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THE BECKONING FAIR ONE

Thoughts on Muses

Essay for the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, May 17, 2004.

I.

There is a brief scene that has always haunted me in Peter Weir's film THE LAST WAVE (1973). David, the movie's urban lawyer protagonist (Richard Chamberlain in his most affecting role) has been having apocalyptic visions: he seems to have somehow tapped into the Australian aboriginals' Dreamtime. During a visit with his stepfather, an Anglican priest, the distraught David exclaims, "Why didn't you ever tell me there were Mysteries?"

And his stepfather calmly replies, "My entire life has been about a Mystery."

I've carried those last words with me for decades now (though certainly not in any Christian sense). My life, too, has been about a Mystery: trying to pin down the overpowering sense of imminence and the numinous that seems to emanate from certain landscapes and certain people, trying to locate that same essence in the work of individual writers and poets and artists who also seem to have glimpsed it -

And yet, what precisely is "it"? My childhood friend Katy called it The Door; I called it the Boy in the Tree, after the visionary figure I saw in a dream at seventeen. Robert Graves named it the White Goddess; his lover, the poet Laura Riding, called it "a false wall." In her brilliant, sui generis fantasy novel LUD-IN-THE-MIST (1926), the writer and poet Hope Mirrlees termed it "the Note." John Fowles knew the Mystery as the Lost Domain, the "domaine perdu" he encountered in Alain-Fournier's symbolist novel LE GRAND MEAULNES (Fr. 1913, English THE WANDERER, 1928) It is "the country of the blue" in Henry James' short story "Derogation" (19xx), as the Jamesian scholar Denis Donoghue explicates it in SPEAKING OF BEAUTY (2003), "the place of the imagination where it has nothing at heart but to be inventive and intelligent and to live up to its best possibility." If the Mystery evokes a sense of place, that place also contains an inhabitant: the genius loci of the Lost Domain, the Muse.

A muse! The very notion of an artist's muse has become so unfashionable as to be faintly embarrassing - like admitting to a taste for Cherries Jubilee or Beef Wellington or Ambrosia Salad, one of those outmoded culinary concoctions our parents and grandparents found sophisticated, back in an era of blowsy blondes and beefy leading men. Today the muse seems to be an endangered species, if not utterly extinct: unsurprising, when one considers that the muses were traditionally depicted as female, thereby limiting their options for procreation with others of their kind. Field guides to the species are almost non-existent, the most recent being Francine Prose's THE LIVES OF THE MUSES: NINE WOMEN AND THE ARTISTS THEY INSPIRED (2003), an intelligent and entertaining if not, ultimately, illuminating account of nine real-life, female muses, the number meant to correspond with the most popular conception of the cohort - Robert Graves referred to them as "the nine little muses" - which nowadays is less evocative of the Greek Mysteries than it is of nine hearty sorority gals, each with her own merit badge: Calliope (Epic Poetry), Erato (Love Lyrics), Melpomene (Tragedy), and so on.

Yet the earliest conception of the Muses was of three figures, not the nine who later consorted with Apollo. This Triad consisted of Aoide, Melete, and Mneme, daughters of Gaea and Uranus (and thus Titans); Hesiod's "Theogony" names, alternately, Mnemosyne as Gaea and Uranus's daughter, and the three Muses as Mnemosyne's children by Zeus. Aoide is the Muse of song; Melete of practice; Mneme (and Mnemosyne) of memory. "Mnemosyne, memory, the mother of the Muses, knows and sings the past as if it were still there," notes Jean-Pierre Vernant in "Greek Cosmogonic Myths;" and given that her sisters Melete and Aoide are related to practice and song, it is likely that the Triad Muses were, originally, priestesses or poets responsible for maintaining an oral tradition, and not merely a mythical conduit for inspiration.

The Muses may have inspired entire libraries-worth of song and story, but in their most archaic incarnation they left little in the way of a papyrus trail The first-century Greek historian Strabo first finds them on Mount Peiria in Thessaly; they then migrated south to Mount Helicon in Boeotia, a region of central Greece also associated with the cult of the immigrant god Dionysos. At Helicon the Muses' worship became subsumed into that of Apollo, at nearby Delphi.

But it is with Dionysos that the Triad Muses seem to show the greatest affinity. His cult seems to have originated in Thrace, in what is now Turkey. "... the Thraceians who colonized Boeotia consecrated Helicon to the Muses," writes Strabo in his GEOGRAPHIA, "and also the cave of the Nymphs called Leibethriades. And those who practiced ancient music are said to have been Thraceians, Orpheus and Musaeus and Thamyris, and the name Eumolpus [co-founder of the Eleusinian Mysteries] comes from Thrace."

Archaeological digs in Boeotia have also turned up cultic burials linked to Crete, another site affiliated with Dionysian rites (and, later, with those of Orpheus, Dionysos' legendary acolyte). I suspect that in their most ancient form the Muses are linked to Dionysos, that "womanish creature," and to what the great classicist Jane Ellen Harrison (who for some years lived with Hope Mirrlees) calls "the blind mad fury" of the God of Mysteries. Dionysos had his female followers, the ravening Bacchae, maenads whose worship of the god of ecstasy ends with them tearing Dionysos limb from limb then devouring his raw flesh. Thracian maenads slaughtered Orpheus as well, decapitating him; his head floated down the river Hebrus.
Yet even in these ancient stories, there is a link between muse and maenad -

"The head of Orpheus, singing always, is found by the Muses, and buried in the sanctuary at Lesbos," writes Harrison in PROLEGOMENA TO A STUDY OF GREEK RELIGION (1908). "Who are the Muses? Who but the Maenads repentant, clothed and in their right minds." (In an aside that resonates nicely in our current culture of body art, Harrison notes that the murderous maenads were punished for their acts by being tattooed with the image of a stag, the animal associated with Dionysian sacrifice, on the upper part of their right arms.)

Even now, thousands of years later, we perceive the elusive essence of the Muse as two-fold, both desirable and threatening; at her worst, psychologically, even murderously, devastating, to herself and others - though this identification of the Muse as strictly female is, today,
outmoded. The OED defines a muse as a poet's particular genius; genius in the sense of a tutelary god or attendant spirit presiding from birth. it is, I think, an eidolon not just of longing but of "the mystery of communicated knowledge," as Maud Bodkin states in ARCHETYPAL PATTERNS OF
POETRY (1934), "The eternal quality that belongs to the moment of vision, when the seer has lost himself within the vast complex essence of the thing seen ..."

The muse is the embodiment of an individual artist's obsession, and as such can as easily be male as female - though the notion of a male muse, or a female artist, seemed a dubious one to Robert Graves (1895-1985) , the 20th century's outstanding Muse mad scientist.


However, woman is not a poet: she is either a Muse or she is nothing. A woman who concerns herself with poetry should, I believe, either be a silent Muse and inspire the poets by her womanly presence, as Queen Elizabeth and the Countess of Derby did, or she should be the Muse in the
complete sense; she should be in turn Arianrhod, Blodeuwedd and the Old Sow of Maenawr Penardd who eats her own farrow.

(THE WHITE GODDESS, 1958 revised edition, pg. 500)


Graves backpedals a bit when he admits "This is not to say a woman should refrain from writing poems;" but his heart isn't in that utterance. If anyone could attest to the dangers of women writing poetry, it was Graves, who survived one of the 20th century's most noted and notorious Muses, the
poet Laura Riding, a woman who so perfectly and deliberately embraced the witchy, destructive, protean and devouring aspects of the Muse that she might have sprung full-grown from Medusa's head (or, if she'd lived a few decades later, Madonna's).

Graves had been physically and emotionally battered by his experiences in the trenches during the Great War - he suffered from crippling shell-shock, what we would now term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When he met Riding, nee Laura Gottschalk, he was married to Nancy Nicholson, an artist and feminist who retained her maiden name; a bold thing to do in 1920s England. They had four children. By 1926, when Graves and Riding actually met, the pressures of supporting a family while attempting to create art - poetry for Graves, painting for Nicholson - was for both Robert and Nancy exacerbated by depression, illness, and poverty. The success of Graves' first two poetry collections, OVER THE BRAZIER (1916) and FAIRIES AND FUSILIERS (1917) was followed by the failure in 1920 of COUNTRY SENTIMENT. Graves' nephew and biographer, Richard Perceval Graves, observes that the poet "underwent a kind of personality crisis."Robert was later to reflect that by the beginning of 1926 "a process of personal disintegration was well under way" (ROBERT GRAVES: THE YEARS WITH LAURA, 1926-1940, 1990).

Enter Laura Riding. She was a coldly intellectual Manhattan-born poet who had briefly allied herself with the Nashville-based Fugitive poets (she had an affair with Allen Tate) before returning to New York. There she corresponded with Graves, and at the end of 1925 accepted Graves' invitation to join him in Europe and collaborate on a volume about modern poetry. Richard Perceval Graves quotes a family friend observing that "Robert always seemed happiest when he had found someone he admired who would give him direction."

Riding was prepared to do just that. Brilliant but domineering, seemingly inexorable in her need to be the authoritarian center of any group, she possessed the exact skills needed to wrest control of the rudderless Graves/Nicholson marriage. Laura Riding was also, frankly, a nut, but a nut on the grand scale of a Madame Blavatsky or L. Ron Hubbard, able to convince intelligent but emotionally susceptible people that she had insights and powers beyond the ken of ordinary mortals. Riding accompanied Graves' family (including children and nursemaid) to Egypt, where Robert had accepted a job as Professor of English at Cairo University. Once there she declared their quarters to be haunted, and indeed for the next fourteen years the entire extended family of Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson was haunted, by the sinister, sibylline, predatory Riding.

Richard Perceval Graves' marvelous biography gives the details of their mad and often maddening relationship. Riding, while striking-looking, was not conventionally attractive. She relied upon a combination of acute intelligence and sexual frankness; oracular pronouncements about Poetry, Woolworth bijoux and intimations of occult knowledge to cast her spell upon a moveable feast of artists, writers, poets and their spouses, both male and female, enlarging the initial menage a trois with Graves and Nicholson to menages a quatre and cinq. She was not above using black magic to gain the attentions of a lover, and when all else failed, she attempted suicide: in 1929, when one of Riding's erstwhile lovers rejected her and backed out of the elaborate relationship daisy-chain she had devised, Riding drank Lysol and leaped from fourth-floor window. In a blackly comic couvade, the horror-stricken Graves ran down to a third-floor window and did the same. Both survived. Still nobody seems to have learned a lesson, since Laura continued to retain her near-supernatural hold on Graves, despite her refusal to sleep with him; and ten years later, when Riding entered a relationship with the poet Schuyler Jackson (whom she eventually married), she systematically and single-handedly drove Jackson's wife Kit into a mental institution, an act all the more unconscionable since it was carried out with Kit's four children as witnesses.

One doesn't so much feel Schadenfraude as genuine relief to know that the ruthless Laura Riding has now been relegated to that long, long list of Forgotten Poets, a lengthy footnote to the life of her one-time and best-known acolyte. Of course no one expects artists to be nice people, and from the wreckage of this floating world emerged some indisputable masterworks: Robert Graves' novels, poetry, and - most important for this essay - THE WHITE GODDESS : A HISTORICAL GRAMMAR OF POETIC MYTH (1948); a book that plays a bit fast fast and loose with history, etymology, and archaeology, but which captures as no other book does that elevated, almost supernatural, sense of peril and exhilaration which accompanies the creative process. .

I summarize Riding's relationship with Graves not because it is wickedly entertaining (though it is) but because it neatly encapsulates the two most crucial aspects of the Muse one finds in both fiction depictions and real life: her (or his) ineffable appeal, and her destructiveness. When it comes to the relationship between artist and muse, there often seems to be some obscure law of quantum physics in effect: both cannot occupy the same place at the same time, or one will be destroyed. Sometimes the artist consumes the muse, sometimes the reverse. Longtime, relatively stable relationships between artist and muse exist - that of Robert Graves and his second wife, Beryl Pritchard; James Merrill (himself no stranger to the occult) and David Jackson, Vladimir and Vera Nabokov, John and Elizabeth Fowles. But these are outnumbered by those creative dramas that explode (often with serial muses) like fireworks on a string: Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, Isadora Duncan and Sergei Esenin, Robert Lowell and Carolyn Blackwood.

THE WHITE GODDESS was published some years after the demise of Graves' relationship with Riding, but her influence as Muse - oracular, fiercely intelligent, and somewhat daft - clearly informs the entire book. Graves invokes her in the dedication to the book's second edition (1952), a revision of the poem in the original volume.


"All saints revile her, and all sober men ...
In scorn of which I sailed to find her
In distant regions likeliest to hold her
Whom I desired above all things to know
Sister of the mirage and echo.

" Whose broad high brow was white as any lepers,
Whose eyes were blue, with rowan-berry lips,
With hair curled honey-colored to her hips.

" with so huge a sense
Of her nakedly worn magnificence
I forget cruelty and past betrayal,
careless of where the next bright bolt may fall."

Graves goes on to describe the Muse or White Goddess as "a lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips red as rowan berries, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair." This, minus the blonde tresses, is an accurate physical description of the woman who first sand-blasted Graves' fragile psyche back in 1926. Graves later writes

The White Goddess is anti-domestic; she is the perpetual "other woman," and her part is difficult indeed for a woman of sensibility to play for more than a few years, because the temptation to commit suicide in simple domesticity lurks in every maenad's and muse's heart.

(ibid., pg. 503)


One's initial instinct is to scoff at this pronouncement. But, in a sublime irony, after Riding married Schuyler Jackson she did at last succeed in committing suicide, of the domestic sort. As Richard Perceval Graves slyly observes, "she abandoned [poetry] in 1939 as an inadequate means of telling the final truth about things" and retired with her husband to a quiet life in Florida, where she worked on a study of langugage, published after her death as A NEW FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFINITION OF WORDS AND SUPPLEMENTARY ESSAYS (University Press of Virginia, 1997) - a worthy project, but, one can't help but think, a bit of a comedown for the sibylline author of the COVENANT OF LITERAL MORALITY THE FIRST PROTOCOL, whose acolytes in earlier days compared her to Jesus Christ, and who called herself Finality.

Still, numerous women artists have opted out of simple domesticity (which is never all that simple, anyway) to pursue their own muses, male or female. In fiction we find the poignant Monster in Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Colette's Cheri. There is also Jane Bowles and her Moroccan female muse, "the wild and cunning, the fearful and the tough, the powerful and the childlike" Cherifa; the British writer Lady Caroline Blackwood, who could safely claim the Triple Crown of 20th century Musedom - a novelist of some note, she also played muse to painter Lucien Freud, composer Israel Citkowitz, and poet Robert Lowell; Margaret Wise Brown, who had passionate attachments to the actress Michael Strange (nee Blanche Oelrichs, once wed to John Barrymore) and James Stillman Rockefeller Jr. In THE LIVES OF THE MUSES, Francine Prose provides a thoughtful assessment of the relationship between George Balanchine's muse, the dancer Suzanne Farrell; yet makes no mention of Isadora Duncan and her notorious muses, the designer Gordon Craig and especially the Russian poet Sergei Esenin, of whom Duncan said

You know, I'm a mystic. While I slept my soul left my body and ascended into the world where souls meet - and there I met the soul of Sergei.

ISADORA: A SENSATIONAL LIFE, Peter Kurth, 2001

Today the popular image of Duncan seems risible, what with her flowing scarves and her proclamation that "All my lovers have been geniuses; it's the one thing upon which I insist." But in trading the Mystic for the MFA, artists (and their adherents) have sacrificed something:

The sense of illumination and fulfillment that comes alike to the lover, the poet, the philosophic or religious mystic, [that which] seems to give the clue that makes intelligible to us the poet's representation of transition from joyful love, through pain and frustration, to spiritual ecstasy, as continuous.

[Bodkin, pg. 189]

Francine Prose nails the essence of the Muse as yearning, and the relationship between muse and artist as both erotic and discursive. "The muse is often that person with whom the artist has the animated imaginary conversations, the interior dialogues we all conduct, most commonly with someone we cannot get out of our minds." What Prose misses, I think, is the mystical element, the Mystery that animates this conversation between a poet and her muse. As Anne Sexton puts it ,"And we are magic talking to itself/noisy and alone"("You, Doctor Martin").

Laura Riding, in the eerie and incantatory "Poet: A Lying Word," becomes the poet invoking herself as Muse.

It is a false wall, a poet: it is a lying word. It is a wall that closes and does not. This is no wall that closes and does not. It is a wall to see into, it is no other season's height. Beyond it lies no depth and height of further travel, no partial courses. Stand against me then and stare well through me then. Like wall of poet here I rise, but am no poet as walls have risen between next and next and made false end to leap. A last, true wall am I you may but stare me through. And the tale is no more of the going: no more a poet's tale of a going false-like to a seeing. The tale is of a seeing true-like to a knowing: there's but to stare the wall through now, well through.

Laura Riding, "Poet: A Lying Word," in SELECTED POEMS: IN FIVE SETS, Faber
& Faber, 1970

Sappho in one of her fragments (these are from poet Anne Carson's brilliant 2002 translation) gives us perhaps the most succinct description of the artist's relationship to her Muse -

I long and seek after

In another fragment, Sappho testifies to the effect of an encounter with what the British writer Oliver Onions named the Beckoning Fair One -

never more damaging O Eirena have I encountered you

Always, the interplay between Beckoner and beckoned is fraught: the threat of one being consumed or obliterated by the other is constant. Yet it is precisely this tension, this tango macabre, that underscores the erotic nature of the relationship between artist and muse, suspended as it is between longing and dread, the yearning to possess and the knowledge that capture is so often destructive of the very object of desire.


II.


I first encountered John Fowles' work twenty-five years ago. I was in the hospital post-surgery, hooked up to an IV morphine drip; THE MAGUS was the sole book I'd brought with me, though friends who visited gave me John Cheever's recently-published COLLECTED STORIES, which I also was reading - if "reading" is the correct description for what I did in the dazed, hallucinatory state I occupied during my recovery. I'd entered the hospital not knowing if I'd make it out again, and I'm not sure why I chose THE MAGUS to accompany me on what I was terrified would be a one-way trip. The novel's cover resembled that of GOAT'S HEAD SOUP, not my favorite Rolling Stones album. There were intimations of magic, which I liked; but these were very vague, and I do recall realizing fairly early on that the book contained no real magic, at least not what I called magic. I'd never read anything by Fowles, though I had notions of a successful writer who dealt in louche subjects - adultery, kidnapping; something about butterflies, a childhood passion of mine. I was on a D.H. Lawrence kick at the time, and in fact Lawrence is not a bad literary companion to Fowles, though I didn't realize that for many years.

This was all during a brief, unhappy hiatus in what was too-quickly passing for my life. I'd been forced to move back in with my parents, having flunked out of university and subsequently proved myself very bad at anything but drinking and taking drugs. Back in New York, I got a job at a bookstore, which was where I found THE MAGUS, recently reissued in a revised edition. I borrowed it but never paid for it: in a state somewhere between panic and exhilaration at finding myself still alive, I quit the store and moved out of my parents' house two days after I was released from the hospital, returning to D.C. to make a second stab at becoming a writer.

I'd like to say THE MAGUS was instrumental in all this, but it wasn't. The truth is, I remembered almost nothing of the book save a dreamy impression of blinding blue sky, a stone stairway, some masks; though I suspect it may have colored an iconic dream I had the night before my surgery. The fact is, I hated the book, and subsequent rereadings haven't done much to change my mind. Nicolas Urfe, the protagonist, is an insufferable prig. God knows why all the women in the novel throw themselves at him: he's arrogant and smug, and the women themselves seem tired vestiges of an earlier time, English "birds" with too much eyeliner, too-bright clothes, voices too loud or too soft by turns.

I returned to THE MAGUS recently, in an effort to see what others see in it; or, no - to be honest, to see what one other sees in it. Fowles is a writer noted for his use of a muse - his late wife, Elizabeth - and I have an epistolary muse, V, who is a careful reader of Fowles' work. V once commented that his side of our correspondence consisted of "gestures to evoke your response," and so when V gestured at Fowles, I paid attention. This is what writers do when their muses beckon.

Of contemporary writers, John Fowles probably best charted that perilous terra incognita where muse and artist meet, most successfully in THE COLLECTOR (1964) and THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMEN (1969), though also in other works, including THE MAGUS (1965; revised 1977) and MANTISSA (1982), a book-length conversation between a writer and the muse Erato. "Perhaps it is that I am hunting the woman archetype," Fowles wrote in his journal in 1954. But his quarry is not so much the Eternal Feminine, but the Mystery she represents; a mystery that, for Fowles, was often entwined with the natural world. Fowles' biographer, Eileen Warburton, notes that "Knowledge of the natural world ... was a profoundly felt experience, a near mystical identification" (JOHN FOWLES: A LIFE IN TWO WORLDS, VIking 2004). In a 1949 entry in his journal, when he was 23, Fowles writes


Being a poet, divining beauty, is like divining nature - a gift. It does not matter if ones does not create It is enough to have the poetic vision. To see the beauty hidden. As I did tonight - I felt it all exactly in a moment, such a rush of impressions that they can hardly be seized.

John Fowles, THE JOURNALS: VOLUME I, edited and with an introduction by Charles Drazin, Jonathan Cape, London, 2003, pg. 4


Fowles' best work deals with the attempt to "seize" this moment of mystical apprehension, both in his life and his fiction, as evidenced, first, in a journal entry from March 1950, and then in an epiphanic scene from THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN (1967) -

The wood is deserted and I walk quietly down the paths, listening to birds, feeling content to be in the real country again and alone, after so long. I still feel the old pantheistic sympathy, the feeling that I know everything that's going on, the delight in little things, little scenes, in the ever changing atmosphere of each second. A great tit's cap, brilliantly glossy and iridescent in the day's brightness. Jays screeching, a missel-thrush, robins, singing. Fragrant blossoms, Clumps of primroses, and the sweet taste of violets.

[ibid. pg 26]

The trees were dense with singing birds - blackcaps, whitethroats, thrushes, blackbirds, the cooing of woodpigeons Charles felt himself walking through the ages of a bestiary, and one of such beauty, such minute distinctness, that every leaf in it, each small bird, each song it uttered, came from a perfect world He stood astonished perhaps more at his own astonishment at this world's existing so close, so within reach of all that suffocating banality of ordinary day.

It seemed to announce a far deeper and stranger reality.

THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN, p 240-250

This "deeper and stranger reality," the secret world hidden within our own mundane one, is the Mystery at the heart of John Fowles' work. It is a mystery inextricably tied to a green Eros, a woman glimpsed in the wild places, the lost domain. The eponymous French Lieutenant's Woman, Sarah Woodruff, is first seen by the novel's male protagonist Charles Smithson in "a little south-facing dell, surrounded by dense thickets of brambles and dogwood; a kind of minute green amphitheatre." Sweet woodruff is an herb used in making May Wine, traditionally drunk on May Day, the neopagan's Beltane and a day sacred to Graves' White Goddess. Sarah Woodruff indeed functions as an avatar of the Goddess or Muse, first intriguing, then obsessing, and eventually deranging Charles.

Fowles first encountered the fictional notion of the lost domain in 1963. This is when he read Alain-Fournier's short novel THE WANDERER. As a young teenager Fournier (born Henri Henri-Alban Fournier, 1886) fell under the spell of the French Symbolists; a few years later he visited London, where he was equally entranced by the written and visual work of the Pre-Raphaelites (who helped inspire the Symbolist movement). At nineteen Fournier had the same sort of fleeting, yet obsessive encounter with a young woman that derailed the fictional Charles Smithson. In 1913, a year before his death, Fournier said of her, "That was really the only being in the world who could have given me peace and repose. It is now probably that I shall never achieve peace in this world." Fate didn't give him much a chance to: a soldier in the first months of World War I, he died in an ambush at Saint-Remy on September 22, 1914.

I will admit to finding THE WANDERER thin gruel, its prose not improved by being overheated; very much an adolescent's novel, and, I think very much a male adolescent's fantasy. Seventeen-year-old Augustin Meaulnes is idolized by his younger friend Francois Seural, the book's narrator; the early part of the novel is taken up with dull schoolboy hijinks and schoolyard warfare: bullies, wicked teachers and the like. Then Meaulnes runs away, and stumbles upon a strange village that seems lost in time, medieval in its architecture and also the dress and behavior of its inhabitants. A child-wedding is being celebrated, and Meaulnes is caught up in the excitement of the preparations. He has a brief encounter with a lovely young girl named Yvonne de Galais and immediately falls in love with her. The following day Meaulnes leaves the strange village, but he spends the rest of his life in a vain quest to find the road back to the Lost Domain, to recapture the sense of enchantment of that first meeting with Yvonne, and all the potent yearning and rapturous desire of adolescence. And while he does eventually find her - though not in the village where they first met - not even marriage to Yvonne can make him happy. The poor girl dies at any rate, soon after the birth of their daughter.

Still, the novel continues to have its admirers, including the artist Jamie Wyeth, and Fowles had a profound sense of recognition upon reading it.

LE GRANDE MEAULNES. This is the first time I have read it. A strange experience, Crusoe-like, seeing those footprints in the sand, knowing that after all one is not the first on this island. Because the green ghost behind every line in Le GM is brother to that I want in THE MAGUS ... the purpose is the same. Mystery, pure mystery.

[JF JOURNALS, pg 582]

The essence of this "green ghost," the unworldly longing and sense of immersion in a deeper and stranger reality that the everyday, is summed up in a brief passage from THE WANDERER -

There he [Meaulnes] was, mysterious, a stranger in the midst of this unknown world, in the room he had chosen. What he had found surpassed all his hopes. And it was enough now for his joy to recall, in the high wind, the face of that girl who turned toward him ...

THE WANDERER, translated by Francoise Delisle, Houghton Mifflin, 1928, pg 94,

"The face of that girl who turned toward him" eerily prefigures Sarah Woodruff as Charles first sees her, standing on the quay at Lyme Regis.


She turned to look at him - or as it seemed to Charles, through him. It was not so much what was positively in that face which remained with him after their first meeting, but all that was not as he expected.

Again and again, afterwards, Charles thought of that look as a lance; and to think so is of course not merely to describe an object but the effect it has.

FLW, pg 17


This piercing look is the gaze of the Muse that transfixes the observer, Graves' "next bright bolt" hurtling to freeze the artist, Medusa-like, so that s/he returns, again and again, willingly or not, to that first inspired instant of enchantment. It is the stare of The Beckoning Fair One, who in Oliver Onions' chilling story destroys the middle-aged novelist Paul Oleron when he tries to "recapture that first impression" of "the new unknown, coy, jealous, bewitching Beckoning Fair !" Onions' portrait of the doomed novelist attempting to do this is uncannily (I might say, depressingly) acute.

His fantastic attempt was instantly and astonishingly successful. He could have shouted with triumph as he entered the room; it was as if he had escaped into it. Once more, as in the days when his writing had had a daily freshness and wonder and promise for him, he was conscious of that new ease and mastery and exhilaration and release. The air of the place seemed to hold more oxygen; as if his own specific gravity had changed, his very tread seemed less ponderable. The flowers in the bowls, the fair proportions of the meadowsweet-colored panels and mouldings, the polished floor, and the loft and faintly starred ceiling, fairly laughed their welcome. Oleron actually laughed back, and spoke aloud.

"Oh, you're pretty, pretty!" he flattered it.

Then he lay down on his couch.

"The Beckoning Fair One," in WIDDERSHINS by Oliver Onions, 1911, pg. 75

Oleron has rented an old house in which to complete his novel. It is a house with an unfortunate history. The previous resident, also an artist, died a suspected suicide, though it's apparent to the reader that he has been literally consumed by the house's rapacious Muse. But there is never a sense in Onions' superb tale that the Beckoning Fair One is just a ghost, the revenant of a mere mortal woman. Rather she is a destructive, ravishing force brought to life by the artist's own obsessive desire to create; in Oleron's case, the burning need to write

a novel with a heroine so winsome, capricious, adorable, jealous, wicked, beautiful, inflaming, and altogether evil, that men should stand amazed. She was coming over him now; he knew by the alteration of the very air of the room when she was near him; and that soft thrill of bliss that had begun to stir in him never came unless she was beckoning, beckoning.

BFO, pg. 99

Fowles best describes his own experience of writing through or about his particular Beckoning Fair Ones in his 1977 essay"Hardy and the Hag" (John Fowles, WORMHOLES: ESSAYS AND OCCASIONAL WRITINGS, Jonathan Cape, 1998). It's a fascinating piece of work, despite some very silly Freudian trumpery about the origins of creativity in auto-erotic attachment of the male infant to his mother, a theory which Fowles says "helps to explain why all through more recent human history, men have seemed better adapted - or more driven - to individual artistic expression than women." I can't say if I'm better adapted than my masculine counterparts, but I'll state here that I have made ample use of muses, always male, in my own work, and hope that readers can make the great leap of faith that Fowles (as well as Robert Graves) was unable to, in imagining both male and female objects of desire.

Fowles calls his muse figure "The Well-Beloved," after the Hardy novel which inspired the essay; "a young female sexual ideal of some kind, to be attained or pursued (or denied) by himself [the writer] hiding behind some male character." The writer's obsession with this ideal becomes powerful enough to have repercussions in his daily routine. "Against this constant emotional fugue must be set the real presence of the woman the novelist spends his life with." In Fowles' case, this real presence was his wife, Elizabeth, the woman who had acted as muse for both THE MAGUS and THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN. She was also Fowles' best reader and editor, guiding him towards the famous double endings of THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN - "The mystery of Sarah is not answered In fact to my way of thinking this novel should end with no answer but only an implied one of tragedy." [JF: A LIFE IN TWO WORLDS, p 195]

John and Elizabeth Fowles remained faithful to each other during their 33-year-marriage. Still, in "Hardy and the Hag" Fowles writes about "imaginative infidelity" and the "erotic elusiveness, unattainability" of "the hunt of the Well-Beloved," that perennially doomed quest of any artist; "its attainment no more feasible than that the words on the page can become the scene they describe."

Fowles' Well-Beloved appears, in one form or another, in nearly all his works. The 19th century gave us untold examples of other Beckoning Fair Ones, including Keats' Belle Dame Sans Merci, wild-eyed and perilous, as well as the hauntingly enigmatic women who filled the canvases of the Belgian Symbolist painter Fernand Khnopff,


simultaneously near to and far from the scrutiny which tried to annex her. Always, and simultaneously, vague and precise. Always and simultaneously single and double. Always and simultaneously sensual and absent, strong and delicate. Motionless, even when threatened by the serpent. Threatened by it? Its accomplice, rather.

[SYMBOLISTS AND SYMBOLISM, Robert L. Delevoy, trans. by Barabara Bray,
Rizzoli, 1978]


This sense of a being eternally straddling two worlds - the real world, and the artist's vision embodied in its presiding spirit - is what defines the muse as a liminal creature. And through his creative process - itself a liminal experience - the artist also becomes a liminal being. I think this is what gives encounters between artist and muse their sense of psychic peril: this constant passage between the borders of the real and the imagined, with the constant threat of one or the other becoming trapped - by creative sterility or simple domesticity, by madness or murderous violence - on the wrong side of the threshold.


And if all else was falling away from Oleron, gladly was he letting it go. So do we all when our Fair Ones beckon. Quite at the beginning we wink, and promise ourselves that we will put Her Ladyship through her paces, neglect her for a day, turn her own jealous wiles against her, flout and ignore her when she comes wheedling ... but in the end all falls away. She beckons, beckons, and all goes ...

BFO, pg 85

Fortunately the artist has some arrows in her own quiver to keep the Fair Ones at bay, chief among them the willingness to acknowledge, from the outset, the futility of any attempt to capture and detain a muse, on the page or in a penthouse. This is creative self-preservation on the artist's part. As Fowles puts it,

... the Well-Beloved is never a face, but rather the congeries of affective circumstances in which it is met; as soon as it inhabits one face, its erotic energy (that is, the author's imaginative energy) begins to drain away.

JF, "Hardy and the Hag"

I can attest to the success of this artistic catch-and-release program: if the creative endeavour is a battle (which it often is; for me, anyway), winning it - completing the novel, the painting, the performance - can be both exhausting and depressing: ultimately no one cares as much as the artist (certainly not our Beckoning Fair Ones), and she's left like the triumphant knights at the end of E.R. Eddison's THE WORM OURUBOROS, heartbreakingly crestfallen at the realization that their great, world-shattering war is over: NOW what are they going to do?

Fortunately a benign goddess waves her hand and, as in Valhalla, the battle begins anew. And so with writing.


The cathartic effect of tragedy bears a resemblance to the unresolved note on which some folk music ends, whereas there is something in the happy ending that resolves not only the story, but the need to embark upon further stories. If the writer's secret and deepest joy is to search for an irrecoverable experience, the ending that announces the attempt has one again failed may well seem the more satisfying.

JF, "Hardy and the Hag"

My first Beckoning Fair One made a fairly dramatic entrance thirty years ago, in a numinous dream that transformed my life. Since then others have come and gone, and sometimes even that first muse returns - older now, as I am, but still recognizable, still unsettling, still tied to the sound of the night wind in the leaves - and takes up residence in my head, not to be dislodged till I give him his place on the page. This is a good haunting: it makes for good hunting, bringing the muse to ground.

But inevitably there comes a day, or week, or month, or year, when a Fair One does not beckon. I've learned then to heed the poet Theodore Roethke's quiet statement of faith in one's own power to create -

A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
Be still.
Wait.

- "It was beginning winter"

Art is change, writing is change, as life is. I think the essence of the relationship between artist and muse is that it is an acknowledgement that one of us - the artist - has been changed by the latter: willingly or not; permanently, in a life's work, or for the short term , in one book, one poem, one song, one film. What remains on page or canvas is the record of that change. Muses come and go, just as artists do, but for a little while, at least - as long as the song lasts, as long as the story does - we can subvert that laws that keep the Beckoning Fair Ones in one world and ourselves in another, and shimmer briefly on the same plane.

In her life, Laura Riding fought hard to get the last word; Robert Graves stole much of her fire for THE WHITE GODDESS (and I'm glad he did), but I will give his Muse the last word here, and quote from her lovely long poem "Benedictory" - an artist's blessing if ever there was one.


The mystery wherein we
Accustomed grew as to the dark
Has now been seen enough -
I have seen, you have seen.

* * *

It seems not now distressful
Or yet too much delighted in.
It was a mystery endured
Until a fuller sense befall.

* * *

A blessing on us all, on our last folly,
That we part and give blessing.
Yet a folly to be done
A greater one to spare.

* * *

For in no wise shall it be
As it is, as it has been.
A blessing on us all,
That we shall in no wise be as we were.


DARGER & TOLKIEN

Fantasy & Science Fiction Column, May 2002

HENRY DARGER: IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL by John M. MacGregor Delano Greenidge Editions, 720 pp, $85.00

DARGER: THE HENRY DARGER COLLECTION AT THE AMERICAN FOLK ART MUSEUM by Brooke David Anderson, Essay by Michel Thevoz translated by Catherine G. Sweeney American Folk Art Museum, New York, in association with Harry N. Abrams Publishers, 128 pp, $29.85

J.R.R. TOLKIEN: AUTHOR OF THE CENTURY
by Tom Shippey, Houghton Mifflin, 348 pp, $26.00


INSIDE OUT

Earlier this year, people in New York lined up to gaze upon vivid, large-scale images of a world not unlike our own, populated by a childlike race engaged in an epic battle with the monstrous forces of Evil which sought to enslave them. Dragons, demonic creatures, richly detailed landscapes, carefully wrought battle-sequences and eruptions of cataclysmic weather; all sprung from the imagination of a devout Catholic, born in 1892, whose world reflected a lifelong preoccupation with Christian mythos as well as the dark matter of Twentieth Century war and technology.

Peter Jackson's first installment of THE LORD OF THE RINGS? No: the paintings of Henry Darger, the so-called Outsider artist whose massive body of work, painted and written, has posthumously established him as one of the major creative figures - and certainly one of the most provocative - of the last century. Since its discovery in Darger's apartment a few months before his death in 1973, the immense trove of Darger's scroll-like paintings and collages, fictional text, and autobiographical material has incited the kind of interest one might expect from the successful translation, after nearly a century of failed effort, of the Linear A tablets from ancient Crete. Yet even as Darger's lifework is embraced by a critical establishment, that of another singular artist, J.R.R. Tolkien, continues to suffer critical condescension and often outright disdain, despite (and no doubt because of) its huge commercial success.

Tolkien and Darger were almost exact contemporaries - born a few months apart in 1892 and dying less than a year apart, Darger in late 1972 and Tolkien in September 1973. Though they lived and died in radically different worlds (Tolkien spent most of his life in England, Darger in Chicago), and had adult lives that could not be more diametrically opposed, their early years have an eerie, almost uncanny symmetry. Both were profoundly affected by early childhood losses. Darger's mother died a few weeks before his fourth birthday; Tolkien's father a few months after his. Both became orphans at an early age.. After his mother's death (from diabetes) the twelve-year-old Tolkien and his younger brother came under the charge of a benevolent priest, before being taken in by a relative-by-marriage. In 1900, Darger's ailing father entered a Catholic mission; his son was consigned to a Catholic boys' home, and upon his father's death five years later, the thirteen-year-old Darger was institutionalized (in 1908 he escaped). Both began work on their epics around the same time, 1913 for Tolkien, Darger a year or so earlier. Both used visual as well as written forms for their art. And both chose as fictional oeuvres the lifelong creation of a single, epic history of an imagined world: Tolkien's Middle Earth and Darger's Realms of the Unreal.

In HENRY DARGER: IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL, art historian John M. MacGregor has created a magisterial work that at times seems as immense and all-encompassing as the one which it explores. MacGregor is the author of the 1988 THE DISCOVERY OF THE ART OF THE INSANE, a seminal study of one manifestation of the form that has been variously called Art Brut, Folk Art, Self-Taught Art, Visionary Art, but which is now commonly classed under the catch-all term Outsider Art. The phrase is frustratingly elastic. It has been applied to artists as disparate as the Victorian fairy painter Richard Dadd, a member of the Royal Academy, neither an outsider nor self-taught but unquestionably mad; Chris Mars, onetime musician for the Replacements and now a highly-regarded painter whose work deals with the familial fallout of schizophrenia; the folk artist Howard Finster, and the anatomical transcendentalist painter Alex Grey. "Visionary" is probably a more appropriate description, especially if modified with "obsessive" or "obsessional (which could also be applied to much of Tolkien's written work).

Perhaps the most poignant reaction to such personal, intense forms of creative expression comes from the artist Nathan Lerner, Darger's landlord and the man who, with a student assistant, discovered Darger's monumental accomplishment after his death -

"What made him do all these things that didn't have to be done?"

What indeed? Henry Darger may not have been insane, but he was as close to a poster boy for the Outsider Artist that we are likely to get. A few weeks before Darger's fourth birthday, his mother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to a girl. The infant, Henry's sister, was given up for adoption; her history is unknown, but it is clear that her disappearance, following his mother's death and his father's subsequent grief, became the central event upon which the adult Darger constructed his brilliant, severely disturbed and disturbing history of The Realms of the Unreal. After his stint at a Catholic boys' home, in 1904 the twelve-year-old Darger was placed in the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. His father helped fill out the committal forms before his death in 1905.

Henry remained at the asylum until 1909. The reasons for his presence there were his propensity for dangerous behavior (attacking smaller children, perhaps displaced aggression towards the infant sister who had robbed him of his mother; he also attacked a teacher); setting fires; "acquired" self-abuse. This last appears to have been what motivated the assessing physician to pronounced the child "insane." Yet whatever severe psychological orders assailed him, the young Henry was not feeble-minded. He was intelligent and loved to read, particularly newspapers and military history (the Civil War was an especial passion); during his time at the boys' home he was probably impressed by the publishing business that was run by the Mission as a vocational tool for its inmates. MacGregor suggests that Darger may have suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, a comparatively mild form of autism whose traits include difficulty in establishing and maintaining human relationship, obsessional behavior and interests, and often normal or above-normal intelligence and verbal fluency.

Despite Darger's later casual dismissal - "Finally I got to like the place and the meals were good and plenty" - the asylum seems to have been a nightmarish institution, marked by violent outbursts and lacking in any compassionate interaction between its 500 employees and 1200 inmates. Summers provided a surcease, when Henry was sent to work on the State Farm outside the city. After several aborted efforts at running away, the seventeen-year-old Henry finally did so for good, returning to Chicago where he found work as a janitor at St. Joseph's Hospital.

"Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a good deal of telling anyway."

So Tolkien muses in THE HOBBIT. And while the remainder of Henry Darger's life can only with great difficulty be construed as "good," it was certainly without great event, at least to any outside observer. In 1917 he was drafted and a few months later discharged for medical reasons. After that he worked as a janitor and dishwasher at various hospitals. In later years when he grew too frail for these jobs he was given other menial tasks. He seems to have ever had only one real friend. In 1932 he moved into the rooming house where he was to spend the rest of his life, most of it in a single large room. In 1956 the building was bought by the artist Nathan Lerner, an amiably bohemian landlord who created a small floating world of artists and musicians and art students who tolerated Darger's presence and made small gestures of friendship to the lonely old man.

Lerner was an exceptionally compassionate landlord: he neither raised Darger's rent nor complained about his tenant's housekeeping. He and the other residents of 851 Webster took turns helping Darger, providing the occasional meal, assistance with medical care; most important, they provided contact with a world outside the one in Darger's head. For by the 1960s Henry Darger had become one of those lost souls who populate the edges of any urban landscape, usually glimpsed from the corner of one's eye: a furtive, slight man - he was just over five feet tall - he wore the filthy ruins of his Army overcoat and spent hours every day wandering back alleys, poking through trash cans for refuse which he then brought back to his room. MacGregor quotes a visitor to Darger's room.

there was a tremendous amount of stuff. Newspapers and magazines piled in bundles up the ceiling. If there was one pair of glasses, there must have been a hundred. Rubber bands, boxes of rubber bands. Shoes, lots of shoes. But you went into the room and it was organized.Š The table was cluttered to a depth of two to three feet, except for a working area. He had all these drawings and pictures across the top. I was interested in art, and a little bit curious, but it was obvious that this was very private, a very private kind of thing.

Darger's neighbors often heard him talking to himself, carrying on lengthy conversations in which he took on different voices. He was in fact engaged in the final stages of a lifelong battle with God, a struggle which he had recorded in his vast multivolume epic, and which eventually found its way into his autobiography.

Had trouble again with twine. Mad enough to wish I was a bad tornado. Swore at God, yet go to three morning masses. Only cooled down by late afternoon. Am I a real enemy of the cross, or a very very sorry saint?


Ah yes: the eternal problem of the struggle with twine. And yet what do our lives really consist of, most of the time, but precisely this: life-or-death battles with the shopping, the commute, the boss, the kids, the spouse, the neighbors, the neighbor's dog. God? Each age gets the art it deserves, and no doubt we get the saints we deserve as well; in which case Henry Darger is infinitely worthy of the critical canonization he has received in the decades since his death. The end came a few months after he finally left Webster Street for a Catholic nursing home. He was eighty years old. Not long before he died Nathan Lerner entered Darger's room to clean it. As he said in a personal recollection,


It is a humbling experience to have to admit that not until I looked under all the debris in his room did I become aware of the incredible world that Henry had created from within himself. It was only in the last days of Henry Darger's life that I came close to knowing who this shuffling old man really was.

What Lerner found under the compulsively organized piles of twine and spectacles and newsprint was the eight-volume biography Darger had been working on since 1963 - and, in a number of old trunks where they had been stored, the trove of original artwork that has now made Darger world famous. In MacGregor's words,

"fifteen volumes, 15,145 typewritten pages, unquestionably the longest work of fiction ever written. In time the room also yielded the three huge bound volumes of illustrations for that work, several hundred pictures, many over twelve feet long and painted on both sides." By accident, the landlord had stumbled upon a concealed and secret life work which no one had ever seen: Darger's alternate world.

That world is a vast nameless planet orbited by our own Earth. The frontispiece of Volume One of its history reads

OF THE STORY OF THE VIVIAN GIRLS, IN WHAT IS KNOWN AS THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL, OF THE GLANDECO-ANGELINIAN WAR STORM, CAUSED BY THE CHILD SLAVE REBELLION

The Vivian Girls! Seven plucky child princesses who, with their brother Penrod, battle the adult, male Glandelinians, enemies who exist solely to capture, imprison, and especially, torture the child-slaves of the Christian country of Abbiennia. Modelled largely upon the books he loved as a child - L. Frank Baum's Oz books, Johanna Spyri's Heidi stories, UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, Booth Tarkington's PENROD series - Darger's epic follows the Vivian Girls through an endless relay of scrapes, plots, imprisonments, battles, escapes and cataclysmic storms.

Still, as Darger himself admits in a tone at once wistful and minatory, "This is not the land where Dorothy and her Oz friends reside." Darger seems to have had little innate skill as a draftsman: he created his scroll-like paintings and drawing by means of collage, tracery, photocopying and enlagring pictures, then hand-coloring them, creating an imagistic impasto that is breathtaking, surreal, deliriously funny and very often horrific. The figures of the Vivian Girls and the child slaves are taken mostly from children's coloring books and newspaper cartoons, Disney figures, advertisements, Illustrations from The Saturday Evening Post; the malevolent Glandelinian generals from newspaper photos and images of soldiers from the Civil War. There are also the beautiful dragon-like Blengiglomeneans and Blenglins, children with ram's-horns and gorgeous butterfly wings. The landscapes are vast, with Toon Town trees and blue-washed skies; though the usual weather consists of cyclones, tornadoes, hail, fire; the "insane fury of crazy thunderstorm." A sample of Darger's captions read "thrilling time while with bombshells bursting all around," "Children tied to trees in path of forest fires. In spite of exceeding extreme peril, Vivian Girls rescued them," and "Everything is allright though storm continues."

Within Henry Darger's mind, it continued for decades; a firestorm of conflicting impulses. Art critics make much of Darger's luminous use of color and his genius for collage, and certainly many of the paintings in the Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum are gorgeous and genuinely breathtaking: a watercolor of the dragonlike Blengins that resembles an Edenic vision filtered through Klimt; portraits of the Glendelinian Generals that anticipate the dizzy swirl of Terry Gilliam's Mony Python animations; a nine-foot panel that shows the Vivian Girls and their followers in an idyllic, flower-strewn setting that evokes the pastoral beauty of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

But this is not Oz. The girl slaves are usually naked (a good deal of the written text involves getting their clothes off); they often have male, but never female, genitals. There is no real economic purpose for their enslavement: the children exist solely to be tortured, in graphic and appalling detail, by the predatory Glendelinians, who crucify, disembowel, burn and flagellate them. In his exhaustive study, MacGregor compellingly suggests that in Darger's work we have the singular opportunity to gaze into the mind of someone who, under different circumstances, might well have been a pedophile and perhaps a serial killer of children.

Given America's continuing obsession with pedophilia and serial murder, it's not surprising that there would be a ready-made audience for work that has the seal of approval of a critical establishment. Yet the power of Darger's art doesn't lie in prurience, or even in the voyeuristic sense of looking upon the work of someone who, almost certainly, would have been frightened and angered by our attention. It's too strange for the former - like the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, Darger seems to have been innocent of the facts of human anatomy, and probably of human reproduction and sexual function as well - and too repellent, in many instances, to incite the sustained voyeuristic interest of most "normal" people. Separated from his visual work, his written text has the monotonous banality of the simplest pornography (only without the sex); but taken in toto, THE REALMS is as excruciating and detailed a portrait of the human psyche that we have seen: brutal, banal, transcendental, and with flashes of the divine. As MacGregor says,

"Darger's acute awareness of violence and evil in the world, and particularly in the lives of children, was unmistakably derived from the presence of monstrous drives and desires in himself. By withdrawing from the world, the mystic, far from escaping from temptation, opens himself to the encounter with evil in its purest form as it arises from within. Darger, like the Desert Fathers, was repeatedly overwhelmed by such temptations, but by encountering them in the Realms of the Unreal he defended himself against the danger of acting on them in the world."Evil, carried to impossible extremes, surely must attract the attention of God.Fantasy & Science Fiction Column, May 2002


ON MORTAL LOVE

MORTAL LOVE started as one book and has gone through four or five metamorphoses over the last four or five years: hundreds of pages tossed, hundreds more revised. Originally it was THE MASTER STROKE, which was to be a (mostly) realistic novel about a clan of Wyeth-like artists on the Maine coast, and their relationship to the woman who was their muse. For many years now my editors have wanted me to write something that did not have supernatural content, and so this was to be that book. But the supernatural crept into it, and it became a much more generic fantasy; enough so that when my then-editor read it, she felt it was too much like my earlier work. She was right, and I ended up scrapping about 200 pages and pretty much starting from scratch. This was when an entire timeline in late-Victorian London appeared, grafted not very successfully onto the existing story in contemporary Maine. At this point the book was called WALKING IN FLAMES, and had a more direct connection to the Tristan and Isolde mythos.

Then 9-11 came down, and I stopped writing for a brief while, like many other people. When I finally took the book back up in earnest, in early Januuary 2002, yet another timeline appeared: contemporary North London, a part of the city I know just enough to be dangerous. New working title: PSYCHOMANCY. I also brought in the Benandanti from my earlier books. Several months into this the title changed, for good, to MORTAL LOVE. I cut nearly all the contemporary Maine material, but used one character, Ivy Tun, as the protagonist of my novella "The Least Trumps," published last fall in Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists, a US literary magazine. The final version, which I'm in the last stages of editing, has the Benandanti excised, except for the appearance of Balthazar Warnick in a small but important cameo.

ML isn't so much a decadent novel as a Symbolist novel; not a book about the thing but the thing itself. Algernon Swinburne is a supporting character, and really upstages everyone else when he's around. The central female figure is a sort of avatar of the White Goddess; at least that's how mortals see her: her true nature is something else entirely. All my p.o.v. characters are men, something I've only done in GLIMMERING; and in an odd way this novel may be a kind of anti-Glimmering, a novel of transcendence in which transcendence, of the human sort, erotic and creative, really *is* possible. We'll see.


BEYOND BELIEF

Professions Piece for Foundation

I decided to become a writer in the summer of 1962, when I was five years old. My mother took me to see THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM, a fantasia with George Pal Pupettoons and claymation dragons and the austerely beautiful, melancholy young Lawrence Harvey as Wilhelm Grimm, neglecting his day job to collect folk tales and each night bring them to life as he scribbles in his garret room. Near the end of the movie, Wilhelm lies in his garret close to death: he has forsaken his writing, and it's literally killing him. And then they begin to come, climbing through the window and creeping from beneath his desk: giants and princesses, fairies and dragons and Red Riding Hood, all the creatures of his stories, all the magic that had been locked inside his head, loosed now and arriving to plead with him not to die. Without Wilhelm there will be no stories; without him they will all die and be forgotten. No Singing Bone; no elves; no wise women or dragons or brave boys named Jack. And see now, the storyteller rallies: when next we glimpse Wilhelm he's bent over his desk, papers everywhere and his dull commissions forever forgotten. Cue theme music and leather-bound volume of Marchen; cue my five-year-old self in the audience, crying and utterly transported by the vision of the man in the attic room surrounded by all he had given birth to: this was how I was going to spend my life! First, however, I had to learn to read and write.

* * *

I was in many ways the *eidos* of the fledgling writer: bespctacled, often sick with asthma, lying in bed and reading THE JUNGLE BOOKS, THE CALL OF THE WILD, THE BIG GOLDEN BOOK OF ELVES AND FAIRIES; good in school, part of a huge gang of children that each afternoon played Ringolevio and Hide and Seek in the idyllic little Yonkers cul-de-sac where we lived. Every weekend we would drive across the city to where my grandparents' house overlooked the Hudson, a great rambling old house with eight fireplaces and six bathrooms -- six! -- built around 1900 and filled with the strange things my lawyer grandfather had bought at auction during the Depression. Tapestries, swords; Roman coins and daggers, oriental rugs everywhere underfoot, a Hudson River School painting that had been repaired where one of my cousins shot an arrow through it. And clocks, scores and scores of clocks, from pocketwatches with little silver skulls for fobs to the huge grandfather clock that stood in the foyer, a clock big enough to hide in, though no one ever did. There was an ornate little porcelain holy water storup by the front entry, nearly as marvelous as all those bathrooms; in the winding stairway to the third floor, the stuffed head of a caribou that my father had shot when he was sixteen. In the attic room, once a nursery, there were all the books my father and aunts and uncles had once read, along with the strange, slighly sad relics of ancient holidays: Halloween noisemakers, pasteboard Santas with dirty white wool beards and gilt gowns; an enormous box full of toy guns that my brothers and boy cousins would raid imemdiately upon our arrival. From the attic I could look down the broad slow black girth of the Hudson and see the lights of the George Washington Bridge; directly across the river were the brilliant arabesques of the roller coaster at Parlisades Amusement Park, where there would be fireworks in the summer, and the words PALISADES AMUSEMENT PARK floating above the cliffs like a banner from a dream. On the veranda outside his study my garndfather had set up a telescope, so that I could observe the ominous miracle of the sun going down behind the Palaisades, a crimson disk at once beautiful and terrifying, bitten away by the cliffs and the skeleton of a rolelr coaster. This is the house I called Lazyland (a name that did come in a dream) in my novel GLIMMERING; this is the house behind all my books, a world within the world, wonderful and faintly terrfiying, where the last sound I heard at night was my grandfather's footsteps as he paced slowly from floor to floor, stopping all the clocks so that their concerted chiming would not wake his dreaming grandchildren.

* * *

When I was eight, our favorite babysitter gave me two paperback books. One was John Steinbeck's THE RED PONY; the other something called THE HOBBIT. I loved animals and animal stories, and had expanded my career plans slightly to include becoming a zoologist. But I didn't like horses, and so THE RED PONY remains unread. THE HOBBIT, however, looked strange, and there was a slight whiff of the Alpine in its cover image of mountains: I was suspicious that it might be something like HEIDI. Still, its very oddity seduced me - the title made no sense - and so one day I began to read it. Thatwas when my life changed again, an experience intensified when I read THE LORD OF THE RINGS a year later and, immediately upon compelting it, turned to Page One and read it all over again. This of course has become the Ur Experience of so many of us who became fantasy writers; but back then, for me at least, this was a journey into literary Terra Incognita. There was yet no fantasy publishing industry; there were no signposts showing me to other books like these (a helpful brochure from the Westchester County Library Commission suggested that readers who enjoyed THE HOBBIT might also like George Orwell's ANIMAL FARM). And so I simply read Tolkien over and over and over again; until Lin Carter's A LOOK BEHIND THE LORD OF THE RINGS appeared in 1967, when I was ten. By then we had moved from Yonkers to a small, semi-rural town sixty miles north of Manhattan. I became the ugly, smart New Girl at St. Patrick's School, and Tolkien's world became even more a haven for me, until another smart new girl arrived -- Janine, who, miraculously, had also read Tolkien! -- and my social life became more pleasant. After school I wandered in the woods for hours, pretending I was an Abenaki Indian and making snares to catch rabbits (I never did). But at night I pored over Lin Carter's book, which provided a map of sorts to the world beyond The Fields We Know: the inspiration for Tolkien's work in the Elder Eddas and Icelandic sagas, Middle English lays and "Beowulf;" the work of other writers like C.S. Lewis and Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison and Charles Williams. I began to track down all of these. The town librarian ordered me a copy of "Beowulf," its pages alternating between modern and old English, and I read this painstakingly; she also found me a volume of the Norse Myths, and the Eddas, and (with some shaking of her head amid warnings that I wouldn't like it, which I didn't) Edmund Spenser's "THE FAERIE QUEEN." And then Lin Carter himself began editing the Adult Fantasy Series at Ballantine, Tolkien's American paperback publishers, and I would order each title as it became available: THE WORM OUROBOROS; THE WELL AT THE WORLD'S END; LUD-IN-THE-MIST; DRAGONS, ELVES, AND HEROES; THE ISLAND OF THE MIGHTY; RED MOON AND BLACK MOUNTAIN. The library had all of Lord Dunsany, oddly enough, with the original Sid Simes illustrations (my favorite WAS captioned "There the Gibbelins lived, and discreditably fed"), and for my thirteenth birthday my mother gave me the only thing I wanted, Jorge Luis Borges' just-published THE BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS. I was writing my own stories by this time. Ghost stories ("The Soul of Caliban"), versions of the Greek myths I loved, epic fantasy novels - THE UNICORN'S AMULET, THE DRAGON-HARP OF FAERIE, THE QUEST FOR THE BLACK UNICORN. I've never gone back to read these, but I vividly recall how dark they were. My protagonists had a knack for going slowly, irrecovably mad, and the landscapes they gazed upon were wastelands, populated by gods and beings that brought only pain or, at best, a terrible yearning that could never be assuaged. Parn, the hero of one book, looks out his castle window one night and has a vision of the blind god Othiym, a beautiful, terrible Dionysian figure who rides a stag that bellows in pain at the god's touch. The vision drives Parn to leave home in search of the malign god; he never finds Othiym (I never finished the story) but I used the name years later for the maleficent lunar goddess of WAKING THE MOON. These were the taproots of my story tree. Thinking back I'm struck by how little I've strayed from them, and also by what a long time it took for me to learn to actually write a story. I was an arrogant and confident adolescent, too arrogant even to take touch-typing lessons in high school, something I've always regretted. As a teenager I became stagestruck, going to Broadway as often as I could and each summer seeing all the plays in rep at the American Shakespeare Theater in nearby Stratford, Connecticut. I joined a local theater group and wrote plays for them, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll's ALICE books (I played Alice; she went mad) and, with my friend Janine, a number of fractured fairy tales, including "Tales of the Bedragoned Buffoon" and "The Silly Situation at the Ravastan School," featuring a proto-Hogwarts castle where youngsters apply themselves to The Study of Advanced Folly, and a villainous sorceror named The Wart of Peckindorf. When the time came to go to college I decided on Catholic Unviersity in Washington, D.C., a city I'd fallen in love with on my eight-grade class trip. C.U. had a famed acting program and a gorgeous new theater complex that housed the Drama Deparment. I joined the intensive B.F.A. program, majoring in playwriting but with my career plans once again revamped - they now included acting *and* directing. Noel Coward was my role model But within the first few weeks I bombed. I had a disastrous Freshman audition, one of those make-or-break scenarios before the entire Drama Dpartment faculty and graduate and post-graduate student body. The careers of undergraduate actors were determined by this audtion. I bombed spectacularly, doing a pastiche of the fool Feste's speeches from "Twelfth Night," but had the pesence of mind to remain on the stage afterward and announce that I was available for tech work. So I was busy, at least, doing assistant stage manager work and running lights and sound in the Callen lab theater, and doing prop work on the Hartke Mainstage theater. I got a job as an usher for the American debut of two short Tom Stoppard plays, "Dirty Linen and New Found Land," and every night watched Stoppard himself at the back of the theater, observing the performance. The play's kindly director knew I was an aspiring playwright and urged me to talk to Stoppard, but I was far too shy; though one night Stoppard spoke to me, taking my hand and turning it over curiously then pronouncing, "You *do* have black fingernails!" I was writing, too, absurdist one-acts equally inspired by Ionesco and Woody Allen. I had started a new book, something called THE AMLETH UNION, about a group of friends discovering the existence of an ancient, supernatural order on the grounds of their university in Washington, D.C. Mostly however, I ran wild, exploring the ciy with my beloved friend O.J., drinking heavily, taking drugs, having indiscriminate sex, getting involved in the nascent punk scene between New York and D.C. I had a few years earlier taken to heart Rimbaud's Lettre Voyante: To be a poet, one must become a seer. One becomes a seer through a deliberate derangement of all the senses. I told myself I would do this until I was thirty, and then settle down to a serious life as a writer. My academic career took a nosedive as dramatic as my audition: I went from being the only freshman on the Dean's List, with a perfect 4.0 average, to flunking out, in just three years. My friends had all gotten their acts together; they were completing their degrees and going on to jobs and lives and relationships (all save O.J., who was exhibiting the first signs of what became a terrible and tragic mental illness). I felt like Falstaff abandoned by Prince Hal. In disgrace, I went home to live with my parents, and -- the final ignominy -- took a low-paying job at a bookstore.

* * *

Somehow, throughout all of this, I wrote. In my freshman year I shared first prize in the university's C.W. Stoddard Fiction Award, for a dark short story called "Lords" in which a Dionysian god preys upon the children of Kamensic Village, the fictionalized version of my hometown. The prize consisted of fifty bucks and a case of Heinekin, which id rnak in triump with my friends on the roof of the building that housed the campus literary magazine. I also inherited the mantle of the magazine's editor, a responsibility I absolved myself of after a year (not fast enough). I dabbled at the libretto for a Brechtian musical version of "Beowulf;" several terrible, brittle comedies in the Coward mode; some short sbsurdist plays. The Theater of the Absurd was made for me: nothing had to make any sense. Nothing needed to have a proper ending, or even a proper beginning. I also ran a thriving black market business, writing term papers for other students. I charged a dollar a page, plus a six-pack of beer and a carton of cigarettes; and would settle in front of my old Royal Upright typewriter, chainsmoking and drinking as I wrote about FRANKENSTEIN or KING LEAR or DUNE -- there was a popular course on science fiction and fantasy being offered by the English Department, and I thought it incredible that students couldn't be bothered to read DUNE. I got As in my playwriting class, and in anthropology, but nothing else. I seldom showed up for classes, and every Sunday night offered the same dilemma: to catch up with my studies, or take the bus down to the Biograph Theater in Georgetown with O.J. and take in a double-bill of Truffaut or Fellini or Bunuel? Week after week I'd ask myself, "Twenty years from now, what will matter: that you did well on this test or that you saw "Amarcord"? Week after week I'd make the same decision. I saw the Ramones' first D.C. gig, Talking Heads playing a pre-Christmas show for an audience of about ten people -- one of them was David Byrne's mother, who invited me for dinner at their house in Baltimore -- numerous small club performances by Patti Smith; an unforgettable Springsteen show in the Georgetown University gymnasium. But at some point during my brief tenure in the Drama Department, I burned out on theater. There were only so many times I could read "Oedipus Rex," only so many times I could watch university productions of "MacBeth" and "A Man for All Seasons," even with Paul Scofield in the wings, hitting up on my classmates. The more plays I read (and performed in -- despite my failed audtion, I acted in small student productions and scenes, playing the ghost in "Blithe Spirit," Mrs. X. in Stindberg's "The Other," xxx in Moliere, among others), the more I realized that there is a very small, finite number of great plays, and I was not ever going to write one of them. The realization chastened me, but it was also a relief. Great plays are collaborative efforts between author, director, actor, designer; a play's ultimate glory is not upon the printed page but the proscenium. I was too much of a loner,m and too arrogant, to be good at this collaborative process. Plus I used too many words; a liability in playwriting. But I loved the feeling of power that came from creating contemporary characters, people I might see on the street, and moving them around on the page; though this was offset by a sense of constriction, that I couldn't make use of the more visionary, supernatural effects I liked to play with in my stories. I had for some time been working at a science fiction novel, much influenced by the work of Angela Carter and Samuel R. Delany's DHALGREN; a story set in a far-future Washington D.C., where the trees and vegetation had run amok, and a guild of prostitutes lived in the ruins of Embassy Row. I didn't get very far on my story -- I always did much more thinking about witing than I did actual writing -- but the image of the city I loved overgrown with roses and decay remained in my head for years, until it finally became the poisonous bloom of WINTERLONG .

* * *

Yet I still didn't know how to write, except in the roughest, most intuitive fashion. Convinced of my innate talent, I refused to take any writing classes (save playwriting, which was required). I had a rude awakening when a story I submitted to The New Yorker was rejected, though with a very kind note from an editor, who noted my obvious debts to Fred Barthelme and Frederick Exley and gently suggested I concentrate on plotting. Advice which I have to this day pretty much ignored: plot remains a distant fourth for me, behind character and setting and the evocation of pure emotional experience. Since high school days, I had kept notebooks in which I wrote about people I knew. I would hitchhike to Katonah, the real-life model for my fictionalized Kamensic Village, and sit there and observe kids my own age, teenagers I knew only slightly or not at all, and record their actions and conversations. I did the same in college, writing about my friends. This caused problems when a girlfreind read my notebook without my knowledge; she was appalled by the detached, clinical descriptions of herself and our circle, and I couldn't say much in my own defense (except for warning her not to read somebody else's journal without permission). I've never been good at Making Things Up; nearly all of the characters in my fiction are based upon real people, and there is a certain vampiric guilt in this process of observation and distillation, though the final characterization is nearly always pretty remote from its original inspiration. It was as a teenager that I also developed the habit of fixating on individuals as erotic and creative muses, people who, sometimes for years or even decades, have served as prisms for my work. Often these aren't people I know well (though sometimes they are), and nearly always there is a physical or chronological distance betwen myself and the person I'm writing about. One thing I did take from my years of studying acting is the habit of observation, of trying to fit into another's skin so acutely that one can mimic the other's moves, the tenor of his or her breathing. I am very conscious when writing of attempting to cast my work, drawing on people I know in the process; and very often when a character doesn't work it's not a matter of plot dynamics so much as miscasting - A should be played by a drag king, not a male-to-female transsexual; B shoul be a dying astronaut rather than a patrician WASP woman. These revelations often come to me in dreams. "Snow on Sugar Mountain" only came to life after I dreamed of an elderly man, an astronaut dying of cancer, who was struggling to climb the rusted scaffolding of one of the missile towers at the Redstone Arsenal, reaching futilely for the full moon in the sky above him when he at last reached the top. Up until then, the story's central character was a dying woman I had lived with and cared for, over the course of several weeks when I was nineteen. I began the story not long after she died, but it was some years before the dream came to me and the story finally came together. Still, dreaming wasn't going to help me much while I was working at a bookstore. I did reconnect with my old drama group and write another play for them, "The Misadventures of MaryAnna Maudlin and the Dreadful Things that Befell Her," but I had an overwhelming sense of being exiled from The Land of Eternal Youth to The Land of the Underemployed. My boyfriend, W., was in D.C., and many of my friends were now living in Manhattan, so I spent as much time as possible on various trains, shuttling between my parents' house and the two cities. It was during one of these trips, on March 17, a few weeks before my twenty-second birthday, that I was abducted and raped while visiting W. in Washington. Until then I had always envisioned myself as the heroine of my own life, triumphing over adversity -- even the bookstore became a Dickensian backdrop to the story I was always telling myself about myself: a New York fixture, it had been around for decades and was run by three generations of the same family. Suddenly my storyline changed. I had been raised Catholic, but the concept of evil was, in those post-Vatican II days, very much a relative thing, at least as it was taught to me in the Catholic schools I attended, and all the dark gods and godlings I wrote about in my stories were pretty much window-dressing. When I was raped, I saw for the first time that evil was real, and impartial, and utterly random. It was a terrifying realization, and the vision I had then never left me: that if you peeled back the surface of this world, you would see the real world beneath, the world that was, is, a wasteland. It's the vision that most of my fictional protagonists have at some point, and one that I now have to fight in my waking life. At the time, though, I was determined to act as though nothing happened. In retrospect this seems ridiculous: when i first saw the opening of David Lynch's TWIN PEAKS, with its vision of a battered girl coming across a railroad trestle, I recognized myself, running screaming down the middle of a street near the D.C. riot corridor. I had thought I was going to be murdered: how could I ever have pretended it didn't matter? But in the aftermath I did what I had always done, what I always do: attempt to transmute my own experience into a story, with a coherent narrative and a resolution that, even if it's not a happy one, offers some closure to the reader. And there was more Bad Stuff to be endured: the emergency room doctor who treated me after the rape told me that he detected something inside me, a growth. I should have someone look at it as soon as possible. I was in shock, and completely forgot his warning until I was home some days later and was examined by my mother's gynecologist, who then sent me to another specialist, who called in his partners, who eventually all confirmed that I had a large tumor on my ovary. In those pre-sonogram days, there was no way of detrmining if this was benign, or if it was ovarian cancer; the doctors were pragmatic, telling me they weren't crtain what they would find when they went inside. The growth was large, and if it was cancerous there was not a lot they would be able to do to treat it. Surgery was scheduled for the first available slot, which wasn't for several weeks. I didn't have health insurance, but the surgeon agreed to let me pay over time. I continued to work at the bookstore, earning my $97.00 a week,. At night I helped rehearse "MaryAnna Maudlin." As it turned out, I missed the performances: I was in the hospital. I underwent surgery, feeling as though I'd never left the nightmarish emergency room at D.C. General; one ovary and fallopian tube had been devoured by tumors, which were removed. At one point during recovery I half-woke and sat up, dazed: I saw my father in a chair watching me, his face anguished: the results of the bipsy had not come back yet. I stared at him then immediately passed out. When hours later I finally woke again, the surgeon was there, beaming as he held up the results of the biopsy. The tumors were benign. I spent the next few days in the hospital recovering, reading John Fowles' THE MAGUS while shot full of Demerol. Two days after being released, I quit my job at the bookstore and moved back to D.C. to live with W.

* * *

This was May, 1979. That summer, W and I and a group of friends squatted in a house in Turkey Ticket with no electricity or plumbing; from the front window, I could see the abandoned gas station where I'd been abducted in March. I got a job at the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum -- I had worked there the previous summer -- and by the end of the summer we'd moved to a small apartment complex nearby, where several dozen of our friends already lived. For the next six years I had a rather idyllic, punky FRIENDS-style existence, working at NASM by day and spending a lot of time at clubs at night. I got readmitted to the university and entered the Anthropology Department, paying the exorbitant tuition costs myself and getting straight As this time. I was still working a full-time job and carrying a heavy party schedule. Cocaine and speed helped immeasurably in all this, but when after two years I finally got my degree I quit all drugs cold turkey, as I'd quit chainsmoking a few years before. W., an English major who had a wonderful gift as an editor, encouraged my writing and gave me a self-correcting electric typewriter, a godsend for someone who couldn't type and who rewrote obsessively. During the week I'd get up at four or five A.M. and write for several hours before going off to NASM; on weekend nights I'd sit at the typewriter with a drink at my elbow (and the occasional cigarette) and write with the stereo blasting. I was working on a supernatural novel set in Texas, where my mother grew up and where I'd spent my summers as a girl. Texas in those days had some of the same appeal that Maine did when i first mvoed here fifteen years ago, a sense of a place mired in time -- the Texas of my childhood and adolescence was still in many ways the Texas my mother had known -- and I loved losing myself there. W., who worked as a bartender and thus had a schedule opposite mine, would read my story and line-edit it, and I would painstakingly rewrite it, repeating the process sometimes a dozen times before a story or chapter would improve. I was, without being conscious of it, already deep into the pattern that much of my later writing would take: using my own experience, using people I knew, and casting a supernatural haze over the mostly realistic setting. And through W. I met one of the most important people in my life, my friend and sometime collaborator Paul Witcover, W's cousin. We met the night before Paul left to attend the Clarion Writer's Workshop, at a dinner organized by Paul's mother. For some time she'd been trying to get the two of us together -- we liked the same music, she said, we liked the same writers -- but I was deeply suspicious of the prospect. Wrong again. Paul and I met and it was like two of those little magnetic Scotty Dogs clicking: we loved the same music! we loved the same books! For the first time in my life I had a conversation with someone who knew Patti Smith AND TRITON AND Philip K. Dick AND Iggy Pop. The next morning Paul left for Clarion and I was consumed with envy when at the end of the summer he returned, having already sold his first story. But he read my stories and critiqued them and offered more encouragement; and when Paul sold another story I slowly, slowly began to see that this might really be possible, that, in spite of everything I might be able to get published too. But not yet. I had one completed story, called "King Heroin," that I bounced around to F&SF and various men''s magazines where I knew Stephen King had published early in his career. My favorite rejection letter of this time came from an editor who wrote "I really, really enjoyed your story, but right now we are looking for more Sex-Oriented Material." (I kept the rejection letters in the freezer; I can't recall why.) W. worshipped John Gardner, so I bought and read Gardner's ON BECOMING A NOVELIST, and was exhilirated to learn that, according to Gardner, I had a writer's nature and a writer's instincts, even if mine were crude and undeveloped. The knack for entering what Gardner calls "the vivid and continuous dream" of fiction; an eye for seeing strangeness in everyday life; the belief in the supremacy of character over plot: *I knew this stuff,* even if I was still learning (am still learning) how to communicate it. " "Strangeness is the one quality in fiction that cannot be faked," Gardner wrote: when I read those words I had the same sense I did when I met Paul: that I had, at last, come home. It was around this time, the early 1980s, that a miracle occured. NASM became one of the first places in the country to get word processors for all its employees. I spent two weeks being trained with other NASM employes, and returned to my cubicle to find my own computer. I literally got goosebumps: I knew my life had changed. No more retyping; no more time wasted on revisions that would now take minutes rather than hours or days. I began staying after work and writing. I abandoned my Texas novel and revisions of "King Heroin," instad started or revived several projects -- what W. derisively called my mutant prositute story; something called EIGHTH MOON, about a woman anthropologist finding remnants of an ancient goddess cult; my university story THE AMLETH UNION. One day during my lunch hour I walked to a shop called The Artifactory and spent a huge chunk of my paycheck on a beautiful Balinesian puppet. When I returned to work I set it on my desk, announced to my friend Greg that"This is going to bring me luck," and began working on a story called "Prince of Flowers" (on company time, too: your U.S. tax dollars at work!). I broke up with W., though for several years he continued to edit me, and moved to Capitol Hill. I met N., who became one of the muses for WAKING THE MOON. I quit my job as NASM and briefly took a high-paying job for a UK defense contractor. I started spending weekends in Charlottesville, Virginia, where N's best friend, Eddie Dean (now a journalist) drove an ice cream truck into the strange, archaic countryside of the surrounding Green Mountains, another place where time seemed to have stopped. N. agreed to help support me so I could write, so I quit my job and started doing temp work, taking jobs for a month at a time, then taking a month off to write. "On the Town Route" came out of this period, and "Engels Unaware," "Snow on Sugar Mountain" and "The Boy in the Tree," the novella that became WINTERLONG. I wrote feverishly, knowing I had only a short time to finish a story. I collected more rejection slips, my favorite from the edtior of WEIRD TALES, who told me that "Snow on Sugar Mountain" was too bizarre for him. Ah! I thought. I've written something too weird for WEIRD TALES! But I consoled myself with John Gardner's words: *"Strangeness is the one quality in fiction that cannot be faked."* I had during these months the burgeoning sense that I was, at last, being born; that I was going to break through. But not yet. * * *

In 1986 I took my first writer's workshop, taught by novelist Richard Grant at The Writer's Center in Bethesda. I was still doing temp work, and for a while worked a second job at Second Story Books in Bethesda, another oddly Dickensian experience (I toyed with the idea of writing a play about this, called "Shelf Life"). Richard was the first -- the only -- writer I had ever met, and it was several weeks before I submitted my first story, a revision of "Prince of Flowers. When I received back the copy of my manuscript, annotated with Richard's distinctive penmanship and peacock-blue ink, I almost wept. "A lovely story, almost a tour-de-force of lingustic and sensual prose ... " It was the first time a real writer had read something I wrote.

* * *

I had not yet sent out "Prince of Flowers," but now I did -- to Tappan King at Twilight Zone Magazine, which was a powerhouse in those boom days for horror. After almost a year, the story was rejected. I was devastated. I was also furious, because for the first time I was convinced that I had written soemthing worth publishing. Not a great story -- I knew that -- but absolutely a Twilight Zone story. And this is when someone suddenly really did become the hero of my life: Paul Witcover, who was now reading slush for Twlight Zone. I sent him "Prince of Flowers;" and Paul passed it on to Tappan. Within a few weeks the letter arrived that I had been waiting for almost my whole life, saying that "Prince of Flowers" had been accepted. It was published in the February 1987 issue, first in the series of "Twilight Zone Firsts" featuring newly discovered writers. After that the other stories that I had already written began to find homes, slowly but steadily. And slowly but steadily I began to turn fragments of dreams I'd had into novels, WINTERLONG, the first chapters of WAKING THE MOON. The wasteland remained, in my life as in my fiction; but I had finally found a way to walk through it to the other side.

* * *

The night before I had my surgery, I had a dream. In the hospital I was calm but terrified, convinced that I had ovarian cancer; that the disastrous turning my life had taken on that March night just six weeks before meant that this was the way the story was going to turn out. In the dream I was walking beneath a midnight sky to where a long, rectangular marble pool stretched before me. The pool was like something from ancient Greece: white marble, black water; absolutely still. A number of objects floated upon its surface. As I drew to the pool's edge I saw that these were hyacinth blossoms, white and luminous, inutterably strange and beautiful. I knelt to look at them. That was when I saw that each blossom had been severed from its stalk. They were all dead. Grief and horror overwhelmed me. I began to cry, then reached for one of the blossoms, drawing it towards me. And realized that I was wrong. Because while I could clearly see where the flower had been hacked from its stem, it was not dead. The wound had closed up, and not just with this blossom, but all of them. I gazed out at the pool, black water, white hyacinths; and with amazement saw that they were all still beautiful, every single one of them; and, miraculously, alive.



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