will give some grammatical information, and a few words of vocabulary, with cultural explanations. Unfortunately, the lessons vary widely in how much information they contain.

I’ve currently written twelve lessons, which should be three units, though I’ve only written the exercise for the first. I think I’ll post a lesson a day until the end of a unit, and then wait until I’ve got a buffer before moving on to the next. So, this may take quite some time to finish. And I’m going to violate that format today, because the first lesson is so small and worthless. So, two up today.

Hope somebody finds it intriguing – or useful for their own projects.

The H.P Lovecraft Omnibus (part 3)

Two more Lovecraft tales!

The Colour Out of Space continues the themes and style of The Whisperer in Darkness, and takes them to a purer extreme – which is odd, because chronologically it sits a year after The Call of Cthulhu and a year before The Dunwich Horror. However, Lovecraft himself considered this story to be his best; perhaps, after a time of attempting to continue in the old way, he intentionally re-oriented himself along the lines of his most successful story. Certainly, it has more in common with later pieces like Whisperer and At the Mountains of Madness than it does with The Dunwich Horror, for all that they are given similar settings.

As usual, Colour takes place in the wild places of New England, at a site where a new reservoir is to be built. An engineer with the water company visits the area and discovers a strange, desolate patch of land; later, he inquires as to its origin. The bulk of the tale is therefore taken from the account of an old local man, Ammi Pierce, although it is mostly told through the voice of the anonymous traveller, who remains refreshingly sober about things, all things considered. The story that is told is that of the arrival of a strange meteorite on the farm of Ammi’s neighbour and friend, Nahum Gardner; it takes its name from strange bubble-like formations in the rock that display an impossible and incomparable colour.

In some ways, Colour is both the antithesis of the Cthulhu Mythos and its apotheosis.  Throughout the Mythos, Lovecraft attempts to summon up the unfathomable, the indescribable, the incomprehensible, the truly alien – but again and again, he lets slip enough hooks that we are able to get a grip on the stories. Far from being unknowable, the actors of the Cthulhu mythos are well-known. Entire books can be written on their origins, purposes and interrelations. They are shrouded in rumour and folklore in the stories, and out of the stories they have developed a life of their own. The Colour out of Space seems both a rejection of that baroque superstructure of the myth, and a fulfilment of its basic premise: the threat of the truly alien.

There’s no doubt that this is a science fiction story, plain and simple. Myth and folklore and magic play peripheral roles if they occur at all – though it is science fiction dressed up as something else. Lovecraft plays with the expectations of a Dunwich-like story – some reawakened horror from before the dawn of time as spoken horribly of in generations of dark legend and rural superstition – but what actually plays out is pure SF. Ridiculous SF, it is true, which doesn’t stand up to modern scrutiny, but it has that core of plain, straightforward scientific thinking, a certain coldness and matter-of-factness that most of his stories lack. That coldness actually accentuates the horror of the story, rather than detracting from it. In that respect, I think it is probably the most successful of his stories, thematically. Indeed, it’s one of the most successful SF stories of all time, in one respect: the sheer, limitless, inscrutable alienness of it all. Lovecraft disliked pure SF on the grounds that the aliens were always humans with masks – he tries his best in many of his tales, but this is the only one where he truly succeeds in avoiding that, and as such it has been an inspiration for many writers since – most directly, Stephen King, never embarrassed about his deep debt to Lovecraft throughout his career, has admitted that Tommyknockers was based on this story (though it seems that narcotics may have played quite a role in the interpretation process…). More generally, Lovecraft combines the alien with themes of disease, madness, brainwashing, mutation, and the fear of contagion into an extremely heady mix which has helped inspire much later horror and SF (The Thing, for instance, while ostensibly based upon At the Mountains of Madness, seems to me to get a lot of its animating force from Colour).

All that said, it’s not a perfect story. It’s not frightening – the ‘horror’ of the genre name is not a relic in this case, as it horrifies rather than terrifies. It’s a little detached – which is essential to the tone, but which stops it from hitting home as hard as it might. It’s also, frankly, not as well written as The Whisperer in Darkness, in terms of prose style.

——-

The Haunter of the Dark, alas, is a step back to something more stereotypically ‘Lovecraftian’. In fact, much of it feels nine-tenths of the way to parody. There are, I think, two reasons for this. Firstly, by this stage of his career, Lovecraft was moving beyond the basic premises of his mythos, and trying to use them as the basis for more conventionally horrifying stories; this has the upside that his stories were now being given genuine pay-offs instead of ‘ah! the horror!’ moments… but it also has the downside that the mythic basis has to be dumped on us very quickly, in case we’re not au fait with it. And by now, Lovecraft feels almost bored with these infodumps. In consequence, the “horrible forbidden manuscripts telling of horrific ancient rites” section of the story is physically painful.

Secondly, this story WASN’T entirely serious. It was written in response to a story by a young fan, Robert Bloch, in which a character based on Lovecraft met a horrible fate, and in turn sets out to give a nasty ending to the admirer, in the form of a “Robert Blake”. Blake is also clearly a vehicle for Lovecraft’s own gentle self-mockery, and there are subtle references not only to Bloch’s works but also to Lovecraft’s friends and colleagues, Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth.

However: it isn’t just a parody, and it isn’t entirely familiar, either. The conceit of the story is ingenious, and the ending is both exciting and unnerving. It is also, alas, rather confusing, since Lovecraft is experimenting here with leaving conclusions unsaid – what happens can be worked out if you’ve been reading carefully, but the practised Lovecraft reader used to hysterical revelations may not have been paying enough attention up to that point. Lovecraft is also taking the opportunity to experiment with narrative structure, interweaving the reports of Blake’s diaries with second-hand anecdote and reconstructed narration told as though by an omniscient narrator. At times, the junctions are too visible, but in other places, the mix works well to build up tension.

Overall, as the last story written under Lovecraft’s own name, there is a fitting note of retrospective about this tale; yet Lovecraft was not yet expecting to die, and there are signs of further experimentation and possible new directions [the danger of the Haunter, for instance, is far more sophisticated and promising than the danger of being eaten, from stories like ‘Pickman’.

Adrenaline: 3-3. ‘Colour’ never hits a peak of being truly exciting – but it builds the tension up pretty steadily throughout, and kept me reading easily. ‘Haunter’ doesn’t built up tension well, but the ending really picks it up.

Emotion: 3-2. There’s not enough engagement with the characters to be exceptional here, but there IS horror and revulsion. However, in ‘Haunter’ that revulsion is a bit too familiar, and the characters are TOO forgettable, to the point of nonexistence.

Thought: 2-2. The antagonist of ‘Colour’ is so alien that we can’t think too much about it. The images and ideas are compelling, but they are intentionally uncognitive. That of ‘Haunter’ is perhaps too unalien, and although it has some interesting possibilities, they are only hinted at.

Beauty: 3-2. Some imagery in ‘Colour’ is beautiful, but it lacks any expanse of beautiful prose. The prose overall doesn’t hit the heights of Whisperer, but it’s also more reliable, more sensible. In ‘Haunter’, it is all entirely forgettable, and parts are irritating.

Craft: 4-3. The combination of lower-risk prose style, more sober narrator, and the very simple plot outline make ‘Colour’ perhaps the most respectable, unobjectionable Lovecraft story I’ve read so far. It isn’t perfect, at it feels a bit archaic at times, but overall it’s very well done. ‘Haunter’ is lazy and slipshod, only elevated by its ending.

Endearingness: 4-2. Not sure why, but I really liked ‘Colour’. It’s memorable and effective, and not hard work. There’s not enough to it to really demand repeat readings, and nothing to love about it either, but it’s a story I know I’ll want to re-read in the future. I can’t think why I would re-read ‘Haunter’ – the ending is memorable, but not worth waiting for unless you’re a Lovecraft, Bloch or Cosmic Horror aficionado.

Originality: 3. ‘Colour’ is historically inventive, but too simple and straightforward to be too unique by today’s standards. ‘Haunter’ is far too predictable, with but has a bit of ingenuity in the final nature of the beast, and in the narrative structure.

Overall: Good; Bad, but with redeeming features.

Not After Midnight – Daphne Du Maurier

I’ve never read anything by Du Maurier – and to be honest, I doubt I ever would have done, had I not stumbled upon/been given a couple of old editions of her work. Seemed a shame to throw them out, I thought, or to keep them if I detested her work, so I decided to give her a chance, starting with this collection of her short stories. I’m glad I did.

Du Maurier’s work is… peculiar, to say the least. The stories defy easy genre classifications, and indeed that seems to be a large part of their design: placing her plots on the fine edge between supernatural and mundane, romantic and prosaic, tragic and hopeful (though mostly tragic), she gives the reader no warnings, no time to get comfortable. Some stories will seem realistic, only to veer into fantasy; others will appear to aim for the supernatural, only to slide into the perfectly ordinary. These are stories of suspense – but to a large degree, what we are suspended by is not concern for the characters, but concern for the story itself: the reader is in the position of watching a literary game of three card monte, sometimes not knowing what sort of story they have been reading until the concluding paragraphs.

Not After Midnight contains five stories. They’re big stories – all five have the heft and form of novellas, albeit short ones. They tell a whole story, rather than simply showing us a moment; and ‘telling a story’ is the operative phrase. Du Maurier is very much, at least in this case, in the storyteller mould of author – her prose is not bad, but she is not aiming at aesthetic qualities, and she may in passing address themes or explore the human condition, but these are not what the stories are for. These are stories to thrill, intrigue, and surprise. They should be prefaced with the words ‘are you sitting comfortably?’. Yet even here there is an element of duality – the short, sensational story seems to war against the sober, realistic, slice-of-life detailings.

As a result, it’s no surprise that the writing did occasionally give me pause. It is never, strictly speaking, bad writing; though I don’t think there were more than a handful of sentences that I actually enjoyed for their look or their sound. Rather, it has a tendency to the functional, and this amplifies the datedness of some of it. In particular, a lot of the dialogue feels stilted, old-fashioned, unrealistic. It is a cosy, Victorian sort of style. But in all honesty, this was not much of a problem for me – the prose did its job, and was obviously not what the reader was meant to be there for.

The collection was published as Don’t Look Now in America, and it’s easy to see why – it’s a catchy story, later made into a successful film, which plays on the edges of a ghost story, with obvious suggestions of the supernatural counterbalanced by a sensible, skeptical narrator. It’s very tense, and misdirects well throughout – it took me a long time to realise even what direction it was headed, let alone predicting details of the plot. It’s also backed up by a rather clever, albeit not entirely original, idea – but unfortunately, the execution was rather too light, not able to take the smug shine off the gimmick. In particular, the ending was poor – attempting to unite multiple strands, it lacked sufficient build-up, was far too abrupt, and was too reliant on co-incidences to wholly convince. On the other hand, the flaws are probably integral to the plot – the lack of build-up is a by-product of the author’s technique of hiding important foreshadowing in the middle of dumps of other, irrelevant, colouring information.

Not After Midnight itself, on the other hand, is a misshapen little grotesque of a story that is hardly going to appeal to the widest audience. The ending is even more ridiculously abrupt, and provoked confusion and a vague sense of being cheated. It felt like an elaborate pearl secreted around a core of nothingness. I can’t deny the pearl was beautiful – a complex mystery story that twists and turns with admirable suspense – but the resolution was frankly off-putting.

A Border-Line Case seemed to be, by far, the most sincere and heartfelt of the tales. After a brief glance at some facets of Du Maurier’s (fascinating) life and personality, it’s hard not to read a great deal of her into the strangely two-natured actress heroine of the story – especially when the reader arrives at the final page; on the other hand, given her alleged fondness for fantasising, roleplaying and deceit, I also can’t shake the idea that perhaps this ‘obvious’ self-insertion is a joke told at our expense; the stories she tells about fictional people intersecting with the stories she told, perhaps true, perhaps false, about herself. Yet this is not a coy or capricious story. The plot is light, but the sentiment is heavy, and of the five this has the most piercing examination of real thoughts and emotions – right from the opening death and the agonies of bereavement, in which it is difficult to avoid seeing the memories of the death of the author’s husband, only a few years before the collection was published. From then on, the plot bounces around chaotically; in this story, the author’s dichotomous approach to private is most strongly displayed. On the one hand, her characters can be very straight and direct, in thoughts and in speech; on the other hand, the author hides, or only hints at, a considerable amount, forcing the reader to pay close attention. It is perhaps only a fancy, but I have to wonder whether this selective vagary is in fact connected to the pre-occupations with story-telling and sleight-of-word: sometimes, it seems as though the present is unspecified to allow the character to select their own past; when the heroine tells another character what she was thinking when a certain event happened, we do not know whether she is telling the truth or not, because we were not notified at the time, and it seems as though the author is suggesting that there is no truth of the matter. The thoughts and feelings are only given conscious, concrete, form at a later date.

As a side-note: I particularly liked the many layers of meaning hidden in the title.

The Way of the Cross is more disappointing. It’s a story of a visit of a small group of people from a small English village visiting Jerusalem for a day, told from the perspective of each protagonist. Their characters are presented, and are then gradually demolished, showing how slight the foundation on which they have built their lives truly is. It’s an ambitious and worthy idea – but she doesn’t pull it off. The characters are simply too boring to interest us, too two-dimensional to surprise us, too unreal to inform us. If the intention was to undermine comfortableness by putting a cast of people into a crucible, the reality reads more like putting a set of obnoxious stock strawmen into the stocks to be uncharitably stoned. Showing how pitiable are a coterie of, in essence, background characters from an Agatha Christie novel packs very little punch unless you believe that Agatha Christie accurately captures the subtleties of English village life in the first place. She gives little credit to her opponents, and this weakens her own case.

The Breakthrough is a weird little story, and the author doesn’t seem to feel entirely comfortable with it. It doesn’t really go anywhere, is more eerie than tense, and it suffers particularly from the necessity of a massive info-dump. Far too much of it feels like set-up – and set-up of the kind particular to supernatural and near-supernatural stories, where an excessive degree of simultaneously credulity and calmness is required on the part of the characters. On the other hand, it IS eerie – and the characterisation of the narrator is particularly impressive. His character is never complex or original, but the vividness of it, and the ease and brevity with which that vividness is created, is something to be admired. The plot doesn’t particularly make much sense. Overall, it’s not a very satisfying story to rest a collection on, but as an interesting little morsel (and it is the shortest of the five, I think) thrown in among the rest it’s not a bad space-filler.

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Numbers per story:

Adrenaline: 4/4/4/2/2. The first three stories are all more than averagely gripping. The Way of the Cross is dull and pointless and predictable. The Breakthrough isn’t dull, and has a bit of foreboding about it, but couldn’t honestly be called exciting.

Emotion: 2/2/3/1/2. Being emotive is not her forte. Don’t Look Now should score more highly, but the rather cold, sensible narrator reduces the potential for empathy; A Border-Line Case stands out as being more human, but the detached style and ever-changing plot are limiting factors. The Breakthrough OUGHT to be emotional, given its content, but is only slightly so.

Thought: 3/3/3/2/2. No great conundra, but the stories keep the reader thinking ahead, and have some interesting moments. I thought the penultimate story bland and obvious, and the final story too nonsensical and farfetched to engage the brain much.

Beauty: 3/3/3/2/3. Not the most elegant, but bits of striking imagery; nothing terribly bad beyond a bit of stiltedness.

Craft: 4/3/4/2/3. The Way of the Cross is let down by its heavy-handedness, but all the stories have sophisticated storytelling, adequate prose, and skilful misdirection. In general, her endings are rather too quick. The Breakthrough is let down by weight of exposition (which is also felt in the imbalanced dialogue), but given the difficulties that the story idea poses for the writer, the author does a good job with the challenges her imagination has set her.

Endearingness: 3/2/3/2/3. Not the warmest, most friendly stories, but some are reasonably likeable.

Originality: 3/4/5/3/4. This is definitely a strength of the author – genre-teasing and unpredictable plots make each story one-of-a-kind. Don’t Look Now and The Way of the Cross are quite recognisable types of story; A Border-Line Case is unique.

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Scores for the Collection

My review of Borges last year has forced me to think about how to score short story collections, as I think I was rather too hard on him. This, I think, is because I judged the collection as though it were a novel – but many people will not read it in one sitting. So perhaps a collection’s value is more about the value of the individual stories. Or to put it more directly: I think that that ‘in total’ view effectively weighted all the stories equally to find an ‘average’ score, when in fact, when it comes to our opinions of a collection, we tend to weight the good bits higher. We’re more likely to recommend a collection with one genius story and four rubbish ones than one with five mediocre stories – at least, I am.

So, my new idea is to score the best in each category, and then remove points for how unrepresentative that story is of the collection as a whole. For each category, I will take the top score, and then subtract one point if it is unrepresentative, or if there is a significant number of bad stories, and a further point if it is entirely unrepresentative (but not if this brings it to an unrepresentatively low score), or if most stories are bad. “Bad” stories here will be those that score 1 or 2 in that category AND that are ‘bad’ overall, in order to take into account the way that a collection can contain stories with different objectives – reading a brilliant story that is terrible in one dimension drags the book down less than reading a terrible one. So:

Adrenaline: 4. Highest score, and thoroughly, thought not entirely, representative.

Emotion: 2. The peak is 3, but only one story got this, so 2. Could argue that it’s entirely unrepresentative, but subtracting a further point would be equally unrepresentative, as only one story got 1.

Thought: 3. Representative high score.

Beauty: 3. Ditto.

Craft: 3. High of 4 not representative – less than half the book got it.

Endearingness: 3.

Originality: 4. 5 was not representative, but 4 is.

Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. A collection of competent, intriguing, imaginative stories. Not mind-boggling, however, and may feel a bit dry and archaic to impatient readers. Traditional-feel ‘storytelling’ approach. I’ll probably try one of her novels.

Roundup

Just  few things to say. First off, my thanks and surprise to the people reading this. I’m not sure why you are, given that it’s been almost dead the last few months. Sure, readership has dropped off, but the fact that anyone hangs around is quite pleasing.

Second, I’ve been banned from the ASOIAF forums. I’m not entirely sure why this is – I wasn’t given any warnings, nobody told me that I had been banned or why, and although I’ve attempted to communicate by (civil! short!) e-mail with the people in charge, nobody’s even replied telling me to fuck off. If it hadn’t come on the back of a (very minor) spat I had where I made the mistake of mentioning that a prior post had been deleted (board policy is to pretend no moderation occurs), I would have assumed it was a board glitch.

It’s a bit weird for me, in over ten years on forums I’ve never been banned before – it’s a new experience, and quite peculiar. I’ve never been a non-person before. Frankly, that’s what it feels like – suddenly, I can’t talk to people I talked to before, and I’m not sure anybody even knows I’ve been banned yet, as all traces have been covered up. Some people have their e-mails visible to the public, so that’s something, but others don’t, and I’ve no way now to ask what they are so that I can keep in communication with them. I’ve also lost all the conversations that I’d had by PM, which I hadn’t thought to save. [I’ve had literally one other argument in over a year there, and had been reassured the mods were cool with me, so it’s pretty out of the blue and I hadn’t prepared].

I guess I’m also kind of pissed off over the affair, particularly since I thought I was being pretty altruistic there – most of my posts were offering advice and information, I think, and I put in a fuck-load of free time calculating results for a poll I ran for them. On the other hand… *shrug*. I think this is a good example of why it’s important that the only person whose opinions you do things for is yourself. If you do things for the approval of others, sooner or later you’re going to get fucked over like this, and you’re going to feel really angry about it – ‘how could they betray me after all I did for them?’ and all that. If you only do things you feel good doing, you’re not waiting for any payment, and if people tell you to fuck off, you’ve still got your own good feelings. So… yeah, I’m pissed off, but more in the vein of ‘if I’d known this was going to happen, I’d have been posting somewhere else all this time’. That and sheer bewilderment and disgust and the insanity/incivility of the mods over there, who permit daily flaming by the favoured but who ‘disappear’ people, without any discussion, who they dislike personally, on the slimmest pretext.

Of course, all that doesn’t mean be selfish. Selfish people are often more concerned with the opinions of others than anyone else – they’re just frightened of them rather than hopeful. So, I try to care about the interests and happiness of others (because… why not?), and to ignore what they might think about me, or say to me. Because some people just aren’t going to be fair to you, and it’s better to deplore that from an impartial viewpoint than to feel personally betrayed by it.

I’m keeping the link to them on the left, however, because it’s still a brilliant board – at least, the literature section is. It’s been so long since AFFC that I’ve long since tired of the ASOIAF-specific subforums, and the general board is too quick-moving, and too ill-tempered, for me to get into. The Literature forum is one of the web’s best venues for genre discussions – there’s a wide cross-section of tastes, and any book you can mention has been read by at least a few of them. Great for recommendations, particularly of new stuff – lots of early readers there, and they tend to give a pretty un-hyped view overall. Unfortunately, it’s one of the forums where the mods are a danger rather than an asset – they seem to think the forum exists for them, rather than vice versa – and some of them are prone to wild excess. There’s no appeals procedures (you CAN PM the admin, but it seems that gets you banned), no discussion of moderation allowed, no criticism of moderators (even their non-moderating actions), and seemingly no code of practice (they’re free to moderate their own threads, to edit people’s posts to say things totally different from the original wording, and they don’t have to distinguish mod-voice from normal-voice). So if you’re actually going to contribute, be very careful. I’ve been told that it’s best to send PMs and profile-posts to the high-ups to suck up, but I don’t know whether that actually works. That said, if you limit yourself to reading, and the odd question, it’s a brilliant resource and a reasonably friendly community (some favoured oldbies excepted).

And, third and most important of these items: searches. I get a little thing saying ‘top searches’, and at the moment, one of the top searches (ie one of the only searches) for this blog is “ursa + kitiara sex’. I’m appalled, and impressed. I mean, even Kitiara is a minor character from a series twenty years ago or more. And Ursa? Does Ursa even appear outside of “Dragonlance: The Meetings Sextet: Volume III: Dark Heart”? That’s damned obscure fanfiction you’re looking for, my mysterious friend.  And what’s more – why Ursa? Of all… not only of all the characters Kit has sex with in the Dragonlance corpus, but even of all the characters who appear in Dark Heart, Ursa is the most boring and pointless.

Obviously, the best slash from that book would be Kit/Colo tomboy-on-tomboy action. Failing that, there’s Kit/Patric shy-but-feisty-girl-with-experienced-yet-vulnerable-man romantic lovemaking. Or, if you want something a bit stranger, there’s Kit/El-Navar big-black-menacing-werepanther borderline-racist semi-bestiality. Kit/Ursa!? Set your sights higher, man!

Hmm. I’ve never read slash, that I can remember, and never written fanfiction. But in honour of our nameless curious friend, I hereby decree: if ever I DO write pornographic fan fiction, Dark Heart material will be among the first attempts!

[Don’t worry people. (Almost) absolutely not going to happen]